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SUGAR! | "Women All In"
By Konstantin Sergeyev
Text by Malwina Grochowska
Musée Magazine, Oct. 8, 2014
The film business is still a man’s world. A movie set can often feel like a construction site, minus the swearing in a foreign language. Men are carrying around and setting up heavy equipment: positioning the lights, operating the dolly, the camera; they are managing the site: giving commands, taking care of logistics, while women’s involvement is limited to wardrobe and make-up departments, and of course acting.
Statistics reinforce this perception rather brutally: in 2013 women comprised only 16% of people working on key behind-the-scenes roles in top 250 grossing movies. The situation looks a bit brighter for women in independent cinema: they accounted for 26% of individuals working as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on films screened at high-profile film festivals in the United States in the last two years.
A very different dynamic was at play on the set of Sugar!, a low-budget film about a middle-aged wife of a Republican candidate for Senate, who decides to change her life and secretly forms an all-female rock band. Compared to many other film sets I have been to, arriving at this one felt like stepping into a parallel, feminist universe. In a Victorian house in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, the crew was more or less equally gender-divided. But, crucially, women were in charge, credited on the project as producer, director, writer, cinematographer, art director, and production designer.
It was not a coincidence. “Too often I was one of very few women on the set. I just got tired of that,” says producer Lauren Rayner, who was engaged by the duo behind the film – screenwriter Leora Kalish and her husband, executive producer Robert Kalish – early in the process. “I know women can do even the physical film jobs well, like the one of key grip. They are just told they shouldn’t. And there’s a presumption they don’t want to. But yes, they do, and they are doing it,” Rayner told me between discussions with another producer about the movie’s budget and putting out hummus and vegetables for the crew.
The original plan was to get as close to an all-woman crew as possible. The team looked for a female electrician and gaffer, but ended up with men at these positions, mostly for financial reasons: there are so few women doing these jobs, they are in high demand and turned out to be impossible to get with Sugar!'’s limited budget.
However, the priority was to bring a female director and cinematographer on board. “It is a woman’s story, written by a woman, and we knew it should also be seen with a woman’s eyes,” says Rayner. Shari Berman, who was hired as the director, admits that female-centered stories are her cause . She debuted with My Life as Abraham Lincoln, featuring a tormented heroine. On Sugar!, Berman, joined by cinematographer Fletcher Wolfe, set out to create on screen the world of Leslie, played by Tony Award-winning actress Alice Ripley.
Leslie spent a good part of her adulthood as an All-American housewife, leading a perfect life, at least at first look. Stories of complex heroines like her, although with a rich literary tradition from Flaubert to Ibsen, are too easily dismissed in mainstream cinema. The Sugar! team found this out early in the fundraising process. “A film about a housewife who follows her dreams? It doesn’t exactly include many explosions; it’s also not lesbian horror. That’s what people are more eager to invest in,” says Rayner. “But the truth is we’re telling a universal story here, that not only women can relate to. She has much more going on that we’d suspect her to.”
This kind of dismissive attitude is something that women working in the movies can understand all too well. “Somebody said to me: You’re having all these women on the set. Somebody is going to end up crying,” recalls Berman. Rayner observes that when she yells at the crew, they become very upset, call her a bitch, etc. “When a male producer yells, they say: Oh, he’s being authoritative.”
Then there’s also the physical aspect of the work. Wolfe weighs a little over 100 pounds. “Half of our film is hand-held,” comments Berman. “If you judge Fletcher from just her looks, you’ll think she can’t carry around a 40-pound camera for ten days, twelve hours a day. But she can, I saw her doing it.” Wolfe once lied about her weight, because her abilities, or rather lack thereof, were inferred from her fragile appearance.
Otherwise, she is the first to admit she’s not capable of something. “There is definitely a lot of male overconfidence in the film industry. Many people say things they can do, although they can’t. I’m not one of them, so it took me longer to climb the ladder,” Wolfe observes. “Fairly consistently women are staying in the background, because they have been taught that if you’re not doing it better than men, you shouldn’t even try to succeed. At least that’s how I feel: If I don’t do my job well, then somebody will say: Oh, that little girl took the job and she couldn’t do it.” Berman adds, “It’s a responsibility: you’re representing the minority, so you have to be cautious, because it could be an excuse for somebody to say: You see what happens when they hire a woman! And I want to say in such situations: No, that’s not what happens. It’s just me. I fucked up.”
Gender profiling also results in putting girls in positions they may not necessarily want. Rayner, Berman and Wolfe have each heard more than once they are too pretty for their jobs, and should be actresses instead. Berman was also advised many times at the beginning of her career that she should work as a script supervisor. The job is often called “script girl,” and includes many secretary-type tasks, like listening to what other people say and taking notes.
Not surprisingly, Sugar! hired a script boy.
SUGAR! | "It’s a woman’s world after all?"
Mostly female crew shoots film in Jersey City and Hoboken
By Al Sullivan
HudsonReporter.com | Aug. 24, 2014
Thomas Wolfe was wrong; you can go home again. That’s the theme of a new feature film that had local and international talents shooting a full length independent film at various locations in Hudson County over the last two weeks.
Called “Sugar!” the film is produced by Jersey City-based Silver Phoenix Entertainment along with Lauren Rayner Productions and Sugar Film LLC. They have put together a cast of stars that includes Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley and Robert Clohessy of “Blue Bloods” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Other notable performers include Billy Sample (a former NY Yankee), Michael Pemberton of “The Family Stone,” Kathryn Kates of “Seinfeld”, and Jonathan Tiersten of “Sleepaway Camp.”
A huge majority of the staff and the actors are women, giving this film a special feel even as it is being shot. The above-the-line talent includes the director, writer, producer, and even the director of photography. Lauren Rayner, who produced this film, is well-known in the industry for promoting women film makers and women artists.
“Sugar!” is described by the filmmakers as an adult coming-of-age story about a housewife, Leslie, who gave up her life as a musician for her politician husband. When an old band mate passes away, she decides to revisit her passion for music by secretly forming an all-women’s rock band.
Blaze Kelly Coyle of Silver Phoenix Entertainment, who executive-produced the film along with Robert Kalish, said the movie is about following your dreams at any age. A mother and housewife, Leslie is married to a man who is running as a Republican for the U.S. Senate from a very conservative part of Indiana. She used to be in a band and used to have a life of her own, and gets a chance to get back the dream.
“The story is about a woman in her 50s whose friend dies, and she has a chance to return to a rock ‘n roll way of life she thought she had lost when she got married,” Coyle said.
The filmmakers have gotten songs from established musicians for use in the film. Joan Jett has agreed to let the fictional band use four songs off her upcoming new album, plus one of her old songs. Graham Russell of Air Supply wrote the movie’s theme song, "Rescue Me."
The filming makes good use of Hudson County locations, partly because Coyle was familiar with some of them. The shooting took place at a recording studio in Hoboken as well as several locations in Jersey City, such as Pershing Field and Grand Street downtown. Some scenes were shot in New York as well, even though the fictional setting of the movie is Indiana.
Hoboken’s Shannon Lounge served as the setting for the over the top live performance where the all girl band struts their stuff. The bar didn’t have a stage, so the film crew built one.
Living in Jersey City Heights, Coyle said she had a good idea of some of the locations, such as the remarkable arch in Pershing Field. She said she’s worked closely with the New Jersey Film Commission as well as local officials from Mayor Steven Fulop’s office, who have been very helpful. She said she really loves Jersey City and filming here.
“We have the best views of the skyline,” she said, laughing.
Along with the talents of classic rocker Joan Jett, June Millington – a member of Fanny, one of the first all female rock and roll bands – will play one of the performers in the fictional band in this film. Fanny influenced nearly every female rock performer, including Joan Jett, so it is fitting that one of their members should be part of this fictional revival. Sheila Earley, of the Duke Ellington Legacy Orchestra, is also a member of the fictional band.
“They are all amazing women,” Coyle said.
Recovering lost dreams
Shari Berman, the director, has won a number of awards for her short films, and is known for a non-linear film-style. She said like all independent films, this is a relatively low budget production, and had to fit shooting into a tight schedule. This also means that each scene has to be done with fewer takes. Fortunately, she said, the actors have been prepared and in character.
This is a film about women and their ability to return to dreams they might have thought lost because of life choices made early in their lives, something Fletcher Wolfe, the director of photography, must take into account.
“The scenes must mirror the character, and the changes she goes through,” Wolfe said. “The idea is to project the dynamics of the character, so that the film starts out with images that reflect safety but also something dull.”
“Leslie” is very safe, very protected, but living a dull routine, and the set images must somehow reflect this sense of character, and then must change when the character takes the leap. How this is done is part of the science of movie making, and in this case going from squeaky clean Indiana to the gritty and flamboyant world of rock and roll. Wolfe said this means using more dynamic coloring and edgier images that reflect the changes in the character. Even in the rush to shoot as many as four scenes in one day, she believes this sense of space and image comes through.
Alice Ripley, the film’s star, decided to do the film after reading the script. Nominated for Broadway’s 1998 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical, along with her co-star Emily Skinner in “Side Show,” Ripley won a Tony in 2009 for Best Actress for her role in “Next to Normal.” She understood the character, she said, and could relate to the character’s need to break free.
“This film is all about her character,” she said. “It is about her lost ambition.”
Where does the actress find the motivation for the character? “Every character I play comes out of me,” she said, although she frowned when asked if she drew anything from her role in a stage production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Both this film and “Rocky Horror” deal with breaking free of boundaries that limit personal growth.
The film features Alice's original song, "Pieces."
with a Ripley cameo
Copyright © 2017 ALICE RIPLEY. All rights reserved.
Photos by Konstantin Sergeyev.
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Synopsis: Resurrecting a lost part of her past, Leslie, a 50-something-year-old housewife and piano teacher, secretly forms an all-female rock band called SUGAR! At the same time, her husband, a conservative Republican, runs for U.S. Congress. When the band goes viral on YouTube, it's only a matter of time before her husband and college-bound daughter discover the secret, turning Leslie's whole world upside-down. But as her marriage, the band's fate and her husband's election hang in the balance, victory is in the air.
SUGAR! was written by Leora Kalish as inspiration for all women "of a certain age" to follow their dreams. Singer/songwriter/musician Alice Ripley plays Leslie, and fellow artists Kathryn Danielle, Sheila Earley, and June Millington play her bandmates. Robert Clohessy plays her husband, and Leah Barker plays her daughter. SUGAR! was directed by Shari Berman.