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Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Deb Shoval – ‘AWOL’

Tribeca 2016 Women Directors: Meet Deb Shoval - 'AWOL'

Deb Shoval  was raised by her Israeli father and American mother in a Pennsylvania coal town, where she now runs an organic vegetable farm. Shoval’s short film “AWOL” premiered at Sundance 2011, winning awards from Kodak, Technicolor and Women in Film. (Press materials)

“AWOL” will premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival on April 15.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

DS: Joey (Lola Kirke) is a young woman in search of direction in a post-industrial town with little economic opportunity. A visit to an Army recruiting office appears to provide a path — until Joey falls for Rayna (Breeda Wool), a sexy, married mother of two who can’t afford not to stay married to her trucker husband.   

W&H: What drew you to this story?

DS: “AWOL” was first a short film, a very small project shot in 2010 over three days during a January blizzard in and around my hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I was an MFA student at Columbia at the time, and I was very much aware that I kept making these little movies that were aesthetically beautiful but didn’t really hold up story-wise. “AWOL” was an experiment with explicit intentions: [my goal was] to capture a strong sense of place and to tell a story that made sense.

Since September 11, I’ve always been curious about who joins the military in a country like ours, where military service is not mandatory. Are motivations purely financial? Patriotic? And along these lines, who leaves the army, and why?

I became fascinated by the story of a young lesbian-identified woman named Skyler James, who had become a sort of a poster child for American soldiers seeking asylum in Canada. I was curious whether Skyler had come to have a critique of militarism that made her morally incapable of completing her service, or whether her life-altering decision was more personal than political.   

During my series of Skype calls with Skyler, what moved me most was how young she seemed, how impetuously she both joined and deserted the army, in contrast to how consequential the decisions actually were on the entire trajectory of her life. I had so much respect for her, this young woman who so boldly wore her heart on her sleeve.

The questions I explored in “AWOL” the short didn’t begin or end with Skyler James’ story; Joey in “AWOL” is a work of fiction. But I very much credit Ms. James for helping me to start exploring questions about the opportunities that young people in this country have — and don’t have — and the choices that get made as a result.   

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

DS: “AWOL” the short film premiered at Sundance in 2011, winning the Women in Film Grant from Kodak, Technicolor and CalmDown Productions. Financial support for the feature came from the Jerome Foundation, Frameline, the IWC/Tribeca Film Institute “For the Love of Cinema” Award and the Tiffany’s/Women in Film Finishing Fund. We also financed the film through an Indiegogo campaign, loans, equity investors and in-kind services.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

DS: There was a piece in Indiewire praising “AWOL’s” “rich attention to emotional honesty,” which touched me so much. And in turn made me think about the worst advice I’ve received, which came from a 1st AC with a ton more on-set experience than I have, who suggested to me that I’d do a much better job running my set if I stopped paying so much attention to detail.   

I honestly don’t know what my job as a director is if it isn’t to pay attention to detail. Emotional honesty has to exist in the script, yes, and it certainly has to exist in the performances. But it also comes from being a rigorous perfectionist about the accuracy of locations, production design, costumes, hair and makeup. I need to feel at every moment that I’m telling the truth.

The best advice? Director Karyn Kusama told me that my first feature might be the one and only time I get to make the exact movie that I want to make, and not to compromise my vision one bit.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

DS: Fuck the people who tell you to relax, chill out or encourage you in any way to be mediocre.  

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