Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Katherine Clark
By Travis Trew, Programming Manager
North Carolina-raised filmmaker Katherine Clark has been an active member of the Philly Area’s cultural scene for years through her involvement with Theatre Philadelphia and founding of Trenton-based local filmmaker showcase PopUp Anthology. Her new film, Ways to Look at the Moon, follows a woman who senses her relationship with an astronomer is drifting apart.
PFS: Did you always know that you wanted to do something involving film?
KC: I grew up playing music, working in visual arts like drawing and photography, and writing. I didn’t want to choose just one. I wanted to combine all the things I enjoyed doing, and that’s what I found in film. I love the collaborative element, too. So many careers are so solitary. I didn’t grow up watching many films or a lot of television. I sort of discovered it as I went on. I think that’s why my films don’t fit into one genre.
PFS: You got your MFA in Chicago. How did you end up in Philly?
KC: I loved Chicago, but the winters really weren’t the best. Everyone I knew was going to Los Angeles after grad school, but I knew that L.A. was really the place for me or my type of filmmaking. I really like community-based arts and filmmaking. I found Philly and this region to be the perfect fit for that.
PFS: What appealed to you about Philly?
KC: I lived in New Jersey for a bit and the work I was seeing from local filmmakers in Philadelphia really resonated with me. It was still narrative-driven but a little more experimental. You didn’t see the goal of commercialism. I’ve been running a local screening series called PopUp Anthology in the Greater Philadelphia Area, and I’m always drawn to the work from Philadelphia.
PFS: Tell me about PopUp Anthology. How long has it been operating?
KC: PopUp Anthology started over four years ago. It’s an interactive, traveling monthly screening series for local filmmakers, and the filmmakers who have their work selected are asked to attend and represent their work. I started it with two collaborators, who have since moved away. Adrian Colon, who is a comedian and filmmaker from Trenton and who now lives in L.A., continues to curate it with me. We’re starting to build a really great audience of people who know they’re going to see good, quality work.
PFS: What made you choose to specifically highlight local filmmakers?
KC: A lot of people show up to PopUp Anthology and are like, “Wow, I didn’t know that local films were this good!” But just because you haven’t heard of a filmmaker or they’re not from Hollywood doesn’t mean they’re not a good filmmaker. It means they might not have the marketing resources to get their name out, or maybe make a different type of work than what is conventional. It has no indication of the quality of their work. It’s really great to see people shift their perspective on what filmmaking is and can be, and what’s happening around them. It’s great to build a robust collective of people who show up and care about their work and who care about other people’s work. And I want to connect them with audiences who do the same.
PFS: How has being on the curatorial side with PopUp Anthology changed the way you’ve thought about your filmmaking practice?
KC: PopUp Anthology has made me realize that people like vulnerability. I’ve had so many filmmakers at PopUp Anthology talk about how nervous they are to do a Q & A on stage, or personal details about their films, and audiences really appreciate that, and it helps them connect as humans. Once everyone addresses that, then they’re comfortable to do the Q & A and end up sharing a lot about themselves. If you go up there and are like “Oh, my film went to all these festivals, and raising money was so easy, and everything on set was easy,” and then shut down, then that’s generally not honest. Filmmaking is really hard and it’s OK to talk about how hard it is. People connect with you if they know what that process is like.
I’ve also been trying to write shorter work. Most of my films are around 15-20 minutes even though they’re like, nine pages. As a curator, I know that it can be difficult to sit through a longer film. From a programmer’s perspective, brevity is key. But I also love making slower, introspective, visual films that don’t utilize much dialogue. So it’s always about balance: I make what I love first and foremost, but I create robust press kits and marketing materials to catch a screener’s attention if the run time isn’t ideal.
PFS: How would you describe your film, Ways to Look at the Moon?
KC: I would say it’s a magical realist film with some sci-fi elements. It’s a story about a relationship, and people who want to connect but have difficulty. It deals with a universal subject and just happens to end up in outer space for a little bit.
PFS: Where did the initial concept come from?
KC: The story has been around for a while now. It started off as a short story I wrote in college around 2009, and it was originally set in Asheville, North Carolina. I wrote it in one night and submitted it for an assignment the next day. On reflection I was like, “Oh wow, I actually like this, and people connect to it.” It wasn’t a script yet. During the festival round of my last film, Beta Persei, I began thinking about making another film. It had been a while, and I began searching through material I already had that could translate into a visual medium, and this story came to mind.
PFS: What was the process like of translating the short story into a film?
KC: I really wanted to keep the voice that was so strong in the story, so the first few drafts of the script were told in narration and voiceover. But I knew that I wanted the film to use its own language, and I knew I wanted to update the themes to make it feel a little more relevant and rooted in the present. I first approached Amy Frear to work on the film with me, who is a wonderful Philly-based artist whom I met through PopUp Anthology. Actually, almost everyone who worked on the film is someone I met through PopUp’s community. It was great that Amy was attached to the project early on as both a performer and producer. She helped with development and help me adapt it to the screen. It took a lot of coffee dates and a lot of conversations over four months. This was in the summer of 2017, so it was definitely a fraught time. Even though there are no politics in the film, the feeling of being disconnected from other people is definitely there.
PFS: This film is very different from Beta Persei, but there are some striking similarities. They both deal with outer space, and both feel adjacent to science fiction or genre filmmaking. Is space a fascination of yours?
KC: When I was younger I had glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling and I would read books about space, but the actual science and physics behind space never held my attention. I like the aesthetics of outer space, the idea of the unknown, and the feeling of going on a journey where no one has seemingly gone before. Somebody asked me once, “Are all of your films set in outer space?” and I realized they’re usually all either set in outer space or underwater, or use setting like another character. I think setting a film in space, or underwater, or in another time or place is the best way to use film as a medium. It allows you to explore a story that goes beyond where people normally see or go. It doesn’t always require a lot of special effects, it just requires a little bit of manipulation of your film or props, as well as strong actors who bring truth and honesty to the story.
PFS: How has the response to the film been so far?
KC: We’re about three months into our festival run now, and it’s been wonderful to talk to our audience. People are interested in how there’s not much dialogue, and how so much is communicated by other means. And audiences’ responses have been really interesting because the lack of dialogue leaves them room to project their own experiences onto the story. I had someone come up to me and say, “Oh wow, that reminds me of my partner. That’s our entire life. I just go home, and go to bed, and look at the moon, and wait for it to all be over.” That’s something you might say in a therapist’s office! When people see it on screen, they connect with that vulnerability. Some people are like, “Oh, that couple is done.” Other people have said, “They’ll work it out because they’ve come to terms with their differences”, and so on. I have my own interpretation of the story. But once I make something and it’s out in the world, my intentions don’t matter anymore. And that’s how it should be. It lives on its own. The way the audience experiences the film and the emotional reactions they’ve shared with me are what matters the most.
PFS: Do you have another film in the works?
KC: I’m actually making this into a trilogy. And in my next film they’re actually in outer space. For now I’m calling it Space Film 3.
Ways to Look at the Moon will be screening on Thursday, July 11 at the Philadelphia Film Center’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.