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“Eat to Remember”: Audrey Ewell on Her Fiction Series, The Black Seed

The Black Seed art by Alicia Berbenick

In filmmaker Audrey Ewell’s The Black Seed, a woman wakes up in an anonymous corporate-style apartment with no memory of how she got there. Examining her body, it feels somewhat alien to her, as if she’s still suffering the effects of some night-before dissociative drug. Looking out the window, the city below looks peaceful, serene, but also completely depopulated. Where is she? Who is she? The only clue is a note taped to the refrigerator: “THE WORLD ENDED. IT’S NOT SAFE. EAT TO REMEMBER.”

With that launches Ewell’s inventive and surprising “fiction series,” which blends a kind of existentialist mystery around identity with a science-fiction survival tale as we watch her unnamed heroine venture out into the world, both fearing possible adversities and predators while recognizing that she needs to connect to who or whatever might be out there in order to return to some kind of normalcy. But for followers of Ewell’s work — with partner Aaron Aites, who died in 2016, the producer, writer and director made the documentaries Until the Light Takes Us and 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film as well as the science fiction short Memory Box — perhaps the first twist in The Black Seed‘s tale is its format: a serial story unfolding one-chapter-a-month on Patreon. As filmmakers across the world envisaged new outlets for their creativity during the pandemic, so too, with this Patreon project, has Ewell. Each month, The Black Seed delivers to its subscribers not just cliffhanger-ending chapters but also original art in which a community of artists offer their own interpretations of Ewell’s storylines and themes.

Below, over email, Ewell and I discuss both the creative opportunities offered by the serial format as well as its challenges, the project’s inspirations, and the status of her forthcoming psychological horror feature dealing with grief, And You As Well Must Die.

The first two chapters of The Black Seed can be read on the project’s Patreon page, where readers can subscribe to receive future installments.

Filmmaker: Your feature script, And You As Well Must Die, was at the Gotham Project Market and received recognition from SFFILM, among other organizations. So what led you to make your new narrative project in a very different sort of form and model — a month-at-a-time Patreon release? 

Ewell: It had been a while since I’d released any substantive work, and I was wanting to engage with an audience again on a bigger project.

The backstory is that Aaron and I had been writing a script when he died. I initially planned to finish it myself, but every change I made carried it further away from what he and I had worked on together. It felt like losing another piece of him, of us. The project was too haunted, so I scrapped it for my own sanity.

Although, and I’m laughing as I remember this, I did first write to a somewhat famous author who had never (to my knowledge) written a screenplay before, and asked if he wanted to write it with me. He did not. But he did send a very kind letter. You know, that’s just the sort of thing you, or at least I, do in early stages of grief. Weird shit as you try to find your way back to life. Anyway, that project died with Aaron, it just took me a while to realize it.

Eventually I started a new feature script, which became And You As Well Must Die. Losing Aaron felt like losing a part of myself, and I wanted and needed to be more than just a human-shaped ball of pain. Being a storyteller was a part of my identity that I wanted back. I feel like I’m always pushing a boulder up the hill of inherent wrongness that society/capitalism says I am as a 1) woman who 2) has the temerity to not be a size zero and now 3) hasn’t produced anything in a long time because grief eviscerated my productivity. So, creating stories is part of how I assert my value in a world that has a vested interest in frequently telling me I don’t have much.

It’s also satisfying to me on some deep primitive ancestral Paleolithic level. I love building worlds and living in them as I write. It’s a form of escapism, but it also feels like there’s a magical quality to sharing something of myself, of my experiences, and of life reflected through me. Plus, I enjoy a good story so I also just want to give that to others for no other reason than to create pleasure for them. And filmmaking takes 10,000 years, whereas publishing on a monthly schedule has an immediacy.

Filmmaker: Now that the Patreon is five installments in, how do you find the serial writing and releasing process shaping the work itself? What’s surprised you about creating a work on this sort of schedule?

Ewell: One good thing about publishing on Patreon is that it ensures accountability to doing the work: I’ve made a commitment to my paying readers to deliver a new installment every month. To achieve that, two hours or two pages a day is my rule.

The cliffhanger model I’m using has been the biggest structural change for me. I publish once a month so I give people something to come back for. Most installments lead up to a culmination and then I pick it up in the next one. I try to make them a pretty uniform length, between a 10-12 minute read, as people are busy. So I just have to plot them out and then sometimes I’ll find that I’ve reached my word limit but I’m not as far into the plot as I’d planned, or I got there faster, or the writing itself dictated/revealed a new course, so I have to rethink the ending and adjust the next installment. And sometimes that changes my trajectory in interesting ways – both forward and backward.

I’m always writing one installment and re-writing another and polishing the one that’s about to publish at the same time. I have a small buffer so I can go back and make changes to as-of-yet unpublished chapters, but not a huge one. Keeps me on my toes.

Filmmaker: On your Patreon page, you cite inspiration from Max Richter’s eight-hour sleep performance. Can you explain that a little further?

Ewell: It’s more like a great encapsulation than inspiration, but in Natalie Johns’ documentary, Max Richter’s Sleep, he says of the process that writing this long-form piece was something new for him, outside of what he already knew how to do. He described it as: “Stepping out of that pool of light into something else, into the dark, and just finding what’s out there.” That’s exactly how I feel about taking on a new form, which in my case is a serialized prose mystery/thriller. It’s both frightening and freeing to work in a new way. It brings back a feeling of discovery, of play.

Maybe it’s because I have a history of producing or co-producing my own films, but when I’m writing a script, I have all of these practical considerations – budget, locations, VFX – and with this, I just… don’t have to worry about it. The depth of possibility it allows for is also a bit terrifying. Any failure of imagination is my own, and any flight of fancy can go on the page. At least, that’s what you think when you start, but then the story has its own shape and the world its own rules, so it turns out there are always constraints. But at least these ones are new, and come from the demands of the piece itself.

Filmmaker: And can you talk about your specific influences or motivations when it comes to the story itself? I’ve always been a fan of the “last person on earth” genre, which your story fits into, somewhat (or at least so far!). And as a teenager I used to play text computer games like Advent and Zork, and just in the sense of a character navigating an unknown landscape, I was reminded of these too. To what do you trace your own interest in this kind of story to?

Ewell: I don’t share those reference points, but I read a lot of science fiction as a kid. Philip Jose Farmer’s Dayworld had a big impact on my ten-year-old mind. It’s dystopian, but about an overpopulated world, so not really similar to The Black Seed. The character in Dayworld is an agent with seven different identities, one for each day of the week. My character wakes up in a seemingly abandoned city and has lost her memory, so she’s trying to figure out who she is and what happened. And identity is also questioned in so much of Philip K. Dick’s writing. So essentially, I can trace this story’s genesis back to science fiction writers named Philip.

But really, it’s probably the effect of the Cold War, and the fact that as grade schoolers, we Gen Xers were doing safety drills in the event that Russia nuked us. The specter of vast destruction was omnipresent. We were children, waiting for bombs to drop that we’d been told would wipe us all out, but for the protection granted by the little wooden desks we had to crawl under. I think the absurdity of that has carried over to how my character copes. She’s in this terrible predicament – waking up in a clearly fundamentally wrong place without knowing who she is – but she’s also sometimes just flummoxed by the insanity of the situation. I feel like that’s something we can all relate to after the last few years, as we watched things go from bad, to worse, to are-you-fucking-kidding-me?

But actually, the last-person-standing aspect that you referenced is about to get more complicated. I say in the description that the story is not what it seems to be, and that’s true. I’m about to pull the rug out from under my character. I have so much compassion for her, but I’m so mean to her. She’s about to have a really, really terrifying experience. It’s so fun to write, to picture. I do find myself thinking about how I would shoot these scenes. It’s how I’m used to thinking.

Filmmaker: As a related question, what sort of audience feedback are you getting, and is that feedback impacting the work itself in any way?

Ewell: It’s interesting when people can comment as you go. I love to hear what people are taking away from it, because it’s like I have a secret and it feels like a game where I reveal bits and pieces, laying down a breadcrumb trail of clues, and figuring out how much to reveal and when. In some ways I think this story is a bit like LOST, the series. I don’t know if they knew their end when they started or not, but I do. So it’s all about weaving my way there, and I’m thinking about how to have fun with the readers along the way.

I’m also thinking of something that the poet Nayyirah Waheed said, about making art as a woman. That the reader/audience falls in love with her mind, not her face, and that making art may be the only space where women can be whole, and seen, without being seen.

Part of me wants to hide and part of me wants to be seen, and that’s often the tension I feel in my creative process. Most people have this to some degree. I feel like part of the role of artists is to work through this stuff in public (in their work), because that’s helpful for people who are working it out in private. Having said that, we need to treat people well in the process. Figuring out your shit isn’t an excuse for unkind behavior.

In this series, I’m either forcing or allowing myself to reveal parts of myself that I haven’t before. And maybe that’s because I don’t need anyone else’s approval or money to publish it. Like I’m weird, and I have an interest in sexual dynamics, and I’m a little twisted and enjoy dark things, and I’m a little trailer-trashy and a little philosophical, a little goth and a little Buddhist, and there’s not really a commercial space for that combination.

But I want to be able to own all that. So a format where I don’t need millions of dollars and lots of people to sign off is freeing. Even though the readers could, if they wanted to, savage me. I hope they won’t. So far they haven’t. But I’m totally open to people leaving comments. I love it.

Filmmaker: Where are you finding your artists, and what sort of conversations do you have with them about their pieces? And why is it important for you to have the accompanying artwork?

Ewell: My artists have thus far been my incredibly talented friends. At some point I’d love to invite artists whose work I admire but don’t know, but since I pay them from the proceeds, I feel like we’d need to have a lot more readers to make that feasible. But I also love collaborating with friends, even though it does sometimes mean more chasing than I’d like. Artists, you know?

On the plus side, it gives me a reason to reconnect with old friends. My April artist is Johanna Jackson, who I’ve known for more than 20 years. She did liner note illustrations for one of Aaron’s early IRAN albums, and has become wildly successful in the meantime, which is delightful. Working with her feels like completing a circuit.

As for the parameters, they’re loose – their piece should be inspired by their chapter, but their interpretation need not be literal. I’m happy with abstraction, with whatever the writing sparks for them. And thinking about what their style is sometimes does make me think about what chapter I want to give them or if I want to include something that I specifically think they can bounce off of.

The next chapter I’m publishing has a scene involving nudity and voyeurism, so I gave that to my friend Iphigenia, who works with a lot of bands and records as Foie Gras, and whose graphics work often has sexual themes. My story is 18+, and I want the artists to have as much freedom as I do with it. But do I know that she’ll do something with that particular scene, or if she does, what it’ll be? Nope. The artists don’t have to tell me what they’re doing or get approval, though some do send thumbnails and get my OK anyway. It’s funny because I will literally approve anything they want to do, as long as they’re happy with it, but some artists are used to working that way, and I want to support their process. But anything goes, as long as it’s sparked by the writing.

And their work also sometimes sparks mine. I love that about collaborating. And I miss the creative frisson I had with Aaron. It’s a rush when new art hits my inbox. It’s probably my favorite part. Christmas comes once a month.

Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the latest on And You As Well Must Die?

Ewell: I would love to fully answer this, but all I can say is that I have secrets that I’m looking forward to being able to share, hopefully before too long. (And it’s wild how long you have to keep secrets in film development!) But as the film unfolds on one timeline, this story unfolds on another, and that helps me not lose my mind with the lengthy development process.

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