“… The Smallest Budget I Have Worked With, and Yet It Felt the Most Ample”: Five Questions for Hilary Brougher About Her SXSW-Premiering South Mountain
A welcome sight on the SXSW feature list is a new film from Hilary Brougher, who has been making inventive, emotionally acute independent film across three decades now, always working in some degree of low to ultra-low budget. Her debut, Sticky Fingers of Time, was lo-fi sci-fi with a time-travel hook that might remind you of Looper but with a feminist slant. Stephanie Daley, starring Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn, followed in 2006, a mystery both legal and existential about an unwanted pregnancy. And now there’s South Mountain, which finds Brougher working with her smallest budget yet but with a production strategy and group of collaborators — including star Talia Balsam — that made this her most freeing directorial experience, she says. The film is an intimate character study of a woman in mid-life forced to redefine herself after the departure of her husband and illness of a friend. Below, I ask Brougher, who is also Film Chair at Columbia University Film School, about her connection to the material, her one-a-decade film output, and the role of time in her filmmaking process.
South Mountain premieres today at SXSW.
Filmmaker: What prompted you to write and direct South Mountain — to explore these themes?
Brougher: South Mountain began from a practical place. I wanted to make an “simple” film so I could enjoy more creative control and certainty around the timing of when it would be made. (I wanted to time it for my creative leave from teaching). I knew it was going to be shot at my mother’s little house in the Catskills, where the light comes in from all directions, and that my husband, Ethan Mass, would shoot it. I knew that while it was not autobiographical, much of the mise-en-scene was going to come from a stash of real-life materials. I first thought I was going to write a thriller about an agoraphobic woman framed for murder. After a few drafts, the thriller part felt like nonsense, but still, I liked that woman that I had written and how she didn’t know how to define herself without the people she’d built her life around taking care of. So I stuck with her. Then, for awhile, the script had a streak of tragedy to it. But then I realized that wasn’t true to its nature either. This wasn’t a weepy film about breaking up — it was a sexy, emotional, hopeful story set at the stage of family life that is about dispersal. Eventually the story and its worldview emerged. It took a while.
Filmmaker: You’ve made three independent features now, all varying degrees of low budget, and each roughly a decade apart. Could you describe how those experiences have felt both similar and different, as each is affected by, obviously, the state of independent production at each time? And what’s it been like returning to this model as you get older?
Brougher: Regardless of budget, I like challenges and tend to swim toward the deep end right after lunch. So if it works, it’s because some good people have helped me or I get lucky. In South Mountain both things happened, but we designed a project with the smallest simplest production footprint we could in the most self-sufficient way possible. Affordable camera and post-production technology has made this homespun approach possible in a way that just has not been ever before. As a result, this is the most “independent” film I’ve made.
Other commonalities — I always wish more time than I can get to rehearse/workshop with actors to refine the script. I tend to work with fantastic actors and they make it look like I really know what I’m doing.
As to the decades between. I didn’t mean it to be like that. Even with great producers working very hard, The Sticky Fingers of Time and Stephanie Daley, took time to cast and finance — as is the norm. Also I had kids (now teens), and I’ve done a lot of teaching. I should probably mention between Stephanie Daley and South Mountain there was another film that occupied some of those years too. It was at a higher budget “for hire” gig with some fantastic people involved, that still went very, very wrong. It took me down as a creative person, and probably damaged others too. Realizing that I let this happen is part of what compelled me to make this film (South Mountain) on my own terms. Hard as that other experience was — it set me free for this film.
And at this point… no more waiting for decades. I’d like to leave a body of work. I want to make a film every three years and to do this I’m going to have to be a lot more proactive and accountable. That’s a very big turning point for me.
Jean-Christophe Castelli, Susan A.Stover — both producers on my first feature, The Sticky Fingers of Time (’97), came back for South Mountain. As did my husband, Ethan Mass who shot both of those films. It’s really interesting to return to a collaboration two decades later… There’s history and trust. But also it lets you see that, yes, you’ve changed. The age lines and differences are gorgeous too.
The funny thing is that South Mountain is the smallest budget I’ve worked with, and yet it felt the most ample. I think this is because I finally learned to write for specific resources and budget. The form/cost/shape of this production was utterly organic to the story, themes, and my interests. I wasn’t trying to fit into a production model I couldn’t quite reach. We edited over a longer span than a traditional project, so there was time to let things germinate. The gratitude factor helped too. It has let me enjoy this one completely.
Filmmaker: What were the very specific challenges to making this film on the budget you had?
Brougher: On a modest budget you can’t buy your way out of a problem. And, in general, there are less options and choices to solve problems. And since there’s not a lot of outside pressure or drama around making choices, so you just choose… It’s liberating.
The hardest part was wondering if we’d really get it done on budget, and would it be worth people’s time and faith in the project. Also, the DIY parts were slow and exhausting. A film of any budget is an accrual of a zillion hours of detail (accounting! exports!) and even when you have incredibly generous collaborators, if you can’t pay people to fully attend to all the details, at some point you end up awake in the wee hours of the night trying to mop up and hoping you’re not mucking it up. That gets harrowing.
Filmmaker: How did you cast and then collaborate with Talia Balsam for this role?
Brougher: I met Talia through casting agent Paul Schnee. It was a small film, and I think it was a leap of faith for her to take it on with just a few weeks to prep. She went through the script with incredible precision. I’m a messy and intuitive type of person so I found her process fascinating. It was like the script was a charming but out-of-tune piano and she tuned it up perfectly. Everything was in the right key with no false notes and all this subtle poetry. Once I accepted that I had indeed gotten that lucky, my role was to take in and support what she was doing, access it with the camera, while jettisoning any of the vestigial script stuff we didn’t need. Sometimes on set we played with options for the edit room. Our editor Maria Rosenblum (also a close family friend and one of the producers on the film) edited it for a year with me in the odd hours of our lives. We got to keep collaborating with Talia as we cut. I actually think post is where a director is the most useful to an actor.
Filmmaker: You’re now the chair of Columbia Film School. How is that position causing you to reflect on independent film production in 2019 and the needs of the next generation of makers?
Brougher: Teaching has been a lifeline — both as a home base from which to pay my bills; and creatively too. Despite all the fabulous collaborative moments, filmmaking involves vast stretches of isolation, and moments of real loneliness (at least for me). I’m not a great extrovert without work to start a conversation, so I love working with new filmmakers. It feels like directing — when I’m doing it right.
I only recently transitioned into the Film Chair role at CU and it has been interesting to see the journey of our alum filmmakers more holistically.
Happily, there’s a lot more “paying work” for new filmmakers than there was 10 years ago when the presumption was you just would starve for your art. That’s a very, very good thing. I don’t worry about the size, shape, or location of screens (all screens are beautiful in my book). But I worry about algorithm-driven development and acquisition and where it will take us as makers and viewers. So much of my Netflix feed is really brilliant, clever, and inventive. And yet I feel a targeted sameness to it — and I sense that’s a corporate algorithm at work. I wonder if the current rush of excitement of streaming and episodic-long form will boil down into thinly veiled Monsanto-like cinema monoculture which is not just bad for artists, but for the future health of the entertainment industry. I don’t think corporate interests are the best stewards of our cultural vitality or spirit. which is what’s also at stake here. So I hope the big streamers who are buying the big sure-fire festival hits, will buy small too and let part of the garden go a bit wild and seedy.
I also worry about the shrinking prep periods for films and pre-production happening increasingly via email. Filmmaking thrives when people are physically present for periods of time. I actually think that’s part of why episodic/series work is so inventive right now. Very creative people are getting to spend real sustained time together. I’d like to see filmmakers working on stand-alone features finding ways to put more face time into rehearsal/prep and post. This is where synergy happens.