For those of you that saw “Nevada,” in the Reelfoot Shorts at Cucalorus 19, it will be no surprise that visionary filmmaker Ruth Paxton has returned to the Cucalorus Film Festival from her native Scotland to grace us yet again with her unique style and uncanny ability to tap the intimacy and complexity of the seamy, sexy, scary and sad sides of life. We couldn’t wait to welcome her back as an artist-in-residence for Cucalorus 20. Paxton returns to Cucalorus with a script of her feature film, “A Hymn For Mars,” currently in development.
“A Hymn for Mars” is a dramatic love story about self-discovery set between the Orkney Isles of Scotland and North Carolina. The script follows an emotionally battered Scottish folk singer, Kari, as she travels to Wilmington to discover her voice. There, Kari meets a hardened but hurting U.S. Marine, Mars, who has recently left active duty. Both are stuck and waning in uneasy, temporary states of being.
Paxton will debut selected scenes from “A Hymn for Mars,” at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at Bourgie Nights. The performance will feature local talents Kendra Goehring-Garrett, Jacob Keohane, Nicole Farmer, and Audrey Speicher.
We sat down with the filmmaker to discuss her plans for the project, her time in Wilmington thus far and to establish the definitive ranking of the Paxton siblings.
Q: Explain your path to Cucalorus. What specific opportunities did you see in the artist-in-residence program?
A: Lady [festival] ambassador HOPE DICKSON LEACH: Holler! Back in 2013, ahead of Cucalorus that year, she alerted me to the artistic residency. Cucalorus programmed my short “Nevada” and invited me to the 19th edition, where I was able to meet and bribe [festival director] Dan Brawley and [festival programmer] Ash McGuire. I was thoroughly charmed by the festival and it’s locale and applied with forceful enthusiasm … I knew I would use the opportunity to write, but as my feature, “A Hymn for Mars,” started to take shape over summer, it was a joy to know I’d be bringing it to its setting for intense development, thanks to the support of Cucalorus and Creative Scotland.
Q: What have been some personal highlights of your career?
A: I’ve been lucky enough to travel considerably with my work, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ve been a juror at a phenomenal festival in Lviv, Ukraine called Wiz-Art International Short Festival … Saw great shorts too, obviously. I’ve been a member of various Talent Labs including Toronto International Film Festival and CPH:PIX in Copenhagen, which were particularly memorable. I was a very young filmmaker when I was taken to Beijing and Kolkata to screen work and I spent six months as a resident in Amsterdam developing my first feature screenplay. The globetrotting is fab, but it’s the people you meet along the way, the ones who you keep, that make the experience remarkable, and I’ve collected some rare gems.
Q: What have you been working on while in Wilmington?
A: I arrived with what I’d call a ‘vomit’ draft of my feature, which means it’s the first stab and it’s hella-rough – an exploratory version. Over the first six weeks of my stay, I polished this and was able to inject a HUGE amount of fresh observational detail from walking the streets my characters walk, looking at houses they might live in, hanging in bars where scenes will be set and finding unexpected inspiration in the sounds and nature around me. I’ve even flavored the dialogue with N.C. zest and other things I’ve picked up from Cuca-staff and other locals. The experience of being here, and for the exact same time-period as my lead character, adds SO MUCH depth I can’t tell you. After completing this version, I moved into a period of preparation for my reading.
Q: You’re holding a script reading of your film “A Hymn for Mars,” during the festival. What sort of things, as a director, do you do to make a script reading more dynamic/prone to a performance-type setting than audiences might typically see?
A: So, I cast four local actors, and feel extremely fortunate to be working with Wilmington’s elite (Goehring-Garrett, Keohane, Speicher, Farmer, and production/stage manager Erika Edwards). In the first instance, we read the screen material in a table setting. Then, we met again to breakdown the crucial scenes, which chart the love-arc of my two leads, Kari and Mars. Then, I handpicked the most stage-worthy/dynamic bridging scenes.
After this, I wrote a stage-play version of the material (in two and a half days, which was a bit killer, I’ll be honest – but we read through this material and it flows really nicely). Many of my team are very experienced theater practitioners, so I’m learning a lot from them. Today, we got the piece to its feet and started blocking and shaping the scenes physically. It’s actually been a lot of fun to write theatrically, and allow for experimental performance to express the character’s inner workings. This is all gold dust for me when it comes to continuing development of the screenplay. The actors are now invested in their characters and they are telling me what needs to happen – this is the real gift of this process.
Together we are devising ways to demonstrate theatrically, moments that a close-up on camera would deliver on film. So, you’ll experience the actors delivering a mixture of prose-like narration, private thoughts and dialogue. It’s hectic and heavy. There are some major feels.
Q: Any interesting anecdotes or specific thoughts and experiences that inspired you to write “A Hymn For Mars?”
A: When I was at Cucalorus last year, I stayed at the Hilton Riverside, where every night I’d return to a foyer crowded with Marines celebrating at the USMC birthday balls. I also met a friend (who’d become my cyber pen pal and advisor), who has served as a U.S. Marine. It was an exchange with him over breakfast at a downtown diner that made me want to explore why young men (in particular) choose to join the military. I carry a journal everywhere, and I filled a single one cover to cover on the flight home with thoughts about a feature. I wanted to set a Scottish character against the backdrop of Wilmington and its military element.
Q: We’ve loved having you here in Wilmington as part of the crazy Cucalorus fam. Any highlights/anecdotes/friends from your time here that have stood out?
A: If all goes swimmingly, I’ll be back to shoot my feature in the next year.
This has been pretty special. Man, I’m tearing up just thinking about the people I’ll pine for … Cucalorus runs on pure, unbridled passion and the people who work here are, without question, the most dedicated, hardworking lionhearted humans I’ve had the pleasure of co-existing with.
Above all, however, I will miss Dock Street Osyter Bar’s mussels steamed in beer. I will miss them so much it hurts.
Q: And then lastly, the most important question we have for you: who is the more talented Paxton sibling? (Or are you all just brilliant?)
A: I think Louis [Paxton] would agree, I am.
RSVP to the live script reading and selected performances of “A Hymn for Mars” here!