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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell


Susan Kouguell’s SCRIPT MAGAZINE Interview: ‘No Man’s Land’ Director David Garrett Byars at the Tribeca Film Festival

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Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘No Man’s Land’ Director David Garrett Byars at the Tribeca Film FestivalDavid_Byars_HeadShot

David Garrett Byars

I sat down with first-time documentary director David Garrett Byars during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss his journey making his riveting film No Man’s Land.   Byars also wrote, produced and was the cinematographer on this project, which gives a gripping on-the-ground account of the 2016 standoff between protestors occupying Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and federal authorities.

The History

In January of 2016, protestors gathered in Burns, Oregon to denounce the federal sentencing of two ranchers. During the protest, a group led by Ammon Bundy broke off and took over nearby Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The occupation quickly attracted a stew of right-wing militia and protestors. What began as a protest to condemn the sentencing morphed into a catchall for those eager to register their militant antipathy toward the federal government. The Malheur occupation drew the national spotlight, attracting media fascinated by the spectacle of cowboys and militia rebelling against the federal government. The siege also attracted the attention of the FBI, who set up a command center nearby to counter the occupiers. During the 41-day siege, events at Malheur took a bloody turn when federal agents waylaid the leaders of the occupation en route to a community meeting. A car chase ensued that resulted in the arrests of the entire insurgency leadership and the dramatic on-camera shooting death of LaVoy Finicum, the semi-official spokesman for the group.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell: What drew you to this project?

David Garrett Byars:  I started following the whole patriot movement as it related to public lands back in May of 2014. When I heard the Bundys were coming to Recapture Canyon to protest, it was about three hours west of where I was living in Colorado, which is right next door in terms of Western spaces. I drove out there with my friend Jim Hurst, who is a co-producer on the film. We realized this story was something much bigger. What we saw there were people who were very upset over a very small road closure to motorized vehicles. You could still walk there, ride horses, bike, drive a herd of cattle over the road, but the only thing you couldn’t do was drive a car or an ATV over it. It was clear that it was just a Talisman of this rural frustration particularly in the West with the federal government distrust. I saw the patriot movement as it related to public lands as a good avenue to explore this rural rage.

Susan Kouguell: How were you able to get this unbridled access to the Bundys and protesters?

David Garrett Byars:  Since I followed this movement for about two and a half years I knew of a couple of them and had been in contact with a couple of them, so when I got there I had a little bit of a leg up than the rest of the media. Also, the rest of the media kind of put microphones in people’s faces, and some of them were just trying to get to them to say the most outrageous things possible to get it on the Evening News in order to say, ‘There you go, these crazy people.’ I told them I wanted to tell the more human side of the story, and they thought that was hippie dippy BS. It was spending time with them, putting the camera down, sitting with them at the campfire and being very respectful of them and their privacy; I think that’s what allowed them to allow me to start filming more and get more intimate moments with them.

Armed agents guard the command center set up by the FBI to monitor and neutralize the occupiers at the Malheur. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Armed agents guard the command center set up by the FBI to monitor and neutralize the occupiers at the Malheur. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell: In the film, you presented a neutral point-of-view; you didn’t disrespect the Bundys or the patriot movement, and powerfully conveyed both sides of the story.

David Garrett Byars: I could have made a real preaching-to-the-choir type of movie but then I thought no one would learn anything from that.

Susan Kouguell: Tell me about the writing process.

David Garrett Byars: I was constantly writing and rewriting as things were happening, before the occupation. Originally it was going to be more of an essay-type film. When the arc dropped out of the sky, it was a new story and I’m glad. There are essay type films about the patriot movement, but I hadn’t seen a film about public lands, and I’d rather have a narrative arc-driven film than an essay-style film. When we decided to use talking head interviews rather than purely the cinema vérité form, David Osit (editor) and I sat across from each other with a script and said exactly what we wanted to say at each moment, according to our timeline. So basically we had a timeline of our vérité footage and then we said this is what we want someone to say here, and this is what we want to say there.

Duane Ehmer rides out to confront the press after the killing of Lavoy Finicum. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Duane Ehmer rides out to confront the press after the killing of Lavoy Finicum. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell: Instead of using a voiceover to give background information on the movement and occupation, various journalists were interviewed, which was very effective.

David Garrett Byars:  I didn’t want to use the voice of god. I grew up on one side of the political spectrum, and I’m on the other side of the political spectrum. I think that transition gives me a bit of insight. We live in a country where everyone is pointing the finger at the other side and saying, ‘You’re wrong, and because I disagree with you, you’re a bad person.’  By saying ‘you’re wrong’ – it claims a moral higher ground.

Susan Kouguell: Did you work from an outline or a script?

David Garrett Byars: Initially we went very chronologically. We put an assembly in chronological order and started picking and choosing. I did the whole note cards thing. My editor didn’t. We had it in a cinema vérité form and once that was done we saw that it didn’t say what it needed to say. We were tossing out a lot of ideas with Lana Wilson our story consultant and our editor David Osit. We reached out to journalists who were there and reached out to experts. We wanted to stay at the refuge as much as possible. That was a lynchpin moment in terms of the direction we were in. We could have made this very artsy, purely cinema vérité film, but it would have been emptier and devoid of meaning.

Susan Kouguell: You mentioned that there was a natural arc to the story that you didn’t expect. Please elaborate.

David Garrett Byars:  When the Bundys took over the line in Oregon in 2016, it was a situation in which they were forcing the federal government to react; there was going to be some sort of reaction and some sort of ending with this standoff. We already had the inciting incident, and in just pure story terms, there were things that were going to happen, and there was going to be some type of ending. As a documentary filmmaker, I feel like we are forced to find an ending or more of an emotional ending than an actual physical ending, unless of course you are making a film about a political campaign or a football season. It was definitely something I knew I had to jump on top of and take advantage of because to have this narrative arc and to move you through this whole question of how we got to this current movement of American Zeitgeist was really compelling to put you through to the larger question.

Susan Kouguell: For a first-time documentary filmmaker, you have quite the impressive team of producers. How did this come about?

David Garrett Byars: I was at the Refuge and David Holbrooke, who was just a mentor at that point, called me up and said you need to put a two-minute reel together and make a postcard, and come down to Sundance. I flew home to Telluride, got my car, because I was hemorrhaging money on car rentals – money that I didn’t have.  I drove out to Sundance and met Morgan Spurlock, basically on the street because David knew him. I gave Spurlock the card, and he said it looks awesome and to send him the film link. Soon after, he said that looks great; we’re going for it. It was really so quick. I then met one of the executives from Warrior Poets, we laid out the basic terms of the agreement, and I drove out back to Oregon the next day.  Every moment I was at Sundance I was stressing about missing something in Oregon.

Susan Kouguell: At what point did the story intention of your film change?

David Garrett Byars: When we moved into postproduction, these guys were all arrested. This was a film that was going to come out and these guys would be in jail and Hillary Clinton was going to be president. Obviously, none of those things happened. We were perhaps awakened a bit earlier than everyone else what America was beginning to look like; what it really looked like. Trump was just a lens and we were able to see what America really is. We were hyper aware of this because we were making this film, so we were incorporating this into the film as it occurred. Of course, the results came back in November of both the trial and the presidential election, and it was not what we expected.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell:  This was November and now it’s April, and the film is having its world premiere at Tribeca. That’s pretty fast in terms of the editing and postproduction process.

David Garrett Byars: We didn’t change much with the ending thematically. I think almost every documentary filmmaker’s kind of urge is to make a film somehow related to Trump. We had a natural avenue to do that, but we didn’t want to go too heavy on that. We wanted to take time and made sure that we were confident with what we were going to do. We had to incorporate the new trials into the ending. Trump wasn’t the driving force of why the film changed, but it was effective.



Susan Kouguell Speaks with Filmmaker Agnès Varda for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

Agnès Varda in Manhattan

Born in Belgium in 1928 with a career spanning over 60 years, Agnès Varda’s work continues to reexamine and challenge the themes of time, memory, and reinventing reality.

Often referred to as the Grandmother of the French New Wave (a term with which she takes issue, noting that Goddard and some of the other Cahier du  Cinema group were close in age yet differed in their political views and artistic backgrounds), Varda’s film credits include La Pointe Courte (1955), Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962),  The Creatures (Les Créatures 1966), Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969), Documenteur (1981), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985), The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008).

At the ‘Life as Art’ event in March at the Alliance Français in New York City, moderated by Olivier Renaud-Clément, organizer of her exhibit at Manhattan’s Blum and Poe Gallery, Agnès Varda spoke about the pieces in this show, as well as her narrative and documentary work while film clips and images from past multi-media installations were shown. Varda expressed reverence and curiosity for the subject matter and interviewees, and her responses were as wide-ranging as the work itself.

Varda: “With ‘Uncle Yanco’ (1967), I was interested to transmit not only the facts but how I felt about meeting him, like having the camera shake to show my excitement” — [to ‘The Gleaners and I,’ (2000)] When you film, the weather is always changing; the people are in a certain mood or do a movement you don’t expect. It’s an adventure. You can organize more or less before, and then the adventure is the time that you film, a vérité. And then the editing, I’m very excited about because that’s where you build the story.”

Agnès Varda at Blum & Poe Gallery

Open until April 15th, this is Varda’s first time exhibiting in New York City. Highlighting works made from 1949 to the present, this exhibit includes video installations, photographs, and sculpture. In Paris in 1954, Varda staged her first exhibition of eighteen black & white mounted photographs at her house in which she still lives and works today.

Varda led the press gathering as we walked together throughout the gallery rooms. Irreverent, inspiring, and disarming, Varda often shared her insights with a sense of comedic timing when discussing her work and journey as a filmmaker and artist.

Varda: “I used to put away my life as a photographer and now it comes in the light again.”

Varda points to the framed original invitation she made for the exhibit:

Varda: “The invitation explains the first time I exhibited in my own courtyard. The photographs were hung on the wall, on the shutters, on the ladders and around my studio. I printed the photographs myself and someone helped me to put it on the wood. I left the photographs up even at night because it was my own courtyard. There was no reason to make any kind of announcement so I put the invitation up in my neighborhood; at the bakery, at the butcher, and about 20 shops nearby, which is interesting because years later I made the documentary Daguerréotypes about my neighbors in 1975.”

Following the FIAF screening of Daguerreotypes, moderator Laurence Kardish and Varda discussed the evolution of the film from idea to production.

Varda: “I went to all the shopkeepers and asked if they would come to the café for the show. I was surprised they all came. We took two cameras. I said to the other DP (because you know the show at almost three hours is endless) let’s see what the people do. There is no fiction at all; the magic show happened, and what we filmed in their houses and at the shops were all true. The shopkeepers were concerned about how I was going to pay for the light so I ran a cable from my house and we used my electricity to film. The DP and I were small. We were hiding in corners of the shops. We kept the light on so there was no difference when people came in; we wanted to see them arrive. The crew was one sound person, and one to help, two camera people. We waited for hours to film because we had to be forgotten by the shopkeepers.”

As Varda walks around the Blum and Poe gallery, she offers glimpses into her past and present, while recounting some back stories of the images.

Varda: “I am switching from an old filmmaker to a young visual artist. I’ve had three lives: as a photographer, a filmmaker, a visual artist. I’m old. So I’ve been crossing the time for years.”

La cabane du film Le Bonheur

La cabane du film Le Bonheur d’Agnes:  Varda, 2017 Metal structure with Super 8 film from Le Bonheur (1964), miniature potted sunflowers, interior lighting with switch, and mixed media on wooden base. Polished cherry wood case with engraved plaque and handle.

Varda: “We had all these negatives in the film cans.  I wondered if there was a way to recycle all these negatives. So I thought, let’s make it a house of cinema, and make these shacks. Since it’s expensive to do the big ones (life-size), I did these maquettes. For this piece, I re-filmed Le Bonheur in Super 8 because to make the mini house, it had to be true to the original film.” (Varda hands me the magnifying glass to further examine the Super-8 images.) “If you take a look, there are the images of the original film. In Le Bonheur the film starts with a lot of sunflowers, so I imagined a greenhouse where they grow sunflowers.”

bord de mer

Bord de mer (2009). Digital HD projection, Blu-ray aspect 16:9 color/sound video projection, sand. Total running time: 1 minute, looped.96 x 120 x 115 inches

In this piece, Varda explores three representations of time; the one still photograph is of the ocean; the moving image shows a wave rolling in and out of the shoreline; and on the gallery floor lies a small beach of sand at the edge of the video.

I asked Varda about her decision to use real sand on the floor for this installation.

Varda: “I wanted the viewer to forget about the floor and just be there.  I wanted something realistic. I did another big installation Patatutopia and there were potatoes on the floor. Because a little piece of reality helps the imagination.”

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956) / Les gens de la terrasse (2008), 2012

A photograph of five figures and a baby on the Le Corbusier’s terrace next to a video re-enactment of what might have preceded the moment the photograph was taken. Varda describes the scene as a before and after. The before (the video) and the after (the photograph).

Varda: “I was sent by a magazine to photograph the Corbusier. I liked the mise en scène. A lot of snapshots for me are questions. Because it was a mystery I decided to make it a screenplay: I asked, who could be those people? So those people became characters. I built the set, and I asked some people to come. (Varda points to the video.) This couple in my mind is the mother and father of the girl, and this one is the mother of the boy. (Varda chuckles) Then like in real families they kiss on both cheeks for hours.”


Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, 2004-2005 35mm film transferred to three-channel color/sound video, three wooden screens, hinges. Total running time: 9 minutes 30 seconds, looped. 39 x 180 x 1 inches open; 29 x 129 x 2 1/2 inches closed.

This interactive work allows the viewer to open and close the side panels thereby influencing the unfolding narrative.

Varda: “I’m asking the viewer for 10 minutes of their time, which is nothing. The feeling comes if you give yourself time to think because there is almost no action.  I love that in a film it brings a lot of people together but a triptych in a gallery or a piece in a gallery brings in a few people. They come, they go. I like the during, the after, the before, and the elsewhere all at the same time. This makes it different from film.

I was inspired by the religious triptychs of the 15th century. I love the triptych shape; the opening and the closing of the panels.  We can see three things at the same time; something we cannot do in a film.  I was very excited to see where the people go when they go out of the scene.”

Pointing to the central projection of the domestic kitchen scene Varda says: “For about five minutes it’s just a classical kitchen scene like a Flemish painting of the 17th century.”  (She then points to the left panel and then center panel.) “When the man goes out, the mother puts away things. It’s intimate and also outside; sometimes we feel this at the same time, inside and outside.”

I asked Varda the identities of the three people in the film.

Varda: “They are my neighbors; he is a plumber, and the old lady is his mother. It’s in a little village island of Noirmoutier. I’ve always loved working with non-actors that I meet here and there.

Kouguell: How much direction did you give them?

Varda: I don’t say, ‘Drink your beer like this’ I say, ‘We’re going to do a very intimate kitchen scene’.  We discussed how long the film will be.  I suggested what they did and then they did it according to their own impressions. The kitchen scene is one shot; that was the intention. The relation to the side panels we had to organize.

The lady is the mother of the man, and the woman is his wife. He reads the paper and drinks a beer. Like very often it happens in life. And the women do the work. The lady undoes the rope and the wife does the potatoes.

Varda refers to the images of the beach on the left panel: “My mind started to think, what could happen if I could bring some of the outside inside? Then I allowed myself to have the immensity of the sea.”

Kouguell: This piece happens with no dialogue and just the sound of the ocean; it is very meditative.

Varda: I love the quiet noise of the sea. My mind is always at the sea. I’m inspired by the sea. (Varda points to the action of the woman pushing the cat off the table): “The woman doesn’t like the cat and he doesn’t like the sea.” (Varda smiles) “Voilà, that’s all you can say about their relationship.”

Kouguell:  It speaks volumes about their relationship. And, it’s interesting with the images of the two women, the wife and mother, on the far panels.

Varda: Yes. I kept it blank in the middle for a little while. (We watch together until the panel changes.) And then the film starts again. 


Varda: “The artist JR and I just finished the documentary Visages/Villages; it will open in June in France. We got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul. Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years I like taking the time to listen to people. The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”


Final Words

Varda: “I fought a lot as a feminist, and we succeeded with a lot of marching and screaming and we changed the law. Birth control was an incredible step in society. I’m still a feminist more than ever. In the cinema world in France today, there are a lot of women directors, writers, DPs, mixers, producers. It’s a fight I did when I started making films. I say to women, learn the camera, learn the sound and editing. When I was young it was rare to have a camera. Now people do photos all the time. When they do selfies, they want to put themselves in it to say they were there. As if to say, I need proof in my life. Not only are images easier to make now, but we want to have memories of ourselves.

The documentary I did about widows (The Widows of Noirmoutier The Veuves de Noirmoutier 2005) I went alone with a small camera and sound. The women were very touching the way they spoke to me with their small confidences. I listened to them. It’s a step in understanding the world.  The world is cruel.  But I have decided, especially aging, to try and spend good time with people. I cannot change a life. I have seen the world changing so much since I have been here.

You can use your memory to remember, but that’s not my point in my work now.  The point is, getting a piece of my past and bringing it in my life of today. I don’t have the feeling that I wish to tell you my memories, (she smiles) but I did it a little in The Beaches of Agnes. What I do now is make it alive now. What I want is to make the now and here very important.  It’s sharing what I do with people. My work is to propose emotion, propose surprises, and propose my view.  That’s the life of the artist.”

Award-Winning Writer and Director Rosemary Rodriguez talks about her film ‘Silver Skies’ with Susan Kouguell for SCRIPT MAGAZINE


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2016 RosemaryDirector_003_pp

Rosemary Rodriguez

Last year I sat down with writer and director Rosemary Rodriguez in New York City to talk about her career trajectory, and directing for television for this publication.

Rodriguez’s television credits include The Good Wife (she directed 18 episodes, more than any other director in the seven seasons of the series) The Walking Dead, Amazon’s Sneaky Pete starring Bryan Cranston, Marvel’s Jessica JonesEmpireSex & Drugs & Rock & RollOutsidersLaw and Order: SVU,  and Rescue Me. Acts of Worship, Rodriguez’s first feature, which she wrote and directed, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, including the John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature.

We recently caught up to talk about Silver Skies, her second independent feature film, which she wrote and directed. The film is being released by Joe Amodei and his company Virgil Films Entertainment (VFE) and will be available on DVD and Streaming on Amazon and iTunes April 4, 2017.

Silver Skies chronicles a group of seniors whose lives are turned upside down when their Los Angeles apartment complex threatens to be sold out from under them.

The film won the Audience Award at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, Best Feature at the Manhattan Film Festival, Best Comedy at the Tiburon International Film Festival, Best Film at the Live Free or Die Film Festival, and it was the Closing Night film at the Palm Beach Film Festival.  Alex Rocco won Best Supporting Actor at the Madrid International Film Festival.

Silver Skies PosterRodriguez: The film opened in September 2016 in a limited theatrical run, playing eight weeks in Palm Springs and eight weeks at The Villages in Florida. We played in Orange County, Arizona and around Florida. Little by little, it’s kept going. We are finishing our theatrical run March 30.

Kouguell: Tell me about the evolution of Silver Skies.

Rodriguez: It took about ten years.  I went to the MacDowell Colony with an outline for ‘Silver Skies and wrote the script there. Then, when I directed an episode of Law and Order, I hit it off with the show’s star Dennis Farina. He loved the script and helped to get the movie made. Two years later I called Dennis, told him we got the money, and we picked the start date. Two weeks later he passed away. I was devastated by his passing. Sometime later we had a script reading and producers Fred Roos and Arthur Sarkissian came, and they said, ‘let’s do this movie.’ The movie is dedicated to Dennis.

Kouguell: Did your actors have any input into the script?

Rodriguez: Yes, they definitely did. I’m a big collaborator; I want to hear what people have to say.  For example: George Hamilton’s character is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Jack McGee’s brother, George Hamilton’s mother, and my dad, all had Alzehimer’s and we shared our respective experiences to further develop George’s character. In a way it was a tribute for George to his mother, for Jack to his brother, and mine to my father.

Kouguell: You describe Silver Skies as very personal and inspired by your parents’ aging. The characters of Nick and Phil are inspired by your father, who was a bookie in Boston, and the character, Eve, by your mother.

Rodriguez: Valerie Perrine’s character always has flowers; that was my mother. I watched my parents get old when I was still young and I saw how their relationships changed.  I think seniors don’t have a voice in this world.  These are people who want to have sex. They want to work. They want to spend money. Make money. Have money.

On 'Silver Skies' with George Hamilton

On ‘Silver Skies’ with George Hamilton

Kouguell:  These issues about sex and money, as well as ageism and women’s power, are themes in Silver Skies that dare to challenge the viewer. Indeed, these topics have resonated with your audiences.

Rodriguez: The audience response was incredible and that’s what kept us going! When we had no money for marketing, people would show up to see these actors that they miss: George Hamilton, Valerie Perrine, Barbara Bain, Mariette Hartley, Jack Betts, Jack McGee, Alex Rocco. Then as they watched the movie, something wonderful happened: they would stop seeing the actors and start seeing themselves in these characters! That was my goal! These incredible actors pull off some extraordinary, relatable performances.

Kouguell:  ‘Silver Skies’ also doesn’t shy away from thought-provoking subjects, including sexual assault and pornography.

Rodriguez: There is a part of the storyline that is very provocative. It involves a sex addict who’s addicted to online porn. This is something that is happening in society, breaking up families, people getting arrested. We barely discuss it even though it is impacting how we relate to each other in profound ways. I put it in Silver Skies to shed light on it and to provoke thought.  It was risky in this film. What I learned from seniors is that they are ok with everything because they’ve seen it all and they are not afraid to face issues head on. I was so inspired by our audiences!

Seniors are the topic of many conversations these days: whether it’s the ACA or senior housing. and Silver Skies seems to hit home with all seniors and their children and grandchildren. I’ve learned from audiences what I thought all along: that this movie is for all generations. Many people are dealing with Alzheimer’s, not enough money for retirement, not getting hired to work anymore, and all the things that society throws at an aging person in our society. They become invisible. Just when life needs to get easier, it’s supposed to, it gets harder because of our society’s priorities. I want to fight for seniors to be seen and heard. It’s up to us to take care of each other.

Award-Winning Writer and Director Rosemary Rodriguez talks about her film 'Silver Skies' with Susan Kouguell

Jack McGee, Alex Rocco, George Hamilton, Valerie Perrine, Jack Betts and Barbara Bain in SILVER SKIES – Photo courtesy of Roar Productions

Movie distribution is very difficult for character-driven films today. It really takes grass roots efforts and word of mouth for a film to succeed. I’m hoping with the state of politics in our country today, that movies will help bridge the gap between people. The amazing gift of movies is that an audience is drawn into a character’s life and can experience empathy for another’s situation, even if the audience member is from another place, time, financial situation, gender, race, etc. Characters are human beings going through an experience, and we get to experience things through movies that change how we look at life. That is crucial today. We need love and empathy more than ever with so many people feeling afraid, marginalized and judged.

The ‘Director’s Chair’ Podcast

The Director's Chair (Audio)Kouguell: We’ve spoken a great deal about your love of collaboration.  Your Podcast ‘The Director’s Chair’ available on iTunes, has welcomed writers, producers, directors, and actors, including Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter, to discuss collaborating.

Rodrigues: In the show I talk with my guests about what works for them when collaborating and what doesn’t, what is their creative process, and more. There’s a great episode with Nestor Rodriguez and I talking about collaborating on ‘Silver Skies’.

Upcoming Projects 

Rodriguez: I’ve adapted the memoir Loose Girl, by Kerry Cohen, for a feature film, which has producers attached, MarWin Films.  I’m directing a documentary about pioneering graffiti artist Lee Quinones, produced by Rosadel Varela. And I’m pitching Silver Skies as a TV Series.

Final Words

Rodriguez:  Silver Skies tells the story of people who make a choice to fight back when the system deems them unimportant. We need more movies that help us navigate this crazy world and our feelings about it.  I’m hoping financiers and studios see the importance of telling these stories now more than ever.

Learn more here about Rosemary Rodriguez and Silver Skies.



Susan Kouguell Interviews Award-Winning Writer & Director Thomas Bidegain on Directorial Debut Film ‘Les Cowboys’ & Breaking Screenwriting Rules for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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“In ‘Les Cowboys’ things are not what they appear to be.”
–Thomas Bidegain

Cowboys_Web-FilmTrack_lgOn a sunny day in midtown Manhattan, I had the pleasure to meet with French writer and director Thomas Bidegain about his new film Les Cowboys.  A longtime collaborator of filmmaker Jacques Audiard, Bidegain has written scripts for Audiard’s Rust and Bone, A Prophet, and Dheepan, as well as for Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which was the 2014 French Foreign Language Oscar submission.

We began our conversation talking about writing controversial and hot button subject matter, as seen in the film Where Do We Go Now, which he wrote in collaboration with Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. (The film centers on a group of Lebanese women who try to ease religious tensions between Christians and Muslims in their village.)

Bidegain: “I went to Lebanon for a month to write with Labaki; they already had a script but they were not quite happy with it and we found the right tone for it. It’s a great film about women.”

When describing his latest film, Les Cowboys, which took a year-and-a-half to write, Bidegain stated:  “It’s the story of simple folk who are projected into the chaos of a world they don’t understand.”

About Les Cowboys

Thomas Bidegain, director of Les Cowboys. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Thomas Bidegain, director of Les Cowboys.
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Country and Western enthusiast Alain is enjoying an outdoor gathering of fellow devotees with his wife and teenage children when his daughter Kelly abruptly vanishes. Learning that she’s eloped with her Muslim boyfriend, he embarks on an increasingly obsessive quest to track her down. As the years pass and the trail grows cold, Alain sacrifices everything, while drafting his son into his efforts.

The film is inspired by director John Ford’s The Searchers (screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, from the novel by Alan LeMay) about a Civil War veteran who embarks on a journey to rescue his niece from an Indian tribe. But the story departs from Ford’s film in unexpected ways, and escapes its confining European milieu as the pursuit assumes near-epic proportions in post-9/11 Afghanistan.

The Evolution of the Screenplay

TB:  “I’ve worked a lot with Noé Debré.  It was an idea I had and I told him the story. We took notes and we ended up with a six-page treatment and that’s pretty much the film. I went to see a producer and he bought it.  It was always a very tight script. The first version of the screenplay was 85 pages and the story takes place over the course of 15 years.  In the script, the characters don’t talk too much; the people are from the mountainside so it’s true to their characters.

Producers always want you to have likeable characters but if the characters are likeable then nothing can happen to them. For example, the father’s obsession to find his daughter Kelly turns into a form of narcissism.”

Kouguell: “It’s interesting how the protagonist shifts midway through the film from father to son, as Kid gradually takes on the role of the caretaker and continues on his father’s quest to find Kelly. On one level, the story is about a father and son relationship, yet the father’s journey to find his daughter underscores a father who doesn’t know his daughter at all.”

TB: “Yes, the father is myopic.  He thinks he’s a cowboy and believes that the Muslim Community is the Indians.”

Breaking the Conventional Screenplay Rules

François Damiens as “Alain” and Iliana Zabeth as “Kelly” in Les Cowboys. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

François Damiens as “Alain” and Iliana Zabeth as “Kelly” in Les Cowboys.Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

SK: “The film begins by following the conventions of the western genre and then it shifts.”

TB: “There are many things in this film that are on page two of screenwriting books of what notto do — and I checked them all. Such as, changing horses in the middle of the race — with the father and son storyline, not marking the ellipses to be very clear — by not labeling them you have to watch every frame and ask what’s going on, and not revealing too much information about Kelly. You then put the pieces together and start to understand. It gives room for the audience to get into it.  I always find especially in American films that the films are formulaic.  I believe the audience is ready for more challenges and attitudes.”

The Ellipses

TB: “There are four parts of the film that are separated by ellipses of several years.  In the first part, the young woman disappears, which is the period of investigation.  The second part is the relationship between father and son during their trip to Northern Europe where the son becomes his father’s keeper. The third part is the adventure piece with a cross-country journey on horseback and a killing.  And the last chapter is the love story and the return home.”

Award-Winning Writer & Director Thomas Bidegain on Directorial Debut Film ‘Les Cowboys’ & Breaking Screenwriting Rules by Susuan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Finnegan Oldfield as “Kid” and François Damiens as “Alain” in Les Cowboys Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Creating the World of the Story

TB: “In the opening scene we see the main characters’ community — the Cowboy reunion and the country western festival.  We see the family. It’s very friendly and at one point it’s 6 o’clock and the mother says, “Have you seen Kelly?”

This question sets the narrative in motion and presents the major conflict: Where is Kelly?

TB: “I also wanted to tell the story of community. Kelly leaves the community and the world loses its balance. We always knew we wanted to tell the story in the course of two or three generations; the time it would take for the world to find a new balance. The community explodes, the family explodes and then there’s a new generation, a new family and a new balance. That’s the time it will take for the cat to fall back on its feet and to see reconciliations be possible.

There is a mirror effect in the screenplay between the father and the son. There’s that scene in the beginning when the mother says to the father, “Don’t go,” and then the scene with the son and the young woman Shahzana when she asks him not to go. In that scene the feeling is very optimistic; there is hope that our sons will be smarter than we are and listen to their women a little more.”

SK: Was there any improvisation or did you stay close to the script?

TB: “There’s not that much improvisation, but we have another book in addition to the script with other scenes and monologues, so it’s almost like improv. We called it the B book — like a B roll in filming. It has things that define the characters. Everything that we have in the B book we use in the film at some point. We give the B book to the actors when we start filming.”

SK: “You made some thought-provoking choices throughout the film, including utilizing several images of international terrorist attacks shown on televisions.”

TB: “We wanted to talk about the world, to talk about the early years of the 21st Century. When Kid sees the World Trade Center collapse on a TV screen, instead of seeing an international catastrophe, he sees in it his sister. It’s at this point that the smaller story becomes part of the bigger picture.  We started writing the film right at the time of Bin Laden’s execution. The film ends in 2011 with the emergence of the Islamic State when they executed Bin Laden. The idea was to tell the story of our first world war, not the one of our grandparents, the ones that took place in the first years of this century.”

Among the many accolades, including four César nominations, ‘Les Cowboys’ was included in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and at the New York Film Festival. ‘Les Cowboys’ opens domestically on 24 June.

More articles by Susan Kouguell



Writer and Director Leena Yadav Interview About Her New Feature Film ‘Parched’ for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film ‘Parched’

In a recent phone conversation with writer director Leena Yadav, we discussed her new feature film, Parched, which opens theatrically via Wolfe Releasing on June 17th in Los Angeles DVD_Amaray_Template.qxd(Laemmle Music Hall), New York (AMC Empire 25) and the Bay Area (Cine Grand in Fremont and Camera 12 in San Jose). This contemporary drama follows the lives of three Indian women who question the ancient traditions that hold them in servitude.

Ms. Yadav tackles the themes of gender roles, patriarchy, conditioning, and abuse with clarity and unapologetically.

With a budget just over 2.5 million dollars, Yadav describes Parched as an “absolutely independent passion project.” Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic), the film’s visual sensibility adds another layer of both beauty and painful depth to the parched desert landscape and rich characters.

Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched…

Yadav: “Russell has an amazing eye for detail. I love the way he uses light and shade in every frame. A director – cinematographer relationship on shoots is almost like a husband wife relationship – high expectations and low tolerance!”

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Lajjo (Radhika Apte), Rani (Tannistha Chatterjee), Bijli (Surveen Chawla) in PARCHED – Photo by Russell Carpenter, ASC – Courtesy of Wolfe Video


Set in a remote rural desert community of North West India – widowed Rani, her vivacious best friend, Lajjo, and the exotic dancer Bijli – talk about men, sex and life, as they struggle under the oppressive rules of their traditional village ways.  But when Rani is tasked to find a teenage bride for her entitled fifteen-year-old son, they begin to question this status quo that favors men, sends child brides to abusive husbands, and ostracizes women for being educated and opinionated.  One fateful night, the women come together and take a bold step that will change the trajectory of their lives forever.

Director Leena Yadav - Courtesy of Wolfe Video

Leena Yadav

About Writer and Director Leena Yadav

Yadav: “I was raised to judge and treat people as human beings above and beyond their gender, religion, or caste.”

Born in Mhow, India, Leena Yadav is one of a vanguard of prominent female directors working in India. She began her career as a successful editor on commercials and an assistant director for television, and then went on to direct for more than 300 hours of television, including hit fiction shows and India’s first reality TV show. She made her directorial debut with Shabd (2005), which she also wrote and edited – and which bravely explores the psychology of love, marriage, creativity and freedom.  She wrote and directed Teen Patti (2010), starring two legends of cinema – Amitabh Bachchan and Academy Award Winner, Sir Ben Kingsley. Parched is Yadavi’s third feature film.

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Surveen Chawla,front,Radhika Apte (left), Leher Khanmiddle (center) Tannishtha-Chatterjee (right) Photo Russell-Carpenter, ASC

The Screenplay Process

Yadav: “While I was writing the screenplay, I was suddenly struck with the idea that what I’m writing about is happening right here in my backyard in Bombay.  Everyone wants to believe that these problems and these kinds of judgments are happening elsewhere. We like to live in denial. The script process became so interesting for me when I was writing in Bombay and I sent it out to my friends across the world just to get feedback. No one reacted to it like a script; they all wrote back, sharing stories about their own circumstances. We all started feeling the universality of the subject.

The writing process continued when I went location scouting for villages. We visited over 30 villages in and around Bhuj, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. I was refused permission from a lot of villagers because people were saying, if women like you are here than our women will become corrupt, looking at you, seeing a woman who is empowered, who is in charge of herself. They did not approve of a team led by a woman (myself) who wore pants, didn’t cover her head and spoke openly to men. That gave me more juice (ideas) again and I came back home and I wrote more.

It was interesting with the younger generation of men in the villages – the current decision-makers, who had the biggest problem with a liberated woman team leader. One said to me, “If women like you enter our village, our women will get corrupted.” From this experience, I got the character of Gulab, Rani’s son. Gulab has been raised in a patriarchal world, where misogyny is the ‘norm’. He is as much a product of this world as he becomes its propagator. In that sense, Gulab too is a victim. The men who are his elders have bequeathed to him anger and aggression as survival tools. He has been raised believing that women are objects of lust and possession.”

We discussed the controversial climax of the film and agreed not to give any details away in this interview.

Yadav: “When I was working on the script and I thought: What is the big revelation that can happen? What is the big change? The answer for me was very simple. Each character would be questioning her circumstances. For me, that was the big resolution; their rebellion.

The small steps – that is what I always tell the audience. If a few people can start questioning their conditioning – like falling into the traps of boys don’t cry, girls don’t do this or that – then we can stop being so accepting of this conditioning.

We give so much lip-service to so many things. The whole thing with patriarchy is confusing because some of the greatest supporters of the patriarchy are women. The moment we get engaged in the gender blame game, we’re not going anywhere. We have to sit down together and talk this out.

The victims here in this film are also men because of their conditioning.  You can see their anger whether it’s a man’s confused sexuality or an impotent husband unable to have children. Anger comes from all kinds of suppression.”

Writer Director Leena Yadav On New Feature Film Parched by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Village elders in the environment in PARCHED – Photo by Russell Carpenter, ASC – Courtesy of Wolfe Video

Awards for Parched

With its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, the film has garnered awards and critical acclaim at numerous festivals worldwide, including the Stockholm International Film Festival (received  the first ever Impact Award to “support[s] headstrong filmmakers who are not afraid to bring up burning topics in contemporary society” judged, designed and presented by the legend Ai Weiwei); Best of the Fest at the Palm Springs International Film Festival; Festival 2 Valenciennes  (France): Prix du Jury for Best Film and Best Actress; Toulouse Indian Film Festival: Audience Award for best film; IFFLA 2016:  Audience Award for Best Film and Best Actress; and Festival de Cinema des 5 Continents, Ferney France: Youth Jury Award for Best Film and Special Jury Mention.

Release Platforms

The film will be released via Wolfe Video on August 9th on DVD/ VOD, across all digital platforms, including iTunes, Vimeo On Demand, and, and will also be available same date on DVD via Wolfe Video and many major retailers.

Yadav’s Closing Words about ‘Parched’

Yadav: “’Parched’ is my reaction to a misogynistic society that treats women as objects of sex, where their greatest role is to serve men. Giving my women characters a voice that observes, absorbs and reacts was what drove me to write this drama about ordinary women who are driven to extraordinary ends.”