Interview: Blood Stripe's Award-Winning Filmmakers Remy Auberjonois, Kate Nowlin, And Rene Auberjonois
LA Film Festival Spotlight on the "U.S. Fiction Award" Winners
June 13, 2016
The Santa Monica Observer was privileged to interview Remy Auberjonois, his wife, Kate Nowlin, and his father, Rene Auberjonois, on June 3, 2016, to discuss their award-winning drama, "Blood Stripe".
"Blood Stripe" follows a female U.S. Marine Sergeant after she returns home from her third tour of duty in Afghanistan, wracked by crippling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Disconnected from her home life and no longer able to cope in an urban setting, she escapes to a picturesque summer camp she attended as a child. But the deep emotional scars from her military-related physical and sexual trauma continue to haunt her.
"Blood Stripe" held its World Premiere on June 2, 2016, at the Los Angeles Film Festival to a sold-out audience. The film was so well received that it was later screened to a second sold-out audience on June 7. On June 9, "Blood Stripe" won the "U.S. Fiction Award", one of the top juried prizes at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Remy Auberjonois, who co-authored and made his directorial debut in "Blood Stripe", is known for his work as an actor in films such as "Michael Clayton" and "The International", and for his work on the television show, "The Good Wife". Kate Nowlin, who co-authored and plays the lead actress in "Blood Stripe", is known for her work in the films "Young Adult" and "The Adjustment Bureau", as well as for her parts on television shows, such as "Law and Order". Rene Auberjonois, who plays an important, supporting role in "Blood Stripe", is a highly acclaimed actor known, among other things, for portraying Father Mulcahy in the Robert Altman film, "M*A*S*H", being the voice of Chef Louis who sings "Les Poissons" while trying to cook Sebastian in Disney's "The Little Mermaid", and for lead roles on the television shows "Benson", "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", and "Boston Legal". He also won a Tony award on Broadway for his performance in the stage musical "Coco" (about the life of Coco Chanel), alongside actress Katherine Hepburn.
OBSERVER: When they wrote the screenplay, did Remy and Kate intend to cast the entire family in the film?
RENE AUBERJONOIS: No. It just worked out that way. They always knew that the lead was going to be Kate. But I don't think they knew that their daughter would be a character in it or that I would be a character in it. When they first said that they wanted to make a movie, I jokingly said to them, "What's my part?" and they both looked at each other - looked a little uncomfortable - and they said, "You know Dad, this film is about people in Northern Minnesota and you don't really play those kind of people. You're kind of more high falutin"... so I was originally being turned down by my own son and daughter-in-law. But sitting here now so many months later, I still have to deal with the complexity of being directed by my son. The most difficult part was not wanting to fail him, and that put a kind of a pressure on me that I've never experienced as an actor.
OBSERVER: The film is in competition for the "U.S. Fiction Award". Do you think the film will win a prize?
RENE AUBERJONOIS: Listen, it would be nice if they are acknowledged for their work, but this is a film that no one who sees it is going to forget that they've seen it. So whether it wins a prize - of course that would be nice - but I don't think that's what everybody's focus is on. The focus is trying to get it distributed, to get it out there to an audience that can relate. It is not an easy subject in the sense that it is asking you to deal with a difficult subject, so we'll see. [Several days after this interview, "Blood Stripe" won the "U.S. Fiction Award".]
OBSERVER: How did the idea for the film come about?
REMY AUBERJONOIS: I had grown up hearing about my Dad working on Altman films and I know that some of the experiences he had were very intensive, and there was an aspect of the idea of movie making - that communal living/working - that was really appealing to me. In thinking about trying to make a movie - a situation like that - sounded like a lot of fun and also a focused way to work and get a lot of work out of people in a short period of time.
KATE NOWLIN: We were inspired by Camp Vermillion and we knew we could use it as a good base location. House people. And also bring them to a really majestic place.
Then the story came. There are a lot of servicemen and women throughout the state of Minnesota. We shot in the Iron Range and there are a lot of people who enlist to get out... to get an education... to get income. And Remy knew that he would want to track one primary character through the film, and because of my stature, physically, we realized that I could be a soldier. I started reading about it. There was a woman from that town on the lake that was named "Soldier of the Year" by Army Times months before. And the more research we started to do - looking at women in the military, which I had never previously paid much attention to - I recognized that that could be me. And we ran from there.
OBSERVER: Did you receive any special training to get into physical shape for the part?
KATE NOWLIN: Yes, I did about three and a half months of training prior to the shoot. I started in early May and we were shooting in August. I had two different trainers. And they put me through different forms of "bootcamp" as best they knew how. I say that in quotes because it was nothing like bootcamp. I was in the gym being pushed and building muscle. I was putting myself through something I hadn't done before to get stronger. There is a question and debate around women's physicality and whether they are strong enough to serve. Whether they belong in the military. Female Rangers were going through that trial as we were editing the film. I thought it was very important to create a real portrait of strength because they are strong enough. I worked hard for that.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about women serving in the military, but when we started writing the film in October of 2013, women were not allowed to serve in combat according to Pentagon policy (although they had been for quite some time). And then it was December 2015 - we had finished the film and were submitting to festivals - by December 2015, the Pentagon declared all combat roles across all branches of the military open to women. So that span of time with us working on the film coincided with this massive shift in official recognition of what these women were already doing and have the capacity to continue to do. So now you have the women who passed the test to become Army Rangers, which is the most physically demanding thing you can do, so those barriers were coming down and that coincided with us working on the film, which is just our luck in terms of being filmmakers. We knew as we were starting that these were going to be stories that were going to start to be told, and we wanted to be, as best we could, at the forefront of that kind of narrative treatment of that subject.
OBSERVER: Did you know that you were going to have a 16-day shoot?
REMY AUBERJONOIS: No! If we had known, we might not be here.
KATE NOWLIN: Our Director of Photography, Radium Cheung, almost quit when we told him. He said, "We can't do that!"
REMY AUBERJONOIS: We had originally been working with a 24-day shoot schedule. We started writing by October 2013 and we were shooting by August 2014. We got a full commitment for financing and started the ball rolling and started spending money, making commitments, making obligations, and then, of course, in typical indie fashion, the financing fell through. In a lot of situations, that movie might then fall apart, but we knew that the camp was going to be undergoing a massive construction project after the summer of 2014, and we also knew that this story was very timely and we didn't want to lose our window to be some of the first [filmmakers] to treat it. So when the financing fell through, the community of family and friends really stepped up. We received so much tremendous support and generosity that we were able to put together a smaller financing package which required a shorter shooting schedule. We made a lot of adjustments to the script. We combined locations where scenes happened. We trimmed certain things down. We were in pre-production when it happened, so we just kept going.
RENE AUBERJONOIS: You were going to make this film no matter what because I remember when it got dicey, which always happens with movies - financing always falls through - you have to keep juggling and moving and there was a certain point where I thought, "Well they are just not going to be able to do this," and they said, "We will shoot this on iPhones if we have to. We're gonna make this film." I think that commitment and sense of "F--k it, we are gonna make this movie," was what made friends... people who didn't have vast amounts of wealth... they just recognized that this movie had to be made and they were going to make it no matter what, so people just came forward.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: People stepped up - it was amazing. It came from our connections and people loving and believing in us, and it also came from the strength of the story and the necessity of it, and people recognized, "Yes, this is a real thing that needs to be told and it isn't being told and I would love to help them do that." And that went from the people who gave us money, the people who came to work for very little money, the actors and the crew who all chose to do it. We really did it in 16 12-hour days. Kate was doing those scenes in two takes. We were shooting things with minimal set-ups, minimal coverage.
KATE NOWLIN: And that's the commitment and I think that really is the subject matter. I really do. It got bigger than us quickly when we decided to tell a story like this. We knew we were in the service of something that was unique and brought so many people together. I remember I was in the gym when I got the call that the money was gone. The original commitment. And it felt like the wind got knocked out of me, and my trainer looked at me and he was like, "You get back up." We were going. The train had left the station and out of the good will of those near to us and far, it came together in the most astounding and affirming way.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: And it continued to do so because after we finished production, we spent all the money we had getting those 16-days in the can, and even some money we didn't have. Then we had to regroup and we had a Kickstarter campaign which we raised money to finish paying our bills and to fund our post-production. We raised $115,000.
KATE NOWLIN: Our goal was $60,000. We raised that in eleven days, and then we kept going. It was unreal.
RENE AUBERJONOIS: I became the Donald Trump of the Twittersphere. I was relentless. I had this Twitter account that I had for a couple of years to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. But it became clear that this would be a great route. So I went from 9,000 followers to 48,000 followers. And people would give five dollars or ten dollars.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: The Kickstarter phenomenon is so amazing because everybody gets invested. You put $5 in. You put $250 in. We had some people who contributed at a very high level. Those people who could. But there were people who contributed $1 or $5 and that energy... Those people get invested and they tell their friends and they watch it religiously and everybody likes to see, "Oh, they hit that mark!"
RENE AUBERJONOIS: But also you had a teaser. It wasn't like a blank slate and we want you to help us make the movie.
KATE NOWLIN: Our editor, Jeremy Kotin, cut a really beautiful teaser together with footage that just worked, and our co-producers, Sky Weiss and Julie Christeas of Tandem Pictures, were masterful at helping us preserve the heart and integrity of the story and really get it down to the bare-bones of what we needed.
RENE AUBERJONOIS: The bottom line is that, when you talk to experienced directors, most of them will say that 85-90 percent of my job is casting it correctly because if that doesn't happen, then the ship has sailed and you're lost. Well, that was already taken care of with Kate. Kate's performance reminds you of Hilary Swank in "Million Dollar Baby". She achieved the physical, but also the depth of the emotions. The other thing is, a lot of what directors do has nothing to do with art. After the casting, it has to do with answering a million questions and juggling and playing the chess game of getting it done in the most efficient way, but also getting it the way you want it to be. And so having spent a life with this man as a child saying, "Why is your room such a f--king mess?", [laughs] it was pretty impressive that he went on to direct a feature film!
OBSERVER: One of the things we really appreciated about this movie is that it strayed from the typical Hollywood formula. Kate's character doesn't find a new hot love. Everything just isn't okay. There isn't some sob story at the end. All these contrived clichés that are used by Hollywood to deal with difficult situations and create a happy resolution - you just left all of that aside.
KATE NOWLIN: We defied it.
RENE AUBERJONOIS: What I love about the film is that it leaves so much unsaid while telling everything. When they first were taking this script out, we sent it to a producer that I've worked with - a very smart man - and his immediate reaction was, "Well, it has to have a happy ending. You can't end it like that."
KATE NOWLIN: He offered to give us money if we changed the ending...
RENE AUBERJONOIS: Yeah, right.
KATE NOWLIN: And put Charlize Theron in my part.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: These stories don't have neat endings. It's too complex and too large. And there are too many different versions of the story to boil it down to one. And the fact is, because we weren't making a Hollywood movie, we weren't beholden to Hollywood interests. We were able to acknowledge and dive into those complexities. The film didn't have to have a happy ending. We could treat the subject matter in the way we felt as artists it should be treated.
KATE NOWLIN: We were students of this subject matter in a lot of ways. We brought our own personal things to bear. I have some experience with trauma... physical trauma. And the more we learned... that spoke to us as we constructed and crafted this story, and the truth is that what I was so compelled by is that it is very hard to return. It is hard to go away and to have this kind of experience and ever come home again. And believe me, I wanted some peace for my character. Is there a moment when she can talk in the chapel and unload and heal? It just never felt right. We were also compelled to represent a depiction of a person who is unable to speak.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: Our story is about what happens in the 129 days before [Kate's character] can get treatment at the VA. What is the impact of that waiting period on the people who need treatment? Not all of them need it. This isn't the only version of this story. The woman who was named "Soldier of the Year" by Army Times - she turned immense personal tragedy into something very positive. We were interested in the other side of that coin and telling that story. But it's not to say that this is the only story of people returning from Afghanistan.
KATE NOWLIN: Of course not. We were just compelled, and we felt we had permission because we had creative control to shine light there.
OBSERVER: One thing we really liked about Kate's character is that she was a hero. She was never a victim. Things may have happened to her as a consequence of her bravery, but it isn't because she was a victim.
KATE NOWLIN: Correct. That was conscious. These people are survivors. They are strong. It was vital that while she is burdened, she is not the victim.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: That is what is so important with the depiction of women on film. As an actress, Kate had played a number of characters who were victimized. So much of the depiction of what we see at the very beginning of so many Hollywood television shows after 9 PM - the teaser is of a woman who has been victimized and then that is the launching-point of the story.
RENE AUBERJONOIS: I also think that it's important to talk about, not only what's happening to Kate's character, but what happens to her community [after she returns from service] and how they try to deal with a situation like this that is not simple. Whether it's her husband... Whether it's Dot, who runs the camp, who recognizes right away that there is something here that needs to be taken care of, or whether its the bumbling minister that I play who doesn't really know how to deal with something this complex. I love the fact that the film is about one person's journey, but no journey goes without extending ripples throughout the community that the person moves through. And that is one of the things about this situation - people coming back from war or any kind of trauma. What it does to people more than just themselves individually. So, that's important to see.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: There was a quote that we had read when we were working on the movie that said, "PTSD is a cultural malady," and we were very interested in the way in which our culture deals with this now. We have been fighting these wars of which we have largely been kept unaware. We don't see a lot of the war imagery...
KATE NOWLIN: We've never seen the bodies.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: We don't see people coming back. So, there is this disconnect culturally between the real facts of the war and the impact. There are many cultures that have ritualized processes by which they reintegrate their warriors, and there is a process by which that warrior is accepted back into the community. That warrior processes the experience of war, and the community accepts that this was the necessary thing to happen for the community, and now he must reintegrate. We don't have rituals like that and we don't have that as a general culture, in my experience. We've lost that. We were very interested in the fact that in this small, mechanized world that we live in you could be in-country and then you're done with your service or you get injured and thirty-nine hours later you're walking back home.
KATE NOWLIN: At your kitchen sink... The level of awareness, vigilance, defensiveness that you have to sustain to be there during war - the life and death every day - that is the brutal adjustment. That is what we are trying to depict. She cannot put this down. This vigilance doesn't go away. She has just been fighting for her life. The minutia and the focus and the way that these survivors are living day to day is astounding to me and I don't know how you normalize after that.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: In these wars, too, certainly the very intensive combat roles have been occupied by men, but the lack of front lines and the gorilla-nature of the warfare means that during the whole situation you're living in a heightened sense of awareness, no matter where you are and what you are doing.
KATE NOWLIN: I believe Afghanistan is the longest war that we've been engaged in to date, and because it's a volunteer army, these people aren't just going on one tour. We've read a lot about Vietnam - there are a lot of comparisons drawn. Most people who were drafted did one tour. Now people are doing three, five, six tours. It's repeated. That is also taking a toll and affecting our servicemen and women in a new way. Most of them are going on multiple tours. Three seems to be the average number.
REMY AUBERJONOIS: Women have an added layer with Military Sexual Trauma. There is a lot of iceberg in this film. There is a disease around sexuality. There is a moral injury. And a lot of people, not just women, suffer from MST. It is often not reported.
KATE NOWLIN: There is a good bit of disorientation. Disassociation. Related to trauma, as well.
OBSERVER: Where does this movie go from here? You've obviously premiered the film at the LA Film Festival. What's next?
REMY AUBERJONOIS: That's a good question. We are developing a distribution strategy. There are different routes. We are talking with the producers about what would be the most advantageous strategy. We will see what kind of interest we get from distributors. A traditional distribution model may or may not best serve this film. There are potentially educational distribution possibilities for this film. There is special theatrical distribution. And there is traditional theatrical and digital distribution. Now that it has premiered, we are going to get reviewed. We understand that it's not a conventional sell of a movie. We are working on developing that strategy now.
OBSERVER: Do you have any other projects in the works?
REMY AUBERJONOIS: This has taken up a lot of time and attention. Getting to this point. But I have a slate of things in development. I have a couple of series ideas. I have two more movies that we are beginning development on.
RENE AUBERJONOIS: My part?
REMY AUBERJONOIS: Oh yes, I am really working on developing parts for my Dad first. [laughs] I have another movie to shoot in Minnesota - a dark contemporary themed film, and then one that's a completely different milieu - like Hollywood in the 70's. So, we will see which one I get more traction on. Kate has a project she's developing.
KATE NOWLIN: I have been commissioned to write a pilot for a series I would like to shoot in Minneapolis.
OBSERVER: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.