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Hannah Leder, Alexandra Kotcheff, and Jacqueline Beiro on Their 127-Day Shoot and Doing it All on the Independent Comedy, The Planters

The Planters

When the book of no-budget filmmaking war stories is written The Planters should get its own chapter. Not only were Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff the co-writers and co-directors of this truly independent comedy, they also served as its cinematographer and camera operator, gaffer, production designer, wardrobe designer, hair stylist, sound recordist, and — oh yes — its two lead actors. With only producer Jacqueline Beiro and a few supporting performers rounding out the production team, Leder and Kotcheff persisted through desert heat and nearly 130 days of filming to produce their feature debut.

Of course, none of this would matter if the film itself wasn’t worthy of wider attention. The story of a  reclusive telemarketer (who also buries geocache tins — hence the film’s title) and a homeless woman with multiple personalities, The Planters has raked in awards at literally every festival where it has played. For the record, those awards are: Raindance’s Film of the Festival award; Nashville Film Festival’s Best of the Fest audience award, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Song; and both the Comedy Vanguard feature audience award and Comedy Vanguard feature jury award from the Austin Film Festival.

In advance of its West Coast premiere today at AFI Fest, I talked with Leder, Kotcheff, and Beiro about their self-reliant production methods and treating themes of friendship, trauma, and religion through a decidedly quirky lens.

Filmmaker: Kotcheff and Leder, you’re the writers, directors, cinematographers and actors in this film. Can you start by talking about your individual backgrounds in terms of art and film? And how did you first meet and decide to collaborate?

Leder: When I was little, I became very interested in my mother’s camcorders. I met Kotcheff in the third grade and we started messing around on those cameras and making short films around the time we were 12 years old. I studied photography in high school, went to college in New York at New School University for writing, secretly took acting classes, and ended up working on David Milch’s writing team as an intern. Around that time, Kotcheff approached me about writing a film together. So we started working on another dark comedy called Peachville, which was a Sundance Institute finalist for the 2016 Screenwriters Lab. The Planters started because we wanted to establish our style as a duo before tackling Peachville which is a much bigger film in budget and scope. 

Kotcheff: You gave a good story of how we got together.

Leder: Our love story. (laughs)

Kotcheff: Well for me, I wanted nothing to do with Hollywood or really films until my mid-20s. I thought I wanted to be a teacher and a chef and everything but a filmmaker. I got into political activism and started doing a documentary in Canada on the Unist’ot’en clan, an indigenous family blocking a Chevron pipeline… which they’re still doing right now. The political activism turned into storytelling, which then opened up a whole can of worms. So in fact, I did quite the opposite of what I didn’t want to do, which is to become a filmmaker.

Filmmaker: And actor.

Kotcheff: Actor, oh yeah, that thing.

Beiro: You’re an actor now.

Kotcheff: I feel like everyone wants to be an actor when they’re a kid, they want to be seen. Maybe it’s because we grew up in Los Angeles and it was more of a reality here, but it just didn’t seem like something I wanted to do. There wasn’t as much representation for people that look like me on the screen. I think subconsciously I thought, “Oh, I guess it’s not an option.” Then this film came around and it just happened. It’s all Leder’s fault. 

Filmmaker: What was the genesis of The Planters? 

Kotcheff: We just started cracking ourselves up thinking wouldn’t it be funny if two people escaping from an insane asylum crashed into each other in the desert. And then we were like, oh, we should write a short film about that. And then we thought, “Why don’t we make it a feature?” It turned out that only one of us would be insane, and that was Leder.  

Leder: Lucky me.

Filmmaker: And were you both living in LA at that time? 

Leder: It was half Los Angeles, half long distance. We broke the characters before we broke the story. We’d talk big picture and then bite off bigger chunks and then get to the scene level together. Then we’d separate and assign each other scenes and come back together to workshop them. 

Filmmaker: And did you all always have the intention of playing the roles?

Leder: We did. 

Filmmaker: And did you also have the intention of shooting it as well?

Leder: It was a wild hair idea to go shoot a feature film without a script and without a crew in two weeks. So we got an Airbnb out in Bombay Beach in the Salton Sea. Stuffed our cars with all this equipment, costumes, food, but no script. And what we found there were the characters and a little bit of the story. We also found that the script we didn’t pack… needed to be written. But that footage from that first trip became our Kickstarter campaign. Then we came to Jacqueline, and were like, “Jacqueline, we have this awesome idea. No crew. Check it out.”

Filmmaker: That was actually my next question: Jacqueline, how did you get involved?

Beiro: I was hired by Leder and Kotcheff to put together the budget for Peachville. After a few months in development, they said, “We’re going to the desert to shoot this other film.” (laughs) When they came back they showed me some footage and it was so beautiful and weird; right up my alley. When they asked if I wanted to produce this as a feature with them, it was a no-brainer.

Filmmaker: Were you on set? 

Beiro:  No, I was a cyber producer. I was in Los Angeles keeping the budget and schedule running remotely, managing gear orders and other production logistics. There were a couple of times on down days where I would come out to the desert to visit and talk about their progress. But other than that, we’d FaceTime a lot. It was a big undertaking, working that way.

Kotcheff: Jacqueline kept us sane. 

Leder: We might still be in the desert if it weren’t for her.

(Laughter)

Filmmaker: The cinematography and the production design are incredibly intentional. The camera hardly ever moves. The production design is meticulous. Props play an incredibly important role in the film. People talk about making a calling card film for themselves as a director or an actor, but this film is like a calling card film for you as actors, and as directors, and as cinematographers, and as production designers, and as costume designers. Even as someone who has made films with very, very small crews before, it boggles my mind. So, can you talk about that? What did a day’s shoot look like with the two of you doing essentially everything.

Kotcheff: Well, first of all, thank you. The night before we’d shoot, we’d shotlist and rehearse. We’d always have a shot list just because we had so many responsibilities and our brain had to be in so many places that to have no shot list meant absolute chaos and a really bad day. We learned that pretty early. We’d also make a checklist the night before of things we needed to have on hand. Everything from props to costumes. In the morning, we’d have breakfast together and then do our hair and makeup. And after hair and makeup we would get the camera set up and do test shots. Once we were happy with the shot, we’d set up the sound equipment. 

Leder: We had a three inch monitor on that Canon C300 that we would flip around, run into the shot and be squinting to make sure we had hit our marks. In hindsight, I think we definitely would have invested in a bigger monitor.

Kotcheff: That was a small, small screen. I mean, what were we thinking? 

Leder: (Laughs) We also obviously didn’t have a boom operator, so we worked with mic stands, but because of our wide frames, often we’d rig the shotgun mics to apple boxes below us, if we were sitting down, with gaffers tape. Really classy.

Kotcheff: And because there was no one monitoring behind the camera, we rarely cut, especially when we were both on camera, just because that would require us getting up, moving our equipment. That’s the benefit of digital for us. I don’t think we could’ve made this film on film. So, that would be the shooting day. And then once we were done shooting, I would make dinner and Leder was the DIT. I totally didn’t want to be DIT so I was happy to be cooking. Leder would offload and organize all of our footage, just get everything looking good, and make sure that we got the shots. 

Filmmaker: This is obviously a much slower process than what you’d be dealing with if you had a large crew. So how many scenes or how many pages were you shooting a day? How many days did you end up filming?

Leder: We got through about a scene, two, maybe tops, three scenes a day, depending on the size of the scene. We shot for 127 days.

Beiro: Non-consecutively.

Filmmaker: 127 days?

Leder: Correct.

Filmmaker: That’s amazing. My first feature, Something, Anything, was mostly made with a crew of about four people. We shot it piece by piece on 60 different days over the course of a year. I know how exhausting that was. How did you all do that and sustain your energy?

Leder: Lots of water. We had to stay hydrated out in that 120 degree weather. We had to turn off the air conditioning in the mobile home we were shooting in so we could roll sound, which slowed us down a lot.

Filmmaker: Oh my god.

Leder: Our actor, Phil Parolisi who plays Richard Cox, he likes to say, “You know the part of your self that doubts yourself? You have the other person to wipe out all self-doubt.” So it was a lot of mutual moral support. I think it was also really believing that we were going to finish this in less time than we did. We really thought when we set out we were going to shoot this in six weeks. We didn’t think it was going to be pushed back a hundred days. 

Kotcheff: Delusion kept us going through this whole process. If someone had told us it was going to take almost 130 days to finish this film, I don’t think we would have done it.

Beiro: There was a lot of boundless optimism throughout the production. I think it was also getting to see the dailies that kept us afloat. During tough spells, to be able to see really great footage coming from Leder and Kotcheff was extremely encouraging.   

Filmmaker: One of the things that intrigued me was, obviously, the plot element of the planting and the transactions that Martha is having with people that she never meets — and that we don’t see. The burial and retrieval of these secret, meaningful objects is a very concrete thing, but planting could also be seen as a metaphor for what’s happening with these characters. They’ve been through traumas, and these experiences have been buried and then are eventually dug up over the course of the story. I wonder if you could just talk about this idea of planting, and trauma, and the idea of addressing  these things in a very ironic and quirky comedy. 

Kotcheff: Sometimes is easier to just laugh. And as much as Martha cuts herself off from society and people, planting is really a way for her to connect. But it’s also a way for her to avoid real, meaningful relationships. It keeps her just far enough away to stay safe. 

Leder: I think there’s a little bit of Martha Plant in everybody. She’s just a very extreme version of the loneliness you feel in a crowd. The insecurity of being human. Sadie, who’s outwardly insane but maybe the most sane below the surface, knows how to communicate and she’s able to help Martha find that in herself.

Filmmaker: It’s not surprising that there’s something really resonant about the friendship in the movie. It’s fundamentally in the DNA of who the two of you are and how this movie came to be.

I also wanted to ask about Sadie’s spiritual visions. I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about the film going into this sphere of religion. The film treats those elements at times satirically and sometimes sincerely, it felt to me. Some of that has to do with the fact that you’re using animation, this fundamentally transformative artistic practice to tell that part of the story. Was animation always going to be how you represented this?

Kotcheff: Regarding the spiritual religious element, obviously – you cannot see your spirituality. You cannot see God — or whatever higher power, or no higher power, that you relate with. So I think that we felt that there’s something about animation that is so incredibly special, that it has that kind of unseen feeling to it. 

Leder: Absolutely. And we had been an IndieWire Project of the Month back in February 2016, and Kotcheff miraculously stumbled upon another IndieWire project called The Operator, by Sam Barnett, who’s this incredible animator with this super dark, haunting style. She was like, “We got to work with this guy.” So we stalked him and got him to Skype with us and convinced him to do our film.

Kotcheff: I definitely remember the moment when we were like, “Okay Sadie is going to see biblical visions in her tin.”

Leder: We set Martha up as someone who doesn’t believe in anything that’s not right in front of her. And we’re pairing her against someone who’s completely on the opposite side of the spectrum. For Sadie to be able to see these visions inside something that is so concrete that is Martha’s deep passion, the vessels for her planting, it’s both meaningful and comedic — 

Kotcheff: Seeing Jesus inside a Christmas themed tin. 

Leder: Precisely.

(Laughter)

Filmmaker: You’ve got AFI Fest coming up. What’s up next with the film?

Kotcheff: We’re currently looking for the best distribution fit. And look forward to everyone experiencing the madness that is The Planters in theaters. 

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