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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Martha Stephens

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Martha Stephens

Raised in the hills of Appalachian Kentucky, Land Ho! co-director Martha Stephens longed to create films celebrating and investigating her native land and people. A graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, School of Filmmaking, Stephens’s first feature film, Passenger Pigeons, premiered at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, and won Chicken and Egg’s “We Believe In You” Award. 

Stephens’s second feature film, Pilgrim Song, premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival in the Narrative Competition. She won the Best Director Award at the Fantaspoa Film Festival in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and her film was awarded Best Southern Film of 2012 by Oxford American Magazine and Best Southern Film at the 2012 Indie Memphis Film Festival.

Land Ho! will debut at Sundance on January 19th.

Please give us your description of the film. 

Land Ho! is a comedy about two ex-brothers-in-law who take a trip to Iceland in order to escape the doldrums and routine of old age.

What made you write this story?

I’ve always found the topic of time and aging appealing. Maybe in a weird way, I like to write on these subjects because it’s a way for me to explore my own feelings and fears about the unavoidable passage of time. The story also deals with longing and nostalgia, or attempting to recreate a feeling or a moment that has since passed. This is a theme I’m drawn to for similar reasons.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Gathering the final piece of financing is always worrisome because you never know how the chips are going to fall, even if things are moving in a positive direction. Until the money is in the bank, your film may not get made. Other than that, it was tough filming a movie in a foreign country because we weren’t able to do the length of pre-production we had all grown accustomed to. My previous films were all filmed in Appalachia (where I’m from) so we were without that sort of home-field advantage. But ultimately, the unknown element was an intriguing part of the making of the movie, and it made the process even more exciting.

What advice do you have for other female directors?

My advice would be to make the movies you want to make, not the movies you’re expected to make just because you’re female. Whether you want to direct an empowering female driven drama or the next National Lampoon installment, it’s your voice, your choice. Don’t let yourself be pigeonholed. 

What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work? 

The two features I directed prior to Land Ho! are slower paced regional dramas. Neither film is very commercial or conventional. There might be a misconception that these are the only films I am interested in or capable of making, and that’s not true. Hopefully Land Ho! will change this notion. The movie isn’t broad by any means, but it is a breezier style of comedy that’s reminiscent of buddy comedies from the 80s and 90s. 

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

I think it’s easier to get your work out to the public now with VOD, iTunes, and other similar formats, which can be a great opportunity for smaller films. In the same respect, it will be challenging to engage an audience due to the amount of work out there. People have a ridiculous amount of choices and your work may get lost in the shuffle.

Name your favorite women directed film and why. 

I’m a big fan of Andrea Arnold. I enjoyed how Fish Tank felt like an honest depiction of life for a teen from a lower socio-economical background, a girl essentially raising herself. It was more authentic than other films that have been deemed “poverty porn.” Growing up in poor Appalachia, I’ve felt too often that poverty in film is either romanticized or exaggerated in the most ugly way. Although I’ve never cared for the characters in Wuthering Heights, Andrea Arnold’s camera direction was absolutely intoxicating. What a gorgeous movie.

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