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Interview: Hilary Brougher

Stephanie Daley was a difficult film to make and to watch. The tale of an unwitting teenager who is accused of putting her premature baby in the trash isn’t going to be the “feel-good” movie of the year. But the audience will walk out of this film feeling as if they’ve experienced something profound, no matter their judgment of the main character.

Stephanie Daley was a difficult film to make and to watch. The tale of an unwitting teenager who is accused of putting her premature baby in the trash isn’t going to be the “feel-good” movie of the year.  But the audience will walk out of this film feeling as if they’ve experienced something profound, no matter their judgment of the main character.

This is Hilary Brougher’s sophomore effort and it’s a broad departure from her first sci-fi comedy The Sticky Fingers of Time. The film was brought up through the Sundance labs and championed by Tilda Swinton, who is credited as an executive producer. Shot on HD and a tight schedule the end result is emotional and thought provoking. 
Amber Tamblyn plays an innocently ignorant teenager, who may or may not have known she was pregnant before a horrifying premature birth on a ski trip. Swinton portrays a pregnant criminal psychologist, assigned to Stephanie’s case, having severe reservations about bringing a child into this world. Together the stories propel each other and become an insightful look into unspoken traumas of childbearing.  The film encompasses both the beauty and the morbidity of creating a life.   

Brougher grew up in upstate New York and is a graduate of the New York City School of Visual Arts. She worked in film production for several years before directing her 1997 debut, which earned official selections at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. 

I had a chance to sit down with her in New York.  

Benjamin Crossley-Marra: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Hilary Brougher: Well when I was a little girl, I grew up not far from where Stephanie Daley was filmed in upstate New York.  We never got good television reception but every week we would go to the movies and there was this great art-house right across the river where we would see whatever classic European or underground films were playing. It really blew my mind and opened up my eyes to the other worlds that were out there.  But it wasn’t until I was a teenager and came across the magazine American Cinematographer that I realized it takes a lot of people to actually make movies, work all the equipment etc. I thought maybe I could be one of those people. 

BCM: Were there any directors in particular that you were inspired by? 
HB: When I was a kid it was really Fellini and Kurosawa. Herzog’s Nosferatu was also huge influence on me.  I was only a child but the visuals were very dreamy and even though these are sophisticated films, I think children’s minds still pick up the asthetics.  As I got older and went to film school, I began to appreciate those films for different reasons.  I was also very into Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee because they were really paving the road for new independent cinema. 

BCM: When did the origin of Stephanie Delay come about?
HB: After making The Sticky Fingers of Time, which was farsical and comedic, I wanted to challenge myself to write in a more naturalistic way.  I basically wanted to write a straight drama, specifically concerning a character that had a secret and was leading two lives.  This got me thinking about adolesence and that brought me to concealed pregnancy.  As I was researching I was shocked to find out how much hidden pregnancy occurs and how often it dosen’t make the headlines. I didn’t want to use an actual case, I wanted to make it up.  I didn’t want the audience to know what actually happened, more importantly, I wanted the “not knowing” to be a major component of the film.  That’s where Stephanie came from and as I was researching her story some of my friends became pregnant.  I began to notice that they were going through a difficult time and there were certain things these women were having a difficulty expressing. I really began to see a parallel between them and Stephanie.  That’s how the second part of the story came together. 

BCM: Can you tell me how the film evolved in the Sundance labs?
HB: By the time it got to the labs the film became reality for me.  It helped solve a lot of problems with the script and really helped me face my own anxieties about writing this kind of material.  I think the labs are a solid tool for any filmmaker in need of a development framework, especially independent films with no producers or budgets attached.  Scripts aren’t really meant to be a personal work and the Sundance labs allowed people to come in and really hone the dialogue. 

BCM: Could you explain your aesthetic choices on this film?  The color and atmosphere were astounding for HD.
HB: Well most of the credit has to go to David Morrison our DP because he made a lot of smart choices from the beginning.  We were lucky it was a fairly interior movie and we weren’t hit with high noon too much.  We tried to soften the look a bit and used long lenses to better control the depth of field.  David used a restrictive pallet to earth tones highlighting the naturalism.    

BCM: Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn have a great onscreen chemistry together, could you sense that when you were casting?
HB: Well Tilda and Amber didn’t actually meet until onset, but Tilda is one of the most fun people to work with period.  She’s one of the most interesting people to do anything with, actually.  Both actors brought tremendous energy and power to the set and it’s funny because it was really dark material, but their personalities made for a light set, which I think balanced out some of the darker stuff we had to shoot.    

BCM: Do you think filmgoers will be polarized by Stephanie’s reaction or do you think the film’s emotional journey will bring audiences together?
HB: On some level you can’t help but be brought together by going through the same experience, whether you feel differently about it or not.  That’s one of the things I love about people going to see a movie in a theater, at least if you disagree you went through it together.  I think, however, people will have different experiences and that’s good because I want audiences to bring their opinions and their lives to the film.  I hope people leave talking to each other about it and sharing their opinions. 

BCM: Do you think certain demographics will respond to this film better than others?
HB: I think that film audiences are more complex then that.  I’ve known a quite a few really masculine men who’ve really gotten it and some women I consider intellectual who haven’t.  I wouldn’t recommend everyone go see this film, especially if they’re pregnant.  But I would encourage anyone considering childbirth to give the film a chance.   

BCM: As an independent filmmaker do you feel pressured to move into more mainstream projects?
HB: Economically yes, to be completely frank.  I hope, like some of the best filmmakers manage, to find a balance of both independent and mainstream projects.  It’s hard to make movies like this.  Economically things aren’t set up for personal films so it’s a long, hard haul.  I know it’s a downer but you really can’t survive just doing this. 

BCM: What are some of the next project’s you’re working on?
HB: The next thing I’m really going to try and bring out is a historical film set in Scotland. It’s an adaptation of Margot Livesey’s Eva Moves the Furniture.  I’m also working on my own psychological thriller, which may seem more straight up then Stephanie Daley, but I’m looking forward to how I much I can fill into a genre film.

Regent Releasing releases Stephanie Daley in limited theatres tomorrow April 20th.

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