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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Letters From the Other Side' Director Heather Courtney

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Letters From the Other Side' Pitch: Letters From the Other Side interweaves video letters carried across the US/Mexico border by the film's director with the personal stories of women left behind in post-NAFTA Mexico. Director Heather Courtney speaks directly with her subjects through her unobtrusive camera, providing an intimate and intuitive look at the lives of the people who are most affected by today's immigration and trade policies.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Video letters carried across the U.S./Mexico border by the film’s director interweave with the personal stories of women left behind in post-NAFTA Mexico.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
This is my second time at SXSW, my first was with my first film in 2001, a documentary called Los Trabajadores/ The Workers. It won the audience award. I wouldn’t call myself a festival veteran, but from the little experience I have had (was at Slamdance earlier this year), my favorite part of the ride is meeting all these great filmmakers from all over the place, new friends that you’ll be in touch with and see again somewhere else on the festival circuit, or elsewhere. The least favorite part is all the pressure you feel to “network.”

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
When I was a really little kid, I wanted to be a singer, don’t remember what kind of music it was going to be...

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
The first time I even attempted to make a film was when I came to grad school for film, but I feel that the jobs and experiences I had before grad school were all preparation in story-telling … I worked as a writer and photographer for various refugee and immigrant rights organizations, including in the Rwandan refugee camps after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
I feel different about it every time I watch it...

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
I would say I have some of the neurotic and manic tendencies of Grover.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
I was mainly just trying to survive during production, and thinking mainly about the story, was I getting the footage I needed to construct a story? It was hard to think beyond each day in terms of how is this going to do on the festival circuit. I just wanted to finish it.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
The idea for the film was born when I was making my first film, Los Trabajadores, which told the story of immigrant day laborers. I traveled to Mexico to meet the wife and kids of one of the men in the film, and that’s when I realized that their story needed to be told too. I realized that as much as undocumented immigrants here in the U.S. struggle, that struggle extends to the families and communities left behind in Mexico. So, two years later, armed with a Fulbright, a camera and my 1989 Volvo station wagon, I headed down to Mexico. I was lucky enough to meet the incredible women who are the subjects of the documentary and the rest you can see when you come to the film.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
The very delicate balance between taking the necessary time to get to know your subjects, being as respectful of their privacy as possible, but yet also getting the footage you need for the story.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
In documentary, I have always loved and aspired to the more cinema verite approach, like the Maysles Brothers, although I would say I only achieved a few scenes of pure cinema verite in my film. I think I have been influenced by a many different films and approaches, taking bits and pieces of influence here and there.

For narrative film, I love Cassavetes, because his films allow his characters to feel authentic emotions and express them imperfectly yet truly. I hope to achieve that kind of emotional authenticity in my films.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Ok, I’m totally stealing someone else’s idea, because I read his interview, and now I can’t think of anyone else who would be better … Paul Giamatti.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
I think remakes never really work (although I thought Jonathan Demme’s Manchurian Candidate was pretty good).

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
It’s a documentary, so doesn’t really apply, although I think all the women in my film are rock stars, and if you come see it, you’ll see why.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
...working for some human rights group, I guess what I was doing before I came to grad school.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
I would never kill a small dog.

But maybe Heath Ledger (he’s such a babe, just kidding). Or an actress I think would have been amazing to work with is Katrin Cartlidge. She was taken way too young.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
I don’t know if I will ever feel that way, because really, what does that mean?

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Well, if all the film critics who review your film say it sucks, than that will definitely have an influence. But if it’s a mixed bag, than maybe not so much. One thing I’ve learned in all the grants and festivals I’ve applied to and been rejected from, is that everything is so subjective.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
A Toyota Prius.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
Keep it in, making the argument that it is integral to the film and worth the NC-17 rating.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
I think if a director has this incredible body of work over many years, then it makes sense … I don’t know, for myself, it seems a little silly. I see both sides of the argument, film really is a collaboration, but at the same time, it’s the director that does have the final say, and whose identity is all wrapped up in the film in a way.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
You won’t have another chance to see a film that focuses so intimately and completely on these amazing women who normally don’t have the chance to tell their stories.


Letters From the Other Side, directed by Heather Courtney, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Letters From the Other Side website.

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originally posted: 03/08/06 18:30:24
last updated: 03/08/06 18:31:29
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