She's worked on films like The Truman Show and Gangs of New York and mentored with directors Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard, but early in our interview filmmaker Aloura Charles assures me that she doesn't buy the old "it's who you know" cliché.
Still, before we get off the phone, she revises that claim. To make it in independent film, she says, you can't do it alone: you need your own drive and desire, but also a team of teachers, advisers, investors and other "film angels."
She certainly could have added that even with all of the above, your stuff has to be good. And evidently, the Indie Spirit Film Festival's organizers think enough of Charles' work to name her a "Featured Filmmaker" and to show three of her films at the fest including Reservations, a drama examining the intersecting lives of strangers in a New York hotel.
Visit indiespiritfilmfestival.org for a schedule of Charles' films and Q&A sessions.
Indy: First of all, congratulations on being chosen as a featured filmmaker.
AC: Thank you. It's quite an honor ... I've never been to Colorado Springs.
Indy: I understand that Reservations is your second feature film. Is that right?
AC: Well, it's my first proper feature. My very first feature was actually a micro-budget film — like $16,000 — and it was shot in digital running around Europe with little Handycams. This one was shot on film, by our very talented DP and crew, on Super 16 ... I've had feedback from my mentors, who gave me notes as I was editing, and they just couldn't believe we made the film for such a modest budget — under $1 million.
Indy: Considering it was your first "proper" feature, you wove together an impressive number of characters and storylines. What made you decide to take on that kind of storytelling format?
AC: Originally it was a feature that was structured as three shorts together. And then as we started rewriting, the story of the flight attendant and the actor on the ledge sort of became the golden thread that wove the other stories all together ... And it became apparent that it was going to work better as a nonlinear film because we wanted to drift in and out of these people's lives and their rooms ...
It was always about loneliness and how it's a common thing we deal with in different ways ... so that motif and that feeling of being sort of disconnected from the world really worked.
Indy: On Reservations you're credited as the writer and director. How challenging is it to have perspective on your work when you're juggling multiple roles?
AC: That is an interesting question, and I can speak to it better now than I could when I actually wrote Reservations because I've been making a living as a script doctor and script revisionist here in Hollywood for the last two years ... and you're a little less delicate with the material because it's not yours ...
A lot of first-time or less-experienced directors fall into the trap of being threatened by people's suggestions or questions or advice. And that was one of the things I learned by working with the two amazing mentors that I did — Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese. Especially Ron, he was so open-minded he's even willing to take ideas from interns. (Laughs.)
When I was interning with him I had this little funny gag I suggested when the actors were rehearsing — I didn't really know the rules at that point, and I'm sure a lot of directors would have said "Get back in the trailer and get my coffee," but Ron's not that kind of a guy — and he worked it into the gag and it wound up in the movie.
Indy: That's an amazing thing to see, I'm sure. How was Scorsese to work with? Did he have a different style?
AC: Definitely, a different style. (Laughs.) He's done so many films he's not quite as relaxed on set as Ron is. He's very driven and focused, and he's a genius so he's always trying to make sure that the shot he's designed is going to come together the way he wants it to — even though he knows how he's going to edit the film in his head already. He's a perfectionist.
But he's also great because he knows so much about film history. You'll be standing next to him and he'll say, "For this shot I originally got the idea because I was watching this other film that was made in 1946 with this actor who's also in that movie and I thought it would work great here, because what we're trying to do was also in this film in 1952. Did you see that one?" It kind of makes you feel like an idiot. He's a film encyclopedia.
Indy: Sometimes out here in Colorado we feel like we're in the middle of nowhere between New York and Hollywood. So how does someone land a job with a director of that reputation?
AC: Well, with Ron — he'll probably kill me for telling you this — but I basically started writing him letters back in high school because I admired his work. I sent him my student films when I was in film school, and sent him a film school T-shirt and said, "Hey, I want to come work for you." ... Things are a bit different now — with the accessibility of the Internet, you have to be a lot more guarded — but I was just hand writing letters and sending them.
Eventually, I got the opportunity to interview as an intern for EdTV and I came out here to California from Tallahassee, Florida, to work for him ...
And with Marty, when I was working on EdTV, I started asking around to see what people were doing next ... and a costume designer named Rita Ryack was doing a movie called Bringing Out the Dead with Marty in New York. So I asked, "Do you think I could interview to be his set PA?" And she said, "Well, he's pretty particular. I don't know, but here's the information if you want to send your résumé over." So I did and they called me for an interview ... and I wound up getting the job, much to my surprise.
Indy: You refer to Mr. Scorsese as "Marty." Did you ever slip and call Ron Howard "Opie"?
AC: No, no, no, no. (Laughs.) You don't do that. You don't call him Ronnie. Everybody calls him Ron. He is just such a great guy.
Indy: I know you're also bringing some shorts to the fest ...
AC: I love old black-and-white films. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story is probably my ultimate favorite movie, and His Girl Friday with its back-and-forth snappy dialogue. I love those ... and I wanted to try that kind of thing. So my short Hold was kind of playing with the whole Pillow Talk, Rock Hudson-Doris Day, split screen idea, and also trying to use the snappy dialogue from those earlier movies in the '30s and '40s.
Indy: So what makes a good short for you?
AC: A good short is short. Honestly, I'm kidding, but I'm not. There are just so many shorts at festivals and film school graduations that are just sooo long. And for me, 20 minutes is not a short, that's nearly a pilot or something. For me — especially with a comedy — you've got to get in, make 'em laugh, get out.