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Signe Baumane Boldly Animates Family Depression in ‘Rocks in My Pockets’

Signe Baumane Boldly Animates Family Depression in 'Rocks in My Pockets'

Rocks
in My Pockets
is Signe Baumane’s autobiographical “funny film about depression,” made with papier-mache, stop-motion and hand-drawn animation. The rich, deep, and very original film centers on five women in Baumane’s family and their struggles with depression and mental illness. 

Rocks in My Pockets opens September 3. Women and Hollywood spoke with Baumane about making a film about her family history, animating a feature in four years all by herself, and why animation opens storytelling doors live-action film couldn’t possibly compete with. 

Women
and Hollywood:
You say that Rocks in My
Pockets
is a story of mystery and redemption. Can you elaborate on
that?

Signe
Baumane:
On the surface of the Rocks
story, there is a mystery — of me trying to find out how my grandmother had
died, and not being able to get a straight answer. It’s like a detective story — who is the killer? But it is also the mystery about our genetic inheritance. Can
mental illness be passed from one generation to the next? Are we all prisoners
of our genetic makeup? As I uncover some deep family secrets, I find a way to my
own sanity.

WaH:
Talk about the title — why Rocks in my
Pockets
?

SB:
When I started writing the script, the work-in-progress title was “A Guide
to Survival,” and in some sense the final film is still a guide to
survival — part of the film is about how to survive a mental illness. The
title with rocks emerged as the ending of the story, and with each new rewrite, it
became more and more clear that the only possible title for the film was this: Rocks In My Pockets.

For
me the rocks represent a symptom of depression. There are at least 12 or more
of those symptoms, but I chose six of the most devastating for me: dread, pain,
obsessive thoughts, confusion, guilt, self-destructive behavior. Those
are the rocks that I carry around; they weigh down my existence. What
should I do with them?

WaH:
What do you think that animation brings to this story that a live-action film
can’t?

Animation
has been overlooked as a powerful means of communication for very complex ideas.
I don’t understand why in mainstream culture, animation is regarded as a medium
mainly for kids or for adolescent boys. To me, animation has a toolbox that
live-action films could only dream to have, like using metaphors as short cuts to deeper meaning of a character’s state of mind or feelings.

For
example, in Rocks In My Pockets, a
man holds his wife close to his chest but she turns into a limp fish and slips
away from his grasp. Only an adult would understand this image of a failing
relationship. Animation can also help to make a story more condensed. By using
animation in Rocks, I was able to
cover 100 years of family’s history without losing any of the psychological
reality of each character. 

WaH:
Talk about the actual process of making the film — did you do all the animation
yourself? How long did it take?

SB:
To make Rocks In My Pockets, I had to
be a producer, writer, director, animator, designer, sculptor, cinematographer,
cook, and cleaning lady. It is cheaper to do everything yourself. So yes, I
animated the whole film myself, made a lot of drawings (nearly 30,000 — a big
pile). And
I made all the papier-mache sets you see in the film. 

I
finished the first draft of the script in January 2010, and the premiere of the
film was on July 7th, 2014 (at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival). It
took 4 years to get the film to audience. Along the way, I had a lot of help
from Sturgis
Warner, the Rocks co-producer. He is a
theater director and he directed my voiceover. He also helped with lighting the
sets and many other things.

WaH:
Was it hard to write about your family and yourself?

SB: I
wouldn’t say it was hard. Once I started writing the script, I couldn’t stop,
although I knew I had to be a disciplined writer and keep a good structure
and keep it short.  But there was so much material! All that rich history
and human drama! In that sense, I would say it was very hard to select
what events to write about and which ones to leave out.

But
you probably meant if it was hard to reveal so much about myself and my family.
When I wrote the story, I didn’t think my family would see it, so I was freed
from worrying about that (which was foolish, because of course they had to see
it and they did when we released the film in Latvia).

I
also wrote the story as if I was telling it to a trusted friend, so I wasn’t
self-conscious and didn’t think anyone would judge me (which was also foolish because
now that the film is getting released, it won’t be seen only by good trusted
friends, and people love to judge other people all the time).

So,
it wasn’t hard to write it, but it is very hard now that the film is getting
out. It’s so personal. I feel exposed and vulnerable when people watch it. 

WaH:
Talk about how you got the funding together to make the film. 

SB:
Getting funding together is probably one of the biggest challenges in making
any independent film. But Rocks got
off a good start. Early on, in 2010, the project received a New York State Council on the Arts grant, and so Women
Make Movies became Rocks In My Pockets’ fiscal sponsor. Tax
deductions helped us to attract donors. That was the key element for
financing the film. 

Rocks
also
received a grant from the Jerome Foundation. In September 2011 we thought we
had raised enough money for the whole production and stopped the fundraising
process so that we could focus on production (it’s hard for me to fundraise and animate at the
same time).

In
December 2012 we realized that the money was running out, and we decided to run
a Kickstarter campaign. I
did a lot of research on how to run a campaign. Nevertheless, running a Kickstarter
campaign was an enormous effort. In the end we succeeded, raising $50,780 with the help of 800 backers. Approximately
150 of those 800 backers were people from Latvia, and they asked me to make the
film in Latvian.

Originally
I didn’t intend to make a version in Latvian, but gradually I warmed up to the
idea. We searched and found an experienced film-production company in Latvia, Locomotive Productions, and producer Roberts Vinovskis became the project’s
Latvian co-producer. Locomotive Productions applied and received a grant from National
Film Center of Latvia to make a Latvian version of the film.

So
now Rocks has two versions: one in
English and one in Latvian. 

WaH:
What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SB:
This is my first feature film. Although I have made 15 animated shorts
(together probably around 2 hours of footage), it had not had prepared me for the
hardships of making an animated feature independently and on my own. With
a feature film, the stakes are higher — making a feature takes more time, more
money, more sustained effort.

But
my three particular challenges while making the film:

First, the fundraising puzzle drove me to despair at times. Not knowing where
the money will come from. Not having the experience of fundraising. Not having
connections.

Second, finding the right people to work with me on the project, people who would
understand what I am trying to do and believe in the project the way I do.

Third, the long days of working on the same project for 4 years. Especially in
the beginning, it was hard for me to mentally comprehend the scope of it. Like,
I would work the whole day for 12 hours animating 4 seconds. How long do I
have to work to animate 5400 seconds, which is how long a feature film is?

But
probably the greatest challenge took place AFTER the film was made — the
marketing and distribution efforts. I
believe that making a film is only 1/3 of the job; bringing it to audiences is
2/3 of less joyful work. Since we didn’t know anything about marketing nor
distribution, we did an immense amount of research for eight months, but one thing
this research provided us with was even greater insecurity. It seems that
things in marketing and distribution change
on a weekly basis; it makes for very unstable ground to walk on.

Then
there were practical matters, like making a trailer, which was painful. It
took more than four months and a lot of trial and error. Although short, a trailer
is not a short film. How do you compress 88 minutes of a complicated story into two minutes, so that those two minutes entice and lure a potential audience to see
the whole film? What a challenge! People spend years honing that skill, and yet
here we were having to make a trailer without any training.

And
then there was the seemingly unsurmountable hurdle of securing E&O
insurance. I am not sure why no one I know talks about E&O. As a short
filmmaker, I personally didn’t know much about it (no one seriously asks for E&O for short films), so the whole process of getting it for the feature was a
steep learning curve. I wish I knew what it takes when I started the
project; I would have gotten a lawyer sooner.

And
then there was the initial rejection of the film. It’s not that I expected
instant glory. I have been around for long enough to understand that film
festivals get a lot of submissions and that they make their selections based on what
is important to them at each given year. Festival programmers have to make a
program that makes sense to them, and your film doesn’t always fit in. I
thought I knew how to take rejection.

But
still, it was very hard. The doubt and horror that I have made a film that
doesn’t fit anywhere were eating me alive.

This
horror story did have a happy ending — Rocks
In My Pockets
premiered at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where
it received two awards. The film did to Karlovy Vary audiences what I was
hoping it would — it entertained and engaged them, made them think, left an
impression. What a relief.

WaH:
What drew you to animation?

SB: A lucky accident. I studied philosophy at Moscow State University. After graduation, I was supposed to go back to Latvia to be a professor at the
local university, but that seemed impossible to me. So a friend I
lamented this to said, “I love the doodles in your lecture notebooks. I
would love to see them move. Why don’t you go into animation?” I thought it
sounded better than teaching philosophy, so I started to work on turning the
doodles into storyboards. And that’s when I realized this was the thing for me.

Animation
requires a lot of deep focus and the invention of a world from just my
imagination. I could not imagine anything else better suited for me. Except the amount of labor that animation requires kills me. 

WaH:
What’s your advice for other women directors?

SB:
As a woman director, I feel marginalized in the film industry. As a director of
animated films, I feel doubly marginalized — not even women directors appreciate
my animation-directing credits.

This could make me despair and give up. Instead,
it makes me feel free. I am free to make any film I want, in any way I want. I
am not constrained by industry rules and expectations — I am outside that game.
So my only advice to women directors would be: stick to your guns and continue
making your films, feel free to explore new ways of telling stories and finding
new ways of connecting with an audience. Because by the laws of the industry, what’s marginal today will be the core tomorrow. That’s what philosophy has taught me.

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Comments

marie-françoise

hella great interview and trailer! congrats on making your film. i hope its available in the states on online soon so i can see it. thanks & congrats again! :)

marie-françoise

hella great interview and trailer! congrats on making your film. i hope its available in the states on online soon so i can see it. thanks & congrats again! :)

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