A Million Miles Away (2014)

After 40 films, it would be a stretch to call Jennifer Reeder our “new filmmaker” for this issue, but she definitely earned a space as a featured filmmaker here at Desistfilm. With an experimental language of her own, Reeder casts magic in her shootings, and brings to life a new cinematic language, a hybrid that blurs the limits of the musical, the drama, the coming-of-age film while being all of these things and also none of those in particular. To enter the universe of Jennifer Reeder is to inhabit a place where rediscovery, emotional struggle and exchange of experience between older and younger generations happen, a universe with its own secret language. 

Mother of three, self proclaimed feminist and prolific filmmaker, Jennifer Reeder has slowly shaped cinema into her own little invention, a craft that we can all love, relate to and appreciate. Desistfilmmanaged to steal some time from her, and we present to you our long and fun conversation. 

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

Desistfilm: Let’s start from the beginning. When did you realize you wanted to start making films? What was the main event that made this happen?

Jennifer Reeder:  Well, I had been a ballet dancer in high school, so when I started my undergraduate studies I started taking more dance classes, but also some general visual arts classes. And though I wasn’t really good in the visual art aspect (I was a terrible sculptor, I can’t draw…) I was introduced to some performance arts lessons with Linda Montano, who has been around for a while with this durational kind of performance projects. So I took a class with her, which was really transformative; we had to make a series of videos for this class and I had this huge VHS camera from my parents I haven’t had the chance to use. So I was ready to retire from dance, I knew that I wasn’t going to be a professional dancer, but somehow I felt that being even behind the camera I could make some kind of choreography,  and that the camera was in a sort of way an extension of my body, this while removing my actual body from the process. So in the end, there is this combination of being interested in art making and creativity, and also realizing that I was a lousy visual artist (laughters).

Desistfilm: One of the things that attracted me to your work was this combination of elements that work so great together, for example the use of popular music as an element for performance, like we see in A Million Miles Away, but also turning to underground independent music in your films, like the music of SUNN O))) How do you create this universe of this youth personal intimacy, with something so alien like popular music? How this new “musical” format is created?

Jennifer Reeder:  You know, I think music has always played… I can’t play music at all, I’m not a musician, but I’ve always loved music and in particular popular music. I’m pretty satisfied (for better or for worse) listening to the radio, you know? But also, the people that I work with in scoring the films also bring to the table this independent music, so it’s not only popular music that plays a role there. But there’s something about popular music from my era (music when I listened to when I was in middle school or high school, even my early years in college) that represents kind some formative years for me, especially in a time when you’re young and you feel your friends don’t understand you, and certainly your family doesn’t either, but you find a certain song on the radio that just gets you, engages you immediately right at that moment. And that’s what happens with popular music; it’s supposed to trigger a real infectious emotion or at least a real infectious beat and melody, and I think it’s one of the only things that does that. Painting comes to us slowly over time, and films or other forms of conceptual contemporary art also come to us in a certain period of time… But a popular song, it hits us immediately, just wraps us immediately, and I appreciate that as a form. So the songs that I used are kind of very nostalgic in one hand, because they remind me of my coming of age story, but there are also like bursts in what is otherwise a pretty slow story or maybe a story that doesn’t follow a typical plot progression. So there are this bursts that are supposed to grab you right away.

Desistfilm: You have this strong interest to narrate personal trauma. There’s a parallel in both the adult world and the world of young people, a relation between the early periods of life and how they relate to this traumatic experiences. How much of that relates to your personal experience?

Jennifer Reeder: Well, I think I had a very typical sort of adolescent and teen years; there was this big chunk of time where I hated my parents for no reason (they were really rad parents), there was a time where my best friends in elementary school, were no longer my friends in high school for different reasons, and you know, I’m sure that these things can happen to men as well but that wasn’t my experience. I have three sons right now, my oldest is ten, so I’m experiencing his boyhood in a very interesting way and trying to make observations that maybe will eventually be a film about boyhood from what I’ve been observing in him. But in terms of the adults, I actually feel us as humans do ourselves a disservice by only imagining that there’s only one period of time where we sort of “come of age”, and later there are things like the midlife crisis, that I think is just another time of coming of age, you know, when we reevaluate your friendship, reevaluate what we’re doing in our lives. Of course, when you’re younger you’re going through these periods of change but you don’t have a mortgage or your own children, or a divorce, or something. So I find adulthood to be more difficult, because you’re also meant to portray to the world this image of a person having his shit together. So I like characters that are kind of barely keeping their shit together, but also I want to suggest that there’s the potential for them, like every day is a new day kind of a thing, and especially in A Million Miles Away, I just wanted to suggest that the aspect of learning or inspiration and advice can come in the reverse, so the adult woman can look to this pack of teenage girls and really realize that they know things that she needs to know, and that they can help her, they’re not the enemy and certainly they’re not a bunch of dumb kids what-do-they-know, cause’ they know quite a bit. I like to be playing with that, this “mature teenagers and immature adults” thing, as a way to think about these different times in our life when we come of age, I mean, it doesn’t just happen when you’re fifteen.

On set – A Million Miles Away

Desistfilm: What about feminism? You’re an open feminist, so my question would be: what is feminism for you and how does it influence your work?

Jennifer Reeder: Well, I think for me on the one hand I would say one of the reasons that makes me say fiercely “yes I’m a feminist” is that that word seems really dusty or antiquated, and it seems that it only belongs to women or white women, or privileged wealthy women, or western (American) women even, so I try not only in my films but in my life to reverse that, to say that feminism is a human thing, that feminism is a way for us as a group, to support different causes:  transgender people, men that stay home and take care of children, women in Iran or Saudi Arabia who feel as an act of resistance to wear a burka, etc. So, bottom line, feminism isn’t a dirty word, it’s actually a really empowering word for all humans.

But if I think of my films as having a sort of a feminist agenda, it could be only in a way of presenting a female experience or a female perspective that has some level of empowerment. Of course, that’s not like saying… I mean a lot of my female characters are assholes (laughter) but that doesn’t mean that I’m somehow against feminism, neither does it mean that I’m a filmmaker who identifies herself as feminist as to only present characters that are likable or smart, or something like that. People are very complicated creatures, and I guess what I wanted to disrupt with my films is more or less this conventional portrayal of girls and women: If we think about mainstream cinema, American cinema in particular, I think that they kind of get it wrong. It my latest trips overseas I was able to catch up with these popular American films, like Silver Linings Playbook, Black Swan, and American Hustle, and all of these films did very very raw mistakes (super popular films by the way). These were films that were directed by men and they all portray at some point like “the crazy woman”, and ugh! You know, it’s already hard for me to just watch a popular movie and consume it like junk food, and these films directed by men, they all highlight the model of the “batshit crazy female”… they just had it wrong! It wasn’t as complicated as it should be, they were such uncomplicated films. And I guess, even if I’m making short films and more experimental narratives, part of my feminism is kind of disrupt or offer a kind of alternative to this kind of more conventional cinematic portrayal of girls and women.

Desistfilm: A Million Miles Away was such a fantastic film to watch.  How was the process of casting these amazing young girls, can you tell us a little bit about it?

Jennifer Reeder:  Sure! I knew I wanted to cast actual teenage girls. I’ve worked with teenage girls before, and working in Chicago, there’s a ton… there’s a thriving theater tradition, so there are a lot of high schools in Chicago that actually have really strong, enthusiastic music and theater programs for children, there’s the Chicago Children’s Choir which is really famous and it’s always travelling around. So in the films I’ve used teenage girls I’ve always been able to find really great teen performers here on Chicago. I knew it wasn’t going to be a problem, we cast twenty one girls but we could’ve cast fifty if we really wanted to, there were many amazing young women. And I really wanted to capture that kind of teenage freshness, that kind of awkwardness and that sort of beauty that is inside these fifteen or sixty year old girls. But they all had to sing, I didn’t wanted them to not sing, and we could’ve had a giant choir but instead we found a really nice mix of girls of terms of ethnicity and overall style and sizes to really represent just a really diverse set of girls. Of course we had the typical blonde, thin, blue-eyed, actor/model kind of thing, very charming young women, but I was like “we can’t take one more blonde” you know? (laughter)

I’m actually using a small group of the same girls for the next film I’m shooting, because they were so cool to work with and I kind of wanted to work with them again, and they wanted to work with me again, so I don’t have to go through all the casting process again, which can be really great but sometimes it takes a couple of days of the whole pre-production process, so if you can eliminate that, that’s good. Besides, the girls were fantastic! They were total teenage girls, so in between takes they were like chat chat chat chat chat chat chat! It was so loud in one level, but they were so nice and hilarious to each other.

Jennifer Astlin, which plays the choir conductor, I had met previously in very different circumstances, not really film related. She runs a theater here in Chicago, and she had lived in New York for quite a while now, she was in Law & Order… She has a very professional provenance in terms of her acting on stage and in front of a camera, and I felt that the combination of her as a really seasoned professional actress with these girls that have some performance experience but don’t have a lot of filmmaking, professional acting experience would be like a really good combination, and it was. Jennifer, the adult, was able to raise the level of their acting and they were also very genuinely able to make her feel uncomfortable because there was one of her and twenty of them, you know?

My next film is only three girls, which makes my DP very happy (laughters), there are three of the same girls in A Million Miles Away and Jennifer is also playing the lead. They’re not the same characters by any means, and I’m also casting some teenage boys. We start shooting in about ten days.

On set – Blood Below the Skin (upcoming)

Editor’s note: By now Blood Below the Skin, the new Jennifer Reeder film, has finished shooting and it’s currently in post-production.

Desistfilm: One of the things that caught my attention in A Million Miles Away was the use of subtitling and all the symbols that permeate the film, especially in this Facebook era when everyone is texting and doing those things. How did that came to mind, the symbolic nature of the text messaging?

Jennifer Reeder: The first couple of drafts of the script had this scene where the girl is texting, and it really just said “she’s texting”, but there was no way to know what she was texting about, and I thought “how stupid am I?, we have to know what she’s texting”This is a whole new level of narrative when you (the audience) knows what is the girl talking about, but her friends doesn’t, so it’s kind of a shared secret.

I wanted to present these sort of different layers, different levels in the whole film, a kind of secret language: so there’s the texting, and there’s the whispering, and then maybe the symbolic elements like the cat’s eyes, the E.T. bowtie, these magical things that happen and that add to the narrative, as language (like in the subtitles) and as visual language (like in the symbols). I’m very much like the teacher on the film I might say, in a way that I don’t ever understand the acronyms that they use in texting, like “what’s that LOL thing, what does that mean?” So in some point I thought “god, these acronyms are getting longer and longer” and it’s like language, with these acronyms and emoji’s is losing is meaning. It’s better to say nothing, like, better say nothing before sending a sad face or something like that, this kind of half-baked emoji, whether it’s an emoji or an emoticon… whatever. So I thought, in terms to make it absurd, how long would and acronym go, and that’s when I came up with the idea of the whole break up: “I’m Breaking Up With You And In Love With Someone Else” (laughter) that maybe for the girls it would be like “oh I totally know what that means” which of course it doesn’t!. I’ve been in a lot of Q&A’s for the film, and maybe two of three times someone has said to me “is that a real acronym?” (laughter)… No!! Who would remember to write that down!? Who is breaking up with someone that way!? But I liked that people would imagine that it was real because someday this is what we’re gonna come to, it’s just going to be all these little codes, a whole different language with all this codes. But I really wanted to present that teenagers DO have a secret language, or, lovers have a secret language, you know… squirrels have a secret language. I’m fascinated with how human closeness can organically give birth to a secret way of communicating, and I wanted to bring that out. In other films I’ve used that kind of “floaty” things in the screen just as a way to remind you that you’re watching a film, that you can do that and paste something in there. And there are also lots of humorous moments that for me are also magical moments that suggest that maybe they happen in a word where we can’t see them, like when we sleep cat sweatshirts come to life to protect us or something like that, you know? (laughter).

Desistfilm: I think “magic” is a proper word. There’s a lot of magic portrayed in the films you do.

Jennifer Reeder: I think I’ve really been influenced by this kind of lyricism or “magical realism” in some Japanese films and Latin American literature and films, where you don’t stop to say “that would never happen!” I’m really drawn to the narrative, if it’s a secret thing for the audience to experience.