INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Jaclyn Bethany, Director of "The Delta Girl"
Interview by Daisy Stackpole
DS: Jaclyn, I’m so happy to be interviewing you for Women + Film. I can’t wait to jump into your short film, The Delta Girl, but first I’d love to ask some general questions. You grew up in Jackson, MS, my current place of residence, and began your career as an actor. Have you always been interested in film, and what prompted you to make the transition to behind the camera?
JB: Thank you! Yes, Jackson was a beautiful and very interesting place to grow up. Mississippi, as I am sure you know, is steeped with dark history. So I grew up in an environment that was very conservative and extremely sheltered from the outside world. I didn’t really realize any of this or how my upbringing was different until I was older. And that’s in a sense, why I made The Delta Girl.
I started performing really young in local theatre and putting on shows in my backyard. I actually directed and starred in my own version of Annie when I was eight. I had multi-hyphenate skills really young, haha! I don’t know if I was always seriously interested in film, but film really affected me growing up. The Wizard of Oz is the first film I have a vivid memory of, even my dad knew every word. In school, I was always pretty different and artsy and wasn’t super socially inclined. I was always performing or trying to figure out a way to get to New York. I decided to write a short film just to try it out, after I had a great experience directing a small showcase. That film Olivia Martha Ilse (also set in Mississippi) got made. I was kind of just thrown in to it, and I have never looked back since.
DS: You also do not limit yourself to directing, I understand you also write your films and have produced a number of your projects. How have you been able to achieve this creative autonomy and what has it done for your craft?
JB: I think it just comes naturally to me. Especially when you are the director, your team has to rally behind you and believe in you. If you are influential in bringing the film to life, especially when you are just starting, there is just more trust. I have always been a doer, and love to work on many things at once. Over the past year I have really focused on two projects - my thesis and my feature, which both got made. But, I don’t consider myself a producer first and foremost. I have a great team and that’s really why these projects are getting off the ground, and I am constantly learning.
DS: As I mentioned, you are from the Deep South. Do you believe your Southern upbringing has affected your creative voice and do you feel compelled to tell stories about the South?
JB: Yes absolutely. I think because I am also an only child, and had different health problems growing up - it made me feel even more protected and sheltered than the average kid in Mississippi. There is a certain pattern of life you are supposed to follow in where I come from. I broke every boundary. But, I am hugely grateful to Mississippi for shaping my creative voice. It’s what makes me unique. For example, I think the reason I was able to really relate to the perspective of a teenage girl in The Delta Girl, is because my “teenage years” happened only very recently, in my mid-twenties. I grew up quite late and my understanding of normalcy was very different and removed than other teenagers growing up. I think the South can stifle that kind of growth. It’s no one’s fault - it’s just how it has been there since the Civil War basically. There is a certain path for a white girl in Mississippi that I had to break away from, and am still breaking away from. But for a long time, I didn’t know who I was. I was kind of floundering. Being an actor and filmmaker has allowed me to find my voice and start to come to terms with my past.
In Mississippi, there are two histories - there is a black history and a white history. I, for a long time, only knew the white one. When my eyes opened up to all the atrocities and racism much later in my life, it was really crazy. I mean it’s really hard to talk about. It made me want to learn more, and yes, tell stories about the South. There is so much fascinating history - that has been really covered up for so long, a lot of it is coming out just now. For example, Doy Gorton whose remarkable photojournalism of the White South was covered up because he was a member of the SNCC, and the Highway One Murders - which were committed in 1994, it’s like all still so relevant and recent, and feels even more so in our current political climate.
DS: What has your experience been like working as a woman in the film industry? Has this experience, positive or negative, caused you to avoid mainstream Hollywood and forge your own path?
JB: It’s hard. But I moved to L.A. to attend the American Film Institute for Directing. So I didn’t move there with the specific goal to break into Hollywood. That’s never been my goal, I think L.A. can be very consuming and draining. I started really making films - like small shorts and proof of concepts in Europe, and there the value of being an artist and the sort of lifestyle and willingness for collaboration is much more accepted. I think in my life, I have always forged my own path. My feature crew, though shot in L.A. - was entirely international. It’s not like an objective for me - I guess it’s just I have more of a European sensibility and approach to my work. There is a kind of freedom that might scare people, and I love that.
I not only wrote and directed my feature, I also am the lead in it. There were many, many people that thought I couldn’t do it. When people see the footage, or see me perform on set, they no longer ask this question. And that’s the best feeling.
DS: Your films have a very strong aesthetic sense, and are technically impressive in the lighting, sound, and costume design, amongst other things. Who are some filmmakers you admire?
JB: Filmmakers - Jane Campion, Cate Shortland, Sally Potter, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Josephine Decker, Miranda July, Aoife McArdle, Celia Rowlson Hall, Brit Marling… I really admire filmmakers that are bold and unapologetic with their vision. I think, of course, Sofia Coppola’s design and cinematography are gorgeous and hugely inspirational. I think in my most recent work, bold color has been used to highlight isolation and that’s something I want to continue to explore.
DS: Now to focus on The Delta Girl, was there one event or source of inspiration that prompted you to tell this story?
JB: I think it was inspired by many different things. I was influenced by the story of the Neshoba Three - it’s so crazy to me and sad, all these unsolved murders of African-Americans - and that in that instance, it took the FBI to come down to Neshoba before anyone realized there was something seriously wrong. It’s really inhumane. There’s also so much great literature that explores similar topics too - Mudbound, Natchez Burning and it’s tricky - so you have to be very careful how you tell it. That’s why I told it from Magnolia’s point of view. I couldn’t tell the black side of the story, because I don’t know it. I know what it feels like to be an outsider in a place where you feel like you must belong and keep quiet. And I thought her perspective was unique - nothing really directly happens to her, it happens around her. It’s similar to Briony in the first section of Joe Wright’s Atonement - which was a reference. It’s really about this young girl and how she relates to the close minded and racist world around her, and how she processes this series of catastrophic events. And because she’s so young, she doesn’t really know what to do, you know, can she risk everything and go against her family? Does she really believe what her brother did is wrong? It’s fascinating. I have never had to make that choice, of course, but I really related to feeling torn between two worlds. I constantly feel torn between my home and my life as an artist.
DS: The visuals of this film are particularly impressive, especially the stark contrast between heightened white virginal femininity and violence perpetrated at the hands of white supremacist men devoured with toxic masculinity. What was the process like for the ‘mise en scene’ of Delta Girl?
JB: I wanted the girls to feel very innocent and closed off from the outside world. They are perfectly groomed and coiffed to become wives one day. Their parents send them to Miss Honey’s school so that they can feel pride in who they are as young white women and live up to what Mississippi wants them to be. When Magnolia goes outside, it’s wild. It’s where dark things happen. She’s adventurous but very innocent, she has her first real crush - which is prompting her to make decisions like sneaking out with her best friend who is a bit more rebellious and open, which I don’t think Magnolia would normally do. I thought about Magnolia and the relationship and her family dynamic between Beau her father, the Sheriff a lot. Within the family dynamic, Magnolia and Beau really only have each other and I think there is a sense of trust between them that is immediately broken when the film begins. I feel Magnolia has hung out with Beau and his friends many times before, but their behavior has never gone this far. I think something happens - Beau has felt very pressured to be something and feel important to his father and the county. To live up to these crazy nonsensical expectations. Sheriffs in these small towns in Mississippi were often wizards of the KKK. Things get out of control, and in a sense, nothing is going to happen to Beau and the crime he committed because Magnolia’s family already has so much power in the county. That’s why she sits there at the end of the film. She realizes she can’t go anywhere. She’s stuck. It’s really sad actually. It’s very likely that Beau and her father brand her crazy for the rest of her life. Miss Honey as well, she’s kept the secrets hidden too. With the white people in Mississippi during this time - at the height of Civil Rights - there is this HUGE fear of power being taken away from them.
Visually I think I have to give that to my DP (Emilio Oliveira) - a lot of what we looked at were actual images from that era - Vivian Maier, William Eggleston… The film looks like it has this haze over it, because it actually did. Emilio placed special fabric to go over each lens and create that look of removal and innocence - almost darkly dreamy. We were also really interested in shadows on the characters faces - to create that sense that something isn’t right surrounding all this beauty.
DS: What was the filming process like for The Delta Girl? Was it shot in Mississippi?
JB: No we shot in California! We spent a good bit of time finding the locations. The process was amazing. It was long and grueling - we developed the script for over a year, but all the preparation made the shoot go so smooth and everyone really united to tell this story. My team - Natalie Zimmerman (co-writer), Emilio Oliveira (DP), Mikhail Makeyev (Producer), Mollie Wartelle (PD), Yvonne Reddy (CD) and Selinda Zhou (editor) worked very hard at every stage of the process to make it happen. I spent forever casting it, I wanted to get it right. I cast it all on instinct. I had people in mind for certain roles, such as Atli (who plays Beau.) He is Icelandic, and I had no idea if he could do a Southern accent but he blew me away in the film. The cast was unbelievable. They just really got it. When we got in for the table read and all read through the script, it felt like magic. I knew it was going to to be something special. I am forever grateful to them for rallying behind me. It’s really an ensemble based film, though it’s led by the incredible force that is Isabelle Fuhrman as Magnolia. And the girls! The schoolgirls really bonded together. They are like a little pack. They all keep in touch and when they see each other at the screenings it’s so cute. It’s amazing that a four day shoot can bring people together like that.
DS: I really appreciated the fact that the film criticizes silence, which often gives way to violence, at the hands of white women. Do you feel it is the responsibility of white women filmmakers to tell stories in which white women can be just as harmful as white men?
JB: I mean, women are complicated. They are just as complicated as men. I don’t know if that’s the exact responsibility I feel but I feel the responsibility to tell stories that focus on women as complex, conflicted humans. I am very interested in young women that are morally and psychologically conflicted, hugely influenced by the world around them. In The Delta Girl - I think your question relates more to Miss Honey and the secrets she has hidden and the establishment in which she runs. From our perspective today, it’s completely backwards and wrong - but back then places like this were totally normal. But yeah, no one said anything, or called any woman out on their racism, because they didn’t know anything else. Magnolia, Miss Honey and the girls at the school are products of how they were raised. Delilah, is the only one that doesn’t stay silent in a way. She does, because she keeps her relationship a secret - at the cost of her life, but runs away - in a sense hoping that she no longer will have to be silent. And whether she ends up with Isaiah or not, she will have gotten away, and that’s huge. She probably gets to a big city and realizes she is so out of her element. Again, that’s a product of how sheltered she has been and - naive. Her feelings and attitude is different than the other girls - but that doesn’t mean she fully understands what she is doing or feeling. Caitlin (Carver) and I talked about that a lot.
DS: Are you artistically content for your short films to exist as short films, or would you like to adapt any of them into features or something longer form?
JB: I think The Delta Girl will probably turn in to a feature eventually. I have an idea for a new unique POV on it - related to the journalism that’s coming out on it at the moment. And yeah, I think I’m happy that my short films can just exist as short films. There are definitely similar themes and characters I like to explore in my work, and hopefully I am creating some kind of through-line. I wrote a feature version that was sort of an extension of a short I made a while ago, but it kind of died, it was more like a diaristic love story that took place between New York and Europe, and then the couple go on a road trip through the girls home state- Mississippi. But it was important for me to write during that time in my life if that makes sense. Maybe I’ll eventually return to it.
DS: Lastly, thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing your incredible work. What can we expect to see next from you and how can readers keep up with you?
JB: I am currently in post-production on my debut feature film Indigo Valley which we plan to premiere next year. The Delta Girl recently premiered at Holly Shorts and is on the festival circuit. I am about to hop in to pre-production on my next project, The Rehearsal set in the New York theatre world which stars The Delta Girl’s Caitlin Carver (I Tonya ) and award winning actress Tina Benko, you can check out more on it here: https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/the-rehearsal#story
I am really excited about everything I am working on, it feels amazing to be able to create. I’m so grateful to just be working. If you keep working hard and forging ahead, anything is possible.