Interview: Heather Rae (Producer – ‘Magic Valley’)

Magic Valley‘, writer-director Jaffe Zinn’s atmospheric vision is a ruminative look at a bored and numbed town on the verge of a wake-up call. His keen voice also speaks profoundly to the disconnection of community and the decline of morale in a struggling recession-worn American society. Paced and shot with restrained elegance, highlighting a standout performance by rising talent Kyle Gallner, Zinn’s Magic Valley strives to capture who and where we are before the next defining moment happens.

TJ Waggs, a high school student living in the small town of Buhl, Idaho, carries the burden of a terrible secret on his shoulders. And he’s not the only one having an off-day: A local fish farmer confronts a selfish neighbor that has carelessly poisoned his crop, the shifty county sheriff neglects his duties and uses his patrol car for his own personal gain, and a mom is too busy fussing over the family dog to notice her missing daughter. To make matters worse, two preschoolers playing in the fields have chosen an unusual playmate—one who is the common thread linking all these characters together.

We spoke with Producer Heather Rae in anticipation of the film’s iTunes and VOD release about her own path as a creative producer, the filmmaking community in Idaho and how to navigate the film festival circuit efficiently.

Buy or Rent ‘Magic Valley’ on iTunesHERE

How did you come to be a producer in independent film?
I grew up in the mountains in Idaho in a very rural way.  For many years we did not have electricity or running water.  The nearest theater was 75-100 miles away so I did not grow up with television or film like a lot of people do.  I came into film in a different way.  Upon graduating college I moved to Los Angeles and started working in the industry as a coordinator with a Japanese production company who made music videos and TV commercials.  I learned the ranks of production there and is something I am thankful for.  I learned that maturations of what it means to make a movie.

Then I started working for Sundance and was the first person to run the Native Indigenous program, which is now run by my good friend Bird Runningwater.  I spent six years developing the program and being a part of the Sundance Institute on the feature program side, working in collaboration with Michele Satter and working on the programming team with Geoff Gilmore.  Those years at Sundance were really wonderful in terms of my development as a producer.  I am eternally grateful for what I learned from Michelle and Geoofe in terms of understanding a story and understanding cinema.  As a producer, part of what you are doing is having a relationship with the filmmaker about there story, ultimately supporting and developing that story until it is the best story it can be; then supporting it and executing.

As a creative producer how do you find the interaction with the other creative people involved with the film?  Has your experience changed at all since the success of  ‘Frozen River’?
I look at the work as all being based in relationship.  Film is the one medium within the arts that is entirely collaborative.  You really cannot do it on an island. You have to be in collaboration with people.  When there is more structure in place the job more machine-like.  Working in the low budget, independent space you have to be on your feet constantly.  You have to create things out of nothing.  It makes things more kinetic and dynamic.

Jaffe Zinn and I are from Idaho.  He is from Buhl, where the film is set.  It is the trout farming capital of the world.  Over the years, my husband and I, were very engaged in the filmmaking community in Boise. We worked at the film festival and a documentary for ESPN on Boise State Football.  I was certainly familiar with Jaffe’s work.  I knew his work and was always tracking what he was doing since I was always looking for talented people coming out of that community.  At some point in time he approached me with the script to ‘Magic Valley‘, which at that time was called “Saturday” since it all takes place in one day.  I knew his shorts and knew he was going to produce a good movie.  He is talented, committed and studied as a filmmaker.  Like von Trier or Bela Tarr, his style is very European.  It sets the film apart, which is good since people are always looking for something different.

Magic Valley

The film has a striking look, utilizing a slow and personal camera with wide angle landscapes.  Why was Sean Kirby your choice for Director of Photography?
From having seen ‘Police Beat‘ and ‘Zoo‘ and knew he had a relationship with other Northwest filmmakers, including Jaffe.  Jaffe’s work is very picturesque.  It is about composition.  He frames everything in a way that allwos everything in the scene to come alive.  The first time we met about the project he said how he felt Sean Kirby should shoot the film and I agreed.  It was great that he was available and traveled out to Idaho.  We all were in Twin Falls for a month and a half.

What sort of influences did you and the team draw from for the look of ‘Magic Valley’?
That is a question best answered by Jaffe.  I know his influences are in filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Bela Tarr.  His influence is in the land, as in the place itself telling the story.  The politics of land versus water and a lot of other very real things going on.  The land up there is extraordinary, which is one of the reasons it was named “Magic Valley“.

How did you come about young star Kyle Galner?  His work in the film is a standout role.Kyle was attached to another film I had worked on.  He went on to do ‘The Haunting in Connecticut‘ so could not end up doing the film, but I was familiar with him.  Moore & Booring casting provided a whole process of auditions and Kyle was one who came in.  He was great and everyone agreed.  He internalized the temperament for that character.

Magic Valley

‘Magic Valley’ is being released on iTunes and VOD via FilmBuff.  How much mind do you pay to distribution, especially as the landscape of independent film changes towards the digital side?
That is a great question.  We shot the film a few years ago this was all just at the brink.  It was the first film for me that I did not sell in a more traditional context.  ‘Frozen River‘ and ‘The Dry Land‘ were more conventional distribution.  ‘Magic Valley‘ was really an education in getting up to speed with the way the world is changing and is still changing.  I spoke with someone this morning who put his film on VOD and it opened theatrically two months later, which is great.  There are all kind of things happening.  This was not the way we were initially thinking about ‘Magic Valley’, but once it came we thought it was great; especially for the actors television following.  The reality is if you have actors with a following on the small screen you will find a following for the movie on a small screen.  This model is changing what kind of movie people see at the theater.

Magic Valley

The film played at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2010.  What advice would you give to a young producer or filmmaker who has a finished film and wants to submit to a top level festival?
You do it in such a way that you do what is expected.  You do the official submission, of course, but you also find a way to make a connection with somebody on the programming team because they are looking at so many moves.  There were over 12,000 submission to Sundance this year and I recall, in the late 90s, there were 1200 submissions.  What went from being a 10% acceptance average is now 1%.  The other thing i would say is to really know who your audience is.  Submit a film to the festivals it makes sense to submit to.  If you study their program over the course of a year then you know who your audience is.  Sending someone to a festival is really by design to showcase emerging independent film, it makes no sense to send something mainstream.  Doing one’s homework is really important.

– Interview Conducted & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson

About Heather Rae
Heather Rae was recently named one of Variety’s Ten Producers to Watch. She produced Frozen Riverwhich premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, won the Grand Jury Prize and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.  Additionally she produced Ibid, starring Christian Campbell which premiered at the 2008 South By Southwest film festival and internationally at the Munich Film Festival where it was nominated for the prestigious CineVision Award.  Rae also produced The Dry Land starring America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, Jason Ritter, and Melissa Leo, which was financed and will be released by the newly formed Maya Entertainment.  Previously Rae ran the Native Program at the Sundance Institute and was a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival.  After leaving Sundance in 2001 she went on to work for Winter Films as Senior Vice President of Production. Rae has worked as an advisor or consultant to the Sundance Institute, ITVS, the Rockefeller Foundation, National Geographic, PBS, Film Independent, Independent Feature Project, and other media companies and organizations.

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