Interview with filmmaker, Rebecca Grace

Field Notes Interview #76: Rebecca Grace, Filmmaker

We talk to filmmaker, Rebecca Grace about her compelling film series with Luna Bars, how music plays a role in her films and what advice she would pass on to her younger self.

Within every answer in our interview with talented filmmaker, Rebecca Grace, there's a deep-rooted story involved -- a story behind every story. There's a thoughtfulness and curiosity that comes through her work, and it's fueled with her own personal and creative path. Coming from a rich and varied experience in the film industry, Grace has a wealth of knowledge that translate into her work as a director. Whether working on a project as an editor or producing on her own, there is a transparency of voice and a clear story in each of her projects. We were fortunate enough to get to know her process and path as an artist and how it's evolved over time. Enjoy.

M: Who are you and what do you do in the world?

RG: When I was 14, my single mom packed myself and my 4 siblings into a van and set off across the states to find a new home. We landed in Ellensburg, WA where we informally adopted seven orphans, until we were a family of 13 and virtually homeless. Everyone in my family was a musician except me. It seems I was the outsider among the outcasts. Bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden would crash out at our dilapidated house on torn up couches as they passed through town and when they did, I loved to take their pictures. No one noticed me doing it. This is when I discovered my passion for filmmaking. More than anything, I dreamed of getting my hands on a film camera. Eventually I moved to LA and went to film school. When I met my husband 15 years ago, I told him how badly I wanted to be a film editor. He went out and somehow conned someone into giving me a huge project to edit. I was furious with him, as I didn’t even have a computer! So he and I built a system from a crappy old computer someone had thrown out on a curb in Korea town in LA where I lived. Although I was panic stricken through most of the project, I completed it and it was a success. I went on to edit seven feature films and became a member of the Editors Guild.

During this time I wrote and directed many personal short narratives, marketing and commercial projects. I also wrote and directed a feature film called SHARDS, about a girl’s struggle to relate to her father when he returns from war with PTSD. A year ago, in 2014, I left my freelance editing career behind to start my own company, Gracefulfilms. Starting Gracefulfilms allowed me to own and realize my voice as a writer and director -- positions that were not offered to me by any of the 15 film production companies and agencies I regularly worked for. One of Gracefulfilm’s missions is to hire talented women in creative positions and to give them opportunities to build their reels and skills.

M: When was your first project? What was it?

RG: I made my first film twenty years ago while working at Will Vinton Animation Studios (now called Laika). During my five years there, I would stay up half the night sculpting and being mentored by the award-winning artists that worked there. This rich environment presented me with the opportunity to begin directing and editing my own live action shorts, and eventually resulted in my employment as a CG animator. Here is a link to my first live-action film, “Ya’ll Don’t Know Nothin’ ‘Bout Nothin’. The studio allowed me to use their lenses, cameras and grip equipment. They even stapled my film to their dailies so my negative could be processed for free. There was a very high standard of excellence in the work the studio produced and I’ve continued throughout my career to hold myself to the same level of perfection. I will always be grateful for the artists who took the time to teach me and in turn I always offer, even when I’m under pressure, to give up-and-coming artists feedback and encouragement.

M: What does a day in the life of a filmmaker look like on a project?

RG: Think of Steve Martin in the movie Bowfinger. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a treasure. There are so many things that can go wrong on a film set: actors throwing tantrums or not showing up, equipment breaking down, weather not cooperating, unwanted guests stealing equipment and countless other maladies. In order to survive as a filmmaker, you cannot  take any misfortune personally. 

When I was a child I grew up on a farm and we had bee hives. My dad had to wear a full body bee suit, complete with taped gloves, boots and a netted bonnet. I assisted him barefooted, dressed in only shorts and a t-shirt. It’s fascinating to me that if you’re not afraid of them, bees won’t sting you!  So I use that same basic philosophy when making a film or video, by living temporarily in a state of denial, acting as if we have all the time and money in the world. When we are relaxed we make clearer choices and have better ideas.

M: What makes a compelling story?

RG: When I need to raise the stakes in a scene, whether it’s during production or later in post-production, I ask myself how I can strengthen the unity between the characters. That’s where drama is born. All of the conflict in the world will fall flat if characters don’t need each other in some essential way.

It’s essential for the actors to embrace the humanity in even the darkest and most sinister of characters. I’ve always admired Peter O’Toole and Philip Seymour Hoffman for their ability to do this. When we can see a glimmer of good in an “evil” character or vice versa, it helps us to recognize our own struggle. 

Though I don’t pursue acting professionally, I’ve been training as an actress since I was 14 and am almost always in a class. I’ve trained with more teachers than I can count in many different cities. I don’t think we comprehend how complex the art of acting is. What an actor does with the lines can make a bad story work or ruin a great story.

M: What's a current project you're excited about?

RG: One of the projects I’ve been fortunate to work on this year is a series that profiles powerful women, called LUNA Championing Women. LUNA believes that everyone benefits when a woman pursues her own unique adventure and the LUNA Championing Women series spotlights women who are doing just that. I’ve enjoyed working closely with the creative team at LUNA to develop a bold tone and style for these videos.

In the creation of these stories, I’ve endeavored to bring out each woman’s true nature in nuances that could easily be overlooked. I’m not thinking about the outward appearance of the video, but more about how it will resonate with the individual woman in the story. If I can capture her true spirit, the audience will see it too. While each woman is very different, they all share the qualities of fortitude, determination, strength and wisdom. It brings me great joy to be part of a project that honors and celebrates these women.

M: How has music played a role in your films?

RG: Changing the music can shift the same scene from feeling sorrowful, to heroic, to comedic. Depending on the song, different subtle emotional elements are magnified and revealed. What I like to do is to line up many different types of music under the cut so that I can see what kind of emotional tone each composition evokes. Then I make choices about what feeling I most want to illuminate. This is my favorite part of the post-production process because it’s where the video really becomes alive and expressive and starts to reveal new things I hadn’t noticed. The process of editing is like building a complex robot, and the music is the on switch.

M: Have there been any happy accidents?

RG: For the LUNA series I did something I’d never done before. I did all the lighting and filming of the interviews myself. It’s not something I plan to make a habit of; there are so many technical and creative details to keep track of and I prefer a director of photography to collaborate with. Though I’ve been filming my own films for many years, and own and operate my own 4K camera package, I shy away from taking on that additional responsibility on professional projects. It was a huge boost to my self-confidence to see how well the footage turned out and I’m glad I did it!

M: What's the last album you listened to?

RG: My sister Beatrice is an incredible musician and stays current with new music from around the world. I’m fortunate that she keeps me informed. She texted me and insisted that I listen to David Bowie’s Blackstar album. I jumped out of bed the next morning and ran straight to my computer to listen to it before my daughter woke up. I was stunned by David Bowie’s lyrics and performance. He inspires me as an artist to be brave and original.

M: What's one thing you'd tell your 20 year old self if you could?

RG: I would tell myself what I tell my young niece, who is an artist too. I would say that while being a good listener, thoughtful, selfless and humble are valuable qualities, there are also times that it’s perfectly fine and in fact necessary to challenge others, to be demanding, to be confrontational and to state her value and opinions openly and with confidence. She can afford to have a little more attitude, and can’t afford not to.

M: What's coming up for you?

RG: I’m currently completing a marketing video for a company in China. I had been striving for a professional opportunity to make something that was a true representation of my voice and style as a director and this was definitely it. I submitted six treatments and they picked my favorite one, even though it was the most expensive. The Marketing Director in China really trusted me and gave me creative license. I’m really excited about the quality and the message of the video and also for the opportunities that I hope it will help me to forge.

Posted on March 7, 2016 and filed under Field Notes.