A series of interviews with Women In Film.
Welcome to The Female Gaze, in which I talk with women from every walk of the creative process of film and television. Over the course of this series, we will explore every facet of the film industry, and go in depth into the thoughts and processes of women at every level within the film community, from writers, directors and actors, to editors, cinematographers, marketing consultants, PR, and critics.
Within every interview, you will be introduced to the experiences and unique perspectives of the legion of talented, professional women who shape the cinema that we love.
The creative process was always going to be a part of Stefanie Davis’s life. From an early age, with an interest in music, Stefanie began performing as an actor, on stage, in school productions and reviews. But the head can often rule out the heart, and upon graduation, Stefanie chose another career path, in financial sciences, a path she saw as much as a safety net , as a legitimate world to be a part of.
However, the creative mind can be hard to suppress, and Stefanie soon realised that the true key to her happiness, professionally, lay within the arts. Her focus shifted away from acting, into creating short films, which in turn led to her founding her own independent production company, Bouncy Boxer Media. As a writer, director, producer and actor, Stefanie’s journey hasn’t always been easy, but, as tends to happen with such stories, the results have been worth it. I spoke to Stefanie about that journey, about her experiences as a woman in the industry, and about her first feature film, Hot Mess In A Wedding Dress, as she prepares it for release.
Q. I want to begin by asking you about your production company, Bouncy Boxer Media. You founded it in 2012. Can you speak a little about it?
I began Bouncy as a platform for my writing. At the time, I was struggling with chronic migraine and used writing to deal with it. With self-publishing tools beginning to unfold, I started thinking about that route. I chose Media for the end instead of Publishing because I also had a passion for movies and music. Best decision ever.
When I moved to Florida in 2013, I got back into acting and started to not like the roles I was being submitted for. So my best friends and I began making our own comedic content with female leads under Bouncy.
Q. What is your role within the company?
I am the owner and I handle all the business operations. My partners, Chelsea Wolf and Lexi Balestrieri, assist me with the creative side.
Q. Where is the company based?
The company is based in Tampa, Florida
Q. It’s female driven, is that correct? Is that important to you?
Yes, we focus on female driven content. It’s very important for me to see more relatable female characters on screen. Too many times, we get put as the girlfriend or the supporting friend when we have so many complex character sides to show. I think now more than ever, it’s becoming more of a trend to have very strong female characters and I love it.
Q. Who else do you have working there?
We work with independent contractors mostly. A lot of collaboration from talented artists here in Tampa.
Q. It was a big year for female directors at Sundance, certainly in terms of the 4% challenge. Does this feel like a long time coming?
Absolutely! To see the Sundance line-up with 40% female directors was a dream come true. The 4% challenge is also a great movement I hope those who pledged will follow through. We need more female voices.
Q. As a director yourself, what is your personal take on this challenge?
I personally see it as an opportunity to tell more diverse stories and it’ll open doors for my content to be seen by audiences. As we break moulds, we can open others eyes to these stories.
Q. Going back now, Where were you born?
I was born in Illinois as a military brat. We lived in several army bases and then settled down in Missouri when I was about 6. We were close to family, which was a beautiful part of my childhood.
Q. Do you come from a creative family?
Music, mostly. I would sing a lot as a kid and my grandma would tell me that her mother was a gifted singer. I have an aunt who is very talented at drawing too. Everyone has their artistic skill that they use as a hobby.
Q. You began as a performer. At what point did you start to take an interest in the arts?
In school, I participated mostly in choir and singing events. I performed in variety shows, local fundraisers, and local concerts with solos. Once I hit junior high, I got involved in drama and I was in a play every year. I directed the play of my senior.
Q. What parts did you play?
I was Annie in junior high and that was the moment my parents realized I truly loved the arts. I also played Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My junior year, I was cast as an alcoholic mother and really played with the character’s look.
Q. Does acting still hold an interest for you?
It does and I’ve recently been considering getting back into it. We have been discussing our past web series, Relation Shipwreck, which I’m involved as a recurring character. I love playing emotional roles too.
Q. Were there any particular films or film makers that stood out for you at that time?
One of my all-time favourite films is The Prestige and every time I watch it I see more foreshadowing Easter eggs. The acting, the story, the visuals, and the art is so well rounded!
Some of my favourite filmmakers are Edgar Wright and Stanley Kubrick. Wright uses a lot of editing to music and creative transitions that really enhance the storytelling. Kubrick is a rebel and I love breaking the rules as well when I film. Those two were big influencers for how we shot Hot Mess In A Wedding Dress.
Q. You studied Science (Finance and Banking). Why did you break away from performance?
Well I got the “get a real job” mentality after high school. I originally wanted to be a nurse but that didn’t work out so I went on to get a degree in finance to work in corporate banking. After I hit my late 20s, I realized I was truly missing out on happiness and wanted to pursue my art more.
Q. Where did you study?
I studied mostly online from Buena Vista University. The only time I was on campus was graduation because my mother requires to see us walk to get our degrees.
Q. Once you graduated, did you have a plan as to where you wanted to go?
Yes, I moved to Kansas City to escape my small town and loved it! I got to explore a lot and working downtown gave me more opportunity to visit amazing restaurants, happy hour networking, and events. My career track was set on moving up in finance, but my migraines got worse and worse so I had to choose another path.
Q. Given you graduated in such a different discipline, at what point did the arts come back into your career plans?
The arts came back into my life with my migraine diagnosis. My doctor had recommended I journal my food, symptoms, and how I felt emotionally. I would reread it and a story would spark in my mind. So I began writing a novel (that I’m still writing) about three women who take a year off after graduating college to travel the world. Each woman is a piece of who I am and it’s been a great exercise to stretch my storytelling muscles.
Q. Did you direct any theatre at all?
I directed my senior year in high school for our medley of Shakespeare scenes. It was great to cast and work with fellow students. I got to incorporate my ideas with performance, set design, and costume. I didn’t really know what a director did so my drama teachers mentored me.
Q. As well as directing and producing, you also write screenplays. Do you have a writing process?
My process typically begins with knowing the characters. I like to get an idea of their background, likes/dislikes, upbringing, ambitions, fears, etc. Once I can visualize them and have conversations with them, then I can write the dialogue.
As far as structure, I outline a story first. I’ll expand on it sections at a time but knowing where the story and characters are going is a big part of the outline. Then the characters can be visualized in place and it evolves from there.
Q. Do you consider yourself a director first, writer second? Or are they equal in your eyes?
I believe they are equal. As the writer, I’ve built the characters and as the director I build the world visually.
Q. How do you approach breaking down a script, before you shoot? Do you storyboard, or shot list?
I am a HUGE believer in pre-production and planning. For Hot Mess, I had look books with colour palettes for each character as well as location. I build a shot list with my DP and I visualize the edit so I am not wasting shots. I have never storyboarded but knowing me I wouldn’t use it. I’ve made stick figures on the side of my script for certain moments but that’s as far as it gets.
My intention with pre-production is to share the world I’m seeing to my team so they can add their flair. We all have different frequencies how we read stories so I have to translate what I’m seeing to them. The look book really helped us all stay on the same page for pre pro.
Q. You wrote and directed a feature film, Hot Mess In A Wedding Dress. What is that film about?
The film is about a young woman who’s having a difficult time connecting to her wedding ceremony. Bella isn’t the typical bride so the event itself is foreign to her. When her mother suggests she tries the dress on to connect to it, her bridesmaids join in. They relax with wine and weed then red wine spills all over the wedding dress. With her wedding being two days away, Bella has to decide what to do. She adds on to the stains to make this dress truly her own.
The idea came to me when I was in Belize on a writing retreat. I had leftover wedding items from a short film we made, I Now Pronounce You, so I came up with this microbudget concept to expand on. I knew this was a story I had to tell.
Q. What was the budget for it?
It was a microbudget film so it’s less than $50,000. It’ll come to about $30,000 after doing the self-distribution and marketing.
Q. Crowd funding is becoming increasingly more popular for indie film makers. Do you see it as a benefit, or does it come with its own set of problems?
We did crowdfund through Seed & Spark and raised $4000. This helped because it build an audience before you start marketing, you get an email list started for when the film is released, and it helped my budget. Other than the crowdfunding, the budget came from my personal funds with working extra to make sure everyone was paid.
Q. Do you see any differences in shooting shorts to shooting features?
Features are a different kind of animal, but it depends on the concept. I’ve shot shorts where I’m the only crew for a couple hours and I’ve shot a short with 30 extras and 30 crew. This feature was an 8 day shoot and heavy improv.
Q. Coming off of shorts and episodic pieces, are you focusing more on longer work and features?
Yes, I’ve been bit by the Feature bug! My goals this year include another feature and a pilot. For a long term income building strategy, features and episodic are a big part of it. I’m working toward this being a sustainable income source so I can make films/episodic more.
Q. Do you shoot on film at all, or just digital?
It’s all digital. I can’t afford film. I’ve never been on a set that’s shot with film so I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Q. Given your experiences, this may be a redundant question, but I’m interested in asking you, as a film maker, if you have an opinion the digital vs film argument?
I think it’s up to the filmmaker and the story. If it makes sense to shoot film and you have the budget, go for it! It’s a beautiful look. For microbudget projects, it’s a bit more challenging.
To each his/her own.
Q. Would you say you have developed a singular style or aesthetic over the years, or does that element depend on the project?
I have started to develop my signature style as a director. I started incorporating practical opening credits last year and the responses were shock and awe. So I knew that would set me apart from others. Also I love using the set to honour the hard working team by making them part of the set.
I also use a lot of colour psychology in my storytelling. For example, there are a lot of pops of dark purple colours at the beginning of Hot Mess. That is the colour of uncertainty. She wears a dark purple lip as she’s first drinking with the wedding dress on. This shows her uncertainty with being in the dress. Then as she becomes more confident of what kind of bride she wants to be, we start to lose the dark purple and see pops of yellow: the colour of optimism. Their honeymoon luggage is yellow. There’s so much colour symbolism. I love it!
Q. Do you enjoy working with actors?
Absolutely! Actors are so skilled at digging deeper into a character to bring them to life. I worked with all my actors on their backstories, colour palette, and how they felt about the other characters. They all knew each other’s backstory before we even shot.
Q. Do you like to rehearse?
Yes, especially for tricky shots. Blocking is a big time saver for camera and sound. The actors also get an idea of where their playground is so we can make magic.
We dry rehearsed the wine spill shot a lot before we actually put wine in it. Then the girls were so nervous it really showed well on screen. I love well prepped moments. Spontaneous moments are beautiful as well!
Q. Comedy also seems to be a theme throughout your short work. Is that a genre that you favour?
Yes I love comedy. It can meld with any genre. There are also so many ways to be comedic that there’s always an audience. Not everyone is going to connect to it but you’ll find the people who will.
Comedy has a lot to do with natural performance and good editing. By casting the right actors and testing the editing, you can truly make something special.
Q. Are there any other genres that you would like to explore?
I do like working with dramas and I think I’ll be making more dramatic pieces next. We’ve played around with horror, action, thriller, and emotional drama. I personally prefer telling stories with drama and comedy.
Q. Going back to the discussion about Women in Film, I’m interested in the female perspective on masculine concepts, such as the action movie, or stories that are male driven. What do you think a feminine perspective can bring to a masculine story?
I think having more females in action films will widen the audience. If you notice in Wonder Woman, the way the Amazons look are way different than Justice League. The evolution of Diana is a completely different tone than her character in Justice League. There are some extra layers, I feel, female directors bring to action films.
Q. As a female director, do you feel a certain responsibility to tell female driven stories over male?
Not necessarily. I choose to write more female driven stories because I connect to them more. There are some male centric stories I’ve brainstormed and will most likely become something, but I do more justice with female centred stories.
Q. Do you see a change taking place within the male film making community? Do you still think male film makers are pre-occupied with projecting a certain image of men within the artform?
Yes and no. There is a shift in the way men and women are viewed in society. We are also seeing a lot more LGBT characters/stories. Men are no longer afraid to tell a story with sensitivity. I think that makes the art more diverse in itself.
Q. Do you find a sense of community within your circle of collaborators?
Absolutely! The Tampa filmmaking community is a family. We all have our own projects but also help each other out. It’s a beautiful thing. We all have each other’s back and celebrate each other’s wins.
Q. Where do you stand on social media and its place within the film industry? Certainly for indie film makers it can provide an outlet, but there’s always the danger of negative word of mouth too.
I love using social media to market my brand as well as give opinions. However, with all the trolls and people who just want to pick imaginary fights, it can be difficult to speak on an issue. I use my art to do that. I’d rather show a troll what’s wrong than try to tell them. Seeing makes it much easier to soak in.
Q. And can you say anything about your next project?
Right now I’m on the marketing train with Hot Mess In A Wedding Dress, but I am writing a lot more! I had made my 5 year plan earlier so I’m excited to work hard to see all those nuggets come to life! I do want to do another feature this year so I’m in the investment stage right now while developing it. Once it’s a more solid green light, I’ll definitely shout from the social media rooftop.
For news on Hot Mess In A Wedding Dress, you can sign up to their email list at http://hotmessinaweddingdress.com
Follow Stefanie Davis on twitter