New Filmmaker's Journal: Indigo Valley
By Jaclyn Bethany
The story of Indigo Valley begins nearly two years ago. In 2015 I was invited as a guest of the Reykjavik Film Festival. I had just moved to the U.K. and was an ex-pat living in London at the time, keen to explore other areas of Europe. I had never been to Iceland and I was looking forward to exploring the country and their filmmaking scene. When I initially visited the country I had no motivation to eventually shoot a film there. During that time and upon the move to London, I was at a real crossroads in my career. I had written and appeared in a short film in 2015 that did well and took me on the festival circuit and thus to Reykjavik. I wasn't really working. I had spent a year doing press for that film and acting in small parts I booked along the way, but I felt somewhat lost. I was a girl from Mississippi, living and trying to work in some of the biggest, most competitive centers of our industry. I was naive and I didn’t really know what I was supposed to be doing or how I was supposed to be doing it. I just knew I loved it. But I didn’t know if that would be enough.
When I first went to Iceland, I had not even directed a film. I suppose people knew me as an actor who had started a production company to facilitate my own work. I had no huge desire to be a director. As I travelled through Iceland in that trip, it strangely reminded me of Mississippi. Reykjavik is about the same size of where I grew up. Because the country is so isolated, their is a real innate sense of artistry and a desire to create. I think this motive is ultimately fueled by the desolate, beautiful landscape. Every Icelandic film I saw or have seen since has been in one aspect or another, amazing. I felt unexplainably drawn to the country and I started thinking about stories I could develop and set in Iceland. On that trip I also met my (now) frequent collaborator and cinematographer Irene Gomez-Emilsson, who is half Icelandic and I think that sensibility is very present in her haunting and beautiful work. We went on to make our first short together, Between Departures, about six weeks after meeting in Reykjavik.
It was my first film as a director/actor. I did not really even knew how to make a shot list. I am eternally grateful for her collaboration, guidance and trust, then and now. I used that short to apply to the Directing Program at the American Film Institute. A few months later, I was accepted. During that time, I started working consistently in London - building a network of collaborators, writing and directing my own material, while acting and working in other filmmakers projects as well. It was the most excited I had felt in a long time. I wrote down an idea for a film in Iceland. I did not really know what it would be or if anyone would be interested in it.
The story followed a young couple, John and Louise, who elope and go on their honeymoon in Iceland. He is British and a protege violinist, she is American and works as a gallery, but has a strong desire and passion to be a real artist. Their romantic trip is interrupted by Louise’s sister, Isabella, a former child actress who has just been released from rehab and has nowhere to go. Thus she shows up in Iceland. The premise of the film actually sounds quite funny. But, as I developed it and continue to develop it the story grows deep- and much darker. It is, in a sense, A Streetcar Named Desire for the millennial generation... in Iceland. I submitted the idea, (literally a paragraph at the time) to various developmental labs and pitch programs at festivals- first Cannes, then Edinburgh. I got into both. It felt really surreal. At twenty seven years old, I found myself pitching to rooms of people that had way more experience than me but had brought me there based on this spark of a story. I knew I had to trust my instincts. At that point, my (now) producer Courtney Harmstone contacted me. She was also a graduate of the London Film School and she was attracted to the story, the relationships and the setting of Iceland.
Over the next couple of months I wrote about half a version of the feature script and upon my move to Los Angeles, Courtney officially came on board. I don’t think it can be said enough how lucky this project is so to have a young, talented producer dedicated to develop this project with me for multiple years, with no guaranteed outcome. To be able to find such remarkable collaborators in a cinematographer and a producer, both women who possess extraordinary insight and talent is quite rare and invaluable. Courtney and I went back and forth about whether we just wanted to go ahead and make the feature or do a short. With my commitment to AFI, making a full feature was fairy impossible. We decided to do a “mini- feature” or a narrative promo of the feature and shoot the actual feature when I graduate on a micro- budget in late summer 2018. Although we did technically shoot a short, it felt by far like the biggest project I had ever worked on. We had a solid seven months of pre-production, and then a month long exhaustive fundraising campaign, raising the bare minimum of $15,000 we needed to make the film and take a crew to Iceland. After some deliberation and convincing (on my part) we decided that I would play the lead role of Isabella, as well as direct. I did not really think about the challenges this entailed when I decided to do the role, my team had pretty much convinced me that no one else could do it and really trusted me. After focusing solely on directing for the past year at AFI and appearing in a run of a play before stepping in front of the camera, I felt confident.
There were moments when I was preparing and even reading, where I thought “why did I write this? what am I thinking?” Sort of those "what the fuck" moments you have on set or even before filming. But as scary as these feelings were, they were really good feelings. I used them. I think in the past, I had been scared to have these moments and really go there. Well, this time I was going there. My character, Isabella is a complete three sixty from who I am. She is a destructive narcissist who uses her sexuality in a manipulative and almost aggressive way to get closer to her sister, who her relationship with is already quite fractured. When things go wrong on the trip, Isabella becomes entirely unpredictable and spirals out of control. While filming, I didn’t really think about all of this that much. Or how different Isabella was to me, or how it might mentally effect me. I just did it. It wasn’t really until after I filmed probably the most challenging scene of the whole shoot - both physically and mentally, where I couldn’t move my arms, that I thought, oh that’s it. This is what I am supposed to feel. I had never felt like that before. It was amazing, and equally terrifying, being that vulnerable. I had a really, really hard time coming out of that character and letting go. The shoot made me decide that I wanted to act and re-iterated acting as my first and ultimate love. But I also decided that I would play the role in the feature. And direct. And write. I was not going to give up one aspect for another. I could do all three. I was lucky that my fellow actors and crew supported this way of working - certainly a unique one, and were trusting.
When we arrived in Iceland on various Easy Jet flights, we were welcomed with open arms. A bunch of us knew each other from previous projects, but it was a bit like being at summer camp. We all stayed in one house with one shower. Crew members went swimming at the local pool and relaxed in the sauna. We ate fish soup. We were all at Fred, our glorious first A.D.’s disposal, as he shuffled us from Grindavik to Reykjavik to the mountain and back again. I have a vague memory of going to a bar in Reykjavik - where an acoustic version of “Sweet Home Alabama” was blasting at two in the morning. In that moment, it was almost like coming home. Because it was such an intense shoot, physically and mentally, it was important to turn off after grueling fifteen hour days and non stop twenty three hour light. But it never felt grueling. And the light just seemed pretty normal. When I left Iceland, I felt (along with leaving Isabella behind), I also felt like I left part of my heart. When I think about my time there, I almost start to cry. That’s why I know I will go back there. Iceland feels kind of like Oz- “somewhere over the rainbow, some place where there isn’t any trouble.” It’s a far away land where you can escape from all reality.
I suppose my relationship with Indigo Valley is a bit like being in love. When I talk about the project, people who have known me for years say I start glowing and they have never seen me this happy. Is it a boy that’s making me so happy? No. I am basically married to my film. I think about it every day, I dream about it at night. I wonder if we will get the funding, if we will actually make the feature. I believe we will.
Post-short film shoot, we were lucky to begin talking to a potential co-production partner in Iceland and make progress with fundraising for the feature. I have now completed the third draft of the script after a developmental reading in London over the summer. I felt that having shot the short, I learned what was missing and knew what needed work in the story. The script is so important, and I learned so much in so many ways during the shoot.
Now in post-production I have moments where I really feel this is the best work I have ever done. Maybe it is the best work I will ever do. I don’t know. I’m sure people will hate it. But that’s why we make art right? It divides us, it unites us. I feel enough people are responding to my work to keep going.
When songwriter Maesa Pullman sent me her original song for the credits, it was like she read my mind. I have listened to her track “Deepening The Blaze” at least one hundred times. The haunting melody, with it’s Bjork like echoes encapsulates so much of what this film makes me feel.
I think it’s exciting having ended one chapter of this journey, and knowing I am starting a new one; that Indigo Valley will be a part of my life over the next year. And the next. If anything, over the past couple of years I have learned that you can do anything. For a while I got caught up in the negativity of this industry. And it is very hard. And there are a lot of people that will try to bring you down, and tell you no. But for every no there’s a yes. And you know what, things don’t happen overnight. And that’s okay. You have to work very, very hard for things that may or may not happen. And, at the end of the day it’s not really about making a feature film or becoming the breakout indie of the year, or being the actress everyone wants for their movie. It’s about being you. It’s about loving what you’re doing. Because that’s how you have a fruitful life and a happy one. For all the pressure I put on myself, it’s still very much a process for me. Through Indigo Valley I have learned to just be me. And that’s enough. I believe if I keep doing what I’m doing and working with amazing, giving collaborators magic will happen. And that kind of magic, it only happens in the movies.