Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Cinematic Life Lessons

My films are my teachers. Making the short Miracle Maker has been a lesson in surrendering to the wild, unpredictable quality of life and art.

 I began working on Miracle Maker when my dad was diagnosed with cancer.  I found myself lighting the candle for Saint Jude even though I am not Catholic. Raised in a household where we put our faith in hard work, I always thought with practice, study, and long hours I could fix any problem. But when this philosophy failed me, I began to search for a deity, a saint, a god, or a legendary hero to rescue my family.

Francisco (Jovan Armand) and I on the journey.
And so I created my own miracle maker, named her Miss Kitty, painted her teeth gold, and cast her as Bonita Friedericy. I disguised myself as a twelve year-old boy named Francisco (Jovan Armand), and embarked on the journey to convince her to heal my dad.

Throughout the process, I’ve learned Francisco’s lesson. Destiny is a mix of you and the universe. You can become an insomniac looking for shooting stars, pull out every single one of your eyelashes, wait all day for 11:11, throw your life-savings of pennies into the fountain and still not get your wish.  Miracle Maker continues to teach me that I am not in control. At times this has been a very painful lesson for me, a director living in an age of positive thinking. However, it has also been a window into the beauty of letting go.

Cinematographer Amanda Treyz and I making early morning "plans." 
Miracle Maker is currently in post-production. Just when I thought I was close to picture lock, I did a voice over recording with Jovan and realized the film was not finished. Struck by how much he has changed in the last year, a new ending is slowly coming into focus. Once again, I am called to release my plans for the film and allow the story to tell itself.

Monday, May 20, 2013

How Is a Film Shoot Like Sitting Shiva?

Leave The Door Open

Paco and I moved out and JAY moved in.
When sitting shiva, the door is left open so that visitors can enter freely without having to ring the bell. 7 DAY GIG was filmed in our home. Just as if we were sitting shiva, our front door was left unlocked. The cast and crew tramped in and out hauling lights, fish tanks, roller skates and dolly track. We also left open the metaphorical door; the one ideas and surprises come through.   


Offer Food 

Paco and I buried in bagels!
In the midst of their sadness, people need to be reminded to eat. Additionally, sharing a meal with friends heals the feeling of isolation that death can create. 

Similarly, on a film set sitting down to a meal with the cast and crew makes me feel like we are family. Thanks to the amazing hustle of our producer, Frances E. Chang and our production coordinator, Constance Parng, all of our food was donated! (Thank you Veggie Grill, Chipotle, Hint Water, Panera Bread, Trader Joe’s and Fresh n’ Easy).  

Disregard Personal Appearance

When sitting shiva, the mourner covers the mirrors. This ritual frees someone from having to worry about their appearance, leaving a space to turn inward. When making a movie, I enter the world of the film and lose myself in the process. Filmmaking frees me from having to worry about the things that don’t matter on a voyage to the world within.   

Share Memories of the Person Who Passed Away

Actor Winston Story, Cinematographer Leah Anova, and I get pumped.
The best part about making 7 DAY GIG was being able to share memories of my dad.
As we set up the fish tank, I told people about how my dad loved fish. He had a pond filled with gigantic fish that he fed every day. He loved to cook smoked salmon on a barbecue grill. When he was in the hospital, I pinned a fish brooch to his hospital gown. When packing up the props, I looked on the mantle and was stunned to see that the three books production designer Amanda Smith had put there were his favorites: Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, and Return of the King. He read these books over and over again. To him, they contained life’s greatest wisdom.

My Dad and Grandpa on a fishing trip.
Usually, kids on set are accompanied by a stage mom, but in this case the kid who played THE PUNK, Kristin Coffman, brought along her dad. On a break she would run to him for a hug. Having a dad on set couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Bill Doran who plays THE OLD MAN recently picked up acting. This was a dream of my dad’s who was the life of every party and who could have made some wonderful films in his older years.

Winston Story, the actor who played JAY brought together the perfect mix of comedy and pathos. Not only did he have an authentic connection to the Pacific Islands;  his dad (like my dad) is from upstate New York.

My dad the clown after a misunderstanding with tinted Chapstick.
The saddest part of losing my dad was the idea that life would charge on without him; that every day would bring us farther apart. It felt like the hole would just get bigger and deeper. While we were making 7 DAY GIG I would catch myself talking about my dad in the present tense. The process resurrected my dad for me and suddenly I felt like he was still with me; like it was impossible for him to be anywhere else. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

It takes a city...

Seven Days to 7 Day Gig

Thank you to Project Involve of Film Independent (Apply now for next year's program) and the National Minority Consortia for PBS for commissioning this film.
Between the Roller Derby Girls and the fever dream flair that guides our design; we are trying to raise at least
$1,000 by April 12th. Why contribute?  You've lost someone and have no idea how to move on.  You believe in the value of traditions, even when you don't always understand them.  You've been through a crisis and need to laugh, because (true story) the movies people talk about on their death beds are comedies. To donate, click here. 

I was the girl-scout that never sold enough boxes of cookies. 
I was the shopper who said are you sure? when offered a discount.
I've always been scared to barter and beg; but because my love of film-making is stronger than my fear of offending I'm learning to leap over that moon.

Here are some other ways that you can help out 7 DAY GIG.

Share our campaign! Go on. Cut and Paste this puppy.

Or perhaps you are a neighbor that can lend us one of the items below.
-Bright colored convertible (ideally pink)
-Bright colored Family Van
-Other bright colored cars to park on the street
-Board Games
-Old PC Lap Top
-Old TV
-an old blue or aqua colored couch

-Two sets of rollerskating or rollerblading protective gear (knee pads and wrist guards).

-Food Donations. We've already received some amazing donations from HINT WATER, FRESH & EASY, TRADER JOE'S, and VEGGIE GRILL.
Are you a restaurant owner or food vendor? Consider making a tax-deductible donation to our production.

-Truck. Art Department needs a truck to pick up that awesome aqua couch we are going to borrow from a fantastic friend.

E-mail me if you have an item we can borrow (kate.sugarcane@gmail.com)

Thank you to the amazing 7 Day Gig team who is working so hard to bring this story to life and thank you to everyone who has already donated to this film!

Saturday, March 9, 2013


The script I developed for Film Independent's Project: Involve has been green-lit and we are into the swing of pre-production. 

A punk, an old man, and a chicken gather round for a makeshift shiva after Jay (a Romanian/Guamanian/Catholic/Jew) puts an ad on Craigslist looking for mourners to join him.  7 DAY GIG: A FILM ABOUT THE COMEDY OF LOSS

In this film, I am working on creating a process that reflects the theme and story.
When Project: Involve assigned the topic, "A cultural celebration and a character's conflict within it," I immediately thought about how my great grandmother sat shiva for my grandfather while he was still alive. She was unhappy with his choice of marriage, a gentile from England. However, what interested me the most was not this conflict between religion and love but how confused I had felt after my father died. I experienced a deep craving and longing for some formal way, some map, some structured timeless tradition to guide me through the grief. 

My dad had grown up between two religions, but felt at home in neither one. At his funeral, my sister read her assigned passage and almost burst out laughing. She didn't understand a word of what she was saying. I, for one, found it hilarious when they fired off 7 rifles at his military burial. Despite being a proud veteran, he was a pacifist and hated loud noises. None of these traditions reflected or honored my dad.  

The week after his funeral, life tapped her foot and wound up her watch.  I went water-skiing, I sent out cover-letters, I had job interviews. But the yearning to stop time, to be witnessed, and to connect to a community grew deeper.  7 DAY GIG is my chance to do just that. 

In the casting, shot-listing, location scouting, filming; time will stop. There will be complete focus, as the phone-calls, emails, and daily to dos wait patiently for their turn.

We will be witnessed.  Daily life has a strange relationship to death. We love to gawk and stare at the news... Area man shoots himself when blah blah blah, College student is hit by blah blah blah, Celebrity so and so dies after a long battle with blah blah blah....but when we are confronted with death face to face we often hide. We send pre-written Hallmark cards, hit like on Facebook and say things like "I'm so sorry" (which we all know makes no sense but we don't know what else to say and it's better than saying nothing so we say it anyway).

We don't know how to do the frightening work of simply being a witness to death. My process on 7 DAY GIG will be about witnessing, creating a space for the cast and crew where they can be seen and allowing my own grief to flap in the wind. The film is a chance for me to honor my dad, to channel his sense of humor and share his love of people. 

We will be a community. Every time you make a film, you make a community.  One of the reasons I was so excited to participate in Project:Involve was to connect to Film Independent's fantastic family of filmmakers.

We are currently casting and building the crew. See the breakdown below and let me know if you'd like to join this family dinner. 

A lonely misfit working through the recent loss of his father. He is struggling to find a way to honor his dad. A Guamanian/Romanian/Catholic/Jew that never feels like he belongs, he is looking for community and will go to strange lengths to find it.  He feels like a failure 80% of the time, the other 20% of the time he is convinced he’s found the key to life.  Actor must be of Pacific-Islander descent. We will be tailoring the age and region of the Pacific Islands to fit the right actor.

A warm and patient presence. Although he seems out to pasture, he is keen and committed to helping Jay. He recently lost his wife and is heart broken. Like Jay, he is looking for friendship and a way to move on in the face of grief. He’s not really accustomed to being a bachelor and has a little bit of trouble with things like laundry, hygiene, and nutrition.

A skinny dude, down on his luck, exhausted from working the streets as a mascot for Chicken Hut, he wants a big break and is looking for an easier way to make a living.

A bossy, sharp, authoritative, know-it-all, conservative Jewish girl with style and spunk. She wants to rule the world or at least be the president of her class.

Jay’s grandmother, strong, stubborn.

Jay’s grandfather, sweet, understanding.

Fit and chipper, the kind of guy who whistles while he works.

A team of 9 roller-skaters, they are friendly but they take their practice very seriously.

Secretive, running some kind of business behind chain-locked doors.

Fast-talking, multitasking, slightly-distracted driver with a good heart.

Copy/Credit/Pay in accordance with the New Media Contract for SAG actors


The short is produced by Film Independent as part of the Project:Involve Fellowship in conjunction with the National Minority Consortia for PBS. The film will screen at the Project:Involve screening in the Los Angeles Film Festival with the option to air on PBS.



E-mail me for details.

PRODUCER, Frances E. Chang is a Chinese-Vietnamese-American freelance film producer, screenwriter, educator, and Film Independent Project: Involve alumnus. She has worked on multiple media projects, ranging from music videos to documentaries to narrative films, and specializes in physical production of low budget independent feature films.  Since moving back to Los Angeles after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Frances became involved with festival favorites, “Strapped” and “American Primitive,” for which she has even attended the Cannes Film Festival and Market in 2009. In five years of being a filmmaker, Frances’s credits have spread throughout almost forty projects, including five narrative feature films that she has produced. Frances strives to represent diverse, ethnic and underrepresented voices in her projects, both on and off screen.  

CINEMATOGRAPHER, Leah Anova was born in Manila, Philippines to parents who wanted to give their children a chance at the American Dream.  Her father joined the US Navy when she was 6.  As a result, Leah was raised as a Military Brat.  Leah has lived in the Philippines, Japan, Italy and all over the United States.  She has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Turkey.  Living abroad and traveling the world has given Leah a unique viewpoint that continues to influence her approach towards cinematography.  Leah received her Masters of Fine Arts in Cinematography from the American Film Institute.  Since having graduated, Leah has worked on a variety of productions ranging from narrative films to corporate videos.  Recently, Leah has been accepted to Film Independent’s Project Involve 2012-2013.  Her experiences and her wide ranging background, gives Leah a breath of knowledge, the technical prowess and an ability to think on her feet.

EDITOR, Aleigh Lewis is a filmmaker/editor based in Los Angeles working in TV, music video and short film.  Recent TV credits include “Project Runway,” “Bad Girls Club,” “Honey Boo Boo,” and “Project Runway Allstars.”  Her music video for Julia Holter was voted top music video of 2012 by Dummymag.  Past projects include a collaborative project mixing live theater and video installation between Cuban and American artists which premiered at the Havana Film Festival in 2009.  Awards and grants include the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences internship grant, LA Department of Cultural Affairs grant and scholarships from the Disney family and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.  She holds a BA from Oberlin College and a MFA in film from CalArts. 

DIRECTOR/WRITER, Kate Marks is a multidisciplinary storyteller whose work lives in the crossroads of mythic and mundane. Kate is currently finishing her thesis film, MIRACLE MAKER as part of her MFA degree in film directing at CalArts.  Kate is the recipient of the Black Maria Film + Video Jurors’ Choice Award, Sarah Jacobson Film Grant, The Beutner Family Award for Excellence in the Arts, and a Celtx Seeds Award. She is currently a Project:Involve fellow with Film Independent. Her films have screened at Slamdance, REDCAT, The New Orleans Film Festival, The Bahamas International Film Festival, Curta Cinema, The Los Angeles Underground Film Festival, The Newport Beach Film Festival, The California International Shorts Festival, NewFilmmakers New York, GEN X Sing-A-Long and the Blackout Film Festival.  Additionally, Kate has worked as a teacher, performer, clown, dancer, playwright and theatre director in New York City where The New York Times called her a superb director” and “ingenious.” When Kate was in the fourth grade she was advised to play the flute, but politely chose the trombone. She has been quietly rebelling against cuteness ever since. Kate is a graduate of Brown University where she received honors in playwriting. 

Do you know a neighborhood in LA that looks like this?

Do you have a car that looks like this? Would you park it in our shooting location or drive it for the shoot?

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Slamdance by Filmmakers for Filmmakers

At the opening night party, I joined the large crowd of Slamdance filmmakers gathered in the corner of the room.  Instantly, I felt like I was in a pre-game huddle as one by one, each of us went around the room and introduced ourselves.  

What followed was a week of inspiring films, exciting talkbacks, deep conversations, and the feeling that I was part of a family of filmmakers.

Through out the week, I was exposed to many different styles of cinema as well as modes of process. My favorite revelations from the festival are:

Embrace your limitations, those limits will guide you to deeper creativity. 

Start your filmmaking process with a question. 

Independent films are made by families.
Cinematographer, Kimberly Culotta and I loving the fresh air of Park City
My sister, Elizabeth and I enjoying our daily free veggie burger


"Pearl Was Here is a tonal adventure. For much of the film, Pearl’s actions and eventual plight are cute and humorous; at a certain point, however, a darker cloud starts to set in and there’s an ominous tension that develops, finally climaxing in a fashion that is as shocking to the characters in the film as it was to me watching. And it works, sticking with you long after the film has ended."

"A very sweet, and then frightfully brutal take on child/parent relations."

"Miana Abramson's performance is nothing short of amazing. Abramson is so perfectly cast in this part — there is absolutely no denying that she must have at least a little bit of Pearl inside her. No child actor can be that good, can they?" 

"The acting from Abramson is truly stellar...The straightforward approach, with great attention to every little detail, from director Kate Marks will also strike a chord for any parent who has experienced the struggles of raising a child, and how every parent handles certain situations differently."

The cinematographer, Kimberly Culotta from PEARL WAS HERE talks about our screening and the audience reaction with TWITCH

"The most satisfying moment for me this week was in our screening... 'cause there's a moment in the film when the tone shifts, and everyone was laughing and then... the mother slaps the daughter... and it was gasps... the whole audience... and then silence. I literally started crying in that moment. Just to be that present with the film, to be with that crowd... "

We were spotlighted in USA TODAY

You can listen to my red carpet interview at Slamdance on AudioBoo

The packed screening of Pearl Was Here and He's Way More Famous Than You
It was exciting to talk about the film in the Q&A

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Protecting the Imaginary World

Many of my films feature kids. At CalArts I explored ways of working with young actors to develop a practice that would allow for authentic as well as creative performances; Beware of Dog was a practical exercise in this. 

During the shoot, I experimented with two methods.
Method 1: Coach the kids during the takes. Give them instructions and lead them towards the desired beats of the scene.
Method 2:  Help the kids create the make-believe world of the story. Allow it to feel as real as possible. Work with the cinematographer (Amanda Treyz) to employ a flexible shooting strategy where the kids are free to follow their impulses. Press record and then get out of the way.

You can probably guess which one led to better performances. The imagination of the young actor is stronger than the best note or direction.

On the set of Pearl Was Here
I employed this technique in my next film PEARL WAS HERE. To rehearse for the film, we did a series of improvisations where Sharon Eisman (Mom) and Miana Abramson (Pearl) explored their characters. Watch one of our rehearsals below.


During the film shoot, we shot with two cameras so that we wouldn't need Miana to repeat
her actions. The cinematographer, Kimberly Culotta also came up with a lighting strategy that required very little set up time. A friendly, calm crew helped to keep a soft tone on set that would not pop the bubble of make-believe. I tried to be a watchdog, guarding Miana's imaginary world from intruders, the most dangerous one being myself. 

These discoveries left me wondering: 

-How can I give adult actors this same freedom to get lost in their imagination?

-When the shoot gets complicated with difficult locations, extras, or complex camera and lighting set-ups... how can I protect the imaginary world of the actors?
Miana Abramson and Sharon Eisman in Pearl Was Here
 Pearl Was Here is premiering at Slamdance this January. Watch it!