Katherine Dieckmann on Crafting an Unconventional Female Protagonist in “Strange Weather”

Strange Weather

Katherine Dieckmann’s films include “Motherhood,” “Diggers,” and “A Good Baby.” She began her career as a journalist, writing for such publications as Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Vogue before going on to direct music videos for bands including R.E.M., Aimee Mann, and Wilco. Dieckmann is an Associate Professor at Columbia University’s graduate School of the Arts Film Program, where she has taught screenwriting for over 15 years, and a Creative Advisor for the Sundance Institute.

Strange Weather” hits theaters and VOD July 28.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

Kd: “Strange Weather” is a lyrical, emotionally rich drama tracking a woman (Holly Hunter) as she travels the deep south with her best friend (Carrie Coon) in an effort to process her grief over the loss of her son. It’s a story about how to be fully alive while facing death, about forgiveness, grace, and redemption.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

Kd: I wanted to explore the complicated path of an unconventional female protagonist in a way that felt real to me in terms of the women I actually know in my life — women I rarely if ever get to see represented on the big screen. They have reached a certain age but remain unresolved, alive, contradictory, compelling, and not prone to stereotyping.

Strange Weather” deals with female friendship, learning to see outside the sphere of your own personal pain, and finding ways to overcome that pain in the process. These are all ideas that I was interested in exploring in a feature, and this story allowed me the context to dive into all of them.

I also wanted to set a story about one woman’s turbulence within the climactic instability we all live with now, so that the outer world reflects the inner world, and vice versa.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

Kd: Hopefully people who have experienced some seismic loss — which is probably almost everybody — will find something in the story and its execution that allows them to breathe a little bit more deeply and feel less isolated in their own lingering grief, and to reach out and connect with others.

The path to redemption is often a crooked and unexpected one. And even though my main character has a traditional love interest with whom she can reconcile, what ultimately delivers her to a better place is her own tenacity and willingness to become open to both her pain and her foibles, and the constancy of her best friend, who supplies what is truly the most important relationship explored in the film.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Kd: The biggest challenge was having 21 not-terribly-long days to realize a movie with a road trip spanning several southern states and different weather conditions, not to mention to shoot a script that contained a number of extended, emotionally complicated scenes that put great demands on my actors — which, I have to add, they met beautifully, especially Holly Hunter, who carried every one of them.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

Kd: My film got funded through the sheer stubbornness of my two female producers, Jana Edelbaum and Rachel Cohen (iDeal Partners), who were tireless in their search for financing and in their conviction that this was a film that needed to get made. Eventually they found a financier, Great Point Media, that appreciated the script for what it was and allowed me to make exactly the film I wanted to make, with zero interference, which is such a rarity in indie filmmaking these days that I can still barely believe it happened.

My executive producer Caroline Kaplan also provided steady and unconditional support.

And beyond essential was my lead actress and stalwart collaborator, Holly Hunter, who came aboard about a year before we found our backing, and fought hard for the project in that interval and beyond, whether that meant reaching out personally to potential supporting cast or simply keeping the film alive in her heart and mind and helping to will it into being.

Great Point then affirmed that Holly alone was a valuable enough element to warrant our small budget, which one would want to believe is a no-brainer, but sadly it isn’t. That was a major gift, as it allowed us to cast freely for the rest of the parts.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

Kd: The best advice I’ve received is to never give up: never abandon hope with a cherished project because only the person who wrote it and will direct it is going to care about it enough to keep it alive when the odds are looking dire, and at some point they inevitably do. Robert Altman said something like you have to love every film as though it were your own child — and you have to love even the ugly ones, meaning you can’t disown a misfire.

The worst advice I’ve ever received was to be encouraged to bend my vision and what I knew would be best for my film by miscasting to secure financing. I take full responsibility for those mistakes [because I let it happen.]

That is something I will never, ever do again — I’d rather just not make a movie at all if it comes down to that. But it’s hard to resist the temptation to get your film financed, always, even if in your heart you know you could compromise it by making dubious decisions.

Again to reference Altman, casting is everything, and if you make sure to cast intelligently — and I would add, have a solid script going in — you’d have to work really hard to screw up your film.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

Kd: Write the strongest script you can write — something you care about passionately and can wholly believe in — and then keep rewriting it. Good writing will rise to the surface at the end of the day, I truly believe that. Get to know other filmmakers, not just female ones, and forge bonds and support each other, especially to better face disappointments along the path.

I feel that many independent filmmakers I know whose work I love and admire are right there behind me, cheering me on, as I also do for them. When anyone smart and decent who has a way with material gets to make a film, it is a good thing for everybody.

But for women specifically, I think the best thing is to be fearless, stubborn, and kind — even if you’re faced with unkindness. Rise above it. Do and be better, because the world is less forgiving of women: that’s just a stone cold fact. Surround yourself with people who understand what you are up to completely independent of your gender, because if they’re the right people, that will be the last thing they’ll focus on.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

Kd: “An Angel at My Table” by Jane Campion. It speaks so clearly and poetically to why I wanted to become a writer, and how one woman writer came into existence, with a specificity that somehow makes it feel entirely universal.

I also have to co-cite the long-lost film “High Tide” by Gillian Armstrong, whose work remains criminally underappreciated today, especially “My Brilliant Career” and “Mrs. Soffel.” Judy Davis gives one of the most searing and singular portraits of a vexing woman ever committed to the screen in “High Tide.” You can find it on YouTube, but I wish Criterion would dig that one up and properly restore it.

W&H: What are the filmmaking opportunities for women in your country? Have you seen recent improvements? What do you think needs to be done see some significant change?

Kd: I think the situation for female filmmakers in the U.S. is improving markedly now, although more in television than in features. There’s still a long way to go in terms of getting smart, complex female-driven stories on the screen, and for women to be able to feel free to take on any subject matter they want, which isn’t necessarily woman-centric or “personal.”

[And progress still needs to be made for women to] get taken seriously and be given the opportunities that men with way less experience and chops get handed everyday.

We are far from parity. But compared to when I made my first feature, “A Good Baby,” nearly 20 years ago, it’s night and day.

Katherine Dieckmann on Crafting an Unconventional Female Protagonist in “Strange Weather” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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