SXSW 2020 Interview: Rachel Harrison Gordon on Giving Wings to “Broken Bird”

Before arriving to the set of “Broken Bird,” Rachel Harrison Gordon had a few butterflies. Her experience of working with actors was limited to a single day on a soundstage as part of a directing class she took, and using material she didn’t write herself, she felt she didn’t have the authority to speak when something wasn’t quite right. Things were different with her first short film shoot when the script was based on her own upbringing in New Jersey, but still as is often the case, the director was the least experienced member of the crew on set and this film meant so much that every little expression had to be perfect.

“I was extremely nervous primarily to work with actors and I’m an introvert. I like to observe people,” says Harrison Gordon, whose attention to detail cultivated in her past work as a data analyst unexpectedly came in handy. “On set, I realized ‘Oh, those are a perfect traits for a director because I’m extremely perceptive of when people are uncomfortable, when people feel I’ve given them enough direction and when I need to step back and just let them do their own thing – I found that [directing] was my happy place.”

That feeling is infectious with “Broken Bird,” an exuberant coming-of-age story made all the more energizing knowing that its director has found her rightful place in the world after giving a glimpse into her childhood as a daughter shuttling between divorced parents. Having an African-American father and an observant white Jewish mother makes the custody exchanges especially jarring for young Birdie (Indigo Hubbard-Salk), leaving one culture for another when she’s dropped off at the neutral territory of a diner parking lot on the weekends, but she sees an opportunity to bring them together on the upcoming occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, if only she can work up the strength to invite her dad to the ceremony.

While Hubbard-Salk’s vivacious performance will often tell you all you need to know by the expression on her face, Harrison Gordon infuses the film with such heartfelt and personal touches that you become completely enveloped in the experience and the first-time filmmaker shows a dazzling command of the cinematic tools available to her, from the choice needle drop of Nina Simone’s cover of the Israeli folk song “Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash” to accompany Birdie getting her hair washed to the arresting images that she and cinematographer Rashad Frett present to convey how Birdie is both a product of the environments she inhabits and the ways in which she pulls from each to develop her own identity. “Broken Bird” was recently set to make its North American premiere at SXSW following its world premiere at Berlinale, but while it was prevented from screening in Austin as a result of the coronavirus, it is now available to watch online here for the next month as part of Oscilloscope and Mailchimp’s makeshift platform for this year’s SXSW shorts and will soon be at Aspen Shortsfest online festival as well, and with the film available for all to see, we present this interview with Harrison Gordon about the origins of her winning short, the unusual background that brought her to filmmaking and getting casting advice from Spike Lee.

How did this come about?

I feel like I was writing it all my life before I knew I would ever make a film. I didn’t keep a diary, but I would keep lots of post-its around my room of “that’s a crazy thing someone said to me” or this is an interesting scenario…it was all just without purpose. Then I went through lots of different careers and jobs that were not in film at all. I never thought of myself as an artist, and I still have a hard time claiming that title, but two years ago, I applied to a dual film/business program as a way to get closer and last year I had the honor and privilege of making a film and the script just kind of wrote itself. Other people were responding to it in class and it’s still unbelievable that I’m talking to you about something we made that means so much to me.

I wanted to dig into the different careers because I read you were in data analytics and thought that must be an interesting way to get into filmmaking because it’s a completely different way of studying people.

Yeah, exactly. I was in school for mechanical engineering, which is a lot of building stuff that people use or interact with, but not really dealing with human beings. Then I became more interested in data science, exploring the needs of the people I would build things for and with each job, I got closer and closer to storytelling. For example, I had the excellent opportunity of working at the New York Times in data analytics and [later] the White House and hearing all these incredible people talk about the challenges they were going through or overcame, I really felt that the most impactful way to make change was not to create another white paper with pie charts and these two-dimensional, sterile captures of people, but instead just letting them explain their life and their narrative. It was the most recent of those jobs when I was at Veteran Affairs and we traveled the whole country, meeting people that were just getting home from Iraq to people who were in their seventies and eighties that fought in Vietnam and other U.S. involvements abroad, and they all had really amazing heartfelt journeys and that wasn’t really represented in the public space, so I felt like I was so close doing doing something that was important, but I didn’t have the right tools. So I started writing a little bit.

You would seem to be a born filmmaker – there’s a moment early on in “Broken Bird” where Birdie leaves the custody of her mother to join her father and just by the difference in what’s on the radio – “All Things Considered” on NPR in hers, and dance music in his, you get a sense of the entire relationship. What’s it like working that out?

Auditory signals and music are a big indicator of a world that you’re in and I thought it was really important to show just the diversity and wealth of cultures and influences that are impacting Birdie’s life. I grew up in New Jersey, I listened to a lot of NPR. That was definitely a thing that my mom and I would do and then I didn’t always have a very strong relationship with my father — we found it kind of difficult to speak to each other, but when I was with him, I really felt the liberty to express myself through music, so there was a a time where we would just send each other songs and say “read the lyrics to this song, it captures something I’m experiencing” and he would send one back. It was like a pen pal system through music, so I just thought it would be interesting if every place that she went, you got a little taste of that. Even at the Chinese restaurant, we spent some time finding an ethnic version of a pop song, just to blend the influences even further and we ended up with a pretty cool track that does that. but all of the auditory sounds were very intentional.

Was that incredible Nina Simone cover of ““Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash” in there from the very start?

Gosh, no. I had always been a huge admirer of Nina Simone — I thought she does an incredible job of capturing pain and joy and life in all of her music — but the film was written, it was filmed, I was editing it and then just by pure miracle, I was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s singing this traditional Hebrew song, ‘The Land of Milk and Honey,’ which for me was a metaphor for seeking perfection and seeking this beautiful world that has different components to it, and [the film is about] having Birdie be this optimistic, hopeful person that can seek a whole family, [being] brave enough to take the risk of inviting her father [to her bat mitzvah], even though she knows that it could lead to hurt. So that was by chance that we found that, but I think it makes the film. It’s the perfect intro and I love that it’s over this hair montage. It’s really introducing you to the hybrid that she is.

Given the hair-straightening element of this, did the shoot have to be structured around that?

Yeah, it’s actually really interesting because I did plan everything so that just for continuity’s sake, it was in a certain order, but when the day came that we were supposed to wash her hair, I sensed a hesitation. I sensed that Indigo did not want to disappoint me and she did not want to say no, but I could tell something was up, so I said to her, “If you don’t want to do this, I do not want to do this. I do not want to make you uncomfortable.” The whole theme of the film the whole desire of being a filmmaker would be undermined if I were to force her to wash her hair, so we filmed as much as we could of non-hair washing [scenes] and then scheduled a reshoot around a time that she was going to wash her hair and she was going to have the person who normally works with her hair on set. We just went to her house and filmed that, and I’m really proud of that because I couldn’t start my filmmaking career with an action that I thought was inappropriate and I think it came out more beautifully because of just having her consent and having her excited changes everything.

How did you find Indigo to play Birdie in the first place?

I remember we met in Brooklyn around where she lives and she picked out the restaurant and we got there and she says, “I always get the ceviche,” and she just came off as this graceful, poised adult that I looked up to. [laughs] I was kind of nervous and she was so graceful and mature, she just blew me away. And that was the mindset that I was looking for, because Birdie is a character who is a little wiser beyond her years because of her experience. Although Indigo and my background are different, she’s also biracial and Jewish, so she had her own perspective on that, and the way we got connected is Spike Lee is a professor at NYU and I had taken the script to him. He loved the story and he was like, “Hey, she’s doing my show ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and you should come to set,’ so I could see a couple of scenes that Indigo was in and Spike says, “She’s perfect. She’s perfect for your film.” And he introduced us and I have been so grateful for that connection. Just working with Indigo’s family feels like an extension of my family now. It just really couldn’t be more perfect.

Were you incorporating personal artifacts into the set design? I couldn’t help but notice a ticket stub for “Vantage Point,” which seemed so random and specific at the same time I didn’t know whether it was a skilled production designer keeping something in their back pocket or something deeply personal.

I’d say a little bit of both. [laughs] I’m a hoarder, so everything you see in that bedroom lived in my home at one point and I just threw all this stuff in crates, and I had this young woman who was more of a set dresser, but the most dedicated, creative person that you could ask to put this together. I just handed her the ticket stubs and said, “Go for it,” and I love that that’s there because it is extremely relevant. I’m not sure if that was purposeful on her part. I have to say I didn’t love that movie, but I did see it with my dad and if we spent time together, we’d eat at a restaurant, usually Chinese and see a movie, so [that nod was] was incorporating more of our history into it.

What’s it like putting this out into the world?

I think verklempt is just the best word that comes to mind for just being totally overwhelmed. I’m speaking to you now from Berlin and we had our third screening and the audience was just packed with people and hearing them laugh and clap along with the music has given this film life. And at the end of each screening, there’s a Q & A and the audiences have been asking these very philosophical questions and they’re really eager to hear the history of how it came together, so I really just can’t believe it. People who aren’t necessarily black or Jewish see themselves in it, which is definitely the goal, and I’ve heard it before, but this idea that the more specific you make a story, the more universal it can become has really cemented itself, so I’m just eager for it to be seen by more and more people.

“Broken Bird” is now available to stream here until April 30th and will next screen at the Aspen ShortsFest (online).

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