“I would shoot every film in the South if I could. There are untapped landscapes and personal stories around every corner.”
In honor of the 18th annual Sidewalk Film Festival on August 26-28, we’re publishing a series of interviews with Birmingham filmmakers that are featured in this year’s festival. This week is an interview with Melodie Sisk, producer of Little Sister, the 2016 Closing Night Film.
Little Sister will be screening Sunday, August 28 at 6:00pm at the Alabama Theatre.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Bat Cave, North Carolina. Which is just outside of Asheville. I moved around a lot as a child, everywhere from England to Mexico. Most of my primary education happened in the Atlanta area though.
How early on did you gravitate toward the arts, specifically acting and filmmaking?
I was an unruly and overly talkative child, constantly getting “talks too much in class” on my elementary report cards. Instead of putting me on medication to make me more attentive (as was suggested by my teacher), my mother put me in acting classes in the hopes that I could try and find a way to focus my excess energy. I’m not so sure if it worked exactly the way she hoped, but I was bitten by the bug in the third grade and haven’t stopped since.
How did you first end up in Birmingham, and how long have you lived here?
I first came to Birmingham because of the Sidewalk Film Festival. In fact, I am happy to say that every film that I have ever made has screened at Sidewalk in one way or another over the years; sometimes as a secret screening. Sidewalk even screened a local music video I was in last year. After visiting the festival for many years, I felt drawn here. I hit a point when I needed a break from New York, and I thought I’d give Birmingham a shot. That was about three years ago and I haven’t looked back.
You’ve produced and starred in several high-profile indie films. Is your job more of a challenge being outside of L.A. or New York?
Producing films out side of L.A. and N.Y.C., for me, is better and easier. In part because my overhead is much lower. I’m able to accept more lower-paying work than I was ever able to in New York. Also because I have the festival relationships and years of personal relationships built from being in cities like N.Y.C. and L.A. Though to be completely honest, some of the most important professional relationships I have ever developed were initiated at the Sidewalk Film Festival. Including my continuous and upcoming work with producer Ash Christian, our important work with Joe Swanberg, and who can forget meeting the lovely Farah White at a filmmaker luncheon at Bottega — that’s a meeting that brought me a leading role and has fostered a personal and professional relationship that will last a life time.
For those that don’t know, what all does a producer have to do for a project of that size?
Each project is different. On a film like “Little Sister,” for example, my involvement begins incredibly early on in the concept stage. I am credited as a story creator on “Little Sister,” in part because of how entangled I am with the foundation of the film. Which is not necessarily typical for every producer. That being said, I was involved with hiring every crew member, finding and managing locations, logistics of travel and lodging, finances and payroll, and all of the other things you might attribute to an upper-level manager of a small business. Because unless everyone is working for free and using their own equipment, every film is like a small business. And the complexity of a producer’s responsibility certainly grows with the size of the project. However, the balancing act for me is trying not to let the film get bigger than it needs to be in order to accomplish the artistic vision. More people on set does not equate to a better product, nor does it equate a better film experience. And managing the product and the experience is really the core of what I do. As a producer, I’m always intimately involved in casting. Especially because of my acting background, I feel it’s so important to marry the right actor to the right role. As well as hiring people who we can get along with because I think it makes everyone’s experience better when it’s symbiotic.
Little Sister was shot in North Carolina. What made you want to stay in the South for this production?
To be completely honest, I would shoot every film in the South if I could. The people are friendlier. The weather is more to my personal liking. And I find there are untapped landscapes and personal stories around every corner. In the case of “Little Sister,” I flew director Zach Clark to the Asheville airport in January of 2013, because he was feeling blocked working on the script for what would be our fourth feature together. At the time, the working title of the script was “The Passion of Joan of Arc Part Two.” We knew it was about a nun who was goth in high school but we didn’t know much else. I knew that my parents had a house with and incredible view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and that the area had so much quirk and charm. I also knew that it was special to me and needed to make it into one of our movies. Luckily, my passion for the area, people, and places that I introduced Zach to over that weekend inspired him. And the story that you will see at Sidewalk was born. Interestingly enough, almost all of the locations for the film exist between 5 and 30 minutes of the exact spot of my birth.
The film premiered at South By Southwest this year. What was that experience like?
SXSW is always a whirlwind. It’s a huge festival with more films than one person could possibly see in a month, much less a few days. We are so blessed that this was our third time bringing a world premiere to such a highly regarded festival. This year, I found myself much more focused on networking, setting up meetings for future projects, and meeting with future investors. As well as being more focused on sales, marketing, and promoting our film than I have in the past. I did manage to attend some truly inspiring screenings. More than anything, SXSW 2016 was a work conference. I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to Sidewalk this year, where I can relax and enjoy my time socializing with film friends new and old. To catch up on the films I wasn’t able to see at SXSW because I was meeting with Getty Images or taking an agent out to lunch.
You mentioned that all of your features have screened at the Sidewalk Film Fest. What does this festival mean to you?
Sidewalk Film Festival has always been known in the independent film circuit as one of the festivals with the coolest taste in programing and the best networking opportunities for filmmakers. We were told at SXSW 2009 to submit our film, “Modern Love is Automatic,” because “it would be the most fun we would have all year and all of the coolest films are there.” So, I guess what that means to me, is that Sidewalk keeps doing things right.
What’s next for Little Sister after Sidewalk?
Our theatrical premiere for Little Sister and simultaneous releases on some digital platforms are scheduled for October 14. That’s the time of year when the film is set, and with Halloween looming, it feels really appropriate.
What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
I’m super excited to have a lot of great scripts that I’m working on trying to get produced at the moment. First up, in September, it looks like I’ll be producing a movie in Austin, TX with an exciting young female director. I’ve also been working on a film called “Pharmacopeia” for a while and we are hoping to move forward on that this fall with some very exciting names attached. And my non-sexual life partner and filmmaking cohort, Zach Clark (of “Little Sister”), has a new movie that we are hitting the ground running with as soon as humanly possible.
What made you decide to live and work here in Birmingham for the foreseeable future?
Birmingham is a city that is having a truly exciting renaissance. The amount of creatives that are my neighbors, friends, and colleagues that are creating exciting work is growing daily. With so many incredible restaurants, exciting new businesses, not to mention the upcoming Sidewalk Cinema, I feel like I am in the epicenter of something extremely exciting. I only hope all of my friends in Brooklyn and L.A. don’t swarm this place too soon.
Do you believe Birmingham’s (and Alabama’s) film scene is on the rise?
There is no question that the film scene is on the rise. Just like everything else here in Birmingham, it feels like it’s vibrating with possibilities.