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Woodstock Film Festival Women Directors: Jenna Ricker — ‘The American Side’

Woodstock Film Festival Women Directors: Jenna Ricker -- 'The American Side'

There’s three sides to every story. The truth, the lie, and the American Side. Following a mysterious suicide at Niagara Falls, a low-rent detective unravels a conspiracy to build a revolutionary invention by enigmatic genius, Nikola Tesla. The American Side directed by Jenna Ricker will play at the Woodstock Film Festival on October 16 and 18. 

WaH: Please give us your description of the film playing.

Jenna Ricker: It’s a noir-inspired mystery. A low-rent detective stumbles into a conspiracy for control over lost designs by the genius inventor, Nikola Tesla.

WaH: What drew you to this story?

JR:When Greg Stuhr (my collaborator) first told me about this story he’d been kicking around it reminded me of my favorite Hitchcock films and the conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s. I was inspired by the clever details in the mystery, the rich history of the location (Buffalo, NY) and the Tesla aspect.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JR: Making films is a series of challenges, I suppose each in its way feels like the “biggest challenge”. Seeking finance was a lesson in the delicate balance between patience and tenacity. I’m sure every filmmaker feels a bit like Sisyphus while securing their budget. Aside from that, I’d say that the nature of our shoot — limited budget, on location, multiple actors in key roles and on set for a few days or less- that my biggest challenge was to assure them they were in good hands in very short order.

WaH: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

JR: “Is that Tesla stuff for real?!” Most of all I want them to leave feeling a bit giddy — like they just got off a carnival ride. I want them to enjoy being entertained by an ambitious genre Indie.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

JR: Go for it. Have thick skin. Surround yourself with great people who will inspire and challenge you to be better. Really hone your intuition. There are differences that may just be inherent between in the sexes. Is that nature or nurture? Well, who knows. But, as women we have more or less been raised with a standard of deferring our needs, ignoring our instincts, and being unnecessarily apologetic. So, if you want to be a director (or CEO, or producer, or manager or any leadership role) start to pay attention to those qualities in yourself and take the best aspects of them for your work — thoughtfulness, empathy, and balance them with your purpose and vision. Then trust you’re making the film you set out to make and totally go for it. 

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

JR: Well, with only two films under my belt, I’m not sure I have enough work worthy of a misconception yet. But, I was told that my first film (Ben’s Plan– a coming of age story about two brothers) really struck a nerve with men, and the question in Q&A’s was how I accomplished that as a woman. With The American Side a festival programmer said to me, “I really liked what you did. You directed a very masculine film.” The comment got me thinking: what makes a film’s direction masculine or feminine? Sure, there’s genre, but is it characters, subject matter? Do we say to James L. Brooks “Terms of Endearment was a feminine directed film.” Or to Robert Redford, “Ordinary People was about a family unhinging — that’s a very female story.” Maybe just the notion that a story doesn’t need to be determined as either masculine or feminine — that might be something I can answer to or discover throughout my career. 
WaH: How did you get your film funded? (Is it a studio film, a crowdsourced film, somewhere in between?) Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JR: Before we approached anyone, I thought it would be good to make a trailer — as if the film was already complete — to highlight the mood of the story, convince a producer and investors that I could direct a genre piece, and frankly, because more people will watch something before reading a script. With the trailer and script in hand, Greg and I approached Jonathan Shoemaker. He didn’t know us from Adam, but thankfully, he liked what he saw in the work and decided to take a chance on us and joined as our producer. As for the financing, I’d made my first film on a micro-budget and the generosity and talent of friends. During that time, I was lucky to develop the support and encouragement of Mary Henry, a business-savvy woman with an artistic bent, who eventually became our executive producer on The American Side. With the team complete, Mary helped introduce the project to others, kicking off our private equity march. The budget shifted as we sought to get the most value for our investors up on the screen and give them value added pieces- such as name cast- to help minimize their risk. We were extremely diligent in how we cast the film, we wanted actors who would fit in the specific world we were creating, and though recognizable, instead of throwing the audience out of the movie, would draw them in further. Once we were ready to go, Jonathan brought some first rate department heads onboard who really capitalized on the production values Buffalo and Niagara Falls had to offer.  
WaH: Name your favorite women directed film and why.

JR: I remember watching Yentl as a kid and my dad telling me that Barbra Streisand had directed it. Seemed so cool to me — I was eight years old and had recently been told that as a girl I couldn’t grow up to be a “soccer player” — so this woman directing a whole movie was very hopeful news. Aside from that I would say that some of the most resonate films, for one reason or another, that have inspired me are: Ida Lupino’s On Dangerous Ground (co-directed with Nicholas Ray), Jane Campion’s The Piano, Lynn Ramsey’s Ratcatcher, Andrea Arnold’s short film Wasp. I still get sad and sick to my stomach with injustice just recalling Deepa Mehta’s Water, and Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry. There are so many more — I mean, Mira Nair, Debra Granik, Anne Fontaine, Lone Scherfig… The only bummer about these amazing women, and others, is that their filmographies should all be MUCH longer! This is my best short answer.


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