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SXSW '08 Interview: "FrontRunners" Director Caroline Suh

by Erik Childress

The “FrontRunners" Pitch: It's a campaign film about teenagers.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

CAROLINE: This film was truly an indie production, so after we got the go ahead from the school to start shooting, Erika Frankel, the film's producer, and I just took the camera that we owned, got a great DP, took our sound equipment and started shooting the election. We then edited for about four months, took a hiatus, and finished the film just recently.

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?

CAROLINE: That's a tough one. To be honest, I really had no idea. I probably thought I'd have a more "normal" career though.

How did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?

CAROLINE: I started working as an intern at PBS, and it kind of took off (slowly) from there. I do remember as an intern sitting in a screening room watching a cut and giving notes, which was pretty thrilling at the time.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you are a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

CAROLINE: I have only been to Toronto before as a producer on a film called "Final Cut." Other than that, I haven't been to a festival, including SXSW, as a director.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”

CAROLINE: Well, I guess it's somewhat of a relief to know that the film will be seen. And, of course, it's wonderful to have people at SXSW accept the film and say that they like it. That means a lot to us, and we have a lot of respect for their approach. Everyone there has been extremely helpful, and Matt Dentler has been great.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?

CAROLINE: Hmmm. Also a tough one. I don't know if I relate to any of the ones that are the well-known ones-- is it bad to relate to the female muppet in the back with bangs, whose name I can't remember? My favorite muppet is definitely Grover, though.

As someone who has participated in numerous school elections, where can the line be broken between the most popular and the most qualified?

CAROLINE: I've actually not served much as a student, but I think where the line is drawn is situationally based. At most schools, there probably is no line, but at Stuyvesant they definitely wrestle with the same issues that Hillary and Obama are dealing with now. Is it better to have experience (i.e., be most qualified) or be an outsider with new ideas?

Is there a Tracy Flick in your film? :)

CAROLINE: There's no Tracy Flick -- all of the characters are true originals. And we love them all (Tracy was not very likable).

Anyone in your film that would make for a great politician? Great, in that they would mark a welcome change in the system if they stayed along their present course?

CAROLINE: I think it's too early to tell, and I think they all find national politics somewhat questionable as a line of work.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

CAROLINE: Not really, we were more thinking ahead to lunch to be honest.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

CAROLINE: We've learned a lot of lessons about how challenging distribution is, and that it really is a jungle out there in terms of the marketplace. We were pretty naive to those elements of the process. We're still learning!

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

CAROLINE: I've always loved the old verite films-- the Maysles films (Salesman, Gimme Shelter) and Pennebaker, as well. I've always wanted to make those kinds of films, which are less about activism (although I admire those kinds of films) than about a story.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this only different?”

CAROLINE: Not really, although there are a lot of docs that I am amazed by and envious of!

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?

CAROLINE: Well, this is a question for narrative features, I imagine, but if I could make any doc at all right now, I would love to do something on the story of Alberto Vilar, the opera lover.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...

CAROLINE: A writer.

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!”

CAROLINE: Well, having a small theatrical release would be amazing!

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

CAROLINE: I read a lot of film critics, some of whose taste I relate to more than others. I think that reviews and word of mouth can definitely help a film.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

CAROLINE: I suppose the latter, although we're receptive to any feedback.

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

CAROLINE: Five Guys burgers.

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?

CAROLINE: Well, I definitely see FRONTRUNNERS as a completely collaborative effort. Everyone who worked on it put a lot into it, and the film would be radically different if the producer was different, the editor was different, the AP was different, or the DP was different. That said, speaking as a director for the first time, when I've produced many, many projects, it's pretty exciting to see my credit come up, as I feel like I've waited many years for that to happen!

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?

CAROLINE: Well, we feel like the film stays with you and the characters stay with you ... in a good way! I think you also leave the theater feeling good about other human beings -- but not in a sentimental or manipulative way. It also makes you feel good about teenagers, and maybe makes you wish slightly that you could go back to high school.


Caroline Suh's FrontRunners will have its world premiere at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival on Monday, March 10 (9:00 PM) at the Austin Convention Center. It will screen again at the ACC on Tuesday, March 11 (1:30 PM) and Friday, March 14 (6:30 PM).

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originally posted: 03/01/08 09:03:30
last updated: 03/01/08 09:05:17
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