SJ Chiro: Accessing Memory to Reveal a Hidden Story
#DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary connected recently with filmmaker SJ Chiro to discuss the creation of her feature film Lane 1974, based on Clane Hayward’s memoir The Hypocrisy of Disco. The film, which lucidly explores 13-year-old Lane’s attempts to navigate the precarious counter culture world in which she lives, took nine years to come to fruition. It turned out that the timing was perfect.
DBW: Thanks so much for taking time to be part of the #DirectedbyWomen Conversation Series.
SJC: This is great! I can’t wait to get into all of it!
DBW: I’m excited to talk with you about your new film Lane 1974. It’s about to hit theaters this month. Let’s start with where it will be playing and then circle back to talk about the film itself.
SJC: We start our run in Bellingham at the Pickford Film Center. That starts this Friday September 8 and will run through the 14th. Lane 1974 producer Jennessa West will be there as will our young star Sophia Mitri Schloss. From there we head to the Northwest Film Forum, the great organization that was with us from the beginning as a fiscal sponsor from September 14-20. Artistic Director Courtney Sheehan was at SXSW, came to the premiere and loved it. I’m so honored that she programmed it at her theater for a run! And September 22-28 we will screen at SIFF Film Center.
DBW: Great. It’s exciting to have the Northwest Film Forum backing you. It’s great to have that kind of support. Filmmaking can feel very isolating sometimes during the long years of trying to put together financing and bringing cast and crew together. To be able to bring the film to your community feels life affirming.
SJC: So much. It really means a lot to have the support of so many people and the recognition that this film was not only directed by a woman, but produced by two women, focuses on female characters, was designed by two women and was edited by a woman too. Katherine Moennig commented on the set that it was so great to be surrounded by so many women. It’s uncommon for female actresses to experience that.
DBW: Yes. That’s exciting. Let’s have more of that!
SJC: We were very lucky to have a lot of community support. You’re right, when you’re struggling in the trenches trying to get a film off the ground, sometimes it can feel a bit lonely, but I’m thankful that every time I looked up someone was there to smile and offer an encouraging word. It really helps.
DBW: I love that the run begins during the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party.
SJC: The Directed by Women viewing party is so GREAT!
DBW: Thanks. I’m glad the party resonates with you! Sophia gives a tremendous performance in the film.
SJC: Regarding Sophia, thank you for mentioning her performance. She is an absolutely astonishing young actress.
DBW: What a compelling presence on screen—and at such a young age. Let’s talk about Sophia’s performance.
SJC: She is exactly the kind of actress I adore. She loves to really dig in – into the story, into the time period. She knew that this world and this time were far from her own experience and that a lot of research would be necessary. She read the book (The Hypocrisy of Disco, by Clane Hayward) numerous times.
DBW: For people who don’t know… how old was Sophia when you shot the film?
SJC: She was 12 years old.
DBW: So she was really into research… at 12. Excellent.
SJC: She organized her script in a three ring binder and filled it with copious notes. She loved it when I pointed her to videos about or of the era, or when she and I would have long discussions about the time period and what it was like for me growing up in a similar circumstance during the time.
DBW: So the film takes place in 1974 long before she was born. And her character is living in unsettled situations as her mother explores the counterculture.
DBW: And the film is based on a book but you yourself come from a similar upbringing.
SJC: Yes, we even shot on the two communes I grew up on in Northern California.
DBW: I hadn’t realized that. Was it emotionally challenging for you to create in those locations?
SJC: It’s interesting because the story comes from Clane’s personal experience as detailed in her book, but many of the details come from my memory. The character of Lane is a combination of both Clane and me, but she isn’t really either one of us. She became her own person inhabited by Sophia. I went back home many times to scout the land. There was a certain amount of personal emotional territory I had to excavate while making this film. I also kept my mind on the work and didn’t want to get swept away by emotion while I was scouting with my crew, but one time, I remembered an old house we lived in down in the canyon, and for some reason I had to go down there – I think I had to find the person who currently lived there to ask them to move their car for the shoot. As I scrambled down that overgrown mountain to the house, I was suddenly and totally unexpectedly overwhelmed with memories and feelings. I had to sit down and just sob for a bit. That really took me by surprise.
DBW: Place holds powerful energy.
SJC: It certainly does. That’s why I knew, although it was a big hassle and costly, I knew I had to shoot the film on that land. It was really important to me. I’m so glad my producer Jennessa West understood this and was willing to make it happen.
DBW: The locations and the production design were so clear. I felt like I’d been transported back to the early 70s. I’ve been thinking about timing. I think you were working on getting the chance to make this film a reality for many years… and yet the timing ultimately could not have been better, because Sophia was available and the right age to portray this character now. If you’d managed to push forward at an earlier time the film would have been much different.
SJC: About timing – yes, I knew the moment I read Clane’s book this would be my way in to talk about what it was to be a girl growing up in this time and place. That was 2008. I had the first draft of the screenplay ready in 2010. In 2012 producer Mel Eslyn came on board. This was just as her career was taking off and she was spending more and more time in L.A. David Morgan came on to help produce and worked on the film for a year before life changes took him off the project, and in 2014 Jennessa West came on board and Mel moved to an EP position. That’s when we really began fundraising in earnest. Meanwhile I was always thinking about the project, both artistically and from a practical point of view.
I met Sophia at a party when she was 10. As it turns out, her father and I share an alma mater (Bennington College) and we were there to meet the new president. Never one to shy from an opportunity, I made an announcement about the film and fund raising for the film. Sophia’s parents introduced us and told me their daughter was an actress. I loved her, but she was really too young for the role. And she had braces at that time. Little did I know that two years later when we were casting in earnest with Amey Renee Casting, after looking at so many young actresses in Los Angeles, we would come back to Sophia who was in our own back yard and she was perfect. I feel so lucky to have partnered with her. She is in every single scene. She carries the film. It was essential to have an actress the caliber of Sophia in this role.
DBW: And of course you were creating a series of short films during that time. It would be great to hear about how those filmmaking experiences impacted your process when you finally had a chance to make this feature.
SJC: You are right. I was creating a series of short films. In many ways, every film was leading up to making this feature. Every film but two features a child.
DBW: I hadn’t realized that. Yeah… you were gearing up.
SJC: Even my first film, Little Red Riding Hood, features a young girl in the woods! And that film was done in 2006, before I’d even read Clane’s book.
DBW: It’ll be interesting to see where you turn your attention next now that you’ve had a chance to create this feature. Perhaps you’ll explore completely new territory.
SJC: Yes. I was thinking about that too.
DBW: Something I’ve been curious about is if the process of making Lane 1974 has altered your relationship to your own past.
SJC: This was a project that had to come first. It’s so odd to finally have done it! Of course I had to go back deep, deep into my past for this project, which was interesting because as I was forming my own identity in my twenties and thirties, I’d spent quite a bit of time distancing myself from my childhood and all it entailed. It was a lot of work to uncover and dig deep and face things I had not wanted to face for many years. But in the end, after the film was made, I was astonished to visit home and feel no more ghosts. I had dug so deep, and aired so much out, and looked at things from so many different angles, it really ended up purging some unrest from my heart.
Katherine Moennig as Hallelujah and Sophia Mitri Schloss as Lane in Lane 1974 dir. SJ Chiro Photo Credit Sebastien Scandiuzzi
Sophia Mitri Schloss as Lane and Katherine Moennig as Hallelujah in Lane 1974 dir. SJ Chiro, Photo Credit Sebastien Scandiuzzi
DBW: It’s a little like raising a child… and then having the empty nest syndrome.
SJC: It’s funny you mention empty nest – when my son went to college I never felt a moment of sadness or emptiness or regret or longing. I was so happy for him that he was off fulfilling his life and his dreams and his goals. And strangely, I feel the same way about this film. I never experienced that postpartum depression that some filmmakers feel upon completing a film. I felt elated and was eager for this little bird to fly out into the world and live her life!
DBW: I’m happy to hear that because I feel like works of art do move out into the world to realize their full potential…. and when we’re elated for them it is a very satisfying feeling.
SJC: I felt so happy that she was alive, and that she was about to go out into the world and meet so many new people and that people would be able to listen to her and hear her story, and maybe be affected by her story. I also felt such a deep pride in all the artists that came together to allow her story to be told. I think I’m very lucky in that I live and work in a community of artists and that we all had the feeling once this work was completed that we would see each other soon on another set. This crew was so phenomenal, I would work with all of them again in a heartbeat. I also feel blessed by the acting talent we had on this film.
DBW: Yes… great cast and clearly a skillful and resourceful crew. I wanted to share with you that since I saw the film a few weeks ago now many images from the film have flashed through my mind. I’ve found myself realizing that they play as memories not as film moments. The bus pulling away separating Lane from a childhood friend. The children approaching the schoolhouse for the first time. Lane running through the field in pursuit of the truck as it pulled further and further away… and many more. Some images tightly framed, others expansive. Can you talk about how you approached the framing and camerawork for this film to get such stunning results?
SJC: Wow. As you mention those moments I find myself getting emotional. Memory played such an enormous role in making this film in so many ways. I knew my relationship with my cinematographer would have to be a very deep one. I knew the commitment to telling this particular story, and getting under the skin of not only the characters, but also the environment – the land – was going to be essential.
DBW: Yes… the land.. the sea.. and the living spaces… and the contrasts of the various environments.
SJC: Sebastien Scandiuzzi and I spent months together, looking at films together, talking about them, talking about light, talking about the emotion of image… and talking a lot about our personal childhoods and adolescences. We looked at the still photography of Stephen Shore and others. We got to know each other very well. I knew this would be important not only to the look and feel of the film, but also to the speed in which we would have to work on the set.
DBW: I can really see what you mean with Stephen Shore’s work. Were there any films in particular that helped the two of you find common vision?
SJC: Yes, we looked at so many films, both for what worked and for what maybe should have worked technically, but missed the mark emotionally. One of the first reference films I thought of around this project was the 1971 film Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg, but a film that Sebastien and I kept retuning to was Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). We knew this would be a very dry, golden film. We loved the way the characters and the landscape intertwined. And, of course, the cinematography on that film is out of control. I recently made a list of every film I looked at as research for this film and it’s a VERY LONG LIST! We looked at many different films for different reasons. For instance, we looked at Priscilla Queen of the Desert (Elliot, 1994) as well as The Bus (Wexler, 1965) for how to shoot interior and exterior of a bus ride.
DBW: Yes. Referencing someone else’s approach to tight shooting conditions makes so much sense. Something I love about the cinematography in Lane 1974 is that it has a richness and a depth that invites us directly into the scene. There’s nothing about the way the film is shot that invites us to leap away from the story to admire the work. It’s integrated,.
SJC: Thank you very much for noticing that. I think I can credit not only the mind of the DP, but his heart as well. It’s a pet peeve of mine when DPs get caught up in fancy gear and forget that their most important job is to understand the story they are telling with their entire soul. Sebastien really understood this story inside and out.
DBW: It shows.
SJC: Well, time has flown by. I could talk about making this film for days, since it took so many years to bring to fruition.
DBW: You need to save some of your stories for the Q&As at your screenings!
SJC: The bottom line is, I’m so grateful to the generous and talented people who came to this project, believed in it, and allowed me to tell the story of Lane 1974 exactly the way I knew it should be told.
DBW: Maybe you can just share some thoughts about how you hope this story from 1974 will connect with present day audiences.
SJC: I first wanted to tell the hidden story of so many counter culture kids. But I was so gratified at SXSW when four 16-year-old girls approached me days after they had seen the film and gushed about how much they loved it. Girls don’t get to see very many genuine stories told about themselves. I’m so grateful that people of all ages have connected to the story, and I think there are so many reasons for that. The most surprising demographic deeply moved by the film is men – specifically fathers of tween-age girls. It really gives me hope for the upcoming generation of girls that so many people are able to connect with Lane.
DBW: That’s very moving. I can’t wait for audiences to have a chance to experience the film. Thanks SO much for taking time to share about your vision and your process. Please keep us posted and please make more!
SJC: Thanks for the chat, Barbara. It’s been such a pleasure.
DBW: Thank you!
Lane 1974 received distribution from The Orchard and will be available for pre-sale September 12 for a September 26th delivery on DVD and streaming on multiple platforms.
Film lovers in the Pacific Northwest will have a chance to see Lane 1974 in theatres during the #DirectedbyWomen Worldwide Film Viewing Party: