By Chuck Williamson
Jennifer Reeder is an award-winning visual artist and experimental filmmaker based in Chicago, IL. Her latest short, ‘A Million Miles Away’, is a surreal and surprisingly tender exploration of adolescent girlhood. Set to a choral rendition of Judas Priest’s ‘You’ve Gotta Another Thing Comin’,’ Reeder’s film concerns a moment of collective catharsis experienced by a conductor and her all-girls choir.
To begin with, would you mind discussing the origins of A Million Miles Away?
Sure. I am in the midst of revising a feature length script that features several scenes of a girls choir singing as a kind of Greek chorus. What’s often typical is to make a short adaptation of a feature-length project in order to get funding for the feature. So as a kind of challenge to myself, I wanted to try to write a short around this girls choir class. I knew I had that at the most basic level, that the main plot would feature this girls choir. From there, something that doesn’t happen, for instance, in any scenes in the feature is what happens in A Million Miles Away: this substitute conductor having a meltdown and the introduction of her crises through the writing in her diary, and the intro of some of the girls at the beginning. It was really just the most simple thing: how do we make this specific day in their choir class more impactful. And I went on from there.
The cast is a broad mix of seasoned professionals (particularly Jennifer Estlin) and non-professional actors (the girls choir). What was the casting process like?
I had met Jennifer Estlin through this very non-art oriented situation — where we were both asked to come and be “master storytellers” for this strange corporate gig — and I was really compelled by her as a person. She is a very experienced actor, and I knew I wanted to cast her.
Then what we did was reach out… a lot of high schools in Chicago have a pretty hefty performing arts program, so we reached out to about five different high schools to say, “We’re holding these auditions for girls between the ages of 13 and 18 who have to have [acting] experience… or can sing.” We at least wanted them to be able to sing. So we had a casting call and visited a couple of high schools to pick up some extra people who couldn’t make the original casting date. We cast 21 girls, but we could have easily cast 41. There were so many really talented young women who came through.
We were choosing girls who would make a really diverse mix, both in terms of race and general personality. I don’t know anything about choral arranging, but we were also able to put together a group who had a range of voices so that this three-part arrangement that we utilised worked. They actually came together and were an operating choir. They all had experience in music and theatre, but most were not seasoned in front of a camera — they were just excited to be a part of this project, and they were so poised and professional and really delightful to work with.
I’m also curious about your method working with your teenage cast. Were they ever active collaborators?
Not so much. Perhaps a little in the intro sequence, where we just get a little glimpse of each of the girls. For instance, the young woman who sings ‘Like a Prayer,’ that’s the song that she sang for her audition. She’s a big Madonna fan — [laughs] — like when I was a teenager, so I was instantly in love with her. I asked her if she could sing that song again and she was like, [flippantly] “Okay!”
But I didn’t necessarily give them a huge amount of room to improvise because they actually don’t have a lot of dialogue. Every girl got a line of dialogue. I made sure that everyone got to say something, which was really important to me. But we kept it really tight, in terms of the script; it was pretty by-the-script. We did the same thing with Jennifer Estlin, who certainly knows how to improvise. She kept to the script as well. I’m not against improvising, but I think that the girls themselves actually felt more comfortable having me give them lines rather than having them improvise.
We did shoot those intro sections in the girls’ own bedrooms. So you have a little bit of “improvised” set design and art direction, because we actually went to their homes and shot in their actual bedrooms without changing a thing.
I was struck by your complex and textured representation of adolescent girlhood.
Probably the last several projects I’ve done have included some aspect of teenage girlhood. Myself, as a teen I fell in love with all of the John Hughes films — which, in particular, still feel pretty fresh today. It’s probably nostalgia, but there are some teen films from the eighties — [Martha Coolidge’s] Valley Girl, for instance — that still resonate with me as great storytelling and give representation of a kind of era and a kind of teenager.
On the one hand, my fear is that, as an adult woman now, oftentimes when I’m negotiating my place in the world, I still feel like I’m doing it from the perspective of this fourteen year old me and just hoping I don’t blow it. [laughs] So my fear is that I’ll get it wrong, that I’ll get the art direction wrong or the wardrobe or the hair or the cadence or what they might actually talk about all wrong. So I try to pay attention to the teenagers that I encounter; I get real nosy about their mannerisms. I live in Chicago, and the city teenagers are different from when I go back to Central Ohio and observe those teenagers. But I feel like I’m always watching these packs of young girls to get an idea of their body language and what sorts of new fashion they’re wearing or thinking about, or what they’re listening to. More-so than just prescribing something or imagining that they can learn from me as an adult, I’m constantly in the opposite position where I’m really realising where I can feel like I’m learning from them; I can absorb and listen rather than talk. And that’s really even the gist of this film. It’s about the reversal, right? The adult in this film gets a lot of wisdom and guidance from this pack of teenage girls who at first she thinks are “a million miles away” from her, so to speak.