Interview with director Gretl Claggett

GRETL CLAGGETT is a creator/director committed to telling singular stories that reflect current dilemmas but are timeless — stories that entertain and transform. Her first film, Happy Hour — narrated by Julianne Moore — is based on true events. The film screened as an official selection at 18 festivals, winning several awards and garnering praise from Oscar-winning Writer/Director Robert Benton: “Happy Hour is a lush, elegiac film about an extremely difficult subject and Ms. Claggett handles it masterfully.”

Another passion of Gretl’s is pioneering the use of innovative technologies to shape stories that engage and inspire audiences. She wrote and directed Sony’s first-ever 4K 360° cinematic music video, leads creative on high-profile, experiential events, such as Entertainment Weekly’s inaugural festival, PopFest, and tech-forward conferences such as IBM’s Amplify on Watson Cognitive Marketing. One of her specialties is merging live performance with state-of-the-art multimedia, for which she’s won top Telly Awards.

In January 2020, Gretl directed three episodes of an indie comedic digital series, Chronicles of a BLEEP Year Old, and is in development on a memoir, a feature-length and a long-form narrative project.

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

I’ve been telling stories in one form or another since I can remember. I started acting when I was 7 years old in professional summer stock theater. My father was a cinephile, collecting 16mm films which he’d project onto a large folding screen in a makeshift “theater” in our house — first, in our living room, then later, upstairs in a spare room, where he built a small projection booth and installed a row of old theater seats from a cinema that was torn down in our town. I always loved movies. But my focus for a long time was on acting, theater, then writing poetry and prose. It was when I decided to make my first film, Happy Hour, that the filmmaking/directing bug bit me hard. I loved it because it gave me the opportunity to merge all my passions and talents, and to collaborate with a myriad of other artists and technicians.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

There are many successful filmmakers who never attended film school. I agree with the philosophy that you learn by doing. Film schools, however, can be a great place to be mentored, make connections and gain exposure for your work. One challenge when you come to it on your own, as I have, is breaking into the world and building a network or team of trusted collaborators: that takes time.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

I think it can be hard to start any creative project. It takes time, space and usually a lot of energy… But filmmaking is especially a marathon — from the development phase through pre-production, production, post-production, on into the festival realm and distribution — there are problems to solve every step of the way. Some problems can be foreseen and avoided, but because every project is different, and there are so many factors at play, others will catch you by surprise. So, I think the biggest factor in conquering the process is learning how to enjoy and embrace it as much as possible every step of the way, through the lows and the highs — remaining really flexible throughout it while holding your intention and vision.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

During the edit of STORMCHASER, I realized that a pivotal scene just wasn’t working — for a combination of reasons. After trying in vain with my talented editor for a few days to make it work, I surrendered to the fact that we’d have to do a re shoot. Because I had the shape of the whole film, I also saw that the scene needed to be much different than my original vision. So, I did a major rewrite — taking a two character 4-page scene down to a single character 1-page scene. This ultimately better served the story as a featurette/backdoor pilot. My willingness to stay flexible and kill my darlings not only saved and served the story, but made the overall film stronger than it would have been otherwise.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

Between our financing falling through to filming in remote locations with absolutely no production infrastructure, there were innumerable challenges that frequently felt insurmountable. One thing that saved the film was all the deep script and pre-pro work I did, along with my core team — shot-listing, breaking down the script and doing backstory work with every single actor, no matter how small the role, to painstakingly figuring out how to tackle the VFX shots on a low-budget. In the face of every challenge, I refused to give up (even though I wanted to sometimes). I kept problem-solving, held the vision, and stayed flexible — collaborating with the talented cast, crew, and post-production team, remembering that a story is created three times: first, on the page; then, during the shoot; and, finally, in the edit.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

There are always many hard choices. Probably the hardest artistically on STORMCHASER was being forced to wrap a scene — because of weather and production delays, plus budget issues — knowing we just didn’t “get it.” I cried myself to sleep that night, then got up 3 hours later, still crying as I showered, before pulling myself together and forging ahead with the rest of the shoot. Afterwards, I vowed never to allow myself to get caught in that kind of situation again.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I found my team through friends, networking, and industry recommendations. Clear communication and creating an environment of respect is key in building and nurturing any team, plus leading by example. I’m demanding, but never demand more of anyone else than I do of myself — continually committing to create the best work possible, no matter what.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

There’s no “one-size-fits-all” audience. Each has its own preferences. As a filmmaker, it’s important to understand who your ideal audiences are, and what they’ll respond to, without letting that knowledge limit your possibilities in creating the story you’re inspired to tell. Each of us are audience members, so I like the idea of making a film that you’ve never seen before and really want to see.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

STORMCHASER has screened at a number of great festivals so far, and the momentum on the circuit is building. I’m deeply grateful for that. Attending festivals has given me the opportunity to gain insightful feedback on the film, meet talented, like-minded creators, make new friends, see some amazing new work, and feel connected to a community. I think being strategic and holding a clear intent, yet also staying open to new people, projects and possibilities helps you to get the most out of attending festivals. The same can be said for life!

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

I’m never really one to play it safe, so even if I were writing and/or directing a “formulaic” film or series, I’d look for nuanced ways to turn the story on its head and make it unique, fresh and original. That said, I’m not a fan of being clever for the sake of being clever. Every creative choice, in my opinion, should be grounded in serving the specifics of the story — including finding the most effective cinematic language and style to embody and transmit that story to an audience.