Jessica M. Thompson: Moon Over New York City

February 20, 2018
Seeing few opportunities at home, ambitious Australian filmmaker Jessica M. Thompson decamped to New York City to try her luck in the Big Apple. Now she's back with her first feature, The Light of the Moon. If you can make it there...

A confronting drama about trauma and recovery, The Light of the Moon stars Brooklyn Nine Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz as Bonnie, a young and successful Latina architect, who is sexually assaulted while walking home from an evening out with friends in Brooklyn, and follows her journey to return to normalcy in the aftermath. We caught up with Australian writer, director, and editor Jessica M. Thompson.

You’re now based in New York, but began your career in Sydney. When did you move? What prompted your relocation? 

I relocated from Sydney to New York City in 2010 and started a small production company, Stedfast Productions. After working full time in a post-production house in Sydney for 3.5 years and climbing up the ranks from Assistant Editor to Editor, I felt like my future options and opportunities in the industry were confined by being in Australia. There is no blueprint on “how to make it as a filmmaker”, but it felt like there were such a restricted amount of pathways to do so if I stayed in Australia.

As we all know, Australia has great tax incentives for film productions, so it has become a location for large American and British films. I kept noticing that foreign artists usually took up the above-the-line roles (the ones that I wanted to gain experience in) and they usually brought their assistants with them, so that pathway didn’t seem like a viable option.

Then there is the government-funded Screen Australia route, but it always felt like there were thousands of artists competing for just a handful of grants. I tried several times to secure funding from Screen Australia, only to be knocked back. In hindsight, it felt to me that Screen Australia was only interested in funding filmmakers once they had made a name for themselves overseas and not in nurturing new talent, emerging voices and homegrown filmmakers. It baffles me that the likes of Mel Gibson – without the semblance of an Australian accent (and an alleged domestic abuser and anti-Semite) – can get millions of dollars for his films but there are no programs for first-time feature filmmakers to even get a few thousand dollars.

I then tried to hustle my way onto film productions at Fox Studios, but I found that getting work on feature films was so competitive due to the lack of productions in the country. I also found that roles would go to people who had “connections” in the industry, versus those who deserved the job. As someone who was raised by a single mother from a migrant blue-collar family in the Western suburbs of Sydney, I had no connections to the film industry or art world, but I sure had a lot of grit and perseverance. So the decision was largely made for me. I felt that making it in the Australian film industry was going to be too competitive, take too long and I had a ridiculous amount of ambition that I wanted to fulfil, so I felt that the American industry would better serve me.

Within months of moving here my instinct was proven right when I became a production manager and associate editor on Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus’ feature film, Love, Marilyn. On this production, I got to work with the likes of Viola Davis, Uma Thurman and Adrien Brody (and many others) and masterful director of photography, Maryse Alberti. And this production led to me being the editor on Back on Board, which was distributed by HBO and nominated for an Emmy Award. So it felt like the “blueprint” to becoming a filmmaker was much more clear.

Overall, I find that there is vastly more opportunity in the American industry and there is a lack of competitiveness among my peers. There is plenty of work to go around and there is an overall encouragement of those people with grit, perseverance and a good idea. In Australia, the “tall poppy syndrome” is rife in the industry and I found that my ambitions and ideas were perpetually cut down. In the USA, I find that I am lifted up, infinitely encouraged and people get really invested in your ideas and want to help you fulfil your dreams. There are plenty of government and non-government grant opportunities for artists and filmmakers, but more importantly, there is a massive privatised and immensely profitable filmmaking business – from darling indies, to documentaries, to prestige films and Hollywood blockbusters – so there is plenty of money to go around. Getting my first feature film off the ground here was, of course, incredibly difficult (as all are), but I found that the access to private investors and alternative methods to government and grant-filmmaking allowed me to make The Light of the Moon and deliver it to the world.

You studied acting – when did you decide to move behind the camera and what led to that choice?

My initial aim was to be a writer-director-actor. I fell in love with film as a storytelling medium at 12 years old (ironically, after watching Mel Gibson’s Braveheart during family movie night) and have never wavered from my love of film and pursuing it as a career.

At 12, acting seemed to be the most accessible of these to gain experience in, and so I trained at several drama academies over the next nine years, but always with the view that I would go behind the camera as well. I enrolled in UTS’ Media Arts and Production degree straight out of high school, but carried on acting at ATYP and the Sydney Theatre Company for several years. Nowadays, I have largely hung up my acting laurels except for the odd drop-in class and cameo here-and-there, but in hindsight, that experience was of great importance to me while developing my skills as a writer-director and gave me invaluable insight into that world, which I feel I always carry with me in my toolkit as a director. I also use a lot of acting improvisation techniques while I am writing, which I think serves me in creating natural and realistic dialogue. I also firmly believe that identifying with the actors and their process is invaluable in gaining their trust and encouraging creative collaboration on set.

What was the impetus behind The Light of the Moon? Why did you want to tell this story?

I decided to make this film because I wanted to create a raw and realistic portrayal of trauma and recovery, which is told solely from the victim’s perspective. I was sick of seeing assault over-used in mainstream media (usually by male writers) as a mere plot device and it was not explored in an honest and real way. Hopefully, this film will help change that and encourage a more open dialogue about an issue that affects more than one in five women.

What was the writing and development process like? How did the film change shape over time, from initial conception to final cut?

I use a lot of improvisation techniques when I am in the writing stage (and spend a lot of time talking into a dictaphone – let’s hope no one finds those tapes!). This is part of the writing process that I greatly enjoy. I fully immerse myself into each character and I feel this allows me to create these raw, realistic and natural humans that come to life on the page. Throughout each draft of the script, more subplots and backstory were added that I felt made Bonnie even more real. I would get my acting friends together after each major draft and hear them read the script out loud, and that would benefit me greatly in knowing what was missing and where I needed to go next.
I insisted on rehearsing with my actors for a week before we started principal photography, and although this did not lead to major changes within the script, it meant we developed a familiarity and bond early on and that we were all ready to dive in as soon as I called “action” on the very first day of filming.

In terms of the editing process, it stayed pretty accurate to the script (expect quite a few 12 minute scenes turned into 3-4 minute scenes, but I feel that filming the longer version served the actors and overall emotion). The biggest change was that I cut the end scene entirely (which was written as a scene between Bonnie and her boyfriend Matt), and decided to leave it on a scene with just Bonnie. I feel strongly that this was the right decision as it is first-and-foremost, Bonnie’s story. This just shows you how important each phase of the filmmaking process is – and collaboration and trial-and-error – to the overall story. Without that editing process and gaining feedback from trusted peers, I wouldn’t have gotten to this natural ending which feels so necessary and poignant for this type of film.

The film has been praised for its realism and lack of theatrical conceit – what kind of research and preparation did you do to ensure this? How did that inform your creative choices?

I went down a rabbit hole of research. Over the months before I sat down to write the first draft of the script, I spoke to several assault survivors, attended seminars, spoke to medical professionals, examining doctors, social workers, anti-violence organisations, lawyers, attorneys, police officers and even learned how to administer a rape kit myself. In my research, I discovered all of these facts that I had no idea about and that I had not seen explored in other films on the subject matter. It was these unknown facts that I felt had been largely ignored by mainstream depictions of sexual assault and that became the jumping point for the story of The Light of the Moon.

I felt this intense research wholly informed my creative choices, because I so greatly wanted to fulfil my aim of creating a survivor’s narrative from the “woman’s gaze” and that survivors felt was representative of their own experiences.

What was your casting process like? How did you settle on Stephanie Beatriz for the lead role?

Initially, we did an open casting call and were going to make the film “super indie” (without known actors), but during the casting, I met who-was-to-become-our-third-producer, Michael Cuomo, and after he read the script he felt strongly that we should find a casting director and go out to some known actors. He felt the script was strong enough to entice a recognisable cast to come on board a low budget project and that this would help the film in the distribution phase. And he was right!

We hired Bess Fifer as our casting director and in my “wish list”, Stephanie Beatriz was always at the top. From her role as Detective Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I knew she had the acerbic wit that is instrumental to Bonnie’s character and that she’d be able to pull off the demands of the drama, due to her roles in Short Term 12 and her extensive theater background. I also did some research on Stephanie and read a few articles where she spoke out about the lack of roles for Latina women and I wholeheartedly agree. I had written this role specifically for a Latina actor and after reading her comments, I just had a gut instinct that she was the right choice. Our casting director, Bess Fifer, made an offer to Stephanie’s agent and within a few hours of her reading the script, we were on a Skype call and the connection was instantaneous! It was phenomenal to get to collaborate with such an incredible group of actors on my first feature film.

What was the biggest hurdle you faced in making the film?

I don’t mean to sound stereotypical, but it was the funding. At every stage, we had to raise more money and in the end, I had to edit the film myself, (which was not my original intention and not at all an ideal situation, as you lose so much collaboration and objectivity within the storytelling). The resulting stress from never having enough money and having to max out several credit cards was not great for my mental health, to be frank. It was a constant uphill battle to maintain funds and stay fed, but – we did it! (just…)

You crowdfunded your initial production funds – how do you feel about the crowdfunding space for indie filmmakers overall? How viable is that as a source of capital for creatives?

Honestly, I hated crowdfunding – but it was a necessary evil, (as neither myself or my filmmaking partner, Carlo Velayo, are fathered by Francis Ford Coppola or have a rich Uncle Joe who can loan us a few thousand!). I am, of course, glad we did it and it gave us the initial cash boost we needed, but it was one of the worst and most stressful experiences of my life. I felt like a beggar and an arsehole, constantly asking my family and friends for money. Isn’t it sad that artists have to do such things?!

Yet, I will say that it does make your community more invested in your overall vision and it allows people who are not in the film business to feel like they are a part of the process. I did find that concept really uplifting – like I had a team of cheerleaders rooting for me throughout the making of the film.

All that to say, I really hope I never have to crowdfund ever again! Overall, I feel the industry needs to focus more on initiatives to help people without the connections and access to funds to get their visions made (like the Half Initiative and Female Forward etc), so that we can continue to increase diversity within the industry.

What other projects do you have coming up that we should keep an eye out for?

I am moving to Los Angeles in April to continue development on a post-climate-change, character ensemble television series. I also have a neo-noir sci-fi feature in the works (my favourite genre!), none of which have a name yet, but stay tuned, there are big things in the making!

The Light of the Moon is having its Australian premiere at Palace Broadway in Sydney this Saturday, February 24. Tickets are available here

Following initial publication, Screen Australia contacted us and asked us to include the following statement: Screen Australia points out Hacksaw Ridge received no direct funding from the agency. Furthermore, the agency also does fund films from first time directors and producers.

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