“The final moments of director Sarah Sherman’s ‘September’ are utterly breathtaking in how they convey so many layers of emotional nuance without the characters having to utter a word of dialogue. Like all great cinematic storytellers, screenwriter/star Jessica Barr knows that the most meaningful moments often take place in the silences between words, opting to show us her character’s predicament rather than spell it out with reams of exposition. On the heels of her breakthrough feature, ‘Sophie Jones,’ this short affirms Barr’s status as a major talent to watch, and the same could be said of Sherman, whose gorgeously lensed slice of life has not a single wasted frame.”
This is what RogerEbert.com film critic Matt Fagerholm wrote when explaining why he selected Sherman and Barr’s “September” as the recipient of the Critics Choice Award at this year’s fourth edition of the Cinema Femme Short Film Fest. Jessica, who co-wrote and starred in her cousin Jessie Barr’s excellent 2020 debut feature, “Sophie Jones,” solely penned “September,” which thoughtfully expands upon her previous film’s meditation on human connection amidst shattering loss. She plays Maggie, a young woman who travels with an old boyfriend (Spencer Olson) to meet her sister, Alice (Sam Kamerman), in the breathtaking park where they scattered their father’s ashes.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Sarah and Jessica about their collaboration, filmmaking heroes and how they were able to pull off this impeccably nuanced vignette in a single day.
How did you two meet, and how did you come to this film?
Sarah Sherman (SS): We made our first features within a few months of each other in Portland. When my brother, Zachary Ray Sherman, and I were about to start shooting our film, “Young Hearts,” Jess reached out to us. She introduced herself and asked, “Do you need any help? I just made my first feature.” That’s how our relationship began. I guess you could say we met through the Portland film scene, but it really happened as a result of Jess’ ability to put herself out there and meet other people in the film community.
I thought that was so rad, because I didn’t really know a lot of film people from the Portland area. I had moved from LA not long before, and I wasn’t really in that scene due to being a mom. In the few years that we’ve known each other, Jess and I had been in touch casually, and there was this sense of wanting to do something together. And then Covid happened.
Jessica Barr (JB): I sent you a couple scripts that we were thinking about doing. This one seemed the most manageable because it was in one space, and we did shoot it in one day.
SS: In some ways, that was a challenge, but we both just saw it as how the film had to be made. Both of us are used to working under super-tight constraints, even though both of our films landed in great spots.
How did your previous projects, “Young Hearts” and “Sophie Jones,” effect your approach to this film?
SS: “Young Hearts” was very micro budget, and it didn’t have a lot of support in the beginning, so that definitely influenced our sensibilities. Even though the film landed on HBO Max, it still doesn’t feel like a big project to me. We got big names attached at the end of it, and we were so lucky for that, but I still feel like I only make tiny things. It just felt like a natural extension of seeking honesty and truth in what we’re making, and finding a way to get to the heart of things by working with good people. It just seems very organic. We strive for these things that matter to us and feel honest, and then you just figure out how to get it.
JB: “September” had a very similar vibe to my previous project. Everyone who did this film did it for free and that’s why we had one shooting day. I’ve worked with our amazing DP, Matt Hayes, four times and he is incredible. He just moved to Brooklyn, but he owns a RED camera. It was Matt who suggested we shoot on his RED, and his incredible AC, Madison, lended a hand. Sarah made sandwiches for everyone for lunch, and they were so good. The environment of the set itself was just one of the loveliest I’ve had. Everyone understood the tasks, and had shown up prepared. “Sophie Jones” was the first project I ever really did, and the one thing I’ve learned since making it is that if you are very clear about expectations with people from the get go, that makes it way easier.
If they are coming to a set and are expecting a certain sensibility, it’s not ever going to be what they think it’s going to be. You have to be able to expect the unexpected, and to adapt and flow. Sarah and I have talked a lot about how woman directors tend to be caregivers, much more so than male directors. They are constantly checking in with people, but I think that’s actually what every good director should do regardless of their gender. My cousin Jessie was always good with that. She was always going around, asking how we were feeling, what was going on with us and if we needed to step away. But she also knew when to push. I think in that way, we were able to easily communicate, and the same was true of my collaboration with Sarah. When I had to do something slightly emotional, I’d be like, “I just need to step away for a minute,” and there was always an understanding about it.
Sarah can you talk more about how you approached directing the film and your collaboration with the cinematographer?
SS: We all know how collaborative filmmaking is, but to be honest, it could be easy to take credit for other people’s genius. In terms of the cinematography, our DP Matt Hayes is so wonderful. I’ve only worked with him this one time, but I love him so much. He has such a gentle, cool energy for being a dude, to speak frankly. I love working with women, and I love working with men who have a really thoughtful presence. He and I worked very closely on making the shots what I wanted them to be. It came from him first, and then I made adjustments based on what I liked, but he got so many beautiful things that weren’t from me telling him what to do. He was just doing it, and that’s what I love about cinematographers. You just get to, in a non-exploitive way, capitalize on the amazing things that they do.
We had several conversations before the shoot, but we also found a lot of beautiful things in the moment. There really wasn’t a lot of intentional directions such as, “I want the camera to say this”, and that is something that would’ve previously made me ashamed as a director, thinking I should be more of an auteur. Now I am confident in my own strengths, and they are awesome, while knowing that it’s okay to utilize other people’s strengths. I am lucky to feel comfortable with that at this point. We did have a little bit of a directive or intention in advance, kind of by necessity, but also to best serve the story. We wanted to keep the visuals really simple, knowing that we were going to be in the wilderness, which was inherently beautiful. There was an underlying feeling of intending for the visuals to be solely there to support the actors and to honor what they were offering us.
This is obviously not a flashy story. I think we all just had the agreed upon sensibility in advance that this story would be best executed by taking a simple, restrained and reserved approach. It was delightful to get into the edit and realize that this approach worked. I was so excited about the script because Jess is just a great writer. There was so much to work with in terms of subtext. This is a story that we could have explored in many different ways, and Jess was like, “Explore it however you want. I just want to act in this, so take it and do with it what you want.” It was lovely to have that freedom. My whole MO for the day was to be right there with the actors. That felt the most important to me in order to guide and experiment. Working with actors is hands down my favorite thing about directing, and it’s great when you work with good ones.
Jess, with “Sophie Jones” and this film, I feel that one of the themes you explore really well—in both your scripts and performances—is the impact of losing a loved one.
JB: I feel like I write about what I know a lot of the time, and in a lot of work that I’ve done, there’s always grief, as well as a sense of growing up too soon or being the parent for someone else. So I think that’s why I explored these ideas in this script. The film is based off of a similar thing that happened to me, which really effected my relationship with the people involved afterward. I always find what people need in terms of dealing with grief really interesting. Everyone grieves in their own way, and what someone may want, someone else really doesn’t want. It may not helpful for you, but it’s helpful for another person. That is what this film was specifically about in terms of the grieving process. My character and her sister have two different ideas of what they need, and they are not clicking, and that can be scary.
What do you hope people see in this film?
SS: This is such a little slice of life, and I would hope that there is a takeaway for people in recognizing the complexity of being human. It is complicated to be in relationships with people, in this case amidst grief, when people need and want different things. I’d like to think that when you show that semi-honestly, it resonates with people, whether or not they’ve ever been in that situation before. I hope they take away an inkling of truth.
JB: I would echo everything that Sarah said. I just really love making things in Oregon, and I’m so happy we got to shoot at a national park. We didn’t have any permits, but no one stopped us. I love that we have that in our backyard. This film shows how you can make something in a day with people that are really great, and it can be impactful. You don’t need a lot of money, you just need a lot of kindness.
What’s next for “September”?
JB: We didn’t even know if we were going to submit it anywhere, to be honest. Now we have been a little bit, and we’ll see what shakes out. We submitted to a lot of local festivals, which I always love the most, because I’m always looking to establish relationships locally, like in Tacoma, Seattle and Portland. So we are just still waiting on a couple things.
Tell me a bit about your future projects.
SS: I’m working on a billion things, and it’s always just a matter of what’s going to happen when, or if. I have two feature scripts that I’m tinkering around with, and I have another short that I’m hoping to shoot sometime soon. The two leads are 80 years old, and I really hope I get to make it. I think it would be so rad to work with badass 80 year old actors. I have a miniseries I’m developing that follows activism movements in the midwest during the ‘70s. And I co-directed a Christmas movie last year, “Christmas No Filter,” that will be coming out this Christmas, so it’ll be exciting to see that go out into the world.
JB: I shot a feature, “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,” in Portland with Sarah’s brother this past January. He played the lead character. I acted in it, and I also produced it with my friend Morgan Raymond. Aaron Keene and Sara Burke are good friends, and they are brilliant, brilliant writers. This is their debut feature together, and we are now in post trying to get more money and wrap it up. Hopefully it’ll premiere during the fall season.
SS: It was very weird for me because my brother did romantic scenes with Jess in the film, and I suddenly felt like I was twelve years old. I went up to Jess and was like, “Ew!” [laughs]
JB: We used Sarah’s car for it too and we shot at Sarah’s mom’s house.
Is there a particular filmmaker or actor you would cite as an inspiration?
JB: My goal in life is to be Kelly Reichardt because she makes one movie a year in Portland. Megan Griffiths, Lynn Shelton and Andrea Arnold are amazing. Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” is one of my favorite movies, and she kind of came up in a similar way, doing everything herself and having no money.
SS: With “September”, Jess and I were talking about our love of Lynn Shelton and Kelly Reichardt. I also love Janicza Bravo, Debra Granik, Jeff Nichols and David Lowery. The early works of Paul Thomas Anderson definitely inspired me. A recent show I’m really impressed by is “Reservation Dogs” on FX. The co-creator of that show, Sterlin Harjo, is someone I am really looking up to at this point. Some of his directors from that first season, such as Sydney Freeland and Tazbah Chavez, have created some really beautiful episodic moments.
JB: Mike Leigh is another one of my favorites. His dialogue and the slice of life stuff that he does is insane.
SS: I’ve done acting, but I have so much anxiety that prevents me from doing it more. I feel like an actor’s groupie because I love actors so much and I feel like I freak out probably too much while working with them. I’m way too delighted and cheerful. I’m inspired by the recognition that this is a hugely intimidating and maybe even oppressive industry and system, but you can make art with good people and it can make your life better for having done it.
JB: Spencer, who acts in “September”, is now my roommate and we’re really close friends. This was his first acting experience. He just showed up and was natural and awesome. I feel like a lot of actors, specifically now since I moved to LA, are constantly auditioning for things, but they don’t have a reel. I don’t think they understand how easy it is to make a movie if you live here because everyone owns cameras and you just have to put yourself out there, really, and not be afraid of rejection. The same thing applies to filmmaking as it does when you’re constantly auditioning. I think that may be why I’m good at creating these little filmmaking groups because I’ve already been rejected so many times. I’m like, “I’m just gonna try it again.”
I’m the same way. If I don’t see an opportunity, I make one for myself.
SS: I just keep thinking about how easy it would’ve been to not make this film, and how funny and nice it is to be on the other end where we decided to do it. Even if only a few people see it and it has a minor impact, that is so gratifying and cool. After the shoot, I was so happy that we had done it, not even knowing what the film would be or where it would go or how it would land with anybody. It was such a positive filming experience. I have several would-be partnerships with various friends where we’re like, “Oh, we should do this thing,” and then life happens and it just doesn’t happen. I definitely credit this film happening to Jess. She is so proactive with work and so inclusive in terms of going, “Come along for this, make this with me,” which I am definitely grateful for. In some alternate reality not far from our own, we easily could’ve just been like, “Eh, nobody has time.” It’s so satisfying to be on the other end of it and realize that whenever there’s an inkling or a seed of an idea, as long as you continue to feel called towards it, it can and should happen.
For more information, visit the official site of Jessica Barr.