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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Shari Springer Berman – ‘Ten Thousand Saints’

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Shari Springer Berman - 'Ten Thousand Saints'

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini are an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaking team well recognized for their innovative body of work, which blends an affection for idiosyncratic, real-life characters and finely honed intelligent stories. After working in documentaries and writing scripts for the studios, they wrote and directed their first feature, American Splendor, starring Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis. (Press Materials)

Ten Thousand Saints will premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 23.

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

SSB: Set in the late 1980s, Ten Thousand Saints is a coming-of-age story for one entire family. The film is split between two worlds: a small city in Vermont and New York’s Lower East Side, where a teenaged boy forms a de-facto family with an uptown girl and a straight-edge, downtown punk.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

SSB: I read [Eleanor Henderson’s] book and became obsessed. It was so cinematic that I could actually envision the movie as I was reading it. The writing was beautiful, and the characters were all so complex and flawed. I felt like they were all old friends of mine. Thematically, I was extremely moved by how the novel explores the cosmic nature of family.

I am a child of New York in the 1980s, so this is an era that I really wanted to revisit — to capture something about a time and place in New York that is almost lost.

I had been discussing projects set during that period with producer Anne Carey, who also has fond memories of her days in dirty, dangerous, downtown NYC. Coincidentally, we were both a part of the actual Tompkins Square Park riots in the summer of 1988.

My mother actually grew up across the street from Tompkins Square Park. When I was a teenager, my mother would bemoan the days of her youth when the Village was actually authentic. Of course, I felt that my 1980s punk New York was the real thing. Nowadays, my New York is barely recognizable, but I would bet my son feels that the city is in its heyday. This is what makes New York so amazing. It is an evolving, ever-changing organism.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

SSB: I hate to be a cliché, but I do have to say the budget. Making a period film on an indie budget is incredibly challenging. We had a very short production schedule and extremely limited resources. On top of this, we had to control every shot and every frame of the film so it wasn’t filled with anachronisms. To compound the problem, we needed to accomplish this in a way that didn’t make the film feel small and overly contained. The East Village of the 1980s is a completely different landscape from the East Village of 2014. Even if you find the rare preserved location, there will be a cluster of Citibikes or fancy new highrise towers in the background. Luckily, our Production Designer Stephen Beatrice and his team were inventive, a little bit insane, and a lot brilliant.

Also, we shot this movie during the coldest winter in New York history. We endured something like four polar vortexes and endless blizzards. The snow looks great on film, but it was a huge struggle just to walk to set without falling. I still shiver thinking about it.

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

SSB: I would like people to feel like they experienced something truthful, human, and real. Hopefully, they will leave the theater thinking about the cosmic nature of family and to reflect on the many different versions of families they have formed in their own lives. I would also like audiences to savor a snapshot of my New York – a time when crime and filth ran rampant, but life was rich with creativity and possibility.  

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

SSB: Nurture your projects, but don’t nurture them to the point of suffocation. Too many brilliant female directors take ten years between films. If your pet script isn’t moving forward, consider putting it away for a while and start something new. Also, be nice and say thank you to everyone working to support your vision. As women, we have the ability to create a warmer, more family-like atmosphere on a film set. And finally, never cry. Walk away, then bawl — but never let anyone see you break. No matter what disaster you may encounter, you cannot shed a tear, or you will be buying into every stereotype of why a woman should not be a director. Keep a stiff upper lip, ladies!

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

SSB: That I am quirky.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

SSB: We teamed with Anne Carey and Amy Nauiokas of Archer Gray, as well as a longtime collaborator, Luca Borghese, to develop the project. They optioned the book rights and we wrote the script on spec. Once we had a script we were happy with, we went out to cast. Ethan Hawke was our first choice for Les and the first actor we approached. It almost never happens that you get your first choice, but Ethan responded to the role and we were totally thrilled. From there, we put together an amazing cast, including Hailee Steinfeld, Asa Butterfield, Emile Hirsch, Emily Mortimer, Julianne Nicholson, and Avan Jogia. We had a very short window to shoot because of actor schedules, so we needed a financier to step up to plate quickly. We were quite lucky that Maven Pictures, an independent production company run by Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler, loved the project and jumped on board immediately. This is our second film together, and they are particularly supportive of unique voices and more challenging material.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

SSB: There are too many to name, and I can only hope that all of these incredible, talented colleagues and the new garde (some of whom will be introduced to us through Sundance 2015) get an opportunity to make more films! I do have to give a huge shout-out to Ava DuVernay, whose Selma I just had the pleasure of watching. What an incredible accomplishment! Bravo!!!

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