Women in Film: A conversation with Sara Seligman

A few weeks ago,  Artistic Fuel hosted a Clubhouse panel about women in film with Ellie FoumbiPamela B. Green, Tracy KleemanAimee Long, and Sara Seligman. Each of the five talented directors are in different genres and stages of their careers and provide valuable insight on their paths to the director’s chair. The panel, Women in the Director’s Chair, was inspired by the three women (Chloe Zhao, Emerald Fennell and Regina King) nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes. Since then, Chloe Zhao won the Globe for Best Director and Best Screenplay and Best Motion Picture. The Academy Awards also nominated Zhao and her fellow Globe Nominee Emerald Fennell for Best Director. These accolades mean a lot for women in the industry, but are they an indication of a changed entertainment landscape? 

With that question in mind, Artistic Fuel sat down with up and coming writer/director, Sara Seligman (represented by Gersh and Fourth Wall Management). Sara recently directed her debut feature film COYOTE LAKE (2019). COYOTE LAKE is a coming of age story told through genre. The film explores the nuances of chaotic family dynamics and how those dynamics push further when confronted with larger societal issues. Sara crafted this film beautifully. It is a character piece with two very strong and interesting female leads. 

Sara Seligman is the second director in our series, Women in Film. 

Below is the transcript of the conversation between Katie C’etta and Sara Seligman. 

Women in film: Sara Seligman, The shift from acting to directing

AF: I saw on your IMDB that you have credits in many different departments. So, I want to hear about the moment that you knew you were going to be a director and that this was your career path. What was that moment like for you? How did it feel for you? And is directing the only thing that you want to do? 

Sara Seligman: I went to film school because I wanted to be a director. But, I started as an actress and I went to New York to study acting. I was performing in an acting class. We worked a scene and the teacher wanted me to cry. I told her that I felt that the character wouldn’t cry at that moment. And she said, “it doesn’t matter. Crying is more impactful. So I want you to cry.”

As I was having a really hard time understanding why my character would cry, she interrupted me and said, “Don’t worry about why. Just think about something that makes you really sad. That sense memory you did during warm up, use that for the entire scene and cry.” And so I did it and I cried for the entire 10+ minute scene. When we finished she said, “See, it was amazing, what did you think?” And I said, “Well maybe as an exercise, but as a scene it was horrible. I was one tone the entire time. I couldn’t connec to my scene partner or live in the moment. It read monotone and probably boring. And she said, “Well, that doesn’t matter. As long as you were crying, that’s all that matters.”

So I left that class. I was really upset and I thought, “that’s not how you direct actors.” Even crying is not all the same, I don’t cry in the same way for a lost pet, a broken heart, or absolute fear. Just because they’re tears, they’re not transposable. And for some reason, at that moment, I felt very confident that I could communicate better with actors than her and somehow that translated into being a director. That day I walked into the New York Film Academy, got information on when the next directing course began and quit acting.

Pictured left to right Camila Mendes, Adriana Barraza and Sara Seligman on the set of Coyote Lake

I wasn’t very familiar with directing other than directing actors. As someone who has acted I think it’s super important to not ask for results like cry, but to explain the character’s motivation and allow the actor to find and explore and be in the moment. And yes, it’s great to know how to cry on command and maybe one day that will be truly needed, but it shouldn’t be a go-to tool. In my opinion, it’s not sustainable. And as I mentioned before, not all crying is the same.

I started the filmmaking course and I discovered this entire world of filmmaking that I wasn’t familiar with, all these fun and exciting crew positions. I went through a phase and tried most of them, but I always knew that I want to be a director. When I finished school, I started as a production assistant. I worked on several projects in New York. Then I moved to LA and did some features and network TV shows. Obviously every opportunity to be on set is a huge learning opportunity. 

However, there are so many paths to becoming a director. It can become overwhelming at times because you don’t know exactly what your next step should be. I’m very fortunate that I just love being on set. I love producing. I love being a production supervisor, I love ADing. Its about being on set more than anything. And knowing that directing is uncertain and might take a while, I started focusing on producing and supervising to earn an income, a job that still allowed me to be on set learning. Always pursuing my directing career, while working. What was important, and at times difficult, was to not become impatient with the wait of getting my first shot at directing. At the same time the older I get, the more layered and complex my points of view become. And all of this makes anyone a better director.

In my twenties, I tended to see things very black and white, good and bad. It’s not that easy and that’s what I like to explore in my movies. I like to create extremely complex characters that cannot be put in a box easily. Where you root for them one moment and then you don’t the next. And then you catch yourself rooting for them again. 

While directing was my goal, and that hasn’t changed, I have discovered a deep enjoyment for every step of the process. I like writing. I prefer producing and directing because it’s more collaborative and I LOVE being on set. Writing in a writer’s room is better because it has that collaborative feeling. I just love being part of the process of creating something new.

Women in Film: Coyote Lake and testing the waters

AF: It sounds like you’re very invested in the performances that you get out of your actors. I’ve noticed in a lot of your work that I’ve been watching that you have a lot of really complicated characters in your stories. I want to talk about your feature film, COYOTE LAKE. Your feature has quite a handful of really complicated characters. Three come to mind off the bat. Do you want to talk a little bit about what was the process behind building those characters with your actors?

Sara Seligman: Yeah. I’m glad you saw that in Coyote Lake, which was my goal. I find the complexity of humans the most interesting thing. I’m very interested in how someone is not purely good or purely bad. Really nobody is, you can lean more towards one side or the other, but it’s very complex. I think it was a combination of two things. When I wrote the script with my co-writer Tom Bond, we were talking about it a lot and I was conveying how important that was to me as a study of the psyche, but also from a strategic point of view: knowing that it would be a very low budget movie, and the way to get good actors is to write really good characters.

Camila Mendes on set. Photo courtesy of the artist

Working with actors and gaining their interest

A good actor wants a character that is complex in that they feel like it will be a challenge or exciting to bring to life. When I write characters, I try to keep a pass of the script for each character. So I’ll do one pass just for Esther (in Coyote Lake), just focusing on her character and her voice and her point of view, and then one for the mother and then one for Paco, just to make sure that there is no point where I feel like they’re flopping into something that they’re not, or they’re not speaking in a way that they would speak. 

We wrote the character of the mother (Teresa) thinking of Adriana Barraza. I had seen her work in Mexico, in television, film, and theater for a really long time. At that point, she was most known in the US for her part in BABEL, which she was nominated for an Oscar for. I thought the only way we might get her, is if we wrote a complex character. Once we were done, we sent her the script and a letter.

Nobody else was attached to it yet. It was the summer of 2015, she responded and said, “Yes, I’ll have a Skype conversation with you.” She accepted to be attached to the project, and I was over the moon. We talked a lot about it, about how the script feels a little bit like a play, how it’s complex, how it’s dark. I loved that. After we received financing, we attached Camila Mendes to play the daughter. 

I cast these amazing actors and I want to make sure I give them space to do what they do best. 

That’s why you hire them. You hire them for their talent. And I think it’s very important as a director to find that balance between directing, and allowing space for the actor to discover and grow. Since we couldn’t rehearse (as in most movies, especially indies) I talked a lot with the actors about references: movies, literature, paintings… If you give them too much direction, you could miss out on something that they discovered that you hadn’t even thought of. 

AF: I want to dive a little deeper into that actually, because I find it super interesting. What is an example of something that either you or one of your actors brought to the table in terms of the inspiration like a painting, a song? And what did it inform and how did you guys build character around that?

Sara Seligman: Camila and I messaged back and forth with movies. It was interesting because there were movies where we were just exclusively talking about posture or the voice, very specific things, but being very clear that it’s just the point of inspiration, not a point of imitation. With Andres we shared a lot of articles about real-life young cartel members and their tragic circumstances. With Manny and Andres we talked a lot about the tattoos they would have. What would they mean?

Munch, Inspiration for charater in Coyote Lake

One of the inspirations I used with the cast and the cinematographer was Munch, especially his drawings. They are these beautiful black and white haunting figures. There’s not much of a situation surrounding them, but there’s so much emotion coming from them, it’s solitude combined with strength combined with sorrow, they just feel very complex. So sharing those things that are just sometimes very difficult to capture with words. And especially for me, sometimes I feel like I get lost in translation when I’m trying to express something exact. And not only in English, not only because it’s not my first language, but sometimes even in Spanish, that is my first language. Sometimes it’s hard to capture feelings properly. Sometimes you find a drawing or a scene or a song that captures that for you, it makes it easier to share that with someone than trying to explain with words.

Women in Film: The rush of the set, and an unexpected consequence

AF: We talked a lot about how you created your characters and working with actors. I also want to talk a little bit about the other aspects of directing. Do you want to dive a little bit deeper into all the other more technical things that went into making your feature? 

Sara Seligman: It’s all about collaboration and I feel that having a strong point of view, but then also being flexible about your point of view, is the best way to approach it. It allows you to create a collaborative work environment. I want my collaborators to feel like they can bring something to the table. Just like with the actors, you might see something that you hadn’t seen before.

I had a very specific color palette in mind, so the Cinematographer, Matthias Schubert, the Production Designers, Scott Colquitt and David Pink, and the costume designer, Ryan Smith were crucial collaborators in making that come to life. With Matthias we talked a lot about the look and the feel we wanted to achieve, the key moments and lighting we were going for. He made a perfectly planned and worked shot list; at times he proposed a different take on set because it worked better. Or we had to adjust because something had changed. 

It was very important for me that the movie feel gritty, that it not feel polished. I wanted the audience to feel as if they were there in those moments with the characters. We chose handheld for that reason. We allowed the camera to get a little bit closer as the story went on and things got more complicated. You can see a little bit of an evolution in the approach to the camera and the camera movement as the movie goes on. I tried to be very specific about it, but not so much so that it ever distracts you from the story. Ideally to me, the audience doesn’t notice consciously, maybe you notice subconsciously.

But then again, sometimes when you make a low budget, you can’t get everything exactly like you want it. Even in higher budget films, unforeseen circumstances like weather, budget, travel, time constraints… so many things can play a role that change your plans, and that’s when being flexible is very important. 

As a Director you make the movie three times. First the pre-production, it’s all theoretical; the production on set, things happen whether you are ready or not; and finally, post-production. And every step is a roller coaster of emotions. After all of that, you need to let go.

For me, being on set is the most amazing part, it’s a rush I can’t describe with words, but it’s the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. 

The one part that I feel that I was not prepared for at all, despite all the advice, shorts, experience, etc, was the emotional shock of being done with principal photography, the fear that you might never get to experience this again. For me the first cut is horrible and it highlights all my mistakes as a director, if you add that to coming off the high of principal photography, it can be emotionally very difficult and straining. 

Since Coyote Lake I’ve had a chance to talk to other directors about their experience in post and the emotional darkness of wrapping your first feature, when you still don’t know if there will be another chance. And many filmmakers shared that they had similar feelings in that aspect. And I had not ever talked about this or read about it before, so that was helpful.

AF: Yeah. Or just like not feeling so alone in it too, because I’m sure in the moment you were like, Oh, this is a “me” problem. No, I’ve definitely heard that a lot from a lot of different filmmakers that, you know, after a project’s over it’s a big slump. 

Sara Seligman: Yes. It’s a huge loss. And so it was very hard, but then once I got into the post-production process, it got better. It’s hard because you see all your mistakes, you see them under a microscope as you’re editing. Sometimes scenes that you thought were amazing on set let you down in the editing room. That special energy that you felt on set suddenly doesn’t translate to the screen; it’s difficult. But you have to remember that this is your third and last chance to direct the movie again.

Once we got close to a locked picture I got excited all over again. Then, I got excited more as we started working with color correction and the composer, sound design. We are so used to seeing everything mixed and finished that watching things with temps and rough sound is tough. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s the cut that isn’t working or if it’s the lack of sound design. 

Sara Seligman, Filmmaking and social responsibility

AF: As a Latinx filmmaker, can you talk a little bit about the nuances of tackling difficult topics related to Latinx people and the backlash that can happen from exploring the muddier side of the culture? 

Sara Seligman: As a Latinx filmmaker, people put responsibility on us to uplift our community. Many only want us to tell stories where all the Latinx characters are successful and in which our culture is shown in a good light. Obviously I support this, and I have scripts and ideas that have that. But people are still going to tell stories about cartels, drug dealers, murderers. You look at movies like Sicario, it was told by non-Latinx filmmakers. Plus, the hero of the story is a white woman.

These are our stories. I think we should take a seat at the table to tell them and not give up control over the narrative. The reality is that cartels and violence unfortunately exist in our countries. Most of that violence is a direct result of the US government intervening in the politics, sovereignty and democracy of Latin American countries. The US hasn’t and probably never will take responsibility for the damage and loss they have caused. So I ask again, why would we give up the mic on telling those stories to them?

While Coyote Lake is not a movie about the cartel, it definitely touches that subject. I wanted to take the opportunity to shed a light on how complex it can be. Specifically with Paco and Ignacio. The actors and I talked at length about that. In the case of these characters, we wanted to explore complexity. They’re not just bad, they have good in them, some more than others, and their own moral compasses move. They’re doing the best they can with the cards they were dealt. Yes, they made bad decisions. Some bad decisions follow you for the rest of your life that you can’t opt out of. Often, especially in news and even movies, people go back to that black and white extreme, to oversimplifying. Most of the world’s circumstances, especially systematic and other deeply rooted issues, are very complex. 

Sometimes it is difficult to decide where your freedom of creativity ends and the social responsibility begins.

How should those two coexist instead of fight each other? What are the limits and what should you do and not do for social political responsibility, moral responsibility. And what should you do to bring light to it? Is that more important or are you giving voice and legs to a very harmful narrative?

It’s very complicated. After Trump got elected, I thought about not making the movie anymore. I wrote the script in 2013, but we shot the movie in 2018. It was not an easy decision, and sometimes I still struggle with it. But ultimately, people will always tell cartel stories about Latinx and Mexicans. So why shouldn’t people that belong to those communities tell those stories instead of white people? Granted, I know I’m a white Latina, that in itself is a whole other layer. 

Women in Film: Sara Seligman on exploring race, ethnicity the spectrum of identity

AF: I’m unclear on what you mean by that, can you dive into that further?

Sara Seligman: Yeah, for sure. Being Latinx is not a race, it’s complicated because it’s partly geographical and partly cultural. It tries to homogenize a huge section of the world. It covers everything from Mexico, all the way to the tip of Chile, and the Caribbean islands, it’s a total of 33 countries. In 20 of those countries the official language is Spanish. But the official language is something inherited from colonizers and many indigenous languages are being erased as a result. So you have this entire part of the world with approximately 650 million people that get packed into this one box called Latinos. I say Latinx because it’s gender neutral. And you have to remember that white Anglo Saxon’s created this box in which all these 33 countries are being put in.

So to start, we have to realize the size and diversity we are trying to fit under one umbrella. Secondly, we have to acknowledge that not everyone from those 33 countries identifies as Latinx. And lastly, recognize that Latinidad is not a race; there are Asian Latinx, Black Latinx, white Latinx, brown Latinx, Native Americans that consider themselves Latinx. Society overlooks a huge Black Latinx community all the time. According to the census data, 53% of all people that identified as “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” also identified as white. 

According to the US census data, 53% of all people in the USA that identified as “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” also identified as white. 

U.S. Census Bureau

I think it’s super important that within the Latinx community, white Latinx such as myself acknowledge the privilege we have. Unfortunately racism is still very present in Latinx countries and communities here in the US. So yes, I am Latina because I am Mexican and Colombian. I’m also Swiss.

And what I consider Latinx is a huge part of who I am, how I was raised and what feels like home. I’m mestiza (which means I’m mixed) but my proximity to whiteness is relevant. By stating that I’m white, I’m not denying the non-white part of my ancestors, but I am acknowledging the privilege that I have as a white woman. And the is fact that colonizers spread whiteness and erase natives by procreation by pushing for mestizaje (mixing whites with indigenous people, mainly white men with native women). A lot of racism is included in this practice because of the way Black people were viewed. You can still witness that racism and glorification of white beauty standards when you look at modern day media and marketing. 

It’s very complex issue that I myself am trying to understand and learn more about. But it’s very important to acknowledge racism and race within the Latinx community. As with feminism, there are points of intersectionality that can’t be ignored. And one of them is the fact that race and ethnicity are not the same, and being Latinx doesn’t mean that you’re not white. 

AF: That was super educational. It’s really interesting to hear someone speak about that in such detail. It’s almost like it’s a spectrum. 

Sara Seligman: Yes. 

Women in Film: The Mindy Project and building a skillset

AF: So I want to bring it back to filmmaking a little bit and talk about how you’re involved with some higher budget, well known projects in other areas of production as a production supervisor and producer. Do you want to talk a little bit about those projects and which ones really stood out to you as something that made a big impact on your career and possibly influenced the way you see yourself going in the future or anything like that? 

Sara Seligman: Absolutely. When I moved to LA, after some months of job searching I started PA-ing. I was lucky enough to start on The Mindy Project on the Universal lot. I worked on that show for three years as a production assistant. And I learned so much and everyone was so amazing. I met Lorie Zerweck, who was one of the producers of The Mindy Project while I was PA-ing. She’s such an amazing, bad-ass woman. It’s so great when as a woman you find another woman that is willing to mentor and empower you. When we first started the show, she was the Unit Production Manager, and later Line Produced. I knew I liked what she was doing. 

Meanwhile, my best friend Matteo Mosterts–a filmmaker who has directed some amazing shorts, some of which I have produced–was working as an agency producer at an ad agency. A temp job for an associate producer opened up at the same agency and he encouraged me to submit. Two weeks turned into more time and I was producing some regional and national ad campaigns. 

I stayed at the ad agency for a while learning a lot from these campaigns, mainly car commercials. I stayed in touch with Lorie, and a couple of years after I had worked on The Mindy Project she invited me back on for the last season as the Production Supervisor, which was crazy in the best way possible. She was taking a chance on me and I was ready to jump in the deep end. In this industry, really anywhere, you can’t let imposter syndrome stop you.

And I really, really enjoyed it. And I think that’s been very helpful to me because I enjoy so many other things related to set that are not directing. I love ADing, producing and production supervising which is great to do while I work on my next directing opportunity.

AF: Speaking of that, what’s next for you on the horizon. What are some other projects could be in the works for you. Could you tell me about those?

Sara Seligman: Coyote Lake is still out and available on HBO and you can rent it or buy it on demand. Coyote Lake did well and I signed with Gersh, which was very exciting. And the people that have been in the industry a little bit know how huge of a difference it makes to be represented, and just being able to get scripts. I love writing, and I’m currently in a writer’s room for a Mexican TV show. I love directing things that I didn’t write because it goes back to the collaboration. Every person involved is able to add one more layer of color and point of view to the movie. 

I’m very excited about three projects that I’m attached to. I’m producing a feature film “SVGS” for Jorge Xolalpa who is a very talented Mexican American director. He has several features under his belt that everyone should check out. I’m also extremely excited and honored to share that after our wonderful experience during the “SVGS” shoot, he invited me to join his production company Mighty Aphrodite Pictures as head of development. We are very excited for the slate of projects we have and I’m excited to add more projects to that slate. 

Women in Film: Sara Seligman, Lx by Lx a conversation on what it means to be Latinx in the U.S.

I’m also launching an organization that I co-founded with Mexican American chemist José Ricardo Moreno and Colombian attorney Veronica Walther, called Latinx by Latinx. Lx by Lx is a conversation and exploration of what it means to be Latinx in the United States. We celebrate diversity and intersectionality by empowering our community to share their stories. It will be a multi-platform space that lives across different social media (Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Podcast) that will include round tables, interviews, relevant updates, and more. 

We’re launching in May, and I’m really excited about all of those things coming together.

AF: All of that sounds so exciting! It sounds like you have a lot of stokes in the fire. I’m so excited to watch your organization launch and unfold. It sounds like it’s going to be a really wonderful place for the Latinx artistic community. That sounds wonderful. Yeah, that’s amazing. I always end on this question with the thought that people who are aspiring filmmakers perhaps very early on in their career are going to read this article. I just want to give you some space to take a moment to talk directly to those people and just give advice to someone about to choose their life as a filmmaker. 

From an industry point of view, I would say first and foremost: this a marathon, not a sprint, so be ready for that. I think people that make it in the industry, have a combination of talent, luck/ connections and endurance, a lot of endurance. 

Always go in ready to learn and ready to give your best. When you start, even if you just graduated from film school, know that you don’t know everything and that set is the best school; be humble and be kind. 

From a creative point of view I would say write and direct as much and as often as you can. I remember in film school, the writing professor used to tell us, “The strongest stories are YOUR stories.” Many successful writers say write what you know. I thought, my life is too boring. If I only tell my stories, nobody’s going to want to watch it. Not even me.

I think when people say your stories,  they don’t mean that literally. Tell stories that you connect with and relate to on a deeper level. For example, in Coyote Lake the mother and daughter are murderers and the two men are cartel members. I’m neither. But the heart of the story is a mother daughter relationship. A coming of age story, the proverbial cutting of the umbilical cord. Two men dealing with the consequences of the life choices they have made. I can connect to all of those elements. When you connect to your story, you can bring truthfulness to it. And then, you go crazy and creative and add the aliens and the explosions and all of the awesome fun things. But you need to, in some way, deeply connect with the stories you’re trying to tell. 

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