Natalie Gee/NYC Indie Film Fest narrative curator interviews John Helde

What gave you the idea for the script and why did you want to explore a broken relationship between a daughter and a father?

Phoebe’s Father is about a young woman cyclist who has to face her past when her father comes back into her life. The very first image I had for the story was of Phoebe living a kind of isolated life, and then having to suddenly deal with her father, and issues she thought she had left behind her. Honestly I’m not sure where this image came from. I wanted to do a film that revolved around a family relationship, instead of a romantic one, as many of my previous scripts had. And although it’s never happened to me, I know people who have experienced major breaks with family. I wanted to explore the complexity of the family bond – our conflicting desires for isolation and connection.

What gave you the idea for the cycling to be a major theme in the movie?

Marie Lazzaro, who plays Phoebe, was already a friend of mine and she was commuting by bike to her job at REI in Seattle. I’m a runner and sometime cyclist myself, and I love that feeling of propelling yourself forward. We have a thriving cycling community in Seattle (as you do in NYC), and lots of women cyclists. I was a big fan of Breaking Away, but that was a long time ago, and it occurred to me I’d never seen a movie with a woman cyclist at the heart of it. Because I knew Marie was already cycling, it seemed like she would be up for that, and it would be fun to explore a character for whom cycling becomes catharsis.

What was your biggest challenge with the movie?

One of my producer Lisa Glaze’s biggest challenges was locating a pedicab for a crucial scene late in the movie when Phoebe takes Meg for a ride. This was probably the only element of the script I had no idea how it was going to happen, and it turned out to be really tough to find a pedicab when it’s not tourist season. But Lisa’s tenacity paid off when she discovered a beautifully preserved pedicab from India owned by bike collector Jeff Groman. He brought it out from Bainbridge Island and it was more amazing than we could ever have imagined!

How did you and the actors develop character relationships? Did you rehearse?

When I had the idea for the movie, I kept thinking, I know a lot of really great actors in Seattle, how can we do something where we get to work together intensively? I wanted to try developing character and story through improvisation, inspired by the way the director Mike Leigh works, and fortunately the actors were excited by this as well! The four lead actors – Marie Lazzaro, Lawrie Driscoll, Eric Jordan, and Betty Campbell – and I worked together for about five months before I wrote the script. I started with a framework of relationships, but all the details of who these characters are, and what their lives have been, both together and individually, came from the work we did in improvisation. Almost all of the script, except for the supporting characters, is a version of something that first happened in improvisation. It’s very exciting – the characters become very real to all of us, long before anything’s written down. Then it was my job to shape this material into script form. There was flexibility and some improvisation on set, tweaking lines, that kind of thing, but mostly we worked from the script when we shot.

What scares you the most about filmmaking?

In general, and I’m sure this is true for most filmmakers, it’s the anticipation of getting all the pieces to come together – people, locations, equipment, story, weather. There are so many moving parts. That said, what I absolutely love about filmmaking is seeing so many different people bring their talents to bear on the story. For Phoebe’s Father, one of the most scary things for me was how short the writing period was between the improvisations and when we started shooting – only about six weeks. The good news was I didn’t have time to overthink it!

What’s your favorite scene / moment in the film?

So hard to answer because there are so many scenes I love, especially since I first saw them occur in improvisation. I’d have to say my favorite big scene is when Whit, Phoebe’s brother, brings Phoebe to her father’s house and the family sits down and tries to have a meal together for the first time in years. The actors did an incredible job and there are so many subtle dynamics going on. Of course, things do not go so well! I also really love the moment near the end of the film when Phoebe returns to racing – in a pretty dialog-driven movie, it’s totally visual.

Describe filmmaking in 3 words

I’m trying to adopt a philosophy of “Love what is”.

What excites you about family dynamics that you like to explore?

I think there’s such richness in family relationships. It’s something we all know and can relate to. The movie revolves around the fact that Phoebe can’t escape her relationship with her father, even though at one point she thought she could. And so much of the tension between them is really because of her mother, who left the family when Phoebe was ten. Events happen that color the dynamics and affect families for years. There’s a lot of emotion – and humor – to explore there.

What are you working on next?

I’m in the middle of editing Brown’s Canyon, another movie we developed in a similar way. Right after we wrapped Phoebe’s, two of the actors who play supporting roles – Lisa Every (Lydia, the bike coach/mentor) and Jenn Ruzumna (Ash, Whit’s girlfriend) – came to me and said “we want to do another film like this!” And what could I say but… “Yes!” We got five actors together, including Lisa and Jenn (acting and producing), Eric Jordan, Sara Rucker Thiessen and Carter Rodriquez, and started the improvisations for another story that we shot in Utah in February. It’s turned out to be about two self-help gurus who, in the midst of the financial crisis, host a mindfulness retreat that goes awry. We’re going to release in mid-2016 and you can find us on Facebook at Brown’sCanyonMovie

PHOEBE’S FATHER @NYCindieFF

Excited to announce that Phoebe’s Father will premiere at NYC Independent Film Festival in October!  We shot Phoebe’s entirely in Seattle neighborhoods in the early spring of 2014 with a wonderful, talented cast and crew.  I’m thrilled to launch the film into the world in NY this fall!  Come join us…

Buy Tickets here

Thursday, October 15, 2015, 8 pm
Producer’s Club Theatre
348 West 44th Street, NY, NY 10036

Get Phoebe’s Father updates on Facebook

Phone Calls

I’ve had a blast these last few weeks working with BASH Theatre people to make a film version of actor-playwright Cristopher Berns’ new short piece Phone Calls.  This is one of the more unusual and wonderful projects I’ve had a chance to do lately, and I’m excited that both the theater and film versions are on the bill this Saturday, June 27 at 3:30pm in the final show of On the Boards’ Open Studio Series.

Phone Calls is a glimpse into the lives of five people aching for love, acceptance, and connection.  With an unconventional use of time and space, this nine-minute short piece experiments with text as a kind of musical score, challenging both actors and audience to listen in a different way.

I invite you to join us for Open Studio as BASH members and friends of BASH perform original works, including short theater and dance pieces, exploring our search for love, connection and a sense of belonging.

https://www.facebook.com/events/1592350641019718/1597193257202123/

http://www.ontheboards.org/performances/15-%E2%80%93-end-season-bash

Saturday, June 27, 3:30pm (Arrive early – tickets are first come, first served, no advance sales)
On the Boards Studio Theater
100 W Roy St, Seattle, WA 98119

FIELD WORK on Iowa Public Television

In 1909 my great-grandfather Cassius Marcellus Forbes purchased 120 acres of Iowa farmland. He was a school teacher, not a farmer, and he deeded the land in my grandmother Erma’s name. Perhaps he was looking to the future, or maybe he liked having a stake in the agricultural community that surrounded him. Regardless, that piece of farmland stayed in my family for generations, even after my grandmother left Iowa. Since the 1930s, the land has been farmed by multiple generations of the same family, the Swansons.

This is how I came to meet the central subjects of FIELD WORK: A FAMILY FARM. We had no relatives in Iowa when I was growing up, so I had never had much contact with the farm. In 2008, I decided to visit the current generation of Swansons. I’d heard a lot about how we’re losing family farms in this country, but here was a family who had a clear vision of staying family-sized. Their dream, they said, was to bring their two sons back into the operation and farm as one extended family. That year, I started shooting FIELD WORK, ultimately following the Swansons through the recession years as their sons grow up and set out on their own, and they work to pursue this dream of farming together. Meanwhile, the financial crisis hit, and crop prices and expenses were a roller coaster. Unable to afford more land, the Swansons had to get creative about what direction to go. I had the opportunity to be in the field with the farmers through several growing seasons, observe their challenges and joys, and see farming first-hand through their eyes. I met and talked with other farmers in the area, bigger and smaller, as I began to put together a picture of one farming community.

Old friends Lauryn Shapter and Dennis James, the Iowa-based duo Truckstop Souvenir, joined in to create amazing, heartfelt score and songs that capture the feel of the landscape.

FIELD WORK: A FAMILY FARM debuts on Iowa Public Television this week, Sunday April 12 at 1pm statewide. I’m thrilled to bring this story back to Iowa where it all began.

Huge thank you to all the farmers and folks who took time to appear in the film, as well as to Humanities Iowa, Seattle Arts & Culture, 4 Culture and Artist Trust for making the documentary possible.

Follow FIELD WORK: A FAMILY FARM on Facebook

Wrapped

We are back in Seattle after an amazing two weeks in Utah shooting Brown’s Canyon. This has been one of my favorite shoots – a great cast whom I’ve worked with for months, and a super-talented crew of nine, all working and living together in one house.

Brown’s Canyon is a film I’ve been developing since last summer with the actors Lisa Every, Jenn Ruzumna, Carter Rodriquez, Eric Jordan and Sara Thiessen. Lisa and Jenn are also producing with their company BASH Theatre. Like we did for Phoebe’s Father, we spent several months together improvising the relationships and backstory of the characters. From that work, I wrote a shooting script in January, and on February 20 we started shooting. It is a super fast timeline, but because the actors and I have been in this together for a while, there’s a lot we know about the characters and the story. Our steadfast and talented crew  worked together seamlessly, and had a lot of fun too, judging by the laughter in the kitchen late into the night. Ryan McMackin brought creative and fluid camera work to the story, hand-holding the camera and using minimal lighting. Connie Villines, as producer and sometimes assistant director, kept us moving and on track. Gary Wortman, Lisa Every’s brother-in-law, brought his many talents to the set as assistant director, one-man art department and even snow-plow driver! Jo Ardinger was invaluable with eyes on the monitor as both script supervisor and editor.  Matt Sheldon gave us his sharp ears, Coburn Erskine kept a steady hand on assistant camera duties, Justin Salva’s infectious energy was always lurking in the grip/electric department, and Shalyse Lopez worked her magic with the actors’ makeup.  Tania Kupczak production designed the film, and Ron Leamon designed our costumes, though they stayed in Seattle to attend to other commitments.

Shooting at one location is a great match for this kind of character-driven movie. We were all able to focus clearly on the most important elements – acting, story, and shooting – without a lot of the logistical time that often comes with a movie shoot. We’ll be editing the film through the summer – I can’t wait to see what we did!

See more photos and follow our progress at the Brown’s Canyon Facebook page

Improvising BROWN’S CANYON

This fall, I’ve been working with actors Lisa Every, Jenn Ruzumna, Carter Rodriquez, Sara Rucker Thiessen and Eric Jordan to develop the story of a new film through improvisation, just like we did with Phoebe’s Father. The kinds of movies I love, and love to make, are about believable characters in familiar conflicts – a friendship dissolving, a family rift, a breach of trust. They capture something truthful about our struggles in everyday life.

How can we best tell these kinds of stories? I believe that working with actors early on is one very good way. Taking inspiration from Mike Leigh (whose movie Secrets and Lies I adore), the Brown’s Canyon actors and I are building the characters lives over time. We start on an individual level – every actor creates the details of their character (their family members, friends, childhood memories, favorite objects, talents, schooling, etc). Then, we put the characters together, in situation after situation, being very specific about when and where we are in their individual lives. Each improvisation builds upon the last. It’s extremely exciting – the story evolves in front of us, and we have no idea what’s going to happen next! It can be confusing and complicated, too – for the actors, to be clear about whether it’s the character or the actor making choices; and for me as director and writer, to observe and listen and choose when to make an adjustment and when to push the action forward.

Typically, a movie is written and rewritten many times by a screenwriter, often with producer and director input, long before the actors come on board. With this improvisation process, we try to uncover a deep understanding of the characters before scripting. There are loves, lies, jealousies, and secrets. When Jenn, Sara, Carter, Eric and Lisa come on set to shoot the film, they will know better than anyone how their character thinks and behaves. If we’ve done our work well, we’ll make a movie that is as believable and as real as can be, a story that moves and entertains while being true to life.

(Above, Carter Rodriquez and Jenn Ruzumna in an improvisation)

Editing PHOEBE’S FATHER

This has been one of the best summers in recent memory in Seattle, but ironically I’ve spent a good deal of it in a darkened room. I love editing, my roots are in that world, and it’s been great working with our amazing editor Jo Ardinger to finish our new feature film PHOEBE’S FATHER. Phoebe is a young woman who’s just starting to find her place in life as a competitive cyclist. When her estranged father Ben (Lawrason Driscoll) re-emerges in her life, Phoebe and her brother Whit (Eric Jordan) have to confront a crucial event in the family’s past.

Making this film has been an unusual and wonderful experience. PHOEBE’S came into existence through the efforts of a small, dedicated and supremely talented group of actors and crew. We started almost exactly a year ago. The idea was to make a story that would be real and intimate and that could be shot in a few locations in the immediate community. I feel lucky that some very talented actors were eager to go on this journey with me: Marie Lazzaro, Lawrason Driscoll, Eric Jordan, and Betty Campbell. Over the course of four months they developed the characters’ life histories and the story of the film through a series of improvisations. From that work, I wrote a script, and director of photography Lars Larson, production designer Tania Kupczak and producer Lisa Glaze joined in to put the film into production. Over February, March and April we shot around Seattle, mostly in Fremont and Ballard, with a fantastic crew. My hat is off to everyone who has thrown their creative energies into this story.

Now, editor Jo is off to New Hampshire to get married and we only need to put the finishing touches on the edit. We’re moving into that fun phase of finalizing music and sound. The movie’s come together great and we’re truly excited to share it with the world soon. Here are a few more photos and I’ll post more details as we get closer to premiering the film in 2015.

[photo by Tim Aguero]

phoebe2
[Eric Jordan, Marie Lazzaro and Lawrason Driscoll, photo by Tim Aguero]

phoebe3
[Marie Lazzaro and Betty Campbell, photo by Anne Herman]

American Documentary Film Festival

We had a great screening last night at American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs. Packed house and an exuberant Q&A for FIELD WORK: A FAMILY FARM. Every audience since I started showing the film has contained more than one person with a connection to a family farm in the American Midwest. Of course it’s not surprising – not that long ago the number of farmers in this country was far greater than today, and so many of us are tied in some way to that culture. It is a fundamentally American experience and a few are keeping it alive.

Thanks to all who attended, I enjoyed talking with you – and to Teddy Grouya and the AmDocs team for building up such a vibrant festival in three short years. We’ve been enjoying the warm days, crazy winds and kind hospitality of our hosts here in PS. And we’ve seen some absolutely amazing documentaries – two of my favorites have been Happiness… Promised Land by Laurent Hasse, and Searching For Bill by Jonas Rasmussen. If you love docs, check these out!