Sundance 2019: Martha Stephens talks To The Stars

Martha Stephens took some time to speak with Solzy at the Movies about her new film, To The Stars, during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.  My interview with Martha took place on the day after the world premiere of To The Stars.

Martha Stephens, director of To The Stars, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Martha Stephens, director of To The Stars, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Kyle Kaplan.

Congrats on the premiere of To The Stars!

Martha Stephens:  Thank you!  It was a whirlwind.

How is it to get it out of the way and in front of an audience for the premiere?

Martha Stephens:  It’s such a relief. I think it’s nice in some ways to come to Sundance and have three days to get your sea legs before you have a premiere but it’s kind of like a Band-Aid being ripped off doing it this way. We had a screening last night and then we had a screening this morning.  Two of my four Park City screenings have already happened. So now I’m going to watch movies and kind of let things come in and see what people say. But yeah, it’s good. I’m glad.

What was it about the script that appealed to you as a director?

Martha Stephens:  I think that I was just really ready to tell a very female-centric story.  My previous films dabbled in my ensembles.  My last movie was two old men.  I was just ready to do something really feminine.  I just wanted that energy in my life.  I was like lacking telling a really true female story.

The script came to me and I just it spoke to me because it just reminded me of movies that I loved watching growing up and that all my little friends loved to.  We would talk about and act out these characters that made a huge impression on us.  I think about My Girl and I think about Vada Sultenfuss—that name is still with me since watching it when I was six years old.  Something about that script—it had that kind of sincere energy of those stories.  I don’t know—I think we live in a time where sincerity is not cool and I want to bring it back.  I want to bring sincerity back.

Was there anything challenging about doing a 1960s period piece?

Martha Stephens:  Yes!  Well, you’re on a budget—it’s an indie budget.  The costumes, the hair, there’s so much time and energy to put into just—they’re wearing like five layers of skirts, petticoats, and stuff. Getting the hair right. That’s so time-consuming and when you haven’t done a period film before—I haven’t had that luxury.  I love other eras.  I love living in the past a little bit—vicariously getting to live in the past through film.  I just underestimated how long that takes and how much that can eat into your shooting day and stuff.  We only had like 20 and a half days of filming.  I don’t recommend that to anyone but we did it.

What was the thought process in deciding to film To The Stars in black and white?

Martha Stephens:  It’s just the way I read the script.  That’s just what I saw.  The script—when I read it, it was set in Kansas.  I thought about, Oh, these people are just coming off of the Dust Bowl.  They’re just coming off of the depression and post-war and I don’t know—I just saw it in black and white.  I thought that would be a good way to differentiate it from other sort of teen adolescent coming of age stories from that time period.  Other than The Last Picture Show, there are just not very many movies that are made in black and white anymore.  Hopefully it’s becoming more of a norm.  There’s been this renaissance with Cold War and Roma, which is—we didn’t know about those movies before.  My DP and I loved Ida but we don’t know about Roma or Cold War before we decided to make this black and white.  So I don’t know.

It just felt right and part of it felt like there were things in the script that reminded me of monster movie.  So we referenced like old 30s, 40s, 50s monster movies a little bit, too—like the way we shot the scene where one of the characters gets—I don’t want to spoil anything.  I won’t go into that but you know what I’m saying.  The women are treated kind of like monsters in this town in a way.

What was it like to work with this cast?  I’m so used to seeing Tony Hale in comedies—this was such a very different performance!

Martha Stephens:  Yeah.  In a lot of ways, I like sort of messing with people’s expectations so I like taking chances with casting, casting against type, or creating characters against type.  Tony—I think is really such a fantastic guy.  He’s so sweet and nothing like the character whatsoever but I think it was—for him—just a good chance to show some dramatic chops.  They say comedy is harder than anything else so hopefully he can get some more dramatic roles after this.

But the whole cast—I loved working with all of them. I think Jordana Spiro is fabulous. I think she’s so good as Francie.  I love Francie.  I’ve loved Jordana since My Boys.  I’ve always thought she was just this really special actress that for some reason just didn’t quite get movie roles.  She should have had that time to—she had a lot of television but for film roles, she just somehow got overlooked.

I was at Sundance last year and attended one of the premiere screenings of Night Comes On.  I previously met Jordana at the Legion M Lounge when she was doing press interviews.  I watched My Boys for all four seasons and I’m watching the film and like, Holy cow, this is an award-worthy performance!

Martha Stephens:  Thank you.  You should tell her that if you see her.

I know I tweeted last night after the premiere.

Martha Stephens:  Did you?  I’m not on Twitter.  She’ll be happy to know that. I think that it was hard for her because we had to cast her at the last minute because an actress dropped out.  And so I had been watching her on Ozark.  I thought she was really nailing that accent. I was like, She could be really good as Francie but she had less than a week’s notice to come out and take on that role which is a really tricky character to find, and to not make cartoonish to give her nuance and empathy and stuff. But Jordana—I love her.

When did you first decide to go into filmmaking?

Martha Stephens:  I think I first started—so I wanted to be an FBI agent because I love The X Files.  Because that’s what being an FBI agent is like, right? You’re just looking for aliens?  Not at all.  But I wanted to be an FBI agent but then I kind of realized because I loved Silence of the Lambs, I was like—I just love the depictions of FBI agents.  I just love telling stories and I love moving images.  I think I decided to go to film school—I think I knew my sophomore year of high school was that that was the goal and I was going to try. I grew up in this really kind of rough industrial area in Kentucky like where Huntington, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio all meet.  It’s just industry, farmlands, agriculture, and there’s just not a whole lot there.  But a new Cinemark was built when I was four years old so that was the place to experience life was to go to the movies.  It was both TV and film—they were both my babysitter.  I grew up being enraptured by cinema.

How does someone growing up as a child of parents who went to Kentucky end up at UNC?

Martha Stephens:  Well because University of Kentucky at that time when I went to college in 2002—it didn’t really have like a good film program. I wanted to go to a very film-specific program and the University North Carolina School the Arts—it’s an arts conservatory and you just focus on film really.  It’s more like a trade college in a way than like an academic college.  It was a great place for me—I went to a really small high school so I didn’t have access to cameras or anything so I felt like I needed that. But I mean I’m not a Tar Heels fan, I’m a Kentucky fan.  It’s an art school.  They’re associated with UNC but they’re not UNC.  Our mascot was a pickle at my art school.

Thanks again for your time and congrats on the premiere.

Martha Stephens:  Thank you.

Directed by Martha Stephens, To The Stars held its world premiere during the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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