She Sings to the Stars is a movie that speaks to the soul. It is an insight into the forgotten world; a world where we are all connected, where we are all one.
Inspired by the combination of living in Arizona for many years, listening to reoccurring dreams from an indigenous elder and observing human nature for most of her life, Jennifer did something most of us forget to do. She stopped, observed and listened. The pure simplicity of this narrative intuitively drew me toward Jennifer and despite her hectic – yet exciting – schedule, I was honoured to have the opportunity to interview to her. Here below is a beautiful insight into one of the most profound movies – I believe – that will change our thought process and lives forever.
Name: Jennifer Corcoran
Occupation: Feature film writer and director; co-founder of Circeo Films
Nationality: Irish / American
Mum of 3: 1 daughter and 2 sons
1) You are the writer and director of the film She Sings to the Stars, a story based on three characters brought together by unlikely circumstances, set in the desert of New Mexico. Can you tell me about the story and what influences you have had in your life to want to create a film about this.
First, the story:
Mabel is a Native American grandmother who lives alone, tending her drought-ravaged corn in the desert Southwest. Her half-Mexican grandson, Third, dreams of ‘making it big’ in LA, but his plans change dramatically when he comes to his grandmother’s house to collect traditional dolls he hopes to sell for a high price. Lyle is a faded magician from LA traveling with a white rabbit, the promise of a gig and a life-long dream to be able to magically disappear. When his radiator boils over, he is stranded outside Mabel’s house. Both men must yield to a timeless rhythm and discover a capacity greater than imagined.
Having lived in the desert Southwest for years I had come to know several elders from Third Mesa at Hopi in Arizona. One of these elders appeared to me in dreams regularly. When I asked him about the dreams, he replied, “This happens.”
For indigenous peoples, everything is alive, everything is connected. A Hopi proverb says: “All dreams spin out from the same web.”
In a dream, I was visited by Mabel, the main character of She Sings to the Stars. She was small and very old, sitting on the back of a wooden cart, spindly legs dangling. She said, “It is time to sing the song. Listen. It will take four years.” Dreams arrive, we don’t concoct them. Four long years later, the film had its first preview screening.
She Sings to the Stars grew from a lot of research and years simply spent observing beauty and human behaviour. Everything is food for the imagination and there are always questions. What is it to be human? but, specifically, what it is to be a woman vis à vis what is it to be a woman in a man’s world? What is our collective feminine nature? As women, what is our relationship to “the indefinable”, what lies beyond the veil of enculturation? Women are bearers of life, and with this comes a natural capacity to nourish in the way we are all nourished by the Earth. The beauty of our diversity can be celebrated only when we acknowledge that we are, integrally, all related. In this collective, women’s voices are still missing. A balance longs to be re-created.
As a child I fashioned a box to capture my dreams. With a hole in the top, shedding light on a blank piece of paper inside, I tied the box to my head when I went to sleep. I wanted to bring the unrestricted realms of dreaming into the confines of our waking world.
My mother wrote, directed, shot and edited 8mm and 16mm films. She was an insatiably curious woman with a passion for history, literature and film. She introduced us to Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Mister Magoo; and as we grew up in Rome, Italy, to the pantheon of iconic Italian filmmakers. And we used to go to the circus whenever it came to town. She encouraged me to write from an early age. Stories often appear in my dreams.
I started in the theatre, trained as a director, worked on stage. I moved into documentary production then picked up a cheap Super-8 camera and started making black and white silent shorts with no expectations, just a lot of experimentation.
For She Sings to the Stars, I constructed three life-sized, newspaper-stuffed, dressed figures of the characters in the film and lived with them. Sometimes they offered clues, sometimes they didn’t. There were days, weeks and months of nothing but brick walls, then 4AM wakings where I could actually see a light inside my brain and my writing hand could barely keep up with the tumble of ideas. The story grew through 17 drafts.
One of the questions that weaves through She Sings to the Stars is ‘what does it mean to listen’? Can we stop long enough to listen – not listen to something, but just listen, which enables us to become aware of where we are, even who we are. The desert, the fourth character in the film, offers a mystery, a silence which thunderously begs you to listen.
2) In She Sings to the Stars you say ‘whatever you believe, that’s the magic’. How much of the story are questions you have answered about human nature, connectivity and ‘we are all one’ to bring a little magic back into your audiences’ lives?
Mabel is not in a hurry. As a grandmother, she is the keeper of timelessness, as is reflected by the desert and an endless river of stars. She listens and sings with all that is around her. While little seems to happen in her world, it is a container of ‘now’, a constant now where anything – and everything – is possible.
Magic is everyday. We have created separation between what we call magic or the ‘impossible’ and what we call reality, where there is none. We knew this unequivocally as children. Everything was alive, interconnected and we existed in a continual state of reciprocity. Indigenous cultures still know this. Physics can prove it. I think we humans are reawakening to the fact that we’re not the sum total of the story. Whether we are conscious or unconscious of it, I believe we are longing to re-entwine with the more-than-human world.
“What happens to one, affects the other as all are a part of one infinite web”
Quantum physics shows us that the universe is made up of waves of energy. Non-locality, parallel realities and wormholes through time and space confirm wisdom held by traditional peoples. The Lakota phrase “Mitakuye Oyasin”, which means “All are related” is used as a common blessing. It describes the harmony with all forms of life, including people, animals, plants, rivers, rocks, mountains – everything is one. What happens to one, affects the other as all are a part of one infinite web – we are much more than we perceive ourselves to be.
E.B. White said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down, and I think that could well be the role of each creator of culture. Cynicism is easy, it’s a cowardly way out. It has become “cool” to tear down, to deride hope, to ignore beauty, wonder or human potential. We can choose where to place our focus. We are in this together, why not seek out points of intersection?
Since I was a child, I have had a facility and a willingness to step in and out of what lives beyond normal, what is indefinable and “intangible”. I see colour, light, images, hear sounds and voices. It began in childhood. My experimentation with this ability and interest in better understanding realities has been ongoing for 30 years. It has taken me to Peru and into the American desert Southwest to learn from indigenous peoples as well as into the wilderness on my own. And I’ll reiterate, I think we are much more than we perceive ourselves to be; I am struck daily by the wonder of the mystery!
This perspective must affect how I write and direct. Filmmaking is collaborative by nature, but as I experienced She Sings to the Stars as “alive” in a way, I knew that it would grow and change from page to production to post-production based on who was there, why, and where we were.
Filmmaking is a fluid, intuitive medium. The process, itself, is how vision comes to life. Poet Diane Ackerman writes, “knee-deep in the cosmic overwhelm, I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” I think that’s magic.
3) What is your connection to the characters and does any one of the three represent an extension of your own voice more than another?
I love all three of them. Deeply. A psychologist might suggest that each character is a part of me, but I think that is overly simplistic. They arrived, unbidden, and began living with me, extensions of what I have observed, what I have overheard.
The desert, the rabbit and the dog are also important characters in the story. Alvin, the magician’s white rabbit continues to makes me wonder. He disappears at will. Where does he go? I still don’t know.
Mabel is certainly the inspiration behind She Sings to the Stars and the one who imparts a presence to which I aspire. And she is the one who initiates my cycle of films about the feminine, the elder. There is something that feels like home in Mabel.
4) She Sings to the Stars is your first feature film. What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome these?
The casting of Lyle, the magician, was tricky as we were holding out for a big box office name, ultimately to facilitate the distribution of the film.
Tom Waits came to mind again and again while I was writing the part of Lyle. He even waltzed into my dreams. I modelled the character of Lyle on a broken Waits-like magician, collecting old bits of trivia, a junkyard philosopher, a rogue. Though Tom Waits is a musician and a performer – definitely not an actor – we though we’d see if he would play the part when it came to casting; but we couldn’t get past his gatekeepers. “No unsolicited scripts”.
Waits’ gatekeepers did us a big favour. Larry Cedar offers a profound performance, one for which I am deeply grateful. I phoned him at the eleventh hour just as we were scheduled to go into production. He was just closing a one-man show on stage with a Sunday matinée. He read the script, fell in love with the part and flew out to New Mexico the following morning. We began shooting three days later.
He was a gem to work with, so fluid, responsive and intelligent with an “actor’s actor” ability to share scenes, which was particularly important as he was working with two unseasoned actors.
Financing the film was a substantial hurdle, a ‘Catch-22’: “You’ve never made a feature film before. Why don’t you start with a short, instead?” It reminded me of being a teenager again, “You can’t have the job because you have no job experience.” I was trained as a director in the theatre, worked on stage, in documentary production, made Super-8 shorts, as a literary editor, even home educated three children. My brother who is the producer of She Sings to the Stars has a diverse and accomplished background in the business world, with several successful, alternative start-ups. We weren’t untested, we weren’t 18, had a sound business plan and what we thought was an unusual, but compelling script – what we were later told was “a feminine script”. And we certainly weren’t asking for millions; but because we didn’t have a track record in the film world, we weren’t offering enough investment security. Those days were nerve-wracking. But you learn a lot about presence. And, ironically, it foists you back on yourself to keep refining your vision – both the creative and the business aspect of it.
…”You’ve never made a feature film before. Why don’t you start with a short, instead?” It reminded me of being a teenager again, “You can’t have the job because you have no job experience”. We weren’t untested, we weren’t 18, had a sound business plan and what we thought was an unusual, but compelling script”
The market has never been so saturated with independent films. If you consider how accessible filmmaking has become – even with smart phones – how many film festivals there are, how many new ones are created each year, how many films are accepted versus how many turned down, the numbers are staggering.
It’s tough raising funds for an indie film. But in retrospect, the gritty, grueling nature of fund raising, finding the right cast and crew, shooting and editing the film is not actually the most challenging part of the odyssey. The Herculean task is to secure distribution so the public can actually see it or the film will sit on a shelf in perpetuity. Only 1of 250 features produced in the USA each year get distributed which means nobody sees all the others.
Distribution strategy, platforms and channels seem to be changing on a daily basis. A veteran insider has counseled us, “Keep your wits about you, these are shark-infested waters!” And to date, from various offers we’ve received, it seems that creatives are not the recipients of much profit, but we are determined to get this story out into the world.
We’ve just successfully completed a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for marketing and distribution. It is going to be a challenge to distribute as there doesn’t seem to be a niche into which the film will neatly fit. We are going to have to create a new one!
5) As a female director did you find the industry to be more receptive or difficult, especially when trying to break into a new industry? What challenges did you face?
I was born and raised in Italy on Fellini, Rossellini, Bertolucci, Antonioni. Lena Wertmuller and Liliana Cavani were thrilling anomalies. Even though our mother made films, filmmaking was considered a man’s world. Sadly, even she believed it, so I grew up imbued with “great filmmakers are men”. Feature filmmaking, particularly for filmmakers who write and direct their own work, is still a man’s world. We women are challenging it, worldwide, but we’re still having to battle initially for consideration and subsequently for recognition.
It seems inconceivable to those within the business to accept women auteurs. For permission easily granted to my male peers, my stories, my capabilities are continually under both scrutiny and suspicion because I am being measured by a male industry “audience”.
I am not a writer or director looking for work. I have my own stories to direct so I am not muscling to make my way into the industry, but I still have to deal with investors, agents and distributors. For me, the most rewarding part of making a film is far from industrial – it’s about people, “the best laid plans” and the possibility that exists in a given moment.
As a female writer/director, I did encounter sexism each step of the way, and in each moment, I had to decide how to respond to it. I had a film to make, I wasn’t going to allow that level of ignorance to slow me down; but it didn’t go unnoticed or prevent me from feeling shock, insult or disgust.
“As a female writer/director, I did encounter sexism each step of the way, and in each moment, I had to decide how to respond to it”
I was incredibly blessed with a stellar, supportive crew. There were several testing moments on the way, though. There are always a few there to rock the boat: one tried to re-write the script a few days before we went into production; another railed “She’s a woman, she’s always changing her mind!”; another criticised my directing style, “You need to be an asshole, get tough, shout at your crew, then you’ll get things done,” ; I was told outright by a film distributor, “There is no precedent for this kind of ‘woman’s film’, it will never fly”; a press review began with “In a gentle and – without meaning to be condescending – feminine way…”; and finally, I was sent a clip via e-mail the night before we started shooting meant to offer an “artistic suggestion”: it was of a woman giving a man a blow job.
Sexist attitudes, language and behaviour abound in the film world. There is a groundswell of grassroots support for women filmmakers today. Women are stepping forward, it is changing. I think it is vital for us to support one another as women in the field.
In many ways, being a mother has given me great strength to draw upon. I was told “no” so many times in the four years it took to make She Sings to the Stars; and similar to the challenges faced by having chosen to home educate my children, – “Are you a qualified teacher?” or even “Who do you think you are, better than the school system?” – I had to keep the vision intact.
I must add that I have been tirelessly supported by my husband, my brother – producer of She Sings to the Stars – and three children who never wavered in their faith in my creative vision. My brother calls it “an inexplicable, crazy faith.”
6) How did you get funding for She Sings to the Stars? Did this ever hold you back?
Family. Friends. Friends of family, friends of friends. You just need to find a few people who believe in you. We were introduced to many wealthy potential investors, but the reply was invariably “no”. They wouldn’t take the risk on a first-time feature filmmaker, particularly since the story of our film was off-the-beaten-track. We were not following a tested formula, it was difficult to pin down comparables. The wealthiest seem the least likely to risk an investment in something untested, while those who have the least – but believe in you – seemed thrilled to throw their last pennies into our film.
It’s heartwarming to discover what people will agree to do with you to make a project that excites them get off the ground. Passion and enthusiasm are infectious. If the vision comes from your heart, rather than motivated by “This is going to be a great success” or “I’m going to make a lot of money” or worse, “I’m a genius”, I think anything is possible.
Although the story is set in the summer, we did have to push production from August to the start of November as we didn’t yet have enough of our funds. This meant losing crew who needed to work and couldn’t wait and having to find their replacements, and enduring 15F temperatures in the desert with actors in T-shirts and equipment breaking down. It was a nail-biting time; but I kept being reminded of my dream of Mabel. It was going to happen, I had to let go of “when”.
7) In 2011 you founded the independent film production company Circeo Films with your brother Jonnie Corcoran. What is your vision behind Circeo Films and what do you aim to achieve?
My brother and I created Circeo Films, our independent film production company, in 2011 with the intention to produce a cycle of films about women – innate feminine voices are too often missing in the story-telling world of film. And we seem to have forgotten the feminine nature of the Earth and our intimate relationship to it.
I had an ongoing, nagging experience throughout my education, even into post graduate studies in the theatre. Although I learned how to ‘do’ school well, there was something about the uniform that didn’t fit, but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was that didn’t feel right.
It wasn’t until years later when my daughter, Athena, who was studying music composition at Oxford University in a cohort of male composers, brought up in discussion:
“Do you think men and women perceive differently? How does this affect young girls in a school system primarily designed by a male mind? How do we know our nature? Do we even know what a non-male-trained female creative mind feels like? Or what it can produce?”
“Do we even know what a non-male-trained female creative mind feels like? Or what it can produce?”
We are raised in a very patriarchal educational system and then participate in a very patriarchal workplace and that part of us – that innately feminine part of us (in both men and women) – has no place to express itself. It is certainly lost in the story-telling world of film.
I didn’t dream up the vision to make the cycle of films alone, I think it is a time when women all over the planet are beginning to sing — together. And we are joined by men who are aware of the imbalance.
My brother is an ardent ecologist, deeply involved and committed to conscious, sustainable local food production and to our intimate interaction with the Earth, which he perceives as feminine. In a male-dominated world, it is a voice he wishes to honor and celebrate, creatively.
8) When you were younger, did you always know you wanted to be a director?
Yes. And I knew I wanted to make films. Though I also wished to pilot airplanes and be a midwife.
When I directed plays written by others, I always itched to write and direct my own work. I wanted to work from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. Writing and directing your own work is much like trying to wake up within a dream. And as much as I still love the thrilling and dangerous immediacy of theatre, I wanted to work on a broader canvas, one akin to the screen of the mind.
9) What do you think have been your biggest achievements so far in both your personal life and professional life? How do you think this helped you to direct She Sings to the Stars?
I don’t know if it is possible to sum up life achievements in a neat narrative while one is alive as we’re always changing. I think, rather, there are “moments”. They can be exhilarating moments, they can be seemingly insignificant, yet become life-changing.
Perhaps the greatest “moments” are those which involve love. That sort of a phrase has been rudely commercialised, but it’s real. My experience of raising and home educating my three children, of writing and directing many pieces, including She Sings to the Stars and countless other adventures have always been buoyed by love.
10) You mentioned you are a Mum of 3 home-schooled children. Were you ever concerned about stepping away from your career and then having to start all over again?
My daughter, who is a musician and composer, asked me the very same question when she turned 20. I did work part-time as a literary editor at home, at night, after the children had gone to bed; but for years, I was immersed in the world of their growing up.
No, I don’t think I ever qualified it as “starting all over again”. We never stand still, we’re always growing and changing. As an artist, I want to continually push my limits, explore what is in the universe next door.
Raising the children, home educating them, was extraordinarily liberating as a creative person. I did write in those years, I wrote a lot, probably some of my best work; my children gave me all the permission in the world to be an artist. I might even say, it was my relationship to them that freed me to create with a greater depth, with a fiercer integrity. Children tend to reflect back to us. And they are brutally honest.
Home educating the way we did – with no fixed curriculum but listening to what the children were telling us – was not only immensely creative in and of itself, it was also a bit like leaping off a cliff. And everyone shouted as we leapt, “Don’t do it!” including my own family, in the early days. As we dove in to make She Sings to the Stars, I heard those voices again, “Don’t do it!” or worse, “You can’t do it. “You won’t succeed.” You might say, when I hear that now, I know I’m on the right road.
I believe motherhood is the single most creative work there is. And what a mother has to offer once the children are raised is so much more than I could have imagined. We have an even deeper well to draw from.
11) What does ‘time-out’ or ‘relaxation’ look like to you? How do you keep yourself mentally and physically healthy?
The natural world inspires and sustains me. I’m a walker. I need space and time alone and sleep, as I love to dream. I read a lot of fiction and poetry. I watch films. I am learning to listen to animals. I watch the stars. I live by the sea in a deeply quiet corner of the world which offers sanctuary, a balance to the louder, faster pace of life on the road or in production.
12) What do you hope to achieve through the voice of She Sings to the Stars and ultimately where would you like to see it being released?
Audiences identify with whatever speaks to them, in particular – so for each audience member, it is a different film. Because there are multiple layers within the film some identify it as a film about the wisdom of a Native American grandmother, some about cultural disparity and the misnamed American ‘melting pot’ or the failure of the American dream, for some, it is an ecological statement regarding the politics of drought, for some it’s a spiritual experience, for yet others, it’s a vote of confidence for contact from the stars. I hope it speaks to many, internationally.
We’ve had audience members come up to us moved to tears after screenings, feeling liberated or filled with gratitude. Many have described it as “an experience” rather than a movie or entertainment. At the Q&A after one screening, a middle-aged man stood up and said, “I think this film just changed my life” !
It is not only a look at an America which goes unreported, it is a tale of human beings anywhere in crisis who have to rely upon one another to arrive at a greater understanding of themselves as individuals and in relationship to the Earth.
As She Sings to the Stars is very cinematic, with sweeping desert landscapes and a lot of detail, we are aiming for a limited arthouse theatrical release. We have had viewers who have watched the film on a laptop or large desktop screen and then on a cinema screen: they describe it as a completely different experience, an immersive one where the desert penetrates in an almost mystical way, which is what we have always hoped for.
13) Where will She Sings to the Stars be available for the public to view and when?
We will have a limited theatrical release in both Los Angeles and New York which will coincide with our VOD (video-on-demand) release. Beyond that, we hope to release it in 5-10 cities across North America. At present, we are seeking a partnership with an international sales agent to be able to distribute it internationally.
There are fewer large distribution houses who will take on independent films, even fewer who will take independent films with no box office talent attached. It’s all about “the bottom line”, no matter how compelling the film might be: how well will it sell?
We will be signing a video-on-demand contract for its release online – iTunes, Google, Amazon, Hulu, etc – And we will release the film on DVD, as well.
As to “when”? As soon as is possible. We hope to have everything available for home viewing by the end of 2016.
14) What’s next for Jennifer Corcoran?
She Sings to the Stars is the first in our cycle of films. The next film in the cycle will be set in contemporary Ireland with a 28-year old woman as protagonist. I have nearly completed the screenplay, so we’ll be hunting for investors. The third film is set in 1968 Rome, Italy with a spirited 6-year old protagonist. The fourth film is asking to be in Ethiopia, but that dream hasn’t come in yet. We have a long and invigorating road ahead of us.
Each of the films ask questions, pushes the boundaries of what we accept and perceive as “normal”.
I describe it as “a cycle” of films because a cycle suggests movement which feels alive, not fixed like a trilogy or a quartet. And as women, we live in monthly cycles which reflect greater cycles, life rhythms in the natural world, in the cosmos. All is change, all is possibility!
15) What advice do you have for young directors / creatives / mums that want to pursue a career in directing?
There is an opening now more than ever before for women’s visions. Forget pandering to the marketplace, to what has proven successful. Believe that your film or artwork already has an audience. It does. Women – and, indeed, men – are hungry for women’s stories. Imagine, they haven’t yet been told in your lifetime!
Let the “no”s from potential investors, festivals or distributors impel you. If your project is genuine and you encounter resistance, it’s probably a healthy sign; you’re offering something new that may clash with an old way of thinking, of creating.
“You have learned and lived so much as a mother that is not quantifiable, trust it. You will bring a peripheral wisdom to whatever you do once you’ve been a mother”
Above all, keep your sense of humour intact. Take your time, be present, ask yourself often “how do I measure success?” Is it by what others say to you? Don’t be swayed by compliments or criticism. Perhaps it is simply being true to what you’ve created? You may not know where you’re going with it, but trust that you’ll figure out how to get there and see how far you need to go at each stage.
Apply what John Keats described as ‘negative capability’: It is about trusting the process, looking for and listening to what is not obvious, paying attention to what is elusive and yet to be defined. The process, itself, is the real magic. It requires courage, but it works; and from my experience, intuition is how we, as women, often naturally, know.
Let go of the workplace cliché that your years spent raising children is a waste of time, that you’ll have to play catch up or worse, that no one will be interested in employing you or considering your creative work. Forget what “they” think. Assume you will. You have learned and lived so much as a mother that is not quantifiable, trust it. You will bring a peripheral wisdom to whatever you do once you’ve been a mother. That is what we are awakening to on the planet right now, our intuitive, peripheral abilities, “listening”, receiving – those abilities women have been ridiculed for, are actually vital creative tools.
When in doubt, go back to your creative work. There is only one of you and each of us has a part – an important part – to play.
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All photos are curtesy of Heriberto Ibarra and Aurelia Corcoran