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Interview - Victoria Mahoney: 'Yelling to the Sky' Part 1

Interviews
by Tambay A. Obenson
December 10, 2012 1:38 PM
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Still From 'Yelling To The Sky'

With Victoria Mahoney's impressive feature film debut, Yelling To The Sky, making its theatrical debut in New York this Friday, December 14th, an S&A interview with the director is a given; however, instead of interviewing her all over again, I thought I'd re-post this interview she gave to us in March 2011 - an interview that Stephanie handled (on the old S&A site), and did so incredibly well that I felt I couldn't have really done much better, and thus decided to instead repost it.

It's a really good piece that covers a lot of ground - so much that we had to split it up into 3 separate parts/posts. So please take the time to read through it (I know a lot of you weren't S&A readers in March 2011, given how much the site has grown since then; so you most likely haven't read it). Get to know not only the film, but the filmmaker from whose mind it originated.

As we did in 2011, I'll repost each of the 3 parts over the next 3 days - starting today, with part 2 tomorrow, and the last part on Wednesday.

And on Thursday, look for our interview with the star of the film Zoe Kravitz.

Here's part one of Stephanie's interview with Victoria, which was done as the film was about to make its USA premiere at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival:

Victoria Mahoney

It’s been a busy week for filmmakers, musicians, and artists from all over the world who have glided into Austin, Texas this past week for the SXSW festival. The attraction to SXSW is palpable for exhibitioners and festival-goers alike. 

There they find good weather, southern cuisine, diverse and avant-garde expressions of art, and an infectious energy that encompasses and seduces everyone.  This is no less true for director and writer Victoria Mahoney, who has shown her film at the festival a few times already, and will finish up her North American premiere tonight.

Her recent tweets have been filled with vivid excitement for all she has seen and done in Austin, it’s as if it were her new playground.

It was in the backroom of the filmmaker’s lounge at The Hideout earlier this week that two cell phones connected Victoria in Austin and me in Chicago. We chatted not only about Yelling to the Sky, but we also talked about the film industry, giving back, building relationships, and staying inspired.

It might be that because she’s a lover of Shadow and Act that she generously dedicated nearly an hour to answer my questions. But more so, I think, it’s this deep passion — for life, for film, for the world and the human condition that keeps it interesting — which lies very near the surface of her personality, that allowed her to open the flood gates and let me catch the mist.

Because of the expansiveness of our conversation I’ve split the interview into three parts, the first of which follows.

Beginnings

If you look at Victoria Mahoney’s IMDb credits you’ll notice a long history of acting jobs. Somewhere in there, perhaps all the way back to the beginning, she developed Yelling to the Sky, or at least the idea of it. It wasn’t until she enrolled in the Sundance Institute filmmakers labs that she paved a road between concept and cinematic execution for Yelling to the Sky.

VM: I probably switched gears [from acting to filmmaking] sometime in 2006 when I got accepted to the Sundance Institute lab. There was basically a year where we go to the labs. And so you get invited to one, and then you apply, and they invite you for a stretch of time. It stretches for almost a year and in that year I put my focus purely and solely on filmmaking.

I asked her if switching gears from acting to filmmaking was a conscious decision.

VM: It wasn’t really conscious in the way that I said I was going to stop acting. It was conscious in a way that I said I’m going to put every part of my soul into filmmaking and just getting this film off the ground.

SJ: When you started acting was filmmaking an ultimate goal of yours?

VM: Actually it turns out that most of the characteristics, whatever characteristics I possess for filmmaking, I’ve had, I think, since fours years old.  So it’s just really that there’s a place for my makeup, whatever it is about me, the way my brain works, how I process information or whatever,--how it jumps from the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere of the brain--, it just works for me. And it turns out that a lot of the way I think on a day to day basis functions well on a film set. It’s not that functional in day to day life, as it turns out [laughs]. Ya know.

And these traits were developed early in life. When Victoria was a young child she built, what she describes as, “villages” and “whole neighborhoods” in her Aunt’s backyard. She’d imagine families and shop owners, and all of the components that made a town. She was, in essence, building a visual world.

SJ: So do you think that filmmaking is linked to this ability to build a world visually?

VM: I don’t know, ‘cause I can’t speak for anyone else. But I know for me that everything that I do on a film set I’ve been doing since I was a kid. So my interest, and instinct—while people were playing with dolls, I was in the backyard building this village. Now that’s not special, or it doesn’t make me special, it’s just that that’s what I was doing. And I didn’t know that anybody else wasn’t doing that, it wasn’t unique, that’s just how it worked for me. That was my joy place, to be able to [create] invisible people, telling stories, makin’ up shit. And then [now] it’s the same, the way I stand and where I put a camera, what’s interesting to me, I didn’t know that other people aren’t standing in the same place, or that there’s a conventional place to stand, or an unconventional place to stand. And it happens that I seem to organically stand in an unconventional place, or to put a camera. I didn’t know that that was unique, I just—that was just natural.

SJ: Let’s talk about Yelling to the Sky; when did you conceive the idea for this story? Did it happen sometime around the Sundance lab, or is this something you’ve been working on for years?

VM: Oh, this is something I started many, many, many years ago, a long time ago. And when I started it was basically like a sonnet. I didn’t know what I was doing, and there was no slug line, it was just a story--I was just interested in telling a story. And I had to learn how to write a screenplay, and then it just kept going from there. It was the first screenplay I ever wrote, and then I just kept writing scripts, and I wrote up some pilots, and then I ghosted a couple of scripts for other people. And then I was really in love with this [Yelling to the Sky], and there was another script, the second film that I’m doing which is in pre-pro right now, it’s called Chalk. I wrote that one, and there was a point when I wasn’t sure which one would go first, Yelling to the Sky or Chalk And then I just felt like the whole thing, your first film, it’s really your thumb print and it’s forever. And Yelling to the Sky was always, always it for me. It started a long time ago, and people will tell you that everyone thought I was crazy, thought it was never going to get made, and people tried to talk me into another career, acting, or do something else. But it was never a question, never ever, I didn’t care if I was ninety, I was going to keep trying.

Yelling to the Sky

Obviously Yelling to the Sky is like her first born, it’s that one film that every writer and director can’t give up on, even if they have to sacrifice everything else. We dug into the behind-the-scenes stories, the foundations from which this film emerged. We started with location, and the importance of markers and reaching international audiences.

SJ: You chose Queens, New York as the location of the film, and I read some reviews, and it sounds like Queens is not necessarily in the forefront—it’s not like you stamped it with QUEENS. But it’s kind of a broad, New York, inner-city setting. Is that what you were going for?

VM: I wanted to bring the environment to the forefront, to the events that occur in this environment. But the actual name of the town I didn’t think needed any focus or celebration in the way I think Run DMC has given Hollis [Queens] a lot of love. So it’s not going to hurt if I don’t leave “Hollis” in the film. But I wanted to include people who live in Idaho, or Virginia, or anywhere else. So once we know it’s New York, we know it’s New York, we don’t need markers. I didn’t want to put any markers that excluded people from the film that already had these perceived markers of exclusion. So there were already these things with people, in (especially) corporate industry, who feel “well I don’t identify with that”, or “I don’t identify with a she”, or “I don’t identify to a mixed race this”… So we didn’t need to set any more barometers. But most importantly the events of this story occur everywhere, so it was crucial for [me] and my team to keep it macro. There was no reason to make it micro, because I’ve been all up and down this land and this shits going down everywhere.

SJ: I think that American films could use more broad American settings so those people in, like you said, Idaho and other places where they don’t have exposure to “the big city”.

VM: And I think the teenagerswe did a screening for 14 to 18 year olds in Berlin that was really, really mystical and right on. And we are 99.9% certain that the reason they identified with it is because it didn’t have any heavy markers, and they could place themselves into the environment.

Casting

SJ: So, now getting down to the casting. I saw your SXSW interview with IFC, and you mentioned that you’d seen over 200 actresses for the part of Sweetness, and narrowed that down to around 40; what was it about Zöe Kravitz that made you go “This is the one.”?

VM: Well, she came in and the interview lasted for a few hours. And it was this mixture of the person living the question…so it wasn’t a twenty-five year old going back to a point and recalling it. A lot of what’s occurring for this character, for this human being, is living in the question. Zöe was 19 when we found her, so there were things that she was asking and was curious about, and wondering, and resolving, and debating, and torn by in her own life. There were things that she was discovering at that moment. [So] then that’s one thing. And the other thing was that she was so incredibly powerful, and ready and willing to go to the farthest, farthest place within herself. And that’s the component we needed all throughout. I needed that with the DP, I needed that with production designer, [and] I needed that with the editor. With this film, shooting this film in eighteen days with two takes maximum, everybody had to come for their own reason. They couldn’t come because they wanted to please anyone outside of themselves,—family, or lovers, or anything,—they had to come because there was a question they were living that they needed answered for themselves. So she had that, and that was the difference.

SJ: And I noticed, too, that you two have a good rapport—you’re kind of kindred spirits; did that play a part in you casting her for that role?

VM: I feel like if someone is competent, and they’re professional, and they’re disciplined, and they know their job, (which is all they need to excel), then that’s all. Now, that her [Zöe] and I ended up being kindred spirits, as you say, is true and I think that’s just that I can recognize in her a hunger. And she’s no different from the people, as I was talking about earlier, that I work with, that once I saw her willingness to grow and expand and how far she was willing to go to figure out with what she’s made of, I’m in love with that. I don’t care who it is. So that’s what was kindred more than anything, is that we—she and I—don’t live by artistic boundaries at all.

SJ: And speaking about the rest of the cast; how’d you end up with this eclectic mix? I mean, you have Zöe Kravitz, but also Tim Blake Nelson, Tariq Trotter, and Yolonda Ross; how did you get these people together? Did you set out to bring names in like Tariq Trotter?

VM: I set out for the most authentic person for that role [Trotter’s “Roland”]. I didn’t care where I found them. And then Tariq heard about the film, and pursued it, and then once I met him—his audition was so goddamn good. When he came in he had gear, he had gear on him, he came ready—he wasn’t playing. He was so full form and ready for this. And the character meant something for him personally, that resonated, so he wasn’t playing and he didn’t miss a beat. His heart was in it 5000% and I think that’s the same for everyone. People came with their talent not hidden from themselves or from me. And they came with the willingness to participate, not hidden from themselves or from me.  And so, then it becomes obvious when people walk in a room like that and saying that “I want to be here and I don’t want to be anywhere else.” You know, what else is there? And that ran through every single person in the cast, it was just a great balance of I wanted them, and they wanted to be there.

SJ: How does that make you feel, that you have these incredible actors, just this immense talent, and they’re ready and hungry for your idea and your story? Is there a sense of gratification?

VM: It’s not the sort of gratification in the way that “that’s nice”—and that’s part of it—but what’s really special is this balance…That’s pretty amazing. It doesn’t get better than that, to take a walk with someone, and have an experience where at the end of it you both say “I learned, I grew, thank you for sharing.”

Come back tomorrow (Tuesday) for part two, and then Wednesday for part three of the interview with Victoria Mahoney.

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