We spent some time with actress turned filmmaker Stephanie Ard at this year’s 66e Berlinale to discuss Kickstarters, creating from experiences, and carefully making the transition from being in front of the camera to leading behind the scenes.
We understand that That Day is based on true events, can you tell us a bit about it? Do you think it is important to ‘direct what you know’?
Yes, the film was based on memories and events from the day that my Father passed away when I was 15 years old. When reflecting on that day, I realised that I only had a couple of really strong sensory memories and that I had blocked most of the day out of my memory. I found this very interesting – that our brains can almost shut down in times of trauma. The only memory I really had was sitting on the stairs of my house and looking out at the family members and visitors below through blurred vision and muffled hearing. This visual memory is what spurred me to write the film.
This was my first film to write and direct and it felt very natural to tell this story because it is so personal to me and was a very monumental time in my life. The story is partly fiction (I never left the house on that Sunday in real life), but because the story is so close to my truth, I wrote what I knew. When it came to directing, I tried to focus on the actors and help them be in the right mindset for each scene. Naturally, I pulled from my own experiences- but I was not trying to make my cast feel exactly what I felt. Each person is different and the way he/she approaches and processes the material is always going to be unique – which is an awesome part of filmmaking and directing. But I definitely think you can direct things that are not necessarily a part of your own history. Just like acting, you have to discover the material and find your way in. It’s part of the fun!
How were you able to transition from your background as an actor into the role behind the camera, as a director and producer?
Since I was a little girl I’ve been working as an actor, but in the past three years, I’ve also been working in film production in Austin, TX. I’ve been learning the ropes of filmmaking and treating my on-set experiences like film school – always trying to observe and absorb as much knowledge as possible. Transitioning into directing was a bit daunting at first, but I had an amazing group of friends and fellow filmmakers as my support system encouraging me along the way. My crew and cast were also SO incredible and made my first directing experience such a pleasure. But I will admit – I was definitely nervous that first time I called “ACTION!”
We understand that you used Kickstarter to fund That Day and through this, were able to amass over $13,000 USD for the project. What gave you the idea to fund your film this way and what advice would you have for other filmmakers who are using the same method?
Kickstarter seemed like the most natural way to fund this film. Since it was my first film and was based on this very big tragedy that many friends and family were involved in, those friends and family members were very supportive of me and were very willing to give to the project and help make it happen. We were VERY blessed to have such amazing backers! My advice for other filmmakers wanting to do a Kickstarter is to plan, plan, plan! Running a Kickstarter is a LOT of work. It’s better if you can recruit help, get all of your updates and videos roughly planned out ahead of time, and know who your target audience is. But it is very difficult, and we were very blessed.
What was the experience like filming That Day? How were you able to make the most out of your locations?
The experience was amazing! Again, my cast and crew were so phenomenal to work with. My Producers, Christopher Shea and Malina Panovich, were so on top of things. My Cinematographer, Nathan Smith, was top-notch and really did a great job of capturing my vision. The cast were all so kind and great to work with. It really felt like a big family on set, which is exactly what I wanted. I wanted a set that was comfortable and felt very loving and supportive – and I’m very proud that we achieved that.
We really only had two locations for the film – the house and the park. The park was within walking distance from the house, so that worked out very nicely. The house was also a huge blessing! My dear friends Annie and Brian Stubbs donated the use of their house to our team. They even went out of town for the weekend, so they “wouldn’t be in our way”. It was insanely nice – I still can’t believe it!
Are there any lessons you learned along the way that could help budding directors?
As a first time director, I learned a lot of lessons with this project. I’d say one thing that I learned is how important it is to really work with your Cinematographer and Assistant Director in the location. This isn’t always possible, and we were lucky to have some time to spend in the location and really plan out our shots and our day.
I think with every project I’ll always feel like I could’ve prepared more, and I know there will always be things you can’t control. So I guess that is my second piece of advice – be adaptable. Know what you want and try your hardest to get it – but always have a plan B, because things can change at a moments’ notice and you don’t want to be thrown off your game by whatever might happen.
My other piece of advice comes from my background as an Actor. Always remember to take care of your actors. It’s obviously very important to spend time discussing the story and the character with each actor, but it’s also important to create space and time on set for the actors to get into the character and into the moment. Things can get chaotic on set, so it’s important to maintain a calm and respectful set to allow the actors to really stay in the headspace of the scene, especially if the material is a sensitive subject. After all, there wouldn’t be a film without the amazing talent that you have cast, and you want them to deliver their best performance possible. Do what you can to create the best environment possible – full of trust and respect – and any good actor will do their best to give you their best performance.