“STUFFED is not what you think it is. It is a documentary about taxidermy, but seen through the lens of true artists and conservationists. It is bright, lighthearted, beautiful and full of life. We follow four of the most elite taxidermists around the world. They have to know chemistry and anatomy with the same mastery that they know painting and sculpting just to complete a single piece. They have an important lesson to teach us, if we are willing to see past the sad but inevitable truth, that death is a part of life. These characters will make you laugh, cry, and wonder if you are losing your mind. After all, you are enjoying a movie about taxidermy. Even I was confused and I made it.” Director Erin Derham on STUFFED which screens at the 2019 edition of SxSW Film.
Congratulations on your film playing in at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?
This is my first time attending SXSW. I have submitted one feature film and one short in the past years which weren’t selected for the festival, so this premiere is a big deal to me. I will most certainly be attending my premiere as well as many of the other talented filmmakers premiering.
So how did you get into this movie-making business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.
So, I never planned on being a filmmaker. It was a secret dream of mine since I was a child but I never thought it would happen so I did not try. I used to sketch storyboards for commercials and dream in movie form. I would watch the same movie 20 times and then talk to my parents for hours about the complexities in characters and plot lines I found. They thought it was a little strange, but endearing. In undergrad, I ended up acting in indie films and commercials, like Subway, plus day spots on ONE TREE HILL. It was not what I thought the industry would be like which was a ton of misogyny and negativity. I would eat lunch with the crew which was fun, plus it paid for most of my college. Then, I went to graduate school for history, another huge passion of mine, and worked hard to get my dream internship at PBS. I went in as a researcher for history but within the first shift, I had an incredible producer point to my Japanese anime t-shirt and say, “This girls a nerd, put her behind the camera.” He and his team, pushed me through a year of training in sound, lighting, cinematography, and directing. When I was timid, he knew it was just insecurities and found a way to get me over it to keep learning. I realized the day I directed my first live show, that I had always wanted to do this. It’s been a literal dream of mine since that first morning I woke up and wrote down the movie that played in my head all night. When I came up with my first feature documentary idea, Buskin’ Blues, I went straight into what I knew best, researching the history of vagabond culture, and within 1 year, I had a film premiering in front of a sold out crowd at Nashville Film Festival that would go on to win six awards around the world and sell to Red Bull TV. Since then, I have been a writer and director full time.
How did this project come together for you?
This project has taken me 28 months, so I will try to be brief. Three years ago, my partner and I were discussing what project to do. We knew we wanted to do a documentary on the environment or animals, but when she emailed me one Saturday morning with, “What about taxidermy?” I about lost my mind. I thought “How dare you! I am a vegetarian! I love animals! I would never want to see one stuffed, let alone know the people who would do that!” Then, I took a step back and thought, Rachel is my friend and a brilliant researcher and conservationist. There must be something to it. Within two days of research, I was blown away. My mind was changed overnight and I couldn’t believe this had never been done before. Rachel and I went out to LA to meet our potential main character, Allis Markham. We walked into a studio filled with laughter, all young women, and a bunch of rescue pups wandering around our legs for snuggles. I knew I was in the right place. Shooting was a major undertaking as we would not just be in taxidermy studios and conventions, but wildlife sanctuaries. As the filming progressed, we found more main characters that I felt helped to tell this story. I knew I wanted to have a movie about environmental conservation and the very real issue of disappearing habitats, and I also knew Allis and these other characters were the way, but beyond that, I was filming blind. I would film all day, stay up for hours with the taxidermists at night as they gave me leads to another location or subject, and then I would get on a plane and write. This continued for two years. Once the film grew beyond what I was honestly able to handle myself, I asked with fingers crossed, for Kaleena Kiff to sign on as a producer to help me finish. Since then, we filmed another year, we went to Europe and Africa and shot in the desert; it was incredible. Post production was in my hands for the last year of production. I would edit scenes and post for partners to show where the story was going; it was my full time job. Kaleena and her partners Holly Brydson and Galen Fletcher came in and put a whole team of talented post people on the project. I brought my composer, Ben Lovett and animator, Robert Klein and Kaleena brought an incredible editor, Jenn Strom, and sound designer, Kirby Jinnah. We have worked nonstop for months and now, as of two weeks before the premiere, we have locked picture and done the final mixes on sound and color. I have had this journey with my dearest friends, so even though it was long, it was completed organically, the only way it could have been created.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
I feed on positive energy. If I don’t have it around me, I crash, and as the director, I must set that tone early on. I make sure my crew is taken care of, respected, and getting a chance to flex their creative muscles. Without that, the overall energy dies. I also drink a TON of coffee. On a commercial shoot, I even budgeted to have my favorite local barista come to set and do pour overs all day. Again, when people around me are happy, I am happy. Like Superman absorbs solar energy for power, I absorb smiles.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
My biggest challenge was getting people on board. They would look at me like I was crazy and say, “YOU are doing a movie about taxidermy?” I would say it’s not what you think, but no one really believed me. I would say, “I’m a vegetarian, and I hate scary movies, that’s not what this is going to be.” They wouldn’t even read my treatment. Luckily, I had an amazing partner, Rachel Price, who did believe me. We pushed through and started a rather expensive production in California. A lot of conservationists and museums took risks letting us film, but after the proof of concept was made, every producer I showed it to wanted to sign on. What was most rewarding was changing people’s minds. I have made it a mission of mine to break stereotypes and get people out of their stagnant ways of thinking, including myself. This movie did that even with that first shoot, so I feel like I have already won!
I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.
We shot primarily on the RED Dragon and prime lenses. In some of the night scenes in Joshua Tree, we used the Sony Alpha series. Jan Balster, the director of photography, is a close friend of mine. He is German born, twice my size, and a total sweetheart. He shows me the utmost respect on set and pushes when I need to be pushed. Together, we set the tone for our crew and cast to feel supported and inspired. After years of projects together, we finally know the magic line that dictates turning the camera off for a minute, when hungry turns to hangry. Nothing gets done when Jan is hangry.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
I love Austin. This film had a music budget and signed it’s composer, Ben Lovett, before any part of the story was figured out. Music is my passion, so it feels rather fitting that Austin be the location for its premiere. I am looking forward to pushing play and hearing music from London symphony members, Grammy members, plus artists from some of my favorite bands like My Morning Jacket and Rainbow Kitten Surprise. I love this movie, and aside from the sweet little rescue animals we were able to film, I am most excited to hear that music play.
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?
We are not sure about other screenings yet, but we hope to screen at multiple festivals around the world, do a few natural history museum fundraisers, and then release online.
If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
One day, I hope to screen a film at the Grand Rex in Paris. My mother was born just down the street. My grandmother remembers walking past the Art Deco facade, dreaming of beautifully dressed women and men in the 40s. Its history, its connection to supporting artists, and its massive stage give me a goal that I hope to achieve in my lifetime.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie?
At a film festival, I feel like it’s even more frustrating, but in general, I wish people understood how subjective taste can be. If you don’t like the film you paid to watch in the beginning, maybe you will learn something by the end. Also, the person next to you could be entertained and having a life changing moment, and then you stand up, or a text notification dings and their experience is ruined. Walking out is inevitable in some cases, but I personally have never done it.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Make a movie! Don’t wait for money or the perfect cast. Get out there with whatever gear you have and make something. Also, make sure you surround yourself with people you want to work with.
And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
My first film, BUSKIN’ BLUES, premiered at Nashville Film Festival. It was the music documentary underdog of 2015 surrounded by some of the biggest music docs in decades. I was so nervous I could barely think. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I should wear, how I should act, and what I should say. Then, I went to see another music doc in competition, “Austin to Boston” just before my premiere. That movie changed the way I see myself and the way I handle being at a festival. I left feeling so calm. It’s a movie that shines a light on the behind the scenes of big bands like Ben Howard and the Staves. They travel from Austin to Boston in VW vans. They play small shows, camp, have impromptu parties and just inspire each other. By the time the movie was done, I stopped thinking about what I was going to wear and how to act. I realized we as paid artists, are given this gift of a career that we love, but that gift can become such a burden to the artist if you feel that being yourself is less than perfect. This film, in less than two hours, taught me something that I will value for the rest of my life. That is the power of a good movie and something I hope to achieve in my career.
This is one of the many film titles playing at SxSW 2019. For more information on this and any other title playing in the festival, point your browser to http://www.sxsw.com/film!