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“The ’50s as Seen Through the Lens of the ’80s”: Martha Stephens on To the Stars

Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato in To the Stars

A small town in Oklahoma in the early 1960s: not much tends to happen here, and if it were up to its lifelong residents, things would stay that way. Maggie (Liana Liberato), an 18-year-old outsider, arrives from the big city, her parents and siblings in tow. Brash and outspoken, Maggie befriends Iris (Kara Hayward), a shy, bookish teen who’s harrassed by the local boys and mocked by the girls. The two bring out the best in each other, encouraging a period of growth and self-discovery. Both from various forms of a broken home, the two friends’ fluid meshing of personalities comes in handy when local community prejudice comes between them.

To the Stars, the new film from director Martha Stephens, is now available to stream via digital platforms, I spoke with Stephens about choosing to work on a project from someone else’s screenplay didn’t originate with herself, the allure of period-set coming of-age films shot at the end of the twentieth century and publicly exhibiting versions of her film in both black and white and in color.  

Filmmaker: Your previous feature, Land Ho!, had a co-director (Aaron Katz), much older cast and an international setting. After that film had its theatrical run in 2014, were you brainstorming how completely different you wanted your next feature to be? Had you been looking to work off a script that wasn’t your own?

Stephens: I knew I wanted to make a movie about women after Land Ho!, just as a good balance for myself. I found myself working off a script I had written that was perhaps a bit too ambitious, a stylistic throwback to the car movies of Hal Needham about women who perform their automobile stunts. I was trying to get that going for a while but, between the budgeting and getting specific cast attached, it was a really slow, drawn-out process. While going through that, I was also checking in with several producer friends I knew were reading scripts, curious to see if they had come across anything that might seem up my alley.

Kristin Mann [who would go on to produce To the Stars] had read a script that had come to her from an agent who said it didn’t have a home, and that he found it lovely and bought it to be made, etc. It eventually found its way to me through Kristin. She knew I have a personal attachment to small town stories and an interest in mid-century America, and that I really wanted to do a period piece. When I read it, I knew it would be a different experience working off someone else’s screenplay. I was actually looking forward to that, because sometimes when you write your own scripts, you can have tunnel vision or blind spots to some of the script’s problems. Here was an opportunity to be a bit more objective going in. I really liked the story. It reminded me of something that would have been made by a studio in the late 1980s or early ’90s, movies like Fried Green Tomatoes and Now and Then, that are specifically earnest and sincere and that you don’t see much of anymore, especially coming-of-age films that pertain to a specific period.

Filmmaker: That’s an interesting point. When I think about those films, even Stand By Me and Dirty Dancing, I realize that we’re essentially observing two kinds of period pieces in one: a film from the ’80s that presents a simulation of the ’60s. 

Stephens: I talk about this all the time, but I have a mild obsession with that concept: the ’50s as seen through the lens of the ’80s, or the ’90s/’60s or whatever it is. A lot of that has to do with me being a kid with parents who were divorcing in the late ’80s. My dad, who only really knew about dating in high school, would go out on dates after the divorce and listen to doo-wop and take me to see Chubby Checker at the State Fair and stuff like that. It’s my belief that a number of adults in the late ’80s/early ’90s were going through their second wave of teenagehood as a result of divorce. I could be wrong, but that’s what’s there in my memory. 

Even when you think about those old workout videos from Richard Simmons, Sweatin’ to the Oldies, it’s a celebration of these bygone eras. It’s like what we’re doing now with “the Spielberg ‘80s” and how it relates to Stranger Things and shows like that. For whatever reason, I’m nostalgic for those eras, a previous era as viewed through the lens of ’80s movies (more than the ’80s itself).

Filmmaker: Growing up, I thought of Happy Days and American Graffiti as actual films and shows from the 1950s, oblivious to the fact that they weren’t actually of the era they depicted. 

Stephens: Exactly.

Filmmaker: Your cinematographer on Land Ho!, Andrew Reed, rejoined you for this project, but the film’s visual identity is much different, mirroring the dusty, agricultural feel of the American heartland. It’s warmer, a bit more subdued, and—correct me if I’m wrong, but when the film premiered at Sundance, it was originally presented in black and white?

Stephens: It was.

Filmmaker: I’d love to know more about how that all went down.

Stephens: I’d been working with Andrew since I was 19 and we were classmates at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He would go on to shoot one of my film school movies. Now I’ve known him for almost half my life and we continue to work together. Our tastes line up and we’ve developed a communication shorthand we implement on set. Land Ho! was a throwback to the buddy comedies of the 1980s, and when you’re working with a budget of $300,000 you’re going to end up shooting in a way that’s a little different than when you have more tools at your disposal. I think sometimes people assume that filmmakers like myself and others I’ve come up with have an aesthetic that is documentary-based, something super-naturalistic or whatever. The reality is that when you have no money, you do what you can with what you have. This was the first time that I really felt like I had enough resources to make a more constructed movie the way that I maybe would’ve liked to have before but didn’t have the means. 

I knew immediately when I read the script for To the Stars that I wanted it to be in black and white, and we were trying to find a good middle ground as it pertained to the framing of shots and using wide lenses when we could. We wanted to provide visual nods to the period in which the film is set (or nods to films that were being made during the period of time in which the film is set) without wanting it to come across as a blatant love letter to mid-twentieth-century films. So, we tried using tools that weren’t around during that period, like the scene at the dance that’s primarily shot via Steadicam. We tried to mix things up and never wanted to go too far in one direction. This is another way of saying that we didn’t want to go too anachronistic. 

To answer your question about presenting the film in black and white versus color, that stems from a compromise we made with our investors. They noted that the film was already a risky bet, being of a specific period, and presenting it in black and white was only going to add to that risk. We reached an agreement that allowed us to produce two versions of the film, one in black and white and one colorized. I convinced them to let us submit our black and white cut to the Sundance Film Festival. It got accepted and that is the version we screened. Nonetheless, we’ve always had two versions in mind, and while the black and white one was our main focus while creating the film, we kept our eye on the color version as well. 

Filmmaker: In what ways?

Stephens: More in our set design and costumes, honing in on prints and textures rather than focusing on things like grayscale to break it up. I think the colorized version is a very attractive looking film but it has a different mood than the black and white version.

Filmmaker: The film also has a very classical, measured shooting style, while also providing a rawness that might be excluded from films made in the early 1960s. I think what I’m trying to get at is less the look of the film and more its vibe and pacing, which also adds to this concept of a neo-studio-film.

Stephens: Yeah, we wanted that hanging over everything at all times because the movie is about yearning, on behalf of not just the two main characters but their parents and each of the side characters you meet along the way. We wanted to take an additional beat so you could really feel the pining and longing. Maybe that gives the proceedings an extra syrupy pace, but one I hope isn’t perceived as too slow. So much is about what the characters can’t say and how they’re in their own inner worlds, so you have to get creative in how you convey what they’re going through. My editor and I wanted to create a feeling of a memory. 

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about visual influences. Early on, there’s a reference to Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 CBS special report, Harvest of Shame. I know you’re also a big fan of The Last Picture Show.

Stephens: We looked at Bennett Miller’s Capote, given its similar dusty, prairie landscapes and locales. It’s a very different movie than ours, of course, but this idea of a vastness that feels equally alienating and suffocating was shared with our story. We also looked at James Whale’s Frankenstein and other old monster movies that, without giving too much away, possess a mob mentality that also creeps into our film. There was an X-Files episode, “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” that was shot in black and white and was influential to us, as well as portions of the eighth episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. That episode had such a silvery look to it and we brought stills from the episode when we went in to do our color grading for the black and white. We looked at Edward Scissorhands, Lolita, Cape Fear. We were all over the place, really.

Filmmaker: And you did actually shoot in Oklahoma?

Stephens: Yeah, mostly due to Oklahoma’s tax incentives enabling us to get the biggest bang for our buck. As far as geography, northwestern Oklahoma is pretty similar to Kansas. The reason we changed the location to Oklahoma is because I wanted the film to be as authentic as possible to the area, while also realizing that some of those areas are somewhat interchangeable. There were a few days where we were out on this one particular road and the winds were getting pretty vicious. It affected the speed at which we were filming, definitely, because you have to reset hair and things were getting muddled. All that was pretty tough. We had crew-wide food poisoning one day. We were supposed to shoot the pond scenes at the end of the shoot but we couldn’t because it was unseasonably cold that year. So, we had to push it back three months and that was tough, because my editor and I were having to edit the movie without the pond scene, which is really the beating heart of the movie. It was a twenty-day shoot, so we didn’t have a ton of time.

Filmmaker: And so you returned to Oklahoma, three months later, to get the pond sequences?

Stephens: Yes, and we lost our original pond. I was editing in Arkansas (that’s where they set us up to edit), and on weekends I would go and scout. The producers thought it would be better if we found a pond on that side of Oklahoma as opposed to where we were originally going to shoot, so while I was working on the edit, I was simultaneously going out around the Tulsa area and scouting.

Filmmaker: What are some logistical decisions that have to be made when it comes to making a period piece? You don’t shy away from incorporating automobiles from the era into your film, but were there things you had to work around, whether due to budget or other limitations? 

Stephens: I started conversations with my production designer, Jonathan Guggenheim, pretty early on in pre-pro. We both have issues with period pieces that feel as if they’re focusing on nothing more than a checklist of that particular year, like “What songs and what style of clothing were popular that year? Let’s include those.” They’re not thinking beyond the fact that in all areas, fads are going to take their time to get to these areas. It was important to make the movie feel more like it was set in the early 1950s than the early ’60s because progress is slow to come to smaller towns, especially at that point in history, before everyone had a TV set. With that in mind, we wanted to incorporate elements of the ’30s and ‘40s as well. What would these people’s homes and lives look like, to the extent of what we had available to us?

Filmmaker: Does the specificity of the costumes, down to the exact material being used and things of that nature, help to get your cast get more “in it” as well? 

Stephens: I think so. And visually, you have to think that beyond the actors, the costumes are going to be the second element closest to the camera and so it’s more important than a lot of us realize. I can only imagine if I were an actor and I was wearing something that was not quite right, or anachronistic, that would personally bother me. They really got into it. I mean, the girls were even wearing period underwear and bras.

Filmmaker: With you returning to being the solo director on a project, did you find yourself incorporating elements you took from Aaron Katz on Land Ho! in To the Stars? Another way of asking that is: what are some of the benefits and challenges that come with collaboration as opposed to being the sole guiding voice that everyone consults with? 

Stephens: Aaron and I both felt with Land Ho! that it was really nice to not feel lonely. You look at producers and there’s often several of them and they all have each other to work and problem solve with. The really lovely thing about what we did with Land Ho! was that you felt like you had someone to bounce ideas off of and to share the pain or frustrations or even the great things that happened. Directing can be lonely and you will feel responsible for a lot of things. I loved making that movie with Aaron and sharing that experience with him. That being said, I think we’re both very much our own individuals and want to make different kinds of movies. When we made Land Ho!, that was more or less a lark, like an experiment. We thought it would be fun. We didn’t know that that would end up being our most successful project of our careers thus far, so that was surprising. But it was a trip and we had a great time. You look at a number of co-directors and they’re often siblings, so what we did was sort of strange— two people that tend to work separately coming together for one thing and then going off separately after it concludes. I think I learn something on every movie that helps inform the way I go about guiding the next one, and whether or not that has to do with making a movie with another person or just making another movie in general, I’m not sure. 

Filmmaker: Has being on the festival circuit with To the Stars for the past year enhanced your understanding of the film? Has sharing it with audiences (and different kinds of audiences) grown the film in your mind or your understanding of it and how you discuss it?

Stephens: I think so. When you’re making a movie, you have to chug along and sometimes turn off parts of your brain. If you question too many things, you will lose time. It becomes almost primal, like being led completely by your intuition due to not having enough time to discuss or think about it. Afterwards, when the film comes together and it’s edited and you begin screening it, you realize why you made some of these decisions on a subconscious level in the heat of having time be so constricted. I imagine that when I watch this movie ten years from now, I’ll discover even more things about it. Being further away from it helps. I think that’s normal and there will always be new, smaller discoveries.

I’m glad the movie is finally coming out for a wide audience. We lost our theatrical release due to the coronavirus and that’s okay. I hope, in this way of digital distribution, that it reaches more homes and more eyeballs are on it. I’m definitely ready to move on to the next thing. 

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