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SxSW 2017 Interview: Meet the team behind LANE 1974!

LANE 1974 at SxSW 2017
by Jason Whyte

"Lane 1974 is a coming of age story set in the wilds of Northern California in 1974. 13 year old Lane navigates her mother's unpredictability and her devotion to independence at all costs, while trying to create a life on the road, sleeping under the stars, for herself and younger siblings, until it becomes too much. The film is based on the memoir by Clane Hayward and informed by my own childhood experiences." Director SJ Chiro on LANE 1974 which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.

Adds producer Jennessa West, "It's a coming of age survival story about a young girl growing up in the counterculture of 1974. It's a film which quietly talks about the era where our American landscape was shifting and changing dramatically.

And as well from executive producer Mel Eslyn, "It's a pretty fully female made and starring film, based on SJ's personal experience growing up on a commune, set in the 1970s.

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

SJ Chiro: I am excited to unveil this very personal story here at SxSW. It's a strange feeling, like going on stage, cutting open my chest and pulling out my heart. But I'm looking forward to it.

Jennessa West: This is my first SXSW experience. I am planning to attend our screening which is exciting and a little nerve-wracking. It's scary to put something out into the world when you have kept it so close for years, but it's time. After that, I'm also planning to check out other films and music while I'm here. What a great year to be at SXSW!

Mel, I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.

Mel Eslyn: I have had a great time premiering such films at SXSW as LAMB, UNCLE KENT 2, RAINBOW TIME and IMPROVEMENT CLUB. I always come back for the great film selections, laid back vibe and tacos and hot sauce.

It is great to be speaking with all of you. I am curious how you all got your start as filmmakers?

SJ: I studied theater and worked in theater for many years. When my interest began to shift to film, I felt the best thing to do would be to dive right in and make my own films. I quickly identified like minded collaborators and got to work. I have made seven well received short films since 2006. LANE 1974 is my first feature film. Seattle is a rich, vibrant filmmaking community. It would be difficult to do what I do without the people and resources found in this community.

JW: I talked my way into an internship at the Washington State Film Office back in the early 2000s and had three amazing female mentors, and from there landed a gig as the assistant to Stephen King's executive producer back when he was making a film here in Seattle. While it was great to learn from someone who had been around the block, I wanted to get on set and see how films were made. From there, I dove into the art department and and later accounting to figure out the art and business sides of movie making. I moved to LA after working on a few shows, and cut my teeth on one hour episodic TV. I then decided I wanted to move into independent producing because I really love to have my hands in the work and boots on the ground.

ME: I got started early, working as a PA in my teens, and then really things got kicked off when I moved to Seattle and started immersing myself in the local film community there. If you know how to find and foster great stories, and work hard, you can move quick in this industry. Nowadays, I'm largely overseeing Duplass Brothers' film development and production, but I always manage to have passion projects on the side, such as LANE 1974.

How did LANE 1974 come together?

SJ: The Seattle International Film Festival invited me to make a film though their Fly Filmmaking initiative. Mel agreed to produce it and we had such a good time together that when it came to the end Mel looked at me and said "What's next? I asked her if she wanted to produce a feature and when I told her what it was about, she was in! I had to get so many yeses to make this project a go, and Mel's yes was a big one. Mel's career was taking her to L.A. more and more so the next big yes I needed I got from Jennessa West. Jennessa partnered with me, bringing in her production company and that's when the project really started to take off. Mel stayed on board as an EP. I produced most of my own short films, but these two strong producers coming on board was an absolute necessity for my first feature.

JW: SJ and Mel were at a place where they needed boots on the ground and someone to help with fundraising and the logistics of getting the production off the ground. The material resonated with me; I grew up with communal land and an extended family. I also really liked the idea of working with mostly women and female driven film. It was an easy 'yes' with this team.

ME: I have known SJ over the years, and she first sent me a kernel of an idea back in 2011 which was partly based on Clane Hayward's memoir THE HYPOCRISY OF DISCO, and also pulled quite a bit from SJ's own childhood and experiences of growing up on a commune. SJ and I were making shorts together, and I was a big fan of her passion and drive for female centered stories. So I grabbed the book, and after reading, started immersing myself in that world, reading about Peter Coyote, as well as revisiting Alicia Bay Laurel's LIVING ON THE EARTH. All of it captured such this time and place that was magnetic, especially when seen through the eyes of a young neglected girl. And from there I knew I wanted to be a part of helping push this along and help make it a reality for SJ to tell her story.

What keeps you all going while making a movie? What drives you?

SJ: I have studied karate for the last 14 years. The lessons I have learned in the dojo transfer directly to filmmaking. Perseverance, specificity, personal responsibility, calm under duress, passion, and commitment. Also, coffee is one of my major food groups.

JW: What drives me are beautiful untold stories from people who are truly passionate about bringing those stories to life. True collaboration gets me every time, and four shots of espresso and a protein shake every day.

ME: Guttural instinct, insane drive/passion, and the right balance of mediation and coffee.

So what was the biggest challenge of LANE 1974 for you all, and the most rewarding moments?

SJ: Fundraising while shooting was extremely challenging. We had raised enough to shoot out our California location. Because we had to shoot there in August, if we didn't go for it, it would mean waiting another year to begin shooting and that was unacceptable, especially with a cast full of growing kids. But this meant that when we got back to Washington we would have to raise the funds to keep shooting immediately. California was an exhausting shoot of mostly outdoor locations, but we had no time to rest when we got home.

Our casting director Amey Rene set up a meeting for me and Kate Moennig in an L.A. cafe. I had no idea what to expect. Hallelujah is an extremely difficult, unusual role, and our production was going to be quite earthy, not cushy at all. But from the moment she walked in and we began to talk, I relaxed. She was passionate and seemed ready to get down with something really bold and different for her. I loved the way she talked about the role, the questions she asked, and the rapport we had. When we parted I felt that my instincts had been correct and that I had found my Hallelujah. Everything was going to be alright.

JW: The biggest challenge; we asked 15 of our closest filmmaker friends to come down to Northern California, put them up in less than perfect accommodations for four weeks on an active commune and asked them to trudge up and down hills, and over beaches and through the redwoods, because the film required a very rural and sparse landscape. Also, we didn't have the luxury of camera shops or grip houses; we had to make due with what we brought which was difficult, but also a good exercise in making it work. It wasn't an easy shoot by any means. I'm so thankful to each and every crew and cast member who made this film possible.

The moment of reward came when after week two, Kate Moennig said, "I went fishing on my day off and I have about 30 pounds of fish and I don't know what to do with it. Can we have a fish fry at the homestead?" After wrap that day, we invited all the cast and crew to come together. We grilled fish, made cocktails, played music, and just let go. It finally felt like we could catch our breath and take in where we were in this beautiful northern California landscape making a really unique film.

ME: One of the biggest challenges with LANE, which is something I had also experienced on the film LAMB, is that it can be damn hard to get people to rally around a film starring a young girl with a dramatic tone. It's sad but true, and I hope that continues to evolve and change. The most rewarding was locking our LANE in Sophia Mitri Schloss, thanks in large part to our amazing casting director Amey Rene.

I must get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how you got the look of LANE 1974.

The visual design of the film was very specific and important to me. I knew that the cinematographer and I would have to mind meld to tell this story properly. I knew there would have to be an intense and possibly protracted time where we got to know each other. I have worked with great cinematographers on my shorts, but many of them had moved out of town and were in demand in other cities. They would not be able to devote as much time to pre production as I knew I would need. Jennessa introduced me to Sebastien Scandiuzzi. From the moment we met I was impressed by Sebastien's passion and willingness to do whatever it would take to be on this film. He understood immediately the importance of developing an artistic language together. He and I would go on to watch many films together, talking about style and technique. We combed through the still photography of Stephen Shore. We talked cameras and lenses, agreeing that the Arri Alexa was the best camera to shoot this story. By the time we got on set together, we understood each other very well. This was essential working under such challenging conditions. There really wasn't time to chat on the set. We had to trust each other and go. One of the most impressive things about Sebastien is that I always felt respected by him. He never let his ego become inflated. He was respectful of his crew as well, which in turn engendered trust and devotion from them. This sensitivity coupled with enormous talent made working with him a relaxing pleasure.

JW: I can't talk about the technical side too much, but I can tell you about the collaboration between SJ and Sebastien. This film is Sebastien Scandiuzzi's first feature after making countless shorts, and this is SJ first feature after making countless shorts, so it was a bit of risk putting the two of them together to figure out a feature, but the great thing about Sebastien and SJ; they speak the same film language, if that makes sense. Collectively, they have both seen every film under the sun and they were both eager to tackle a feature. They both can go on and on about these obscure films and detailed references to a camera movement or how a light was placed to accentuate something or other, and then they go on and on for hours. They spent weeks looking at other films and talking through how it could relate to LANE in each moment. They both really understood one another's aesthetic. This obsession with tiny details is what makes them magnificent together as collaborators.

SJ: I lived in Austin in the summer of 1983, but don't remember a thing. I'm excited about getting to know the town again, but most of all I can't wait to meet the other SxSW filmmakers! And getting to know the SxSW staff! I'm thrilled for the opportunity to share my work and to see the work of some of the most exciting filmmakers in the country and beyond. The SxSW audience is something I can't wait to experience and be a part of.

JW: I have always wanted to go to SxSW. I am so excited to see Austin and just feel this festival. I have heard it's nothing but a non-stop art fest, so I'm looking forward to getting the full experience and meeting other film and art makers.

ME: For me, I have had great luck premiering intimate beautiful stories to the SXSW audience to great results. Things resonate amongst the Austin audiences in a way that is extremely rewarding. I also just think it's a fun festival to bring first time directors to in a somewhat less pressure environment and there's a lighthearted tone to SX that can't be beat.

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

SJ: I'm excited to visit many more festivals after SX!

JW: We're hoping this is the first of many stops for LANE as we get into the festival circuit.

ME: We have got a lineup of great festivals that we will be taking the film to as we continue the rounds!

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

SJ: I am a huge fan of the podcast The Close Up from the New York Film Society. It's a total fantasy of mine to screen at the Walter Reade Theater.

JW: I would love to play LANE in front of a hometown crowd in Seattle at the Egyptian Theatre. It's this beautiful old 600 seat house with run down chairs and tons of charm. I have seen some of my favorite films there, some when I was growing up to now. It's just classic Seattle and feels like home.

ME: I want every movie I make to screen at The Orpheum Theater in Madison, WI, if only for Wisconsin love and pride, and it's an amazing and quant old theater where I house so many memories.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive during a movie; a screening of LANE 1974 or any movie in general?

SJ: Bye.
JW: What is wrong with you?

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?

SJ: Listen to what's important to you, be bold, be prepared, bring your love, and find your people.

JW: Find your tribe and make your films. When working with your tribe of people, sometimes you're the producer and sometimes you are the PA. The film is the thing. Don't talk about it. Don't name drop. Don't day dream all day. Just get your work out there. Also, you're going to fail. You might even fail in front of people you respect. Let it go. Laugh it off. Cry it out, and keep moving. Failure is part of creating anything that's never been done before.

ME: BE KIND. And LISTEN. You are getting into a collaborative art form for a reason, find a team you trust and listen to them. Make the collaboration rewarding for not just you, but your film family. That and STORY STORY STORY.

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

SJ: Guy Maddin's THE BRAND UPON THE BRAIN, both in New York and in Seattle. The film played while live foley artists created the sound, and the composer, Jason Staczek, directed a live orchestra, while Isabella Rossellini read the narration right in front of me in New York! It's hard to top that.

JW: I have so many favorites it's hard to choose! A THIN RED LINE is probably my all-time favorite film. I also saw THE CRYING GAME at a little theater in Seattle at the age of 13. I'm not sure where my parents were at this time. I don't think I understood the full scope of what was going on in the film at that age, but I do remember being thrilled by not knowing what to expect next. I left wanting to understand how other people lived their lives outside of my little bubble.

ME: I hate picking favorites, but it was amazing to see BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD at the premier festival, and more recently, I cried and shit myself laughing at the same time watching SWISS ARMY MAN.

Be sure to see LANE 1974 during SxSW 2017 at the following times:

March 11, 11:45am, ALAMO LAMAR A
March 13, 6:30pm, ALAMO LAMAR D
March 15, 1:45pm, STATESIDE THEATRE

[bigger]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 Conference 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

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/10/17 17:52:59
last updated: 03/10/17 18:08:09
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