I met Kenna J. Moore when both our features screened at Woods Hole Film Festival, a seaside town that provides both respite and inspiration for visiting filmmakers. It was a magical week that included hopping from one film to another, talking about protagonists and plot points, then just relaxing around other creatives who understand the joy of the filmmaker’s process…and its perils. Seeing Kenna’s film – She Was Famous – proved to be one of the highlights of the festival. Not only did the film include a deeply realized performance by Valley Rich of a troubled college student navigating mental illness and an overbearing mother, but it fearlessly dived into a broader issue of troubled youth that I don’t want to give away because I want your shocked reaction to match or exceed my own.
Her film reminds me of an ancient Greek tragedy with updated gender roles squeezed through the lens of a chaotic post-MTV generation of millennial consumers searching for some good ole fashioned humanity. Honestly, please see it. And in the meantime, check out when Kenna has to say about filmmaking…and life.
Hunter: I had such a blast when we met in Massachusetts. It’s hard to describe what I feel is the core of your feature film She Was Famous without giving any spoilers, which I don’t want to do. But anchoring it all is an incredible character and spellbinding performance by Valley Rich. When I found out you all were sort of living together with the cast and crew in a house in New Orleans, it started to make sense to me because the performance FELT so intimate. Like not just watching a performance, but watching your best girlfriend go through something with no filters, seeing the reality of it, not just her side of the story. At least that’s what I felt. How did you work with Valley to develop this role? I would love to know more about your process with her and all the actors.
Kenna: Thanks, Hunter. Your spot on intuitiveness reveals the director in you. In the summer of 2012, Valley and I met and became friends while performing in Scotland as a part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At the same time, Isla (Valley’s sister) was finishing a tour of Ireland so she decided to meet us in Scotland. That’s where Isla and I first became friends and here is kind of the beginning of our trifecta.
Fast forward two years later, I decided to move in with them in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We were all living together for about two months before I began to write the She Was Famous script. It happened very rapidly. We were all going through some very tumultuous times in our individual lives. As artists, we had no choice but to turn our pain into something, as cliché as it sounds. I finished the script in about three weeks, then we immediately jumped into pre-production. Seven months later, we were pulling our 10-man crew together to live in this tiny three-bedroom boathouse in Mandeville, Louisiana. We worked, fought, laughed and cried together for seven weeks and I still get goosebumps from what came out of it. I think anyone that sees this film can not only get into the story but FEEL all of our souls in the film from that time.
As a director, there is something quite spiritually jolting when you stumble across an individual that undeniably stimulates your every imaginative tentacle. Some would call this a muse and some may call it kryptonite. My dear friend Valley Rich became all of this to me from the very start of our friendship. In preparation for her role as Jill, we lived together! She was there from when I wrote the first line of the script to the last line. She was there when I would need to talk out loud my concepts and story weaves. She’d listen and absorb all of it. Afterwards, I’d go to my corner of the house to continue to write and she’d go to hers. In her corner, she would privately begin her own studies ordering German books to teach herself the language. I’d randomly send her links to historical references and she’d study. After the script was done, we immediately jumped into pre-production. She was a producer for the film, as well. We’d be creating budgets, meeting potential investors, finding locations, etc. leaving us no time to really rehearse or jump into heavy dissection of the script and her character. So, on the night before the first day of our shoot, we looked at each other and said, “Oh shit!” We hadn’t rehearsed once since I completed the script. My first draft was the last draft and she had misplaced her script throughout the madness of raising money. But, never did I ever doubt her talents. She is one of the most amazing triple-threat performers I’ve ever met in my life. And, I think her explosive range in performance shows that throughout the film.
Hunter: It does show. Absolutely. And in fact, she won the Best Actress award at Woods Hole. Very deserved. Speaking of the festival, I felt such a camaraderie with you and all the filmmakers at Woods Hole. In fact, when I got back to Los Angeles, I missed you guys and started wondering, is this sense of community something that’s missing in our culture right now? I love how ideas and aesthetics and character are discussed at film festivals. Maybe you have that because you are in close community with other artists in New Orleans. But can you talk about this? How do we extend that positive film festival vibe out to the world at large? Or is that why film festivals are special, because they are a refuge from the world… and always will be?
Kenna: I totally identify with the latter. Non-artists and self-identified artists can have such a difficult time understanding and communicating with each other in my experience and witness. Most of us, artist or not, are having to do jobs that don’t fulfill us in so many ways for the old ‘bread and butter’ sake. Often these day jobs leave us with little to no time to really connect with our kindred spirits like all the beautiful souls I meet at film festivals. I had such an amazing time with you and the rest of the filmmakers at Woods Hole, too. Your work was so inspiring and I absolutely could identify pieces of my own art/soul in your work. I remember being in the audience, watching your film and saying to myself, “I’d totally make a black and white film like this. Oh, I love his choice of lighting and poetic drive between these two characters. I’d do something like this!” And, from there, we’d talk and dive into deep conversation of creative opinions, similarities, differences, etc. in such a loving and open environment to do so. I don’t know if there are any other spaces so magical as film festivals that allow this to happen. How do we extend this positive vibe out to the world at large? Invite them into our world! Hopefully, they leave wanting to change their own.
Hunter: What are you working on right now? How’s it going?
Kenna: In about an hour, I have a meeting with an 18-year-old that approached me about making a horror film. To conclude our prior/first meeting, he asked me to watch the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I asked him to watch Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2016). We both did our homework and will move forward today on the beginnings of a script.
Hunter: OK, The Witch completely freaked me out. I got so angry at my boyfriend for taking me to see that film because it disturbed me so deeply, which is a sign that it was extremely well-done. But uber-disturbing to me. I may need a Xanax before watching your new film if that’s the inspiration. So…I once met a casting assistant who said, “There are only two piles for headshots. ‘Real Deal’ and ‘Not Real Deal’.” In your opinion, what makes an actor ‘The Real Deal’ as opposed to ‘Not the Real Deal’?
Kenna: This is funny. I’ve heard of this, too. But, something has always bothered me about this. As I would presume most directors, I definitely started in the game as an actress and learned very quickly that I belonged on the other side of the camera. I remember the anxiety killing me during casting calls and callbacks. Then, once I’d land a role, I’d sometimes feel that it would be difficult to connect with some directors to get to my best performance. So, I don’t know. I think the essence of the ‘Real Deal’ or ‘Not Real Deal’ lies in both the actors/ actresses and directors. I’ve seen a particular actor in different performances that don’t even compare to the depth of each performance and I think some of that responsibility lies on the director. Personally, I make sure that I’m present and at every audition from the first to the final callback. Sometimes, the technique may not be right or the delivery was shaky yet there is just this something inside that performer that arouses me. Consequently, my abilities are challenged instantly to see if I have what it takes to get them there. But, I’m just an independent filmmaker at the moment. No big budgets, yet. I still have the time to be present. lol
Hunter: For fun – if there was the concept of a “Filmmaker Soulmate” – who would be yours?
Kenna: Haven’t met or heard of him yet. But, now that I know that this exist, I’m so looking forward to meeting this exotic stranger.
Hunter: Fair enough. Could you let us know a little bit more about the filmmaking community in New Orleans? Is it tight knit? Competitive? What’s going on down there? I’m hearing a LOT of good things.
Kenna: Sadly, I’ve been out of the loop here for about a year. She Was Famous has had me pretty consumed for about a year and a half. But, all past experiences I’ve had within the local community were very positive and flourished pretty productively. All of the individuals that make the New Orleans Film Festival are complete angels and work tirelessly to the advantage of all local independent filmmakers. I always go to them for any questions or guidance. The New Orleans Film Festival can’t be topped by anyone. Hands down.
Hunter: Your film had a number of characters who might be described as “fragile youth” in the sense that they are struggling with mental health issues in the world where it’s difficult to survive. So the film reflects that in terms of the way it’s shot and how it sounds. How did you aim to capture her mental state with your aesthetic and, in particular, your sound design, which I thought was terrific?
Kenna: Thank you, Hunter : ) Before shooting the film, it was very important that I made this film feel very intimate. I thought the best way to do that was to cut out as many boring establishing shots as possible. Cutting from interior to interior as much as I could while still keeping sense between scenes was my plan. And, generally those interiors were pretty tight sets. So, I’d imagine the audience could feel like they were squeezed into the scene with the characters. The whole fly-on-the-wall feel was what I wanted. I kind of associated these interiors with being inside the mind and not really being able to escape whatever was happening inside of there. The exterior shots would provide a breather. Now, the sound was another beast. Sound and musical score are some of my favorite elements in filmmaking. Before production, I had no idea what music or design I’d go with. I literally found my band on the last night of production when the crew and I all went out to Frenchmen street to celebrate. We stumbled across them in some bar and I knew immediately that it was them, Terra Terra, that I wanted. Two months later after I had finished the rough cut, I brought them in the studio and we scored it in two days. It was an amazing experience. I really didn’t know what I wanted prior to us getting in the studio. We just went in, watched the entire film once and went scene by scene on what we heard sonically. Once we got into it, I found that I wanted the score to kind of follow this tumultuous scale of mental madness to enlightenment as our main character experiences from the beginning to the end of the film.
Hunter: I love that story. All the risks you took paid off in your film. Definitely looking forward to the next one, but please give me fair warning if it’s as f’ed up as The Witch.
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.