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INTERVIEW WITH: Martha Stephens

martha stephens pilgrim song southern film

INTERVIEW BY: Natalie Elliott

Here’s the debut installment of our upcoming series spotlighting the nominees for our “Best Southern Film Award” at the Little Rock Film Festival. Stay tuned for more on all the films and their amazing directors. 

Pilgrim Song, the sophomore feature film by the Kentuckian Martha Stephens (her first film was 2010’s Passenger Pigeons), opens with the gym-shoe squeaks of a faculty-student basketball game. Our main character, James (played by Timothy Morton) with his furl of orange-red hair and wraparound athletic glasses, sits on the bench, sucking down water and generally looking jittery, apprehensive. He’s soon called into the game. He misses his shot as the buzzer sounds. He’s choked, and as we’re soon to discover, this is a pervading theme of the movie.

James Morton is a middle-school music teacher in rural Kentucky. He gets laid off due to budget cuts and decides to navigate his life crisis by schlepping the Sheltowee Trace. To any Southern man, and most outdoorspeople in general, it’s a familiar rite of passage: Need to get it together? Get back to nature.

In the days preceding his journey, he grows even more distant from his long-term girlfriend, Joan. Her bungled attempts to connect with James are painful on both sides; the first time I watched the film I was annoyed with her and sympathetic toward his existential dilemma. On the second viewing, I understood that he was an incredible jerk. (This is a movie that rewards careful viewing.)

pilgrim song southern film

When James sets off on the trail, we’re greeted with a montage of foliage, waterfalls, rock formations, and spider webs rippling in the breeze. It appears, at first, like a true naturalist’s take on self-transformation, except director Stephens doesn’t make it so easy. James gets sidetracked from the trail, further and further—first by a pretty country girl at an old-time barn dance, then by a colorful pot-smoking park ranger, and finally by a metal-head single dad and his likewise lonely son, Bo, whose unexpected affinity for James draws him very reluctantly into a relationship with them.

It’s a subdued film, equal parts indulgent verdant tableaux and understated, awkward jokes. It’s also a personal story told through a slightly dislikable but empathetic everyman, one whose desire to recoil from all he knows and inability to do so completely is a wholly human feeling.

Stephens manages to take this fable of futility and couch it in the lush greenery of the Kentucky landscape, which she populates with locals, Southern music, and careful juxtapositions between fading traditions and new ones—or a pairing of the two.

Most shots, especially outdoor scenes, feel like they were planned for months, down to the last detail, down to the box turtle shuffling resolutely beside James on a rock. The film is buoyed by the ultimate mood-maker—omnipresent music, whether hymns, singer-songwriters, metal thrashing, or chirping crickets. Pilgrim Song is so clean in its intentions, so taut in its execution, and bursting with so much heart, it can only portend more wonderful films to come from a gifted and ambitious young director.

best of the south film

Needless to say, we congratulate Martha Stephens and her crew on winning "The Oxford American Best Southern Film 2012" honor which was handed over to her at this year’s Little Rock Film Festival (by the way, we expect even more artistic growth and great films from Stephens). Below, carried over from some conversations begun during her visit to Arkansas, we chat with her about her precarious scriptwriting process, her dauntless incorporation of Southern imagery, and what she fears are her shortcomings as an up-and-coming filmmaker.



THE OXFORD AMERICAN: Music is a huge element of this film—James is, of course, a musician, but even the silences are filled with birdsongs and insects chirping. There also seems to be a lot of original music supplementing the score. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with music, your thoughts on music’s relationship to film, and reveal a little bit about the songs featured in the movie? 

MARTHA STEPHENS: Growing up in the sticks, music was a way for everyone in my family to be transported to some other place, some other time. Even my ancestors used music as a way to escape the doldrums of sharecropping and hard labor. Music was their therapy and entertainment. From my grandmother’s weathered voice teaching me traditional mountain songs, to stories of my mother’s girlhood in an Eastern Kentucky hollow, hiding under her covers at night with a brownie radio humming soul music from a station in New Orleans. Even at the age of five, I recall being snuck into my brother John’s speed-metal show in Ironton, Ohio, when he was supposed to be babysitting me. His band was called Erotic Mary, and I witnessed girls with teased hair and pale pink lipstick scream his name. Music is at the heart of many fond memories—a way to suspend time and break the imposing constraints life deals us.

Along with the melodies of nature, I wanted to incorporate my love for local-grown metal and traditional Appalachian-folk music with a singer-songwriter thread in Pilgrim Song. My shameless adoration for scores like Harold and Maude’s and McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s provided me with ample inspiration, so I contacted two West Virginia–born buddies, Andrew Iafrate and Jonathan Wood, to provide original songs as well as the score. Andrew’s voice sounds like an angel who’s recently had his heart broken. He and Jonathan harmonize so beautifully, I feel really fortunate to have collaborated with them. The two vocal tracks from the film, “Blood Red Rose” and “I’ve Got a Habit,” are so painfully wonderful, full of longing and loneliness. I can’t praise those guys enough.

THE OA: Part of the success of the film is how incredibly understated Timothy Morton’s performance is. I know you’ve worked with him before, in your first feature, Passenger Pigeons. Did you write the role of James with him in mind? How do you normally proceed with casting your movies? 

MS: I did write the role of James with Tim in mind. I found it to be a very satisfying practice, which I had never done previously. Knowing Tim’s mannerisms and strengths as an actor, I aimed to both challenge and compliment him. Tim is one of the wittiest actors I know, and it would have been easy to let the guy rip with hilarious one-liners. He’s so quick on his feet! For this part, however, I needed Tim to be stoic yet relatable. He’s an everyman, a blank slate at times. 

My casting process is ever-changing as I continue to make films. Sometimes casting is merely begging and buttering up at a family reunion (my family shows up in both movies quite frequently) and other times I do general casting calls in Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina. I have a core group of folks I turn to on a regular basis, folks that have impressed me with their grace, authenticity, tenderness, and natural ability to live within the world I’ve written.

THE OA: Pilgrim Song is arguably, at its heart, a man’s life-crisis movie. There is some heterosexual tension, but for the most part, the relationships in the film deal with men and concepts of manhood, most notably James’s interaction with Lyman and his son, Bo. This seems like a curious topic for a young female director to broach. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to such a masculine concept? 

MS: I’ve had a lot of time to think about this and I believe it really has something to do with my fascination with male repression and vulnerability. To generalize, it’s more socially acceptable for women to wear their emotions on their sleeve. When a male character in a film is exposed, I feel as though I’m being permitted to witness an intimate, fragile affair. I also tend to think my male-dominated childhood ruled by three old brothers struck in me some weird emotional reverence toward the male plight.

pilgrim song southern film

THE OA: The shot compositions and visual representations of the Kentucky landscape here are absolutely breathtaking. There are so many Malick-esque contemplations of nature and wildlife. Is Malick an influence on how you compose a shot? Can you describe some of your influences as far as the visual aspects of filmmaking? 

MS: Prior to filming, I re-watched a lot of early Robert Altman for (zooms!) inspiration. I knew when we were first developing a camera budget that a hefty zoom lens was a must. Other than that, sweeping movies like Barry Lyndon, Days of Heaven, Paris, Texas, and Heaven’s Gate have also been tremendous influences on my work. I adore movies that utilize nature and space to the fullest.

THE OA: Presumably most of the shooting took place on or near the actual Sheltowee Trace in Southern Kentucky. How much hiking did you have to do in preparation for filming? How much during actual filming? 

MS: I location-scouted pretty feverishly for an entire year. I took about five lengthy trips out on the Sheltowee Trace to explore and narrow down where I specifically wanted to shoot. For the most part, every hiking scene in the film was premeditated and carefully planned. During filming, we took one week to shoot the trail portion of the script. Everyday we’d hike at least a mile in with all of our equipment, some days much more. I think our most grueling day was nearly five miles in and nearly five miles back. When you’re lugging camera and sound equipment, those miles really double.

THE OA: What do you fear is your biggest shortcoming as a director? Do you feel that there’s any perceived flaw (whether true or not) that you’re constantly working against?

MS: I’m terrified of boring people. I tend to respond to slow, meditative films, but I know this isn’t the general consensus. Every problematic review of Pilgrim Song states that it’s too long and it’s too slow. With my upcoming project, I feel very pressured to meander less and stick to a more conventional narrative. 

THE OA: The dialogue in your films feels so completely organic for each character. I can’t help but wonder if it’s mostly ad-libbed. Do you write most or some of the dialogue exchanges? 

MS: Surprisingly, I would say that 90% of the dialogue is scripted. Writing dialogue is my favorite part of the writing process. I love to inhabit someone else for a brief period and provide each character with a unique voice. Wherever I go—diners, flea markets, family affairs—my ears are always perked, trying to capture the language of a place. 

THE OA: As a Southerner, I live in constant fear of stereotypes, and I’m almost always terrified of presenting anything that might seem cliché. However, in your film, you prominently feature things like old-time music, clogging, and lake baptisms. What makes you so fearless about representing these tropes of Southern culture? 

MS: I suppose my fearlessness stems from living in the heart of Appalachia and witnessing these things. Clogging is an art form that’s still widely celebrated in Eastern Kentucky. Several of my students were in clogging groups that toured the country. I have two uncles who are Baptist preachers, and lake baptisms are part of their work. There’s a strong insular revival of old-time music by people whose parents or grandparents played it. It’s not unusual to see a barn party every weekend in the summer. I take pains to present all these things as they actually happen by the people who actually do them. The folks in these scenes are not actors. They’re friends, family members, and locals acting as they would in their everyday lives.

THE OA: There are a few shots on the trail where James is bathing that seem to be constructed entirely around Timothy Morton’s starkly white body. The effect isn’t shocking, it’s more evocative of a baroque nude in repose. Do you ever draw from other visual elements like classic paintings or artwork in the composition of a shot? 

MS: Work produced from the Hudson River School has had a great impact in nurturing my love of light, atmosphere, and nature. I’m overcome with longing when I look at the way the untamed wilds are depicted in these pieces. My hope was to recreate the same sense of longing in some of the more nature-oriented shots in Pilgrim Song. 

pilgrim song southern film

THE OA: How far in advance do you begin work preparing and writing on your films? Do you have another project already in the works? 

MS: So far, it has taken me a year (give or take a few months) to write and prep for both films. As my desire to make better films increases, I imagine each film will take longer to produce. I’ve just finished writing the first draft of my next Kentucky-centric project, PAPAW EASY, with my writing partner, Karrie Crouse. In an ideal world, we’d like to start filming it by the end of next winter, but we’re also looking for a substantially larger budget, which has proven to be very difficult to raise. On a brighter note, I think it’s a damn good script.

THE OA: Passenger Pigeons you wrote solo, but for this film, you shared duties with Karrie Crouse (who stars in Pilgrim Song as Joan). Can you talk a little bit about how you guys began collaborating and the basics of how that writing process goes? 

MS: Karrie and I attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts together, and she has been my reluctant muse since I was making my first student film at the ripe age of nineteen. Karrie is a wonderfully talented writer and I feel very humbled that she would even want to spit out a script with me. When I was developing Pilgrim Song, it occurred to me that I was a weak writer in terms of plot. Karrie acted in Passenger Pigeons and at the time we were doing the festival circuit together. To make a long story short, I fully took advantage of our friendship! 

She is great with story and plot, which allows me to focus more on character development and dialogue. We usually begin with a bare-bones outline that slowly turns into a pretty detailed one. Once it’s time to start writing the script, there’s a lot of passing back and forth, ten pages here, ten pages there.  Sometimes if a certain scene really speaks to one of us, we’ll make sure it’s okay to claim it as our own. It really is a lovely relationship.


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