“Just Make Stuff.” – Advice from Director Jessica Kaye

| March 22, 2016

Jessica Kaye’s USC thesis short film Angel envelopes the watcher in a hazy world of spirits, sex, and the sometimes sadistic nature of female relationships. In this interview, Jessica discusses constructing the layered world of her story, where she finds filmmaking inspiration, and the best things she learned while attending film school at USC.

Jessica Kaye

PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Gokhale and Emma Pendry-Aber

Where did the inspiration for the story Angel originate?

I had two best girlfriends from third to eighth grade. We loved playing Ouija and talking about spirits and things magical and scary. The way their friendship shaped me was something I wanted to write about for a long time, and I wondered what could be a compelling event involving our dynamic that could take place in the short time of a short film. I thought of a Ouija game that goes awry and then I wrote it!

The dialogue contains a lot of subtext, back story hidden between the lines. How did you find that balance between revealing just enough to keep the audience engaged without giving away too much?

I really enjoy storytelling that feels layered, that feels lived in, like the people and the situation could go on forever, without me there; like I have just peaked into another world. I also enjoy creating those worlds and then what the characters say and do are manifestations of many layers of history and psychology that I have kind of been swimming in in my imagination for awhile. So, I would say, that balance comes just from instinct, from picking out just enough for me to even know what’s going on. I’m not sure if that makes sense, it’s hard to explain!

Caption: Laura Seay and Megan Campanile as Angela and Deanne Photo by: David Beier

Laura Seay and Megan Campanile as Angela and Deanne PHOTO CREDIT: David Beier

How did you develop the aesthetic of the set?

I started trying to tap into what I wanted the world of the film to feel like. From there, I pulled images from photography, and other images from the internet. I worked with my amazing DP Mike Gioulakis to come up with more photography references – he actually introduced me to the photographer Gregory Crewdson, who was and continues to be a huge inspiration for me. I put together Pinterest pages for the film. I then started to work with the whole art team, the talented production designer Todd Jeffery, the costume designer Cami Viand and the make-up artist Yusuke Tateishi to put my ideas and the mood I wanted to create into actual materials. I was then gifted with Mike’s genius lighting to create an overall aesthetic that was both very real, but also haunting. We also built the set so we have even more control and creativity in the creation of the environment. I really like how the naturalism was tinged with an element of the uncanny with its specificity and details.

At what point did influences of the Victoria Era and spiritualism enter into the story for you?

The original premise of the story was three girls playing a Ouija game that goes awry, so the spiritualism aspect was there from the beginning. The dolls in the background were a more organic outgrowth of the character of Angela. I just thought this room should be the room of someone who still has childhood all around her, but who is no longer a child, who is emerging, with much confusion, into adulthood. And childhood, when you are no longer inside of it, can feel sort of haunting to recall – it’s definitely over, but the experiences we have there imprint us with our identities, we are formed so very much in our childhood and that idea is intense and magical, and also possibly frightening. Those dolls, like her childhood, are also relics of a past, not only the past of her childhood, but also they are antiques. They are also signifiers of life, but they have never had life, they have never been alive – dolls always feel uncanny because you expect or desire them to be animated, but they have always never had life in them. They are these replicas of bodies with no life…

DP Mike Gioulakis Photo by: Gil Marsden

DP Mike Gioulakis PHOTO CREDIT: Gil Marsden

This is a heavy story about death, grief, bullying, adolescence, and female relationships. What was the mood like on set?

It was important to me to have a set that was quiet and calm so that the actors could live inside their characters, so that they would have a space that was safe and ready for deep and sometimes frightening creativity. I made sure we had a lot of time to work through the scenes so we never felt rushed or pressured. We did very very long takes, especially at the beginning so as to allow the environment to sink in for both the cast and the crew. It’s important that the entire team is involved in creating the environment on the set because it’s translated directly into the story. And I just try to keep the set warm, happy, inviting, and calm. We laughed and joked around and then, when we were shooting, everyone was very respectful and focused – my ideal!

Laura Seay takes a moment. Photo by: Sarah Gokhale and Emma Pendry-Aber

Laura Seay takes a moment. PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Gokhale and Emma Pendry-Aber

Director Jessica Kaye, Laura Seay and Megan Campanile Photo by: Gil Marsden

Director Jessica Kaye, Laura Seay and Megan Campanile
PHOTO CREDIT: Gil Marsden

What was casting like? Do you have any stories from the audition process? How did you know when you’d found your three lead actresses?

We cast through LA Casting and Breakdown services. We held auditions and it just became clear that Megan, Laura and Madison were the characters. Laura actually came in for Deanne, but I could tell that there was a darkness there and a kind of humor and awkwardness to her beauty that I thought was perfect for Angela. Megan had this strong physical presence that felt so right for Deanne. She actually had dark red hair when we cast her! After noticing that Madison and Laura had almost the same hair, I asked Megan to dye her hair blonde, so that the three girls would almost look the same. I was so excited by how it turned out – and she has kept the color! And Madison had this honesty and this kind of gentle timidity in her audition that was perfect for Sarah.

Actresses Megan Campanile, Laura Seay, and Madison West Gill during filming Photo by: Gil Marsden

Actresses Megan Campanile, Laura Seay, and Madison West Gill during filming
PHOTO CREDIT: Gil Marsden

Describe the moment that you decided to pursue film as a passion and a career.

I have been an actress for a long time, and was drawn to that since I was a child. Somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew I would direct. I thought only a film or two or something. I had no idea it would become such a dominant part of my creative life. I was in South Africa in 2008 acting in a short film I was producing. I had a lot of time on my own, and I had brought with me some books on directing. As I was sitting there, reading the books, something felt so exciting and so fulfilling to me about the idea and the process of directing, that I needed to go towards that. I just felt it would use all of me in a way that acting alone didn’t quite satisfy. I am still an actress, and love acting very much, but writing and directing fill out my creativity in a way that is endlessly satisfying and exciting to me.

Who/What was most influential in your first filmmaking steps and why?

I would say when Linda Brown accepted me at USC and the school gave me two scholarships right off the bat, I was validated in a way that made me see that maybe I did have a voice, that maybe making films was something I could do. I had always known I was an actress, but writing and directing was very uncharted territory for me and I had no idea if I had any ability. Getting that support and validation from such a respected film school meant a lot to me.

Who/What do you consider your greatest artistic influences?

Wow. This is a tough question. There are so many influences, and they keep coming! If I start really young I could say, my grandmother adored art museums, so I spent time in them as a kid. I would be so bored until one trip to New York with my mother when I was 12 or 13. We went to see an exhibit of Paul Klee at the Guggenheim I think, and suddenly, it all made sense, I was so inspired, and so turned on to the worlds the images created in me. I have loved visual art since. I also went to a strange, music oriented pre-school. We learned piano at a young age, and I would hear our teacher Hestia playing amazing piano pieces by Beethoven and Bach. In terms of filmmakers, Tarkovsky made me understand that film could be poetry, that it can touch aspects of life that go beyond narrative. I never knew film could do that before I saw his films. More recently, I have really been inspired by the filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Her film Fish Tank is so intimate and truthful and raw with a great young female protagonist. I am very influenced by her subtlety and how personally she connects with her characters.

Directed by POSTER DESIGN: Creative Partnership

Directed by Andrea Arnold   POSTER DESIGN: Creative Partnership

What advice would you have for a young filmmaker looking to start out in the industry?

Kind of what they all say: just make stuff. Start making things. Use your iPhone camera, use whatever you have. Find friends who want to make things with you, and collaborate, just do it. Even small little things. As you keep making things, you will start to learn and feel not only what kinds of things you want to make and what kinds of stories you want to tell, but what part of the filmmaking process you like the most and is best suited for you. There are so many moving parts in making films and it’s good to explore to find what is the right fit for you, what feels the most satisfying and the most fun.

Tell me about your perspective on the short film format. Why do you think it’s important?

It’s a really great way to practice storytelling. You have to be so much more careful in a short because its limited length doesn’t allow any added fluff. It’s really important to learn how to tell a story concisely and precisely. It’s also important as a calling card for new filmmakers. It takes less time, it costs less money, it’s how to practice your craft and work it until you are ready for more time, and more money. If this makes sense. A good short film is actually really hard to make, like a good short story.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what other profession would you pursue?

I’m obsessed with art, so it’s hard to say anything other than somewhere doing something with the arts… but perhaps something in a healing profession?

Are there any professors who have played an important part in your professional development?

At Harvard, Claire Mallardi, my dance teacher, was a source of much inspiration. My faculty adviser and French literature professor Tom Conley, and a professor of cultural theory Verena Conley, were also influential. At Columbia, the voice teacher Kristin Linklater changed my life. Niky Wolcz seeped me in the absurdist world of the Dadaists and the profound explorations of the Russian playwrights. At USC, the support of Linda Brown, Doe Meyer, Brenda Goodman, John Watson, Richard Burton, and Mark Harris was invaluable to me.

Best thing you took away from film school?

That you can and should watch films during the day. Seriously, being surrounded by film and filmmaking 24/7 and being imbued with the knowledge and respect for film and filmmaking as a career, as a valid and meaningful thing to do with your life was life changing, and very exciting to me.

Read more about Jessica Kaye.

Read about Jessica Kaye’s favorite films.

Watch Angel on YouTube.

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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