Sundance 2009 Interview: Director, Alicia Conway

Rite PosterAlicia Conway is a director/producer coming from a TV background, now taking on the world of gripping indie films. Her debut short film, Rite (read review), premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week. It follows a young girl going through a brutal coming of age ritual.

Kelsey: What was it like to have the first film you ever made to premiere on the opening night of Sundance?

Alicia: It’s pretty great. It was really surprising and unexpected. And the truth is I’m 32. I went to film school. It was four years; two years of general education and two years of film school. So for the last two years, from the time I was 20 I was making films, but I never felt like they were finished. So I’ve made other films, but this one is the only one I have been willing to show anyone. Everything else I felt was a class exercise. Basically I felt like I took 12 years doing lots of other stuff to get ready to make something I was really willing to show everybody. By the time I got there I really knew what I wanted to make and I wanted it to be ready. But you know, you never think you are going to get in to Sundance. All I was thinking about is that I want to execute what I had in my head. I’m a perfectionist and I wanted to make it perfect. I’m thrilled that Sundance felt like it was worthy, it’s really validating. Not that I wouldn’t have, but now I feel that I can move forward.

Kelsey: So what changed between your last projects and Rite?

Alicia: Well the last time I directed a film I was probably 22 so some of it is just experience and perspective. Also, since I was 23 or 24 I have been working in television. In my job I direct almost everyday, but it is a completely different kind of directing. Still, you kind of get used to running a set and being efficient. Working with people who aren’t really actors is amazing. It’s like a foot rub working with people who are actors because they want to be there, they understand what’s needed, and they want to work with you so they are already light years ahead of you. I normally deal with people who have a house so that’s why they are on TV. So if you can pull something useful out of them I feel like it’s really good practice for when you need to pull something out of someone with training.

I used to do a lot of theater too. I usually do one act plays so I have time to fit it in between production schedules. I feel that I have had a lot of time to be around the industry and absorb the technology, what was going on technologically and what was possible. Also seeing a lot of movies and watching my husband who is also a filmmaker have a lot of experiences and make a lot of mistakes to learn from. To watch someone going through that is tremendously valuable.

Kelsey: Do you take inspiration from other films?

Alicia: I actually think that I have spent a lot more time watching movies now than I did when I was younger. I didn’t grow up in family that watched movies. I didn’t actually come to filmmaking as someone who loves films. I do now but when I decided to pursue filmmaking I didn’t have a love of film but I loved fine art and I loved photography. I also love sociology, anthropology, and psychology. I love to write, I am a big reader, and I love storytelling and painting. Film was the only thing that would let me do all of those things. So it’s weird, I kind of came in the side way.

I thought I could make films and then I could do all of those things that I love. Then I grew to understand movies and watch them more. Since that decisions was made I have had 15 years to watch movies and understand so I definitely get lots of inspiration from movies. I was trying to identify what my influences were and what genre of film I like. I like things that are a reality just askew of real reality. I love Guillermo del Toro. A lot of him movies really twist naturalism and I really enjoy the inner life of the characters. Heavenly Creatures is one of my favorite movies and that’s because their internal life is their external and I really like that. I think my movie is like that. Hopefully I can go on and do features like that. I enjoy almost any horror film, but the ones I really enjoy are thinky and frankly fucked up, like mind twisters. Even movies that aren’t technically horror films I like, I like Donnie Darko a lot. It’s got a lot of tension and you could call it mental realism but I don’t think of it that way. It has a reality and an inner life askew from what everyone else is experiencing. I like that, I like really subjective story lines.

Kelsey: Horror films are very underrepresented in the film festival circuit. What do you think it was about Rite that made it stand out?

Alicia: I think it’s not really a horror film. It’s got some blood and it’s definitely over the top gross in a certain way, but I can see why it would appeal to the art house sensibility. It’s meant to be a commentary about rituals, the really out there things we are willing to do without thinking about it because that’s just what everybody does. Really it’s a call for self-awareness; for people to think about what they’re doing. So I’m trying to show a horrible worst case scenario so that people understand that we do things just as brutally, but we don’t recognize it because we are so used to it. I’m trying to get people un-used to it. I think the appeal is the angle and not the execution or particular story.

Kelsey: What other cultures did you look to, to create the ritual used in the film?

Alicia: There were definitely cultures I was thinking of when I wrote it. For example there are a lot of cultures that do scarification rituals. I read an article where woman do this insane burning scar at puberty. There are things like that, which are meant to be a sign of womanhood. Then there’s places that do body modification like hoops around the neck or the spacers in the ears and lips. It’s not all physical either, but the physical ones can be identified as horrible because they’re permanent and they change your body.

So it’s easy to look at it from the outside and think that’s really weird and we would never do that, but we do. We circumcise men in the U.S. and that’s standard. 60% of men in the U.S. are circumcised and the 40% who aren’t, are primarily from other countries or are from other religions, who aren’t Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, who don’t circumcise. So people from other countries and cultures don’t think it’s that important. I feel like there are lots of things we do. Even in South America it’s really common to pierce little girls ears when they’re babies as a gender code. I’m not even saying don’t do it, just think about it, is it worth it? If it is go ahead, I just think we need to make our decisions with some information.

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Kelsey: Rite started from an argument you had with your friend while watching the documentary, The 8th Day about a Jewish couple who question whether they should circumcise their son. How did this bring you to Rite?

Alicia: Yeah, I was watching this documentary that a friend of mine made called The 8th Day. It’s about two Jewish couples who don’t want to circumcise their unborn kids. One of the family members of one of the couples was screeching saying it’s not your job to question, it’s your job to obey. I just lost my mind and I got in a huge argument with my roommate about it because he was like why are you so upset. I was like what do you mean why am I so upset? It’s not your job to question, it’s your job to obey? Doesn’t that upset you? He said no it’s their religion. That caused me to sit down and actually write the script to Rite. It didn’t have anything to do with circumcision persay it was just all kinds of things like that where people believe that you do what you do and that’s what you do. And you’re not supposed to ask, you’re not supposed to say this is really screwed up.

Kelsey: Did being raised as Catholic influence the theme of Rite questioning blindly following traditions?

Alicia: Sure it did. I knew by the time I was 11 that I wasn’t really a Catholic. I really wanted to understand and I felt like the more I tried to understand the more none of it made any sense. I had this psychotic discussion with the parish priest about whether women should be aloud to serve, this was when I was 11. His answers weren’t very satisfying. He said there was authority in the church and they couldn’t just do whatever we want. What about the courage to do what’s right, where does that fall? So if the pope said we should do something horrible we would just do it. I hate to be like your mom and say if the pope jumped off a bridge would you do it, but honestly. At what point would you say this guy’s a lunatic? I didn’t like his answers, I couldn’t be part of a religion where this dude could say anything and we were going to go okay. I’m an atheist now, but at the time I believed in God but none of the details. I was didn’t get how could we know these details, it seemed silly.

What really turned it for me was being told not to question. I think any religion, no matter what your beliefs are it’s about standing up to things. You should be able to question and find belief in your heart. If you can’t find that then it’s not faith. I don’t have any quarrel with people who think about and decide this is their belief. I think that’s fantastic, what I have a problem with is when people don’t think about it at all, do what they’re told, and go to their grave obeying. I can’t handle that. There are some people who went to my high school that have been congratulating me and I keep on thinking I wonder what you would think if you actually saw my movie.

Kelsey: How do you think Rite compliments Grace, the full feature that it is being shown alongside at Sundance?

Alicia: I’m thrilled about the programming, Grace is a great movie. It’s Paul Solet’s first feature. He’s interesting. He’s a really thoughtful person. Grace is about a women whose baby dies in the womb and she manages to keep it alive by feeding it blood, but it’s really not meant to be. It’s just got such tremendous symbolism, he’s capitalizing on the fears of having a child and how to have a love attached to that fear, which changes who you are. It’s also about relationships between people and what becomes important. It’s such a neat idea, it’s gross and it’s awesome. It’s not the typical structure, it takes it’s time. Paul called it a slow burn. It establishes character and tells us a lot about this women. So later we see how she changed in reaction to this and it’s pretty dramatic. She is willing to do things she never would have for the love of this kid who really should be dead.

There are certain things about our visual styles that I think are kind of similar. The opening scene seemed really poetic and lyrical and that lyrical quality is definitely what I am going for. I feel like thematically they are really similar. They are about issues in society, what really matters, and connection to people. I think they are really good companion pieces, I feel really lucky to be attached to that film. Not to mention anyone who would read the description to his film and be interested, would be interested in my film.

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Kelsey: Would you ever like to make Rite in to a full feature if you got the chance?

Alicia: No, it’s not a feature, it is what it is, it’s 7 minutes and that’s what it should be. It almost could be shorter. I would love to make features, but not this story.

Kelsey: Your husband, Ben Rock, was the Producer and editor on the film. What was it like working with him on the project?

Alicia: Yeah, we actually work together a lot. We’ve been together for 11 years and it’s been 10 years since we’ve left Orlando. He actually was the D.P. on my senior thesis film. We don’t get along with him as my D.P. He had ideas he wanted to bring to the film and I was struggling to find something really specific while he had his own agenda. It seems we butt heads when one of us has too strong of a creative vision and the other wants to inject some part of themselves in to the project.

We work together best when it is clear whose agenda it is and the other person is there to support it. So maybe some of it is just that we have been together for a long time and have learned how to work with each other. I have produced for him a number of times and it has worked out very well because it’s his film and I can support that. He definitely did that for me with this film. He is such a skilled editor and he’s a director too so it’s like having a second head. I wrote a shot list of what I wanted the trailer to be and asked him to assemble it. He substituted what I thought was going to be the end of the trailer with something completely different and he was totally right. He gets the movie, he gets what I am trying to do. I’m lucky, I don’t know what we would do without each other.

Kelsey: During the premiere of the film there were sound issues. Interestingly enough the audience thought the silence was intentional and continued to be focused on the film. What was it like realizing that elements missing from the film couldn’t even break their attention to what was on the screen?

Alicia: Well my initial reaction was to completely freak out. They didn’t turn it off, they just left it running. There was this guy in the back row who heard me and he said I know you’re freaked out because your sound isn’t playing, but just look at the audience. The truth is everyone was silent, not a cough. Afterwards, a bunch of people came up to me and said without the sound the visuals were so compelling and it really worked and did I ever think of doing it like that. It was the subject of discussion for a lot of different people. I was really struck by that and in a way it was a neat opportunity to see that people were so engaged even without the audio. The score was amazing and our composer was incredible. The film has a little bit of dialogue, but there is mainly one line at the end and a few others, but if there was none at all I don’t think it would take anything away from the film. The dialogue is not the point. To see that it is working without the music with no emotional cue was a nice piece of feedback for me.


Kelsey: There is one main character that a lot of the focus is on, as you said making the dialogue more minimal. What was the process in creating a strong characterization in her and having engaging visuals around her to hold up the story?

Alicia: Well my favorite short film of all time is called Sense Memory by a friend of mine who I went to college with that has never seen the light of day. So I know no one has seen it who didn’t go to my college, which is really too bad because it’s a great film. It is entirely M.O.S. I was really inspired by that when I first saw it. There’s another short film called The Trick that also has no dialogue. I feel especially in short form the more powerful stories are the ones that hit you visually and they don’t need anyone to explain anything to you. My first draft of the script was really talky. I wrote it four years ago and I just revisited it every once in awhile to make it better. One of the things I did was took all of the dialogue to see how it would work and I decided it needed that final line of dialogue. I wanted the story to be really clear. So I wanted to figure out a way to tell the same story without talking about it.

Kelsey: What was your experience like working with the Red camera?

Alicia: It was a really good experience. I love the camera, I think it looks really beautiful. There is so much information on the chip, the technology of it is flabbergasting. We could see what we were framing but we really couldn’t see everything that the camera saw so it was frustrating, but it was worth it since it looks really good. Then the post work flow was somewhat frustrating because there are a million choices. You basically start working on one path and you put behind you all of these other options. Down the road you have 16 more choices and you keep on going. It’s like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs hoping it is the right path to go on, trying to wrap your head around what you are making impossible every time you make a decision.

The Red Camera is still in the beta phase and we are kind of beta testing it for them. I love that it is available and I am so glad that it is out since I would much rather have that happen than not have the camera available. There’s something hyper real about it, it looks too good to be real. I like that because Rite is like an alternate reality. In my mind it’s like a memory. It’s not meant to be literal, it’s meant to show this girl’s emotions looking back.

Kelsey: You were involved with the Florida Film Festival as well as Sundance. How would you describe the environments of these film festivals?

Alicia: We haven’t been to Florida yet, but I used to work there. We actually just got in. Florida is a regional festival and it’s really different from Sundance. Sundance is very industry oriented. I’ve had distributors meet with me about the short, which is something I have never had happen at the regional festivals. Florida is a great festival with really great filmmakers. It’s a lot more about community, watching movies, and loving film. It’s for the people in the community to see these films not for the filmmakers. That type of festival is awesome in terms of creativity. You get to see how a normal audience is receiving your film. Sundance is fun, but with trying to meet people and passing out flyers and everything it can feel like a job. Florida is not like a job, it’s like a vacation. From a filmmaker’s experience that is the distinction between them.

Kelsey: Are you interested in distributing Rite?

Alicia: Sure, I’m not that worried about it since I know I will never make my money back on it though. The film cost 15 grand and I still have a few bills I have to pay for it. Even if I never make the money back I still want people to see the film, that’s what I really care about. We’ve talked to a few places so I am sure it will get distributed somewhere, it’s just the question of where and when. Shorts are funny, they are really not about distribution. They are more like a calling card showing that you have directed something, hoping that leads to something else.

Kelsey: Do you have any plans for full featured films in the future?

 Alicia: I have one film that I am co-producing with Ben and he’s going to direct it. A friend of ours who is an amazing writer wrote it with us in mind. It’s a really low budget film and we didn’t want that to be the first thing that we do together. At least, it shouldn’t be my first feature especially if I’m going to produce it. Then I have a documentary that I want to do.

I also have 3 other feature ideas. One of them is New York Times best seller that I’m trying to option. It’s kind of a psychological thriller/police procedural. It’s cool because it has that inner life of the character being the life of the story that I was talking about. It’s based on a true story so there is no point in telling the police procedural or the psychological thriller aspect except to show how this character is changing. My friend had this wacky dream and told me about it so I have an idea to turn that in to a script. It’s a psychological thriller too. The other one is half baked, it’s something that my roommate and I started working on in college and we have started revisiting it. It’s sort of a paint by numbers psychological thriller, so I guess that’s my thing.

Kelsey Zukowski is a horror actress/ writer and internationally published alternative model who gravitates towards dark, complex material full of thematic exploration.

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