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Five Questions with Union Square Director Nancy Savoca

Nancy Savoca’s True Love was an early high-water mark in the modern independent film movement. In fact, its storyline, newcomer casting and loose style is now the template for much current indie drama. So, it’s great to report that over 20 years later Savoca is back with another intimate drama realized on a low budget and entirely outside the industry. With a stellar cast (Mira Sorvino, Tammy Blanchard and Patti Lupone), Savoca explores sister dynamics through the lens of a Canon 5D. The film, Union Square, premieres today at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Filmmaker: What were the origins of Union Square, and were the relationship dynamics of the film’s two lead sisters inspired by any in your own life?

Savoca: I was sitting in a coffee shop with (producer) Neda Armian and (screenwriter) Mary Tobler. We were venting our frustration that we couldn’t raise money for any of our projects and Neda said, “Let’s just shoot something. Anything! Shoot in my apartment. It’s yours!”

Little did she know that I’d take her up on it.

We had to finance this ourselves and needless to say, our resources were limited. My biggest fear was that, because of our low budget and short schedule, we’d be forced to shoot some boring, half-baked ‘two-people-in-a-room’ scenario. (Neda’s apartment is actually just one room).

So, I entered the project feeling a bit shaky but, luckily, Mary was fearless. Over the summer, she and I batted the script back and forth. It was great fun to get the emails with her latest draft- like opening a lovely gift every time!

I also enlisted the help of my favorite movie couples: Roberto Rossellini/Anna Magnani and John Cassavetes/Gena Rowlands. “The Human Voice” (part of the feature, Amore) and Woman Under the Influence, were an inspiration for telling an emotionally powerful story within a small canvas.

Like both films, I wanted to bring our audience in close with some difficult women. Maybe it’s a reaction to so-called “reality tv” which makes us see people as either crazy, stupid, uptight or bitchy. It plays on our cruelest instincts — like Romans cheering at the Colosseum!

That’s why, at the start of our movie, the characters fit a stereotype and you can quickly judge them. But by the end, you are in it and you are with them – for better or for worse.

Kind of like life!

As to whether this was inspired by my own life — not really. But this story, like my other films, has situations and feelings that resonate with me. They’re usually things I find painful or confusing or disturbing in some way. And I want to understand them. I believe movies are one way to do this.

Filmmaker: Much of the film is set in an apartment. What was your approach to rendering this locale visually using the Canon 5D?

Savoca: Yes it was one apartment but, as I mentioned before, it was worse than that – it was one room! Still, I wanted to use the space in a meaningful way. With D.P. Lisa Leone, we divided the space into six areas. I worked out some general blocking for each character so that different beats in the scenes took place in different areas of the apartment- treating them almost like different locations. I always do a bit of choreography beforehand in order to shot list a scene. Of course, when the actors come in, we adjust to what they do.

As for the Canon 5D, it was wonderful in its affordability and portability. The image, as you’ll see, was surprisingly good for the fact that they were originally still cameras that are tricked out to shoot video.

And we were able to shoot in the streets of NY and department stores and even a “party in progress” night club. Totally guerrilla style and no one noticed us because our cameras were so small and non-intrusive. It was very liberating.

But, I did hate the fact that we couldn’t use monitors while we were rolling. I was directing “blind.” It was actually how we did it back in the old days but the difference here was that I had two cameras going — sometimes three and so I had to trust the operators. Lucky for me, they were all top notch — especially Lisa and Kerwin Devonish who was our second operator.

Filmmaker: How much did you allow Mira and Tammy to add to and develop their characters? Or were they interpreting what was originally on the page?

Savoca: Mira and Tammy brought so much to these characters. Yes there was a lot in the script for them to do — the characters were drawn pretty rich — but the cast took that and ran with it. We had very little time to rehearse – only a week! But we talked through everything that week. And then they each took their character and became them. It was thrilling to see it happen.

Also, it turned out that our biggest obstacle became our best opportunity — the fact that the majority of the film takes place in one room made it possible to shoot a lot of it in chronological order. That is unheard of in filmmaking. And it allowed our actors to make discoveries in real time. It was a great way to work and I think we all were spoiled by it. How will we ever go back to shooting out of sequence?

Filmmaker: You’ve run the gamut of independent film production models since making True Love in 1989. From your perspective, what’s the biggest change in the independent film world, for better or worse?

Savoca: The good news is that the equipment is now incredibly accessible, affordable and portable so you can make a movie for very little money. The bad news is that financiers will still ask “who’s in it?” True Love was made with a big cast of complete unknowns. They were all talented theatre actors making their screen debut. I wonder if that movie could be made today.

Filmmaker: What strategies did you use to design this film for a very small budget, and what advice would you have to another filmmaker who has made larger budget films and is now trying to adapt to a smaller model?

Savoca: My advice would be to think through what your parameters are and then look for ways to turn your limitations into advantages (like when we shot in sequence because we had one principal location). And you should be sensible about what you can achieve with your budget and shooting schedule or, seriously, your crew will mutiny!

Speaking of the crew, do feed them well because, in spite of the advice given above, a filmmaker, by definition, will have goals that are ridiculously unrealistic. When that happens, you’d be surprised what a well-fed crew will do for you.

And finally, you must go in knowing that you can make something small but beautiful – like the little walnut carving of the Last Supper I saw at the Met the other day. To think that somebody was given a walnut and a knife and they made art. That’s pretty cool!

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