“Life isn’t long enough to wait for things that may or may not happen.” Interview with Martha Stephens director of To the Stars

I saw To the Stars In November last year during the American film festival in Wrocław. The film is a coming of age story, set in Oklahoma in the sixties. Iris (Kara Hayward) is a teenage girl being constantly bullied in the small town she lives in. Suddenly, newcomer Maggie (Liana Liberato) sweeps in and provides protection, as well as friendship for Iris. It turns out that Maggie has some secrets of her own.

I liked the film a lot, and I was lucky enough to meet the director, Martha Stephens, to talk about her film. We touched on some other topics as well. Some questions refer to the Q&A, conducted after the screening the previous day.

I would like to start, talking a bit about your previous film, Land Ho! Was that film an important step for you?

Yes, maybe it was what jump-started my career in a way, and it gave me access to an agent. It premiered at Sundance, and it got picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. It did well.

 And that was your third film?

Yes, and the other two movies I made were made for like no money. So this is my first time selling a film, and it was funny after I got agents at the amount of all the old man scripts I was sent because they were like “Oh she’s gonna do old man comedies. That’s like her thing.” And I’m not really a filmmaker that specifically wants to do comedy. I like moments of levity, but I like all genres, and so it’s people tend to want to put you in some kind of box. It makes their job easier

And your job more frustrating I guess.

Yeah.

I saw that film years ago. I remember it as funny and relatively lightweight.

Yes, it was supposed to be like, what I’m really interested in doing is taking a very specific kind of movie that we’ve all seen and putting my spin on it so Land ho! was my eighties buddy comedy like John Candy, Steve Martin kind of buddy comedy but through my lens and so, To the Stars was a very classic coming of age story that we’ve seen, but through my specific lens again. 

You co-wrote the script of the previous film, and you were two directors. How did that work, co-directing with Aaron Katz?

We went to film school together, and we both had made low budget, no budget movies which had as much success as you can have for movies made for nothing. So collectively, we had had five features at South by Southwest, and we were both trying to take that leap where we were getting bigger budgets, and it just wasn’t coming fast enough. So we decided to try to come together to make something more mid-range that wasn’t the budget we were looking for. More or less just a way to keep active and work and that’s Land Ho!. It came from being restless, and it was really fun. We both worked with the same cinematographer separately on our movies.

And he shot this one as well.

Yes, we all have known each other for so long. It was an easy dialogue between us. It wasn’t heated. Aaron and I were on the same page, so it was kind of weirdly effortless. 

But this is only the second time you worked with cinematographer Andrew Reed?

Yeah, well he shot my film school movies, and I tried to get him to shoot my other movies, but he was tough to get a hold of for a while. He would’ve shot all my stuff if he had not been busy.

You mentioned that the script, written by Shannon Bradley-Colleary was handed to you in some way. So it was more or less finished?

So concerning the script, there was no money. There was no cast attached. There was only a script, and it had been around. It’s like a fifteen-year-old script maybe older, and it had actually been at Annapurna, maybe like eight years ago. They didn’t reoption it, and it didn’t have a home and some agent that my producer was friends with sent it to her. He was like “This is a script that I really enjoy, and I think you should produce it.” And so she read it and thought of me.

To the stars
Liana Liberato and Kara Hayward in To the stars.

You mentioned you made some changes. Was it also in the visual style, or were those things already in the script? Like when we see the world through the glasses in the third shot and in the final shot, we see the glasses objectively.

Usually, screenwriters are told not to put in camera direction unless they are directing. However, that was the only thing we kept. The script talks about seeing kind of the world through her eyes, and that was maybe the only visual thing in the script that we went with. Otherwise, it was just really subtle things that we changed, just little tweaks and dialogue. I think Iris’s mom, Francie we worked pretty hard at making her not just a complete villain and on paper, she read just like an awful bitch. (laughing)  

Were there changes made to other characters than her in the script?.

I think all the actors brought more life to everyone, but she especially read very one-dimensional, so Shannon and I talked about it. There’s like that moment at the end of the movie where Iris hugs Francie, and that wasn’t in the script. So just giving Francie like a moment of grace, I felt was really important. Jordana, the actor that played Francie: She and I did a lot of talking about France’s motivations and really tried to figure out why she did the things she did. And I don’t think the things that we came to were necessarily things Shannon had in mind when she wrote the character.

So what does Shannon think on the film?

She loves It. We’re very close now.

You didn’t know each other in the past?

No, but now she lets me sleep on her couch when I go to L.A, and I just saw her the other week. She’s like a big sister now. 

So I was thinking about that. The characters don’t feel evil. It feels like everyone is trying their best, even Maggie’s father. They don’t have the tools to deal with the situation rather than just being evil or ignorant. 

Right. Right. I sometimes think, as a modern audience you’re quick to judge, but you really have to think about the time and the place and the morals and values and all that stuff that was pushed on people. And so I honestly do think everyone is trying in some way. I mean the younger kids, they are kids, but the parents I do think they in their own way think that they are doing what’s best for their child.

“It’s very much like a movie that feels like a movie. You know what I mean?”

Talking about through a modern lens, there are some people who commented on that the Maggie character feels quite modern. Was that intentional because that’s not necessarily a flaw. It could work as an anachronism or something.

I think I thought of it more like she comes from a bigger place. She’s more worldly. but I wasn’t trying to place, like a modern character in the past or anything. Still, I think there’s a fine balance with performance, making the characters feel somewhat naturalistic, but also it’s very much like a movie that feels like a movie. You know what I mean? It’s not purely documentary-style narrative filmmaking.

No, not at all, I would say.

No, but that’s the thing. I have made those sorts of movies in the past which feel like it’s real life. So this is a balance and the way we shot it was also a balance of those things Obviously it’s in black-and-white and a lot of our framing and lens choices reflect older films, but we use some modern tools that movies didn’t use back then to try to meld those things.

“In the US there is still this idea that you need huge actors to get people to see a film and I don’t agree with that way of thinking. I mean look at The Farewell, it’s doing very well, and half of it is in Mandarin.”

Talking about it being in black-and-white. I heard it’s picked up by Metro-Goldwyn, but it seems it’s going to be released in colour as far as I understand. Why is that? I guess it’s a compromise on your part.

Yes, it’s a compromise. It’s tricky with some coming of age story, you know. In the US there is still this idea that you need huge actors to get people to see a film and I don’t agree with that way of thinking. I mean look at The Farewell, it’s doing very well, and half of it is in Mandarin, but yeah I think that there’s a lot of fear with black-and-white. It ended up being the way that the film can be released theatrically and even though I wish it were being released in black-and-white, we did do a colour version of the film, and we knew that this might happen, so we made sure that everything looked good if it was to be seen in colour. 

What does it look like in colour? There’s not even a trailer yet.  

No, not yet. We looked at old sort of department store portrait photography from the fifties, so it’s kind of peachy skin tones and things like that.

So it’s only going to be released in colour in the US ?

In theaters, and then I don’t know about the streaming. You know, when you have a movie it’s not just me. It’s a bunch of people that are involved, and it means so much for my actors to say they have a movie in theaters because it helps their career. I don’t want to stand in the way of that even if it isn’t being released the way that you hoped it would be.

But in festivals it will always be in black and white?

Yes.

The director Mark Jenkin made a film called Bait that won the New Horizons competition here in Wrocław a few months ago. He had an interesting take on distribution saying that festivals were not only a window but could actually be the distribution. How do you feel about such an idea?

It’s a springboard for other distribution. With my first two movies, if I didn’t have festivals, then I wouldn’t have a career right now, because they were movies that were too rough around the edges to be released theatrically. Festivals were the only life they had, and those were my building blocks to keep going. So they are so important.

You would see it as a step toward something else. You wouldn’t see it as an end in itself? You wouldn’t be happy with only distributing in festivals?

I think that it’s important. I think having both is great, but I wouldn’t want to just do festivals just because then you’re not reaching everyone that you could. But then again, To the Stars is probably going to be released in like twenty-something screens. So it’s still not gonna reach certain smaller cities.

You mentioned yesterday that you would like conservative people in smaller cities to see it. Then it has to be shown there first.

I would like that. There’s always streaming. Everyone has access to everything now.

You talked about streaming yesterday, and you sounded a bit dismissive over the fact that in the so-called, Golden age of television, it’s difficult to get films made for the cinema. You don’t see it as an opportunity as well?

Well, it’s complicated. I didn’t mean to sound negative. I think that the marketplace for independent films is at an all-time low right now. People are not buying as many films. So then investors are not as willing to invest in them, so it’s just harder to get an indie film in there. The streaming companies are now making everything in house, so they’re not really buying. At first, they started buying stuff, but now they don’t.

 So all of them?

Oh, they’ll buy a thing here and there. But when they first came on the scene they were buying up movies, and now they’re making more movies in house, and if you want to make a movie on your own it’s just harder to make the sale at this point, and that’s all. There are opportunities because there’s so much content out there. There are more jobs for directors, but if you want to make, like your own film it’s more difficult. I’ve gone to Netflix and pitched stories to them, but they have a particular kind of thing that they’re looking to make for their viewers, and what I’m selling them is not that. So that’s all.

Let’s talk about the cinematic aspects of the film. I was struck by the cinematography but also the costumes. You said this was the highest budget you had so far.

Yeah, this is the highest budget we’ve had. I worked with the costume designer (Kiersten Hargroder) pretty intimately trying to figure out clothes that suited each person. The thing that you don’t always think about is that beyond the actors, the costumes are the thing that’s closest to the camera, so it’s really important you get them right. She luckily has a lot of connections and got a lot of favours pulled to bring that wardrobe over. So I really lucked out. She’s just got a great eye for this.

How long was the shooting?

We did pre-production for five weeks and then we shot the movie in twenty days.

Where there lots of rehearsals for the actresses before?

Oh no, there was no time for that.

I’m asking because when I left the screening, I was thinking about the cast. I started singling out great achievements in my mind, but then when I thought about it, I felt it was a brilliant ensemble. They meld so well together. I thought that was a result of an extended rehearsal period.

I think of it also has an ensemble. The girls in the movie, they all just spent a lot of time together. We’were all staying in the same tiny budget motel together and I think that shows on the screen that they kind of form this little group. The girl that plays Hattie, Sophie (Bairley), she’s actually Liana’s best friend and she helped us find her for that role. All these young actresses kind of know each other because they all go audition for the same things and they’re all out and away. Madisen (Beaty) that place Clarissa, she and Liana have known each other for eight years so they have a past.

As always I started thinking about references. To me, the film feels like a cross between The Last Picture Show and Carnival of Souls. The latter maybe because of the pond.

That’s cool. Carnival of Souls I’ve actually never seen. I’ve been meaning to. It’s been on my list forever, but I’ve never seen it. 

That’s what I mean. We just impose things. (laughing)

The Last Picture Show, definitely. Other Bogdanovich films like Paper Moon as well. Dorothea Lang photography, Frankenstein, monster movies. We watched The Master, so that gave me a little bit. There’s even a touch of Edward Scissorhands in there, which also reflects monster films. Kind of all over the place with the influences.

The film has a kind of whimsical feel, but it’s kept in check. Also immensely helped by the score written by Heather McIntosh. It all blends together. The cinematography and the music.

Yeah, she’s a dream. She doesn’t come from a traditional film score environment. I don’t think she studied music in the same way that some composers did. She came up through indie rock in Athens, Georgia, from the indie music scene there.

She is in bands?

She played around. I mean, she plays the cello. She’s in bands, and she just has an intuition about things that you can’t teach.

There’s one thing you talked about yesterday that you made alterations to the scene where the men attack the car. At the end of that sequence, it almost felt like the last scene in The Birds or something. However, that’s a scene where you said you dialed down the melodrama because it’s still pretty dramatic compared to the rest of the film.

Yeah, I heard that before that it’s kind of a totally tonal change. Some of that has to do with the writing. I guess that’s the script.

But you were looking for that tonal change?

Yeah as I said, it’s like our Frankenstein moment. Also, that’s one of the scenes where we ran out of time, and I feel like I didn’t get everything I needed to completely construct the scene the way I wish I could have, but the sun came up so there was nothing we could do and that car kept breaking down. It was like some kind of a nightmare, that was rough. Shooting nights is hard for everyone, but I kinda like the scene. I like the flip.

There are many beautiful moments in that scene, like when Len says “I’m not good enough for you” and you see him through the broken car window. He is also trying his best. Of course, he’s not acting in the right way, but he is still trying. He is in pain, and he doesn’t know how to express that, and it comes out more violently.

He’s married to a woman that he’s not attracted to. And he’s attracted to, it’s unrequited, but he’s attracted to this hairdresser and the fact that it’s like his manhood is being challenged, and it is. It does come from embarrassment and pain. I really think that all of the actors tried to understand humanity and empathy. Noone’s a villain.

It would be easy to make the male characters villains, but I feel you didn’t. The scene feels like it comes from a different film, but it’s your Frankenstein moment, as you said.

Yes, we went there. We’re like: “We’re gonna do it!”

In action films, there is often a second unit in some exotic location. Here though, in the credits, a “pond unit” is listed. Why is that? The pond is almost like a character in the film.

So the pond unit is different because we shot everything else in March, but it was too cold to film the pond. So we had to regroup and come back in June to film there. We had to film all the pond scenes in three days. It was awful. Oh, it was bad. We needed more time. When I look at all the pond scenes, I’m frustrated because I had to throw away my shot list all the time, since we ran out of time.

It still looks cool. The beginning with the clouds, then Iris in the water, and we see through her glasses as I mentioned earlier.

Thank you. Yeah, we hustled. But I think we put pond unit because a lot of different people couldn’t come back, so we had a different crew.

I was really impressed by the film and you took a big cinematic leap from Land Ho!

Thank you, it’s amazing what more money can do. That’s the frustrating thing when you’re an independent filmmaker, and especially when you’re trying to make bigger budget movies like I am right now, they’re like “well, what can she do? Can she handle a fifteen million dollar movie” and I’m like,” did you see what I did with that movie? I made it look twice its budget. So just imagine what I can do with more money,” So that’s the thing. It’s the same with Andy, my cinematographer. The more money he has, the better. It equals more time, better equipment and he can do interesting stuff. I mean he’s a very talented guy.

So there is a new project in the works?

Nothing that has money yet. I have a script I wrote that I’m trying to make. It’s a car movie, so it has a lot of practical car stunts. It’s kind of like a throwback to the old Hal Needham seventies car movies and mixed with seventies sports movies like Slapshot and The Bad News Bears. It’s really a fun project, but those practical car stunts are expensive.

Well, in a way, you practised a little bit with car stunts in this film.

Maybe, but not quite as much as I would like to, but that’s the baby. That’s what I really want to do, but I’m attached to a couple of other things that I didn’t write.

That you would want to do anyway?.

Yeah, it’s an interesting dance.

Many directors have said that one doesn’t make the films one wants to direct, one makes the films one can direct.  

Who said that?

Well, Alain Resnais for example, and many others as well.

That makes sense. Life isn’t long enough to wait for things that may or may not happen. Sometimes you have to take something, knowing that it will hopefully help you get the thing you really want to make.

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