SxSW 2020 Interview – TOPSIDE filmmakers Logan George and Celine Held

“Deep in the underbelly of New York City, a five year-old girl and her mother live among a community that has claimed the abandoned subway tunnels as their home. After a sudden police-mandated eviction, the pair are forced to flee aboveground into a brutal winter night. Determined to return home, they fight to find shelter as their world is thrown into chaos.” Filmmakers Logan George and Celine Held on TOPSIDE which screens at the 2020 edition of SxSW Film! 

Editor’s Note: While SxSW was officially cancelled on March 6th, 2020, the below interview was one of many that already took place prior to the festival. To respect the creators, all already performed interviews are presented in their unedited entirety below. All of the below works WILL make their way out into the world in one way or another, and we will update this article with updated information when we have it. — JW

I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past!

This is our fourth consecutive year with our work screening at SxSW. Our short films MOUSE (World Premiere Midnight Shorts Competition 2017), CAROLINE (World Premiere Narrative Shorts Competition 2018), and LOCKDOWN (Narrative Shorts Competition 2019) all screened at SxSW over the past 3 years. We also have our documentary art exhibition 50 MOMENTS premiering at SXSW this year in addition to our feature film TOPSIDE. 50 MOMENTS is an interactive exhibit featuring stories from those currently experiencing homelessness in New York City, initially created as research for TOPSIDE.

So let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!

We are a co-writer / director duo. This is our first feature film; our short films have screened in competition at SXSW, Sundance Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and have been nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. We’ve been working together professionally for five years, and we’ve been married for three.

How did this project come together?

We have been writing this film since 2012. We created two documentary projects as research for the film; one of which is premiering at SXSW this year as an exhibition, and made six narrative shorts to prove we could direct TOPSIDE. We cast our lead seven-year-old actress a year out from production, and spent that year getting to know her and her family, and rewriting the script to suit her likes and dislikes. This is our fourth collaboration with producer Kara Durrett, and seventh collaboration with cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer. So it’s been a long time coming. We’re crazy excited to finally share it.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Knowing why you’re shooting what you’re shooting. Sometimes you can get so far away from the time you wrote something or not have a strong enough reason for certain scenes in your script. Being able to articulate why each moment is important to your story helps you know when to move on, when to improvise, what to fight for, what to focus on. That clarity of vision gets you through hard choices, and it also hopefully translates to enthusiasm and excitement that resonates with the crew. That articulation of what is interesting to you is hopefully driving you. If it’s not, it may not be worth it.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The first third of our film takes place in a tunnel with no natural light, the last third of our film takes place solely on subway trains and platforms in New York City. The film also stars a seven-year-old girl, playing five-years-old. It was definitely an unusual process throughout the entire shoot – we were lucky to have a truly dedicated crew who was excited to run-and-gun. Our incredible cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer and gaffer Tyler Harmon-Townsend created an amazing technique in lighting the real tunnels where we filmed in Rochester, New York: they used tube lighting stretched between columns that bounced light into the ceiling, reflecting a soft glow that gave us enough ambient light to capture very dark scenes.

We were in the tunnel filming for 3 weeks in total, so it definitely took a toll on all of us in having no natural sunlight – and you can feel that in the film. It was very important to us that we use a practical tunnel rather than opt to shoot some portions on a stage etc. We all fell in love with our lead actress, 7-year old Zhaila Farmer, who truly embodied the film. Obviously, we insulated her from the adult aspects of the story and she knew we were shooting a film, but we tried really hard to keep the experience as organic and intimate as possible. This was her first ever acting role. One of our PAs Nikki Moriello had the amazing idea of putting up a red light in the tunnel for when we were shooting, because we avoided saying “Action” and “Cut,” so that Zhaila wouldn’t know when we were rolling, and her performance could naturally flow without being chopped up by the normal production words.

Shooting in the subway trains and platforms also presented a lot of challenges / rewarding moments; we were given a platform and train by the MTA for about a week of work, and had real pedestrians getting on trains on the platform right beside ours, as we were in a fully-operational subway station. It was wild.

I am about to get technical, but earlier you mentioned working with your cinematographer Lowell A. Meyer. I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to Lowell and how the movie was photographed.

We shot on an ARRI Alexa Mini and ARRI/Zeiss Super Speeds. The Alexa Mini has really amazing low light capabilities, which was really important to our story, as most of it takes place underground. Our director of photography was Lowell A. Meyer; TOPSIDE is our 7th collaboration with Lowell. He’s incredible and we can’t imagine making a project without him. He continually fights for the beauty in our films. Lowell operated the camera himself for virtually the entire film as it’s mostly shot on shoulder, with one day of steadicam. We spent months preparing with Lowell, and he’s been involved with every step of pre, production, and post.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin at SxSW?

SxSW is this huge platform, this incredible way to share our film with people from all over the world. It’s also just this really wonderful festival in every sense; we have met so many of our current collaborators at SxSW over the years. It honestly feels different from other festivals where we’ve screened our work: it’s this place where everyone wants everyone else to succeed. We couldn’t imagine premiering our first feature anywhere else.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

We have no idea!! We’ll keep you posted.

If you could show your movie in any theatre outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

We live in New York, and love so many theaters here like the IFC, Angelika, Nitehawk, Alamo Drafthouse, RIP Sunshine. It would be a dream to have TOPSIDE in theaters there.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive through a movie, even if it was a screening of TOPSIDE?

Every movie is a miracle. Respect the miracle.

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 filmmaking?

Don’t compromise your vision. Just keep forging ahead. If the idea becomes strong enough it will eventually resonate with people. Don’t expect people to immediately sign up as there’s always more you could do, there’s always more work to be done.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

CAPERNAUM by Nadine Labaki and the documentary THE WORK by Jairus McLeary. We saw CAPERNAUM at Cannes 2018, and THE WORK at SXSW 2017 but there have been so many amazing films we’ve seen at festivals, including the short blocks ever year at SXSW. I’m so excited to see more this year.

For more information on this film and to follow its progress into the festival world, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film!

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