On a recent cold Sunday I caught up with local filmmaker Carol Brandt at her quiet, warm space near National Avenue, which is a shared co-lab space for a handful of filmmakers from the Milwaukee area. She has made herself at home in her cozy corner with her iMac on her desk, posters of her past films, photos and artwork from loved ones on the walls surrounding her.
This is where Carol has spent most of her days and nights in the past year editing her third feature film, Pet Names, which will premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 10th, 2018. But before there could ever be a premiere there are long hours – and possibly years of work committed towards writing, planning (aka: pre-production), filming on set (aka: production), and editing (aka: post-production), which means sitting at this very desk in this quiet corner.
“She sent me the script… and I was like holy shit this is really good...”
Filmmaking can be both a collaborative and isolating art form. Often feature scripts are written by a solo screenwriter and then that writer must have enough confidence in their story to share the script with others to bring the artwork to life. Once collaborators, such as producers and a director commit to the script, they can help gather resources and secure an even larger group of collaborators consisting of talented cast and crew members. Then the journey of filmmaking again may narrow to the focus of one person - the editor, completing the story into its final form at one desk.
In the scale of “indie movies” many of these roles combine and that is how Carol has often built her feature films over the past five years. The first feature Carol directed was Things Found on the Ground, which she also wrote, produced, and edited. Her second feature, Dear Coward on the Moon, premiered last year at the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, and she again wrote, directed, and edited that film. Her third feature film, Pet Names, is the first time Carol directed a script crafted by another screenwriter and actress, Meredith Johnston. “She sent me the script… and I was like holy shit this is really good… It wasn’t really like anything I’ve read before ‘cause it was very human… and my [scriptwriting] work is human but in a very withdrawn way,” Carol laughs for a bit at noting these differences and adds, “Her [script] was explosively human so that was a nice change.”
As Carol sips tea in her chair across from me, she discusses how she continued making the next film and the next film even though she felt she was getting tired. It is no easy feat to make three feature films in just five years. She mentions how she had the script for Pet Names for nearly three years before the script was filmed and how she had to find the right window of time and focus to make the film. Pet Names was filmed last summer just a few months before her premiere of Dear Coward on the Moon in October 2017.
She found focus by having more collaborators read the script, who inspired her to make the film and that doing it now rather than later could help her grow as a director. “…Since I didn’t write it, that was whole other world… I don’t really own this, as much as I owned my previous films, so that was a really interesting adventure. Having to have that trust there and developing this… Since the actress also wrote it and was playing herself basically, it was very personal for her, and so I’d say about 90% of the time we had the same idea at the same time… So I think I got really lucky having my first foray into directing someone else’s script… This one I definitely felt close to [by the end] and felt like it became my own especially in the editing room.”
As Carol continues as a filmmaker she has also learned the importance of keeping collaboration throughout the filmmaking process over the past five years and her ways of collaborating with others on each film has varied which has pushed her as a director. “[Pet Names] was probably the first time where, there were creative differences every once and a while, [but] there was still that trust there but we would just have different ideas and because it was not my story, my ideas were usually not the ones we went with… It was very relieving to know that you are not right all the time sometimes… Being willing to acknowledge that there are other people with you who are creative and have good ideas and are pushing you to grow.”
Beyond the on-set experiences pushing Carol to grow, she also embraced a new way of working on the edit for her third film Pet Names as well. For this film, she did more test screenings with collaborators and supporters than any other film she has directed. That feedback helped her refine the story each week as she continued to edit the film. This collaboration in post-production helped her keep motivated through all the long nights often editing alone at her desk in this corner of the co-lab space.
As I wrapped up with Carol for the afternoon, I asked one more thing about her evolving filmmaking experiences to date – What about collaboration has stuck with you as you’ve grown as a filmmaker? She replied with a short anecdote, “I had this thing for a while, where I was asking all the successful people I met what their definition of success was, and just hearing about their stories, and hearing their opinions, and seeing where they are at in life was really, really eye-opening for me… One of them said, ‘Having a group of people that you can trust and having a community’ and that really stuck with me.”