During this unprecedented year of film festivals being canceled and postponed, independent filmmakers are forced to pivot.
The highly-anticipated short film Gets Good Light, directed by Alejandra Parody and produced by composer Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner, was selected to premiere to the Tribeca Film Festival next month before the festival’s postponement.
Gets Good Light captures the ever-present threat of deportation in a near-future Brooklyn, centered around a luxury condo that secretly houses a family targeted by I.C.E. Executive produced by The View co-host Sunny Hostin, the film stars Orange Is the New Black alums Jessica Pimental and Catherine Curtain, High Maintenance actor Cedric Leiba Jr., and Thoughts of a Colored Man lead Edmond Cofie.
Today, Parody and Phillipson-Weiner discuss working together, the importance of diverse perspectives both above and below the line, and the future of the 2020 festival circuit.
The Knockturnal: First, how did your partnership come to be, and what led you both to Gets Good Light?
Alejandra Parody: We met at NYU as undergrad students and basically since then we have been working together as a team. Elizabeth is a really terrific producer and composer, and I’m a director so in many ways it was a match made in heaven. We’ve been working together ever since. For Gets Good Light specifically, we went to the NBC Universal Short Film Festival a few years ago with another film, Rosa, that I directed and Elizabeth produced. At that festival, we met the writer of Gets Good Light, Daniel Solé. He contacted me a year after the festival essentially just saying ‘I have a short that I’d like you to read and see if you’re interested in directing.’ Obviously, I loved the script, but I also was like ‘alright, this looks like a pretty big scope based on how many characters, how many locations, so I’ll do it if I can assure that the production is at the level that I think it should be. It’s such a deserving story of being told and being heard, and that’s I was like to Elizabeth, ‘you’ve got to produce this.’ That’s how we got started.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: I think this is probably true of a lot of director-producer teams but in addition to working together, we’re very good friends and we always say that we’re each others’ work wives. I think that’s one of the best parts of getting to be in the filmmaking profession: you have these relationships that are so fulfilling career-wise and friendship wise. In terms of the short coming together, on my end, I generally will always want to work with Alejandra on anything but when she sent me the script, I definitely agreed that this was such a timely and important story. We just want everything we do to be at the level the story deserves. I felt exactly the same as her: ‘I want to do this as well as we possibly can and really go for it in every way,’ in terms of the look of the film, who is in the film, the distribution plan for the film. So that’s how we approached it from the beginning: how far can we take this so as many people benefit from hearing the story as possible?
The Knockturnal: Speaking of the festival circuit, I know you both went to the Cannes Film Festival for Rosa, which won first prize at the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase. Can you talk a little bit about your past experiences at festivals, and what you hope the Tribeca premiere for Gets Good Light will look like after all of this is done?
Alejandra Parody: Whether this is premiering at Tribeca or not is very up in the air obviously due to the virus. We are a little bit at an uncertain moment where the premiere will take place. Obviously it’s a huge bummer to not be able to attend Tribeca the way we had expected, but rather than hold onto those expectations, I think we’re both figuring out what to do and what this is going to look like in the future. I think the more news we’re hearing about things getting canceled and the more we’re hearing about how long people have to be isolated, the more it seems like the strategy for showing the film to people is going to be entirely different.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: The importance of the festival circuit can’t really be overstated. The film industry runs on a cyclical basis. These festivals are all leading somewhere, awards season ultimately. So the situation we’re in right now where the only major festival we’ve had is Sundance, and starting with the cancellation of SXSW and kind of continuing on with the Tribeca postponement, even Cannes has postponed. The future is really unclear not only for us but for the entire industry. I think it’s pretty unprecedented that the films that would be receiving distribution and potentially being Oscar nominees after a fall and winter distribution may not be screened in theaters. They may not have a world premiere. It’s really, really uncertain times right now. We’re taking it one day at a time because the news changes kind of hourly on this. We can’t get too ahead of ourselves. For us as a team and for us with this film, our mission is for as many people as possible to see it and to shed light on immigration issues even in this time where everything is being overshadowed by a global health crisis.
The Knockturnal: Both Rosa and Gets Good Light deals with immigration and socio-political justice. Do you consider that a thread throughout your work?
Alejandra Parody: I believe everything that ever gets created is political, even if it’s a rom-com. Your choice of casting, the types of people that are in the movie, the story you’re telling– every single choice you make is political and has weight to it. So I don’t know if for me personally there’s a sort of like specific type of politics or “social justice work” I’m interested in, but I do believe as creators, I try to say something. There’s always a political tinge to it even if it’s a horror movie or a comedy. I do think that we’re both sort of acutely aware of how that plays out politically, especially since we are part of minorities because we’re women because I’m gay. We do approach our work with a sort of activist or political perspective maybe more than someone else.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: I want to make art that helps people, and that guides the projects I gravitate towards. For instance, we collaborated on a music video that raised funds for a nonprofit that promotes cystic fibrosis research. I don’t have cystic fibrosis. Neither does Alejandra. We just saw a person in need and an opportunity to get broader attention on a specific issue that is important. I think that’s how we approach everything: how can we help people with what we do? I would say that’s our guiding light, whether that be a political issue or not. How can we make the world better by what we’re doing?
Alejandra Parody: It’s also specific to how we see the world. Even with Gets Good Light, when we saw the script– and this isn’t on Daniel…He is a terrific writer, but he happens to be a man so most of the characters were male because that’s how he sees the world. I also like working with female actors and I think other perspectives are cool, so let’s make the real estate boss a woman. Like why not? Why do the main characters have to be two guys? Maybe they can be two women. I think we’re just very aware of how little we should take what we see on screen and the stories that we tell for granted, and how much power there is in just making things that are aligned with our own experiences.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: That’s also very important for us to extend behind the camera as well. Obviously we’re two female creators but I feel like probably 70% of our crew members are also women on this film. That was very deliberate. Every member of the production team is a woman, including our executive producer Sunny Hostin. It’s just really important for us that the films we’re making promote a diverse perspective that helps people and that they’re also made by a diverse crew that has diverse perspectives. It’s important on both ends.
The Knockturnal: Your cast is not only terrific in your film but they also each have these incredible resumés, ranging from Orange Is the New Black to High Maintenance. What was the casting process like, and how did you get connected with these bigger names, including Sunny Hostin to executive produce?
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: I’m very proud of it. The film has a ton of characters in it, so normally for short film, basically Alejandra and I are the casting department in addition to being the director and producer. But I knew I wanted someone to come on for this to get a little bit of help. I literally found this woman, Nicola Rose, through Facebook. I put out a call for an indie casting director and she replied. She’s done short films. She’s not a huge Hollywood casting director by any means. She’s very much an indie, New York multi-hyphenate. She and I put this strategy together that we would cold contact peoples’ agents. The cast we ended up with said yes based on the script alone. Most of them auditioned. Jessica Pimental and Catherine Curtain we just went out with a straight offer because we loved their work so much, but it was really a combined effort. It was like ‘hey let’s just see if these actors are interested,’ and they were. There’s no big machine behind it; it’s literally just us.
Alejandra Parody: It was because we believed in the script so much and loved it so much. After making short films for a couple of years, I think there’s an artistic growth that happens that you just acquire more confidence of what you can do, and part of that confidence was just like ‘well let’s just contact Catherine Curtain and see if she’s interested.’ Even just making that list is just a matter of saying ‘let’s graduate to the bigger leagues and we’re more than ready to handle this.’ And then with Sunny, the story was a little bit different.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: With Sunny, I had two amazing associate producers that I brought on. I actually met them through this event called the Women’s Weekend Film Challenge, which is an all-female filmmaking challenge where everybody makes a movie in a weekend in teams. I met these two associate producers there and I asked them to help me with production on Gets Good Light and one of them was an associate producer at The View. Given Sunny’s background, she’s a longtime champion of social justice issues for immigrants and people of color. We waited until we were in post-production and had a working cut of the film to show Sunny and then our associate producer asked her if she would mind watching it. She watched it once and immediately came on as our executive producer, no questions asked. She was so interested in the subject matter and it lined up with what she feels is going on in America.
The Knockturnal: Aside from shifting the premiere of Gets Good Light, what else is next for you both?
Alejandra Parody: We have several scripts that we are hoping to develop. We have a very funny web series about Jesus coming to Earth for the rapture.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: Which is becoming more relevant right now. Haha.
Alejandra Parody: I have a couple of features written, with the idea of Elizabeth being involved in them. One is a thriller that is partially autobiographical about a girl who gets brainwashed into joining a cult. And then individually I’m working on more horror projects. I have another feature that takes place in Cartagena in the 1600s during the Inquisition and it’s all about witchcraft. We’re hoping that the momentum of Gets Good Light will allow us to hop into resources that will let us make those scripts a reality.
Elizabeth Phillipson-Weiner: For Alejandra and I, we have a slate of projects that are at different stages. We have a documentary that we made a proof of concept for that kind of deals with the subject of where creativity comes from. It’s told through the lens of this singer-songwriter in New York, Julie Gold, who wrote the Bette Midler hit “From a Distance.” We actually have a short version of that and then we’re working on developing that into a full feature. I have some scripts as well, like the web series that Alejandra mentioned I wrote and then she would be directing, and then I have an indie autobiographical piece about the loss of a matriarch of a family and that would be directed by Alejandra as well. For scoring projects, I am scoring a feature right now that will hopefully get distribution on the circuit once it’s back to normal. But as far as Gets Good Light, it’s just about taking it day by day and kind of hoping that the Tribeca Film Festival will happen at some point. Even if it doesn’t, we’d get some online support, and then hopefully continuing with the festival circuit once everything is back to normal.