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Meet the 2012 SXSW Filmmakers #2: Martha Stephens, 'Pilgrim Song'

Indiewire By Indiewire Staff | Indiewire March 1, 2012 at 11:20AM

Martha Stephens hails from Eastern Kentucky. "Pilgrim Song" is her second feature; "Passenger Pigeons" premiered at SXSW 2010 and won the We Believe In You Award. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking, but says she earns her wages teaching at a rural middle school in West Virginia. As a child, she was "inundated with tall tales and folk songs," and knew she wanted to be a storyteller before realizing she wanted to be a filmmaker. The people of Appalachia, she says, are known for their storytelling. She remembers her grandmother, Memaw, singing songs like "Frankie and Johnny" with a "graveled twang that would make your heart melt." The songs were full of murder, hell, fire and brimstone; "I fell in love with the raw quality the people from my home possessed, and I knew I wanted to create films celebrating their lives and displaying my unforgiving, beautiful region."
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"Pilgrim Song" director Martha Stephens
"Pilgrim Song" director Martha Stephens

Martha Stephens hails from Eastern Kentucky. "Pilgrim Song" is her second feature; "Passenger Pigeons" premiered at SXSW 2010 and won the We Believe In You Award. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking, but says she earns her wages teaching at a rural middle school in West Virginia. As a child, she was "inundated with tall tales and folk songs," and knew she wanted to be a storyteller before realizing she wanted to be a filmmaker. The people of Appalachia, she says, are known for their storytelling. She remembers her grandmother, Memaw, singing songs like "Frankie and Johnny" with a "graveled twang that would make your heart melt." The songs were full of murder, hell, fire and brimstone; "I fell in love with the raw quality the people from my home possessed, and I knew I wanted to create films celebrating their lives and displaying my unforgiving, beautiful region."

What it's about: "Pilgrim Song" is about a pink-slipped music teacher who embarks on a two month through-hike across Kentucky's Appalachian wilderness.

Martha says: I'm very intrigued by the human condition and the wrestling people do to find happiness, salvation, and spiritual gratification. Typically, I write films based on familiar places, faces, and situations: common impasses that folks from my neck of the woods are dealt. Most importantly, I love to write with a sense of place.

The first major hurdle [with this film] was finding money. We worked for a year, clawing and scraping our way to the production budget. I'm still paying post costs out of pocket. Secondly, I think bringing all of the elements together during pre-production [was a challenge]. My producer, Adam Tate and I did almost all of the pre-production alone. The days were long and difficult, filled with desperation of varying degrees. We spent weeks driving through remote parts of Kentucky and West Virginia just scrambling to find the perfect mom and pop pharmacy or picture vehicle. It was quite a summer.

Inspirations? My writing partner, Karrie Crouse purchased me a copy of Barbara Loden's Wanda a while back and I was blown away. I loved its meditative temperament. I'm also of course a big fan of Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" and that probably in some way inspired me to make a movie in nature. Aesthetically, my love for 1970s cinema shines through in "Pilgrim Song." Count the zooms!

What's in the pipeline?  I'm very excited about the current script I'm working on with my writing partner, Karrie Crouse. It's called "Papaw Easy" and it's another Kentucky-centric story about an old playboy returning to his childhood coal town to finish out his golden years. He befriends a young boy who's living with his evangelical extended family after his mother was incarcerated. The two form an unlikely pair and help one another heal.

Indiewire invited SXSW Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch for the latest profiles.

This article is related to: Meet the 2012 SXSW Filmmakers, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), Passenger Pigeons, Martha Stephens