This week I chatted to Samantha Kolesnik, writer and producer of upcoming feature film ‘Turning the Girl’. The film is pretty unique in that it features an all female cast, with director Vanessa Ionta Wright at the helm and will have a majority female crew too. In a time where this is such a rarity (although we both agree that it really shouldn’t be so surprising) I was keen to know more about the project and the process behind it. We kicked the interview off with Samantha outlining the story for us, it sounds pretty interesting!
Turning the Girl is the story of four girls and their struggle at the Appleton Reformatory under the oppressive rule of Mrs. Greta Morgan (Kara Vedder). Greta Morgan doesn’t let the girls sneeze without knowing about it. Every aspect of their lives is dominated by another woman, and they are challenged with surviving under that kind of oppression.
Lindsey (Jennette Nelligan) is a sweet wallflower who is Mrs. Morgan’s unfortunate favorite, and she is bullied incessantly by outspoken Leah (Charlie Gillette). When another teacher, Claire Wosslen (Lillian Isabella), joins the four girls and Mrs. Morgan on a therapeutic retreat in the wilderness, a fiery power struggle ensues between the two teachers, with the girls’ lives caught in the fray.
Becca (played by Bettina Schwabe), Cameron (TBA), Lindsey, and Leah must navigate mounting tensions and danger in the isolated woodland retreat. It becomes evident that some of them may not make it out alive…
The film also stars Kristin Samuelson plays a strong supporting role as Headmistress Collins, the administrator of Appleton Reformatory.
Were there any particular influences for the film? When I read the synopsis, I couldn’t help but think of Carol Morley’s ‘The Falling’ (2015). Did you look at any specific works for inspiration?
It’s so difficult to pinpoint one thing, or one work – gosh, even a few works – that inspired me. I think real women’s stories inspired me more than anything. As for films, The Magdalene Sisters (2002) was an inspiration. That film crawled under my skin and it hurt. Cumulatively, other pieces and parcels of tons of films inspired me, but why or how might not make sense to anyone else – River Phoenix’s monologue about not having stolen the milk money in Stand By Me, the tender relationship between Joey and Perry in The Wanderers, the icy rule of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and even the evil grandmother (and more importantly, Catherine’s will to overcome) in Flowers in the Attic. Yeah, I know, a strange brew, that one.
One of the most interesting things about the ‘Turning the Girl’ is that it features an all female cast. How important was this decision? Did you start out with the mindset that this was going to be an all female production, or did that idea form naturally as you thought about the nature of the narrative?
It’s interesting because it doesn’t happen often enough. My hope is that one day female directed films won’t even be shocking because it will happen all the time. One day.Turning the Girl is written by a woman, produced by a woman, directed by a woman, starring women, and heavily crewed by women behind the scenes… you see the inverse a lot in the film industry, but you don’t see this. This is a rarity. When casting, we even had a few actresses come in and say, “This is so refreshing to see you two behind the table.” (referring to Director Vanessa Ionta Wright and myself)
Having an all female cast came naturally. I don’t believe in forcing things. It’s all about the story. If the story required a male character, I would have written it. There are so many movies I can name which place women only in very minor roles as passive wives, mutilated victims, naked bodies in the background while men have exciting discussions in the foreground… hell, I even love many of those movies. But this isn’t one of them.
It’s interesting that you talk about women in those passive roles in the background, do you think we are seeing a shift towards stronger female characters (Rey in Star Wars or Furiosa in Mad Max)?
You’ve mentioned two really powerful female characters. I loved Furiosa in Mad Max. We may be seeing a shift, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
In light of the recent news that FOX & Paramount won’t be releasing any films directed by women in the next few years, do you think it’s as important to have women behind the camera as well as in front of it? From personal experience, I feel that female directors and crew have a much stronger ability than male directors to convey how it is to be a woman effectively onscreen…
Since a young age, I’ve been a fan of this ethos: Make your own space, make your own community, and find your own tribe. If the cool kids don’t invite you to the party, don’t cry about it. Throw your own party. You’ll never hear me complaining that studios large or small might not have any films directed by women in the next few years. The reason is simple: I’m making my own movies, and if I want a woman to direct, I’ll make that happen. Don’t be intimidated. The worst that can happen is failure – no big deal – you brush the dirt off and try again.
Rejection, criticism, exclusion – these are all powerful tools and can get a really big fire burning inside of you. Use that fire and create. There’s always going to be someone to push you down. Only you can pick yourself back up.
I’m not of the belief that women direct women better than men. I think both women and men direct powerful performances from all kinds of people. The film Heavenly Creatures is a film about two fascinating young women, and Peter Jackson directed it beautifully. Sofia Coppola directed The Virgin Suicides, and that film had a huge impact on me, and it’s adapted from a novel written by a man, Jeffrey Eugenides.
That said, there’s no one better suited to direct Turning the Girl than Vanessa Ionta Wright. She has a brilliant vision, and I’m excited for her to share it with the world. Working with her on this project has been an unprecedented joy. We talk about the film every day, multiple times a day. We are living this production and we love it. You can’t fabricate that kind of passion.
It’s certainly a refreshing attitude towards making space in the industry for yourself! On a more sensitive topic – you mention that ‘Turning the Girl’ focuses on the little talked about issue of female-female sexual abuse. Was it important to you and the director that the film explores this ‘invisible’ problem?
Yes, 100% yes. I tell people the film has female-female sexual abuse in it, and they go, “What? Huh? How can a woman sexually abuse another woman?” Those reactions right there are why this story is important.
Female-female sexual abuse happens more than people realize. There’s a whole subset of victims out there that have experienced mother-daughter sexual abuse, for example, and they have very few resources, and few psychologists are well-versed on the impact of being sexually-abused by a woman, as a woman. When we think of rape, we think of men raping women. Well, women also rape. What about those stories? Where are they?
Society is very uncomfortable talking about it. Victims are uncomfortable talking about it, too, because of all the misunderstandings. Victims might here things such as, “Well that’s not really rape,” or from especially insensitive people, “That sounds kind of hot,” or “So are you a lesbian?
Was it important for you to show how women can be both victims and perpetrators of violence. They are so often pigeonholed into either one or the other, and ‘Turning the Girl’ seems quite progressive to suggest that women can be capable of many things.
The importance lay more in validating the trauma that is experienced from abuse, period, regardless of perpetrator – whereas in contemporary society the idea of a female sexual abuser is still taboo and largely dismissed.
You guys are crowdfunding for the film on Indiegogo. We’ve seen a rise in the past couple of years of indie producers/directors crowdfunding films that might not otherwise ever make it to screen because they don’t comply with the ‘Hollywood’ model (either because of the filmmaker or narrative). Do you think crowdfunding is a viable alternative to studio-backed projects? Will it allow for more diverse films to be produced, do you think?
Crowdfunding is hard work and it’s competitive, but yes, it is a viable alternative to studio-backed projects. It definitely allows for more diverse films to be produced. We are not solely relying on crowdfunding for Turning the Girl (we have a hybrid model of funding) but we will be raising some of the budget through Indiegogo.
THEGIRLOne thing I will say is that if you are a filmmaker and you are using Indiegogo or Kickstarter, remember to give back. I’ve met a few people (okay, more than a few) who take, take, take, and then don’t support others in the industry with their independent projects. It takes a village. There’s so much good karma to be had. I make it a point to contribute to others films when I can, and to help promote them. People don’t realize, even giving $5.00 boosts that person’s drive and helps the project. Most of us in the independent film sphere are far from rich, but if we all pool our resources and support, we will be that much better off.