Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sasie Sealy's New Short at Tribeca Film Festival

Find  short The Elephant Garden on Video

Sasie Sealy's New Short at Tribeca Film Festival

(from 4/30/08)

  • picture Danny Peary and Sasie Sealy
  • picture Sasie Sealy

As the Tribeca Film Festival moves into its homestretch, nobody wants to waste time seeing duds like War, Inc.  So I'd like to recommend my personal favorites: the uplifting street music documentary "Playing for Change" (what a soundtrack!); the enlightening doc "Pray the Devil Back to Hell," about how thousands of courageous women forced the end of the lengthy war in Liberia; and the gorgeous and complex Merchant-Ivory narrative, "Before the Rains." Films recommended to me by relatively sane people include "Donkey in Lahore," "War Child," "Katyń," "Eden," "Sita Sings the Blues," "My Life Inside," "Boy A" and "Man on Wire." Also, don't miss the restored version of Sergio Leone's masterpiece "Once Upon a Time in the West" at MOMA; Curtis Harrington's rediscovered horror mood piece, "Night Tide" (starring Dennis Hopper), at Pace; and Rene Clair's unearthed silent comedy, "Two Timid Souls," also at Pace with orchestra accompaniment.  But don't limit yourself to features.  I'm eager to check out the seven-minute "Suspended," which precedes Shane Meadows' "Somers Town." Look for my upcoming interview with its director, famed Iranian artist Bahar Behbahani. If Ryan Spindell's gory but intelligent "Kirksdale" is any indication of the quality of the shorts program "Nuthouse," then it's definitely worth attending—enticing titles include "Zombie Gets a Date," "Skeletons in the Closet," and "Cupcake."  I saw the shorts program about teenagers with an assortment of problems, "Deal with It," and can say there isn't a weak film in the lot. Go! The perceptive opener, "The Elephant Garden," marks director-writer Sasie Sealy's return to Tribeca.  Three years ago her "Dance Mania Fantastic" deservedly won a student award and I became an instant fan. Her new film, about a young girl who feels abandoned and confused when her older sister gets a boyfriend, again has a lead character who wanders around feeling alone and depressed, only to discover that there is love and support for the asking.  It's a sweet theme, that you can totally mess up and those who love you will welcome you into their arms.  I interviewed Sasie Sealy at Tribeca back in 2005, and was eager to repeat the experience in 2008:
Danny Peary: Talk about the title of your film.
Sasie Sealy: The title is actually from an early iteration of the script, in which the older sister tells the younger one a story about an elephant garden in the movie's prelude.  The story was left behind many drafts ago, but the title stuck.
DP; The opening image of the two sisters lying on the grass not only became the image you use to publicize the film but also was the image used by a local newspaper, as a half-page spread, to publicize the festival.  Why does that image, perhaps above all others, have such resonance for you, me, and everyone else?

SS: That image was THE image—the first one in the scrapbook before the story was even formed.  And I think the reason it stuck with me was that it was so emblematic of childhood yet also removed, as if from an adult vantage point.  There is a storybook quality to it that speaks to how we mythologize our childhood and create narratives around that time in our lives.  The last shot of the film was designed as a counterpart—another snapshot of the two sisters, but with a very different meaning by the time we get to that point in the story.
DP: The shot where the girls roll down the hill and the camera spins is very impressive.  How was that done?  And is there any shot in the film that you are prouder of?
SS: That shot was done with the DP literally running down the hill with the camera held low at his ankles as the two actors were rolling.  It took multiple takes and a lot of faith we had pointed the camera in the right direction.  My favorite shot of the movie actually was left on the cutting room floor.  It had a similar quality to the rolling shot, but tracked feet running through grass.  I kept it for the trailer, but my editor and I decided the scene it was in didn't serve the movie—I guess that's what they refer to as "killing your babies."
DP: You say this film about two sisters isn't about you and your sister, but isn't it in any way autobiographical.
SS: When I say the movie isn't about me and my sister, I mean that literally, as in none of the events in the film ever took place in real life.  I would never call the film autobiographical, but of course the movie is about us, and I never would have been able to make the movie without drawing on the experience of having a younger sister.  Sibling relationships are some of the most complex in life and too often are neglected in films.
DP: The young actresses who play the sisters give impressive, honest performances.  Did you have to explain the film to them or did they understand because one has a younger sister and the other has an older sister?
SS: We didn't discuss the film in the "big picture" sense very much, but spent a lot of time working on individual scenes and the relationship between the actors.  I'm not sure I would have cast an actress who was an only child for this film.  I knew that both Kelley, who plays the younger girl, and Elise have sisters before I cast them.  Funnily enough, neither played the sibling part they have in real life.  Kelley is actually the eldest in real life, as I am. 
DP: Talk about the audition process and how you had them spend time together.
SS: I had the two actresses live together during rehearsal, and I asked Elise to build a sisterly relationship with Kelley as part of the process. I wanted to mimic the story of the movie by creating a real bond between them; as the filming began, I asked Elise to begin to draw away from Kelley—not to be mean, but to begin the process of shutting her out both on set and off.  Usually, I might not have tried such a literal experiment, but I really felt it was necessary for what the film was trying to accomplish.
DP: I would say that one theme of your film is that the older sister, who has found a boyfriend, has not pulled away as much as the younger sister believes.  Is that true?
SS: I think that is definitely one valid interpretation of the story.
DP: Did the shooting take only two weeks?  And why did you feel the need to make the movie in North Carolina, where you come from?
SS: Filming took place over nine days.  I really felt the need to shoot in North Carolina because the locations and types of things the characters do are inextricably linked to my own childhood.  Also, I've always felt disconnected from the Gothic version of the South that usually is depicted in film, when my own experience has been rooted in the reality of the New South: suburban construction dug out of red clay and scrawny pine trees.  I wanted to depict that version of the South, which is closely tied to places like Charlotte and Atlanta, and use real Southern actors.
DP: How does this year's Tribeca Film experience compare to when you debuted "Dance Mania Fantastic?"
SS: It's even more amazing the second time around, though I still don't seem to have time to watch all the movies on my list!
DP: Are you planning to make more shorts or do you have a feature in the works?
SS: I'm working on a feature that I'll shoot this winter.
DP: When that plays at Tribeca, I'll interview you again.

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