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March 15, 2010 8:50 AM
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"Passenger Pigeons" Director Martha Stephens: "I put every piece of myself into it"

A scene from Martha Stephens' "Passenger Pigeons." Image courtesy of SXSW.

Set among the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky, Martha Stephens' "Passenger Pigeons" is a story about dealing with loss and an ambiguous future in the dark hills of Appalachia. The film quietly interweaves four separate story lines over the course of a weekend as the town copes with the death of a local miner. Themes such as mountaintop removal, pride, fatalism, and wariness of the outside are delicately used to portray isolated life in modern Appalachia.

"Passenger Pigeons"
World Premiere, Emerging Visions
Director: Martha Stephens
Cast: Kentucker Audley, Brendan McFadden, Bryan Marshall, Caroline White, Martha Stephens, Earl Lynn Nelson, Karrie Crouse, Will Casse, Jim Johnstone
Producer: Joe Chang
Screenwriter: Martha Stephens
Cinematography: Greg Hudgins
Editor: Joe Chang
Music: Andrew Iafrate
106 minutes

Introductions...

My name is Martha Stephens. I grew up on the banks of the Ohio River on the Kentucky side of things. My hometown is dying now, although it was once a place of industry and power. Springsteen could write a real heartbreaker about its overall decline. When I was small, my grandmother spun many a yarn. She mostly quoted old folk songs, told tall tales full of regional colloquialisms. I guess I've always loved stories. The idea of telling my own stories through the means of filmmaking is the only occupation that has ever appealed to me. I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking and majored in directing. It was there I wrote and directed short films. "Passenger Pigeons" is my first feature film.

Ms. Stewart on making "Passenger Pigeons

I've always wanted to base a film in and around Eastern Kentucky. It has a strange sadness to it that's really cinematic. I guess the storyline itself was prompted by a mixture of local news stories. I looked to books like "At Home in the Heart of Appalachia" and Breece D'J Pancake's collection of short stories for inspiration as well.

Due to our tiny budget, I had to be especially creative in assembling this film. I counted on the kindness of my extended family and friends. We collected money through crowd-source funding and emptying our (my producer Joe Chang and myself) bank accounts. I gave up my apartment to save money and put every piece of myself into it. Joe and I spent endless hours in my dad's garage in Kentucky doing grunt work and all of the pre-production by us alone. Needless to say, it was very DIY. When shooting began, we acquired Greg Hudgins and Alex Sablow, our camera/lighting team. I guess you could say we had a guerilla style approach.

We seemed to never have enough manpower or money, the usual plight of the independent filmmaker.

I hope it's liked for its sincerity and honesty. I couldn't ask for anything else.

Films that were inspirational in the making of "Pigeons"

- The films of Robert Altman (especially "Nashville") for style and ensemble cast guidance.
- The films of Kelly Reichardt for their wonderful insight into the human condition, naturalism, and beautiful silences.
- "Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus" for its use of place and lyricism

And what's coming up...

As of now, I'm trying to flesh out a couple of story ideas. Near my home there's a hiking trail called the "Jenny Wiley Trail." It crosses over public and private land through rural Eastern Kentucky for over 160 miles. For the last decade there have been continuous rumors about the trail being shutdown for good due to maintenance costs and underuse. I'm trying to write a script about a pink-slipped middle school history teacher who decides to hike the trail before it's abolished. It's not set in stone, though. I'd like to be shooting again by Spring 2011. We'll see!

Website and Trailer: http://www.passengerpigeonsthemovie.com
Trailer Download: http://www.vimeo.com/9462629

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