Here is our second and final round of interviews with local directors participating in the Milwaukee Film Festival‘s Milwaukee Show series. The second installment screens Sunday, October 2 at the Oriental Theatre at 7:30 p.m.
Sterile (director Matt Klein)
Milwaukee Record: How did you celebrate when Sterile was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival?
Matt Klein: I wouldn’t say that I celebrated but I was incredibly excited to be a small part of such an amazing festival. It was a surreal moment when I realized I was going.
MR: What will you remember most about your first Cannes experience?
MK: It was a total sensory overload. What I remember most about the experience, though, was the reverence that audiences had for the films. People applauded before and after the films, sometimes for five-plus minutes. The only place where I’ve seen the same level of enthusiasm is at the Milwaukee Film Festival!
MR: The film centers on the United States’ eugenics program, which a lot of people have probably never even heard of. How did you go about researching this project? Was information about it readily available?
MK: I really knew nothing of eugenics in the United States until I heard an NPR story about it in 2013. I was shocked that I had somehow missed learning about this part of our past. When I discuss the topic with people, a majority either didn’t know it existed or were only vaguely aware of it. The information is out there, but it’s very fragmented. There are interviews with victims, web pages with statistics, and historical archives. My film is based on the collective testimonials of many women that were subjected to forced sterilization.
Thankfully, in the process I was pointed towards some very well written books on the subjects as well. Imbeciles by Adam Cohen tells the story of Carrie Buck, a young woman who was used by eugenicists as a guinea pig to see if their practices would hold up in the Supreme Court (they did). Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid reveals the history of medical experimentation on black Americans and delves into the racist motives behind eugenics.
MR: Are there any films you’ve seen that tackle issues of social injustice that inspired you in the making of Sterile?
MK: I’m inspired by films such as Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. Narrative filmmaking is a powerful means of bringing attention to social issues. It gives people the opportunity to emotionally connect with individuals that have been exploited by society. Statistics and analysis are important when talking about social justice issues but stories paint us a broader, more valuable picture.
There’s also a fascinating short documentary called La Operación, which brings to light the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the middle of the 20th century. I didn’t see this until after I made my film, but it’s a powerful piece.
MR: In your mind, what form would justice take for the victims of this program?
MK: One victim of North Carolina’s eugenics program said that there was nothing that anyone could do to justify the wrong done to her. I agree with that. These programs irreversibly took away the rights of women who were often not even informed of what had been done to them. I believe that all 33 states that practiced compulsory sterilization should provide reparations to living victims. Currently North Carolina is the only state that has provided any sort of compensation.
It’s disappointing that today we still face so many obstacles regarding women’s health rights, especially involving access to basic health services. We need to acknowledge and make our best effort to undo the damage of the past in order to improve our future.
MR: Are you still planning to expand Sterile into a feature-length film?
MK: I’m working on the feature script now. It’s a long, slow process, but I’m continuing to learn more about the subject as I write. I’d love the opportunity to sit down and talk with some of the victims of these programs to round out my research. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to share the feature with Milwaukee!
Jàaji Approx. (director Sky Hopinka)
MR: Did you grow up immersed in native culture, or was it something you had to rediscover as you got older?
Sky Hopinka: I grew up with native culture, but I grew up primarily on the west coast. It was when I moved to Wisconsin to go to grad school that I reconnected with my tribe, the Ho-Chunk Nation, and got an opportunity to meet family and discover some of the tribal-specific traditions that I didn’t know before.
MR: What regions were you traveling through as you shot the footage for this film? What’s the significance of those areas for you and your father?
SH: I was traveling from Milwaukee to Seattle to see my mom, then from there down to San Francisco to see my dad, then to Los Angeles to visit friends, then made my way through the southwest up towards Milwaukee on my way home. The significance of these routes is that they serve as a connecting point between roads that my dad traveled on when he was my age, some 30 years ago. While the landscape is an important part of this relationship, it’s also very much about the traveling itself, as the way this country has been bisected and divided, roads represent a way to both connect communities and separate them.
MR: Are there lessons within this family dialogue that you’d like to pass on to future generations?
SH: That cultural reality is an active reality that has to be engaged with to be defined.
MR: One of the most visually striking scenes is towards the end, driving across a bridge. Can you describe the technique you used to capture that?
SH: The bridge did most of the work itself. I was in St. Louis at 2 a.m. on my way home to Milwaukee when I saw the bridge in the distance and saw how it was lit, so I got my camera ready and decided on the angle I wanted, and just held the position until I was across it. The colors were brought out with a couple layers of mixed filters and adjusting the color temperature and exposure in post-production.
MR: What have been the most memorable landscapes you’ve ever filmed?
SH: St. Paul Island in Alaska was definitely memorable; it was such a different landscape from what I’ve known. It was about 12 miles wide and six miles across, and maybe 300 people lived in the local community. The treeless, grassy tundra and the Pacific were both striking, beautiful, but there was something humbling about the vast expanse of ocean that’s never far off, that makes you feel inconsequential and beatific at the same time.
Fixing The Dog (director Miles O’Neil)
MR: Are you the product of a religious upbringing?
Miles O’Neil: Yes, can’t say I practice much anymore, but I was raised Roman Catholic. Attended Catholic grade school, high school and college.
MR: What is it about the Jesus narrative that inspired you to make Fixing The Dog?
MO: It being my first film, I wanted to focus on a subject I was completely familiar with. That subject, however, also had to have the potential for interpretive variation and storyline embellishment. Being so simple yet so complex, the anecdote of Jesus’ crucifixion was the natural choice.
MR: Do you relate more personally to the ridiculed protagonist of the film, or to the children?
MO: Interesting question. Nowadays, as a 43-year-old, I indubitably relate to the protagonist. But, in my younger years, I would’ve sided with the obnoxious young punks.
MR: How did you come to work with Julio Pabon, who wrote the music? Was the music created specifically for the film?
MO: I met Julio about 15 years ago. My daughter attended one of the local Montessori schools and he happened to be her music instructor. We’ve kept in touch ever since. And, yes, the music was written and recorded exclusively for Fixing The Dog. Julio managed to play seven or eight different instruments during the recording session, including the didgeridoo!
MR: What are you looking forward to most about the Milwaukee Film Fest?
MO: At the expense of sounding completely unoriginal, I’m parroting back what you just emailed me: “I can’t wait to see what parts get the biggest laughs in the theater, or whether I just have a twisted sense of humor and no one else laughs.” You hit the nail on the head there, Cal.
@Me (director Kristin Peterson)
MR: There’s plenty of humor in @Me, but it’s got a very different feel from DOG*WALK, which screened at last year’s festival (and is hilarious). Do you see yourself progressing into more serious dramas in the future?
Kristin Peterson: I suspect I will always make things with at least a drop of humor in them. That’s just who I am. But I am not sure what will happen next. With each project I am experimenting and I don’t think I’ve found my “voice” just yet. I am shooting a new short this autumn that is another comedy unique from DOG*WALK and @Me, and I am developing a few dramatic feature length scripts. I think if there is one thread that stays the same with my film projects it is I like to explore topics of social importance. With DOG*WALK, I wanted to have fun showing that girls can be questionably immoral punks. With @Me, I experiment with loneliness and connectedness while playing with a new narrative style using social media platforms. If I am going to keep exploring social issues, I think it would be natural to make a longer, more dramatic piece. But, you know, with jokes and punk music.
MR: Do you consider yourself a social media junkie? Are you partial to any particular platform?
KP: I love to banter. I love conversations and talking and joking around until everyone is too tired to move. So, yes, I love social media. I enjoy Facebook for commenting on a friend’s statuses and event invites. I love Twitter for the comedians I follow. And Pinterest makes me a better person. Instagram is a great place to foster envy of friends that are currently traveling.
MR: In your mind, what’s the direst consequence of society’s current state of digital clutter?
KP: Firstly, I see we are fatigued. With all this access to information and constant push notifications, Facebook event invites, e-mails from retail stores, etc. We are bombarded with requests to act, but we have developed the ability to ignore or evade most of these requests to act. This makes me wonder what we miss that is beneficial, that would make us better, happier people. The fear of missing out is intensely juxtaposed by wanting to hide from being asked to participate in so many things I do not want to participate in.
But what sticks out most to me, and what I hope @Me illustrates, is that our digital livelihood lulls us into a false sense of connectedness. We can message anyone in an instant. We can check their Facebook page to see what their week was like (or how they want us to perceive their week). But, do we connect with them, actually? If a true connection is to share and be shared with, how often do we actually do this? The main character in @Me, Luca, tweets out the world for validation, and she pursues a connection she barely remembers making. But she’s actually walking home at night, in the cold. She is visually all alone. Often I feel this is how we’ve become accustomed to living. We are just connected enough online that we do not realize how unsupported and lonely we are in our physical lives.
Of course I cannot be sure from my own experience, having been born into the digital era. But I think it is true that we are aware of so many people and goings-on and this may falsely satisfy our need to feel like a part of a community.
Young adulthood is lonely. Could it possibly be lonelier with the notion that you are never sure how close you are to someone or your community?
MR: Tell us a little bit about your creative collective, Media Schmedia. Who’s involved? What are the goals of the group?
KP: Media Schmedia is foremost the production company I make my film projects under and this includes everyone that works on them, and there is a lot of overlap with cast and crew. Most notably, Jon Phillips of 32 Radians and the Shaky Balloon crew are key collaborators. But from there we include film projects I help produce as well as a Seinfeld-themed podcast called The New York Four, local poets, an e-mail-based advice service, Sunday morning comics, critical media analysis essays, and many other smaller side projects. One theme we try to involve with every part of the collective is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We make things and we comment on the world around us, especially pop culture and media. Everyone is free to chase after their own endeavors, and Media Schmedia acts as a place to promote ourselves, and it is a place to put our “b-sides,” our side projects we are equally passionate about but don’t have a home themselves. Soon, we hope to start hosting events such as board game prototype testing parties, poetry, and comedy open mics, and works-in-progress film critiques.
Recycle (director Spencer Ortega)
MR: Do you feel at all guilty trying to appeal to a Wisconsin audience with your prominent featuring of dairy products?
Spencer Ortega: Haha, this story was based off a real experience that involved dairy products, so I’m not trying to appeal to a Wisconsin audience in particular. But maybe it’s the reverse and my life growing up in Wisconsin, and dairy culture helped inspire the true events that happened to inspire this story.
MR: A real experience involving dairy products? Care to elaborate?
SO: I was in a hotel in Indiana, eating breakfast and drinking from a milk carton. On the back of the milk carton it said something like, “If you recycle this milk carton, you just might see it again someday.” It got me thinking about how it didn’t really matter whether or not I recycled this one milk carton. I know it’s good for the overall environment and would still do it anyway, but when it comes to affecting my life, it would not have made a difference in my life at all. And then I thought, “But what if it did? What if I did see this milk carton again some day, and this milk carton would end up having a bigger, more direct impact on my life than I could have ever imagined?” And that really got the ball rolling from there!
MR: Are you a big fan of the Rambo movie series? Or are there other action films that inspired you in making Recycle?
SO: I’m a huge fan of Rambo, but believe it or not I haven’t seen any of the films. Which might not make sense, but I understand the basic concept of the character.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight is one of my favorite films and has had a big influence on Recycle. I often use a lot of music from the Dark Knight in projects and I had some in Recycle as I was editing but eventually replaced it with similar music I was able to license.
For the the main fight scene, I was heavily influenced by the style from the newer Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr. The fight sequences have a lot of speed ramping, which is where you slow down and speed up the footage in certain areas to accent certain moments. They also have super stylized sound design to accent the movements and impacts.
MR: It was gracious of you to make special mention in the credits of “Guy Who Flipped Over Table.” Do you have a soft spot for stunt performers?
SO: Oh yes, for sure! It’s not easy sacrificing your body for art and I have the utmost respect for stunt artists. Even though they are trained and know how to hit and land in a way to minimize the physical toll on their bodies, it still hurts. Tedd Piper (stunt man) would bounce right up and be like, “I’m good, let’s do another!” but I feel like it still had to hurt at least a little bit! Shout out to Tedd and all of the other stunt artists out there! Practical stunts and effects are almost always better than any CGI and really enhance the production value.
MR: The music in Recycle is particularly epic. Did you work closely with the composers in scoring the film?
SO: All of the music is from a royalty-free website. I did not work with a composer, but I did spend hours scanning a website trying to find the right music. I wish I would have had the budget and time to work with a local musician here in Milwaukee! There are so many talented musicians here.
MR: Would you consider yourself an environmental crusader?
SO: Haha, I love the environment. I might not be a crusader but I try to do what I can on my end. There have been times where I would be at an event that would not have recycling and I would take home whatever plastic bottles I got there just so I could recycle them. It’s easy to think that going out of your way to recycle one bottle might not make a big difference, but I feel like it does. All of the little things add up.
When I played soccer as a kid, my teammates would sometimes call me “soccer mom” because I would make sure everyone’s trash was picked up before we left the field, haha!