Filmmaker Feature: Vanessa M. H. Powers

by Aug 16, 2022Cinema Life Featured Filmmakers0 comments

Name: Vanessa M. H. Powers

Discipline: Writer-Director-Editor
Production Company: Oxford Comma Film Cooperative
Film: LOSER
Logline: Heads I win; tails you lose.
Festival(s): Women’s Comedy Film Festival in Atlanta
City you’re based in: Hopkins / Hennepin County, MN, USA
Short Bio: Vanessa M. H. Powers is a prolific and award-winning film director who has been making films professionally since 2011. Her company, the Oxford Comma Film Cooperative has tackled topics ranging from hysterical to heartbreaking, spanning almost every genre you can think of. Vanessa and her team have consistently delivered character-driven, thought-provoking, and stylishly told stories, with just enough Midwestern flair to make you say ‘ope’. Her works have been seen in festivals across the country and around the globe, and she even has 2 feature films, ‘Keepsake’, and ‘Witch’, available on Amazon.com.
Social Media Links: IG @oxfordcommav
Favorite Quote: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver

Interests/ Hobbies: Theater, Film, Cosplay, Coffee, Cooking, Trying New Things, Swimming, Spending Time Outside

 

 

How did you get started in the Film Industry?

I’ve basically been making films since I was old enough to hold a Barbie doll and a camera at the same time. I grew up in a rural community in Minnesota, like literally people got let go of school early to help their families harvest. Like many small towns, we had the usual problems with drinking and drugs, largely due to boredom. You sort of did drugs or found something else to do. For me and my friends, that ‘something else’ started in our high school’s theater department. We did the plays when those were going on, and when they weren’t, we started making short films together. For a short time in college, I took a break from filmmaking, but I never really stopped missing it, and no joke – I had a dream a few years into college that I should start making movies again, and I did.


What are your upcoming and active projects?
We just finished post-production on a beautiful film, ‘The Man in the Long Black Coat,’ which is inspired by the Bob Dylan song of the same name. We are starting that one on the festival circuit and can’t wait for more audiences to see it. We also have a short called , ’50 mL’ about a young man struggling in his sobriety journey in a local film competition called ‘Z-Fest’ in just a couple of weeks that we have high hopes for, and we’ll be sending that out to festivals after that competition. Lastly, and most excitingly, we wrapped production on a feature-length horror film in October 2021 that has literally just been picture locked. We are moving into sound, color, and music and can’t wait to share it with audiences starting hopefully this fall!

What type of stories interest you and why?
This answer will sound a bit similar to the one I’m about to give related to genre, but I think for me very human stories interest me. Even within genres like Sci-Fi or Horror, it is about the human experience. Being with characters in times of sorrow, or joy; I think that is sort of my story telling philosophy – every story is a slice of life. At any given point someone could take a cross section of my life and it could appear mundane, melodramatic, or otherwise. I think I just love experiencing stories that feel like a sense of sonder, to me. (Sonder — noun. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” – The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.)

What is your genre of choice?
I don’t have one. I get asked this a lot, and what I always say is that for me, it isn’t about genres it’s about characters. Coming from a theater background, I think that anything with complex, compelling characters is a hook for me. If I can invest in the characters I can invest in the story.

 

How are you creating a path for yourself in this industry?
My first run at college, I studied theater. I am really grateful for that experience for so many reasons, but by the time I was done, I realized that I didn’t want to do that as professionally as I had originally thought. For a few years, I made personal film projects as a way to learn while managing a coffee shop. After that I realized I didn’t want my focus so split all the time between my day job and my passion, so I decided to go back to a technical program for film, both to network, and to sure-up my marketable skills as an editor (something I was self-taught in). I think that was a big part of it for me – realizing I may not have an easy time getting hired as a director, but there is always technical work available. I fine-tuned my editing skills, and learned some more commercial-style editing and motion graphics in order to be able to edit professionally, which is my day job now.That allowed me to refocus my life much more around filmmaking, whether I am working on a passion project, a narrative, a commercial, etc, I am always making connections and honing skills that move me forward in the industry I want to be a part of.

What inspires you as a storyteller?
Mmm, this varies a lot for me. I have written entire scripts around a single image; I have been inspired by songs I hear or by stories that someone tells me. Sometimes I will really get interested in an actor or group of actors, and write a project for them. I think I have like a sort of mental scrapbook when it comes to ideas. I save little fragments of things until they connect or start to take shape. I think that is the greater part of it is that I am always listening, and I am always thinking of life cinematically; everything I experience is fair game to show up in a script someday. Sometimes I struggle to be present because I am so intently doing this all the time. It is a definitely a balance to strike.

How do you prep for a film, from writing to being on set?

This is a HUGE question. Writing is a whole thing. First draft, second draft, whatever the first draft you feel comfortable showing to people is. Then notes and revisions and notes and revisions. I don’t feel the script is done being revised until you’re filming it. One of the things I do is have a readthrough and a series of rehearsals with my actors, and I find the script will change during that process, even if we declared it done previously.For me, I think I try to get my ducks in a row. First, team. Who are the people I want to work on this with. Second, schedule, what are the dates I will use to tackle this. Then delegate art department stuff based on that timeline – costumes, props, start to lock in locations etc. Logistics too – during this time the shotlist and schedule is being made, the craft services are being planned – I have some experience as an AD, and so I know what goes into the creation of a production bible. I hate to start a production without having that ready.Meetings meetings meetings to get on the same page, and then there’s never quite enough time and then you’re filming, you know?I think my overall approach is to predict and pre-solve as many problems as we can foresee as a group, because unexpected things are gonna come up. And if you’ve pre-solved a lot of problems, at least you’re only dealing with the unexpected ones. Same with the rehearsal process – get the actors really comfortable with the material and the emotional beats so that when we’re on set and there’s lights and cameras in their faces and we have to adapt something to an unexpected spacing or something, they have the scaffolding on which to build. They’re not trying to learn and adapt and overcome all at the same time.

 

What is the first thing you do when you get a script?
Uh… read it? Haha. I really don’t have any special process for this. I read it once without my ‘filmmaker hat’ on and try to just experience it as a story, then I put on a more critical lens and read it again. Then I decide if it is a story I’m interested in being involved with.

What are a few lessons you’ve learned from your recent project(s)?
So many, but I’ll try to narrow it down a bit.1. In mental health, there is a saying ‘secure your own oxygen mask before you put on someone else’s.’ You know, like how flight attendants say that in the safety talk before you get on a plane, in case the plane crashes? This translates to film in one very important way – make sure your life outside filmmaking is stable, sustainable, and fairly happy. Film is hard, and it is always going to be hard. There are going be roller coaster days of ups, downs, and sideways, and you have to make sure that the foundational life you’re working from is solid, or you will get too caught up emotionally in the twists and turns.2. Have faith in your vision. While it is important to have influences, to listen to the input of others, and ensure your vision is communicating to your audience, I have found myself, at times, too concerned about fitting a mold or pleasing other people with something I make. At the end of the day, the team that has assembled around me has assembled because they believe in my vision, the audience that I touch I do so candidly and genuinely, and I will no doubt work harder on the film I make than anyone else does, and so I have to love it if I expect others to. Set aside the expectations and advice of others, and believe in you.3. Showing up does not ambition imply. Never assume the commitment or investment of those around you just because you’re on the same set. Talk openly about your expectations instead of assuming people already know what they are. Hopefully, you can all set each other up for success instead of assuming and then getting upset when a ball gets dropped. Agree on your goals as a team before starting. At the end of the day, you all have to be on team movie, but that can look different for different people, and knowing that going in can avoid a lot of conflict.

 


What practical tips do you have for indie filmmakers (budgeting, marketing, directing)?
Oof. Uhm. This is the part I hate and that I am bad at.

Re: Marketing, you have to be visible. Social media is evil but necessary. Film festivals are necessary – and fun, though the submission process can be disheartening. Networking – go to the socials, the happy hours, the panels, the screenings available to you. You have to be visible to be seen by the right people.

Re: Budgeting. Until someone invests in you, you have to invest in yourself. This means you may have to switch out buying new clothes for sales or the thrift store. You may have to eat out and drink out less. Go on less vacations to afford to do projects. You can do stuff for pretty low budgets for a while if you get a team of folks investing in learning together, but at some point your costs will go up. Be prepared to make sacrifices for your dream.

Re: Directing. Take some theater classes, and probably some psych classes. Actors are not puppets. They are not set pieces that move. They are complex living breathing people who are required to access GREAT vulnerability to do what they do. You will need to give them a safe space, adapt your communication style, and give them quite a bit of attention to get what you need from them. Theater and psych classes gave me a leg up in this way, and actors love working with me because I treat them with same respects and attention as I do the camera, the lenses, the lights, and so on.

Also, in stark contrast to the above – directing isn’t just about the actors. Make sure you have an understanding of the other goings on on set. Learn about the camera you are using, learn everyone’s names and roles and responsibilities. You have to be able to communicate clearly and concisely with everyone about what you need from them to set them up for success. When you’re a director, there is no ‘that’s not my department.’ There is no job too small. You have to make working hard look like hardly working, and the best way to do that is to have an intimate working knowledge of the in’s and out’s of your set.

Lastly: MAKE. FILMS. The easiest way to learn is by doing. Don’t let a fear of mistakes keep you from trying. You can have the best idea anyone’s ever had and if it doesn’t leave your hear it doesn’t matter. Film your dogs. Your cats. You family. Your friends. Make films. Teach yourself, take classes, watch behind the scenes, watch Tik Toks, watch YouTube tutorials, and then MAKE FILMS. One of them is always going to be the first one, and it will never be the best one. But once you’ve made the first one, it’s over, and you learned. Keeping creating. Keep making. Keep learning.

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