‘Marigolds’ dir. Stephanie Zari

Marigolds explores what goes on behind ‘closed doors’ of a seemingly normal family, living in a sleepy village.

Producer-Director: Stephanie Zari
Writers: Samantha Whitaker & Stephanie Zari
DOP: Mikolaj Jaroszewicz
Key Cast: Jane Guernier

C8: Where did the story for ‘Marigolds’ come from?

SZ: The idea initially came from a first draft script by Samantha Whitaker called ‘Mother’s Love’. I had met Sam at The Met Film School part-time filmmaking course and this was her initial short film script, which she didn’t end up filming.  I believe she initially was exploring covert incest and was inspired by observing a mother and son relationship while on holiday.

C8: You co-wrote the film with Samantha Whittaker. Can you talk about the process of co-writing a script?

SZ: After having done my graduation film Faith Alone, I was looking for my next project.  Sam new that I liked the premise of her short film Mother’s Love and so I approached her and she sort of offered at the same time for me to take it and expand on it.   I wanted to slightly change the theme to explore a more Freudian/reverse Oedipus complex and add more pathos – this mother has been stuck in a dead end and lifeless marriage from the start and escapes into the worlds of romantic novels and fantasises about her son. I liked the idea of peeling back the layers of seemingly ‘normal’ families and peeking into what goes on behind closed doors.  And so Sam kindly allowed me to take the script and build on her original characters and premise, adding the hook of the Marigolds etc.  She then read the final script and gave it her blessing.  So it wasn’t necessarily a traditional ‘co-writing’ experience, but I’m very grateful that Sam allowed me to do this.

C8: How did you go about casting the film? Were you looking for something in particular?

SZ: Casting was hard!  I wanted someone who could bring real humanity to the role – I didn’t want this woman to be a monster or cold, which is how she kind of reads in the script  – but was looking for quite the contrary. Sam is also a very talented actress and suggested Jane Guernier to me as she had worked with her on the stage. Sam also came to casting sessions as I wanted her input as well – which was really beneficial. When you are producing your own work, it’s imperative to have other people around you whose opinions you can trust and both Sam and my Production Manager, Kim Weinreich were instrumental in this way.

C8: What was your rehearsal process like? Did you allow your actors to improvise?

SZ: I don’t like to over rehearse but rather have discussions. I had a session with Jane and Alistair Southey to talk through the script, their characters, get their creative input and where they’d like to take the roles and delved a bit into their relationship. But didn’t actually ‘rehearse’ any scenes – I like to keep that for the set and on camera.  I had another session with just Jane and had a deeper discussion about her character. We didn’t improvise so much, but I did cut out a lot of dialogue in the living room scene on the day as I realised a lot of it wasn’t needed and the cast agreed.  But I’m very open to any suggestions the actor’s make – whether it’s dialogue, etc – they often make it much better and you lose out on the magic they can bring to the role or scene if you don’t give them the space to play.

C8: What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers directing actors for the first time?

SZ: I started out as an actress myself and I would say this – go take an acting class. Understand how they think, how they approach a role and understand their techniques. Read Judith Weston’s ‘Directing Actors’ – THE one book every filmmaker should have on their shelf when it comes to performance.  Know your script especially if you’ve written it yourself. ANALYSE your script again and again with your Director’s hat on. Prepare by having ‘little candies in your pocket’ which are quick fixes and action verbs you can give to actors in every scene if they get stuck so that you are not just ‘result’ directing – i.e. be sad, mad, etc.

C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?

SZ: I was lucky enough to shoot on one of the first RED cameras at the time – a filmmaker friend had bought one and he also DIT’d for us as well, so it was a bargain – it was the closest to a ‘cinematic’ look we could get on a self-funded low budget.

C8: The film won the Best Director Award at the 2010 Underwire Festival. How did the rest of the festival circuit respond to ‘Marigolds’?

SZ: It went to over 17 festivals worldwide and had great reviews in Little White Lies, Varsity online magazine, Director’s Notes – mainly from screening at the London Short Film Festival. I think the reverse Oedipus complex touched a nerve as it hadn’t been explored very much if at all.  It was also bought and broadcast on BBC HD Shorts in 2012 as the final aired segment.

C8: Do you still think film festivals are the best place for emerging filmmakers to showcase their work?

SZ: Well I do and I don’t. Having done two short films now and spent the last 4 years on the festival circuit and understanding how they work I’d say, have a strategy so that you’re not spending all the money you don’t have on every single festival. Hit the top ones – only at early bird submission stage to keep costs down – find your niche festivals that could really apply to your short film and have a cap on it – unless they are free!

The problem now is that the festival marketplace is so saturated right now – even from ‘Marigolds’ to ‘DAWN’ (my second short film) in that span of two years, some of the submissions have tripled! And a lot of the times, the very high-end festivals pre-select some or most of their films. Claremont Ferrand had 8,700 submissions this year. Really, you make your short to teach yourself the craft of filmmaking and also to start building a fan base.  This is where I think you really need to think about whether you hold back your film for a year or two because of festival premier restrictions, which I personally think is ridiculous for short films, or decide to send your film to non-premier status festivals and just get your film online – to the likes of yourselves and also Short of The Week, Youtube, IndieFlix, Vimeo. I sat on my films for too long before doing Film of the Week. But I feel I should have not hit a few big festivals and just stuck it on-line to build a fanbase.  So I would do both and find the right balance.  The laurels are great for the poster and endorsement – but they are getting harder and harder to get as there are more and more films being made – especially shorts – so you need to decide what you are really making the films for – I would say exposure is the most important thing and getting feedback from the public audience.  Short film festivals are great, but most I have been to rarely fill the seats and really, you want people to watch your films, which is why we make them.

C8: You were both Director and Producer on the film. Did you find it difficult juggling multiple roles on set?

SZ: Yes it is.  But I gave myself a lot of time to prep and surrounded myself with a wonderful team of people, especially my Production Manger Kim Weinreich. By the time we got to set, everything was in place and so I could leave Kim to it and I was able to just be creative.

C8: ‘Marigolds’ was your first short film. What was your background before this and what have you done since?

SZ: I started off as an actress in Toronto and then started writing.  I realised I was a much better writer than actress and I could also do it all the time and not wait for roles. So I wrote shorts and a half- hour TV dramedy that started to make the rounds in Toronto and got myself a literary agent too.  But I decided that I really wanted to direct the stories I was writing as well and so it was a question of going to LA (I was born in California) or back to the UK where most of my family has ended up and I also have a UK passport.  So, I decided to come to the UK as I had more of an appreciation for foreign and European films and Hollywood just did not interest me.

Since Marigolds, I’ve written and directed my second short film Dawn – which was an exploration of themes for a feature film idea I had.  I was very fortunate that an investor had seen ‘Marigolds’, liked it and invested in ‘Dawn’.  I also produce music promos, virals and 1st Assistant Direct quite a bit too – this is my bread and butter money while I write and also allows me to meet and learn from other great filmmakers and play with some of the big toys.

C8: If you did the whole process again is there anything you would do differently?

SZ: I had a really great experience making Marigolds.  I think because I allowed myself the time to prep properly – that was key and of course having a great, supportive team.  Of course, it’s always hard to watch your work now as you learn from it and move on. I would say that I wish I had someone to show ‘Marigolds’ at different cutting stages – I worked well with the Editor – but this is where it’s great to have an objective eye on it – someone you trust such as a Producer etc.  I would have cut it a bit quicker maybe, there were a lot of close ups and cutaways we didn’t manage to get on the shoot and would have been great to have in the edit.

C8: What do you think makes for a good collaboration?

SZ: Being open to all suggestions, from any one, especially your actors and Hads of Department’s more often than not makes your idea even better. Any smart filmmaker surrounds themselves with people at the top of their creative game that will only help you realise your initial vision and hopefully make it better.  I think it’s rare to ever visually achieve a film as it is 100% what you had in your head, but if you choose the right creative people and allow for their input – you just might get there. Of course, you have to have a very strong sense and vision of every detail of your film, but you can either be a Director or a Dictator – the latter is just obnoxious and boring.

C8: What is next for Stephanie Zari? Any projects on the horizon?

SZ: Yes! Very excited that we are just packaging my first feature film ‘Silent Disco’, a psychological thriller with family taboo themes about surviving triplets, cult-like religion and dealing with loss and guilt through death of a loved one. I also have a few other web and TV projects I’m working on as well as developing a few other feature ideas and I’ve promised myself to make a short black comedy this year.