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Inside the New Films of NYWIFT Ravenal Grant Winners Sarah Knight and Signe Baumane

Inside the New Films of NYWIFT Ravenal Grant Winners Sarah Knight and Signe Baumane

In a time when women are suffering most from the economic crisis and fewer job opportunities in the arts, this Women’s History Month we can celebrate and support the beautifully diverse work of female filmmakers. New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT), the preeminent entertainment industry association for women in New York, energizes their network of artists, producers, and other professionals through training and development programs, as well as crucial grants. The nonprofit’s prestigious Ravenal Foundation Grant, which supports the production of a feature film from a female director over 40, was presented in December 2020 to filmmakers Sarah Knight (first prize, $5000) and Signe Baumane (second prize, $2500). I was lucky enough to speak with both Knight and Baumane to get the inside scoops on their processes and how their unique approaches to storytelling explore the complex issues of modern womanhood.

On paper the two films couldn’t be more different. Knight’s project, In the Land of Fire & Ice, is a live-action drama that follows a high-powered Kuwaiti CEO as she journeys to a remote peninsula in Iceland and bonds with a reclusive Scottish émigré. Baumane’s, My Love Affair with Marriage, is an epic animated feature with music that chronicles a Latvian girl’s coming-of-age, and the accompanying struggle to define herself biologically and through intimate relationships. Fire & Ice has yet to finish casting and pre-production, while Love Affair has nearly reached the end of a six-year evolution involving fundraising, directing two separate voice casts – English-language and Latvian – and painstaking hours of practical animation that includes three-dimensional sets. Each director has a specific vision, and yet in hearing from both Knight and Baumane, one idea stands out: Women’s stories, especially from independent filmmakers, are vital to understanding the human experience.

“We don’t see that many powerful women portrayed [onscreen],” says Knight. “For me, it’s about having all different kinds of women seen, just really showing them because women have so many interests and experiences that just don’t make it onto the screen as often. One of the documentaries I did [Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend] was about the female head groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles… Just showing women in all their different kinds of experiences [is important]. We’re seeing new barriers broken all the time.”

Sarah Knight on the set of her first narrative feature VINO VERITAS. Photo courtesy of Sarah Knight and NYWIFT.

For background research on Fire & Ice, Knight interviewed several leading businesswomen in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. “I had an actress in mind that I was developing [the starring role] for who’s incredibly intelligent and strong-willed, and I was looking for a character template to match her personality. I discovered the Arabian Business Magazine’s 100 Most Powerful Women list… And I had no idea that there were so many prominent [female] CEOs all over the Middle East… I went over and [asked them], ‘Do you ever see yourself onscreen in television and film?’ They all said no. But I was just taken with them. They were so smart and comfortable in their own skin, so relaxed.”

From those interviews, Knight and her co-screenwriter David MacGregor created the original story for Fire & Ice. This is a first for Knight, whose narrative projects have generally been built from pre-existing sources, such as her 2013 feature Vino Veritas (starring The Good Wife’s Carrie Preston), based on MacGregor’s stage play of the same name, and her script An Ideal Wife, an in-development gender-reversal adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband centering on an American Congresswoman in 1945.

“I share story-by credit with [David] on Fire & Ice,” Knight notes. “I had a setting in mind and my character and a skeletal idea of a plot… then I was able to give him the interviews from the Middle East and we worked on it from there. I’ve done some work on the business subplot of it [the lead character is under attack by a hostile investor]… I’m a director, I’m not really a writer… But that was an interesting experience – and we had a good time working on that.”

As for production, Knight looks forward to finalizing casting, particularly for the male lead, but she admits that the continuously changing safety regulations amid the pandemic makes shooting the film “a moving target”: “We don’t know what countries are going to be shut down, which companies or not. Iceland in this case is doing very, very well and things are shooting there. I don’t know yet about Kuwait, [but] I would love to go back… We have definitely added lines to our budget. You have to have [Personal Protective Equipment] for everyone. We have to come in and self-isolate for a period of time, and then there will be added testing, and I think people are kind of figuring it out as they go. So I’m not quite sure where that will land… You can’t go and whisper in an actor’s ear. You have to kind of shout across the set, which would be a drag. Our [film] is a romance, so are the actors going to be willing to kiss? These are all great questions. And then my question is, do we reference the pandemic at all? Because we don’t want to date the project; it’s not a period piece. Do we just pretend it’s pre-COVID or do we present this way, way past COVID? I don’t quite know the answer to that yet.”

Even as these questions persist, Knight remains optimistic about the future. She gratefully refers to the Ravenal grant as “a really nice boost, because you can lose sight of the value of your own project… In addition to that boost of confidence, which was wonderful, [NYWIFT has] been advising me on different grants that I could apply to, and they support in publicity and screenings as you move through the process.”

NYWIFT’s Executive Director Cynthia Lopez comments, “We recognize the importance of supporting women at every stage of their careers – especially now, when so many in our industry are facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty due to COVID-19… We are so proud to join forces with the Ravenal Foundation once again to support two incredible – and wildly different – films that speak to the diversity of women’s stories and the breadth and depth of their creative voices.”

I for one can’t wait to see what exciting adventures Sarah Knight conjures from her own personal song of Fire & Ice. With her insightful storytelling and eagerness to open audiences to new perspectives, Knight is the perfect guide to lead us into such an encompassing tale of ambition and self-discovery.

When I meet Signe Baumane on Zoom, she also quickly welcomes me into her world of imagination. No sooner have we said hello than she energetically grabs the laptop to give me a tour around her Brooklyn animation studio, cheerfully bounding from sets-in-progress to record-keeping areas to the darkened “lightbox” room used for shooting, and even showing her prized ambient Monstera plants which she calls her “private jungle.” (Visitors to the film’s website can see a virtual tour of the studio created during the height of the pandemic.) It’s a fabulous introduction to Baumane’s universe, where the 3D sets are built from local found materials and the quirky expressions of her stop-motion characters immediately tug the viewers’ hearts.

Signe Baumane; courtesy of NYWIFT.

Born and raised in Latvia while it was still part of the Soviet Union, Baumane has worked in the United States since 1998, becoming an American citizen in 2005. Her animated films, many of which explore women’s experiences with sex and motherhood, have collectively screened at over 560 film festivals including Sundance, Berlin, and Venice. Rocks in My Pockets, Baumane’s first feature, was released in 2014 and has played internationally at 150 film festivals; it tells the story of Signe’s family members (and herself) as they struggle with mental illness, also illuminating larger issues with traditional feminine expectations of what it means to be a successful wife and mother.

My Love Affair with Marriage, Baumane’s current project, serves as a fascinating follow-up. It centers on Zelma, a Latvian girl whose curiosity and strength set her apart from “typical” young women, and as she grows she embarks on a series of relationships while exploring what biological responses drive her actions. Three “Mythology Sirens,” played by the Latvian musical group Trio Limonade, narrate Zelma’s life through song, and art styles shift between “mythological” and “biological” scenes in the film. With separate English and Latvian-language voice casts, 23 musical interludes, and multiple intricate sets, Love Affair proves to be Baumane’s most ambitious project yet.

“My elevator pitch for My Love Affair with Marriage is that I made a lot of short films about sex and I made one feature film about depression, and in my new film, I want to combine the two,” Baumane asserts with a laugh. “But when I started writing the script, I decided… I didn’t want the sex to hijack the subject I really wanted to talk about, which is the gender and biology of intimate relationships. Sex is… romanticized because it releases so many feel-good neurotransmitters that it sometimes makes us feel high. And we [can] make really unreasonable choices because of that… The story is nature versus nurture. Humans are trying to build these perfect structures, like [building] straight lines, and then with nature, if you don’t take care of your structures, they’re going to collapse. The societal structures are… rigid, right and wrong… and then the nature, the biology, comes in and shakes it up.”

Love Affair’s English-language cast includes multi-award-winning actors Stephen Lang (Avatar), Laila Robins (The Boys), and Matthew Modine (Stranger Things), as well as Succession’s Dagmara Domincyzk as Zelma. (Modine is also an executive producer on the film.) Baumane, her life partner Sturgis Warner, and Latvian producer Roberts Vinovskis of Studio Locomotive have taken the helm on all fundraising and practical effects through the six-year project.

“As an animator, I don’t get to work with actors very often,” Baumane explains. “After Rocks, with my own narration… I thought it would be great to use other actors, so I wrote a script with 29 [speaking roles].” She relates that when she and Warner applied to the actors’ union SAG-AFTRA with their proposal for the film, the union required them to pay Pixar rates, a jarring order for a low-budget company. Warner convinced Baumane to look at the positive side, saying that two typically underpaid groups – independent animators and theatre actors – would be providing for each other, and he helped her develop the feature’s Kickstarter campaign, which ultimately raised $132,000, nearly $10,000 more than their initial goal.

Baumane particularly credits Warner, a New York theatre veteran, with helping her direct the sizable cast. “Sturgis did all the casting… And when we were approaching the recording I was getting bent out of shape because it is very hard for me to give corrections to actors… Sturgis said, ‘Well, let me train you… Rule number one, do not ever say to an actor that [they were] terrible. Let them finish what they do, and then you say that was good, try another take this way or that.’ It’s very important to keep the actors’ confidence… but also as a director you have to know exactly what you want [in terms of emotion]… And when I work with these voices intimately every day, every moment I hear them phrase by phrase, their voices inspire me. I sometimes marvel how great the actors are. They are just geniuses.”

Those who adore animation will also marvel at the construction of Love Affair’s distinctive sets. Covered in papier mache, the sets additionally incorporate various materials that give different sensations of time and place – bits of glass, or mesh textures, or old cardboard. Here Baumane gives Warner great credit too, as she notes that he will often dumpster-dive around their Sunset Park neighborhood to find perfect pieces to use on camera. They developed a secret formula for recreating mud in the film, but won’t divulge that.

“One thing about the film is it fuses animation, theatre, music, science and sculpture, all these elements into one experience,” Baumane observes. “We are involved with our neighborhood because every night… we pull pieces of wood out of trash cans… There are carpentry shops all around [and] during the day we see these people, and sometimes they say, ‘Hey guys, you want more wood?’ In some ways we are more involved in Sunset Park because we are making a practical film. If we built just a digital film, we would be so disconnected from the world around us.”

As Baumane delves into the complexities of her practical effects, many of which can be seen on the film’s website, she remarks on how grateful she is to be making art in a time of crisis. “We are feeding, keeping alive, six animators,” she says. “They actually have something to do during the pandemic, and the project does feel important. What does it mean to be a woman, and how do you feel about your gender? How does that affect your intimate relationships? I started writing the script in 2015, and I thought [in 2016] we would have a woman president… When you think about how many traumatic experiences we have lived through in six years – two major elections, the pandemic, the MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, all these things… Every day there is turmoil… And young people want to create art, because in creating art they find a refuge. They are in a safe space processing reality around them.”

To that end, Baumane says, she has gotten such unexpected joy from the fundraising process. Of her Kickstarter contributors, she comments: “It is establishing the umbilical cord between the project and the supporters, and I feel a connection to these people. They are our core audience and they want to see the film and I want them to be happy. There’s a very intimate, personal connection [that] brought us together, our need and their will to give… They encourage me; their support encourages me. Sometimes I lose faith and they say, no, keep going.”

In saying that, Baumane articulates so clearly why art remains worth supporting, why organizations like NYWIFT and the Ravenal Foundation in addition to crowdfunding are so critical to continuing filmmakers’ creative work. We all need refuge in safe spaces to process our individual and collective trauma. We all need questions answered, and we all need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Through the will to give, we ensure the world at large receives greater gifts than we could ever dream.

For more information on NYWIFT and supporting female filmmakers, visit nywift.org or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. To learn more about Signe Baumane, visit signebaumane.com and myloveaffairwithmarriagemovie.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram