SIFF 2019 Interview: 'International Falls' director Amber McGinnis
For her directorial debut, filmmaker Amber McGinnis set off for a remote small midwest town to film a wry, melancholic and funny story that doesn't easily fit into either the comedy or drama bucket. But the first challenge: just keeping the cameras from getting too cold and shutting off spontaneously.
"We had to use those hand warmers you put in your gloves and tape them to the battery so the cameras wouldn't shut off," McGinnis said just hours before her film "International Falls" screened at the 45th Seattle International Film Festival. Although filming in northern Minnesota was difficult (she had briefly considered filming closer to Minneapolis), McGinnis said they simply had to shoot in the titular small town.
“It was important to be in International Falls to film because it was important to bring that authenticity to the telling of the story," McGinnis said. "The town has its own personality, so faking that wasn't going to really work."
"International Falls" finds aspiring comedian Dee (Rachael Harris), harboring feelings of being trapped in a small town and a failing marriage, crossing paths with Tim (Rob Huebel), a jaded, burned-out stand-up who never "made it."
Still early in the indie's film festival run, "International Falls" premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival in April and has racked up festival wins, such as Best Narrative Feature at the Ashland Independent Film Festival and most recently, the New American Cinema award at SIFF 2019.
"There are things that small towns, no matter where you go in the country, are going to have in common," said McGinnis, who grew up in a small town in North Carolina herself. "I think for this story, it was important that Dee felt a little trapped in her life. And being in a border town that's quite literally the end of the road serves as an apt metaphor."
While filming on location presented its own set of logistical challenges, McGinnis said working with the film's editor Esin Ozdag was crucial in striking just the right tone.
"We were able to find that dance between comedy and sadness," McGinnis said. "We just poured over the edit, trying to find that right balance with the tone. When is it necessary to have a joke and when is it better to let the silence sit for a little longer?"
As the script dealt with two characters rooted in stand-up comedy, McGinnis said the film honored the comedian's journey - even its darker side.
“I think they live in that space a lot - pulling from some of the dark realities of everyday life and trying to twist that into humor," McGinnis said. "In the slog of the tours, there are people who haven't made it. What does it feel like to not really make it and still want to do it - and how demoralizing is it?"
McGinnis says screenwriter Thomas Ward, a friend she had collaborated with before, wrote the story initially as a two-person play.
"Some of those experiences came from his real-life stint as a comedian on the road. He spent two nights in International Falls," she said. "When he first started adapting it, he sent the script to me. I had loved the play and loved the script. I was like 'Yes, we have got to make this happen.' "
Although "International Falls" features the niche art of stand-up comedy and set in an isolated town tucked way deep in a flyover state, McGinnis said these elements have helped it connect with audiences.
"Going very specific with the town and the setting has made it easier for people to relate to," McGinnis said. "It's been a nice surprise to see how the specificity has resonated in a universal way. We all know a 'Dee.' "