Beautifully filmed, A Million Miles Away is an ensemble film that delivers with so much intimacy and thought in spite of the many cast members. Whether these characters, primarily a bunch of teenage girls and their substitute teacher, wear their hearts on their sleeves or not, emotional resonance is clearly skin-deep. Writer and director of the Sundance short, Jennifer Reeder has a melodic, commanding grasp of both teen and adult despair.
I was lucky enough to have Reeder indulge me by answering some of my own questions about the discipline of both writing and directing movies, but specifically about A Million Miles Away, a short film refreshingly raw and moving, and well worth the near 30 minute running time.
Before embarking on the road to filmmaking, Reeder admits that when she was young she had crushes on “everything Molly Ringwald, and equal parts Jake [Michael Schoeffling in Sixteen Candles] and Randy [Nicholas Cage in Valley Girl].”. Motivation indeed, she takes directorial inspiration from the likes of Janicza Bravo, Maren Ade, Andrea Arnold, and Kelly Reichardt. Reeder explains her foray into filmmaking, having been a ballet dancer up through her teen years, “then I took a multimedia and video art class after failing sculpture. And for me, there are many similarities between dance or choreography and filmmaking. Picking up a moving image camera for the first time was like recovering a phantom limb.”.
When it comes to the discipline of the art form, Reeder declares herself “A single (primary financial provider) mother of three young children, all boys, so I manage my time very rigidly. I set aside very specific time in each day, week, month, year to address the filmmaking – which includes writing of course. I am not careless with my time and I do not have much of a social life, which I never regret.”
I declared my unequivocal admiration of A Million Miles Away, I mean, it’s great. “Its related in content to a feature length film I will shoot next summer called As With Knives and Skin. I wanted to test out some of the concepts in a short film, and that happened with A Million Miles Away.”.
“I can also draw upon my experience right now, as a woman in this world.” Reeder replies to me asking how much of herself found it’s way into the short film. “I see “angst” as a defense/coping strategy. We are a culture that deeply envies and rewards youth while at the same time sucking out all its agency. So my films aim to address this and rectify.”.
At nearly 30 minutes, A Million Miles Away could be classed a short film epic. “Its long for a short indeed. I did not think too deeply about the page count while writing. I was only thinking about how to deal with the arc in a way that would be satisfying to the audience. When we, my editor Mike Olenick, and I, were cutting the film together, we knew that we needed to keep the song intact, that is to let it play out in real time – about 3 minutes. This film is a lot about being patient and watching for what the characters will not tell you with words.”. Right, I mean the song is such a key part of A Million Miles Away, to cut it short would have been an injustice – especially given the teacher spaces out and believes the song is unfinished.
Speaking of the editing, that is very impressive indeed. Not just structurally, but the little touches, the floating red heart, the Crystal ‘C’ drawn in the air, the cat’s eyes on the sweater. “I have worked with Mike Olenick for over 14 years. He is a brilliant editor, and he is also an outstanding filmmaker. We always work very closely – I call him Tge Timeline Whisperer. Based on the script and the log notes from production, he will make an assembly edit, and then we sit down together and comb through ever frame, every take etc. Sometimes, we have a goal in mind to shave a minute or so off, but mostly we are just trying to build pathos from one scene to the next.”
And it’s a great cast, too. That must have been a mission, to pull together such a fitting flock. “Chicago, where I live,” Reeder tells me, “has a really vibrant theater scene, and that trickles down through the high schools. So we put a call out to all the local high schools, the Chicago Children’s Choir, and the response was enormous – so many amazing young actor/singers to choose from.”. And what an authentic bunch they are, you’d believe they were really classmates. “Ultimately, the casting decisions were about representing ‘real girls’. It’s a diverse group in every way. I am so happy for those girls that the film has done well. Two of them made it to the screening at Sundance which was very special.”.
What else I loved was the nostalgic, or for me anyway, use of the E.T. doll as a sounding board, and then the rendition of Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’. “That’s autobiographical really. They represents my own childhood. I love, love, love early Madonna. Like E.T., it’s a reference to my own youth. Music is very important to me in terms of the narrative. I always hand pick it myself.”.
What’s next for Jennifer Reeder? “I am finishing up a tour with a film called Signature Move, a feature length film that I directed (written by Fawzia Mirza and Lisa Donato) which premiered at 2017 SXSW. I am just beginning a tour for a new short called All Small Bodies, which is a feminist, post-catastrophe take on Hansel and Gretel. And… I am in pre-production for As With Knives and Skin, a feature length film I will shoot next summer. It’s a Midwestern Gothic teen noir… with singing… you are gonna love it!”. I don’t doubt it.