Every year, the SR Socially Relevant (TM) Film Festival New York highlights films using the medium to raise awareness for vital social issues of the day. This year they will close there festival with a screening of Darcy, co-directed by Heidi Elizabeth Philipsen (who produced and appears in the film) and written by co-director Jon Russell Cring and Tracy Nichole Cring. Set in a rural motel, the film tells the story of a 15-year-old (newcomer Gus Birney) raised in motel turned halfway house in rural America. Facing a strained relationship with her mother, surrounded by questionable influences, and ostracized by the community, she turns her attention to a new resident of the motel (Johnathan Tchaikovsky). Birney and Tchaikovksy were both nominated in the best actor categories at the festival this year, in advance of the film’s festival premiere. Heidi spoke about directing a complicated film addressing poverty, sexual abuse and female coming of age.
Lesley Coffin: What’s the festival experience been like for this film?
Heidi Phillipsen: We premiered at the Twin City Film Festival, and that was great because that festival has a very good relationship with one of our executive producers, who comes out of the Twin Cities. Her name is Stephanie Dillin, and she works in philanthropy, particularly in anti-trafficking. And she was one of our biggest supporters and one of the first people to jump on board the film, back when it was called “This is Nowhere” before we renamed it Darcy. And I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without her, so it was exciting to premiere the film there.
Lesley Coffin: You mention the title change, and that decision really impacts how an audience enters the movie. They know immediately who the central character is, whose point of view we’re seeing. What motivated that change?
Heidi Phillipsen: A film’s always a work in progress, and you learn and discover things about a film while making it. And at the start of this process of making the film, we felt like “This is Nowhere” is really about a place, a forget part of society. And Darcy was a character within that place. She was the protagonist but she was one of several characters. And to get off topic for a second, I was literally just looking up the difference between an active and passive protagonist. And when you look at female protagonist, that’s been a very fine line. Too often things are going on in our lives around us, and women take it in but are not expected to react. And it took us a long time to figure out what Darcy’s personal journey was, but once we did, we felt it was important to see the story from her perspective, and see how all these characters are playing a role in her life. But we didn’t want her to be a passive protagonist, we wanted her to be re-active, even though she’s 15 and it can feel like a lot’s happening around you at that age. And a lot of that happened during our editing process. And during that period we decided we needed a new title to reflect that. And the title “This is Nowhere” was a little too generic and we really needed to own up to the hardships we show Darcy going through.
Lesley Coffin: Was the decision to have a male and female directorial team on this film a conscious desire to have both perspectives on screen, or was it more coincidental?
Heidi Phillipsen: I love producing, but I’ve always been a director at heart. And I knew as soon as I read the script that I wanted to produce it, but I also knew I wanted to have a creative role. And if you feel that way, you might as well be directing. But the subject matter’s tricky, and of a world I don’t completely live in. It’s loosely based on experiences Jon and Tracy went through in their childhoods or seen. So logistically it made sense for us to share responsibilities. But the subject matter also lends its self to co-directors, especially co-directors from the male and female perspective. Because we’re dealing with a man accused of pedophilia and a teenage girl. We don’t want to attack this subject matter the way they did in something like Lolita, we wanted it to feel truthful from my perspective of the story. But we also needed it to feel truthful from the male perspective as well. We really felt the film would benefit from having both our points of view. And I think it really helped when it came to working with the actors, especially working with Gus. I think more films should be made this way.
Lesley Coffin: We talk about a lot of actors being brave for taking on challenging roles, and sometimes that’s just hype. But I know playing a character described as a pedophile is a huge taboo that a lot of actors will never play. How challenging was it find an actor for the role of Luke?
Heidi Phillipsen: Believe it or not, we didn’t get a lot of feedback from actors. Agents would just pass and didn’t give a reason. So if an actor came in to audition, they knew what they were getting themselves into. And I was honestly blown away by the talent who were interested. A lot of the actors expressed that these are the challenges they train for and opportunities they seek out. We had one actor that we really loved, but when it came time for his character to kiss a 15 year old, he was uncomfortable doing that. But Johnathan’s an amazing find, and he’s such a wonderful guy. He introduced himself to Gus’s mother first thing. And he’s nothing but a complete professional and was very concerned about making sure Gus was always comfortable on set. Being a victim of sexual abuse, I was extremely sensitive to that concern, and I know Johnathan and Jon were too. But that I think having a female director on set, encouraging Gus to know her comfort zone and how far to go was helpful on this movie.
Lesley Coffin: With the movie coming out now, amidst the flood gates about sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, what aspects of this subject do you feel the film has the opportunity to address or explore in a new way?
Heidi Phillipsen: I think we’re just starting to understand and own our story as women. How often do we have cases of people saying “I thought she wanted it, I thought she was into it.” And women are too often told to go along with it. And the MeToo movement and TimesUp movement, we are seeing our stories being pushed down and told our stories don’t count. Once people actually see Darcy, they are very moved by it, the men and the women. But when people first hear about the film, people were scared of it. A lot of distributors have said they’re scared of showing the film.
Lesley Coffin: Scared to just run the film in their theaters or festivals?
Heidi Phillipsen: Yeah. I think a lot of them are scared of showing the film because they think it will re-enforce the idea that we’re saying “all men are complicit.” Although this film does something different, and shows that Luke is also a victim of abuse. I think a lot of men go through this trauma too, and we aren’t addressing that very well either.
Lesley Coffin: And I think it is unique to say this issue is complex and nuanced, regardless of it still being wrong. I think suggesting that idea’s often met with suggestion you’re offering an excuse or justification. That’s a very unique approach to take.
Heidi Phillipsen: Yeah. And the idea that Darcy is a different kind of protagonist. I mentioned before about the active or passive protagonist and a friend got me thinking about then because she said Darcy was a passive protagonist. But I got upset because Darcy doesn’t have the power to be as active as she wants her to be. She’s too young, the powers been taken away, and she’s looking for a way out, which is very active. But at the end she does take action, and that sets off a series of events. And hopefully it reminds us that as women, we play a big role. And not saying something is itself an action we’re taking. We are only now being given permission to be reactive and we see some men don’t like that. And if women are being told that our stories, dramatic stories about what we’ve gone through, are being told these films are too uncomfortable to watch, no wonder women have felt that they haven’t been able to speak up.
Lesley Coffin: What was the process of casting Gus in the role of Darcy? She’s a real find but she is the age of the character, which means you had to deal with the challenges of working with someone underage.
Heidi Phillipsen: I didn’t know that Gus came from an acting family when she came in to audition. I have to give most of the credit to our casting director, because I was under strict orders not to hire someone underage for the role. One of my mentors told me “Heidi, you only have 14 days to shoot this. Don’t hire a child actor for your lead role. You only get 5 hours a day with an actress that age.” And we saw a lot of talented actresses the age of 18 or 19. But there is such a huge difference in the growth and maturity of girls between 14 and 19, it just wasn’t working. You sense they were older and playing younger. But then Gus came in, and she was very nervous but just looks like a doe and you could see the difference between a girl becoming a woman at 15 and 18 year olds who had made that developmental step and you just can’t go backwards. But I was still listening to that piece of advice I’d received about not hiring someone underage. And it was my casting director Caroline Sinclair who said “I really believe in this girl and she’s going to be a star someday.” And she was right, she’s going to be in a Sarah Jessica Parker movie this year and had a leading role in the TV series The Mist. And when she got on set, she was such a force. Her first scene was the scene when she’s crying in the bathroom, an intense scene, and she hit it in four takes. And we had a moment when her mom got nervous about her doing it and considered pulling her out of the film, but Gus insisted on doing it.
(C) Lesley Coffin (3/21/18) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: Social Relevant Film Festival