Filmmaker Tom Gilroy shares his spiritual inspiration for his latest feature project Our Lady of the Snow, and his personal experience in navigating the new waters of independent filmmaking and grant-giving organizations. Gilroy's story begins when a Bishop decides to sell a gothic convent isolated in the snowy woods, the elderly nuns living there begin to have ecstatic visions, which he dismisses as faked. But as the visions spread to the convent’s teenaged atheist cook, inexplicable supernatural events follow, with no one sure of their cause.
Our Lady of the Snow was a Spring 2014 SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant winner.
What was the inspiration for this story?
This is one of the toughest questions to be asked, because I’m never aware when an idea transitions from a series/collection of fleeting thoughts and images into a bonafide possibility for a narrative. One day you just realize all this stuff you’ve been replaying over and over in your head has merged with a pile of info and anecdotes you’ve been compiling and then combusted with some kind of wider considerations about why humans act the way they do. Suddenly you’re just aware this thing is a story and not just another channel of drivel in your brain. Sometimes that moment is actually induced by another person asking you what you mean by something, and you realize this entire saga that has been festering in your brain might actually be of interest to someone else. This is what happened when Michele Turnure-Salleo from SFFS sat me down over lunch and asked me what kinds of things I was thinking about, as opposed to asking me what I was ‘working on.’
VISUALS BY TOM GILROY
When I was growing up in Connecticut my best friend’s older sister worked as a cook in a convent that was nestled in part of the woods between our two houses. She was a senior in high school and we were in the eight grade. I remember it as a gothic mansion that had been left to the diocese and was being used to house elderly nuns, many of whom suffered from dementia. They loved us. We’d go after school to visit my friend’s sister and eat free food and smoke pot and play Frisbee on the big grounds overlooking a valley. The nuns would bless us and pat us on the head and call us "dear." We were all lapsed Catholic atheists but the feeling of affection from these women was palpable, and I carried in my heart for years their sense of…stewardship over us, since the were clearly aware of our wayward, rebellious, punk-y nature.
So here I was listening to punk music and reading beat novels and dreaming of someday living in, say, Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York but my reality was getting the munchies in a convent in Connecticut and eating fresh-baked brownies while ancient women wearing clothing from the middle ages smiled and blessed me. (Is there really that much of a difference?) A lot of the visuals in the convent and of the women were right out of gothic horror movies but they were just so sweet. As a snot-nose rebellious atheist I wanted to discredit them as wasting their time in this absurd pursuit but part of me intuited that maybe their treatment of my friend and me was in fact the real pursuit. And that contradiction stayed with me.
Twenty years later my friend took his wedding pictures on that field overlooking the valley—still an atheist.
Of course as you age you see things differently and as an adult I became more aware—chiefly through the work of my girlfriend, a feminist historian who specializes in convent life—that historically nuns were the underdog in a patriarchal system of power, which of course made them cooler in my mind. Their piety and service to their community began to seem like the blues coming out of slavery—a magical and spiritual expression born of the conflict of oppression on the one side and the need to maintain and enrich the human spirit on the other. Obviously I realize being a nun in a convent isn’t the same as being a slave on a plantation, but I hope the analogy of the soul creating something beautiful despite oppression is clear.
For me a story really rings a bell when two things happen: 1) when what I’m writing, although new and original, feels like I’m remembering something rather than inventing it, and 2) when I realize the bare sequence of plot points, while creating a clear narrative, is also a metaphor for some larger observation or obsession of mine. In Spring Forward, that observation was how men are drawn together with or without the cliché trappings of sports, college, popular culture, family secrets, or a long history together. In The Cold Lands it was a kind of Buddhist belief that The World in conjunction with the innately moral spirit of humanity will create a "guiding hand" to steer the innocent through the collapse of America, because clearly our institutions won’t. And with Our Lady Of The Snow I’m looking at the different ways people from differing "spiritual backgrounds" interpret the inexplicable.
What do you see as the greatest challenges for filmmakers today?
Money is always the challenge. There are so many talented filmmakers in this country, but they are forced to live in the shadow of commerce—specifically film commerce—and this industry and cultural expectation that a film isn’t worth shit if it doesn’t make buckets of money. And so most of the people who finance movies are coming to you with that expectation, and they often think they know better than you what idea will make them the cash—and they try every way possible to get you to change your idea which has nothing to do with making buckets of money into something they think will. Or they just ignore your idea because it’s too laden with noncommercial artistic expression and for them has no commercial value. And all the while they talk about "the dream factory" and the "power of movies," etc, but what they’re really looking for is the next Q-Tip, or Jell-O, or Coke.
So the greatest challenge is to fight the survival instinct that makes you subconsciously empower this view, that makes you alter the course of exploration into your deeper thoughts and ideas and instead try it find away to please the guy with the checkbook, his expectations, his assumed expertise. Because you of course would like to eat and pay rent. It’s a form of self-censorship, and it’s pretty easy to swallow when you’re being paid a lot—or at least promised you will be. Of course the internet, cheap digital cameras, the rise of gaming, the rising cost of real estate, blahblahblah, etc etc—all the doomsday clichés about what threatens cinema—all take their toll, but the reality has always been the same for all art; the money usually comes from people who just want to make money. And in film there’s so much more potential for profit and fame.
Of course the way out of this gridlock is grants and foundations---instruments that help artists express their impulses and develop their voice, regardless of commercial potential.
And so here I am, haha, with the blessings and largesse of one of the great cultural foundations in the United States.
VISUALS BY TOM GILROY
What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?
I’m of the ‘challenges-are-really-opportunities’ school, so I see this question directly relating to the end of my last answer.
All the old ways of marketing film and getting it in front of people are defunct, unless you’re one of The X-Men. We’ve all heard a million times all the tropes about dying box-office, the diversification of the entertainment dollar into new media, "the second golden age of TV," digital piracy, etc, all threatening independent film—and it’s all true. Independent vision in cinema is harder to find now than ever before, yet the cultural- (perhaps even species-) centrality of the cogent three-act structure hasn’t and will never lose its relevance. Boyhood is as culturally important as The Godfather, Capote was as important as Kramer vs. Kramer—they’re just seen by fewer people and not as celebrated. But the cultural glue they provide that binds us together is just as important, and people need to keep on making films like this. So, how?
Not to sound like I’m licking the hand that feeds me, but 2 years ago I attended an experimental lab at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival called A2E (Artist to Entrepreneur) which was all about slapping independent filmmakers awake and getting us to see that the old models of distribution don’t work. The days of getting an advance from a distribution company that buys ads and gets your film out there are over. You earn nothing and nobody sees it and you have to go through the same debilitating process for your following film, starting at ground zero.
I was extremely dubious entering A2E—"I’m an artist, not a goddamn businessman!"—but I soon realized that mindset was also part of the defunct model of filmmaking. The empowerment of social media can actually go beyond tweeting about Lady Gaga or Instagramming pics of your washboard abs or latest cappuccino and instead help you build not so much a ‘fan base’ but instead a pool of curator/philanthropists who are inspired by how they can invest in you for very little money. You become their filmmaker, an artist they can have actually contact with or at least proximity to. They cannot only fund you or buy your work, but they have an interest in telling others about you, and of course this encourages you to go on pursuing your vision. Instead of trying to change what you make to please the profit-mongers, you’re inspired to dig deeper and be as creative as possible because these..."patrons," I guess, believe in you. It empowers not only the artists but also the audience. They become interested in the totality of your work—not just your features, but also your photography, your writing, your shorts, your theatre works---whatever it is you do across the broad spectrum of the arts. You and they participate in creating culture, rather than them sitting back and just receiving the mass-market consumerism Hollywood splatters them with.
Of course beyond this, foundations that recognize the cultural necessity of supporting an artist’s vision often get the ball rolling and enable you to get started and create the work that you end up providing to your "curators" further down the line. These foundations are the game not for profit but for culture, which—let’s face it—is really why we’re here. This is again why an institution like SFFS is so important—it enables and encourages filmmakers to pursue the ideas that interest them, unfettered by the demands of profit. They enable filmmakers to deepen the exploration of who we are.
Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society support has had on your film.
To begin with, the expression of faith in your project by an organization as esteemed as SFFS cannot be overstated. Suddenly something you thought "might be an idea" is validated by an organization that knows what it’s doing, and has a history of backing important films. They wouldn’t be wasting their time on little old you sitting all alone at your crummy desk if they didn’t think the ideas explored in your script were important. The courage and inspiration that springs from this vote of confidence is crucial. I simply would not be writing this movie if first Michele, and then the SFFS as a whole didn’t come forward and take an interest in the themes I thought were important and the story through which I wanted to express them.
Of course in a material sense, the screenwriting grant enables you to do nothing but write and research, which in my case is crucial as I am often broke and having to pursue distracting work to pay the bills, and this script more than any other requires a kind of total immersion. It can’t be written in drabs, in the slivers of free time between other things. It’s the most complex thing I’ve ever written but on a deeper level it requires an almost meditative state where I can ‘go in’ to inexplicable events and visions and root around for connective tissue that will engross several different characters with differing frameworks of logic and spirituality. It’s almost like guided dream work, which then of course has to be translated into the nuts-and-bolts, no-nonsense rigors of a clear screenplay.
The added perk of being in San Francisco and immersing yourself in the arts community here is like icing on the cake—no, it’s more like the icing between layers. As a lifetime New Yorker and a filmmaker who has had to spend a lot of time in Los Angeles, the relentless drive to succeed in those cities leaves little time for reflection. You need to have answers all the time—you can’t wonder about things. Artists in San Francisco seem to pursue things more as an avocation than as a career—you get the sense they’d be doing creative stuff regardless of the outcome; there is no endgame of a film deal or a record deal or a book deal or a gallerist contract. There is only the doing, the creating. This creates an environment of give and take and exploration and cross-pollination; people listen to what you’re working on and engage you in an exploratory dialogue that kind of vets your ideas, as opposed to half-listening to you and trying to tell you where you could get your film made, or to find out who you know so they could get their thing made. It’s really about the community—and responsibility—of artists, as opposed to material success. Bohemia is alive and well in San Francisco, and it was pushed out of New York and Los Angeles years ago.
But beyond the grant, it’s clear that the SFFS is interested in my career and vision over the long haul. It’s not just writing this film at the moment; it’s where this film needs to go next, either for revisions, or expansion, or production. Their focus right now is me and Our Lady of the Snow, but it’s palpable how their larger interest is my developing vision as an artist and my future projects as well, and how this contributes to American culture.
The SFFS / KRF Filmmaking Grant program has funded a total of 46 projects since its inception, including such success stories as Kat Candler’s Hellion and Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange, both of which premiered to strong reviews at Sundance 2014; Short Term 12, Destin Cretton’s sophomore feature which won both the Narrative Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at South by Southwest 2013; Ryan Coogler’s debut feature Fruitvale Station, which won the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, the Un Certain Regard Avenir Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the narrative category at Sundance 2013; and Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin’s debut phenomenon which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and Cannes’ Camera d’Or in 2012 and earned four Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture).