This year, 34 percent of all films screened at Sundance were directed by women — one of these being Anu Valia. This was somewhat of a milestone for the film industry, which is often criticized for being male-dominated, especially when it comes to directors. Valia’s story is especially remarkable. Not only is she a female director, but her film, Lucia, Before and After, showcases a female protagonist and focuses on a women’s issue — and it won “Short Film Jury Award: U.S. Fiction” at the famed festival.
We were fortunate enough to catch up with Valia and chat about her road to success, the making of her award-winning film and what’s next for the up-and-coming director.
To start out, I know that you also have experience with acting. What’s your background in filmmaking, acting and writing, and how did you end up doing all three?
Anu Valia: I have really always wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to NYU and studied film at Tisch...I've always wanted to be a filmmaker, and I just have loved all sorts of films and wanted to be able to make them...
I think people are interested in multiple things. I don't think you self identify as one thing. I think it's just the world that puts you in different categories -- like, “Oh they're a filmmaker, they're an actor, etc.”
I really enjoy acting a lot, I just I feel like I only have the capacity to pursue one thing at a time professionally. I do act when I can and when I'm asked to, but I really have been trying to focus on writing and directing.
Do you feel like your experience in acting has informed your process of writing and directing at all?
Definitely, but acting and directing are two things, so there's no, one singular correct way to do it. While acting has helped me as a director -- or it just helped me maybe understand certain ways to approach scenes -- every actor is different and every director is different. Something I do as an actor is something another actor doesn't do. I think it's actually more helpful to just be open and be open to what each project really means.
Let’s talk about Lucia. What is the story behind this film? What inspired you to make it?
As a woman growing up in Indiana -- a place that has pretty restrictive women's reproductive rights -- It's always something I've been really interested in. Then, a few years ago, I started writing this feature script called We Strangers, about a woman who's trying to get an abortion.
I was doing research for that and finding out how different it is for different women in different states, how the law is different in each state, and the small, very specific stories and how they affect actual people. They say “Roe vs Wade, abortion is legal in America,” but there are certain states where it basically feels like it's not legal. It's so hard to get abortion or the rules make you feel ashamed or dissuaded to even get one.
I've been writing this feature for a couple of years. I got really focused on this very specific law in Texas and some other states called “informed consent law.” Basically, when you go to get an abortion, you have to have a sonogram. Then, 24 hours after the sonogram, you come back for your abortion.
From my own health care experiences, going back and forth to the doctor is so tiring. As an artist, I have maybe a little bit more free time in the day than other people have. It's just so hard to multiple visits into a nine to five schedule.
The short [Lucia, Before and After] came out of zeroing in on what is it like if you've traveled hundreds of miles to a clinic, and then you're made to wait. What does that look like?
Was it challenging fitting in everything that you wanted to say in under 20 minutes?
I'm a big fan of using whatever medium you want to explore or express your ideas through. There is a longer version of this specific story that I do want to tell in the future, but this very specific, focused idea on waiting -- it should have been short in my opinion.
Was this your first film that premiered at Sundance?
Yeah. It's nuts. It's crazy. I think that anybody who makes films in America, or internationally, is always secretly hoping you get into Sundance. When you don't get in, you remind yourself that that’s not the only reason you make films. Then to get in was a complete surprise.
To win this award was not only a surprise, but it was so exciting as a female filmmaker making a film about an issue that affects women and men... and then being Indian American. It was very exciting. It's hard for me to wrap my head around. It was very exciting.
Did you notice a lot of other female filmmakers and female-centered films or did you feel like yours was unique in that way?
Actually, something I noticed that was really encouraging and exciting was that the two other films that won the Documentary Shorts Awards and then the International Fiction award were both written and directed by women.
That's such a hopeful thing. I thought that the topics that were covered -- at least in the shorts programs -- were such a wide array of topics. There was a short that dealt with sexual assault on the subway. The doc short that won dealt with a woman having to live her life without her boyfriend, who was in jail. There were a lot of female stories. I think women were really celebrated at this year's festival, which was necessary.
Aside from what you talked about of wanting to offer an vignette into somebody's life and how certain laws affect actual humans, do you have a broader message that you hoped to get across with your film?
Yeah, I feel like all filmmakers have a different way of how they want to approach narrative storytelling. I really want to focus on characters and human's actual stories as opposed to issues that they represent.
I feel like, once someone's turned into an issue, they lose their humanity. They're just like, “this is an abortion story. You are a woman who needs an abortion.” No, you're a woman who has a job, loves somebody, is in a fight with someone else and is really struggling to get her screen door fixed. There's a lot more going on in a person's story than the one thing they're going through. I just think movies can either reduce a person to an issue or they can include that issue into the wider story of someone's complete character.
I really want to do the latter. I want to make sure everything I make is focused on characters, humans and the complexity of human emotion. That's so much more interesting to me than one issue.
One thing that I really like about Lucia was how a lot of the soundtrack was made from more natural sounds, like the whispering and breathing. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you chose to go that route instead of using traditional music or soundtrack?
That was actually a lengthy conversation with my composer and my sound designer. The film also features the body in so many different ways, like visually intimated moves with the body. We hear the body making noises. In the film, she's speaking to herself, making noises in her mouth as she's driving around. Our sound designer really liked that and he elevated that and used that to transition into scenes in an interesting way.
Our composer really picked up on that. His name's Jay Wadley, he's really great. He really loved this whole theme of the body. He loved the humming, the whispering, the patting on the knees. He used that to create this cacophony of sounds that layer on top of each other. That was used as musical transitions because we didn't want to have a traditional score, but I wanted to have musical transitions to separate our vignettes and to emulate the process of driving across country and looking, seeing all these things outside your window.
Our temp music was based off of Evelyn Glennie. She's a deaf composer who works a lot with percussion. We used that as a jumping off point.
When you make a film, do you always work with the sound designer and composer or do you license music?
I always work with a sound designer. This is the first time I ever worked with a composer. Before that, we usually licensed music. I just haven't had the luxury of having a composer. It's hard with licensing if you don't have a big budget. It's been hard for me to get too much music.
I'm excited to be able to play around with composed music and licensed music. I like a mix of both, because I feel like there are places in film for a composed score that takes you along the ride, but there are times when you just want to hear a song that will bring you into it. Just like in your life, you want to hear that great song that's on the jukebox. Then you play it and it's great.
I feel this about all art. It's so much about whatever makes the thing that you're viewing and experiencing the best it can be. Sometimes it's composed music, sometimes it's licensed music.
I know you talked about how Lucia was inspired by a feature film that you're working on. Are you still planning on working on that feature film and releasing it? What's it going to be about?
Yeah. Now that I'm back and I can really concentrate on this feature, We Strangers, I've been writing for a couple of years. It's much more about the complexities of human nature than the short is. Also, because it's a feature film, you have more time to explore people.
It follows this young motel cleaner who is trying to earn enough money for an abortion, but while she’s earning that money, she keeps increasing in her term, so her abortion becomes more expensive. That's the through line that takes us through the film. While she's going through this, the relationships between her mother, her best friend and her new coworker at the motel, they all begin to change.
The film is really about these four women and how they struggle to interact with each other. It's just focusing on the lives of these four women. That's what I'm trying to make.
A lot of your films focus on female protagonists. Is that just a coincidence or do you try to make an effort to highlight the lives of women?
I think when you're starting out, you write what you know. I'm a woman, and I go through the world as a woman, so it’s just a very natural thing for me to write about. I would love to write more men, but I just don't know what it's like to be a man. We all grow up in a patriarchal society, so you can assume, but I don't know what it's like to be in a room with all men and one woman, then the woman leaves and the dynamic shifts a little bit. I don't know what it's like because I've never been a man in a room full of men. At some point I'm sure I'll write more complex men, but it's not as easy for me.
What is the project that you've had the most fun working on?
Well, actually, I know it doesn't really seem like it, but I do work on a lot of comedies. I direct this series called Womanhood that stars Aparna Nancherla and Jo Firestone, two really funny comedians. It was created by Julie Miller. That show is almost completely improvised. It's so funny.
I've ruined so many takes laughing. You can hear me laughing very, very faintly in the background in some of the episodes. That show, it's such a blast. It's about being a woman too, but it's such a different take on it. I have never had more fun doing anything else than that show.