Sundance 2020 Interview: Sara Kiener on the Warm Embrace of “The Shawl”

When Sara Kiener sought out a collaboration with her college classmate Brianne Farley, a children’s book illustrator, it was natural that they would be making an animated film together, and there was no more animated person in their lives than another Macalester alum Shane O’Neill, so much so that they didn’t even bother looking for an idea for the story before putting O’Neill in a recording booth and letting him and his partner Dusty Childers tell stories until they figured out the best one to turn into a movie.

“Brianne was there with me when we were recording, actually sketching while they did it and she sketched a picture of Dusty telling the cloud to move across the sky,” recalls Kiener, as the couple spoke about the time they believed Dusty had magical powers after recognizing Stevie Nicks was wearing the same gold polka dot garment that had adorned her in the video for “Stand Back” at a concert in Jones Beach nearly three decades after the fact. “We remember looking at that and laughing for a half-hour.”

Now a completed short, there will be no more joyful seven minutes at all of Sundance than “The Shawl,” which can be seen preceding screenings of “Mucho Mucho Amor” later this week at the festival and has O’Neill and Childers relating the unforgettable tale of the day that cemented their bond to each other during their first summer of courtship. Since a high-frame rate camera was likely out of the question, Kiener wisely turns to the only format that could properly capture the quick wit of her friends in all of their glory, drawing on Farley’s wily, expressive illustrations to serve as the foundation for Maya Edelman’s exuberant animation that puts one squarely at a Stevie Nicks concert where there’s magic in the air and, as Childers says, “so many miniature top hats you could die.”

Although the Fleetwood Mac singer clearly has top billing at the show, O’Neill, who playfully describes himself as “art teacher woman with a beard,” and Childers, who is admirably trying to make “linen chic” happen with a wardrobe comprised of bedsheets gowns, are obviously stars in their own right and “The Shawl” lets them shine at their very brightest, celebrating their unique personalities while beautifully allowing their infectious enthusiasm to envelop an audience and show that their love knows no bounds. On the eve of the film’s premiere in Park City, Kiener spoke about making the transition from being a tireless advocate for indie filmmakers over the years as a distribution expert to taking a turn behind the camera herself, doing justice to the cadence of O’Neill and Childers’ wicked repartee cinematically and making a film set at a Stevie Nicks concert that couldn’t include any of her actual music.

Did you have the directing bug for a while?

It all started three-and-a-half years ago, and it happened in fits and starts, as it goes sometimes. I have a full-time day job at a company called Cinereach and I work in distribution, so I help filmmakers crack their stories in terms of marketing and how to position their films. I realized over time there’s a lot of creative input that I was giving to that process that I thought, “Okay, maybe I have a knack for this.” Even putting a trailer together, I’m like, this is a work of art in my opinion, so that was part of [my interest] and then the other part was sheer curiosity. I’m married to a filmmaker who’s always encouraging me to explore my creative side more. I saw this one short from Sundance, “Doc Ellis and the LSD No-No” about four years ago, and I remember being completely blown away, thinking this is amazing in its simplicity and its storytelling and I want to take a crack at this. It wasn’t like I woke up one day and was like I’m going to be a director, but a few things clicked into place and this piece came out of it.

Did you actually know Shane and Dusty’s story for some time?

I did not know the story going in. We went into a recording studio with Shane and Dusty and we just said, “Tell us your favorite stories. Tell us vibrant, colorful, animated stories and we’ll find it.” We were really, really lucky to have access to the “This American Life” recording studio from another friend from college, Seth Lind, and he helped us find the story. It actually came down to this one about Stevie Nicks and another one about how they met, but it was just a little too X-rated. [laughs] So we decided to animate the Stevie Nicks one instead and it was perfect for me because I’m literally like a Stevie Nicks stan. I have every Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks album on vinyl, and from the beginning, the thing I was always most excited about animating was Dusty’s voice coming out of Stevie’s mouth.

Was animation always the idea?

Yeah, because Brianne was an illustrator and I really wanted to collaborate with her. She had hand-drawn a few things for me, so [when] I showed her the Dock Ellis short, I said, “What would you love to animate more than anything else?” And she said, “Shane and Dusty.” She ended up being able to only complete the storyboards for us, which was amazing, but then we brought on a different animator to finish it, and Maya Edelman, who ended up animating the whole thing, [actually] never met Dusty and Shane until after she animated the whole thing, but it’s mind boggling because she really captured them. It’s amazing. We shared photos with her, but she never met them until after she was done.

I love how the foreground and background interact with each other. What was it like finding the style of animation for the film and how this film would move?

I have to credit Maya and we talked a lot about the textures and the patterns and the interplay between using the pattern of a linen sheet as a background. We also looked at some of the backgrounds of Fleetwood Mac sets and took inspiration from those for the concert scenes. But a lot of it was creative liberty that Maya brought to life as she was moving through it. I always had in mind that there would be some segments that would be very, very simple and some segments that would be much more full and rich, and [Maya] struck the perfect balance of finding that in the end. One of the backgrounds I was most excited about was when Dusty talks about being raised by witches — I always pictured just him surrounded by a coven —Maya really nailed it.

And [Shane and Dusty’s] banter is just intoxicating. I could listen to them talk for hours, so it was about finding an organic story where they were interrupting each other just enough, but not too much so you couldn’t make sense of what they were saying. There’s a little bit of fine-tuning and finessing that went into that, but Seth found it basically what he edited almost three years ago is almost exactly what you see in the animation completely, so it was really about finding it in the audio first and then bringing that to life.

It’s mentioned in the Kickstarter campaign that you were once thinking of live-action inserts at one time. Did this just make more sense to be fully animated?

There was one point where I was thinking about taking photos of Dusty and Shane and animating those but in the end, because the photos are so amazing and I wanted people to see how they look in real life, what we ended up doing was put those photos in the [end] credit sequence and what I really love about that is that you get to meet these people and you get to fall in love with them without any judgments or preconceived notions of who they are or what they might be like. Then at the end of this whole journey of falling in love with them, you get to see what they look like and it invites the audience to maybe think twice the next time they see a larger than life person out in the street wearing linen for a dress [because] I bet that person loves Stevie Nicks just like me, and not come to the table with certain judgments or who they might be or what they’re about.

Was it difficult to create a score that would evoke Fleetwood Mac but not copy them?

Yeah, that is the sheer brilliance of luck that came to be. I randomly met Teddy Ottaviano from a band called the Book of Love and I told him about this piece I was making…I think it was the day I submitted to Sundance, and he said, “I remixed ‘Landslide’ with Stevie Nicks in 1997.” And I said, “Holy shit, I’m sending you my short” [because] I thought maybe he’ll like it. We didn’t even know where it was going to premiere at this point and he e-mailed me back [saying], “I love it. How can we work together?” So it was just like sheer luck, but the music that he made is an homage to Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Nicks without being like a complete knockoff that we’re going to get sued for. It just elevates the whole thing, so I’m so happy to have found him and collaborated with him on this piece.

At the end of a long process like this, what was it like seeing it all come together?

With animation, you get to see it evolve and come to life over a long period of time and you see little bits animated and then more and more and more, and when you think about something for so long, you picture it in your mind and then it starts to take form and then it took my breath away. And now it’s absolutely surreal to think the first thing I made is premiering at Sundance. I know how rare and lucky that is, and I can’t even imagine that this is going to be screening in front of a room full of hundreds of people. That’s a whole other unspeakable moment that I’m not prepared for. But I just became a mom five weeks ago and I just became a filmmaker at the same time, and it’s like I said to my wife [recently], “I’m becoming two things I’ve never been before at the same time. It’s really crazy. It’s wild.

“The Shawl” is screening virtually through the Metrograph from December 9th-15th.

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