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AFI Women Directors: Meet Stephanie Martin

Interviews
by Kerensa Cadenas
November 14, 2013 9:00 AM
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Wild Horses

Born in Sao Paulo and raised mostly in Buenos Aires, Stephanie discovered her passion for film while at Wellesley College where she studied French and Political Science. Following graduation, Stephanie moved New York where she began as a set lighting technician in independent films before attending the American Film Institute to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree in Cinematography. Adding to a successful career as a Cinematographer, Stephanie recently completed the prestigious Directing Workshop for Women Program at the AFI where she directed her first short film, Wild Horses. Stephanie is currently developing a feature length script based on the short about the plight of wild horses in the Western United States. (Wild Horses Site)

Wild Horses is playing AFI as a part of the Shorts program.

Women and Hollywood: Please give us a description of the film playing at AFI.

Stephanie Martin: Wild Horses tells the story of Mills, a successful photographer, who returns to her native Nevada following an urgent call from her grandmother informing her that a band of wild horses close to their hearts, faces government roundup. Cruelty, courage, love and memory collide as two generations of women bear witness to the brutality common to wild horse roundups in the American West.

WaH: What drew you to this story?

SM: Horses are dearly beloved around the world and especially in my family.

My family history, like the history of the world, is tied to the horse. I grew up riding horses in Argentina. I wanted to draw attention to a serious social issue that simply should not be happening.

Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty inspired me when she said, "If we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt." So I thought how could I best do this?

I co-wrote the script of Wild Horses with my friend and Wellesley roommate Producer Jessica Walsh. Years before, I tried to add my voice to the cause by beginning to shoot a documentary. Life and its responsibilities got in the way and I never finished the film. It ate away at me that these atrocities were taking place and I wasn't doing anything about it. I decided that we needed to write a story that would inform and draw the attention of people who don't regularly follow the issue.

There are many documentaries about the plight of wild horses, but mostly those who are in the know see them. My goal was to reach a wider audience. Also, we chose to pursue a narrative story because we believe in the power of story. When people see our film the beauty of the horses and heartbreak of the round up often overcome them. They are also motivated to act by the actions of our characters. We are going from festival to festival and hopefully, our film will soon be available to be downloaded on iTunes. This is another way to reach a much wider audience. We are writing a feature picking up where we left off in the short. For many years I worked as a cinematographer but I have never felt the sense of fulfillment that I felt when I saw our film impact a live audience. I'm grateful to be given this opportunity to inform the public so please stay tuned.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge?

SM: The challenges were numerous. Surprise, surprise...fundraising! We had to work within the time and budgetary constraints imposed by the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. We faced countless challenges during the course of our production but our biggest challenge was: working with an unknown and unpredictable factor, horses. I'll be more specific, 45 horses with a helicopter hovering 50 feet above their heads and ensuring that no horses or cast and crew were hurt during filming...with practically no rehearsal time. The most important thing was that no horses be harmed during the making of our film. Cutting corners where safety is a concern was not an option. Early on, we contacted The American Humane Association and worked very closely with them. We had three American Humane Reps on site to ensure the horses' well-being. Those folks really know their stuff. We were very fortunate to have on our team three-time Academy honoree, cinematographer Robert Richardson, National Geographic photographer Melissa Farlow, and as our lead, Mireille Enos of The Killing, legendary horse trainer Rex Harrison,hHelicopter pilot extraordinaire Rick Schuster, and 1st AD Bettina Godi. It was a huge undertaking and none of it would have happened without their commitment and hard work. One of the rewarding aspects of making the film was that the members of the crew became convinced of the justice of our cause.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SM: My advice is to always do your best work. Let your gender inform your work but don't make it about your gender. When possible, give women opportunities. I am a firm believer in hiring the best person for the job. But if you need to choose between two equally competent individuals and one happens to be a woman, give the woman the job. We need to set examples by doing.

WaH: What are the biggest challenges and or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

SM: Many new distribution platforms are still on a trial phase. Time will tell which platforms are most successful. It's interesting that now-a-days, films are released On Demand or on line even before the big screens. For the independent filmmaker it's always good to have multiple opportunities for distribution. I still prefer watching movies on a big screen. There's nothing like losing yourself in the cinema. I like to sit in the back of the theater and watch the audience. I loved sitting in the back of the movie theater at the premiere of Wild Horses and seeing the audience lean forward and hearing them sigh audibly. It was a thrilling moment that I hope to repeat with every film that I make. That said the younger generation is watching films on their computers or on their phones for that matter. Not my favorite thing to do, but it does mean that films are more readily available to everyone and that's great.

WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

SM: In order to come up with this, I went through the list of my favorite films. One of my favourites is The Piano. It's a haunting film that has lived in my memory for a long, long time. I also like a film that I saw at Sundance years ago called Stander, directed by Bronwen Hughes. It's a great heist film based on the life of a real person. Other films that come to mind are Mansfield Park by Patricia Rozema and Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola.

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