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Alison Star Locke on the Coexistence of Accountability and Compassion in “The Apology”

Alison Star Locke began her writing career as a story producer for reality TV and has written, directed, and produced numerous shorts. Her favorite, “Shhhhhhh…,” was laureled-up by the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Denver Film Festival. Her script “The Projectionist” won second place at Slamdance in the Horror/Thriller category. Her scripts have placed in numerous contests, including the BloodList, Nicholls, Screamfest, Women In Horror Film Festival, Scriptapalooza, and Fright Night. 

“The Apology” will be in theaters and available on AMC+ and Shudder December 16.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

ASL: “The Apology” is a dark Christmas tale, a genre blender of psychological thriller, horror, and chamber piece drama. It’s largely a two-hander between Darlene (Anna Gunn) and Jack (Linus Roache) as a huge thundersnowstorm rages outside and traps them together to work out their past in a rather big way. 

But Darlene’s best friend, Gretchen (Janeane Garofalo), also plays a rather pivotal, moving part in the proceedings. Anna and Linus are notorious powerhouse masters, and I’m so grateful for and proud of their work here. Janeane is stunning in how still and quiet she is in this film in a way I think will be surprising to most people, although not to us superfans. But don’t worry, she’s still funny in this, too.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

ASL: As cheesy and cliché as it sounds, it came to me in a dream. In it, there was a knock on my front door in the middle of the night at Christmastime, and a man said, “I know what happened to your daughter.” I’ve always been fascinated with true crime stories, so that’s where the specifics came from. 

But as I started writing, the story evolved into this personal metaphor for the experience of sticking up for my daughter and her rights as a neurodiverse child in a less than accommodating world, and how I had become obsessed with being there for her and had almost lost my way in that pursuit of giving her every chance I could. Obviously, having a disabled child is light-years away from searching for a missing child, but that’s art for you.

I finally found confidence in my voice again through the making of this film. It’s been pretty damn powerful for me.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

ASL: I hope they think about how complicated we all are, how crucial compassion is, and whether real change is possible. If it is possible, what does that need to look like to be real, to last? I want audiences to believe in their own power and remember the love that already surrounds them. 

And I would love for people to have real conversations about violence against women, physical and emotional, how women should be more empowered to expect safety and real love from men, and that men should be set up to live emotionally healthy, fulfilled lives as well. Accountability and compassion shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. And it’d also be cool if we really talked about how much work Christmas tends to be for moms. Big goals but, hey, I’m an ambitious lady. 

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

ASL: It was my first feature film so it was all a challenge and a learning curve. But it was also a dream come true.

I had been a stay-at-home mom and advocate for my autistic daughter for years before coming back to work to make this film. So I think the biggest challenge was managing my huge feelings of gratitude for the opportunity, shock at how much people wanted to hear from me, and then trying to support my cast and crew to do their best work with an intense story and such a short schedule, just 16 principal photography days, all at once.

I’m a crier on set anyway. It’s how I usually know I have the scene, but this time, I cried a lot more. I think avoiding tears at all costs at work, especially creative work, is a very patriarchal, unhealthy thing.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

ASL: It’s a bit of a true fairy tale, to be honest. There was so much hard work involved, of course, but it started from a very pure place. Stacy Jorgensen, one of the producers on the film, used to act in my short films, and we also produced and collaborated on a whole bunch of projects together. Then I had my daughter and she moved from acting and to producing full-time. I sent Stacy the script for “The Apology” and asked if she could just recommend someone to send it to. And much to my shock, she called me up and said, “I want to produce this. We’ll find a home for it but let’s at least start with the company I work for, Company X. They’re very picky so they probably won’t say yes. But let’s start there.” 

And then they said yes. I got the news as I was picking my mother up from the airport for the holidays, and it felt like some magical Christmas present. This is not what happens to middle-aged mom indie filmmakers trying to make their first feature. I still can’t believe it. And then Stacy and Company X took the film to Mark Ward at RLJE Films. It turned out that I’d been volunteering for years at my kiddo’s school book fair with Mark’s fantastic wife, so Mark and I just hit it off right away, both being horror hounds and parents who live in the same neighborhood. He’s been so supportive and green-lit the film. Stacy and Lisa Whalen, Company X’s CEO, worked their tails off to put it all together.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

ASL: Like many ‘80s kids, I saw “The Goonies” and “Poltergeist” really young and they got me excited about the movies. My mom was always supportive about my interest in film and would take me to the movies, dollar cinema and art house alike, my whole childhood. When I saw families I related to in “Gas Food Lodging” and “Running on Empty,” it began to feel like something I could do, telling my own stories about my own family or my own fascinations. 

But the film that made me want to direct was “Taxi Driver,” specifically the moment when Travis is on the payphone trying to convince Betsy to give him another chance and the camera just pans away from him and stays on that empty hall. That blew me away, the idea that where you put, and move, the camera can indicate feeling like that, that humiliation and hopelessness could feel so visceral. 

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

ASL: Like almost all creatives, I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. Especially after being home with my daughter for years and trying to write and get scripts out to producers, I started to feel filmmaking wasn’t realistic for me. But then – and I wish I could credit who said this to me – I would lay out all this defeatist worry and they would just say, “Well, why not you?” And that became my mantra. “Why not me?” Men don’t ask for as much permission or seek as much validation as we do to start something so we have to back each other up. Having my amazing all-female producing team backing me up – Stacy, Lisa, and Kim Sherman – did wonders for that. 

The worst advice I’ve gotten has often been the most well-intentioned, basically telling you to follow the specific path or approach to the work that they did. So if something doesn’t seem to fit the best way for you to work, listen to those instincts. You know more than you think you do. And it really is true: there’s no correct, one way to do things.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

ASL: Use your life experience in your work, and not just in the story you’re telling. I use the persistence, patience, and organizational skills I learned in advocating for my daughter when working with my collaborators. You have more secret skills than you think you do and we don’t have to lead in the traditional, male ways to be successful.

We can fight the toxicity, starting in our own meetings and on our sets. Set boundaries early, often and with great clarity, but don’t be afraid to lead with love, appreciation, and a collaborative, open spirit. And carve out time and space in your personal life to give enough love to your work, too. As women, we’re conditioned to make everything else a priority but our work needs deserve our attention, too. 

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

ASL: There’s so many woman directors who inspire me, but I’d have to say it’s a dead heat between “The Babadook” by Jennifer Kent and “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” by Amy Heckerling. 

“The Babadook” is one of my more recent passions. When I first saw this film, it evoked so many feelings about the early, hard days before my daughter was actually diagnosed and we all got the help we needed to be there for her. Luckily, nothing as dark as the film, but it tapped into one of my main themes: how hard it is to be a mother. I’m so grateful for my girl but there is so little support for mothers, still, let alone mothers of children with differing needs. Kent’s film made me see there was a space for me to tell stories about that. And it’s just a gorgeous, big swing of a film. 

“Fast Times” was one of the pivotal movies of my childhood that put young women’s feelings and experiences at the center and brought a female POV to the male characters as well. It’s a movie I’ve grown up with and so, my relationship with it keeps changing and deepening. Great flicks will do that. They’ll mean different things to you at different points of your life. 

I’m also just so, so happy to see Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” at the top of the Sight and Sound list. That’s one of my favorite films as well and a huge, emboldening influence on me.

W&H: What, if any, responsibilities do you think storytellers have to confront the tumult in the world, from the pandemic to the loss of abortion rights and systemic violence?

ASL: We all have a responsibility to reflect our world and that absolutely includes brutal realities like our abortion rights being stripped away and people confusing selfishness for freedom, i.e. not wearing masks. Everything I write is confronting bigger issues like these in various ways. There are many ways to tell stories that bring us into the reality of these issues without them necessarily being “issue” films, which can sometimes be more effective. 

I would love to see more representation of the real-life horrors of the world in films because I am a feminist and a progressive and a humanist and also a huge horror fan. I think “sneaking” these issues into genres like horror is a great way to confront them. With “The Apology,” I wanted to explore the way women are too often seen as expendable, that the male perpetrator is always given sympathy, and women are left feeling unseen and unsafe. 

I also wanted to create something set in a female battleground. Revenge is usually looked at as something that is all about brute force being met with brute force, but I didn’t connect with that. So how would this woman want to get revenge? Is justice even possible in a system this broken? I’m especially interested in the emotional and physical violence involved in gender inequality and all the many ways it manifests in our lives.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing – and creating – negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

ASL: We need more underrepresented people in crucial, decision-making positions to open it all up more. You hear all the time about how, say, white men won’t hire a Black woman because they “don’t feel comfortable” or “don’t relate” or other code-phrases for racism – that’s so damaging and inexcusable. We are each, to a one, accountable to do better. 

But I think one of the more actionable items is the retention and growth for underrepresented people. Too often, folks don’t get access to these opportunities because they are viewed as not experienced enough or not known enough, but they can’t get to that point without people giving them a chance. We need to give more chances to people to not only make that first thing but also to have more chances to grow. 

Breakthrough contests and programs are wonderful but we need more ongoing support. That also includes looking at your own cast and crew list and saying, “Where is the mentorship and are we offering a chance for positions or roles?”

We all need to be rigorous in thinking of filmmaking as community building. We shouldn’t just be looking for the absolute most experienced person for every single job or only direct recommendations. That approach too often excludes people of color. Fresh voices give us, as filmmakers, unique insights and give audiences a more varied, and therefore more rich, view of the world, and hopefully make them feel that their world is being reflected.

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