She’s Missing: An Interview with director Alexandra McGuinness and producer Anna O’Malley

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The exploration of friendship and escape in a dusty, desert environment are at the forefront of writer and director Alexandra McGuinness’ drama ‘She’s Missing’, which premiered in March 2019 at the Dublin International Film Festival. Troy Balmayer for Flickfeast got the chance to speak to her and producer Anna O’Malley about their upcoming release.

Flickfeast – The premise and execution of this desperate and desolate story are both brilliantly done. What was it for yourself that made you want to write ‘She’s Missing’?

Alexandra McGuinness – Well I started writing the script when I moved to America 5 years ago and I was spending a lot of time driving around California. There was one town I went to that had a lot of missing posters, one women’s story in particular I looked into and found out she’d been missing for 12 years, her mother had set up a Facebook group; there’s nothing recognisable in the script that is to do with her story but that was the starting idea.

FF – Was there any of you that you put into your writing?

AM – I wanted to tell a story with this friendship. I certainly had a friendship similar to it and I think a lot of girls in their teens and twenties have also, a codependent power struggle element to it. I think you grow out of those friendships a lot of the time. That was the core thing I wanted. I’d also never been to a rodeo before and I wanted that to become a part of it. The core idea all along was the friendship and I built up around that.

FF – The friendship is the most powerful aspect. At one point you can see Jane being the progressive one but due to what happens Heidi has to take that title and change to become a stronger person. She’s one of the only people to care.

AM – When I started researching the idea of it, there was always these missing girls leaflets along the highway. On interstate 40 there’s so many missing, the category they call them is the less dead; which is women who work in the sex industry or transient, they’re just not investigated. Especially if they go missing or they’re killed, their body found in another state the police forces don’t work with each other. There’s women that don’t really have anyone in their lives and don’t have anyone looking for them.

FF – During the film we dive into a dry yet beguiling New Mexico landscape, as if mirroring being drawn into the notion of the American Dream. Is that something you feel people are lulled by and what is your take on the American Dream?

AM – The film is set in a slightly surreal world. When I wrote the script Trump hadn’t been elected yet and that then added another surreal element to the story and we were shooting in a border state in a rural area that voted for Trump. It’s not dealt with directly in the film but the influence of his presidency and the chaos, sexism, misogyny are definitely there in the background.

FF – The speech {made by Eiza Gonzalez} at the rodeo hits home more knowing what is going on over there now.

AM – The rodeo queen speech follows a formula; they’re about America and the flag and they’re judged on their patriotism. It was the idea of her planning this speech and realising halfway through she doesn’t believe what she’s saying and America is not working for her. She’s a Latino woman in Trump’s America so it was like the idea of her wanting this crown for so long but it doesn’t really mean anything for her.

FF – Was that scene shot at a live rodeo with a real audience or were extras used?

AM – We piggybacked off an existing small town rodeo in New Mexico. Before she’s doing the speech a lot of the extras are people who do attend the rodeos. I think it was one of the last scenes we shot in New Mexico so it was like 4 in the morning, extras are not served alcohol, they have ice-cream and we built this American flag set which they were thrilled with! I wanted Eiza to be more free in what she was doing and not feel like she was being watched by people who might not agree with what she’s saying. So we filmed the people while they were they and got the dancing, then we emptied it out for her to do the speech over and over again.

FF – As mentioned, it is the dreamlike nature of the film which travels across the landscape throughout. David Harrington’s score adds to that, how did you hear of him and how did the music come about?

AM – While we were on pre-production I started talking to a friend who manages a lot of artists; one of whom was Dave, who’s also in the band DARKSIDE who I was definitely a fan of. Dave had never scored a film and it was something he was really interested in doing and it was a wonderful experience. When we were in the edit, he was sending us pieces of music and we were sending him rough cuts, so he was composing to the edit and we were able to cut to the music. My previous film had a lot of pop tracks in it and I wanted this film to have an original score and soundscape that was unique to the film and Dave was really on board with that as well.

FF – It seems you worked well together in building up a hallucinogenic atmosphere, more so in the third act.

AM – Yeah, I think it has an element of the original ‘Suspiria’ to it.

FF – Was that an influence on you at all?

AM – No, just when I was listening to it, there’s that kind of feeling to it but we didn’t talk about any references. I was open to whatever Dave wanted to do and then once he had music, we changed parts to work with the film and final result.

FF – Perfect. Lastly, is there anything you can tell us about upcoming projects you’re working on?

AM – My next film is shooting in Europe. It’s about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia who was a modern dancer in the 20s and 30s and spent a lot of time in a mental institution. It’s about her trying to create the greatest dance that ever was whilst being hospitalised.

FF – Wow, sounds really interesting. We look forward to it. Thank you again for your time and good luck with everything.

AM – Thank you.

Eiza Gonzalez and Lucy Fry star in ‘She’s Missing’.

FF – Hello Anna.

AOM – Hi. Thank you for doing this interview. I hope you enjoyed the film.

FF – I did yes. There’s a lot of interesting ideas, like the American Dream, the entrapment Heidi and Jane face. It’s dark in places too.

AOM – It is yes, it’s not one for laughter.

FF – Definitely not. So you’ve worked on TV and short films before, now with this you’ve majorly contributed toward a feature film with women having a prominent role in front of and behind the camera. How did it feel taking part in a film such as this?

AOM – Brilliant. It’s interesting from where we were in 2015 when I met Alex to where we are now, it’s like a different world. When I was trying to get this made it seemed like it was one of the only female stories out there, with directors, writers and I felt quite alone being a female producer. Now I feel every meeting I go into I’m surrounded by powerful females making the decisions. It’s a huge difference, there were women in the industry but they weren’t round the table making decisions. It’s amazing to see how quick the industry is changing. I used to make a concerted effort when I was a production manager and line producer to hire females, there just wasn’t enough skilled at that stage, nobody had trained women as DPs or for camera team, they weren’t the roles that women got. It wasn’t because we weren’t interested, it just was not an option.

FF – Exactly, it has definitely become a changing landscape as of late, which is a positive step of course.

AOM – Now when I’m on set it’s amazing, like all the trainers and assistants. The last camera team I had were all female. It wasn’t like that 5 years ago.

FF – Agreed, it’s a good thing that it’s finally happening and becoming a more diverse system.

AOM – I think what’s really interesting is before it was about female agenda and the female voice whereas now it’s like here’s the story that just happens to be a female director, writer, producer team, which I love, it’s fantastic. It’s important.

FF – We imagine that feeling is a big part of why you said yes to the script?

AOM – It was important for me to find that female story. Alex’s voice is so powerful and I think everyone else around the world was feeling the same thing in regards to equality.

FF – The female friendship obviously jumps out, was there anything else that made you come on board to ‘She’s Missing‘?

AOM – Alex’s writing; she’s a beautiful writer. I came over to the U.S and I really wanted to develop with a female writer or director and nothing connected. When I read ‘She’s Missing’ I just got it. The dynamics between the girls, it reminded me a lot of being in my twenties. When you come out to the U.S what you’re struck by is the desert landscape and these towns that are desolate, that essence Alex really captures in the movie, that was in the script from day one.

FF – Was it all shot in New Mexico or did another place stand in?

AOM – We shot it all in New Mexico and we did three days in Salton Sea, California. It was as hot as it looks in the movie, but it looks good.

FF – Very true, the film does have this beautiful yet gritty, dusty look. The disturbing background is enhanced because of this, was that something you could feel when reading the script?

AOM – That’s what you feel when you’re out there and that’s what I read. In the script was this beauty and desolation which America and the female experience all ties into. There were days out there in the desert when I thought this is the most beautiful place I’ve been and other days when I was like gosh this is where dreams go to die.

FF – It makes the performances more gruelling in a way too.

AOM – From beginning to the end it was very powerful. Lucy Fry’s performance and Eiza were just so raw and emotional. Fry who plays Heidi got so into the role. I met her after the shooting and she was a like a different person and I realised she could really become the character.

FF – When watching the film, you can see her emotion draining, a tiring journey is what Heidi goes on.

AOM – She was such a professional. Every single shooting day that she was in she had a smile on her face, I can’t even describe how brilliant it was to work with her because she got it every time. Lucy was a total find for us, as many times as I watch it still, I get a tear in my eye.

FF – It’s always good to know you have a gem in your movie!

AOM – Yes.

FF – What are differences you find between working on TV and film production?

AOM – I guess my experience for anything TV is high budget and so many people in different jobs. When you’re making an indie movie it’s you, the director and a couple of other producers, it’s all hands on deck with everyone wearing different hats. So for film you’ve got to be able to give it everything and ‘She’s Missing’ was a definite labour of love.

FF – It is definitely a change in landscape with TV coming to the fore and streaming services getting more cinematic. Is that something you can notice?

AOM – Yes. Really interestingly actually I was watching ‘Big Little Lies’ and Andrea Arnold; who’s directing the series and it’s so beautifully shot, so artistic. I think that now we are getting a lot of amazing film directors that are making the move. It’s a different way of telling a story, TV series you get to open up character and follow more story. There’s more opportunity now for artists to make beautiful shows and stories.

FF – It’s all about the story for yourself then?

AOM – Oh yeah, absolutely and finding the best form for that.

FF – Perfect answer.

AOM – Thank you very much, I’m really glad you enjoyed the film.

FF – Thanks for your time and all the best.

SHE’S MISSING will be released on iTunes and On Demand from 1st July on Sky Store, Virgin Media, Google Play, Youtube and Amazon.

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