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Meet the 2013 Tribeca Filmmakers #50: Mo Ogrodnik Recounts a Dangerous Personal Memoir in 'Deep Powder'

By Indiewire | Indiewire April 17, 2013 at 4:19PM

What it's about: New England, 1983. Wild, troubled boarding school girl falls for working class boy and brings him to South America to score coke. Then reality hits. Hard. Inspired by true events.
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Mo Ogrodnik
Mo Ogrodnik
What it's about: New England, 1983. Wild, troubled boarding school girl falls for working class boy and brings him to South America to score coke. Then reality hits. Hard. Inspired by true events.

About the filmmaker: I began writing this project when I was in grad school. I picked it up again with the help of my husband, Matt Bardin, and we worked to weave together our personal stories within the limits of a cinematic genre. We wanted to explore the contrast between the dismal prospects of the local young people in a faded industrial New England town and the entirely different privileges and pressures at the elite school in their midst. I’ll never forget how the harsh spotlight of getting caught introduced me to the darker side of human nature as a close group of friends scrambled to preserve college admissions and family reputations.

I grew up in Williamstown, Mass and when I decided to attend an all-girls boarding school for my last two years of high school, I found myself in a very different landscape. My mother comes from an old monied family and grew up on the upper east side and my father was the son of a tailor and grew up on the lower east side. My mother's family is filled with legacies at St. Paul's and Yale and no one even went to college on my father's side. I'm a product of this union and am sympathetic to these two world views.

What else do you want audiences to know? In the spring of 1984, a New York Times headline announced, “14 Choate Students Expelled In Inquiry Into Cocaine Arrest.” Two seniors from the prestigious boarding school were randomly searched in the JFK airport upon their return from South America and were found with $300,000 worth of cocaine. A week later, The New York Times ran another story, “Girls’ School In Connecticut Expels Six For Cocaine Use.” The New York Times covered the story extensively that spring, and in the fall, “60 Minutes” produced a segment entitled, The Preppy Connection, that revealed that the trip to South America was the seventh in the last two years and had been financed by fellow schoolmates in what essentially had become an underground drug ring for prep school kids.

The six girls expelled from Ethel Walkers were my closest friends and, had I not had a boyfriend from the local town who took me away from campus, I could have easily been the seventh expulsion.

What was your biggest challenge? On a practical front, getting the movie financed. This was a four year process with multiple versions of budgets and production plans and different cast attached, but this is the journey for most films. Every project, no matter what business you're in, has a journey regarding vision, budget, and execution.

Personally, the biggest challenge has been the life-work balance. Being a working mother who did not want to spend more time away from my family, I asked my kids to perform in the film. They are Danny's (Shiloh Fernandez) younger siblings. This has been tricky to navigate given the nature of the material and the fact that it's inspired by true events. The process of working together on set and talking through the storyline has been complicated and not as easy to address as the subway ads and graffiti we talk about on our way to school.

Profound loss and serious consequences resulted from kids feeling entitled and untouchable and sharing this experience with my children has made us closer as a family.

What would you like audiences to come away with? "Deep Powder" is a cautionary tale primarily inspired by these events, my two young children and growing up with a mother and father from opposite sides of the tracks. It is a passionate love story, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, with elements of a suspenseful, narcotics thriller. But at its heart, it is a story about the brutal pressures that face young people as they search to define themselves and how one family survives this process and another does not.

Despite the large canvas of the drug ring narrative – a trip down to South America, interrogations and prison – the

"Deep Powder"
Tribeca "Deep Powder"

bulk of the film takes place in the intimate places young people go to be alone – the woods, a home-made ice rink, Danny’s bobhouse, a car. Danny’s home and his life with his family are populated with the things that make our lives real – worn dress-up clothes, a hockey stick, piles of mail, old dolls, and a box of old albums.

What do you have in the works? 've been working on creating the Arts program for NYU in Abu Dhabi. NYUAD is an International Honors College with film, music, theater, and visual arts as part of its liberal arts curriculum.

As a result of spending so much time in the Middle East, I've started The Houwi Project: a digital culture initiative that explores the translation of memories and archives across different platforms by artists and citizens. Abu Dhabi feels like a modern day Casablanca and my curiosity about the transnational community and its vernacular heritage has led to a rich partnership between NYUAD, The Sheikha Salama Foundation, twofour54, and the National Center for Documentation and Research.

My years of teaching visual storytelling at Tisch School of the Arts and my belief in the power of personal narrative have coincided with my need to be more of a global citizen. Somehow my background in documentary filmmaking and experience in fiction have resulted in a project that I'm so passionate about and challenged by. The lines between the arts are becoming more porous and I'm fortunate to be able to explore issues of digital culture across different platforms from community, artistic, and intellectual perspectives.

Matt Bardin (my co-writer and husband) and I are also beginning to develop an idea for a television series based on life in the Arabian Peninsula.

Where did you learn how to make films? When Pam Koffler and Christine Vachon of Killer Films signed on, the project was conceived as a theatrical feature. As the landscape of indie financing changed and new distribution platforms emerged, I became very open to new ways to get my story told. Killer met with Kristin Jones at Vuguru and pitched Deep Powder. Vuguru’s mission is to make quality content that will be distributed across multiple platforms. Given the potential for an exciting young cast and the mix of genres we were playing with in the storytelling, it was a great match for Vuguru. Within months of that initial meeting, we were green lit, scouting locations in Hudson, NY and praying for snow.

I originally wanted to be a journalist and when I was 19, I left college and went to Washington, DC where I found a job working for Jim Ridgeway. He was working on a documentary with Kevin Rafferty about the emergence of the New Right and the KKK and they asked me to get involved as an AC. I learned how to change magazines and lenses on an Aaton 16mm camera in a basement on MacDougal Street and then spent time traveling across the Mid-West with the crew shooting interviews and cross burnings. It was an eye-opening experience and I was blown away by how a camera could give you access to all these different worlds.

I went to Harvard and was a VES (Visual Environmental Studies) major and I predominantly focused on documentary filmmaking. After I graduated, I bounced around working as a freelancer on docs in NY and then worked for Michael Moore and National Geographic Television. Eventually, I started getting interested in narrative filmmaking and decided to go to Columbia for my MFA. It's a wonderful program that emphasizes storytelling and working with actors and I learned a tremendous amount from Lenore DeKoven and a screenwriting class I took with Paul Schrader.

I've learned a tremendous amount from my students and colleagues at NYU. It's a culture of constantly making and reflecting and that is so special because once you get out into the world, the "making" can take such a long time.

My biggest mentors lately are the people I made Deep Powder with. My collaborations with cast and crew members led to learning more about the craft of filmmaking. There's nothing better than being in the process of making and collaborating with other people. I love it.

Indiewire invited Tribeca 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 2013 festival.



Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on April 17 for the latest profiles.

This article is related to: Tribeca Film Festival, Meet the 2013 Tribeca Filmmakers