There’s a slight hint of irony in the fact that when Annie J. Howell and Lisa Robinson were at NYU Film School, the filmmakers first forged a bond with their shared curiosity about technology, given their debut feature, “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts” is at times about how our gadgets can prevent us from human connection. However, it’s obvious they’ve found a happy medium between the two in telling the warm, lighthearted story of Sarah Sparks, a young, enterprising technologist in Manhattan who’s stopped cold by the discovery she’s expecting a child, her ability to fix delicate devices offering no preparation for repairing the relationship with her estranged mother (Mary Beth Peil) who she wants to make peace with before her own kid is due.
While the film is about Sarah’s rediscovery of her roots on a road trip from New York City to Sedona, “Small, Beautifully Moving Parts” presents the discovery of the actress playing her, Anna Margaret Hollyman. A radiant presence who surely is familiar to anyone who’s attended the SXSW Film Festival (more on this later), Hollyman is clearly one to watch as an actress on the rise, but also one you can’t take your eyes off of, able to do so much with simple expressions.
While in Manhattan once more to kick off the film’s second tour of America — this time it’s in theaters instead of being in production — Hollyman, Howell and Robinson spoke to me about making the tight constraints of an indie production even tighter by piling the entire crew into a van for a 21-day shoot, not being able to rely on technology at times and how Hollyman was anointed the Queen of SXSW.
Since this originated with a series of shorts called “Sparks” for the Sundance Channel, how did it turn into a feature?
Annie Howell: It started with technology. We started coming up with this idea when everybody was just getting their first iPhones and getting very excited about their devices and we created this character who’s a female technologist who feels very close to technology, maybe even closer than to the people in her life. So we made “Sparks,” the webisodes exploring those themes, then we thought we wanted to take it into deeper emotional territory for this character and give her a real life challenge, a life transition. That’s where the feature came from. Becoming a parent seemed like an interesting idea and we felt like there was room out there to portray that experience against the backdrop of technology.
And I read you both had newborns of your own. Did that make this even more resonant when you went out on the road to film?
AH: The experience was pretty recent. We were away from our families and that already inspired a certain state of mind and those feelings of complexity that are pretty common we think about becoming a parent were close to the surface, so it was good material.
Anna, what attracted you to the film?
Anna Margaret Hollyman: I liked that this is a movie about a woman who is pregnant with her first child and questioning this entire process. Particularly now if you see any movies with women who are pregnant, it usually turns into this strange dynamic between a woman who’s neurotic and nesting and usually a husband character freaking out about being a father, so I liked seeing the tables turned. Just because you’re going through this biological process, you may not be necessarily connected to it or even excited about it. It’s actually kind of terrifying what’s happening to your body, so I know that makes it sound like a horror film, but I really appreciated that and hadn’t seen that on film before. That was mixed with a woman who is a technophile and that was done in a way where it was just part of who she was. It was a way to kind of ground her a little bit and make her a very modern woman that I really found appealing.
The film really rests on your shoulders too and you’re often alone in making this long drive across the country. Was that a different experience for you?
AMH: It helped inform the character a little bit in a way that I wasn’t expecting because there were five of us in a minivan and the crew and the set would grow as we went from location to location. People would fly in, but I kind of drove actually the entire shoot because [the filmmakers] also decided for some reason that I have amazing geographical skills. One of my only skills is I would be like, “We are going north, I can feel it” when we didn’t have our GPS. So a lot of those contemplative moments are actually truly contemplative moments for me [as I’m driving], thinking about the character and the situation she’d be in. There is something about the West that’s very meditative and isolating, even though you have four other people with a boom and a camera in your face. It did help in bringing out the isolation of Sara’s journey and how it does become very lonely and it kind of pushes her to find her mother and to try to find some sort of resolution. But yeah, it was a lot of driving. [laughs]
Annie and Lisa, did you actually do the road trip yourself before filming or did you just hit the road with the camera?
AH: More of the latter. We wrote the film with Google Maps open and the resources we had. We had been to those locations many times in our mind and also in person because in the film, the sister’s house is a member of Lisa’s family and that crazy geodesic dome that’s in the film is truly next door to my parents’ house in Arizona, so we felt very secure about doing all that planning from our desks. Once we were on the road, we truly were experiencing this, which allowed for a little bit more of an impromptu process that inspired moments like we need a gas station between here and the next 100 miles, let’s find out.
You must’ve been in areas where cell reception and wi-fi wasn’t available, so did that drive home some of the film’s points about technology?
Lisa Robinson: We both in the past have experienced a techout of some sort, so that that was an easy thing to pull from. But when we were traveling through Arizona, we definitely didn’t have cell connection at times and just the sensation of being out in the desert, it’s a really different feeling. We were excited about that. Whenever I feel like a landscape ignites an emotion in me, I feel like that’s really going to translate to an audience too, so we felt very grateful to the aesthetics of the landscape that we were just allowed to capture in this way that made the road trip movie a really wonderful, resourceful way to tell this story.
AH: It was like having an additional collaborator.
AMH: Actually, I was reading an article in the Times about how [psychologists] had figured out the way our brains relate to our iPhones is not unlike when a loved one comes into the room. Originally, they thought it was an addictive association like cigarettes or drinking, but actually some people look at their iPhones and the synapses in our brains associate it with love at this point. I like to think that’s because loved ones are calling through our phone, but I’m sure that we’ve probably passed the threshold of that and slowly going over to the other side where we’re truly in love with our phones.
When we were filming, we had to have our phones off, so they don’t interrupt a take, but also we were going to these beautiful national parks in Arizona that you can’t get any service and I actually went through a strange technology detox for almost two-and-a-half weeks. I actually highly, highly recommend people do that. It’s rare, particularly because we all have that weird thumb muscle now that’s probably now within us through evolution [because] you’re constantly hitting your iPhone, but I think it is something that’s kind of essential. It definitely made me realize I have a codependent relationship with my iPhone.
Before we go, I have to ask Anna, how did you become the most ubiquitous actress at SXSW? You’re in nearly every bumper that plays before the films and then most of the movies too.
AMH: It’s so funny that you say that. I think the trick is [SXSW Film producer] Janet Pierson saw me in a short years ago. I went to the New York Film Festival…I want to say this was four years ago. And she was the first person ever to come up to me and be like, “Hey, so you’re that girl from that short that I saw at Cinevegas” when it was still around. Ever since then, Janet’s been like super kind to me. Then I just…I have no idea. Usually, I feel like I exist in a vacuum and then people go to South By and they’re like, “What is happening? Why are you in every bumper? I’m so confused.” And this year with “Gayby” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me” — my parents live in Austin too, so I feel like I have a natural pull there.
Has the festival life treated you well?
AMH: When anyone says they want to be an actor, the first thing you get is “Okay, good luck with that,” but the festival community has been essential to me as an artist, just in terms of feeling inspired and sustaining. You create these relationships with people across the country and then you all kind of run into each other at different times, whether that be in Denver or the Hamptons or in Austin. Everyone’s working on stuff that’s very personal to them and that’s very inspirational, so it’s almost like going back to the well. I feel very lucky that I even get to be part of that community.
“Small, Beautifully Moving Parts” is now playing in New York at the Cinema Village and will continue onto the Denver FilmCenter on May 25th, the Facets Cinematheque in Chicago on June 1st, the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio on June 8th and the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on June 15th.