As a first-time writer/director, I wanted to make a film that resonated personally with me in as many aspects as possible. As High as the Sky centers around ‘Margaret’, a woman with OCD who is forced to confront the root of it when her estranged sister (‘Josephine’) and ten-year-old niece (‘Hannah’) show up unannounced on her doorstep. While I don’t, unfortunately for past roommates, have the propensity to clean like ‘Margaret’ does, I have struggled with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. I wanted to explore probable causes of these behaviors as well as potential ways to heal. I have experienced my symptoms worsen when I’m working through a particularly difficult time and was interested in examining the ramifications of someone who has never learned to identify, and thus process, her emotions at all. Additionally, and simultaneously, the film explores the complex and diverse relationships among mothers, daughters and sisters.
I wrote the film with Caroline Fogarty (‘Margaret’) and Bonnie McNeil (‘Josephine’) in mind. Both are actresses that I’ve known personally and professionally for years. Caroline works mainly in commercials, Bonnie in theater. I’ve always been drawn to their acting and wanted them to have the opportunity to be leads in a feature film. Having never directed a film before (I had directed small theatrical productions), it was also important for me to work with familiar faces. I studied acting at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting, Los Angeles, as did Bonnie, and thus I was familiar with her process and we were able to communicate using Stella’s technique (creating the character through one’s imagination). Caroline draws more on her personal experiences. Being one of her closest friends, I knew most of what she was using, which also lent itself to comfortable discussions in rehearsals and on set.
My main concern with casting was finding a child actor someone to portray ‘Hannah.’ I really wanted a child who was still a child, a young girl who did not wear make-up or use texting to communicate. She needed to have a naturalness to her physicality as well an ability to reach the depth of the character. At ten-years-old, ‘Hannah’ is in some ways more emotionally mature than ‘Margaret,’ which we see in the scene where they bond over the losses in their lives. We put out casting notices and, between live and taped auditions, I saw over fifty young actresses. I was still undecided on the age of the character as I wanted ‘Hannah’ to be young enough to need a mother figure but old enough to bond on a meaningful level with both ‘Josephine’ and ‘Margaret.’ Laurel Porter came to one of the audition sessions directly from a track and field meet. She was wearing rumpled, uneven pigtails, running socks pulled up to her knees and had little beads of sweat across her nose. I felt an immediate connection to her and was thrilled when she proved to be a very capable actress. Laurel did a call-back session with Bonnie which went very well. They were comfortable together and looked as if they could be mother and daughter. I asked Laurel to come in for a second call-back because she had been so focused during the auditions. I wanted to make sure she still had the playfulness that I envisioned in ‘Hannah.’ Shortly after, I called to offer her the role.
I had always planned on having a long rehearsal process before commencing shooting on my first film. However, as often happens in the indie world, time and money had their own plans and the process became truncated. I was able to meet with Bonnie and Laurel several times and in each rehearsal I could see their bond developing. By the last rehearsal they were playing around as their characters do. Because of time constraints, I chose to forgo having Caroline work with Bonnie and Laurel. Instead, I worked individually with her and used what I assumed would be first-day jitters to each of the actresses’ and characters’ advantage. I requested to shoot the scene where ‘Josephine’ and ‘Hannah’ arrive unannounced at ‘Margaret’s’ house on the first day of shooting. The gamble paid off as anticipation and the energy from the new set flowed into this first awkward scene. Having established character backgrounds and nuances in rehearsals, the actresses were able to respond to their natural nervousness as the characters would. Soon, each actress was comfortable on set and able to adapt quickly to notes and new ideas within each scene.
Our wonderful Director of Photography, Tarin Anderson, and I worked closely in pre-production to establish shots that would help convey the characters’ emotions and tension in the scenes. We used clean lines and framing to enunciate ‘Margaret’s’ obsession with everything being orderly. Dirty over-the-shoulders were used to suggest comfort and closeness between ‘Josephine’ and ‘Hannah’ (and with ‘Margaret’ toward the end of the film). Tarin switched to handheld camera shots during the conflict scenes to amplify their frenetic energies. We utilized the many windows and mirrors in the house to suggest that the characters saw themselves “reflected” in each other. The sparseness of the décor lent to Margaret’s need to keep everything around her in order, and mimicked the emptiness of her emotional life at this time.
The biggest challenge while editing was to keep the pacing tight while allowing for the intimacy of each scene to play out. I asked Laura Fisk, our editor, to first edit the scenes liberally, giving them room to breathe and being indulgent with the special moments. Once we had all the takes chosen and the structure solidified, we went through and began trimming. One of the difficulties with the script was that we don’t see ‘Margaret’ before ‘Michael’ has left her. We aren’t able to see that her OCD has worsened as a result of his leaving. I needed to show that when she encounters something sentimental, she is unable to process what she is feeling and equates her emotions with a need to clean or keep order. I asked Laura to allow for these moments to be poignant in the final cut and to linger on ‘Margaret’ when she is in pain. I feel we were able to find a balance between the emotionality and the pacing.
Working with a composer was a very rewarding experience as it had been the aspect I felt least prepared for. While I enjoy and appreciate music, I don’t feel that I have an “ear” for it and was concerned about my ability to express myself to our composer, Kristen Baum. Kristen quickly and easily put my fears to rest when she explained that I should talk to her as I would actors. That is, I should talk to her in “emotions” and “intent.” I wanted a score that was playful and poignant and Kristen was able to create this. We were able to use live music which heightened the quality of the pieces.
Working with the material through every stage of production was an extreme crash-course in both filmmaking and self-analysis. Constantly required to address ‘Margaret’s’ OCD, I was forced to really reflect on my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Because the situation was stressful, I experienced heightened symptoms but, fortunately, I had an amazing producer to assist me and keep me in check. I met Lena Bubenechik at a film festival in 2010 and exactly one year later we were shooting this film. She helped make the whole process an extremely rewarding and invaluable experience and I am very grateful to her for keeping the project so professional. I don’t think I’ve seen another instance where there has only been one producer on a feature-length film. She single-handedly covered the duties of line producers, associate producers and co-producers, a feat of which I’m still in awe of. I hope to have her attached to all of my future projects.
I am very proud of As High as the Sky and pleased that we had an all-female cast and all-female key crew throughout the production. I am grateful to my cast, crew and supporters and hope that the film is well-received around the globe.