Olivia Aylmer: Sophie, I have so many questions for you! I want to start with your short film, The Funeral, as that’s how I first encountered your name. I've been following Le CiNéMa Club for a while, and found the film there. How did you first hear about the site? Did it officially launch through them?
Sophie Savides: I met Marie-Louise [Khondji], who runs [Le CiNéMa Club], at a party. We got to talking, I said I'd made a short, and she told me she runs this website...then she gave me her card, and I reached out to her and sent her my short. She wrote and said she loved it so much—and we struck up a friendship.
OA: I'd love to know more about the process of making it. How long did it take from conception to post-production to premiere? How did the concept first develop?
SS: I came up with it in September of 2015. I was 20 at the time. It's a personal story; I think it spawned from this idea that a girl gives a eulogy, and you're watching it and you feel like the audience, but then you realize she's alone. That was the goal. [Making viewers wonder] why would someone do that? I had other film ideas, but nobody liked them...but for some reason, every time I told people that idea, they loved it. I was just going to make it with my mom and my roommate—my mom was gonna hold the camera.
This was my first short film ever, but I have a lot of friends [in the industry], and my father worked in film. I'd ask my friends for advice and they're say, don't sell yourself short; it's a good idea. [Sophie's lemonade arrives, she takes a sip: “This is really good lemonade.”] I had done a short over the summer, with the cinematographer Sam Levy, he's done Noah Baumbach's new films [While We're Young, Mistress America, Frances Ha], and he's a family friend. His wife is a director, and I was brought in to help on their film; I helped to produce it. That's how I got the model of how to make a short...it grew and grew to a degree where I was like, “Whoa.” Suddenly there was a 20 person crew. I learned so much. Someone would say all these technical terms and I'd write them down and Google them. That's what I love about film—everyone's really kind and family-like, in my experience.
OA: How long did it take to shoot?
SS: Just one day. We actually finished early. We shot at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
OA: And how did you cast your lead actress, Kristen Vaganos?
SS: I put notices in schools. She was at NYU. I was lucky enough to be introduced to actors who were more established, but they wouldn't give me their time, which I understand. I wanted to work with someone who was present, and nobody gave a better reading than her. She was the only person who got it. Everyone else was crying, like gushing tears, and she got that [the character was] supposed to be kind of angry...she progresses through different emotions.
OA: Yeah, a little on the nose—you wanted some nuance. Not even knowing that the film stemmed from a personal connection, I felt this sense of intimacy when I watched it. When you have such a personal story to tell, what's it like to take this thing that's yours and try to convince people in the industry that it's a story worth telling?
SS: I think for that particular project, what helped is that I went to Green-Wood by myself and took photos of exactly what I wanted it to look like, which is how it ended up. I think that people liked my visual ideas and respected them. As a writer, in my current script [for a full-length feature], I bump up against that much more. It's a bigger story. But you just have to believe in yourself. It's a weird balance between having a consciousness of what you're doing and a subconsciousness—feeling like it needs to be this way, even if you don't know why. I work with a producer who always asks me lots of questions, with lots of love, but I always have to have an answer. (e.g. “Why does this character do this? Why does she put her cup down at this moment?”) You get really good at articulating exactly why everything needs to be the way it needs to be. With The Funeral, someone read it and didn't really get it, and I had to explain, “Grief isn't always happy. It's supposed to be darker. She's supposed to go through both emotions. It's about not growing in a typical way—it's about acceptance.” [For her], resignation was growth. You've got to be a good arguer.
OA: You captured the experience of grief in such a poignant way. I mean, we've all lost people. I think, in having your character articulate and externalize these memories that she had with this other person that, prior to that moment, had only been shared between the two of them, and that she didn't have to put words to because they were just living through them together...it felt like an authentic portrayal of the grieving process. What did you want to say about grief that you hadn't seen portrayed onscreen before?
SS: I had lost my father, [Harris Savides]. He was such a big part of my life. So many people kept telling me to just think of the good stuff about him. I think it's really difficult when you lose someone who was sick [in his case, with a brain tumor]. He lost a lot of mental faculties and became a different person due to the drugs. For two years of my life, it was really negative. I felt like [people] didn't understand.
My favorite book is Moby Dick, because to me that book is so much about understanding grief and what you do with it: Do you become a maniacal captain and ruin everyone's life? Or do you become more beautiful? That book made me feel ok again. That's what I wanted to do with my short. In grief, it's important to feel like everything is really, really terrible. You think, “This is the worst thing in the world.” And then you're able to be like, “You know what, it's ok.” That's with everything—whether you break up with someone or stub your toe. I wanted to make something that made people a little uncomfortable, but for all the people out there who are feeling this, it would make them feel ok.
OA: The weather also plays a big role in conveying the mood...Plus, setting it in the cemetery provides this sense that you're surrounded by other's people's loss(es) as well. You're not limited to your own.
SS: Oh, that's so cool, that's so beautiful. I think that fits with the film.
The weather was just lucky. I wanted it to be overcast; it couldn't be spring. But winter felt too obvious. Fall signals change. The leaves are still colorful. That's what I like about film—there’s a lot of happy accidents.
OA: Do you recall the first film that made an impact on you, either when you were young or when you decided to get into directing?
SS: When I was older, honestly seeing Blue is the Warmest Color was a big moment in my life. I thought I wanted to be an actress. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer, then I wanted to be a director, and then I was like that's too hard, I'll just be an actress...it's very insensitive to actors, who I absolutely adore [laughs]. After high school, I wasn't very happy and I took a gap year and saw that movie and thought, Adele Exarchopoulos is 18 years old, and she did this: "I can do anything." I was so enamored with her performance and that love story.
One of my father's films, Birth, too. It's a Jonathan Glazer movie, Nicole Kidman is in it. There's a scene with her in an opera, and I don't think there's a better performance. She doesn't talk or move—it's all in her eyes. I'd always say I want to make films the way they made that film.
And then when I was a kid, I interned on the set of Sofia Coppola’s film Somewhere...
OA: I love that film. Sometimes I'll just watch the ice skating scene with Elle Fanning on YouTube.
SS: Oh, yeah! I was sick that day; it's so perfect. I would go and watch the dailies with my dad. I worked in the camera department and carried really heavy things...I had a great time and learned so much. My dad was really hard on me, there were a lot of rules. You can't sit down ever, and for everyone who's there, no matter what department you're in, ask if [people in other departments] need help. That hustle is what will make you stand out if you want to get into film. It's true of any job—if you're willing to go and be there and stay open to doing the shitty stuff, too. He really instilled that in me.
OA: It's so important, and as you said, true of every industry. Before we go, I'm wondering who you consider to be a mentor in the film industry in particular?
SS: Well, I got to watch Sofia work. She's the best person in the world. She's the most gracious, kind, thoughtful person...she's nice to everyone, she knows everyone's name. She's such a model of how to be a leader. That was really important for me to watch, especially as a little girl. And there was never a question for me of being a director, because the first director I ever spent time with was a woman. She’s such a badass.
Sophie Savides is a twenty-two year old filmmaker living in New York. In high school, Savides wanted to be a writer. She eventually dropped out of college as she was skipping classes to work on her films. Savides has since written a new short film, but when she found her actors and saw their performances, she decided to adapt the script into a feature-length screenplay. The film is a love story, imbued with Savides’ values and ideas about our modern society.
Editor's Note: Watch The Funeral on Sophie’s Vimeo page here.
Photo Credits: Portraits by Marie K. Stotz, shot on location on the Lower East Side, NY, NY. Stills c/o Sophie Savides.