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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | “Fly Away” Director Janet Grillo

Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "Fly Away" Director Janet Grillo

Jeanne, a single mother of Mandy, a teenager with severe Autism, is at a crossroads. What used to organize her child no longer does. They’ve become isolated and entrapped. Yet moments of loving connection with her oddly endearing child, fill Jeanne’s heart. But when Jeanne meets Tom, a charming neighbor, sparks fly, causing Jeanne to reckon with her circumstances. What will sustain her child, and herself, into the future? Mandy, meanwhile, has her own ideas, forcing Jeanne to confront what every parent must eventually face; to let go and thrive, yet apart, or hold on tight and fall together. [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.]

“Fly Away”
Narrative Feature Competition
Director: Janet Grillo
Producer: Janet Grillo, Pavlina Hatoupis
Cast: Beth Broderick, Ashley Rickards, Greg Germann, JR Bourne, Reno, Denise Dowse
Screenwriter: Janet Grillo
Cinematographer: Sandra Valde-Hansen, and Co Producer
Editor: Danny Daneau
Sound: Herwig Maurer
Music: Luke Rothschild + STRING THEORY

Responses courtesy of “Fly Away” Director Janet Grillo.

The origin of “Fly Away”…

I wrote and directed a short film about a mother and a son with mild autism, getting through the day, called “Flying Lessons.” It starred Dana Delany, a dear friend and generous woman, who jumped in, no questions asked, because she saw me trying to reclaim my voice and vision, and wanted to help. The film did well, played in festivals in the US and Canada, and won a few awards. Invariably, after each screening, the first question asked was “is this going to be a feature?” “Flying Lessons” peaked into a life and world that many in the audience shared. And they expressed a profound need to have it shared with others. I began to feel a responsibility to share it, on behalf of all parents on a challenging and complex journey with special needs children.

Beginning production on the film…

After a year of mulling and considering, when I sat down to write “Fly Away,” it wrote itself! I had a shootable screenplay within 6 weeks. The extraordinary team who had supported me during my two short films, lead by the miracle worker known as Pavlina Hatoupis, quickly reassembled.  We decided to make “Fly Away” that spring, no matter what, with whatever resources we could muster. Catherine Hardwicke, has been a tremendously supportive friend, both personally and professionally, for over a decade. She came on as Executive Producer, and provided great guidance as we developed the visual life of the film. As well as spot on script notes. Catherine models what it is to be thorough, meticulously prepared, and well organized. Which inspired my emulation. Within weeks, another dear friend, the multi-talented Beth Broderick, signed on to basically carry the film on her shoulders! She realized we were going to shoot it in only a few weeks (14 days, in fact), that she was in every scene, and would have to leap into the bowels of despair to play the role of Jeanne. Guided by a first time filmmaker!  And she did it anyway.  Beth is a writer as well as an actor, and her comments and insights took the script to another and much better level. With the help of other friends who are wonderful casting agents, Erin Toner and Deb Aquila, we found the amazing Ashley Rickards to play Mandy. Actually, it’s more like she was delivered to us! I remember describing to Erin who we needed to find: a brilliantly talented actress who was a 100% dedicated, anti-Diva, who looked 14 or 15, but was actually 18. Ashley walked into the audition as Mandy, in character. I just sat back and watched! And then threw questions to her as Mandy.  When she came out of character, and returned to being Ashley, my first question was, “how old are you?”  And she told us that in 2 weeks she would turn 18!  

Meanwhile, we had formed an LLC, and officially set a start date, raising money by selling investment shares and soliciting donations, as we went along. We shot most of the film in my house, giving us the luxury of constant access to our primary location. Sandra Valde, our brilliant Cinematographer, came over a few days every week for several months. And we literally walked through each scene. Sandra brought her own HD camera, and shot it while I acted out every part! Then she strung the scenes together into an edited “tissue paper” version, like a dress pattern one lays down on cloth, before cutting. That “tool” is fairly hilarious to watch, but invaluable. We were able to see which shots worked and didn’t, where close ups would be maudlin or sentimental, and how the series of repeated framing accumulated.  At every phase, of “Fly Away,” from prep through post, friends I’ve known from every chapter of my life (school, theatre, film, autism community,neighbors) have stepped forward to help; those I’ve known from all chapters of my life with every aspect; casting, fund raising donating locations and in kind services, or ridiculously cut-rate deals, invaluable script and editing notes. And they continue to help!  It takes a village to make movie. And in making a movie, you form a village. The “Fly Away” village spans the continent and generations of huge hearted, talented and dedicated people. There is no word in the English language that means the depth of gratitude I feel. 

A fast, efficient and productive shoot…

We had a remarkably good time shooting “Fly Away.” Despite that our characters were in a state of wrenching despair, we shot on a shoestring, and covered 90 pages in 14 days!  The crew was just amazing. Pavlina cultivates a group of people with whom she regularly works, so it’s a cohesive team that goes together from project to project. I call it “Pav’s Pod.”  And since it all trickles down from the top, they are as focused, calm, even keel and good humored as Pav, who’s nickname is “PH Balance.”  Sandra is similarly sweet natured and level headed, as is the camera and grip department who travel with her. Just a great group of tireless, good humored and hugely talented people. We shot most of it in my house, in the summer. I have a big backyard, so we set up tents for each department and had picnic lunches each day. It was kind of like summer camp!  When they all left and went onto their next project, I was SO BUMMED OUT!  They went on to have more fun and I was left in my backyard…until Danny Danneau, our gifted editor, started coming over every day with his dog and his laptop, and we edited the film on the TV in my living room while our dogs barked after squirrels!  The best part of filmmaking is the community. Hands down! 

“Admissions” for the future…

I have a new script which I would love to make, called “Admissions.” An ensemble character story. Inspired by “The Kids Are Alright” (my favorite movie of 2010; saw it 5 times), I’m endeavoring to tell a story from several different points of view. “Fly Away” is Jeanne’s story–all from her experience and point of view–nothing happens outside of her direct experience of it. If it were prose fiction, we would say it was written in “first person” narrative. My new script, “Admissions,” is the “omniscient narrator,” watching all characters from above, and noting how they intertwine. My sister read an early draft and said it reminded her of a DNA strand; how all life lines spiraled around each other into a whole.  I’m already talking to Sandra about how the camera can approach “third person omniscienct” narration. And still capture intimacy. It’s exciting! 

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