Sophie Max, writer and actress of the film Callie, currently in production, is passionate about telling young women’s stories from their own point of view. She sat down with Callie director Jessica Fornear to discuss their process on the film, working with female filmmakers, and why they believe that this film is so important now.
SM: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I guess I’d like to start with
how you first fell in love with filmmaking?
JF: I am from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I grew up learning to sing, dance, and act. I was accepted to the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts and moved to NYC at the end of 2014. I graduated in 2016 with an associate’s degree in theatre, film, and television, so I suppose I fell in love with film gradually through school! What about you?
SM: I grew up in London. My first love was actually theatre, specifically Shakespeare, while my brother was interested in making movies. I acted in his short films growing up, which was fun, but I didn’t seriously fall in love until later, when we had our first on camera class at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts where I trained. I think my love of film came when I realized that it had the potential to tell diverse, deeply human stories in such a subtle, real way. I’m really excited to be doing this at a time when we are starting to make these changes to be more inclusive of diverse stories in cinema; all these stories deserve to be told.
JF: Sophie, what inspired you to write Callie and what is your process as a writer?
SM: I wrote the script for Callie a year and a half ago, when one night I was going to bed and I literally saw the first three scenes play in my mind. I have no idea where it came from, but I knew it was something special, so I jumped up and wrote it down. The first draft was finished in about two days. Once I get an idea or structure, I like to just write and write to get a flow, and then distance myself from it for a week or two before going back in to edit. It’s so important to me to not analyze too much as I write. It hinders my creative process.
JF: That’s so interesting! What was your process for getting the film made and how did you assemble the team?
SM: Well, once it was finished, I knew it had the potential to be a really beautiful movie, and after you directed me in Health Nut Forever with Cinema Scape Studios, it felt like the right people to send the script to and luckily they were all super excited about it! The story is so deep-rooted in the young woman’s experience that I knew I had to get a majority female team involved and I’m really happy that I found that in you, Jess, because you’ve brought such a strong passion and vision to it, as well as Fay playing Jenn, Diana who is one of our producers, and Karya who will be writing our music. It’s wonderful to work on a film with women not only in the lead roles but in the forefront of every major behind the camera job.
JF: How would you describe what the film is about? What do you want the audience to take away from it?
SM: For me, Callie is about friendship. I really want the audience to leave with a sense of nostalgia and hope…and a consideration that moments are special, and no matter how long someone is in your life for, they can still have a huge impact and that impact is valid. I want to create conversation and compassion around mental health… Callie is full of communication barriers and unnoticed warning signs. I also wanted to tell a dynamic story about two young women. It is so rare that young female characters are complex and nuanced…
JF: For sure. I believe it is about the strength of a friendship and the trust they have in each other. It shows the development of a friendship and then the abrupt destruction, making you think, were they really even friends at all? It is all tangled in secrets and missed signs.
SM: I love how you describe that. When did you become interested in directing and what drew you to this particular project?
JF: I became interested in directing not too long ago; I was urged to try my hand at it by some very supportive friends. After I cast you as my villain in Health Nut Forever, our relationship grew from there. When you sent me the script, I was hooked. I was thrilled that you shared your story with me and asked me to be the director! I am honored that you trust me with your vision because this project means so much to you. And being able to direct with an amazing cast and crew of women was just the icing on top of the cake!
SM: Thank you! It’s so nice to be able to assemble a team of people I have built trusting relationships with to work on this extremely personal film. And you always manage to get such honest, raw performances from your actors. I’d love to hear more about your process as a director and how you work with actors?
JF: With this cast, I went over with them my general ideas of what the scene is about and where we would like to feel when I call ‘Cut.’ There is not much dialogue, so it was important that all of the emotions come from deep within to solidify the story. I always give my actors a few seconds just to breathe before I call ‘Action’ to allow them to focus themselves and truly find their character.
SM: Yes, that’s been amazing. You have focused on finding the moment of discovery in the scene and that has helped us convey so much with so little dialogue. I love working with directors who really understand the actor’s process that deeply. There are some highly emotional scenes in this film, and I really appreciate how respectful you have been with that; always clearly articulating what you wanted to see, giving us a moment to prep and creating a really safe environment to explore those emotions.
JF: Thank you! Now, what is it like for you being both actress and writer on a film? I know it means a lot to you. I’d love to hear more about your process as an actor and if it changed at all because it is your script?
SM: Yes! It’s incredible to have this thing that was only in my head and on the page suddenly live and breathe. The filming process has been incredibly emotional for me and playing Callie is one of the most treasured roles of my career so far. I have tried not to change my process as an actor at all…when I’m working on my character I kind of ‘change hats’ so to speak and turn off my writer brain… If anything, the fact that I wrote it made my acting process easier, since I already know Callie so well- she is ‘in’ me, so to speak! So, Jess, what are your visual ideas for the film and how do you want it to affect the audience?
JF: I am seeking for this film to affect the audience on a psychological and emotional level. It’s all in the subtleties and simplicity. I want the audience to feel like they know these girls, to know their closeness, and then come away with the different types of pain they experience. This film does explore some painful themes. I’m interested in what drew you to explore these themes and why you feel like this is an important story to tell.
SM: I think it’s so important to tell women’s stories in their own right because they deserve to be told and it has taken way too long for them to be seen as equally valid both artistically and commercially. It is so important to tell stories that explore mental health in an honest way—without judgement or stereotype. It is obvious that there is a need for these stories and I hope that the film will inspire conversation among audiences. For me growing up, I would have loved to be able to watch movies with female leads and have an open discussion about these themes which are so often swept under the rug. I hope that this film can tell the story of these women in a way that is relatable and not stereotypical. That was definitely one of my biggest challenges when writing this script. What do you think the biggest challenge has been in the filming process?
JF: There have been challenges with making this film happen, the most difficult being finding locations. However, we are blessed with generous people around New York City that have helped us bring this film to life. But simply seeing this film come together and having a hand in it is extraordinarily rewarding! As we have worked it has brought so much joy to all of us and I feel empowered and inspired to do that for other women. Knowing we are the change we wish to see in the world is quite satisfying.
SM: I love that! It is definitely such an empowering feeling, walking on to set and working with so many women on a film that we all care so deeply about. My favourite moment was when we filmed the first scene between Jenn and Callie—the scene where they meet. We were outside and it was absolutely freezing, but I couldn’t stop smiling! It was like all of my dreams were coming together into reality… and acting opposite Fay, who plays Jenn is always an absolute gift. She’s such a nuanced, present actor. I’m so excited for the future of this film.
JF: Yes! We will wrap filming in the next week and send it off to the editing room.
SM: Then it’s time for the film festival submission process!
JF: And hopefully it will be distributed and on screens later this year or in 2019!
SM: Yes! I can’t wait to see how audiences react to the film. Now, I love #DirectedbyWomen because I am passionate about highlighting the work of great female directors. Jess, why do you think it is important to have more female directors and whose work are you excited about right now?
JF: I think it is important to have more female directors because we have a different perspective to share with the world. We give voices to all of the women who feel they do not have them. We represent and show humanity exactly what it means to be human. I am very excited about Josie Rourke directing Mary, Queen of Scots, Chloé Zhao directing The Rider, and Elizabeth Chomko directing What They Had, as well as many others. Film is important, because it gives us the ability to reflect on the past, understand the present, and see into the future. The future is female.
SM: Yes!! One of my biggest inspirations ever is Greta Gerwig. I absolutely love her acting work and, of course, Lady Bird. She both writes and acts from her heart and her characters come across as real, recognisable women. I saw Lady Bird in theaters twice and every single person walked out reminiscing on their own teenage years, on their dreams, on their relationship with their parents…it just created this really powerful sense of community. I also love Reed Morano, Rachel Morrison (not a director, I know, but such a history-making cinematographer!) and Dee Rees. Personally I am really inspired by women filmmakers I know, like you, Jess…I love it when women in film support each other, guide each other and give us opportunities…it’s so important to stand together. We all have stories that need to be told. I am so proud to call myself a female filmmaker. And I’m so grateful to #DirectedbyWomen for sharing our stories and promoting our work!