AFI Fest ‘19 Interview: Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder on the Seeds for “The Planters”

It was in the third grade when Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder cemented their creative collaboration, becoming friends a few years earlier and partnering for any class project that would come their way.

”We had to figure out how to circuit a light bulb,” Kotcheff recalls of the moment she knew she had a creative collaborator for life. ”And we came together and…”

“We got that light on,” Leder says, cutting her off at the pass.

It was the only the start of bright ideas the two would have together and by 13, the duo would start making films on camcorders, honing their craft until the opportunity to make a feature came along. That day has come with “The Planters,” a crafty comedy set on the outskirts of civilization where it’s been possible for two people who live in their own worlds have been able to reside relatively comfortably until those worlds collide. As perfectly paired behind the camera as they are, Kotcheff and Leder appear as the egregiously mismatched Martha and Sadie in front of it, respectively, finding each other at their lowest low and threaten to dig each other into an even deeper hole. At least Martha is fond of shovels, burying boxes of modest treasures in the desert for others to find as an activity that takes her mind off a recent death in the family, and as such, she has the space physically, if not psychologically, to take in Sadie, who was dispatched from a mental ward where her multiple personality disorder was being held in check. However, the two are under immediate threat of eviction from Martha’s humble trailer abode when her job as an air conditioner telemarketer is in jeopardy, needing to sell 30 ACs in less than two weeks to prove her worth and make ends meet.

This would be an impossible goal for Martha, whose limited social skills have sequestered her into a life where she rarely has to come into contact with others, but Sadie’s outgoing personalities make her an unusually persuasive saleswoman over the phone and with her around, Martha’s forced to come out of her shell. While that doesn’t come immediately for the character, “The Planters” bursts with energy from its opening frames, envisioning the desert as a place of endless possibility as long as one has ambition, which Kotcheff and Leder have in spades. Calling them multihyphenates would actually be selling them short in terms of the number of hats they wore on the production, but the duo’s ability to do much of it by themselves results in being able to fulfill their highly distinctive vision without compromise, as boldly funny as it is colorful and ingratiatingly handmade with stop-motion animated interstitials and a script loaded with delightful non-sequiturs.

As the film made its way to the AFI Fest in Los Angeles this week after winning a string of prizes since its premiere at the Raindance Film Festival, Kotcheff and Leder spoke about going all in to make “The Planters,” finding inspiration in the desert and surviving – and ultimately thriving in the heat.

How did the light bulb come on for this?

Hannah Leder: We had started collaborating on a screenplay called “Peachville” that was a Sundance Institute finalist years ago and we spent a handful of years writing that. During that time, we really established our writing style and tone, and I think the light bulb started there in terms of our film work together and it just took off from there.

Alexandra Kotcheff: [For “The Planters”] we had an initial concept that we had two people escaping an insane asylum to crash into each other in the desert, but that was all we had and then we decided, okay one character is not going to be insane – or she’s going to be insane in her own way [laughs], but the other one is literally going to be with a helmet locked to her head. We did a concept trailer [where] we ironed out our characters and the arc we wanted [them] to go through and then the script took real form.

The speech patterns for the different characters are so distinct. Was it interesting coming up with them?

Hannah Leder: It was. We definitely found some of that during our Kickstarter campaign concept shoot.

Alexandra Kotcheff: Yeah, it’s weird. That came with the character because especially with Martha in the beginning, she doesn’t have a strong voice because she doesn’t have the confidence to articulate what’s going on inside of her, so I think that made it mumbly and small and a little weird and awkward. And Sadie’s [voice], [Hannah] found that high one really early.

Hannah Leder: It just happened, yeah.

With as much direct address as there is to the camera, would one of you be off-camera to give the other something to act off of?

Alexandra Kotcheff: Yes and no. We would try to give our most if it was her close-up or where she’s in the shot and I was behind the camera, and we played the other characters too sometimes just for coverage because if we couldn’t keep the [other actors] on set all day, we had to be creative a lot of the time…

Hannah Leder: There was a side of the camera that often one of us would get stuck with…

Alexandra Kotcheff: The button!

Hannah Leder: And it just depended on which way we were shooting, but often one of us with coverage would get stuck with having to look at the button as opposed to the actual person’s face because the handle of the camera would block the face.

Alexandra Kotcheff: And even if you tried, you could not get [away from that] so you had to stare at a button, instead of a person, which was a real test for us. Like ”Ah, you got the button!” (laughs)

You do actually have two wonderful actors to play opposite in Phil Parolisi and Pepe Serna. Were they in mind from the start?

Alexandra Kotcheff: Well, we love them both dearly and it was such a pleasure working with them. Phil Parolisi, who plays Richard Cox, is a friend of Hannah’s family and we had known him him for 10 years, but he’s a great actor we saw in a play and were like that’s the guy. And then we wanted to bring an additional character in, [which] was Jesus’ character and that was the only part we did auditions for, But we couldn’t find the right person, when Pepe popped into our e-mails when we were doing casting calls, it was like “Ohhh…” and his agent called – he didn’t audition for the role, but we were like, “Yes! Pepe Serna is perfect for the role!”

Is it true there was an entire concept shoot before making the film just to figure out how it would work?

Hannah Leder: We went out to this AirBnb in Bombay Beach in Salton Sea and we had a rough idea [of the story] and it was a wild haired idea actually, to actually go shoot a feature film in two weeks without a script. That was insane and we learned we had some very interesting characters, but we needed to write the script, so that footage we shot became what we’re calling our concept shoot [became part of] our Kickstarter campaign.

Did you have strong ideas about the locations from the start?

Alexandra Kotcheff: Well, we had [this] one AirBnb. We were in Palm Springs or Joshua Tree and we’d use that as the hub and then we’d go looking around the desert for all these locations. The script was already written at this point, but we would see things and they would end up really informing the mood of the scene or maybe we would see it and be like, “Okay, this is where the climax is going to happen because the trees are shaped like this and the terrain is rough and windy.”

Hannah Leder: And those dunes, which were in the opening, we had no idea those existed. We were out in this little town, and I had a helmet strapped to my head with the chain [in character as Sadie] and [Alexandra] is in her overalls [as Martha] – We just looked crazy. And [we were] at this abandoned storefront and a sheriff walks up to us and we were going “Oh my goodness…” and he’s like, “What are you doing?”

Alexandra Kotcheff: And we had cameras and permits…

Hannah Leder: And we were like, “Oh, we’re making a little student art film.” And he got all excited and he said, “Oh, you’ve got to check out the Glamas Sand Dunes, they’re about 45 minutes from here.“ So we drove and found that as a location.

Alexandra Kotcheff: [Now] it’s on our poster. And we thought he was going to tell us to turn off the camera because he was real official looking, and no, he came to give us this little boop! There were also some little safety gems people would warn us about, like when we were standing in an area and this truck comes up to us and says, “You know you’re in rattlesnake territory.” And we were like, “Where exactly?” “Right where you’re standing.” And I’m like, “Okay, cool!” So we moved ourselves and if it weren’t for that guy, we might be bitten by rattlesnakes.

It looks beautiful on screen, but did the weather actually cooperate?

Hannah Leder: Oh wow. No. [laughs] The weather was a nightmare. It was a real challenge. We decided to shoot Martha’s interiors in the middle of the summer in Palm Springs in a mobile home and to roll sound, we had to turn the air conditioning off in 120 degree heat. So while we might not look like we were sweating, we were schvitzing.

Alexandra Kotcheff: Yeah, schvitzing. [laughs]

Hannah Leder: And to speak to the wind, that location [where] the final climax [takes place], we had to call shooting days short because sometimes the winds were so high that we couldn’t shoot.

Alexandra Kotcheff: It was literally dust blowing in our faces and then you couldn’t get any clear sound. You’ll notice in our exterior scenes we don’t have a lot of dialogue, and it’s because we had no crew. The sound would’ve been a nightmare, but we [thought] that final scene needs to be outside and Oh my God, shoot us in the face three million times because it took us forever to shoot that scene. [laughs]

What was it like to design the interior for Martha’s trailer?

Alexandra Kotcheff: It was so much fun. It took us a while to find a place for Martha’s house because we couldn’t build a set, so we knew we had to find something that basically looked like we wanted it to look, but we could add a lot like the desk and the curtains and the plant shelf. We added some furniture, but we needed the bones to be ready.

Did actually being inside the trailer help you get into character or by that point were you so immersed in the world you had it down?

Alexandra Kotcheff: We knew what we wanted, but we were just looking for it. It also helps to live in the place you’re shooting. You really get into that character quick. [laughs]

Is it true you spent five months in that trailer?

Hannah Leder: We did.

Alexandra Kotcheff: Oh, longer. We breathed, we ate…[laughs] We ate the project. We ate all “The Planters.” Everything was “The Planters.”

Hannah Leder: It was all-consuming and I think there were times where we were hanging on by a thread. But we often talk about now how we wish we could go back and have a day together again, just out alone in the desert just being crazy. We miss it.

Alexandra Kotcheff: We do. We lost a lot of friends during that period. [laughs] We didn’t respond. We were really in a hole. We missed weddings. We missed birthdays. But we were really set on making this film, unfortunately – fortunately and unfortunately, you know what I mean.

What’s it been like finally bringing it out into the world?

Alexandra Kotcheff: We’ve been so shocked. Our first world premiere at Raindance where we won the grand prize, we were so excited that this film is being celebrated this way, but one award after another has just been confirming that okay, we’re not just crazy people in the desert. Other people are digging what we do too, which is pretty cool.

“The Planters” opens on October 16th in virtual cinemas. A full list is here.

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