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Miriam Cutler Talks Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down Score | Interview

The veteran documentary composer discusses composing the music for Gabby Gifford’s inspirational story.

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Some of this year’s documentaries have ranged from unique audio-visual experiences (Moonage Daydream), some straightforward (yet informative) standard documentaries (The Princess), but very few are as emotionally-compelling as Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down — which is available to rent on digital platforms now.

With such heavy subject matter, it can be hard to add any levity to a film like that. Enter, composer Miriam Cutler. Cutler is a seasoned documentary veteran and has worked on dozens of projects throughout her lengthy career. Because of the density of this interview, I’ll keep it short but say that this was a wonderfully insightful chat and we discussed her career leading up to Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down, the changes of the music industry and so much more.


Coastal House Media: Can I start by asking how you got started in this crazy world of composing? Every composer I’ve spoken to has a different story from starting in rock bands or they knew somebody in the industry.

Miriam Cutler: I come from a musical family but nobody was supposed to be [doing it] professionally, so it never even occurred to me to be a professional musician. I just played in bands and had a good time. [I] wrote songs, went to college. When I started, I thought, “Well, I’ll major in music because I love music,” but I hated [musical] theory and I changed my major my very first quarter. I changed to anthropology, but I still kept up my music. I played in ethnic bands and stuff, and I kind of got into playing in bands because I played clarinet among other things. But I was a folk dancer in high school [and] I always loved world music and we’re talking about the 1960s, so, it wasn’t well known back then. And so I was a folk dancer, and then they found out I played clarinet so they got me playing in the band. And I continued that in college and took anthropology. I was jamming with my friends and stuff, but then I became an activist, which all ties into how I ended up in documentaries. I was moving towards a career in either journalism or maybe being a civil rights lawyer or something like that and got very inspired by the women’s movement; it was the second wave. And so after college I was in three bands and one of them was the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. I had my own band and we did a lot of satirical comedy, you know? Political satire and stuff like that.

But Danny Elfman was scouting, he was taking over the band from his brother and he was looking for female musicians and somebody saw me in a club with my band, and so I got an audition and when I walked in, they just handed me a tenor sax and said, “Can you play this?” and I went, “Well, I’ve never played a tenor sax, but I played clarinet.” So I played it and then they sat me down [asked], “Can you do this?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

And then we did some west African music, and I’m also a singer, so it was perfect. Plus, Steve Bartek, the guitar player, [and I] went to college together and we were in ethnic bands together because he loved ethnic music too, so it was really fun. But what happened while I was in that band, my band was more kind of like loose and just fun. And [amongst] these guys, there were some amazing musicians. I mean, Steve [Bartek] is amazing, Sam Phipps, and Danny [Elfman], so I got more serious. All of a sudden I got more interested in music again, and I actually went back and took music courses at Santa Monica College after I had gone to grad school for anthropology. But I got my interest up again and being in such a good band, even though it was very wacky, it was really inspiring to be with such great players. I mean, I practiced all the time. We used to rehearse four times a week. We didn’t even have gigs.

I was in that band for about three years and it got me much more serious about music. But making the switch, after that I had my own band again, and then I was a songwriter.

In the old days you could be a player and you could make a living. You could travel or you could be a studio player. There used to be tons of studios in LA and different orchestras and there were road tours and albums being recorded. So that was considered a working musician and over time that’s really changed.

If you’re wanting to be a working musician nowadays, what that means is you have a little studio and you can make music for media; there’s not that many jobs for players. [It’s] not like it used to be.

One of the fun things about being around so long is I’ve really kind of been with it from the beginning of when it became more [inclusive]. Before that, though, it was more like a small group of elite guys who worked with orchestras and bands and had a gig at the studio. Writing for television [and] writing for film, it was a very different thing in those days. It was kind of elite [and] women weren’t in it very much. So anyway, I put together a little recording studio. At first, I had a four-track cassette, then I had an eight-track [cassette], and then I had a 16-track semi-pro machine and I was writing songs. I used to make a living playing in a band four nights a week, but that went away so musicians are like, “What do we do now? Okay. We’ll write songs. [and] movies,” so that’s what I did. And I had some songs in movies, [but it] really was getting hard to make a living; I was about to give up. [I[, ended up starting a swing band and that was the four nights a week, and what happened was I was playing in my band and somebody came up and said, “Hey, I have a little movie. Would you score it?” and I went. “Me? Score a movie?” So I brought it home and in those days there was no synchronization, so you just looked at the movie and [would] write some music and then the music was edited anyway to make a short story longer. I think I put my hands on the keyboard and looked up and saw the movie, and I went, “Wow, this is really cool.”

I also was a huge movie fan when I was a kid. I watched tons of movies; I just never thought of myself [as a composer]. I thought Bernard Herrmann, Nino Rota, Elmer Bernstein, these are film composers, not Miriam Cutler. Over the next period of time, I started working on stuff and I just really fell into it. A friend of mine was making these really low-budget horror movies for this really terrible company and he’d said, “Do you wanna score my movie?” So I scored it and they loved me and I did about 15 movies.

I could patch together a very nice living, so it was really great. And I did that for about 10 years, [but I did] all kinds of different stuff; I even wrote music for a circus for eight. I was there in residence for 18 years. But then I woke up one day and said, “My God, I’m making music all the time and I’m making my living doing this, but I’m miserable. Will I ever get to work on anything good?” And I thought, “You know, I went to college, I’m really educated, I’m very political, what is going to happen? I can’t do this anymore.” And I really was like, “I gotta stop. Maybe I’ll go back to law school. Maybe I’ll do something else.”

And then I met this guy in 1997 at a screening of one of my kind of mediocre movies. I met this filmmaker named Arthur Dong who, I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a very, very highly-regarded documentary filmmaker. And so he was making this film and he told me about it. And he said he was a gay man and he was making a film [about] these gay men who are in prison for murdering gay men and I thought to myself, “My God, I have to work on this movie. This is so important,” We really hit it off and I worked on the movie and then he took me to Sundance. I didn’t even know about Sundance *laughs* and when we were there, the film was a huge success. It won two awards and I looked in this room and all these people were documentary filmmakers and they were all working on amazing projects. And I thought to myself, “I think I [have] died and went to Heaven. I could actually do what I’m good at and love to do. And it has meaning; people are passionate about what they’re doing. They’re very committed.”

So that’s why I focus on documentaries. I mean, I’ve done it all, but I really focus on documentaries because I consider it sort of an application or a mission; it makes me feel like I can contribute in some small [way] to making the world better.

A still from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment.

CHM: You mentioned Danny Elfman, what was you working relationship like with him?

Cutler: I was in his band, but it was his band. He had a real strong vision and whenever he changed his vision, you just went with it. But what happened was, I think what was really going on was I was always a front person; I was always in charge of my own bands and I’m not really a side man and I think it was just getting harder and harder. I kept feeling like he just wanted to squish me down so I didn’t stand out and I felt like I had to move on because I didn’t care for the material that he was starting to do. The kind of “I like little girl” stuff; I’m too political. You know what I mean? I’m a feminist, so I just couldn’t be involved in that. Even if it’s a joke. So nothing bad about him, it wasn’t for me, it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

CHM: You talked about the way the industry has changed. This is coming from my very mainstream viewpoint, but I’ve noticed how the whole music industry has changed in the way albums are released and put out. Can I get your assessment of this?

Cutler: Yeah, it’s really interesting. I always say technology giveth and it taketh away because when I was around, we just had AM radio. When I first was a kid and then it went to FM and we found underground radio where they played albums on the radio. And we would go to the record store all the time. I remember going to a record store and there’d be four walls and that would be all the records. There’s so much music now. And what’s great [is that] it has been very democratized in the sense that I could put out an album and if it just happens to get picked up by someone, you can have a mega hit and that’s what’s happening with Facebook and TikTok and all that stuff. And so in one sense, it’s really great.

But there was a tactile connection when you would buy a record, you would touch it, you would look at the, you would read everything on the label and especially albums, there was album art and then there were liner notes [that] you could just read over and over and over and learn about the person behind the music and the band and all this stuff. I still have a collection of about a thousand LPs; I don’t even have a turntable, but I can’t bear to give them up. I love taking them out and looking at them. I have some originals, from the 1960s and stuff that I bought when I was a kid or that I acquired, so I think it’s really changed in that when an artist made an album, it was like going to a concert. They laid out [and] created the experience of what they wanted to share with you. They would do an A-side, usually there’d be a concept, and then you turn it over and side B another concept or a continuation.

When cassettes happened, everybody started making their own mix-tapes. Now you’ve got Joni Mitchell next to Grace Jones and you can put everything together, which is very democratizing, but it’s sort of taken away some of the vision of the artist in what they wanted to present to you in its [entirety]. That’s why people like to go to a concert because the artist puts together their rendition of what they want to present. Of course, now a lot of audiences only want to hear hits, and that was also what was so great about underground radio. Before that, you were stuck with hits, all you ever got was the A-side and so you’d buy the 45 for the B-side [and] then you’d go, “Wow, what’s this?”

The music business has turned into a hit [and] star maker [industry]. And there always was that, but then you could also get albums by the old blues guys [and] I have a very large range of taste [as a result]. I like almost all music. I just don’t like “fake” faith music when it’s not authentic [and] coming from the heart or something. But there are some young artists that are quite interesting.

I think Billy Eilish is just a blast from the past. That’s the kind of artist we had regularly. We had a Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro at the same time. I also really love old jazz because I started learning to play old jazz with Danny [Elfman] and those guys, we used to have another band that we played in that played like stuff from the 1930s and 1940s. It’s really wonderful as a musician, especially as a composer to have access to thousands of years of global music that we can be inspired by. And that’s what is really great about nowadays. If I wanted to find music and find out what kind of music they played in [a given culture], I’d have to call every record store in the county and then I’d have to run around and try to find an album. It was so hard and now, the whole world is at your fingertips; it’s quite overwhelming in some ways, but it’s also amazing, like research takes one second. I used to spend weeks trying to find some guys that played [certain] music, or even just to hear what it sounded like. It would take a long time. So in that sense, the technology has giveth and it’s made us a more global world. I think in the end, that may be what saves us; is that we’re all connected through this music and art and clothing.

A still from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment.

CHM: I don’t want to put words in mouth, so correct me if I’m wrong, but you find documentaries fulfilling; you find purpose in them. Could you talk to me about that a little bit more?

Cutler: [Documentaries have had] quite a resurgence. I mean, man, they’re being made like crazy. I think [it’s] because they’re inexpensive to make compared to a big tentpole movie. I think that it’s fun to learn new stuff, and the stories are super compelling. I mean, they’re real-life, so they’re very traumatic.

I’m always learning something, [and] I become an in-depth expert about whales, or an elephant, or a war, or [the] ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I’m always in a new reality with [a] whole different film group and it also helps keep my creativity fresh. Because I’m always working with a different crew and with different subjects, there are different styles of filmmaking, because  within documentary there’s so many ways to go. Especially now with the younger filmmakers, they’ve brought all the wonderful craft of filmmaking into documentaries. For me, I find it extremely challenging; I’m never bored. We [the filmmakers and I] share values and it’s a respectful environment to work in; it’s fair, and it’s because the money is not as big as it is in Hollywood, so it doesn’t attract people that just want to make money. I mean, if you’re making documentaries, there’s much more to it for you. And that’s what I like about it. So in my opinion, what I’ve been able to do by working in the documentary community and being part of it is live an artist’s life but make a living, I don’t do bad, but I also get to live my values. I don’t have to work with anyone [that] I don’t want to work with. I want to work with people I respect and [that] respect me. And so it’s created a lifestyle for me that really has worked; I’m very indie.

CHM: Then let’s talk about Gabby Giffords: Won’t Back Down. I always like to ask this to composers, but can you describe your score in three or less words?

Cutler: Every score is different, and it depends on what the film asks for. Films really tell you and then the director helps you understand what you’re being told sometimes. In this film [Won’t Back Down], I tried to do what the film needed and what the directors envisioned and what it was is that she’s Gabby.

These particular filmmakers, like on RBG as well, they really like to key in on the music that their subject is into. They kind of use that as another part of way of expressing who that character is. RBG was into opera and classical music. And so they used a lot of the music that she would listen to and then my job was to score her. It was like I was to score her personal story. So it was a little more romantic and stuff like that. Gabby loved 1980s rock, which wasn’t even close to my favorite time in rock and roll , but I totally respect it. There were some really great songs in that era and it helped her heal and she would be singing. She couldn’t speak, but the part of the brain that relates to music wasn’t injured, so she could sing full songs with the lyrics even though she can’t put together a sentence.

She’s singing a lot in the film, so they licensed a bunch of songs and my job was to sort of integrate [into] that and also keep a very upbeat feeling as much as possible about a very serious subject, because Gabby is this phenomenally-inspiring person. I mean, she’s just unbelievable. You know, you hear [that] there’s a shooting, some people die and some people live, and then that’s the end of it. You don’t hear what it does to their life, you know? And I think that it’s really important that people understand that after 11 years, she’s still really injured from this experience but she has a spirit that just won’t quit and she’s been an effective lobbyist for gun legislation and stuff.

CHM: Well, that’s a balance that every composer kind of talks about, especially with a documentary where you’re trying not to overstep boundaries, you know? A lot of your music comes in and like personal scenes where she might be like in the hospital or in recovery, so could you talk to me a little bit about how difficult it is as a composer because you’re watching this stuff over and over again and this is kind of a heavy and as I said, it’s hard to watch, right?

Cutler: So my job is to help people. It’s kind of like with the filmmaker, we have to make decisions about how much can the viewer take before they switch it off. You know, you don’t want them to lose [interest in] the film because they can’t watch this because you’re just pushing it too hard. So you find a balance within the pacing within the film where we pick where we’re gonna go “heavy duty” and sometimes no music is better. Because if you do too much, then it’s just too much and you don’t want to lead the audience, you want them to really have the experience unfold for them.

Part of great storytelling is [figuring out] how you unfold the story and keep it interesting and fresh but never pound people with it. I worked on Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, I mean, that was tough, and I’ve done films about global child slavery. So you look for the areas where you can keep it energized, if not positive — I call it neutral — and travel [within the] music.

So did you find it hard to watch?

CHM: I did, yeah. It’s not pleasant to see somebody going through recovery, but it was also inspiring. I thought the score was inspiring.

Cutler: Oh, thank you.

A still from Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down. Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment.

CHM: Was there anything unique within the composition of the music? Perhaps the way you wrote a number or an instrument used.

Cutler: Because I come from a band background, I came to strings rather late. I love combining all kinds of things. I think for this one, there’s a thing that — I don’t know if you recognize minimalist kind of approach to scoring, which is kind of like Philip Glass, but it actually is really effective in documentaries. You can create a lot of turbulence without doing a lot.

And there’s really interesting things you can do with strings rhythmically, creating patterns. You know, we all have our own style of how we do it and so I’ve been kind of leaning towards that cinematic thing more lately, and they wanted a lot of the score to reflect her joy. I wanted it to sound kind of like rural a little bit, but not too rural, you know what I mean?

I happen to love acoustic guitar and I have a wonderful player and he has a guitar, we call it “Spike,” it’s the same kind of guitar Elvis Presley had. A friend of mine saw it for sale at a garage sale — it was all cracked and everything — and it had “Spike” engraved in it.

CHM: What are you most looking forward to audiences seeing in this film?

Cutler: I want them to see hope, because I think if Gabby can have hope and keep trying to make things better with all that’s going on with guns right now, this couldn’t be better timed. I mean, what’s it gonna take? I think if people understand [that] it’s not a movie — you don’t just get shot and then we cut back four months later and you’re better. Here’s a woman, 11 years [later] and the damage is permanent. She can’t come back completely from it. She’s paralyzed [and] she can’t speak. And this is a person with a brilliant mind who was a beautiful communicator. She probably would’ve been a Senator by now. I mean, the country has lost an important voice, you know?

So I think that if people can be inspired by her ability to have hope and also to get this momentum going for real change. I think we’re — Americans — all are so exhausted right now. [This] may be the closest thing was when they had the Dust Bowl and everything in the thirties that happened. But if we want to make it better, we have to try harder.

CHM: Finally, I’ll close out by asking you, can you recommend me and anybody else one of your past films? It can be any of your filmography.

Cutler: Gosh, I mean, I pretty much fall in love with almost every film. I mean, Lost in La Mancha about Terry Gillum is one of my comedy scores. People forget I actually was in a comedy band. I do all the serious work, but I do love it [comedy scores]. It was kind of like a Spanish-tinged, circus-y kind of film score. So I always enjoyed that one.

And, of course, Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is a classic for the history. It really was the first film about Abu Ghraib and Rory Kennedy had tremendous access. I mean, there’s so many wonderful films [such as] Love, Gilda.

I’m working on a film right now about about Shari Lewis and it’s actually another really inspiring story about a woman who was in children’s entertainment, but she was so sophisticated and really the pioneer before Lucille Ball [with] a woman owned and operated entertainment studio — and that’ll be coming out next year.

I did this film called ‘Til Kingdom Come and it was so amazing. Like it was so harrowing. It was about [former President Donald] Trump and the evangelicals and if you’ve ever asked yourself, What is it with Trump and the evangelicals? Why do these religious people care about him? it really told that story and it told how very deep and far it went in terms of the money that was raised and the way he let the ultra-right[winged], Conservative religious into the White House and into Congress. A lot of people in his government were evangelicals, including Mike Pence.


Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down is available to rent on digital platforms now.

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Andrew is an entertainment journalist and film "critic" who has written for the likes of Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, Film Focus Online, /Film and The Hollywood Handle among others. Leader of the Kaitlyn Dever Fanclub.

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Talking Chuck Chuck Baby With Director Janis Pugh

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You may think you’ve seen all of the British working class films however Chuck Chuck Baby brings a new light to the sub genre, giving a voice to small town women. 

We follow the character of Helen who lives with her ex-husband and his new girlfriend and their baby all under the same roof. Then one day her childhood friend and ex-neighbour comes back into town, which leaves Helen to question her life decisions.

I sat down with Janis Pugh Director and Writer to talk about her latest feature film Chuck Chuck Baby. Drawing a lot from Pugh’s personal life, filming it around her childhood hometown this feels very close to the director. 

Chuck Chuck Baby is out in cinemas on 19th July.

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INTERVIEW | Justinian Huang on Crafting a Sensual Saga: Exploring Love and Sexuality in ‘The Emperor and The Endless Palace

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Justinian Huang

Justinian Huang’s debut novel, The Emperor and The Endless Palace, released earlier this year, has captivated readers and critics alike with its expansive narrative and bold portrayal of gay relationships. The book has sparked both acclaim and controversy for its vivid depiction of passionate encounters between two queer Asian men across millennia.

Writing a book is never easy and if you are an Asian writer trying to write Erotica, things might get a little too stressful. However, Huang took this challenge and wrote one of the spiciest novels of the year. Apart from exploring sexuality, it challenges norms and explores themes of love, destiny, and identity through its rich storytelling. Recently, I got a chance to talk to author Justinian Huang and how he stitched a mesmerizing story about love, sexuality, and passion.

Justinian Huang

Justinian Huang (@justinianhuang/Instagram)

Aayush Sharma: Your book masterfully blends sensuality with profound human emotion and a yearning for love and authenticity. How did you achieve this delicate balance?

Justinian Huang: Oh, thank you for the compliment. You know, it’s interesting, I think that when you set out to write something very sensual, because of the way that people are trained to think like, especially if you’re saying, let’s just write something, it’s very sexual, right? Like, I think that sometimes people feel like, Oh, if this book has a lot of sex in it, they say, Oh, it’s just, it’s just porn it can’t have a deep meaning to it. I think the thing about writing about sexuality, and sensuality, it’s one of the deepest things we can write about. Because I feel like the relationships between people it’s undeniable that many of us are sensual beings, and to write about those moments when we collide with someone and fall in love with them. That has often been classified as a romance. And because a lot of women read romance, it’s looked down upon. But to write about such an experience between two people, it’s dipping into the deepest parts of what makes us human. So it’s not hard. If you set out to write something sensual, you are going to write about something very deep.

Huang: You know, especially if you want to explore why those two people are together, why they belong together. And you explore all of the emotions that come with love, sensuality, and sexuality. You know, I always say that when you this might be a bit crass. I apologize. You can censor it if you want. But I always say that when you when you have sex with someone, you’re also dry-humping all their baggage. And what I love doing is I love to write about that baggage. Like, well, what else? It’s not just like two people meeting each other, hooking up, and having a great time. It’s also that their worlds collide, you know, and what’s the messiness that comes with that? So I think that when I set out to write this book, I wanted to not just write, like, I didn’t want to just write about people hooking up, I wanted to write about the aftermath. The messiness that comes when people become vulnerable with each other, physically and emotionally.

Aayush: How long did the journey from initial idea to publication take? Did the concept evolve significantly during this process?

Huang: The book is based on a true story, right? It is that in 4 BC, there was this Chinese emperor, who fell in love with one of the men in his court. And then they both died young and mysteriously, right, he handed his whole kingdom to this boy. So, I always knew I wanted to write about them. Then, I wanted to show that queer Asian people have been around for ages. To this day, there are hundreds of millions of us. I wanted to show that this wasn’t a dusty story and that it’s still relevant to this day. So then I found three other timelines to represent to write, and I just wanted to so the other timelines are in the 1740s in the wilderness of China, and that’s based on a very famous Chinese folktale about an innkeeper who falls in love with a male fox spirit. And then I have a present day which is two young men and present de la bumping into each other at a party.

Huang: Originally, these three stories, these three timelines just ran pay parallel to each other they never intersected. The evolution happened when I was living in Asia, I rediscovered my Buddhist roots and learned about reincarnation. And I thought, What if I just What if the conceit of this book is that this emperor and his lover, their love is so strong that they reincarnate over and over again, trying to find their happily ever after? And that was the evolution of the book when I was like, Oh, I’m gonna reincarnate them and that’s when the book started to take shape.

Aayush: Coming from an Asian background, it’s difficult to write about sexuality. Talking about sex is very, very hard with your parents and even your peers. So, did you feel any kind of pressure while writing this book and thought that you could be taken in a negative light?

Huang: I wrote this book, not thinking would ever be published. It was like a writing exercise for me. You know, in my previous career, I worked with writers every day. However, I wanted to do this project, because one day during the pandemic, I was in lockdown. Anyway, I was in isolation and it was the summer of 2020. I wanted a project and I was just like, I’m going to write this book. Why don’t I try to be a writer, you know, because of that the book became very sexual, for many reasons. One, because I was in isolation, I was kind of lonely. I have always found it so ironic that we Asians, also South Asians, Southeast Asians, and East Asians, tend not to like to talk about sex. But clearly, at least our parents had a lot of it because there are billions and billions of us. We are a very powerful sexual force. But for whatever reason, it’s very suppressed and I wanted to bring it to light, you know, like, when you come out in the West, you feel like you can only view yourself in a sexual context. But often when you come out in the West as a person of color, you are given two options. You can be fetishized, or you can be desexualized. I wanted to write characters who own their sexuality, who enjoy each other sexually, who are swaggering in their sexuality, and who are confident in their sexuality because I feel like you don’t see that very often, especially with queer people of color. So but you know, like I said, it wasn’t like, I had a book deal already. And I knew this is gonna see I’ll see the light of day, I just, it was like a fun experiment. For me that has become very out of control. Because now I’m working on my second book, I quit my job. It’s been a very interesting experience, for sure.

Aayush: While reading the book, I couldn’t put the book down. I finished the book in two to three days.  Additionally, the novel exudes a sultry allure. How do you write romance that feels authentic and avoids being cringeworthy?

Huang: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a lot of Romance Writers, because you know, I’m often put on panels with them, etc. The advice they what they had told me is that when you write about sexuality, someone’s always going to cringe because like I said earlier, everyone has their baggage when it comes to talking about sex. So you’re not going to please everyone you might as well just write for yourself and the people who get you will get you. I’m glad you didn’t find it cringe-worthy, but for instance, like when it comes to my book, there, there was some discussion online about my use of fruit to describe body parts like I like peaches and plums. My thing about that is that it’s historically accurate, that in ancient Chinese erotica that exists, it was very common to use fruits as metaphors for body parts. So you know, like it’s one of those things that if you as a writer want to cross the spicy barrier if you want to write about human sensuality and sexuality, you’re just gonna have to accept that people are going to respond strongly to it. Because you know, America is a puritanical society so people have a lot of people have a lot of hangups about sex, so you might as well just write what thrills you and my sex scenes.

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INTERVIEW | Breaking Taboos: Julia Aks and Steve Pinder Talk ‘Jane Austen’s Period Drama’

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Julia Aks and Steve Pinder at Tribeca Festival (Photo Credit: @jaksicle/Instagram)

It is quite unfortunate that periods and menstruation are still considered to be TABOO. Throughout history, menstruation has often been shrouded in mystery and misinformation. In many ancient cultures, menstrual blood was viewed as dangerous or unclean. However, these misconceptions have been passed down through generations, leading to myths that pain menstruation is in a negative light. Over the years, we have seen a lot of movies and TV shows trying to tackle this issue and starting a conversation regarding it. Joining the bandwagon is a brilliant short film called ‘JANE AUSTEN’S PERIOD DRAMA’. Director by Julia Aks and Steve Pinder, the film talks about periods in the most entertaining way possible.

Set against the backdrop of Georgian England, the film opens with a comically unconventional twist: Miss Estrogenia, played by Julia Aks, receives her long-awaited marriage proposal, only for it to be humorously interrupted by the untimely arrival of her period. What happens next is a candid exploration of womanhood, love, and societal expectations. There are a handful of projects that have tackled the subject so beautifully, and Jane Austen’s Period Drama is one of them. I recently got a chance to watch the film at this year’s TRIBECA FESTIVAL and talk to Julia Aks and Steve Pinder about the film. The duo opened up about how they came up with such a quirky title and what Jane Austen means to them.

Julia Aks

Julia Aks in a still from ‘Jane Austen’s Period Drama’ (Photo Credit: Mickwick Productions)

Aayush Sharma: From a singer to an actor and now a director, how’s your journey been in the entertainment industry and does everything still feels surreal to you? 

Julia Aks: Well, the journey itself has been relatively organic, which I’m very thankful for. I’ve loved performing. Since I was a kid. I’ve done a lot of theater, I started in the theater. So translating that into film felt very natural. And I’ve been singing since I was a kid. At a certain point, my parents said, you know, maybe we should get her some singing lessons. And I don’t know if that’s because I sounded so bad at the time, or they wanted to foster my talent, I don’t know. S, I’ve always loved doing it and singing, and performing. And acting was a very natural profession for me to go into because I loved it. Since childhood, I have always been creating videos and working on small projects. My parents supported me in every way they could. If I wanted to use the family video camera, they would let me. However, I started directing and producing more seriously later on, as performing came so naturally to me from an early age.  So I kind of pursued that. But I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few people along the way that I clicked with, such as Steve is obviously at the top of that list at this point, because he was the one who, on the first project that we worked on together, I was just an actor. But he was the one who inspired me to try to do a Julie Andrews impression. I’d never tried to do that before, I’d never tried to combine all of the things that I had loved and all of the things I was pursuing, the classical singing the acting, the comedy, it was him and that short film that he cast me and that inspired me to try to do all the things at once. Then, from there, I’ve just been very lucky in a couple of ways with obviously ‘Seven Rings’ going viral and that really kind of inspired me to try to create my stuff and step into more of a directorial role more seriously. And then with Jane Austen’s Period Drama, this is the first time you know, really, honestly, fully stepping into narrative filmmaking as a director and as a co-director and co-writer.

Aayush: Now, Jane Austen is such a popular figure and even in today’s world, she is being quoted or talked about? What makes her so relatable and why her work intrigues you guys? 

Steve Pinder: She’s a feminist writer, you know. Even in her day, she’s writing from the point of view of women, and very thoughtfully about where women are in society and where they could be. You see it in all of her characters. And what else? I don’t know, I think there’s something in that messaging, and in that work, that’s timeless. I mean, there’s something about where women feel they are and where they want to go, and all the things that are holding them back, you know, all the social constructs that aren’t allowing them to get to where they want to be. I just think that she saw all that. So you could like see the matrix of it, you know, and yeah, I think we’re still drawing on it, we’re still still telling the same stories in some ways.

Aayush: The most fascinating part of the short film is its title. ‘Jane Austen’s Period Drama’ is such a fantastic name, but it is also very interesting. Because if no one reads about it, no one would get to know that does “PERIOD” mean here. How did you guys come up with such a peculiar name?

Julia: Well, I grew up with a father who likes to tell a lot of very, very silly jokes. Such as, like, he likes puns, and wordplay, and double meanings. So, I think his sense of humor has always been a big part of my sense of humor. So, in 2019, when I was doing a lot of YouTube stuff, and doing a lot of sketch comedy, and Steve and I really started collaborating as directors for the first time, Steve also likes all those kinds of jokes, which is very handy as a duo. It actually was the title that came to me first, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s funny. What if it was a period drama about periods?’ And it was just supposed to be a very small sketch that we would probably write together and probably direct together, like maybe three minutes long. But the more I started writing it alone, the more I started researching the idea, it became really clear early on that there was actually more in this topic, the topic being menstruation. To talk about that was actually really relevant and there might be more than just a comedic sketch to it. So I just kept writing and kept writing and kept writing and it turned into this very long thing. That was supposed to be maybe a web series at a certain point. But Steve, I found myself going back to Steve time and time again, for feedback, for notes, for jokes. And it was really him who encouraged me and eventually, us to take this very, very silly title, and turn it into a long-form movie. So we’ve written the feature-length script of the idea. This short film is sort of a piece of that big feature script, adapted into a short film that stands alone, but it’s also can be seen as part of the bigger project. So it did start with a very funny title.

Julia Aks and Steve Pinder (Photo Credit: Mickwick Productions)

Aayush: What research did you conduct to accurately portray the societal attitudes toward menstruation and women’s health in England during 1813?

Steve: We definitely did a lot of research on menstruation and where the conversation is today. Like Julia reached out to a group of female-identifying opera singers and asked for all you know, like, whatever stories that they want to tell about, did they have any menstruation stories that they wanted to share? So we got a lot of anecdotal information from people, generally today. But then we also did a pretty good bit of research, trying to find out more about what was happening with the conversation around menstruation in Jane Austen’s time. There’s surprisingly little history, like recorded history about it because it was talked about so little. But there’s a lot about how women were treated, how their emotions were treated, and how men used women’s reproductive health as a method of oppressing them. Like, you know, if women were experiencing premenstrual symptoms, men could use those symptoms and, and, and use that to declare a wife hysterical or something like that.

Julia: And get them committed to asylums in some part. It’s there’s still a part of all that, that we see that today it’s the very kind of cliche, you know, Angry Wife or irritated wife and it’s easy for some people to write women off by saying, ‘Oh, it’s just hormone’. So there are remnants of that very much still in, at least of me in American society, but also globally, there are varying degrees of attitudes about menstruation and what that means and what that means for women.

Aayush: Julia, unfortunately, there’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding periods even now. Women and men don’t know what to do and how to talk about it. This film can once again be a conversation starter about a topic that has been there for centuries. But why do you believe that talking about it is still considered to be taboo? 

Steve: I think shame is contagious. And we communicate shame to our younger generations through our body language. So until we collectively raise our consciousness level, about what’s happening, and until we have enough sort of mass education about it, we just continue to pass down our shame. You know, and that’s the thing that’s so hard to overcome because shame makes you not want to talk, it makes you not want to discuss the subject that makes you feel ashamed. You know, it keeps it all inside. So I think there’s, I just think we haven’t yet risen to that level of discussion where every, you know, collectively, we overcome those feelings.

(Photo Credit: @jaksicle/Instagram)

Julia: I think also, because a very formative moment, in young women’s lives is the first time you get your period. I mean, it is physically, emotionally, spiritually, like, a moment. And because we’re so young, especially now, like back in Jane Austen’s days, they would get their first periods when they were like 16-17, which is still quite young. But now we’re at like, 13-12 or even 11. You’re so young, it’s such a vulnerable experience that how you address it is very much dictated by the people and the adults around you. So if we have mothers or fathers, for example, who have learned it, whose attitudes come from their previous generation, because attitudes come from their previous generation, it just gets passed down and down and down. I have a friend who told me about the first time she got her period, her mom didn’t want to talk about it, and she kind of like, put my friend in the bathroom, kind of like threw a pad or a tampon, it would probably pad its first period. Threw a pad in there, shut the door, and was like, ‘Okay, deal with it. And we’re just not going to talk about it’. And that’s, that’s now you know what I mean? So but that’s just her mom’s learned behavior from like her mom’s learned behavior. So I think then it becomes it’s, it becomes a barrier to overcome. If you’re taught that it’s shameful from the moment that it happens. In order to feel comfortable talking about it, you have to overcome this initial experience as opposed to someone sitting you down, whether it’s Mom, Dad, friend, or chosen family, and saying, ‘Okay, this is you know, treating it like something normal, natural to be celebrated’. I mean, there are indigenous cultures in America for whom this is like a communal celebration, you know, it’s, we can choose how we address it culturally. We have for centuries chosen to make it something shameful. So we’re arguing that we can now choose to do something different.

Aayush: What was the inspiration behind those weird names given to the characters?

Julia: Utter silliness. (laughs) We have a long list of, well, obviously, in the the longer version, there’s more characters, there’s more names, but we still even with that have a very long list of very silly names that have yet to be used somewhere that I don’t know when we would use them. But we had a, we had a lot of fun coming up.

Aayush: Can you discuss how you crafted the dialogue in the scene where Julia’s character tells Mr. Dickley about periods? To both maintain the period authenticity and highlight the comedic misunderstanding?

Julia: We were very conscious about it because we wanted to do a lot of things as writers in that scene. We wanted to address the educational aspects of it. We wanted it to feel really natural in the story, we did not want to be preachy about it at all. We wanted to make it funny, and we wanted it to mean something. So, we had a lot of drafts is the answer to your question. (laughs) You know, and we would one of the joys of being a part of a duo is we can both bounce ideas off each other throughout the process. There were drafts that I wrote, where I was like, this is it, this we need to educate people and Steve was like, it’s coming off like too educational and not enough about the characters and their journey. So then we did another version, where it was more about the comedy and more about the narrative, but I was like, I think we really should keep some of these ideas in here. In terms of menstruation itself. It’s just the feet. I mean, it’s heartening to hear that you think it did all those things because we tried very hard to find the right balance.

Jane Austen Period Drama

A still from ‘Jane Austen’s Period Drama’ (Photo Credit: Mickwick Productions)

Steve: I don’t even think that we nailed it on set. I think it was partly in the edit that we had to lift some stuff and reorganize how sort of the structure of it, like it did kind of come together just over time, over a long time.

Aayush: The film premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival and was a part of TRIBECA as well. How has the festival circuit been for you and the film?

Julia: The festival journey has been deeply satisfying. Particularly because we made a comedy. It needs an audience. Hopefully, an audience of strangers who won’t give you pity laughs like your friends lovingly will sometimes. So experiencing this film, in particular with this subject matter, like on the big screen with hundreds of people who didn’t know us before this and hearing them cackling and laughing, has just been the best. It’s been great. Amazing.

 

 

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