Spotlight by Dean Treadway: "Janey Makes a Play"

Already one of the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival's most charming offerings, Jared Callahan's debut feature documentary Janey Makes a Play moves like the fastest circus train that's ever rumbled through town. It tells the story of a 90-year-old firecracker of a lady whose penchant for community theater invigorates the little California community of Rio Vista. Janey (the filmmaker's grandmother, though this fact is never revealed in the film) is the generous and energetic star of the show, though she and Callahan's movie willingly give up the stage to a large and wild cast of amateurs, making this into sort of a Waiting for Guffman with heart (Callahan's movie doesn't mock its participants as does Christopher Guest's comedy, but it doesn't pretend either that Janey's productions are of Broadway or even off-off-off-Broadway quality; this is a fun movie, but it isn't mean). In a speedy, well-edited 80 minutes, Callahan's cameras capture the riotous weeks leading up to Janey's 18th stage production, one that she fears might be her first flop. The high school football star can't remember his lines, the ingenue hardly shows up for rehearsal and can barely stand locking eyes with her romantic lead, the complex sets--including a popcorn cannon--aren't working out as planned, and the town's downward economic turn is squeezing the life out of some of the supporting cast. Still, the community's more creative types turn out for Janey and her plays, simply because they lead many of these kids and adults to greater realizations about their abilities and to higher ambitions for the future. Callahan's film stands as a testament to a woman with fiery spirit and a bottomless creative drive, yes, but it also serves as an ultimately touching ode to the adrenaline-pumping joys to be had in simply putting on a show. It's remarkably assured, sweet-natured stuff and not to be missed. Janey Makes a Play (whose trailer can be seen here) has its World Premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival on the Plaza Theater screen Sunday March 29th at 2:30pm.

We talked with the film's director Jared Callahan recently about the process of constructing Janey Makes a Play:

How long have you had this idea to do this film about your grandmother?  

I got the idea while visiting home for Christmas in 2011. Janey was at my parents’ house and we were chatting about the play they just finished. When she started describing her ideas for the 18th original musical melodrama, the whole movie instantly formed in my head. We got called in for dinner, and I wrote "Janey Makes a Play" on a note in my phone. I didn’t think anything would come of it, as typically one idea actually materializes for every 200 or so that I write!  The next month the idea wouldn’t leave my mind, so I began fleshing it out with potential plot and character arcs. I convinced myself this was something that might be worth filming. When Janey and the group in Rio Vista gave us permission, we were ready to begin principal photography in August of 2012.

What are your memories of her growing up? Do you feel like she's influenced your own creativity?

I was really into basketball growing up. For my birthday one year a package arrived that was perfectly basketball shaped. When my birthday came I tore into the round-shaped present from Janey...and it was a globe of the moon, a moon globe. Haha! That’s Janey. She moves to the beat of her own drum, always has been such a free spirit. Theater, dance, and music have been a part of her life for so long, it is who she is. Something that doesn’t come across in the movie is her drawing. Janey draws the most amazing pictures, and when we would ask her about it she just dodges the questions! That’s how amazing she is, that she doesn’t even see what she is creating as unique. It is just her way of life. And I didn’t realize how much Janey had influenced my creativity until making this movie. It was wonderful to be learning things about my own family and myself as she told stories. At a test screening someone said, “Wow, Jared, I understand you a lot more now.” I was totally caught off guard; it hadn’t even dawned on me until then, but now I see it. She inspired a whole family of performers and creatives. The way I think and view the world have totally been influenced by Janey’s creativity

Has she ever asked you to be in one of her plays?

I would have loved to be in one of her plays! She started making the plays the year I moved away for college. The plays have involved so many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins that they truly are a family affair!  So I would always hear about what they were doing, but was never a part of them. Janey bounces story and plot ideas off of me when she is writing the plays, but I’ve never acted on her stage. We have joked about trying to do a play where the whole family gets to act together; it’d be a riot.

It looks like you got pretty unfettered access to the town of Rio Vista and its people. Did you encounter anyone who didn't want to be part of the film's production?

Janey introduced us to everyone as, “This is my grandson and his friends, they are going to make a movie about us.” Everyone received us really openly, but I also don’t think they knew the size of the project. One couple Googled us and watched our other films online. They gave me a knowing nod the next time we saw them, as to say that they knew what we were about, but that was it. Everyone was on board. People love Janey so much that they were more than willing to help us. Pretty much the moment we finished shooting people were asking to see the film. People outside the film industry have very little concept of how long it takes to finish a film. I eventually put up a teaser just to try and show the scope of the movie. I think we did over 65 interviews for the film. Once people in town saw the teaser I think they grasped the scope of the project, and we were given more grace to finish the film well.

Yeah, your film has a dauntingly large cast of characters, but you found time in 80 minutes to give them all distinct personalities. I'm wondering about your process in the editing room. What was your ratio of footage used to footage discarded, how long was the shoot, and how complicated was the post-production schedule?

Post-production felt crazy on this film. We had full characters and plot lines that got cut from the film just due to space. We shot for 21 days across the three months they were making the play. We edited the film for over a year to get to the rough cut. We had three different editors quit the film due to a combination of having so much footage and having very little money to pay them. It was a huge job. The movie began to take form when Brad Kester joined on as editor. He and I worked together to figure out what we actually had filmed. Sometimes you think you have a very strong storyline, but then when you see the footage, it isn’t as strong as you think. Having multiple voices in the edit helped us sharpen those parts.

We were hugely blessed to have Toy Gun Films see the rough cut and come on board to help finish post-production. We did test screenings through the Fall of 2014, and received really helpful feedback. I had gotten so close to the characters I didn’t realize there were some very basic plot questions that we were not answering. We did 3 days of reshoots, mainly interviews to fill in some gaps. The film was just finalized the first week in March. Making a movie feels like running three marathons in a row; production, post, and now we are beginning the third marathon: trying to get people to see the film!

In the end, the goal was to let the characters who embodied the town and the theater troupe have the most voice. I think that you get a true sense of who these people are and why they do what they do. It is extraordinary that everyone in town makes these plays as a part of their regular life. I hope seeing this film allows them to see how transformational their plays have been for so many in town. I hope the story we captured in this film allows their inspiration to travel far beyond their own small town.

I feel like the film is just as much about the joys of being creative as it is a portrait of Janey. Do you feel this is accurate?

Making a film about Janey is making a film about creativity. I think the film is about the creative process and community more than anything else. All these people are giving so much of their lives to these community theater shows, and the only way they can explain it is by saying they love it. The only resistance I got to anything was from Janey over the title of the film. She hated the idea that she would get any credit, let alone the title role. To me the title has layers because as you watch the movie it is obvious that she, at 90 years old, is the motor behind the whole production. Yet, no one person can “make” a play, it takes a small army. The heart of the film is that the townspeople care about each other enough to create a safe place for storytelling and vulnerability to thrive.

I know you did this film while working on Destin Cretton's films Short Term 12 (which is rightfully highly acclaimed) and I Am Not a Hipster. What was your role in the making of those films, and what kind of support did you get from from your collaborators on those projects?

I owe a lot to Destin and the creative family from San Diego. Many of us attended the same small liberal arts college, Point Loma Nazarene University. A community formed who would all crew each others’ projects. Someone would write a script for a short film, call everyone, and say, “I wrote a script about a guy who has a watermelon for a head, you want to make it?” So all I knew was everyone doing everything to pull off a short film. So when Destin asked everyone to crew his short film entitled Short Term 12, everyone snapped into our regular roles. That film ended up winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for U.S. Short Filmmaking in 2009. From there Destin’s projects got bigger, and we all got invited back for I Am Not a Hipster. When I help on projects my natural skill set leads me to be 1st Assistant Director. I can be loud and organized, which helps with crowd control. That same creative family ended up doing a lot on Janey Makes a Play. They helped with filming, editing, doing the original score, and advising the post production process. They are an invaluable friend group, and have definitely helped shape who I am as a storyteller.

You're a recent transplant to Atlanta, I know. What led you to move here rather than stay in California?

I moved to Atlanta in September of last year, then pretty much locked myself in my house to finish the edit! I am excited about the thriving creative communities here, as well as the cheap cost of living. I couldn’t have completed this film working in California because I couldn’t afford to pay rent, while not getting paid to edit. I helped organize the student film program with the San Diego Film Festival, and was quick to try and get plugged in with the ATLFF. The people and programming at the ATLFF have blown me away! So many amazing things happening here. I cannot wait to be at this year’s festival. If you see me there, please introduce yourself! I need to meet people here!

I certainly will! You'll know me when you see this big bald guy wandering around all over the place. Okay, so, finally, my standard final question: name five movies that you love or that have influenced your filmmaking style.

  • Amelie because it gave me permission to make films about daydreamers.

  • Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums because they have stylized and solid storytelling. So intentional.

  • Fight Club, Seven and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Fincher because his use of detail and lighting is inspiring. Every frame matters and is worth fighting for--if you don’t believe that then don’t make movies.

  • American Movie, Billy the Kid, and every other documentary where someone picked up a camera and pointed it at someone interesting, because without them, my movie wouldn’t exist.

Author Dean Treadway is the Co-Host of Movie Geeks United, the internet's #1 weekly podcast devoted entirely to movies, with over 700 industry guests and four million listeners worldwide. His blog, filmicability, has more than 500 articles obsessing over films present and past and is approaching 1 million hits.