Paula Rhodes Shares the Secrets of Writing, Directing, and Starring in Delicate State
Indie Film Junction | November 7, 2021
Indie Film Junction | November 7, 2021
Paula Rhodes joined us to talk about making a feature with minimal crew and gear, resourcefulness, and how much of the film takes shape in post-production.
IFJ: Congratulations on your feature directorial debut Delicate State! Can you tell us what it’s about?
PR: Thank you! This film is definitely a labor of love (pun intended) shot over the course of my actual pregnancy as we document our impending parenthood in an alternate timeline where the US breaks out in civil war. When we started in 2015 (hey, post production takes longer when juggling little humans) I had no idea how close it would veer toward straight documentary, but I certainly think the world could use this film baby of mine now more than ever.
IFJ: What was the inspiration for the film?
PR: Initially, it was a way to keep my creative sanity as my belly grew and auditions dwindled. My husband suggested I just make my own film one day and I ran with it. I looked around at what we had resource and talent-wise and what was occupying my heart and mind most at the time, and a plan emerged.
Obviously motherhood was rather high on the list for me and I was realizing, as someone who had enjoyed the luck of good health until then, that my own mortality was looming large for the first time. I mean, we all know women who have had traumatic or tragic pregnancy and birth experiences, all of us. Women of color are more than twice as likely to face those issues. And that’s WITH our functioning (if unequal) health care system. So there I was facing my own realization that I was living through a riskier era in my own life than I’d ever experienced, and how women the world over were facing the same and far worse in areas torn apart by war. I mean, toward the end there, had I needed to run for my life I had to admit that I wouldn’t have been able to. It changes your perspective a bit.
While pregnancy and birth aren’t the main causes of death for women here any longer, they still are in some places. The world still sees around 800 of these deaths a DAY, and in 2017 the WHO found the US was one of only 2 countries that had maternal mortality rates that were getting worse since 2000.
Couple that with the fact that (again, as far back as 2015 when we began) I really started to notice the term “civil war” being tossed around social and mainstream media, and my journalism degree, and humanity, were horrified to see how little responsibility for the national dialog those using it seemed to have. Some seemed to be cheering it on breathlessly, or daring it, or threatening it, with zero regard for that would mean.
This isn’t a video game. There’s no “winner” in that scenario. How would you even identify your “enemies” (as some seem determined to paint fellow citizens)? As someone who was currently realizing she was in the category of those who feel war’s sting first and worst, I wanted to humanize what this call for war would mean, especially for those who aren’t civically engaged as our characters aren’t. Ignoring things can let the crazies drive the bus.
IFJ: You wrote, directed, and starred in the movie, which shot over the course of your pregnancy. What was your strategy to take on and balance so many responsibilities?
PR: I did! And my hope is that seeing I was able to scramble over this bonkers hurdle can serve to empower others out there to go after their “impossible” goals. In a related note, I will SO appreciate having a crew in the future, ha!
At the time, my strategy was to largely jump right in and just keep swimming/rolling with punches as they came, being as pregnancy and the state of our nation were so unpredictable. We didn’t have a script, but rather a constantly evolving post-it note collection.
Honestly, having teammates in my husband, Charlie Bodin, who is so talented in various areas and was game to try on whatever hats I wasn’t wearing, and Rachael Henry, our editor, who leveled up our game at every turn and filled in my blindspots, were what made any scrappy drive I had move forward.
IFJ: How long did you shoot for and over what period of time?
PR: We began filming when I was about 8 weeks pregnant, and we shot all the way through our son’s birth, when inspiration struck and time allowed, with some key pick-up shots over the course of our surprise second pregnancy in 2017. Then, as editing chugged along, we’d grab transition shots if needed or run out to grab footage of the wild events happening around the country that had been until then just been brainstormed ideas for VFX (a perk of having such a micro-crew but rather scary to see so much of my brainstorm from 2015 become reality), with the last shot being one of empty shelves we grabbed just as covid hit.
IFJ: What equipment did you use to shoot the movie?
PR: We shot on a Samsung NX1 which is a lovely dummy-proof 4k camera, and we had 2 borrowed lavs and an H4n for sound, a very basic set of 3 cowboy lights and a lot of how-to youtube videos.
A lot of the polish in this film comes in post. Beyond Rachael’s impressive skills, I’m so thankful to have folded in the talents of my voiceover community, of Rob Gokee’s music, of Jared Hoy’s color grading and correction, of KO Creative’s sound design, and in the magic that is David Mattey’s VFX.
IFJ: It’s been said that your cast doubled as crew. Did you employ the Ed Burns production methodology? What were the pros and cons of shooting that way?
PR: For production, yes, Charlie and I wore all the hats and our micro post-production crew leveled us up.
While still a micro-budget funded by our own wallets, the To.Get.Her Award that covered VFX from The Chimaera Project (a fantastic organization that supports female identifying filmmakers), and a small successful crowdfund, we were not as micro as Ed boasts. But we were similarly scrappy and resourceful at using what we had on hand, utilizing favors where available, and employing every trick my years of webseries producing had taught me.
Pros: we could shoot at the drop of a hat, chase events as they happened or as inspiration hit, and get as many takes as we wanted in some cases.
Cons: film is so collaborative and I missed having more magic and brainpower in the pot as well as the certainty of a script and pre-production. I had to climb so many learning curves without sacrificing the hats I was comfortable wearing already. I’m keenly aware of all the areas it could have been better with specialists handling each role. And any time a budget is tight it adds challenges and stress, but it can force creative solutions that end up being wonderful as well.
This film is a unique beast. I’m proud of her.
IFJ: What did you learn from making Delicate State that you wish you knew going into production?
PR: Well, I’ve learned what deliverables are, for festivals as well as for distributors, and will certainly keep that checklist in mind when organizing all future film paperwork to streamline the process and not make it a mad-dash when a deadline is on the table, as well as when budgeting, ha!
IFJ: How did you get into filmmaking?
PR: I always wanted to be a storyteller. I loved writing, acting, all the various ways we’ve branched off from just telling tales around the fire. I really took the leap of faith in myself though when I entered a pageant as a joke in college and ended up winning, turning the crown into a series of internships in NYC where I got a peek into how others were making dreams a reality. From there I moved to New York. I started acting, then producing, and honestly it wasn’t until I’d already directed a handful of award-winning shorts and series and had enough footage to cobble together a directing reel that I realized I also love filling that role. Silly, I know. But now, I aggressively push back against that pick-a-lane mentality and just embrace whichever opportunity in whichever of my various capacities I find comes up next in the queue.
IFJ: Filmmakers have various goals when making their first feature film. Did you set out to make Delicate State with a specific objective?
PR: I guess I had three objectives.
Perhaps selfishly, I wanted to keep working/not lose that creative part of my identity that can get lost in transition phases of life and to fully step into that Directing title.
I also wanted to empower others to strive for their goals – if I can do this pregnant, sans crew or script, I hope it helps them rethink their possibilities.
And I wanted to humanize what letting these threats of civil war fester could lead to, especially for those, like my characters, who didn’t even engage in politics.
IFJ: Did you have a formal festival strategy, and what do you think filmmakers need to be thinking about to leverage festival screenings and awards to maximize a film’s prospects?
PR: Well, when I started out I did, but then as I finally got a picture lock years later, and a wonderful opportunity to debut at a special screening The Chimaera Project and Slamdance were putting on, the world shut down. As with everything, we rolled with the punches and took the time to polish up post. I’m so glad we did. Though my strategy shrunk drastically to focus primarily on fests I wouldn’t need to travel much for in this pandemic era, and ones I had previous experience with, I still got to premiere at one of my favorite fests, Dances With Films here at the famous Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and we ended up winning the Audience Choice Award!
In general, as long as you have some budget left for festivals, I found it good to focus on festivals and cities my cast or I had ties to. If you can get butts in seats it helps. Only submit to ones you’d want to go to as the real benefit lies in the connections you make while there. There are so many festivals now, but they each focus on different areas. Find the ones that fit your film’s genre and size, write good cover letters that pitch what you bring to the table for them, and make sure your poster and trailer are solid.
IFJ: Did your acting experience inform how you approached writing and directing?
PR: It’s all storytelling. My on-set experience certainly has given me some wonderful insight into how a good team works vs a rocky one, how to take care of your crew and cast, what works well in different situations, and what can help vs hurt morale. There’s always so much more to learn, but I’m really thankful that I have some experience in so many different positions as it helps me understand what I can do to help each of those departments thrive.
IFJ: Were there any production obstacles that forced major changes on set or during post-production?
PR: We were sort of a series of never-ending obstacles, ha!
From broken lav wires, orders for replacements that didn’t arrive on time, pregnancy complications requiring modified bed rest that subbed an action-scene idea to something we could do in the few remaining days of our pregnancy, to covid canceling our debut and requiring remote ADR sessions, and google docs being heavily relied on rather than just sitting next to our sound designer and hashing things out… we did what all film-parents do, we found a way to make it work.
IFJ: Do you have a marketing and distribution strategy for Delicate State?
PR: Official announcements on that will be coming soon!
IFJ: What’s next for you?
PR: I’m off to my hometown for St. Louis International Film Fest this month! Then a few more fests in the pipes as well as an exciting announcement soon on how others can see Delicate State.
I also just won Best Screenplay at LA Femme Film Fest and made Second Rounder at Austin Film Fest with a script called The Last Book that I wrote with the amazing Tara Platt, Beverly Hynds-Prior, and America Young. We look forward to making this female-driven dystopian fantasy.
Acting-wise, I have a film I got to shoot a small scene in with my son Lincoln coming out called To Leslie, some more Polly Pocket adventures, some convention appearances in the works with our Resident Evil team, and some NDA’ed stuff that will be exciting when it can be. I absolutely love the magic of stories and how they can change hearts to change minds and grow whole communities around fandoms. 9-yr-old me still can’t believe I get to do this for a living sometimes.
IFJ: Where can people find you online to stay up to date on all your projects?
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and lovely interview.
Director Paula Rhodes
Runtime 89 min
Shot over the course of their actual pregnancy with cast doubling as 2-man crew, Paula and Charlie document their impending parenthood during a time of extreme political division. Their heads remain in the sand about the greater world around them until it upends their privileged life. Now they face a situation Instagram never prepared them for, but that women all over the world face daily - bringing life into a country torn apart by war.More