NBFF Filmmaker’s Five with Alison Mason
By Kelly Strodl
Today we talk with Alison Mason, director and writer of Finding Jenua, a tale of love, loss and finding your place in the world. A drama with mystery that’s told in an unconventional way, unraveling like a memory and tying us back together with the simple beauty of human connection.
Edie chain smokes, bites her fingernails, smashes her foot down on the gas pedal – she lives life fast. And as life whirls by her she likes it that way. Jean sits at the kitchen table for hours. She can still smell the Christmas tree, and hear the faint sounds of her husband and child, but they’re gone. The house is empty. She wanders in search of something familiar and finds it when Edie blows into town. Cal works at the local diner and motel. Squirming under his overbearing mother’s thumb, Cal dreams of leaving town and making new memories.
When their lives intersect, the past finds them all and forces them to face their truth.
Q: How did you hear about the Newport Beach Film Festival?
Well, the festival has such a great reputation, so that proceeds this story for sure. But, last year I volunteered at the Feel Good Film Festival in Hollywood and so there I was working the red carpet and of course, a bird poops on my head. The irony, right? At a feel good festival. So, I was laughing about it and so were a bunch of other people around me; two of which happened to be from the Newport Beach Film Festival. Once I got over my embarrassment, I told them about my film and they told me to submit. You know, a slew of people told me that getting pooped on by a bird was good luck. I now believe it.
Q: Tell a little about the story of your film and the production of it.
I wrote the script over ten years ago while living in North Carolina with my husband, Brian. We moved into a house that an elderly woman owned and subsequently we had to put all of her belongings into one room of the house so we could move our things in. We came across her pictures, letters… bits of her life that seemed to be amazing. I couldn’t help but think of her sitting in one room of a nursing home while her memories sat in another, just out of reach — literally and figuratively — she had dementia. Circumstances prevented us from visiting her and our stay there was brief, but the whole experience really affected me and, well, I guess the story was born from that. And when the first draft of FINDING JENUA was optioned by a Hollywood director, we sold everything we owned and headed West… with big, big dreams and only a few thousand dollars.
And the roller coaster ride began immediately. A list stars signed on and then the funding would fall through — it was the same old Hollywood sob story — but this one lasted for ten years! We don’t know how to give up and decided it was time to make FINDING JENUA ourselves. So, a with a few really good friends (Jack, Holly, Ben) and a bank loan, that’s what we did. Our parents co-signed said bank loan, wrote loaner checks and ultimately believed and invested in us, otherwise this wouldn’t have been possible. So armed with our micro-budget, we just kept inching forward (begging a lot and learning as we went) until we were actually filming. I’ll never forget yelling” action” on the first day. I think I cried.
Q: Tell a little about yourself and your story in filmmaking.
I was born in Philly and grew up half in a small town in PA and the other half in a small town in North Carolina. I was raised by my amazing mother who gave me a strong work ethic and always told me that I could do anything. And she gave me books — lots and lots of books. I think that small town, can do attitude and an imagination ignited by reading set my foundation and not only allowed me to dream, but to put stock in those dreams. It wasn’t a cake walk, I worked really hard, usually working two or three jobs while pursuing acting, but I kept my eye on the prize. And when I met Brian, well, let’s just say that two dreamers can be dangerous! He was a musician and we just fueled each other… we still do. He believed the most when I didn’t and he just never let me give up. So, after ten years of waiting for someone else to give us permission to make our dreams come true, we green-lit ourselves. My husband produced FINDING JENUA with me, made his acting debut and he even wrote music for the trailer, not to mention craft services, production accounting, etc. It took us another two years to actually finish the film, but we did! And now we’re paying a mortgage on our movie while living in a one bedroom apartment. Who says independent filmmaking isn’t glamorous?!?! But, we’re incredibly grateful that FINDING JENUA is really starting to get noticed and that all of our hard work is starting to pay off!! Honestly, we couldn’t be happier!
Q: Your take on the performances of the lead actors, (set backs, triumphs, impressions, good surprises, etc.)
Gayle James and Leigh Rose. Wow. These two women astounded me. They really did. I had known Leigh for about five years and she had followed along on the FINDING JENUA roller coaster ride, hearing about stars who were attached to play “her part,” as she used to put it. I secretly dreamed of directing it and she… well, it was no secret that she wanted to play Jean, but for years we both just watched the project as it seemed to have a life of its own. I’ll never forget calling her and telling her that we were making the film and that I wanted her to audition with Gayle. Leigh has the greatest laugh and just kept saying “fabulous.” And I have to say that the audition was magical. In fact, they’re the only two that I audidioned for the roles. I knew right away. Okay well, if I’m honest, when I met Gayle she was blonde and I struggled to see the Edie in her. But, there was something about her that I couldn’t shake, and if you know Gayle, you know what I’m talking about, she’s infectious, but the polar opposite of Edie. So, I called her back. And she really brought it. The part was hers. Then I asked her to dye her hair, bite her fingernails off and live in her car. And she did. She was so open and honest… it broke my heart (in the very best way). And as for Leigh…. there really are no words for that kind of talent. They’re both pros and now part of our family.
And that goes for Jordan Mantell and Christine Kellogg-Darrin, too. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to work with them. When they met at the audition, they hugged like they had known each other forever. Incredible, those two. The scene they did with the file rocked our little crew… we all needed to hug afterwards. And I can’t forget Brian Mason, who got the part because our reader didn’t show up. He read opposite Jordan and their chemistry was ridiculous. I figured well, it’s one less mouth to feed on the set! In all seriousness, they are all extremely talented and generous and brave and I really couldn’t be more proud of them and their work. I have to say that one of the greatest gifts of my life was to see the characters that I created so long ago come to life through Gayle, Leigh, Jordan, Christine and Brian. How do you thank someone for that?
Q: What do you do when not making a smash indie film?
I’m a screenwriter and I teach an advanced acting class at AFI for the SAG Conservatory. I also do private acting coaching/workshops. I also produce films, edit and sell blood and plasma when necessary. Kidding. It hasn’t come to that yet thanks to Brian’s day job. He’s my hero.
FINDING JENUA screens Sunday, May 1, at 5:30 PM at the Triangle Square Theater 2.
To watch the trailer and buy tickets follow the link below: