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Oh The Places You’ll Go: Independent Filmmaker Edition

After spending 4 years in film school, walking out with abundant knowledge about the history of film, experience working with the university’s Blackmagic camera, and using words like mis en scene when discussing films, how do you have your movie? How do you get a film into Sundance? Where do you find your funds? Where do you start?

If privileged enough to receive a formal education in filmmaking, the curriculum always seems to forget to include key details on making a film. As major studios live in the past coming out with reboots and remakes, how do filmmakers tell their original stories independently?

While studying at Northeastern, Catherine Argyrople discovered her passion for storytelling. Instead of going to film school, she opted to go to the best place to learn how to make movies and film sets. By graduation, she had worked on various productions and made several short films.  She took the knowledge from those experiences into producing her debut feature, Growing Pains.  The film follows two childhood best friends the summer before their freshman year of high school, capturing the hardships of growing up and friendships fading.  

After a long 3 year journey, the film had its world premiere in Argyrople's hometown at the Boston International Film Festival. I had the pleasure of talking with Argyrople to discuss the challenges independent filmmakers face and the creative freedom to provide representation where Hollywood lacks.

Growing Pains addresses hardships most often faced in adolescence (and often follows us through adulthood), such as mental health, sexuality, and drifting of friendships. What was the process of building these characters’ stories authentically?  

I am big on authenticity– it informs how I show up in the world and my work. I wanted to create a diverse and authentic story about teenage girls that shows two unique life experiences that feel true to key struggles and themes that young women face in their daily lives. I am grateful that my writing partner, Mariana Fabian, had a similar passion for authentic representation. We both felt that many depictions of teen girls feel very inauthentic to real life. Whether that be from overdramatizing storylines and events to harmful portrayals that oversexualize or age young girls inappropriately, illustrating girls in these inaccurate representations in the media has major implications for negative cultural and societal impacts. It was important that we showed our characters, Zoe and Nat, in an honest light with sensitivity to the subject matter, as they are both seen in intimate emotional and even physical portrayals. 

We casted teens to play teens instead of casting adults. While this created more restrictions for me as a producer and writer, this was something that Mariana and I felt very strongly about, and we were not willing to compromise for the sake of authenticity. Similarly, we casted people who could represent the backgrounds of the characters that they played. The most special thing for me was casting Molly Morneweck to play Zoe’s character, as she had a similar medical background to me as a cancer survivor and the same scar as myself, as well as the character.

Few films offer a true and honest representation of teen girlhood. What are some common mishaps mainstream media makes when telling female coming-of-age stories? What essential themes were you determined to have depicted accurately in your film? 

What a great question! My writing partner, Mariana Fabian, and I wanted to tackle this ambitious and personal film with an authentic lens, in terms of the representation and how it portrays teen girlhood. Oftentimes, movies about young women aren’t written or directed by women themselves, which can be quite toxic depending on how they are depicted. Teen girls are often oversexualized and portrayed from the male gaze, and many times in mainstream media, these actors are adults playing children. All of this can create really harmful representation!

While many are blinded by the glitz and glam of big Hollywood studios such as Paramount and Universal, independent filmmakers lack the funds and resources compared to these big studios. What was your experience producing this film? 

It is my dream to work with incredible studios like Paramount, NBCUniversal, and Disney one day. They make incredible work and

provide many great resources to their teams and filmmakers! This is most definitely true about independent filmmakers having limited resources. Many independent filmmakers, including myself, are self-financing their projects and relying on grants and crowdfunding campaigns to be able to tell their stories. I used the money that I saved for film school to instead make a feature film, which was one of the best decisions that I have made in my professional career. While it would be amazing to go to film school and receive an MFA, I really wanted the opportunity to tell a personal and special story to me and to be able to have the creative autonomy of directing, writing, and producing. We also received so much community support from a successful crowdfunding campaign with 100 supporters and 4 grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is where I am from and where we made the movie.

I am extremely proud of the movie and I know that we did a great job of creating this movie with limited resources and bandwidth. I have poured so much into this film over the past three years and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to make this film. The film was quite ambitious for a microbudget feature film debut– shooting over 21 days in 9 locations with 110+ people, including on the water! If we can make an ambitious feature film completely independently, imagine what we can do with ample resources!  

Hollywood being a male-dominated industry, it is not often you hear of a film crew made up of a majority of women and nonbinary filmmakers. How do you think the collaboration with a crew that reflects the characters on screen translates into the film? 

I feel that it is important for women to have the opportunity and platform to be able to tell female-centered stories. So often, stories of women and girls are written, directed, and produced by men. We felt that it was important to tell this story about girls with a team of women. I am proud that the film was awarded our ReFrame Stamp by Women in Film and The Sundance Institute for gender-balanced hiring, as over 80% of our crew was female or non-binary! 

I think that this female-centered, inclusive lens had a large part in creating a safe space for my actors to feel comfortable and supported on set, especially when dealing with sensitive subject matter surrounding mental health, sexuality, and intimacy. I heard a lot of great feedback from my team that they felt like this environment for filming was quite positive, especially compared to other sets. For sensitive and intimate scenes, we had a wonderful intimacy coordinator present named Kayleigh Kane who was incredible and was instrumental in helping my actors feel safe. 

Not only did you shoot in Boston, but having the film premiere at the Boston International Film Festival.  How does it feel to share your debut feature with your hometown? 

It was so special to world premiere back at home in Massachusetts, where we filmed the movie. We had a wonderful turnout at both our premiere at BIFF and our Community Premiere that my team planned independently at the iconic Somerville Theatre. At the Community Premiere, we had over 400 people on a Tuesday night! The house was absolutely packed and the reception of the film was overwhelming, as I felt so much love and support. People were laughing, crying, clapping, and cheering! It was wonderful to see that after three years of hard work and dedication to the film.

The premieres also showed me the impact of the film on the lives of our community members who helped make this film a reality. I was very moved by people’s feedback, hearing that Growing Pains was their favorite set and professional experience in their careers. It also was quite fun to chat about the film at the Community Premiere with Alecia Orsini Lebeda from Women in Film & Video New England, who moderated the Q+A. Lastly, a big highlight was meeting my writing partner and associate producer, Mariana, in person. We had been collaborating remotely over the past three years, so this was a very special opportunity to celebrate our work in person with the people who helped us make our movie. 

There is a longstanding debate among filmmakers whether or not film school is worth the investment.  What advice would you offer young filmmakers who may be questioning if they should make this investment?

I honestly think this is a really personal decision and each individual will have a different feeling about it. As I mentioned above, I decided not to go to film school and make a feature film instead. I believe that this was the right call for me, but I had extensive film production experience before embarking on this journey. I had wrote, directed, and shot a number of short films, as well as worked in the corporate film world and on a number of sets. I am also a very motivated, driven person with big goals and ambitions. 

I don’t think that making a feature film is for everyone, and I was actually advised by a mentor of mine to make a short film instead of jumping to the feature. I didn’t feel that making a short with Growing Pains was the right call for my story or career, as I actually made Growing Pains as a spec for a television series. Having some significant experience in shorts is a really helpful background to have before making a feature. I think film school can provide a wonderful education in film from seasoned professionals, as well as a great team of collaborators who you will learn and grow with. The networking and resource aspect of film school is incredible. 

My advice would be to ask yourself, “What feels like the right direction to go for your story and your career?” If you feel strongly to write and direct and/or produce, I suggest making your film independently. In film school, you typically pick a specialization and you wouldn’t have the same creative autonomy on a project. I would also find great collaborators who are going to help you realize your vision, supporting you along the way. Lastly, I would encourage you to pursue what makes you the most passionate. When embarking on a film, passion and drive are key as you will be working on the film for years potentially. 

After completing your debut feature, what have you learned from this experience that makes you feel better prepared for your next film?

I learned so much from making a feature! It was the best “film school” experience for me. I learned how to be a better collaborator and leader, which has aided me in every area of my life– personally and professionally. I learned when to take important feedback from others and when to stick to my original vision, as everyone on the team has a valuable perspective to add! I also learned how to be a better director, articulating my vision and story with more clarity and complexity to my actors. I am in pre-production on a TV pilot, Getting Back Out There, and in development on a coming-of-age surfing drama feature film. I feel my experience with Growing Pains has taught me so many lessons and learnings that I will bring with me and build upon for my lifelong career in the arts. 

Stay updated on Argyrople's journey on Instagram and her website.

Be sure to check out the Growing Pains Trailer and stay updated by following their Instagram.

Written and Interviewed by Ashley Murphy

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