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The Musically Inspiring Film “Life Inside Out” – Interview with Director Jill D’Agnenica

A mother, returning to her musical roots, ventures into the world of open mic nights and takes her troubled teenage son, Shane, along for the ride. Despite a rocky entry, her first steps prove to be the catalyst for changing not only her own life, but Shane’s as well, in complex and unpredictable ways. Life Inside Out will screen at the John Paul II International Film Festival on Friday, April 4th, 2014 at 8:00PM at the Paragon Grove 13 Theater in coconut Grove, FL.

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Life Inside Out Trailer

Jill DAgnenica

Frank:  How would you pitch your movie to an audience?

Jill D’Agnenica: Life Inside Out is a music filled family drama. At its core it’s a buddy movie, the buddies in this case being a mother and her teenaged son, who go on an adventure of self-discovery together. Its ultimate message is an affirmation of pursuing one’s creative passions in the midst of everyday life.

Frank In your opinion, how does your film fit into the 2014 theme, INSPIRATION. This question applies to the film itself as well as its production process.

Jill D’Agnenica: Wow. Okay, you asked so here goes:

The movie begins with Laura recharging her life with her re-discovery of music; really starting to blossom when she gets her old guitar back in her hands. And meanwhile, her troubled son Shane is quietly watching and learning and discovering his own talents. In my mind the movie has always been about this journey that Laura and Shane take together. I love the idea of a mother being the inspiration to her teenaged son–her growing confidence and pursuit of her music impacting and inspiring him to find his own voice. But what’s equally interesting to me is the idea that Shane is an inspiration to his mother. In filming and postproduction, it was really important to me that even though the story is largely told from Laura’s point of view, that Shane have equal weight as a main character. Despite his surliness in the beginning, I wanted to make sure that the audience sympathizes with him and is interested and concerned for him as he struggles in a family that isn’t really in tune with him. The discoveries they make about themselves and each other are so poignant to me, even more so because it’s kind of a “you and me against the world” thing especially in the beginning.

Regarding inspiration for the writing of the film:

Although Life Inside Out is a work of fiction, Maggie and Lori were inspired by their real lived experiences as musicians who play at open-mic nights and the camaraderie and craziness of the people who populate those clubs. They were also inspired by the very real experiences Maggie had watching her son, Finneas pick up a guitar and quickly display a natural gift for music.

Regarding the inspiration during pre- production of the film:

We got the biggest single chunk of our meager production budget through Kickstarter backers. I am such a huge fan of the crowd-funding model for creatives. It opens so many doors and gives such power to artists…no waiting for a grant for your art or for a studio to green light your movie. Put it out there, publicize it, and if it meets your funding goal, you get to make your project. And as an added bonus you now have a big community of supporters who have a big interest in your success. You become simultaneously bold and humbled when you have to approach your friends, family, acquaintances and community at large, hat in hand so-to-speak, asking them to support your project, but we believed in our movie and ultimately so did they! We surpassed our $35,000 goal by over $6,000. When our almost 500 backers gave us those 41,000 dollars to make the movie, well, I can’t think of a bigger inspiration to forge ahead and do it well. Once we had that level of Kickstarter support, it was easier to approach investors for the remainder of our needed funds. They saw how successfully we ran our Kickstarter campaign and gained confidence that we could pull off the movie with the same combination of scrappiness and professionalism. Maggie and I promised ourselves after our project was completed that we would offer our experience and expertise to anyone who wanted it, and indeed we have.

Regarding the inspiration during production of the film:

First off, we got this movie together with a wing and a prayer and lots of sweat and love and dedication on the part of the cast and crew. In our production meeting, I thanked the crew for going on this journey with us and let them know that there would be definitely problems, because problems always arise, and that when they did, to simply come to me and let me 1) know the problem 2) offer a solution if they had one and 3) not to cast blame on anyone for said problem, because we didn’t have time to waste on that. I asked that everyone treat each other with respect and kindness, because no one was getting paid enough to be abused, and actually even when you are compensated financially, I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for rudeness. And every day I tried to be the first one to model that kind of behavior on the set. So no matter how stressed or exhausted I was, I would take a deep breath before arriving and show up with a smile on my face. And throughout each day, my tireless crew and awesome actors inspired me to do and be my best.

Frank: Were their challenges in directing both Maggie Baird and Finneas O’Connell, who are real life mother and son, in the film?

Jill D’Agnenica: There were no challenges directing Maggie and Finneas together because they are both true professionals. They showed up to the set prepared and focused and delivered consistent, truthful performances. I expected this of Maggie, who has had a long career and experience, but it was a lovely surprise with Finneas, who is just starting out.

The biggest gift and also challenge in directing Maggie as Laura was that Maggie co-wrote the script. She knew Laura better than even I did, so if we had conflicting ideas, I usually deferred to her and adjusted my view. But when I did hold firm on another interpretation, or I needed something else for the camera, Maggie came through in spades. I guess I saw my role as the ultimate audience member, searching for real, relatable people and a natural environment. Secondarily, I wanted this all to come across in a subtle but visually compelling manner, so I focused a lot on composition and blocking, with loads of input and help from our D.P., Guido Frenzel.

Frank: The original songs in the film are beautiful, can you share your process of choosing the right songs to place in the film?

Jill D’Agnenica: The music was so much fun! We had to plan it all out and even record most of it before

we started shooting. Maggie Baird (co-writer and lead actress) and I spent many, many hours carefully going through the script and 1) identifying where we wanted a song or songs and 2) working out what song that would be. Maggie and Finneas are both songwriters in real life. And all the songs you hear them play in the movie are theirs. In many cases, Maggie and Lori Nasso (co-writer) identified a particular song for a certain scene in the script. For instance, when Laura sits at the piano singing “I Know” that then moves into a montage of Shane walking alone at dusk and Laura driving around the city looking for him.

Sometimes fate intervened–we were shooting on location at Maggie’s house in the middle of a terrible heat wave last September and one day it out of nowhere it started pouring rain. I hurried Maggie and David Cowgill (who plays her husband Mike) out on  to the porch. She grabbed her guitar and just started playing one of her songs and we shot some footage. (I was so worried the rain would stop as suddenly as it had started that I didn’t even give my sound guy time to mike the actors, so the whole song had to be dubbed later in post production.) Meanwhile, our first AD kept saying, “Jill, we have actual scripted scenes we have to shoot…”

In the case of our other featured musicians, who populate the open mic-nights, we invited specific performers who we admired to be a part of the movie and asked them to submit a few song choices. Then I had the immense pleasure of listening to all the tracks and making decisions as to which songs I wanted to use in the movie. I played each scene out in my head, listening to the tracks, to find the one I felt conveyed the mood.

As one example, Long Time Coming by Yogi Lonich, stood out for our entire team as the perfect song to underscore an important moment for Laura at the club. Well, we had to alter our shooting schedule and Yogi was going to be out of the country the day we were going back to the club. I begged our DP, Guido Frenzel, to shoot Yogi against a backdrop in my home studio, promising him I could make the scene work in post production–appearing to be a seamless part of the club scene. Guido, dubious at first, came up with an even better idea that in my mind can truly be classified as “movie magic.” The shots he got of Yogi singing that song are some of my favorite from the entire movie.

Frank: What is your favorite song in the film? Why?

Jill D’Agnenica: I love just about every song in the movie, so this is a hard one. But if I have to pick, I would say there are two in particular that stand out for me within the narrative construct of the movie. I love the duet at the piano between Maggie and Finneas, “Call Me When You Find Yourself.” It’s one of the few songs we recorded live on the set and to this day it gives me goosebumps. My other favorite is “I Know” which Laura plays at the piano with an accompanying montage of Shane walking alone through city streets and Laura driving around looking for him. I am really proud of that entire sequence, how the visuals and the song meld so beautifully together.

Frank: What do you miss most about the production process of this film?

Jill D’Agnenica: I loved the intense collaboration and the quick thinking that was required of me. I usually work as a film and television editor, working methodically, much of the time pretty isolated and alone. Life Inside Out is my directorial debut. Almost everyday on the set I was sick to my stomach from nerves, but I was also super aware of what a gift I had been given to be director of this film. I loved collaborating with the cast and crew. They were all so amazing and generous. Working with our DP Guido Frenzel was a special treat. We have been friends for years, but never worked together. When I walked onto the set on the first day of shooting Life Inside Out I was basically walking onto a set for the very first time in my life. I comforted myself with the thought that I had spent the last 15 years viewing and dealing with the results of those labors, and in addition I had an exclusive art school degree conferring that I understood framing and composition, but no denying I was green and I relied heavily on my Guido to collaborate and argue with me to get the best shots possible, as well as to guide the crew while I worked with the actors. I think we pushed each other to do our best work with the limited time and budget that we had.

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