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SxSW 2017 Interview: THE LIGHT OF THE MOON director Jessica M. Thompson

by Jason Whyte

"The film is about a successful New York City architect who is sexually assaulted during an evening out with her friends. She decides to keep the assault a secret, and as a result, her relationships and work begin to fail. It is not a stereotypical courtroom-drama, or an unbelievable rape-revenge-fantasy; it is an intimate and realistic portrayal of the first six weeks after a serious trauma and the struggles of one woman to accept the truth and regain intimacy and normalcy in her life." Director Jessica M. Thompson on THE LIGHT OF THE MOON which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.

Thrilled to hear on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

I am absolutely stoked to be here. And of course, I will be in attendance at all of the screenings. I am particularly looking forward to the Q&As and hearing from the audience.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I knew at the age of twelve that I was going to be a filmmaker. I was the kid that was always writing till the wee hours of the morning and telling my stories to anyone who would listen. I actually started off as a child actor, training at three major drama academies in Sydney, Australia, where I grew up. When I was 18, I went to UTS to study film production, where I met my best friend and producing-partner-in-crime, Carlo Velayo, and we have been making films together ever since!

There is no blueprint on how to become a director, unfortunately, but while I was at University, I fell in love with editing and found that I was naturally quite good at it. So after my globetrotting gap year...I know, typical Australian... I decided to become an Assistant Editor and fought for a job at an incredible post production company in Sydney. I worked my ass off while there and, with the guidance of some incredible mentors, I quickly moved up the ranks to become a full time editor and worked on various television series, documentaries, commercials and music videos clips. In my spare time, I would write/direct films on Super 16 and 35mm, with Carlo producing.

Eventually, I found the industry in Sydney to be too small for my big dreams and I set my sights on The Big Apple. I moved to New York City in 2011, where I founded Stedfast Productions; a collective of visual storytellers who use imagery to explore the beauty, frailty, and complexity of the human story. While in NY, one of my short films, ACROSS THE POND, was a finalist in the Tropfest, Bath and Americas Film Festivals. I have also been lucky enough to work as an Editor with many inspiring award-winning directors, such as, Liz Garbus, Edet Belzberg, and Cheryl Furjanic.

I completely agree with the idea that you have three chances to tell the story in the writing, in the directing and in the edit room and I truly value all three of these processes. Although there is no set way to become a film director, I feel my diverse background in the acting, editing and documentary worlds has provided me with a strong sense of naturalistic storytelling. I adopt many documentary and acting techniques throughout my writing and directing process, and this is especially true with my feature directorial debut, THE LIGHT OF THE MOON.

That's an amazing and inspirational story! So how did you get THE LIGHT OF THE MOON off the ground?

This film truly came together through sheer determination and by maximizing all methods of creative collaboration. I told Carlo, my producing partner, that I was ready to make my first feature and that he should move on over to New York City, from Australia, to produce it. Thankfully, he agreed! I had started writing the script two and a half years ago; it was one that I felt was manageable for my first indie and it is inspired by true events that happened to two of my friends, so I felt very passionate about the story and themes. I also decided to chose this particular story because I hadn't seen anything like it on the big screen and was sick of seeing rape depicted as a plot device, but the victim's perspective and recovery was not told in any realistic manner.

Carlo and I raised our first $45,000 through crowd-funding and then we swung into pre-production! I met Michael Cuomo, our third producer, at a frat boy style party that we were both not particularly enjoying, but I'm so glad we had that chance encounter! I know this term is very overused, but the producing relationship with Michael truly grew organically. I told him about the film at the party and he had an immediate interest. Then, simply out of his belief in the script, he just started to introduced Carlo and I to people who ended up playing pivotal roles in getting this film made! First came the ridiculously talented, Catherine Curtin (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), who we immediately casted as the District Attorney, then Michael found us our Casting Director, Bess Fifer, and before you know it, we had our third producer and that is really when this baby of ours started to come to life! Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Short Term 12) was always in my top three women to play the role of Bonnie. There was just something about her; maybe it was her role as the feisty Detective Rosa Diaz that made me sure that she was suited to the sassy, determined, dark-humored character of Bonnie, and I also had a hunch that she could handle the demands of the intimate drama with grace and ease. I'm so glad I listened to my gut and that Stephanie loved the script and agreed that she was the woman for the role! After we casted Stephanie, Michael Stahl-David (NARCOS, CLOVERFIELD) and Conrad Ricamora (HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER) followed quickly. We very naturally curated our production team from the wonderful individuals we had worked with during our years in the film industry and we filmed for the entire month of June, 2016. The production was relatively smooth and it was truly one of the most fulfilling months of my life. We swung straight into post production and voila, here we are with our world premiere at SXSW in March, 2017!

So with all of this, what keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

For me, it's all pure buzz, adrenalin and sleep-deprivation. Oh, and pressure! On smaller indie films, the cast and crew are looking at me to guide them, they trust me completely, and plus, everyone is working for a fraction of their usual day rate and that responsibility of doing a good job and making a great film pushes me throughout the day. It almost feels like an out-of-body-experience, like I am watching myself from the outside-in, and it truly is a wonderful feeling to see such a diverse and incredibly talented group of 30 individuals, all with their own unique skillset, collaborating together for the overall goal to make good art.

What was your biggest challenge with making the movie, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was the day our lead actress, Stephanie, had to cycle through the streets of Brooklyn. It was the start of summer in New York, which means hot, humid and sweaty, and our producer, Carlo, kindly offered to double as the tricycle rider that day. With our cinematographer Autumn strapped onto the seat behind him, while holding a 20 pound camera rig, he cycled over the Williamsburg Bridge, while Stephanie cycled behind him. Needless to say, he definitely got his workout for the day! The things you do for the love of film!

The most rewarding moment was when the entire cast and crew exuberantly yelled a collective "THAT'S A WRAP!" at the end of the final day of production. And then we were quick to open the champagne bottles!

I wish to get technical as you mentioned your cinematographer a moment ago! I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie.

Autumn Eakin, the director of photography, and I had worked together on a documentary in the past and I knew she had the guts, work ethic, talent and skill to pull off this visually and physically demanding film. I very specifically wanted to work with a female cinematographer, mostly due to the sensitive nature of the film, but also because women cinematographers are the most overlooked in the industry and they are so damn good! Autumn is the founder of CINEMATOGRAPHERS XX, a collective that celebrates the work of women cinematographers. But more importantly, I chose Autumn because I knew she had a strong sense of intuition.

We shot on the Arri Alexa, with a beautiful set of prime CineAlta lenses thanks to our dear friends at VER, and I wanted to adopt a lot of verite, documentary techniques and do many handheld, long, single takes. So intuition and stamina are vitally important. From seeing Autumn's past work, I could tell that Autumn listened intently to the actors' rhythms and inclinations during rehearsals and takes, and that she had great instincts for when to move, when to pan, when to punch in or pull back and that she did this with ease and without disturbing the actors' flow. Autumn and I had an incredible mindmeld on set, and we had such similar instincts that we could often communicate without talking. She also totally had my back! She could tell when I did not feel 100% confident that I had gotten what I needed, and she would quite often take one for the team and say that she stuffed up the camera, so we would simply HAVE TO roll again. Our Director/Cinematographer partnership is one for the ages and I cannot wait to make our next film together, and many more after that. Plus, it was a fun added bonus to witness the rare sight of a film set run by two redhead, green-eyed, freckled women!

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

The tacos! No, honestly, from the first moment I visited Austin five years ago, I absolutely loved it! I feel like the Austin-ites and I were cut from the same stone. From Keeping It Weird to being the blue dot in the red sea, to the organic food movement, to the tattoos, and incredible music culture, Austin is a place after my own heart. I am thrilled to be premiering at one of the coolest festivals in the USA in one of the coolest cities in the WORLD!

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

Firstly, we would love to show the film at a NY festival, as that is where the film was shot and where most of the cast and crew live. Plus, I would love to play at a great festival in Australia, to ensure my mum gets a chance to see it! But hopefully we will sell the film to an awesome distributor and you will get to see it at a cinema near you by the end of 2017! We would also love an extended VOD release after that and hopefully, a college tour as well.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

Nitehawk! It is a dinner theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I live. It is my favorite cinema; they do these awesome pre-show film-mashups before each screening, they have great indie movie selections, the food and cocktails are awesome AND they even sometimes do live scoring. It truly is the best!

There is also another theatre in Sydney where I would love to screen the film, it is called Govinda's and it is run by a Hare Krishna group. For $25 you get an awesome vegetarian meal and then go upstairs to lie on huge beanbags, cushions and sofas and watch a movie in comfort.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive during a screening of a movie?

"Mate, if I wanted to hear your life story, I would be paying you the $12."

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

I always say you need talent and persistence to make it in this biz, and talent only accounts for 10% of it.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

Well, one of my most memorable cinema experiences was seeing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN at a preview screening in Sydney. I was absolutely floored by that film. I could not compose myself or leave the cinema for a long time. Hearing or seeing injustices really affects me, and this movie just broke my heart. I couldn't snap out of it for three days afterwards and kept thinking about why Jack and Enis couldn't just be together? So, I hold that cinema-experience very close to my heart.

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/08/17 07:56:48
last updated: 03/08/17 08:02:16
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