Entertainment Magazine: Film: Heartland Film Festival

As High as the Sky with Nikki Braendlin

By Madelyn Ritrosky

Margaret is a little particular – as a tag line for As High as the Sky so aptly sums up the film’s main character.  This first feature from writer/director Nikki Braendlin is a strikingly intimate study in visual character definition and painful emotional growth. 
Shot composition, set design, deliberately paced editing, and the nonverbal elements of acting all anchor Margaret’s character quite precisely.  With minimal dialogue, we quickly learn her personality and her problems. 
In fact, dialogue is initially limited to a phone conference with the two aunts who raised her.  We never see Dee Wallace or Jenny O’Hara as her aunts yet the characters are ingeniously drawn through several telephone calls.       
Margaret’s home is sparsely furnished, with clean, contemporary lines, and everything is neatly organized.  If anything is out of place, even a notebook on her desk, she feels compelled to “fix” it. 
Thus, the heart of the film ever so slowly becomes visible.

Margaret (Caroline Fogarty) simply cannot fix one very large disruption:  her live-in fiancé has moved out.  This appears to be the biggest wrench in her ordered existence.  Before long, however, unanticipated disorganization ratchets up far more than she could have imagined.

Her estranged, vagabond older sister Josephine (Bonnie McNeil) and young niece Hannah (Laurel Porter) show up unexpectedly on her doorstep.  The film’s core interpersonal dynamics – Margaret’s real journey – now begin.  Margaret, Josephine, and Hannah will never be the same.

Photo: Margaret (Caroline Fogarty) Photo: Josephine (Bonnie McNeil) reassures Hannah (Laurel Porter).

It is very important to note that all key members of the filmmaking team were women.  It’s important because, unfortunately, it’s so rare – even with independent films on the festival circuit.  Consider these current statistics for the top 250 Hollywood films from 2013:  women were 20% of the producers, 17% of editors, 10% of writers, 6% of directors, and 3% of cinematographers.  

In contrast, As High as the Sky boasts the following: writer/director/executive producer Braendlin, producer Lena Bubenechik, director of photography Tarin Anderson, editor Laura Fisk, production designer Emily Harrison, and composer Kristen Baum.  Go ladies!
Although As High as the Sky has finished its year on the festival circuit, the filmmakers secured distribution with Cinema Libre Studio.  The DVD comes out on May 6, 2014, and the film is available through Video On Demand and streaming on June 6, 2014. 
Nikki BraendlinI saw the film and met Nikki Braendlin (photo, left) at the 2013 Heartland Film Festival in October, the film’s last festival, but now it’s time for the film’s release.  So let’s hear more about this movie from the filmmaker herself.     

Was it part of the plan from Day 1 to have women in all the key production positions?
Initially I did want all women in the key positions, but it was suggested that since I was a first-time filmmaker, I should choose people I was most comfortable with, regardless of gender.  So I did interview men for the DP and editor positions.  I liked everyone I met, but I really clicked with both Tarin Anderson (our DP) and Laura Fisk (our editor). 
When it came time to hire a composer, I wanted to continue with what we had going so I only listened to demos from women.  I was really drawn to Kristen Baum’s music and we hit it off during our meeting so I didn’t meet with anyone else.
Have you gotten any comments about this all-female team, from pre-production to festival audience reactions?
Overall, the response has been very positive, with numerous people, both men and women, appreciating that we used an all-female cast and key crew.  There were, of course, a few snarky remarks but they were few and far between – and easily ignored!
Would you say you approached this project with a feminist sensibility?  
I did want to have women as the main characters and to create rich roles for the actresses.  For a few drafts I had a supporting male character, but he wasn’t propelling the story forward so he was cut.  In general, I think it’s very important to be aware of how women are portrayed on screen.  
I don’t mind and actually enjoy watching female characters who are concerned about their looks or dealing with men as long there is more to them.  People – both men and women – can be narcissistic and flighty and body-obsessed, so why not explore those traits?  Just make the characters multi-dimensional and give them depth and arcs.
You mentioned lack of a name actress in the cast as an obstacle with potential distributors.  Was the all-female cast an obstacle?  Has it been viewed as a women’s film?
Some of our biggest supporters have been men.  We were referred to our distribution company, Cinema Libre Studio, by a man, and the person who spear-headed acquiring the film was a man.  Neither of them expressed feeling that it was a “women’s film.” 

They believe, and I agree, that both genders can appreciate the story.  The lack of a name cast is always an issue that is brought up when making or releasing films, but I think a great, well-told story can supersede that issue.

DP Tarin Anderson with WriterDirector Nikki BraendlinPhoto: DP Tarin Anderson with Writer/Director Nikki Braendlin.

How would you describe your festival run over the last year?
Awesome and humbling!  The first few times we screened at festivals we were very, very nervous.  But the response was continuously positive so it began to get easier.  The audience members always had very insightful observations or questions, which meant so much to us because you could tell the story really engaged them.
What projects are on the horizon?  
I have several completed screenplays that I’d love to see make it to the screen.  I’m meeting with various producers and production companies to find a good fit for my work.

Thank you, Nikki!  Good luck with the upcoming release, and I look forward to those next projects.  

Purchase the DVD for As High as the Sky: http://store.cinemalibrestore.com/as-high-as-the-sky-dvd.html

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