Student, Director, Storyteller: A Conversation with Carrie Finklea
“The one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women,” actress Jessica Chastain said in a press conference of the 20 films she watched at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest. There are some exceptions. For the most part, I was surprised by the representation of female characters on screen in these films.”
Films speak a language with many voices, cadences, and dialects. They hold power in our media-hungry society, and, if used effectively, can be an art form that invites critical self-reflection and creates a context for discernment that is holistic – ethically, theologically, and spiritually. Films are stories that we, the audience, can relate to and find truth in. They help in understanding the world or in understanding each other.
As many great directors before her, Carrie Finklea discovered her passion for the art of filmmaking by taking a chance. Finklea, a student at SMC for 3 years, enrolled into Professor Salvador Carrasco’s Film 2 class at Santa Monica College where the beauty of cinema was revealed to her. There, she was introduced to international cinema, where films from the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealism era instantly captivated her.
Since then, Finklea has directed two films and is preparing to direct her third. Her short films Spaghetti Romance and Fish Story have been recognized for their amazing craft, where the former of the two was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, one of the most significant international film festivals in the world, while the latter won the presidential award at SMC’s Global Citizenship Symposium.
It’s become a sort of mission of Finklea to recognize the immense and global power that the art of filmmaking has. She is a filmmaker that does not try to bend the world in the way she envisions it to be, but instead molds her stories so that they can genuinely reflect the world that birthed them. As a storyteller, it would be nothing less than irresponsible to ignore what that power can mean.
“I do hope that when we include more female storytellers,” Chastain continued at the Cannes press conference, “we will have more of the women that I recognize in my day-to-day life. Ones that are proactive, that have their own agencies. They just don't react to the men around them. They have their own point-of-view."
The Corsair: So, you had the film screening for a “Fish Story,” right?
Carrie Finklea: Yes.
You wrote and directed the film?
Yes, I wrote and directed it. It won the presidential award at the Global Citizenship.
What was the process like of writing the film and directing it soon after?
The process, that’s probably my favorite part. The nice thing about being in CinemadaMare [an international film festival for young filmmakers held in Italy] is that you’re forced to come up with ideas. So, I spent a lot of time just thinking about social issues and things that matter to me. That’s usually where I start, I think about things that affect me emotionally because that’ll guarantee that whatever story you tell is going to be personal and when it’s personal that translates to making it personal to you. The weird thing like that is when you’re honest about a story and true to what you believe in, it’s a way of connecting you to the story because the underlying emotion is always the same.
So, with Fish Story, being in Italy, I was trying to think of stories that I could use based on the environment. I had been always wanting to write a story about my experience as a woman. This story sort of engendered from this whole idea of the objectification of women. And, then, because all these things happened during production, I had to change the actor. The story went from being just about the objectification of women to actually being this story about minorities and the isolation and the feeling of being ostracized by a community when you are a minority and kind of comparing how these two people - that are out of their elements and are ostracized and judged and objectified - how they connect. So, I was very excited that it became a much bigger message.
How did it go from just being about objectification to talking about minorities?
The whole idea was that it was going to be this Italian fisherman and he couldn’t catch any fish and then he fishes out this woman. So, it would just be focused on that objectivity - because that’s my experience. I don’t know what it’s like to be African-American or Hispanic or Asian, and I thought I couldn’t really do that. But then, when we were about to begin filming, I had my actor and he did not show up. I found a local, I needed a local that could fish. So, I searched everywhere and I finally found this guy and then he didn’t show up. And that’s kind of Italian culture there; they’re like “Well, whatever.” So, when he didn’t show up, I needed to find someone and I really thought about it and there was this one gentleman that was part of the film program, Sam [Wanjohi]. There’s just something about him that was really soulful and really special [and] very ethereal and I had been wanting to work with him as an actor. I started to think that he’s from Kenya and saw how it could create this very interesting imagery of, you know, ‘Here’s this black man carrying around a white woman.’ It’s very controversial and thought provoking - just the imagery itself. As you get to think about it even more, it is this very humanizing tale. Here’s two people from totally different worlds literally and figuratively - and they connect. I think that’s kind of this really wonderful message for the global citizenship award, for example. That is one of the definitions of global citizenship, is finding that human connection and pulling away all the stereotypes and all the social constructions.
Did you have to make major changes to the script?
Yeah, originally it was all in Italian, and, then, obviously he doesn’t speak Italian, so I kind of came up with this way to justify it as it’s not really explained but you know that he’s there living on this island. Who knows why, but you can assume it is out of necessity, not because he wants to be there. So, I thought it would be best that he sticks with his native language, which is Swahili. So, we changed the entire script into Swahili. That was a really, really interesting process because I don’t know anything about the culture. So, when we would be on set and I would ask him to say this [or] I wanted him to get to this certain point. It was really, really interesting because I asked him to say it this way [but], in the church, he could not get angry. I got really frustrated with him, I’m like, “Why can’t you just do this?” And I would do it for him and he wouldn’t do it! And I said, “What’s the problem? What’s wrong?” And he’s like, “Well, in my culture, we would not say this this way to express anger.” And I said, “Oh, okay. Well, how would you say it?” And he’s like, “Well, I would say this.” “Okay, we’ll do it that way then!” So, it was also this really interesting, very humanizing lesson for me, as well. Like, understanding that language doesn’t have to be this barrier.
The industry of film is very male-dominated, as in every other industry, how do you combat that? And, in what instances have you felt that, if you have at all?
I started out by coming here for pilot season. I started working as an actor pretty young. I think it was very hard to understand what was going on and I didn’t understand when I was being kind of… well, kind of like the imagery in Fish Story, when she’s being measured and poked and prodded. That is what it feels like. You don’t really understand it’s a societal issue. You think that it’s a personal issue. You think, ‘Oh, I’m not good enough. I don’t have this. I don’t have that.’ So, I spent quite a few years taking these judgements and objectifications as a personal problem. It wasn’t until I started taking women’s studies classes and got into filmmaking where you start to realize that, ‘No, no, no, this is an external thing.’ It was just totally eye-opening.
I guess what angers me is that in school, pre-college, it’s like, ‘Why aren’t they teaching this?’ And I’m sure they are in schools, but, at least, the public spectrum they’re not. Had I understood what the female identity actually meant and that it is still a minority and it is still a problem, I think I would have been able to battle it a little bit better psychologically.
So, now, my goal is to become a role model and to make content [and] cinema that does represent women in a more healthy way. Give them more personality, give them a full-blooded, living, breathing character instead of these two-dimensional, blonde, pretty, just-the-girlfriend [characters[. Give them full characters with more depth and complexity.
I guess the way that I know how to combat it is just through my work, is to continue to either make films that are about gender identity, gender equality, sexuality, and the female identity as well as continue to represent the characters of the subject matter.
Do you think that it’s changing today?
Yes and no. Things have changed, but, then, sometimes nothing has changed. You know what I mean? You still have the Mexican maid. You still have the Indian computer nerd. You still have the Chinese in the wheelchair. You know, you always see that.You still have these stereotypes that are continuously perpetuated. In that respect, nothing has changed. You might as well put some heels on, or put the apron [on], and put her in the kitchen in the 1950s.
But at the same time, now you have a lot more programs that support women and minorities. There’s a huge push for it. I was just listening about how there’s two big films coming out this summer with female directors. Now, you have a lot of opportunities for women and minorities. The thing is you just have to go and find it.
You said earlier that you find inspiration from social issues, and Spaghetti Romance deals with an LGBT relationship.
Yeah, it didn’t start out that way. At first, it was just going to be a heterosexual couple, but, then, I started to think about how interesting it would be to see this lesbian couple portrayed in movies when it’s not contrived. It feels real. I don’t think you see that. It’s not mainstream media, yet, to see homosexual couples. With males, yes, you are starting to see that cinema, but a lot of times, it’s usually in the context of ‘the issue is the fact that he’s gay and he’s struggling with being gay.’ I thought it would be interesting to tell a story like, ‘Oh, yeah. This could be her boyfriend.’ You know what I mean? The fact that they’re homosexual, that’s how I kind of went about that story. They’re just a normal couple. [The character] Abby could be replaced with anyone, or [the character] Margarite. The metaphor played out pretty nicely.
How did you submit the film to the Cannes Film Festival?
It was the school. I took all the post-work [of Spaghetti Romance] and brought it here, and Professor Salvador Carrasco and several students helped on the post-process. I was so thankful because when I first brought it here it was not exactly a movie. I was really scared because there were some problems that I found with it and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ So, I was able to bring it here, and under the guidance, we were able to create a really lovely story.
But, again, I wasn’t prepared to submit it to Cannes. I thought, ‘Yes, some of the other films that are doing the festival circuit, absolutely, they should go in.’ So, yeah, it really was an afterthought when it was submitted. It was like, ‘Okay. Let’s just do it. Why not?’ It was kind of mind-boggling, very, very surprising to find out that was the one that got in. It was nice that they went for a simple story like that.
I couldn’t have submitted the film or have the opportunity to travel to the festival also without the help of Associated Students here at SMC and Dr. Grass. They are associated producers of the film and made all of this possible for me.
What were you doing when you found out you got in?
Oh, I have no idea. I don’t know. *Laughs* It’s not like that moment where you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I got it!’ You know? It’s like, ‘Oh, okay. That’s nice.’ And then you just keep going. So, yeah. It’s not like, ‘I’ve reached my goal!’ No, you’re like, ‘Okay, good. Now, what’s next?’
How was your experience at the Cannes Film Festival?
I was so overwhelmed by the support and the positivity and just the amount of the creative like-minded people there. I went in not having expectations and just being grateful for the opportunity and I think that always helps. I expected no one would care because of how big the festival is around the world, but you realize there are so many films there part of the market and so to actually be in competition - it’s a lot more leverage being part of those 4,000 people. It was overwhelmingly very wonderful.
What your favorite part of the experience?
During the Q&A of the competition, it was five filmmakers, and it was an emotionally charged conversation just because someone from another country just didn’t understand LGBT issues. He asked a director why he felt comfortable being gay and coming out and it was just a wonderful example on how film can enlighten people and educate people about topical issues that are going on and people are shielded from.
And, another moment where Spike Lee was conducting a panel discussion and a young man from NYU raised his hand and asked a question to Spike Lee. He asked some question and said he was working on a script about this town and deals with African-American issues. Then, Spike-Lee asked, “Well, what’s your script about?” And the NYU student said it was based on a true story about African-Americans, and Lee asked what was the plot. And it was one of the moments where either this guy is going to get nervous and pitch a really bad story or he’s going to do it, and he did it. He pitched it and Spike Lee asked, “Are you still at NYU?” The student said yes and Lee said “Great, my office is down the street. Slip the script under the door.” And everyone was cheering. You are given these moments of opportunities and if you’re not ready to jump on them you might miss them.
What projects do you have ongoing now and planned for the future?
For directing, I have so much to learn about this position. I just never ever thought I’d be doing this. I have a project I am taking to Italy again. My actress from Spaghetti Romance is an incredible producer and we’re going to team up and shoot in Italy. It was based in L.A., but now we must restructure. Because of the support in Cannes, we have a lot of film commissions in Italy and it would be more viable. CinemadaMare allowed me to make these connections and in the difference between the U.S. and Italy, Italy is very hungry. My short has been on TV and 18-20 publications. It is very exciting. These film commissions are great.
Are you thinking about acting anytime soon?
Yes, of course. Acting was my first love. It got me through school and my dream for a long time. With directing, I found it was the most fulfilling emotionally and intellectually. But, right now, I just want to work.
Where did your passion for film start? Where did it come from?
Growing up I wasn’t allowed to watch television, so I would play outside and create these characters. I always had a passion for art and worked in a lot of theater productions, but film didn’t interest me that much. It wasn’t until I came here [SMC] and took Professor Carrasco’s Film 2 class and I don’t know how I wasn’t introduced into this medium in terms of international cinema and I was completely hooked. You begin to see these films that are just really incredible that speak to you, especially films born out of eastern Europe, like the French New Wave. Films dealing with populations that have been oppressed or going through war. And what comes out of them is these very powerful and personal stories. It’s another way to tell stories. And it’s totally eye-opening.
How did you move onto directing from acting?
Directing intimidated me. If you would have asked me three years ago I would have said no way. I would have never guessed. I’ve always loved to write, but maybe because it was a role you don’t normally see woman it seemed weird. It wasn’t even in my peripheral. The CinemadaMare program forced me to just do it. I was terrified, it was overwhelming. Because you are really just not sure. The stress is mind boggling and overwhelming. By the third film you start directing you start to realize how much of this stuff you really know. It’s really just a psychological battle, because you think you can’t do it but you can. The biggest hurdle is just to do it.
Is there anyone, faculty or students, in the film program at SMC who really influenced you or impacted your work?
Salvador Carrasco. He’s just one of those people so incredibly unique and he changes lives. I’ve seen first-hand time and time again how he’s been the catalyst in people’s lives and has changed their careers. He’s elevated their career to places they wouldn’t have gone before. He is able to find those people with special qualities and he will make sure he can help them in any way he can.
I actually took his class way, way before and I ended up dropping it because I couldn’t fit it in my schedule. It’s interesting because I was obviously not ready to take the class because, then when I took it two years later, it was a totally different experience. It’s interesting how the time in your life really changes. He always provides this incredible experience in his classes. If a student is at that point in their life where they are ready to jump on board and grab hold of that, he will do everything in his power to get you going - especially with women and minorities. He gives people the confidence.
My life changed so much when I finally learned I could do anything I wanted in film, I just had to have the desire to learn and the confidence to just do it. I owe this great life lesson to Professor Carrasco. His unfaltering support has allowed so many of us to purge through the mud and find the road we have all been unconsciously searching for.
What advice would you give to students pursuing film?
Just do it. It easy to just do it. Just grab a camera. I think there is a huge value in studying film and learning how the cinematic language works. How to tell a story - the possibilities are endless. You don’t know that until you study. Get involved in a class where you can get educated and always be in situations where you are the smartest person in the room.