Interview: Martha Stephens on Dreaming Big with “To the Stars”

Martha Stephens couldn’t help but wear her “Last Picture Show” T-shirt to the set of “To The Stars,” in case anyone was wondering the feeling she was chasing with the period drama.

“I wore my influences on my sleeve literally, but the difference is “The Last Picture Show” was so informed by European films that were coming out right before it, so it has this very shocking sexuality whereas our movie is kind of halfway between that and studio films from the 1980s and ‘90s like ‘My Girl,’” Stephens said recently, a fitting comparison when the Oklahoma-set drama covers the experience of multiple generations of women running up against the same limitations in their small farming town where little is expected of them beyond becoming homemakers.

It’s a fate that Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward) is undoubtedly hoping to avoid, just taking a look at her unhappy mother Francie (Jordana Spiro), who’s come to resent her husband Hank (Shea Whigham) and pushes her dreams onto her daughter, though she didn’t pass along her confidence. That changes, however, with the arrival of Maggie (Liana Liberato), a new student who impresses classmates by claiming her father (Tony Hale) has taken pictures of Marilyn Monroe as a Life Magazine photographer and takes an interest in Iris, bonding over late-night swims in a pond only the two of them seem to know about, among other things in a place where few want to acknowledge the sense of desperation that connects so many.

As Iris and Maggie broaden each other’s horizons in “To The Stars,” Stephens and screenwriter Shannon Bradley-Colleary do the same as far as bringing contemporary considerations into the Midwest story from 1961, compassionate towards those who had to hold in their emotions and ambition for fear that their societal status would be threatened by standing out, not only in regards to the teens at its center, but for the generation just before them such as Francie and the town’s hairstylist Hazel (Adelaide Clemens) who assumed roles in the community that reinforce the status quo while they themselves remain restless.

After premiering at Sundance last year in black-and-white, the film is being released this week to the masses in color, inadvertently reflecting the way in which the filmmakers cover an entire spectrum of emotions and find new shades in a time-old tale, and for Stephens, who previously embarked on such charming small-scale adventures such as “Pilgrim Song” and “Land Ho!” (with Aaron Katz), “To The Stars” feels like an exciting change of pace. Recently, she spoke about paying every bit as much attention to every role in the ensemble drama as she did in her previous character studies, the last-minute casting that took the film to another level and how the film’s impressive camerawork was born out of efficiency.

How did this come about?

My producer Kristin Mann sent it over to me [after] she received it from an agent that was like, “This script doesn’t have a home, but I think it’s really special.” Kristin knew I grew up in a small farming community in Kentucky and I had an interest in Americana and small town stories. The inner lives of people that lost their dreams and [there’s] this yearning of the grass is always greener – those themes are always interesting to me, so when I received it, I [thought], “Absolutely I want to make a period film on the prairie with girls coming of age.” That just seems like the right move after making “Land Ho!” which I loved, but it’s about men in their seventies, so I was ready for a change. [laughs]

Was it interesting to direct something you didn’t actually write yourself?

It was liberating in a lot of ways. You could be more objective about what was working and what wasn’t working, and I really like collaboration. I typically have a writing partner when I write anyway, so it was much like that. Shannon did all of the writing, but as far as making changes, we were there together, and I loved working with her. I’m so glad it was such a great experience because now I’m excited to read more scripts that other people have written.

What sold you on Kara and Liana to play your leads?

I knew Kara’s work from “Moonrise Kingdom” and I just thought she was so fascinating and could do so much with an expression. So much of Iris’ role is her inner world needs to be onscreen without her saying anything, and [Kara] has these big, beautiful blue eyes and she’s so expressive, so we actually just offered her the role. There was no casting process and [when] we were looking for Maggie, we already had Iris cast, so I was reading with a bunch of girls and I really fell in love with Liana when her agent sent her reel over. Intuitively, I knew right then and there she was Maggie, but before I got too excited, I wanted to put her and Kara in the same room to make sure they had good chemistry together and luckily they did.

One of the great things about the film is how you’re able to show multiple generations of women navigating this oppressive environment at the same time. Was it always the idea to broaden out the experience beyond the teenage characters?

Yeah, when I started working with the writer Shannon, one of the biggest notes was finding more in Francie than just what was on the page with her, [where] she just seems like an antagonist. Her reasoning to do the things she does to Iris was out of spite and I didn’t want that. I wanted all of her problems to come from a broken place and even though maybe she doesn’t do the right thing, often her heart is in the right place, so I did really like the fact that the story branched out and you spent time with the parents as well and you had moments with them. Robert Altman was always one of my favorite directors when I was in film school, and my first film I made was an ensemble piece about ten different characters, so that part always appealed to me in the story. We just had to do a little digging to take that in. And Jordana [Spiro], who played Francie brought a lot of ideas to that character too. It was really a lot of fun working with the actors and figuring out who these people are.

Was there anything that came up before or during shooting that changed your ideas of what this could be with the characters?

Sophi [Bairley], who plays Haddie, and Lauren [Ashley Stephenson], who plays Rhonda, [Iris and Maggie’s nemesis] Clarissa’s two little groupies, they improvised quite a bit and they brought so much warmth and humor to those roles than I was expecting, so I appreciated that. And Jordana only had about a week to prepare. We had another person cast in that role and she dropped out at the last minute, so I don’t know if it was [because] Jordana was taking a big risk was coming and making this movie with no prep time, but she really dug into Francie and really helped develop that character completely, and I’m so glad she played her because I can’t see anybody else doing as good of a job as she did.

You pull off some amazing sequences in the film, such as the scene set at the school dance, which is shot in one long take across the school gym. Did you have much time to prep generally?

The whole shoot was a big undertaking. It was 20 days and I had only made movies in 18, 19, 20 days and I thought, “Sure,” completely ignorant, “I can do that.” But then I failed to think about how you have so many more actors on screen, so many more people in the space that you have to cover and you have people in period costumes. It ends up being quite a beast, so honestly my [cinematographer] Andrew [Reed] and I had to get pretty creative in scenes where we had a lot of characters. That’s why we ended up doing these fluid steadicam tracking shots because that’s all we had time to do. We had to nail a single take of something like that [school dance] or we weren’t going to have our scene, so it’s interesting how limitations can make you think on your feet and do really good work, but it was hard.

Since I’ve seen both the black-and-white and color versions, was it difficult to compose shots for both?

Yeah, I had a little monitor that I could toggle back and forth between color and black and white, but then the biggest challenge was really for my production designer and the gaffer, having to create two looks simultaneously that would work. It made their jobs really hard, but they were game. [laughs] And I think they did a wonderful job.

Is it for commercial reasons it’s going out in color?

I think the reason is mostly color is accepted on traditional cable and TV services, so that’s why. I’m not really involved in any of the business side of things, but they are supposed to release the black-and-white as well. It’s just not going out first.

It looks beautiful either way. You mentioned earlier you grew up in a farming community. Was there anything from that experience that informed the location you wanted in the film?

I grew up in Appalachian Kentucky, so it’s geographically very different, and when I was thinking about this movie, I was thinking more of “Badlands” and “Last Picture Show” — dusty, prairie lands as opposed to where I grew up, but I was thinking about what was in people’s homes, like [for instance] what was in my great aunt’s house.

One of my favorite parts of filmmaking is world building, so thinking about Oklahoma in 1961, it still was like 1951 in terms of pop culture — the latest hair styles and the cars people were driving — so when I worked with my production designer Jonathan [Guggenheim], we really tried to dig into the ‘50s as opposed to the ‘60s and even working with hair and makeup, it’s so much fun thinking about characters like, “Ok, Francie misses her youth, so how would she wear her hair or do her makeup? Probably similar to how she did it when she was in high school,” so we’d give her a little bit of a ‘40s vibe. It makes a movie feel so specific when the whole team puts in the care to really figure out the characters and the place and the world. I appreciate it when I watch a movie that there’s attention paid to those things.

“To The Stars” is available on iTunes on April 24th and on demand on June 1st.