Heartland Film Festival Interview: Jill D’Agnenica, Director of Life Inside Out

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There is magic in music as it has the qualities to relax, inspire and sooth the soul. Music is in the heart of our Festival Award-winning narrative film, Life Inside Out, as a mother of three finds rebirth in her life when she picks up her old guitar and decides to try out songwriting at a local open-mic. When her emotionally frustrated son starts to join her, they experience a new bonding.

We were thrilled that director Jill D’Agnenica was able to talk with us about everyday inspiration of creativity, the power of Kickstarter and what it was like to work on the ABC show LOST.

Heartland Film Festival: Music is such an important part of this film and it seems like all of the songs are original works. What was it like coming up with this soundtrack and tracking what the songs will mean to the characters?

Jill D’Agnenica: The music was so much fun! We had to plan it all out and even record most of it before we started shooting. Maggie Baird (co-writer and lead actress) and I spent many, many hours carefully going through the script and 1) identifying where we wanted a song or songs and 2) working out what song that would be.

Maggie and [co-star Finneas O’Connell] are both songwriters in real life. And all the songs you hear them play in the movie are theirs. In many cases, Maggie and Lori Nasso (co-writer) identified a particular song for a certain scene in the script. For instance, when Laura sits at the piano singing “I Know” that then moves into a montage of Shane walking alone at dusk and Laura driving around the city looking for him.

Sometimes fate intervened–we were shooting on location at Maggie’s house in the middle of a terrible heat wave last September and one day it out of nowhere it started pouring rain. I hurried Maggie and David Cowgill (who plays her husband Mike) out on to the porch. She grabbed her guitar and just started playing one of her songs and we shot some footage. I was so worried the rain would stop as suddenly as it had started that I didn’t even give my sound guy time to mic the actors, so the whole song had to be dubbed later in post production. Meanwhile, our first AD kept saying, “Jill, we have actual scripted scenes we have to shoot…”

In the case of our other featured musicians, who populate the open mic-nights, we invited specific performers who we admired to be a part of the movie and asked them to submit a few song choices. Then I had the immense pleasure of listening to all the tracks and making decisions as to which songs I wanted to use in the movie. I played each scene out in my head, listening to the tracks, to find the one I felt conveyed the mood.

As one example, “Long Time Coming” by Yogi Lonich, stood out for our entire team as the perfect song to underscore an important moment for Laura at the club. Well, we had to alter our shooting schedule and Yogi was going to be out of the country the day we were going back to the club. I begged our DP, Guido Frenzel, to shoot Yogi against a backdrop in my home studio, promising him I could make the scene work in post production–appearing to be a seamless part of the club scene. Guido, dubious at first, came up with an even better idea that in my mind can truly be classified as “movie magic.” (I might tell the story at a Q&A). The shots he got of Yogi singing that song are some of my favorite from the entire movie.

Heartland Film Festival:At first the story seems to just be about Laura’s journey but as the movie goes on it’s really Laura and Shane going through something together. Why was it important to you to have this story about both of them?

Jill D’Agnenica:The movie does begin with Laura recharging her life with her re-discovery of music, really starting to blossom when she gets that old guitar back in her hands. And meanwhile, Shane is quietly watching and learning and discovering his own talents. In my mind the movie was always about this journey that Laura and Shane take together.

I loved the idea of a mother being the inspiration to her teenaged son–her growing confidence and pursuit of her music impacting and inspiring him to find his own voice. But what’s equally interesting to me is the idea that Shane is an inspiration to his mother. It was really important to me that even though the story is largely told from Laura’s point of view, that Shane has equal weight as a main character.  Despite his surliness in the beginning, I wanted to make sure that the audience sympathizes with him and is interested and concerned for him as he struggles in a family that isn’t really in tune with him. The discoveries they make about themselves and each other are so poignant to me, even more so because it’s kind of a “you and me against the world” thing especially in the beginning.

When I read the screenplay for the first time I was struck by its affirmation of pursuing one’s creative passions in the midst of everyday life. I held onto that nugget and fought for its survival through script meetings, discussions with our collaborators, and through the filming and editing. The stories we tell about artists seem to have stock themes–their absolute rejection of or by society, their singular focus on their art to the detriment or destruction of their other relationships (and indeed their very physical and mental health) and of course, the final comeuppance when the artist is hailed as a genius, wins the grand prize, gets the big contract. I wanted to validate the idea that in contrast to that oft told story, creativity can be simply woven into everyday life, enriching those it touches, and becoming its own reward. Some rearranging might have to happen, the dishes might stay dirty in the sink, and the kids might have to fend for themselves for dinner, but everyone’s life will be enhanced by the presence of that creative spark in their midst.

Heartland Film Festival:The open-mic community felt very grounded unlike other movies that would have a montage of wacky performers like clowns trying to perform opera while juggling. Did you do any research to create the right type of tone?

Jill D’Agnenica:A lot of the open-mic moments come from real life experiences that Maggie Baird and Lori Nasso have had performing as part of a songwriters’ collective at clubs in Los Angeles. In addition, my husband is a musician and I have spent countless hours in little clubs and cafes listening to music with him, and listening to his sets as he tries to perform over the cappuccino machine or people talking. Just last weekend at a dive bar down the street, an ice machine went off and accompanied a multi-tonal flute solo that our composer Elliott Goldkind had written!

In terms of the performers themselves, this is a world we are all way too familiar with–there will be some poor soul who can’t write a tune to save their life, and then next up someone so amazing you wonder how they can be toiling in such obscurity. We have met these people and they have sort of made their way into our movie.

Heartland Film Festival:This movie found a lot of support through Kickstarter, which seems to be changing the landscape of independent financing. What was this experience like for you? How did you find backers for this project especially since this is your first feature film?

Jill D’Agnenica:I am such a huge fan of the crowd-funding model for creatives. It opens so many doors and gives such power to artists…no waiting for a grant for your art or for a studio to green light your movie. Put it out there, publicize it, and if it meets your funding goal, you get to make your project. And as an added bonus you now have a big community of supporters who have a big interest in your success.

I have participated in four successful Kickstarter projects, two small art pieces and two movies. And I have contributed to dozens and dozens of projects from other people (I kind of have a Kickstarter problem, I admit it.)

That said, running a successful Kickstarter campaign is a full time job. We spent months planning the campaign, shooting the promo video, coming up with the incentives and building our contact lists. Every day we reached out to different contacts to help spread the word and build support.

You become simultaneously bold and humbled when you have to approach your friends, family, acquaintances and community at large, hat in hand so-to-speak, asking them to support your project, but we believed in our movie and ultimately so did they! We surpassed our $35,000 goal by over $6,000. Once we had that level of Kickstarter support, it was easier to approach investors for the remainder of our needed funds. They saw how successfully we ran our Kickstarter campaign and gained confidence that we could pull off the movie with the same combination of scrappiness and professionalism.

Maggie and I promised ourselves after our project was completed that we would offer our experience and expertise to anyone who wanted it, and indeed we have.

Heartland Film Festival:Are you working on a next project?

Jill D’Agnenica:I’m still working on this one!

But yes, I have a few ideas floating around for my next movie, and I am working with an artist friend on a funny short involving her sculptures. I am a visual artist as well as filmmaker, so I am also in the midst of completing a public art piece and proposing new ones. The creating never stops, it just takes different forms every day.

Heartland Film Festival:What are the moving films that have inspired you as a filmmaker?

Jill D’Agnenica: Well, for Life Inside Out we were all very inspired by Once, as a small, quiet movie with tons of heart and great music. I love Miranda July’s Me, You and Everyone We Know and my favorite movie of all time has to be Harold and Maude. Both have a wackiness and a gentle sweetness that I find irresistible. Two other recent favorites of mine are Mike Mills’ Beginners and the French film, Tomboy by Céline Sciamma, both incredibly lovely and poetic.

Heartland Film Festival:Also I have to ask this question even though it’s completely off topic but I gotta ask it because I’m such a big nerd… You were an assistant editor for a very exciting episode for one of my favorite shows ever, LOST. What was it like working on that show and another Bad Robot show, Undercovers—which I always felt deserved a bigger audience?

Jill D’Agnenica:How much do I love those Bad Robot boys?? Really, the longest most exhausting hours and absolutely the most fun I have ever had working has been with Bad Robot.

I got a totally cold call to come in an assist on that LOST finale. That was my first experience with them. I didn’t know any of the six people in the room interviewing me, but I nailed the job when I said thank you to each by name at the end of the interview. (Don’t ask me to ever repeat that trick–I am usually terrible at remembering names, even seconds after hearing them.)

At the time I had only seen a few scattered episodes here and there, but I binge watched them all while working on the finale. [Co-showruner Carlton Cuse] looked me right in the eye one day and asked, “Jill have you ever actually seen our show?” When I made what he thought was an uninformed editorial suggestion, but we all became great pals. [Co-creator Damon Lineloff] even tweeted to his thousands of fans about Life Inside Out’s Kickstarter campaign.

We all (editors, assistants, Carlton and Damon) spent a lot of time together going over and over that finale. It really felt like a team. We worked hard but had a lot of fun, too. Damon is a real kick to be around and Carlton is stately and smart, smart.

Since LOST, I’ve worked with Bad Robot as an Editor on Undercovers, and Assistant Editor on the pilots of Person of Interest and Alcatraz (one day, but still.) The hours were BRUTAL–when I got hired on Person of Interest, the Co-Producer, Steve Semel, told me to pack a bag and kiss my family good-bye, that I wouldn’t be seeing them for 3 weeks, which was pretty close to the truth. But for short bursts of time it’s a thrill. And Bad Robot’s headquarters in Santa Monica are amazing–all green architecture, a private chef making everyone lunch and dinner, JJ wandering in and out of the editorial suites, and one day I stood less than 10 feet away from Steven Spielberg, trying to close my gaping mouth.

Editing Undercovers was such an honor for me. I was working with Mark Goldman, Chris Nelson, Steve Semel and Mark Conte–some of the best editors working in television, in my opinion. I learned so much just watching their work. But the show never really found a consistent tone and the audience kept dropping off. NBC kept it on the air far longer than I would have expected given the numbers, a testament to JJ I think. Such a sad day when the show was cancelled and I had to pack my things and leave my wonderful office and team.

For the past two seasons now, I’ve been an editor on ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, which is all around fantastic–excellent show, nuanced writing and acting and a wonderful crew. I go to work so happy every day. (And to be honest, far more rested than when I was putting in 80-100 hour weeks with Bad Robot!)

You can purchase tickets for Life Inside Out for the following days…

  • Friday, October 18 at 10 a.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14**
  • Friday, October 18 at 6:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14**
  • Sunday, October 20 at 12 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Tuesday, October 22 at 12:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Wednesday, October 23 at 2:30 p.m. at AMC Traders Point 12
  • Thursday, October 24 at 12:15 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
  • Friday, October 25 at 1:45 p.m. at AMC Traders Point 12
  • Saturday, October 26 at 8:30 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14

 

** Jill is scheduled to be in attendance for these screenings.

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