Michael Lee Simpson
SAN FRANCISCO DIRECTOR MARIA JUDICE TALKS COMMUNITY, FILMMAKING AND "ELEPHANT"
Filmmaker Maria Judice shares with Script the aspect of community filmmaking and being a multifaceted artist.
Maria Judice (“M”) is a visual storyteller working in cinema, writing, photography, and public art. There is a fictional and documentary narrative hybrid approach grappling with stories of our memory. Wired magazine called M a "filmmaker provocateur." Palm Trees Down 3rd St. won the Adrienne Shelly Award, and it was called "a masterpiece" by Film Threat. The award-winning sci-fi Moonless was reviewed by Stigmart/Videofocus13. Obsidian Theater Festival produced and staged A Metaphor in 3 Acts in 2020. Published scripts, poetry, plays, and fiction can be read in Forum Magazine and Obsidian Literature Journal. M can be found on unceded Raymaytush land of the Yelamu people named by settlers as San Francisco, kicking around the fog.
Elephant is your first feature. What experience did you gain from some of your short films—Moonless, Palm Trees Down 3rd St. and spaced—that you brought to Elephant?
Palm Trees was my first film out of grad school. I did this trilogy, and I never made the last one, which was spaced and Moonless. In between there, I made this tiny film called Geraniums. All these films include the Bay Area community, but it didn't take me until Elephant that I realized I was doing this thing that embraced the community I grew up in, and the community I currently exist within. Every time I made a new film, it was kind of like pushing against this traditional filmmaking education where I was like, 'Oh, I have to cast. Let's do auditions. Let me get all these union actors and audition them and figure out names I can have in my film.' I just never followed through with it, although there are a few professional actors in some of my films. In Geraniums, Natasha Young is a professional actor. You've seen her in soap operas, and she plays the mom in Elephant. There's Tonya Amos as a dancer and an actor—she just hasn't acted in probably fifteen years.
I have a couple of other people, but there was this need for me to not have someone come with super polished acting skills. I wanted someone who also understood the stories I was telling and embracing the community that I was embracing myself. I wanted them to extend their genius to non-actors or performers. I'm just pulling in people that I know. My grandmother is in two of my films. My sister's in three of my films as well as my little cousin and Dale Seymour, who's a performer in his own right. He's a poet and a community leader. He's a known person who is very talented in how he speaks, talented in how he performs, talented in the way that he lives through spaces and advocates for his community. I had to have him in my film, and we've had a good relationship over the past six years. I just kept imagining a film he was going to be in and what role he was going to play. In Elephant, he plays my grandfather. Tongo Eisen-Martin, who’s also in the film, is the poet laureate of San Francisco. It was his first acting role, but he has tons of charisma, and I knew he was going to be kickass in the film. He brings in his electric guitar, does some poetry and he takes over the scene. He's someone I'm in the community with. The community aspect of my filmmaking is what I learned by making Elephant, but I've been doing it all along. I just didn't know that’s what I was doing.
As a writer, director, and star, how did you balance the roles?
I don't believe in anything called balance. It has never existed in my life. Although I am a practitioner of yoga and meditation, I still don't believe balance exists. I did not balance anything in this film. I acted in it, I produced it, I edited it—the only thing I really didn't do was write one of the songs, but I had someone else produce the song and develop it. So, I really didn't dabble with the music too much, other than say, 'Here are my ideas and inspiration, and here are a couple of things I wrote.' I probably had maybe three to four people on set because I wanted a very small set. Again, I was trying to push against traditional filmmaking education. I was used to—even in short films—having somewhere between twenty to thirty people on set and having to manage all those people. Pretty much every single person on my set has experienced something around police brutality, oppression, and racism. I didn’t want a set that was bustling with people and noise and work and separate conversations. I wanted to be very focused and meditative because the subject matter is about trauma and pain and grief and loss—all things I’ve experienced in my life. So, that helped me to move from acting in front of the camera to when I was behind the camera directing. I had a cinematographer [Anka Karewicz] who shot most of the film. She shot probably eighty percent of it, and I shot the more experimental stuff. That really helped, but it also just helped to have a set with people who were down for what you were down for. I can't imagine doing it the way Denzel Washington does it with so many people. I have adult ADHD, so me being able to manage a lot of things at once becomes hard. And I'm at the age of my life where I'm just like, 'Nope, I'm just going to do this one thing until I'm not doing it anymore.' I would also say, because I let go of balance, I was able to do it. I was intimidated for years, even though I knew that's always what I wanted to do. I had acted in films, I had directed my own films, I had produced other people's films, but I wanted to do all those things for myself. It just made sense when I woke up to be like, 'This is your role, this is the role that you're playing. This Maria is a Maria that you know very well, and you can play her. And when you direct, you know exactly where everything is going, you know how it all fits together, and when you're behind the camera shooting, there are parts of this frame you need to be shooting yourself.' So, I had to recreate and curate a set that I wanted to work within.
That makes sense. It’s like creating your own world—one you’re already familiar with at heart.
Yes, very true.
I’m sure it came with challenges. What difficulties surfaced while making Elephant?
Ego. Imposter syndrome. Doubt.
What do you mean by that?
I think for me, at my current age and the number of projects I've worked on as a director and a producer, I have in my head the choir that screams back at me that, 'It's not your time to make a feature!' I've been hearing that statement since grad school because you don't have institutional support, you don't have financial support, you don't have the right project, whatever it is. I always thought there would be a right time. I just got frustrated and said, 'I don't know if there's a right time. I don't know if the sun and moon and stars will ever align for me to make a feature. I'm just going to defy the universe and make my feature.' But within that, becomes trepidation where you're asking, 'Is this the right time? Am I not listening to others? Is my ego getting in the way?' Also just having self-doubt and doubting my abilities to make a feature. I doubted my ability to follow through and it took me so many years to conquer that. And then the pandemic happens, and I'm in endless editing mode because I had this opportunity to edit without having a timeline on me. I had to let go at some point and walk away and be like, 'It's done. I've done enough.' But in a way, I think, as a filmmaker, even though I don't want to—and I'm trying to do all the work inner work to not this—I'm still satisfying some chorus. I'm satisfying my grad school peers, my grad school professors, my peers working on their first feature, peers way beyond their first feature, and I'm looking to them for some kind of validation. I constantly had to write notes above my bed to put me back in the right headspace to embrace my own skill and my own talent and remind myself that it didn't matter what it looked like.
You're a very multifaceted artist—not only writing, directing, and acting—you've worked in sound, as an editor, a grip, an animator, and assistant director, to name just a handful. How much did that combined knowledge help you in the creative process?
I think that combined knowledge is my creative process, and I think only recently I've embraced that. When I went to film school, they very much hammered in the fact that you should really pick one thing. When I entered school, I really entered it as a director-actor. And then I realized, 'Oh, my undergrad is in writing. I'm just going to focus on screenwriting.' And then I said, 'But then there's directing, too.' I went back and forth. So, grad school really messed my head up because I kept thinking I had to choose one. When you first come out of school, regardless of whether it's grad school or film school, or some seminar you're in, you're just taking any job available. That's how I learned. I learned filmmaking not in grad school but by being on film sets. If somebody said they needed a makeup artist, I'd say I know how to do makeup. I went to the club all the time in my twenties, and I do pretty good makeup. They'd say it's a zombie film, so I'd figure out zombie makeup. It was really helpful for me to understand storytelling through the aspect of every position. It helps me as a director and a producer, because when something goes wrong on set, I usually know how to fix it because I've done that role before, or I've touched that equipment before. I have a concept of what everything is now. Now being more well-rounded, I produced a play last year. I am putting out a book of poetry and short essays for Elephant, and a collage of watercolor pieces that I made. I'm embracing filmmaking as an art form and not just as this craft and a career. I'm trying to embrace it in terms of this foundation in story. Yeah, I use filmmaking and cinema as my core artistic talent, but then there are all these other pieces that feed into that. It's like an evolution, like whenever or wherever the wind blows, or vibration moves, that's what I pick up and do. I would say because I’m multifaceted, that's why people choose me as a producer. You're not just getting somebody who can bring money for your film—you're getting somebody who's going to give you hardcore feedback on your story, engage with you around the aesthetic choices and dig deep into cinema history, because I'm also a teacher. I can't imagine being any other way.
What’s next for you on the horizon?
Life stuff, which this goes back to your question around balance. So many times, I can focus on the filmmaking aspect and life gets cut and I'm not paying enough attention to it. Or sometimes, I'm knee deep in life and the filmmaking gets put on the shelf. Filmmaking has been at the forefront, not just with Elephant but with Neptune Frost, a project I produced this last year. I've been running hardcore for the whole year. So, I'm going to take a little bit of a rest period. I know that's probably not what you're asking, but I'll make sure my health is up to par and get some sun. But right after that, I'm already building my next project, which is called A Certain Grace. It's a feature focused on black culture and community around homelessness. My nonprofit job at Code Tenderloin is around homelessness and formerly incarcerated folks and people with addiction. Especially just coming from the Bay Area, I saw many of those communities suffer from instability of housing and chronic homelessness. The project isn't a non-fiction narrative at all; it's a way I would like to embrace my community and try to throw on some switches around how we think about homelessness. We kind of degrade homeless people and have a negative view towards them. Most of those people are related to you, you know them or went to school with them. It's only a period of someone's life. It's not who they are. It's not their character or their moral worth. It's a factor of poverty and lack of housing or poor policies that don't allow housing. So, that's my next project.
I have a couple other things I'm producing. There are always producing projects in the background as well as teaching. I teach my media class at Code Tenderloin every Sunday, a course on public health and media to youth, and I'll be teaching screenwriting and probably a media class at SotA, which is School of the Alternative in North Carolina on the historic Black Mountain. That’s up until June. A new kind of perspective that I've been thinking about lately—and I was saying this at the festival and in Arbor people were having a hard time trying to grasp it—but the practice of filmmaking is an effort towards failure. We're failing to learn filmmaking and we're failing to learn cinema in a way to expand cinema. If we all know it, then cinema doesn't go anywhere. Our whole goal is to cross and increase those boundaries of cinema to make cinema almost boundless. You can only do that through failure. You can only do that with attempting to do something different, which is a lot of why you see experimental ideas in my films, because I'm trying to test out these boundaries and see how far I can push them, and how wide and fast I can make cinema so that everybody I know and love has a space within cinema.
-Writer's Digest (Script Magazine)