Interview: Samantha Buck & Marie Schlingmann on Dancing Around the Truth with “Sister Aimee”

Typically, you move back into your parents’ basement after the world has laid you low, but it was the opposite for Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann had been riding high following the success of their short “The Mink Catcher,” which premiered in its hometown of Dallas before bows at Telluride and SXSW and eventually becoming a selection of Short of the Week, and just needed the space to develop their next project at Buck’s mother’s house. A tip from Anna Margaret Hollyman, one of the stars of “The Mink Catcher” had led them down the rabbit hole of learning more about the incredible – often unbelievably so – story of Aimee Semple McPherson, the founder of the Foursquare Church where she brought together the extremities of Hollywood and the City of Angels in Los Angeles by incorporating showbiz pizzaz into religious sermons that could travel widely thanks to the recent advent of radio in the 1920s.

It turns out the time Buck and Schlingmann spent away from the world was the one of the rare bits of truth the filmmakers could hang onto while attempting to do justice to the story of McPherson – that and their appreciation for and the ability to spin a delightful tall tale – as they use the time in which the evangelist disappeared for a spell to better understand why someone with as much success as she did felt compelled to drop out of society for a bit. In a wry introduction, “Sister Aimee” estimates in its opening title card only 5 1/2% of what you’re about to see is true, but for a larger-than-life presence such as McPherson, you can’t imagine how else Buck and Schlingmann could’ve captured her spirit any better, nor made a film any more entertaining than their debut feature, following McPherson across the border to Mexico with a would-be Hemingway named Kenny (Michael Mosley), whose inspiration goes only so far as creating pen names for them both to lead new lives.

Although little is real in McPherson’s life either after Mexico or before, as one learns from the police interrogations that haul in family and acquaintances to ask about her whereabouts (a murderer’s row of actors including Julie White, Macon Blair and Bill Wise), only to find she’s duped them all at one time or another, there is something undoubtedly authentic about the connection she makes with Rey (Andrea Suarez Paz), the guide hired by Aimee and Kenny to show them the sights of the Southwest and turns out to be hiding some things of her own. While there’s an open question as to how long the three can survive on the run as the authorities close in, “Sister Aimee” proves as crafty as its heroines in asking how Aimee and Rey have survived this long in a world so stacked against them as women, often turning underestimation of them into great strength.

It’s the great gift from Buck and Schlingmann that you’re able to see in Aimee and Rey what they start to see in each other in “Sister Aimee” and one suspects that creating such a dynamic duo might’ve been somewhat effortless when it appears to come so naturally to the two behind the scenes as I witnessed first-hand in talking to them shortly before the film made its Texas premiere at SXSW. After wowing audiences on the festival circuit since its debut at Sundance, the film is finally beginning its theatrical run this week with a host of special screenings in Austin and Los Angeles and it was a great privilege to get to speak to the filmmakers about how they pulled off a fast one – in literal terms only – with this knockout period comedy that has energy and panache to spare.

How did this come about?

Samantha Buck: All roads lead to Anna Margaret Hollyman.

Marie Schlingmann: We got in a situation where we were in development on so many things, we felt who knows what will happen? We want to make a movie now where we can retain control. So Anna Margaret told us about Sister Aimee because she’s super-interested in local L.A. history and said, “You should look into this woman.” So we did and it was just such an interesting female character, but we didn’t know what to do with it at the time because we didn’t want to make a big biopic – it seemed like [it would cost] $20 million and it’s L.A. in the 1920s. So we put it away for a little bit.

Samantha Buck: But Anna Margaret introduced us to Bettina Barrow, who we’ve been working with for a while on a feature version of “The Mink Catcher” and Bettina’s producing partner is Lily Rabe, so when we had the script, we sent it to Anna Margaret and Bettina, like “We’re going to send you something and let’s just try to make it.” It was little bit like “Field of Dreams” where if we build it – if we pretend we’re making it [laughs] – it’ll just happen.

Marie Schlingmann: And we wrote this having Anna-Margaret in mind as Aimee, but I don’t know if we literally told her before we wrote it that “We’re going to write it for you,” and I think as an actor, you’re used to people saying, “Yes, I’m going to write something for you,” but then a fraction of that ever really happens. So at some point, we were like, “We’re writing this thing. You remember when you told us about Sister Aimee?” And I think she was at least a little bit surprised when we were like “Here’s the script!”

Samantha Buck: “You better learn how to tap dance!” [laughs] We wrote it in the spring of 2017 and we were shooting in the summer of 2018, so that’s pretty quick.

Marie Schlingmann: Pretty quick for an indie.

Even without knowing that, this is an astonishing period film for what had to be a limited budget and amount of time. After pulling off the same magic on “The Mink Catcher,” did you have an idea of how to do it, even though this is a completely different milieu?

Samantha Buck: Because we had the feature version of “Mink Catcher first [before filming the short], we wanted to see what’s possible on a budget that’s period and explore the visual language of the world, so we told Jonathan Rudak, who was the production designer on “Mink Catcher,” and our [cinematographer] Carlos [Valdes-Lora] that we were going to go away and write this thing and then we sent them the first draft of “Aimee,” and we said, “We want to try to make this quickly, so this is what we’re thinking of in terms of budget and how we’re going to do it.” So we had input from heads of department even on the first draft, and as we were trying to figure out what we wanted to story to be, we could get input from Anna Margaret in terms of her character, we could get input from Carlos, so we could start talking about how we could shoot this if we had money, and it was the same thing with the production design team, so we could start implementing it in the script. We didn’t have to go through the process of [saying], “Here’s all the crazy things we want to do,” and then they do a budget and say, “Okay, now you have to figure out how to make it fit this box.”

Marie Schlingmann: There was some of that, obviously, but getting them involved really, really early on is the secret to building that kind of period world on a low budget and making it work. The other secret to making this happen is you have to ask for a hundred favors everywhere. You’re depending on the kindness of strangers…

Samantha Buck: …Who become your good friends.

Marie Schlingmann: Yes, and in Austin, we shot for two weeks on a soundstage and they gave us an incredible deal. Otherwise, we couldn’t have done all the interrogations that were shot there or the musical number. Another location we shot at for three days is Star Hill Ranch, which is outside of Austin, and and the guys who own it, Matt and Adam Woolley, also own the biggest prop house in the Southwest. They were incredibly generous and a very large percentage of the props came from them.

Samantha Buck: Yeah, from the get-go, we wanted to embrace that old school artifice, so
we wanted to build sets and have this juxtaposition of old school screwball comedy sets and real, rugged, fast nature. Once our production designer and our DP and all of these people involved [agreed on] what’s possible and everyone’s on the same page, it never felt like we were making creative choices that were putting handcuffs on us that we couldn’t get out of. It felt like these things were coming together in a way that we could be creatively fulfilled telling the story that we wanted to tell in the way we wanted to tell it, but also work within the confines that we had to work within, other than some instances where it would’ve been nice to have some more extras. [laughs]

This may be silly to ask, but we’re the colors as vivid on the set and done practically as they are in the final film?

Marie Schlingmann: It was definitely already in there. The coloring process in post was done with a light touch because we didn’t want for it to look digital, so very early on, we established with Carlos and Jonathan and Juliana [Hoffpauir], our costume designer, that we wanted it to have a little bit of that old Kodachrome [feel] with that rich primary color and then juxtapose that with more earthy tones of that road trip.

Samantha Buck: No sepia! Because when you start thinking about doing period, this is a story about the past, but we also wanted it to feel modern and there seems to be a short cut for “Oh, it’s period,” like desaturate it, sepia. It’s become a stylistic go-to choice and we’re like, “Let’s go the other way.”

On that note, it’s an adventure far more than a biopic and structurally, this must’ve been tough to crack in a fresh way. How did you figure it out?

Marie Schlingmann: We weren’t super-interested in that biopic kind of structure and what we really thought was interesting about Sister Aimee was that she was so incredibly powerful at that time in her life and was actually able to get her message across as a woman. She was the head of her own empire and in this one moment, she decides to run away from it, so whatever happened [in that moment] we thought was an interesting set-up, and then she decided to come back.

Samantha Buck: And Aimee never swayed from the story that she told when she came back, so the truth of it when we say the film is “five percent truth and the rest is imagination,” there’s this span of time in her life that’s unaccounted for in which she has this very Biblical story of how she was kidnapped and nobody knows what happened. When we started talking about it, [we thought] here’s an opportunity that we can fill in the blanks, but also say something about storytelling because whether or not you believe she was a charlatan or she was healing for real, or she was the second coming or just a cunning businesswoman, everyone agreed she was an incredible stage performer when you read what people said about her. Charlie Chaplin would go watch her shows, Bette Davis said she was the best live performer she’d ever seen. So we thought the truth of this woman is that she was an incredibly charismatic performer and something in her broke in that moment when she ran away.

That was an interesting truth to hang onto in terms of her character and [we could] embrace the idea of the power of storytelling, [because] it’s like whose story gets to be told? And who gets to write it in the history books? How do these narratives get taken and manipulated?” As we did more research about what was happening in Mexico at the time and characters like Rae, it all started leading thematically to the same place about female narratives of identity and how they’re usurped or morphed or changed. All of these characters’ ambition is to have immortality in some capacity – in the books somewhere – and it felt like if Aimee’s this great entertainer who can’t do what she’s beloved for anymore and wants to run away, what would make her come back?

Marie Schlingmann: So the movie really isn’t a biopic for us. We have no idea what happened to her and we’re not claiming that we do, but hopefully we’re saying something truthful about her as a character in history – a really compelling, interesting, and sometimes problematic character in history.

Samantha Buck: And she really was a pioneer in radio, so [we thought about] what you could do in terms of 1920s radio play and the mashing of the genres [where] it would feel true to the type of movie that Aimee would want to see herself in.

How did Rey come into the picture? I had to wait until the end credits to realize that was Andrea Suarez Paz, who I liked so much in “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors.”

Samantha Buck: Wasn’t she something?

Marie Schlingmann: She’s so different in this one. We had a really wonderful casting director and Andrea auditioned in New York and it was the kind of audition where someone comes in and takes it because there’s something so incredibly powerful and vulnerable at the same time in her, and we thought this is what this character needs because [the film is] fast-paced and fun and there’s snappy dialogue, but we wanted to make sure these things are grounded in real ambition and pain for Aimee and Kenny and Rey, all of the human emotions that drive you. And we watched “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” after we saw her in the audition, and it’s so different, but it’s wonderful…

Samantha Buck: So different!

Marie Schlingmann: …in the same way that I think you can see some of Anna Margaret’s work before – and she’s so great in very different kinds of movies and she’s doing something in this movie that I haven’t seen her do before, which is so incredibly exciting.

Which leads me to ask, after working with Anna Margaret before, are there things you want to bring out that you know she can do, but maybe hasn’t been onscreen before?

Samantha Buck: Yes! When we came off of “Mink Catcher,” she was the biggest surprise for us because we loved her and we loved her work [before], but after working with her, [you realize] she’s so good at what she does and you don’t get the span of what she’s doing until you’re in the edit room and you’re looking at the various takes. There are subtle differences that she puts in every single take and the more you edit her, the more you just love her. We came out of it [thinking], “God, she is Carole Lombard, she is Katherine Hepburn. I want to see Anna Margaret in “It Happened One Night.” So when she mentioned Aimee and once it was very clear we were writing this for her, [we asked ourselves] what do we want to see her do? When we’d say Anna Margaret is going to play Sister Aimee when we were trying to raise money, I think for most people, it was like, “But of course!” [laughs] But one of the most exciting experiences of this film is how she exceeds your expectations when you’re working with her.

Marie Schlingmann: And it’s really, really important to work with the actors as early on as possible. With Anna Margaret, we were in a luxurious situation. We had her read the first draft and could implement that collaboration into other drafts, but even with Andrea and Michael, we wanted to really build those characters out with them.

Samantha Buck: And I will say for Michael Mosley, because I think that Kenny is a character that you could just easily not like on so many levels, that he understood the character’s role in the film and you just find him charming even when he’s doing such douchey things. Michael really found the humor and where he could be loveable, but also had no ego about [being a foil for Aimee and Mexicali Rose]. It was very clear with him – “I’m a liability. I’ve got to go. I’ve got to get out of here.”

Naturally, I want to tip-toe around the end of the film, but it probably isn’t spoiling too much to say it culminates in a big musical moment, and I recall at Sundance you mentioned that you worked with Graham Reynolds, your composer, from that moment backwards to create the score. What was that process like?

Marie Schlingmann: Especially in indie filmmaking, you’re kind of like “Oh, the score I’m going to worry about in post,” but we knew that the musical sequence needed to be written in pre-production because it needs to be filmed and for a hot second, we were [thinking], maybe we’ll get a theater person to write it and then we’ll get somebody else to do the score later. But when we thought about it for more than half-a-second, we were like, “This is a terrible idea. We need this to feel like it’s growing out of the world of the movie.” Otherwise at 83 minutes in, you’re like what the hell is going on? So we got in touch with Graham Reynolds, who’s a genius musician who’s so versatile – he did a rock opera about Pancho Villa and he’s such a renaissance musician – that we thought this is the right person to tackle that span of music that needs to exist in the film.

Samantha Buck: And it was fun writing the [musical sequence], thinking that you’re building to something and hoping that whatever you’re doing at the beginning to build up to it, please let it work because you’re starting at the end. And with the lyricist, they’re like, “What do you want this to say?” Because I think in the script, [there was] just a line that said “a song of redemption…”

Marie Schlingmann: And love. And there’s dancing.

Samantha Buck: And there’s dancing. [laughs]

That’s like a 10-minute scene.

Samantha Buck: Yeah. [laughs] So everyone’s like, “What is this?” But it was great [having to think about it] because [the production] was moving so fast that it gave us a moment to pause. I always think when you’re in pre-pro and you’re talking to heads of production, they always ask you a question that reminds you, “Oh yeah, remind me of what the movie’s about. What story are we trying to tell?” So we sat down and we were like, “What’s this supposed to say?” And then it hit us pretty early on that “Oh, she has to be the one to tell her story. She has to take back ownership over her story.” And Graham’s lyricist sent the first pass of the lyrics two weeks later and we’re like…

Marie Schlingmann: “Yeah, this is great. We’ll work with this.”

What’s it been like taking it out on the road and seeing the reaction to it?

Marie Schlingmann: It’s great. It’s always a whirlwind, but it’s really wonderful to see it with an audience. And it’s so well-received. A lot of people feel happy when they watch it and with all the deeper stuff that’s in there, it’s such a nice thing to be a part of.

Samantha Buck: Yeah, even with the craziness that happens once you start going on the festival circuit, the noise can get pretty loud at times, but the consistent thing is when you go to the screenings and you get to talk to people about it, it always keeps it real grounded and celebratory in a way that’s oh right, this is why you do it. This is why you make the movie. Because people see it and you can talk about it and they’re getting something out of it. That’s the fun part.

“Sister Aimee” opens on September 27th in Austin at the Marchesa where there will be Q & As with cast members Nathan Zellner, John Merriman, Bill Wise & producer David Hartstein on the 27th and with Macon Blair, Nathan Zellner, John Merriman, Bill Wise, composer Graham Reynolds & producer David Hartstein on September 28th; in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale where there will be Q & As following the 7:40 pm show with Anna Margaret Hollyman, Bettina Barrow, and Michael Mosley, moderated by Lily Rabe on September 27th; with Marie Schlingmann, Samantha Buck, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Michael Mosley, and Amy Hargreaves, moderated by Danielle DiGiacomo on September 28th and with Marie Schlingmann, Samantha Buck, and Bettina Barrow on September 29th; and in New York at the Village East Cinemas.

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