Reaching for “The Stars”: An Interview with Martha Stephens

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Martha Stephens is one of the top names in directing when it comes to independent films. She graduated from the UNC’s School of the Arts with a degree in Filmmaking, with her focus on directing. She has won quite a few accolades with her work. Her 2014 film Land Ho received the John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award. Her latest film, the dramedy To the Stars, will be coming out on April 24 from Samuel Goldwyn Films.

WorldFilmGeek had the chance to talk to Stephens about her latest film.

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Hi Martha! I got to watch To the Stars and I loved it! I always love these coming-of-age films especially when it comes to friendships between polar opposites and it felt so real.
Thank you!

What led you to direct the film?
I was in between projects. I had made a movie called Land Ho! In 2014 and I had this big sports comedy film that was going to be in the vein of Slap Shot and The Bad News Bears that I was trying to make. I spent $300,000 making Land Ho! and making the jump from that kind of money to making a big movie was harder on me. I thought I could do it, but I couldn’t.

So, I started looking for other scripts, which was my first time doing that. I’ve always written my own stuff up until that point. And my producer who I was working with on the sports movie, she was asking agents if there were any scripts that needed a home and that were special. She got the script for the film and she read it and thought I would like it because I have a specific interest, which involves mid-century America and small towns. And she knew I wanted to do something female-centric because Land Ho! was about two guys in their 70s. So I was ready to tell a maiden story.

When I read the script, I related to the story and the characters. I totally thought of a coming of age film that would have come out when I was in elementary school, such as Fried Green Tomatoes and My Girl and studio films, period studio films because we don’t have that anymore. I would say it was sweet and earnest. I mean there’s a reason while people today still love Dirty Dancing and I thought this was my chance to make my version of that.

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The meeting of two friends: Iris (Kara Hayward) and Maggie (Liana Liberato) in To the Stars (Samuel Goldwyn/Northern Lights)

Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato, who I thought was great in Banana Split had this natural chemistry in their roles of Iris and Maggie. I mean Liana, especially, it was like she was playing a 1960s version of her Banana Split character with the same mannerisms. What was it like working with them?
They were great! I mean Kara, I remember her work in Moonrise Kingdom, and she was the only person I thought of when it came to the role of Iris. I Skyped with her and we went from there. And with Maggie, I wanted to find someone who would be a good match for Kara. I talked to a lot of actresses and we read through the lines.

When Liana came onboard, her agent had sent her reel over and it was an intuitive knowing. I knew she was Maggie. She was the perfect Maggie. I mean her look and attitude, so I was ready to jump into casting her. But I wanted to make sure that she and Kara liked each other. I had them read together and they got along so well, and they were on the same page. So yeah, they are really good, kind, human beings.

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Francie (Jordana Spiro) in a moment of grace with her daughter Iris (Kara Hayward) in To the Stars (Samuel Goldwyn/Northern Stars)

Aside from the young cast, you have some great veterans such as Jordana Spiro, Malin Akerman, and Tony Hale. Did you allow them to bring their own interpretations to their characters?
Jordana, 100 percent! She brought so much to the role of Francine. When I read the script, I saw Francie as this total antagonist. I wanted to make sure that we had some humanity in there with her. Give her this moment of grace. So Shannon [Bradley-Colleary] and I wrote the scene where Iris and her mom hug and beyond that, there were a few things that showed that Jordana really dove into Francie’s psychology and why she did the things she did. It made for a much better character. And Jordana really made that character.

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Martha Stephens on the set with Malin Akerman, who plays Maggie’s mother

I have to agree with you on that. I felt like up to meeting Maggie, Iris’ father was her saving grace but at first glance, you may think he’s not a good character either. However, we soon learn he is looking out for her and gets a lot of flack.
We liked that about the father. He seems a bit hard on Iris, but he’s actually a caring sensitive guy that on the one hand is trying to tiptoe around his wife, because she’ll blow up at him. On the other hand, he’s trying to defend his daughter from Francie, where she’s drunk and then she’s forcing Irish to wear this prom dress she makes, having these manic episodes.

 

How long did shooting take and what, if any, difficulties did you face during production?
Shooting took 20 days and that was the difficult thing because we thought we probably needed 30 days. This is a period piece with costumes, make-up, and hair and lots of locations. Time was the biggest issue. Moving at a breakneck pace to get through the days so the DP and I would come up with a plan when there was no room to change and a plan B in case we couldn’t get through.

So we had these two shot lists a day, one a just in case shot list. We would schedule it down to, okay let’s do this setup after this setup because it makes the most sense to move the camera. We had to be really careful about time basically. But sometimes you’re working with an actor and they want to go again. They should be able to do that. Do it as many times as they want to. But, I’m fortunate to have actors who understood the constraints we were under. They were cool and when they thought it was good, it was good.  It was grateful they trusted us and let us do that.

That’s great! Finally, are there any new projects in the works that you can talk about?
I always feel like I have my hands in four different things and I have to think what’s first. However, I do have a lot of things in early development. I wish I can say I do, but I am working on a TV show set during the Depression, so I hope I can get that done as well as the sports movie I was hoping to make five years ago. Maybe someone will give me financing now that I made To the Stars (Laughs).

That would be awesome! To the Stars comes out on April 24 and for those who love a good coming-of-age story with a real human side to the story will definitely want to see this! Thank you again Martha for taking the time to talk about the film and I hope you stay safe!
Thank you so much for having me and I hope you stay safe as well.

A Special Thank You goes to Katrina Wan PR and Martha Stephens for making this interview possible.

Signature photo credit: Chris Pizzello

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