Filmmaker Jaclyn Bethany Discusses Her Debut Feature, INDIGO VALLEY
Blending the traditions of European-style art film with a Grunge aesthetic, part tone poem, part dire melodrama, plus rolling in aspects of a decidedly non-comedic camping movie, Indigo Valley defies expectations. The debut feature from writer, director, and lead Jaclyn Bethany conjures searing emotions interspersed with delicate moments, putting her on the map. Intimately lensed by cinematographer Irene Gomez-Emilsson, artfully edited by BAFTA-winner Selinda Zhou, and featuring a scintillating soundtrack by HMMA nominees Maesa Pullman & Dalal Bruchmann, the largely female-produced indie is released today by Giant Pictures on Apple TV and Prime Video.
Based on one of her previous short films, Indigo Valley does indeed get emotional, concerning two sisters — one newly and happily married (Rosie Day, to onscreen spouse Brandon Sklenar); the other (Bethany) arriving on the former’s doorstep from a rougher path — struggling to work through complicated issues. We discuss how much of the project was autobiographical, and its development in general.
“It was developed in a few different ways,” Ms. Bethany relates, “and one of them was: I don’t have a sibling. I’m an only child, and I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of: ‘If I had a sister…’ In the film, it’s a very dark, complex relationship. That’s, I guess, my imagination. (laughs) I have a really big background in theater, and there are a lot of plays that revolve around ménage à trois, three characters, intimate drama, like A Streetcar Named Desire. Just to push the boundaries of class, siblings, relationships.”
The Mississippi native continues, likening the film’s outer tableaux to inner states:
“The landscape is a big part of the movie. Originally, we had filmed the proof-of-concept in Iceland, which is a source of huge natural inspiration, but for the feature, as I developed it, it seemed like the story could take place anywhere. We decided to film it closer to L.A., really to make it more accessible. The desert lends itself to the story in that way.
“I worked on the script — it wasn’t the only thing I was doing, but I made the short film during my second year at AFI — and had the feature a little bit before that, and was working on it while I was still in grad school, so the characters stayed with me for a while. Because it’s a feature, it’s something to explore characters more than you can in short-form content. That was definitely in the script, but working with the actors and seeing what they brought to it, and also I had a lot of fear making this movie, because it was such a huge undertaking. It was stressful for a lot of different reasons! (laughs) That’s also something that my character was experiencing, so I think it’s a little bit autobiographical in that way.”
She credits the London-based Ms. Day for actively seeking her role, and Mr. Sklenar for responding positively to the script. But especially as Ms. Bethany plays the difficult third wheel, how does one go about directing oneself?
“When you’re making a film, you’re just kind of putting yourself out there, and hoping that it works, or that it resonates, or that you’re doing something that feels right. That’s why I was scared, and putting so much pressure on myself, but at the end of the day, it was very cathartic.
“I’d spent a lot of time with that character, and I felt like I could do it, and I hadn’t gotten the opportunity as an actor to be a lead in a feature. So I did it, and I think it did open some doors for me. But it’s a very specific experience, and I think it takes a lot of confidence and security to be able to pull it off. It was hard also being in the editing room, when you’re watching yourself over and over, like: ‘Oh, why did I do that?’ or ‘Who wants to watch this?’ It was a big learning experience for me, understanding both sides of it.”
What about film school (as it’s colloquially known)? Personally I support people having some education and training in what they’re attempting to do. Yet still there exist rapscallions who’ve convinced themselves that merely watching a few movies provides an adequate shortcut. Be grateful they didn’t aspire to piloting jets or performing surgeries, I suppose. Ms. Bethany’s perspective? After approaching the arts from a variety of angles, she applied to AFI.
“I think it depends on what every person wants out of an experience, what they want in their career, but for me, it was definitely adding to my skill-set, and it made sense because I knew that I wanted to direct. I wanted to get the right — not the right, there’s no right way to direct — but the kind of experience that would allow people to trust in me. As just an actor-writer I didn’t feel confident enough that I could just, you know, start directing. So that’s what it was for me. And AFI has a huge network of alumni, and industry resources, that a lot of film schools have, but it’s unique because AFI is simply a conservatory, and people do just go there for making film, so that has also been helpful.”
At this point, we, let us say, face the music. The songs and compositions of Indigo Valley are impressive, and varied, coming from the two distinct yet harmonious artists: Ms. Pullman, and Ms. Bruchmann.
“Maesa, she’s the actor Bill Pullman’s daughter,” Ms. Bethany reflects, “and a few years ago, I worked for an online magazine, and I interviewed her for it, and I listened to her music and thought she was amazing. They had both scored separately short films of mine. Maesa did my AFI thesis which was set in Mississippi in the ’60s, kind of folksy. Dalal did a more classical score for another short film of mine, and then when I was thinking about composers for this — because there is that classical element — I brought the two of them together. They co-composed it (apart from the wispy REO Speedwagon cover, presumably), and this was their first collaboration, and they’ve been working together ever since.
Note: The soundtrack to Indigo Valley was released last December, garnering Pullman & Bruchmann two nominations at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards.
“And we got to go,” Ms. Bethany adds wryly. “It’s our one thing that we were able to go to for this movie, because of Covid. But yeah, they definitely are two ladies to watch.”
As is Jaclyn herself. With her first feature out, in a world of indies here, studio movies there, and much uncharted terrain between, I ask what her goal is.
“I just sort of want to do everything,” she laughs. “I think my goal is to ultimately have my own show. And to continue making film, whether it’s independent, or it can be studio-driven. I think that the studio system is tired, and they need new voices. It’s hard, because you’re taking a risk on the director — regardless of their gender or regardless of their experience — and so that’s sort of kept me going in terms of making making films, and hoping that eventually something will propel me, and get me into that next level.”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Images courtesy of Giant Pictures.