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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts" Directors Howell and Robinson

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 8, 2011 at 4:35AM

Sarah Sparks is pregnant and feeling wholly ambivalent, despite her boyfriend’s pure enthusiasm. A committed tech-geek, she fears she is more interested in ultrasound technology than in what’s being ultra-sounded. When her sister lures her to L.A. for what ends up being a terrorizing baby shower, Sarah keeps her rental van and hits the road in search of the source of her anxiety: her estranged mother, now living off the grid. "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts" takes a comic and poignant look at one woman’s coming-of-parenthood in the age of technology. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
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"Small, Beautifully Moving Parts" Directors Howell and Robinson
Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson's "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts."

Sarah Sparks is pregnant and feeling wholly ambivalent, despite her boyfriend’s pure enthusiasm. A committed tech-geek, she fears she is more interested in ultrasound technology than in what’s being ultra-sounded. When her sister lures her to L.A. for what ends up being a terrorizing baby shower, Sarah keeps her rental van and hits the road in search of the source of her anxiety: her estranged mother, now living off the grid. "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts" takes a comic and poignant look at one woman’s coming-of-parenthood in the age of technology. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

"Small, Beautifully Moving Parts"
Narrative Competition
Director: Annie J. Howell, Lisa Robinson
Producer: Annie J. Howell, Lisa Robinson, Jennifer Dougherty
Cast: Anna Margaret Hollyman, André Holland, Mary Beth Peil, Sarah Rafferty, Susan Kelechi Watson
Screenwriter: Annie J. Howell, Lisa Robinson
Cinematographer: Charles Swanson
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Sound: Ian Stynes and Britt Myers
Music: Xander Duell

Responses courtesy of "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts" directors Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson.

A flurry of inspiration...

Lisa Robinson: I loved images and stories. I wanted to be a painter, then a photographer, then a writer, but nothing really satisfied me until I took a film class during college. I forgot to eat. I forgot to sleep. It took over my life. I started making experimental films and slowly added narrative, while trying to hold on to that love of images. It's a balance I still struggle with.

Annie J. Howell: As a kid I was always writing plays and performing them with the one friend who sort of couldn’t say no. We would each play about seven different roles, and she allowed me to boss her around without much resistance, which was great until I drove her crazy or nobody laughed at our play. In the end it didn’t matter because I discovered I loved creating characters. After college I worked in theatre and drew comics – the combination led me to film.

Technology vs. humans...

Our film is inspired by our original web series,"Sparks," which is about a woman who explores the comic and poignant relationship between humans and technology. That series began when we discovered enough of a similar sensibility to collaborate, after meeting and becoming friends in the grad film program at NYU. We were interested in how technology has become so dominant in our lives that many of us actually have an emotional relationship with it, complete with expectations, love and disappointment. We took that idea and played with it; stretched it. The feature was born from a desire to go to a more complex place emotionally with Sarah Sparks, a character we already knew well, and to see her grow. We wanted to tackle more serious subject matter, yet we wanted to keep the humor and playfulness that we had explored in the series.

Keeping it fresh...

We are firmly micro-budget, so we wrote the script as a road movie (a form we love), knowing where we could utilize resources we already had. (Google Maps was usually open while writing, calculating distances!). We were inspired by the landscapes of the West, and these locations, from the blinking mania of Las Vegas to the sweltering desert of Arizona, became characters that helped us shape the mood and emotional beats. The film is a result of both a lot of planning and also in-the-moment choices. We would wake up in the morning and know we had to find a visually compelling gas station before noon somewhere between the Hoover Dam and Flagstaff. That gave the production experience a feeling of spontaneity (when we weren't gunning it to our next destination), every day was fresh, and we suspect that gives the film a certain flavor.

The biggest challenge...

Size. While we were lucky to have an enormously talented cast and crew, we were really small – our entire production fit in to one van rented at LAX, which also served as picture car. This made for a very tight family-like adventure, and it also presented challenges in that the infrastructure was so small we were wearing a colossal number of hats. Our wonderful actress, Anna Margaret Hollyman, not only did her own make-up and hair, she seemed to have a built in GPS in her brain and was our best navigator … and she packs a mean trunk.

Props to kill...

We each flew with a bag of props to LA, where the shoot began. The night before boarding the plane, Annie sent this email to Lisa:
"I'm on a one-way flight from Columbus, Ohio to LAX with broken computer parts, a potty training doll, eight empty baby shower gift bags and twenty five packs of 9-volt batteries. They're gonna think I'm building something pretty sinister..."

Taking a needed break...

We made this film in less than year, juggling it with other projects and our lives, so we both need a serious vacation. But we are beginning to plant seeds of an idea for our next film that riffs in a new direction with this tech theme we are so fond of, and hoping for a return to the web series. We've been watching old Agnes Varda movies and getting inspired - she's our hero. In down time (ha!) we each have solo screenwriting projects: Annie is working on a script for Jordan Horowitz ("The Kids Are All Right") and Jared Goldman ("Solitary Man") and Lisa recently wrote a script for the Blue Man Group.

This article is related to: Features, Filmmaker Toolkit, Interviews