Filmmaker Spotlight: Interview with Sandy Parker
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? How did you get into filmmaking?
I spent most of my growing up years in Mississippi. A friend of mine from those days used to say that when you grow up somewhere boring, you learn to make your own fun! The thing that was most fun for me was writing and recording stories for made-up radio stations on the tape recorder Santa left under the Christmas tree one year. Looking back, it’s clear to me now that all of my ‘play’ at that time revolved around storytelling. Even my Barbies had to hire a private investigator (a rubber monkey who rode a flying motorcycle, aka upside-down Star Trek phaser) to protect them from a family of cannibal Barbies who were stalking them. My alma mater didn’t have a film school, but I studied theatre and photography, and worked for several years as a photo assistant and stylist assistant on still shoots before eventually landing a job doing craft service on a commercial. From there, I worked my way up to script supervisor. For many years, I was satisfied with playing a supporting role on other people’s stories, but at some point I had the realization that the actors and the directors were the ones having the real fun! I made my first film as a project through my Women in Film chapter, here in New Orleans, where I live now. We were approached by a local non-profit that needed a film for marketing purposes. I volunteered to put the crew together, but was very fortunate that the first person I contacted insisted that I should direct it. What I learned was that, if you surround yourself with good people who won’t let you fail, you will inevitably succeed!
What inspired this story?
The story is based on something that happened to my friend and neighbor from when I lived in Portland, Oregon. We were drinking coffee in my kitchen one day, and she told me she and her fiancé had run over a squirrel on their way home from signing some of the paperwork for their upcoming marriage. She said that a bird had flown into her fiancé’s windshield a few days prior while he was running another wedding-paperwork-related errand. She couldn’t shake the thought that maybe these things were happening as a message from the universe, and that marrying this guy wasn’t such a good idea. But she didn’t cancel the wedding, and I’m sorry to say that her life didn’t turn out well. Her husband picked up his old drug habit again, and after she kicked him out, I think she felt really unsupported. As an older friend whose life was in a more stable place, I felt a lot of responsibility for her. But while I was on a shoot out of town, someone introduced her to heroine, and, as she put it, she “fell in love with it.” I’ve often wondered if she would still be alive today if she hadn’t gone through with the wedding, and if her interpretation of things being a divine warning was a manifestation of something she already suspected subconsciously. In CREATURES OF GOD, I wanted to depict Nikki as having a kinship with the creatures in nature, such as when the birds chirp more loudly when she gets out of the car, and the way her heart beats in sync with the bird at the end. I think most humans are out of touch with their gut instincts. Nikki is someone who is trying to re-learn how to recognize the messages of her intuition, while Jason is very cut off from that kind of awareness.
How do you approach storytelling?
There’s always something in real life that happens, that gets my mind churning through possible outcomes. The subject matter of the stories I want to tell is quite varied, but I think the through-line is always centered on someone coming into their own. I think I tell coming-of-age stories about people of all ages.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I started out with the hope that it could raise awareness about the danger of drug use, but somehow it morphed into something else. I think due to my own inexperience as a storyteller, I couldn’t figure out a way to tell this story as a cautionary tale. I suppose whatever film you come up with at the end is never going to be exactly the film you envisioned in the beginning. And maybe that’s okay.
Were there any surprising or meaningful experiences while making the film you want to share?
So many! On our very last shot, which was that moment when Nikki turns toward the window in the wedding scene, we’d done a few takes, but the camera assistant and I weren’t satisfied with the focus. It’s a tricky focus pull, and my producer said it was good enough, and time for us all to go home. But then he said he’d give me one more take. Unbeknownst to me, he had decided to play a little joke. Someone on the production had brought her chihuahua, and my producer had Nikki holding the dog just out of frame. So it was a surprise when Nikki raised the dog up into the frame, but the focus pull was spot on, and the performance was better than any of the earlier takes! They hadn’t even planned to roll the camera! Thank goodness the camera assistant had begged for one more try! And she nailed it!
I’d also like to share that the actor who played Jason was actually sent to us to read for one of guys in the pick-up truck. After he walked out of the room, I told my producer that I wanted him to come back and read for Jason. Unfortunately, he had already left the building, gotten in his car, and driven away! We had to call his agent and get him to tell him to come back. Later, the actor who played Carl came in to read for Jason. This time I just wrote “Carl” on a Post-It note and handed it to my producer. He immediately saw what I was seeing, handed over the pages for the Carl scene and said, “Can you read this?"
There was a song I wanted to use for the opening credits, but getting the rights to use it was going to be prohibitively expensive. In fact, I was amazed to discover just how much it costs to use a song that isn’t in the public domain, unless it was written and performed by a personal friend. I ended up jotting down some lyrics and then asked a musician friend if he could write a song that would communicate the gist of the words I’d written. He actually liked my lyrics! He added more to them, and set it all to music. Then he brought some more musicians onboard, along with someone to record the music, and I got my song for the bargain basement price of a thousand dollars! And now, every once in awhile, I get royalties as a songwriter! It might only be $20 bucks, but still, it makes me proud to have brought a song into existence, in addition to bringing a movie into existence.
What did you learn while making it?
I had been very worried that I might not know the answers to whatever questions were going to be thrown my way, but I learned that, as a director, I actually know what I want. So I kind of surprised myself! The most gratifying thing of all was when my actors told me how much they liked working with me.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the film?
You know, I really just want people to laugh. I’ve found that this film plays best to a larger audience, because the laughter feeds off itself. The humor is so dark at times, viewers are sometimes hesitant to laugh. It’s like they think they’ll seem like a jerk if they laugh at certain bits. But when they hear someone else laughing, it’s like, “Oh, cool! I’m not the lone weirdo here! Maybe this really was meant to be funny!” When I showed the film to my sister and my niece on my laptop, my sister didn’t laugh at all, and I had to pause it when my niece burst out crying. If that ever happens at a theater screening, I’ll be crying, too! My niece
was only seven or eight years old, so I had to explain that we didn’t kill any animals in real life, and that there’s no actual squirrel anywhere in the movie.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing several feature length scripts. The one I’m focused on right now is a coming of age story set in 1950’s New Orleans about a 13-year-old Italian-American boy named Dué. Dué hangs out every day after school at a camp that he and his friends built in the swamp. Dué is trying to find a priest outside his parish to whom he can anonymously confess his crush on a nun, which he knows is a pretty big sin, but when he discovers the body of his own murdered priest, his granddad has to protect him from the killer, who's now going after Dué. My script is an adaptation of a novel written by a local New Orleans author, and it’s a really sweet and humorous story.
Where can we follow your work?
My very first short film is available for viewing on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6KMPXWzO0E&feature=emb_logo
My two narrative short films don’t yet have permanent online homes, but I have facebook pages set up for them. Here are the links:
Creatures of God: https://www.facebook.com/pg/CreaturesOfGod/posts/?ref=page_internal
Anything else you’d like to add?
I just want to thank Female Voices Rock for giving me the honor of Short Film of the Week. It’s great to have the film featured online so it can be seen by a wider audience!