By Yun-hua Chen.
I think we are always coming of age.”
Sophie Jones is a sincere piece of coming-of age stemming from grief experiences of the director Jessie Barr and her cousin Jessica Barr, who plays the eponymous heroine. The film portrays a 16-year-old girl who suffers from the loss of her mother while stumbling through the arduous adolescent time and her first exploration of intimacy. It is a love letter to the creators’ younger selves with a strong sense of authenticity, viscerality and a lot of tenderness.
Where did the idea come from? How did you co-write the script with your cousin?
When I was 16 years old, I lost my father to cancer. He was ill for most of my life, and I never really acknowledge the grief at that time. I never really touched it. I spent most of my life kind of running away from it. And it was around this time that I had been alive with him as long as the time without him that I started to open to some of those feelings and memories and started writing about it. And it was exactly at that time that my younger cousin who is also named Jessica Barr, our dads were brothers and we were both named after my great grandmother, sent me an early draft of this very raw script that was inspired by her experiences when she was in high school grieving the loss of her mother’s death. So, we had this very strange synchronicity that we both have the same name, we each lost a parent at exactly the same age. And I think I was really in this place, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, artistically, I was starting to open to that truth and all of a sudden, speaking with her and receiving that, I felt this intense responsibility to be who I needed when I was younger for her and for this character Sophie. So that version of the script that she sent, you know there were flashbacks and there was a different title, but the characters were there. I started giving her notes, and we started developing it together and rewriting it. And of course, we rewrote it during filming and rewrote it during edits. It really became this sharing of our intimacies and it became this idea that it is important to me that it is a film and a narrative. This is not a documentary, not a recreation. Although she is playing a version of herself, it needs to be free enough and safe enough to explore some of these narratives. Of course, it has be personal, but also it has to be universal.
Was the making of the film a kind of a therapeutic process for both of you?
Because she was acting it and embodying it, she said that she got a lot of catharsis and a lot of free therapy out of it. From my point of view, I was so immersed in the making of the film because it is a truly independent film, starting from nothing, from fundraising, finding these incredible producers Lynsay Guerrero and Joe Dinnen who are just like my family and believed in me and the story and what we were trying to do before everyone did, when everyone thought that I was crazy. And they are just so incredible. From the building and the making and the creating, all of that, building this world, we were building this community, so there really wasn’t time to add my personal stuff onto it. It is so personal, of course, but it was not about that. It couldn’t be about that. So only now when the film is out and I am talking with people and people sharing their stories and how it’s affected them, and their memories and their imagination are like being imprinted. I feel that honestly, maybe now I am finally starting to process this a little bit.
Was it challenging to work with a theme that is so close to your heart and with someone so close in the family?
I think it is important to me that I was able to, for whatever reason, maintain that distance. Of course it’s a dance. My cousin was acting in it and she was playing a version of herself and I wanted her to feel safe and protected, but also, we were telling stories and I knew that we had to go to these places. It was definitely a dance, but again, having the structure of art and all the people that I brought on as collaborators, all these artists that are also contributing to this, my DOP Scott Miller and my composer Nate Heller, my editor Naomi Sunrise Filoramo, all these artists contributing and creating this piece. So, I think that knowledge helped with that, having a balance and having a larger lens. And as a director you have to, you have to have that kind of awareness of simultaneously being so present and awake to each moment and also knowing how in the larger scheme of the piece, what you are trying to bring to light.
You shot it in a documentary and immersive way, with a handheld camera which gets really close to Sophie’s face and body. How did your collaboration with the DOP Scott Miller manage to capture such a level of intimacy in an immersive manner?
He is just so incredible. I met Scott through my husband Tom O’Brien who is also a filmmaker, and Scott shot his second feature Manhatton Romance (2014). And I worked with Scott in a series that my husband, and I wrote and acted in it together. So, I knew what it was like to be seen by Scott as an actor. I knew how it was like to feel his gaze. And I knew I could trust him. He is such a sensitive, empathetic artist, and he is so intuitive emotionally. He is so talented and so humble. So, I was very very lucky that he said yes to work on this with me. It really was so much trust that was needed, and he really was so supportive and open when I showed him images and memories and music, and we were talking about photographs. When we were there, he was actually living in the house for a few days, slept in the house, sending me picture of light at different times of the day. We both love immersion and process, and this has to have someone down to do that. And Scott was just like, he wants to have adventure. He wants to have that experience. So, I am so grateful to him. I knew I wanted it to be handheld for a number of reasons. I wanted it to feel immersive from Sophie’s point of view. I wanted it to feel visceral and evocative and alive, like we are breathing with her and walking with her, experiencing with her. Handheld was just part of that vision. Also, for just realistic independent filmmaking, in order to have freedom to move quickly in and out of locations so that actors felt free to explore and for us to experiment and to play, him being able to dial in and move freely. So, it was really important all these things sort of worked together. And in the scenes, it was about finding that relationship all of us together, when Sophie had the sex scenes or just emotionally intimate scenes like with her friend Claire, it was really about us creating a space that felt really safe and really supportive. For a lot of that, it was just having Scott and me in the room, to keep it very very private and very intimate.
Why did you choose Portland as the location?
Portland is where my cousin is from. Part of the reason was also that we shot really quickly, so we were thinking, what do we have access to? What are our locations? Whose basement can we sleep in? Where can we shoot this party scene? So, a lot of it was by necessity, like how I made all the things that I have made. It’s like who are the people that I know that I can make this with, and what do we have available to us. So, I am so grateful to the city of Portland and the people at the community that supported us there. My family there, my uncle, like, everyone really helped and supported to make this happen. And all the local businesses. We just went around knocking on the doors and asking if we could shoot. It was very community-supported, and I felt in love completely with the place. That was something originally not in the script, but I knew I wanted to fill that in and link that to the memories of Sophie’s mom and to feeling her presence even in her absence.
Some of the actors have more acting experience than others. How did you cast them and make they collaborate smoothly?
A lot of the young actors there, it was their first time acting on camera. A lot of them studied together at this acting studio for young people or teens in Portland. It’s a small community. A lot of them I met through my cousin. Because I was building the film around her, I needed her to feel comfortable and I wanted to build on the relationships that she already had. The part of Claire was written for her friend Claire, and so of course, I needed to see her audition to make sure if she could do what was needed. But I also know that their dynamic together is immediate and I was trying to build in this organic way. A lot were just from casting, reaching out. There were people who never acted before. I looked for, in the auditions, just who the person was, and connecting with them. I am an actor, and I come from acting, from a lot of theatres specifically, so I am used to working in a very collaborative way. And biggest thing for me is, are they being able to be present? Are they being able to listen? And then me learning what everyone needs and then finding a way to facilitate the situation, to play to everyone’s strength. So, I think the other thing that was helpful with us all coming together, was Dave Roberts who plays Aaron. He has acted in tons of films and TV shows and theater. And, having a lot of people that have done theater too, is really helpful. They just have a way of working. There is an ethic and a collaborative spirit that is intuitive.
Music is an important part of Sophie’s life. Can you talk a bit about your choice of soundtracks?
The music I think of it as kind of sonic universes. I thought a lot of it at first and how I wanted to have just silence, and a lot about soundscape, and natural sounds, again, to honor Portland as a place. And also, to honor Sophie’s emotional journey, to not try to put on emotions or tell our audience how they should feel. I played a lot with the actual sounds and with my sound designer Andres Velasquez, at One Thousand Birds. We worked so hard to get all those breaths and all the intricate sounds of the world. And soundtrack wise, we worked with this company called Crystal Creative, with Chad [North] and Tommy [Phelan], and they were just amazing. I have playlists that I made that had a lot of those riot girl punk sounds that felt that Sophie wanted to obliterate herself and the sort of female rage that I am very interested in expressing. It was important to me that the majority of the voices in the music are women. They really worked so hard and helped me find these incredible songs with a lot of local Portland musicians, also some Oakland-based musicians, and then some were from a friend of mine whose music I just loved, and she was part of this band Beverley and we were very lucky to get two of those songs for the film, which I had in my playlist since like the very beginning. And then the score which made the sonic universe which was made by Nate Heller. I am just so grateful to him. He is such a genius. Being able to collaborate with him is like a dream come true. I talked to him a lot about needing to have music being Sophie’s interior world and linking to her mother as well. A lot of talk about chimes and wind, to make it more atmospheric and stereo. He created this incredible composition, and we sort of ended up weaving it into the film three times, with slightly different orchestration, with slightly different instruments. Hopefully subconsciously the audience can feel that there is some sort of repetition but it’s not a direct repetition. And that last song at the end was a collaboration with his niece, King Isis is her name, and she is just an incredible vocalist and it’s so piercing. I am so in love with that song. And it was that whole song initially. And then I messed it up and was like, it has to evolve, we can’t have it end in a perfect way, so we went from the vocal to instrumentation, to then just evolving into soundscape again, so we began with the natural sounds and ended with natural sounds.
How do you see your film in the pool of coming-of-age films?
I don’t know. That’s such a big question. I had such a reverence for coming-of-age films. They are my favorite films. They light me on fire. I think we are always coming of age, so I think this is not just for teenage people. I think that’s probably for other people to say, but I hope that in some way this film is a communication with the genre with all the coming-of-age films that have come before. I hope it’s that communication.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.