Walking Backwards into Film
A Talk with Emily West Afanador, Indie Film Director and Actor
by Arwen Spicer
Emily West Afanador didn't dream of making movies as a kid. To this day, film isn't her day job. A graduate student in Folklore at the University of Oregon, she studies West African music traditions and gender in rock and roll. (She is currently making a documentary on gender in local co-ed rock groups.) She also plays drums for the rock band, Telepathic Dumpster. But when her partner, Carter Soles, who recently received his doctorate in Film Studies, produced the indie science fiction spoof, Spidertron, Emily got swept along for the ride. Now directing "Fleem" production's second film, The Tale of Persephone, she plans to keep filmmaking an ongoing aspect of her creative life. Recently, Emily shared with me her indie film insights, from Spidertron to Persephone.
Conceived by Carter and penned by South African playwright and Comparative Literature grad student, Max Rayneard, Spidertron is a postmodern science fiction camp parody that pits an evil empire against a shipwrecked crew with a chilling secret. For a "no budget" film, the special effects are lavish, and the locations showcase the diverse beauty of the Oregon countryside. (Oh yes, and there's lots of violence and swearing too.)
During the filming of Spidertron, Emily not only gained acting experience as the ethereal Ambassador Kaalin; she also did time behind the camera, filming a "making of" documentary. The documentary was a learning experience that involved "thirty-plus hours of lots of bad footage but lots of interesting footage too." In a shoestring production like Spidertron, every member of the cast and crew wears a number of different hats. By filling in wherever needed, Emily got a broad introduction do-it-yourself film and earned an Associate Producer credit.
With Spidertron completed, on DVD, and currently playing in indie film venues, Emily has moved into the role of director with the more serious drama, The Tale Persephone, a modern retelling of the Greek myth that blends film noir, a coming of age story, romance, and comedy. In terms of production values, Emily asserts, "We're head and shoulders above Spidertron." The film features, "fantastic locations saturated with visual richness and contextual richness.... The music is fantastic." They are currently filming in such local Eugene, Oregon hotspots as the Smith Family Bookstore, the Kiva Grocer's, John Henry's, Milky Way Tea and Pastries, Cafˇ Perugino, and the Oak Street Speakeasy. Overall, Emily calls the film "beautiful.... It looks beautiful." local contributors to the soundtrack include the Ben Darwish Trio and Halie Loren, as well as nationally known classical composer, Jonathan Pieslak.
This achievement attests to the talent and dedication of Persephone's cast and crew, since do-it-yourself film presents no shortage of challenges. Since budgets are minuscule, most contribute their time and talent for free. Thus, filming runs of good will and personal responsibility, the latter an especially variable quantity. Emily stresses the importance of distinguishing between people who are interested in the project but not committed to it and those who are prepared to put in the grueling hours. The trick, she explains, is to match the major roles to the most committed people: "some of the disadvantages turn out to be advantages if you know how to collaborate and are able to attract people who will really follow through." Collaboration is a recurrent theme for Emily. She deeply appreciates the "amazing, miraculous mistakes and insights that working with a bunch of people can bring." The low/no budget format demands the creative problem solving that can spring from a synergy of creative minds.
Despite the inherent limitations of DIY film, it also presents advantages. Emily remarks, "I like having a level of control over artistic decisions." In The Tale of Persephone, Emily and screenwriter, Kom Kunyosying, a grad student in English, were able to develop exactly the story they wanted to tell. Reflecting on indie film, Emily attests, "The advantages are what leap out at me."
Of course, profitability is generally not among these advantages. For context, Emily notes that merely to pay for the cost of putting Spidertron on DVD, they would have to sell about 100 copies. As of April 2008, they'd sold about 30. But when asked if Spidertron was intended to pay for itself, Emily explains, "That was never the plan." The film was made to have fun and gain experience. And, Emily notes, the more experience she gains, the more likely she is to turn her work to profit, either through sales of subsequent films or freelance work as an editor. As for Spidertron, she hopes that someday she and her colleagues will make films popular enough that people will want to buy their first film to see where it all began. From the clips I've seen of The Tale of Persephone, that day may not be far off.