On January 20th, Austin Film Festival will kick off the Capital One Bank Audience Award Series with SOMBRAS DE AZUL, a beautiful film by Austin writer/director Kelly Daniella Norris. The visually arresting film follows the grieving Maribel as she escapes to Cuba, the country her recently deceased brother had always wanted to visit. Once there, she quickly discovers that she has no idea what she is truly searching for, but she seems to find it anyway. Sombras de Azul World Premiered at AFF where it also won the Texas Independents Audience Award. Read 10 questions in with Kelly around her busy schedule – after her premiere at AFF she left for a project in Ghana. Join us Monday, January 20th at the Alamo Drafthouse Village for this encore screening of SOMBRAS DE AZUL! Tickets are only $5, click here to get yours!
1. Sombras de Azul is a very personal story for you. Can you tell us a little bit about what lead you to write the film?
It came to me following a decision to postpone another larger-scaled project that I had been working on while living in Los Angeles. I awoke to that unsettling feeling that, despite progress made, the script was still beyond my resources. Even more unsettling, I was in a position of watching others determine the fate of a project I was very passionate about on a given whim. As a result, I went from being consumed and narrowly driven by that one goal to, all of a sudden, entering this open space. This also coincided with the 4-year anniversary of my brother’s passing, which put me in a very reflective place. I had previously dealt with his death – a source of unspeakable pain for me – by diving deeper into my work. So, there I was, and I felt ready to write.
2. What was it like to shoot the film in Cuba?
Exhilarating and exhausting. Cuba is such a fascinating place that’s teeming with all kinds of energy, which inspirited us throughout the 19-day shoot. There was also the layered thrill of being Americans on forbidden soil. But, at the same time, our focus was so constricted and our time so short that it was manic up to the very end, with little time to take it all in. We had to be quiet and inconspicuous with our equipment (a production that could not look like a production) for fear of being shutdown, which meant we were at the mercy of whatever each location had to offer. In those scattered moments when we were able to stop and admire our surroundings, it felt like a fever dream.
3. Were there any moments in the film that came about once you started shooting? Anything from being in that place at that time you decided you had to add to the film?
The majority of the written scenes were faithful to the script and shotlist. The montages, on the other hand, were spontaneous concoctions. I believe the shotlist read, “Umm? We’ll see.” The most specific on-the-spot alteration relates to the ending. As Bob, my DP, and I were running around Old Havana’s Iglesia de la Merced catching “Day of Mercies” festival footage, I looked over and saw Seedne leaning against a wall. That observation rewrote the ending in my mind. Guess I should leave it at that.
4. What did you most want to capture about Cuba in your film and why?
Aside from its vibrant culture and colorful landscape, I wanted to capture its national paradoxes – as a symbol of isolation and connectedness, as a place of timelessness and nostalgia that is on the verge of change. Emotionally, Maribel shares a similar state of mind, locked in the past while trying to move forward.
5. One of the things I love so much about the film is how much of the story is told visually, without long sequences of dialogue, but just experienced, with your lead character. Can you tell us a little bit about writing in that manner and planning for these beautiful pictures?
Thank you. There was definitely a vagueness in what to expect. I wrote those sequences in the script in the form of brief tonal descriptions, and then matched each with a song to reflect the mood I hoped to achieve. I needed to draw moments where the outside world would remove us from Maribel, when Maribel would distance us from the outside world, and moments when they would harmonize. We returned with 26 hours of footage, and half of that was for montages.
6. What sort of conversations did you have with your lead actress about her performance? It is very understated at times, but still full of emotion. At other times, it’s so fresh and rough. It’s a really lovely performance.
She’s unreal. That entirely speaks to her ability to emote without fear of being judged. We spoke about trying to portray real emotions, their quietness and smallness – not movie emotions, which are often amplified copies of real emotions. After that, my goal was to not get in the way when her instincts were in control.
7. I love the way there are these other characters in the world, but we only get to see what Maribel sees of them. How much of their world (outside of the story) did you set and how much of was left to our (and the actor’s) imaginations?
Though I have my own opinions on the fringe characters’ backstories, I definitely wanted to leave it to the actors and eventually the audience to fill in the remaining pieces. For me, one of the beauties of travel is that experience of riding on the surface, gleaning what you can from ephemeral impressions, and then, when lucky, forming deeper connections despite it.
8. This was your first feature film. What was the most difficult part of the process for you?
The most difficult yet rewarding part of the process for me was finding the intersection between what I imagined for a scene and what was actually possible. Whether it was rewriting a line for heightened naturalism, creating a last minute costume using crew members’ clothes, or changing a location because of who-knows-why – poor light, crowds, noise, security reasons – it’s high-energy problem-solving, which requires quick decisions, intense collaboration, and breakthroughs in vision. I hope to get better with each attempt.
9. Your film was the Audience Award winning film in our Texas Independents category. Did you get a chance to speak with audiences at the 2013 Festival? Was there anything about their responses or questions that surprised you?
World premiering at AFF changed my entire relationship with the film, and mainly because of the conversations I had with audience members. Before, I had no delusions about who I made the film for. It was solipsistic, and I was okay with that because it felt necessary for healing. The goal was to move on, so once the film was complete, I began to feel far away from it. However, after the screening, parents, siblings, and friends who’ve lost loved ones to suicide would approach me to share their own experience of bereavement. There was a mutual vulnerability made possible because of the confessional nature of the film. I had no idea others would find a catharsis through the film or, even better, give me the opportunity to find catharsis through their stories.
10. You’ve been shooting in Ghana recently. Can you tell us about your next project?
The story is called NAKOM, and it’s about a Ghanaian student living in the country’s most bustling city and attending a top university who must return to his home village, Nakom, following his father’s death to manage the household and prevent it from falling apart. Through the microcosm of Awinzor family, it explores larger dilemmas facing the country: How will the younger generations reconcile the traditional lifestyle of their parents, especially those who come from subsistence farming communities, with their ambitions to move on? How will modern-day resources and technologies shape the future where old practices still dominate? What is gained and what is lost on the path towards Westernization, and so-called development? I’m co-directing the film with Travis Pittman, my partner-in-art-and-figurative-crime, who wrote the script after living in Nakom for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. We’re finally back after nearly 4 months, and plan on editing as soon as we raise the funding to get us through post. For more information about our SOMBRAS DE AZUL screening, click here.