Young sisters Mona and Rachel are left to their own devices after the loss of their parents. Confined to their childhood home and constantly surrounded by nostalgia of the past, the girls have created their own pseudo-realities. Rachel finds solace in her music and old spiritual practices while her older sister Mona turns to unconventional and taboo forms of self-expression. When a man abruptly enters their world and starts to pull away at the fragile threads holding everything in place, the sisters find themselves facing harsh truths about their past. With a dark dream-like filmmaking style, BIRDS OF NEPTUNE encapsulates the enchanting mystery of the Pacific Northwest.
BIRDS OF NEPTUNE features music by well-known and up and coming West Coast bands Warpaint, Radiation City, and Blouse, as well as original music and score by two PNW musicians, Erik Blood and Kevin O’Connor. The film also pays homage to the nostalgic culture deeply rooted to the region.
Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Birds of Neptune‘ at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival we profile the film’s Director Steven Richter. ‘Birds of Neptune‘ screens Friday, January 23 & Monday, January 26, 2015 in Park City, Utah.
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Birds of Neptune’ – HERE
There is an undeniably “dreamy” style to the film’s cinematography; can you describe the visual strategy to the film? What was your first conversation like with your DP? How (if) did your original vision evolve over the film’s production?
We were trying to create a world that is clearly fictional, nostalgic, mystic, mysterious, and yet true to the Pacific Northwest. So much of the PNW is portrayed in comedies these days for one reason or another, but the PNW that I grew up in is beautiful and edgy, less quirky, less comic than dramatic. It’s actually quite dramatic. Nature is all around, in a majestic way. And life is infused in this scenario. I wanted to show that side of things visually.
John Campbell, who is a master cinematographer,— he was the DP for the early films by Gus Van Sant— is full of references. We both love Bergman and Kieslowski and revisited a ton of their work. Also, watched some Bertolucci. We didn’t story board much. I had my shot list, but we discussed most of the shots extensively before hand and, when it came to shooting, we blocked the actors and then decided what we thought was the best way. Things often changed on set.
Music plays prominently throughout the film with several West Coast-based bands providing its soundtrack. What is your affiliation with the bands that ultimately made it onto the soundtrack? What differentiates their “sound” as distinct to the region?
They’re bands I listen to. Most of them are from the PNW, specifically Portland and Seattle. I grew up in Seattle listening to KEXP, the radio station of the University of Washington. The music they play is very diverse. They play music of all genres from all over the world, and I believe they have an influence in the region. I think that in Seattle and Portland musicians are very educated in music. If you’re in a punk band then you may very well have a much greater reference than just punk, but maybe world music, or electronic, etc and often that can be heard in your sound. So, I find that musicians from the PNW pull from a lot of different places when they are describing through their music the textures, the greenery, the geography, weather and life in the PNW. The protagonist, Rachel, is an experimental musician in the film, though classically trained. She has lots of peddles and sonic equipment play with and distort and loop the sounds. I feel like she’s pulling from all over.
Erik Blood who wrote the music that Rachel played did my score for my previous film, Center of Gravity. We discussed extensively where her influences came from. I was a big fan of Kevin O’Connor’s band Talkdemonic who did the score for Birds of Neptune.
Describe the “sense of place” specific to the Pacific Northwest location? How would you describe its cinematic potential?
The PNW is just super lush and shows up beautifully on the camera. It’s very green and often overcast. It makes for a very introverted place where people tend to get lost in their own projects. The potential combination of narrative and visual possibilities are great.
Describe the casting process in finding the right actresses for the roles of Mona & Rachel?
Molly Elizabeth Parker, who played Mona, was from an open casting call I had early on. She came from theater and hadn’t done much if any work in film before this, but I found that there was something extraordinary about her. She had a ton of courage, and I wanted to go to places where it was necessary to have courage.
With Britt Harris, she was a recommendation of a friend. I brought her in to audition with Molly and they just seemed to get on really well together. Britt also has a comedy background, which I thought would be interesting in placing her in a dramatic role and she played it with the utmost sincerity.
With Molly we built her character from people that she knew and from some of her past experiences such as her childhood background of being in a cult. So that backstory went into the film and I chose that in part because I really wanted Molly to find something deeply personal in her connection with Mona. Mona is also a bit schizo in the film. At times she uses different personas to communicate. In a way, it’s like an acting exercise; the theatrical element is there in these personas.
Britt had a different experience because she came in later when all the characters were developed, but we discussed a lot the character and the character’s backstory. Both Britt and her character Rachel are musicians, so it made sense. We found that Britt and Rachel had a lot in common. The two were somewhat intertwined and I worked on that with her as much as could, to get her fully into character.
The two would also spend time at each other’s house rehearsing and getting into character.
Everyone else in the film was from extensive casting search. I think we flipped Portland over to find the roles of Zach, Shay and Christian, and did numerous auditions.
Why is Slamdance the right destination for ‘Birds of Neptune’ to premiere?
Slamdance just made sense. We have what I believe to be a beautiful film, well acted, well shot, different, but yet it is low budget without recognizable names and it seems like Slamdance recognizes quality films that don’t have the financial backing or the name backing as being legit. That was the idea behind independent films initially, but the independent film market evolved in the U.S., and now you have money and named talent in the mix. More than ever, it’s important to have a place for new filmmakers, without these sort of resources to go. And Slamdance continues to offer that space. I also really like the fact that they recognize divisive art. I think any interesting film will get debate going, will have people who love it and others who hate it. Those are the films I generally like to watch. That’s what it’s all about. If you’re going to be creative, you should make it unique and follow exactly what you want to do and not what is going to necessarily be safe. Contradictorily, there’s a kind of freedom that you get when you deal with limited resources, and you must make the best out of it. So Slamdance recognized that and as soon as they did I definitely felt like BoN was in the right place.
About the Filmmaker
Steven Richter is a writer and director from Seattle, Washington. He is also the founder and director of the Academia Internacional de Cinema, a film school with locations in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His credits include the Brazilian feature film “Center of Gravity”, which premiered at the 35th annual Sao Paulo International Film Festival and made its European Premier at the 2012 Raindance International Film Festival in London. His second feature film “Birds of Neptune” (2015) will make its World Premier at the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival.