In Writing MENSCHEN, I Saw My Character as a Tender Boy with Down Syndrome by Sarah R. Lotfi and Anastasia M. Cummings

ANASTASIA M. CUMMINGS AND SARAH R. LOTFI
FILMMAKERS

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FC: Where did you both grow up?

Sarah: I was born in Santa Clara in California. My family moved away when I was very young and we lived between Colorado and Texas in my early years. Colorado Springs at the foothills of Pikes Peak has become my adopted hometown over the last 17 years.

Anastasia: I was born and raised in Africa. I spent my childhood in Algeria. My parents then moved to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After nearly 20 years in Africa I traveled around Europe furthering my education. I eventually moved to Los Angeles in the late 1990’s with a family of my own.

FC: What did observing your parents/family emigrating to the U.S. show you about survival and assimilating to a new culture?

Sarah: My father came from Iran to the United States for a college education in 1978 on the eve of the revolution. The chaos he witnessed on the streets of Tehran made a profound impact on me. Even in America he felt displaced on his own campus with the backlash during the American Hostage Crisis. He emerged from all those influences as a design engineer riding the waves of the semiconductor revolution out of Silicon Valley. When he met my mother in college, he found a woman whose own multi-cultural heritage opened her heart to his. My mother is half Chinese. Her father immigrated to America in the 1950s fleeing the Cultural Revolution. I see my mother’s allure for culture in myself and I have the passion to translate this into film.

Anastasia: Growing up in multiple cultures outside of my family’s heritage defines me as a quintessential ‘third-culture kid’. My father came to North Africa from the Netherlands at the end of WWII. My French mother descends from several generations in Morocco. At the end of the French Protectorate in Morocco her whole family fled to Algeria, which was already warring for its independence. My parents met in the early years of the young nation of Algeria and decided to stay even when many evacuated. They made a life there until they were forced to flee to Kinshasa on the eve of the Algerian Civil War in the late 1980s. I lived in a constant state of flux, where I could not take anything for granted. It was a rich backdrop to grow up in at the intersection of so many cultures. My ardor for film came from hearing and witnessing so many stories. I wanted the camera to be the voice for the people who did not have one.

  
FC:  What was life like growing up?

Sarah: Much was expected of me as the oldest sibling to a brother and sister with developmental disabilities. My sister was born with Down Syndrome and later on she was diagnosed with many Autistic behaviors that would regularly show up in our home. My brother also has Down syndrome and we became very close over the years. To process everything in my home, art became my outlet. Creating a thing of beauty whether it was a sketch, costume, short story and eventually films was where I found myself.

Anastasia: My family did not have much materialistically but we had everything with the people around us. I can remember how fun it was to play soccer with a tin can with my siblings and neighborhood kids. Solidarity and ingenuity taught me to value people by who they are instead of by what they have. Surrounded by people from all walks of life in a developing nation, adapting became instinctual. My family did not have a television in our home until I was 15. Through one channel, I was introduced to a John Wayne who spoke Arabic in the dubbed program. The spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone captivated all of us as well as the dramatic Egyptian soap operas that also aired. Today as a filmmaker I look back with some nostalgia to these early influences.

Anastasia M. Cummings

FC:  Are your parents artists? 

Sarah: My mother’s family really is a family of amateur and professional artists. I remember my mother encouraging me to draw as a child and find a way to visualize my dreams. Beyond the paper, the power of visualizing an image in one’s head and making it a reality before your eyes was the bridge to becoming a filmmaker for me.

Anastasia: My mother was a professional painter brushing vibrant colors across the canvas often capturing scenes of the Algerian landscapes and people among her many subjects. Many of my family’s closest friends were philosophers, photographers, musicians, writers, poets, painters, sculptors and filmmakers. When I was 15 I had my very first experience on a professional film set and it opened my eyes to how a set could be run.

FC:  What’s one piece of advice emphasized by your parents the most?

Sarah: “Don’t become a starving artist”…I am still working on that one, lol.

Anastasia: My mother would say all the time “Open your eyes, there’s so much to be seen.” I learned to appreciate the beauty in the details of every day life and never take a moment or a person for granted.

Sarah R. Lotfi

FC:  What plans did you have upon leaving home at 18?  Did you stray from those original plans?

Sarah: I initially thought I would go to a big name film school on one of the coasts and walk away with my first feature in tow. It didn’t quite work out that way. My family relied on me very much when I finished high-school and needed me close by. I ended up at my local university, where I flourished in ways I could never have anticipated. At 21, as a junior in my undergraduate program, my first WWII film The Last Bogatyr was shortlisted for the Student Academy Awards in 2010. This was a first for my university and the recognition of being a “national finalist” and “regional winner” gave me credibility within our professional film community. I was hired on several shoots and won a place in a competitive national internship with the Emmy Foundation. That summer I lived in Los Angeles working on location on HBO’s Cinema Veritae. I came back to Colorado to finish my degrees and then when I graduated I was invited to teach a couple of film studies courses as a guest lecturer.

Anastasia: When I turned 18 I graduated high school with a French baccalaureate. Even though it was on my heart to study filmmaking in France, I had to make a way for myself.  I left Africa and went to live on my own in Europe. While dealing with real culture shock, I studied international business in Germany and France. Later, I developed ties with the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra and had the opportunity to accompany them on their tour of European countries. There was a time when I thought I would make a career for myself in music, however, I ended up working with a language school out of Bordeaux conducting a market study in Chicago. Later in Bordeaux, I found myself yearning to go back to filmmaking and that eventually led me to Los Angeles where I became a script and continuity supervisor.

MENSCHEN will screen August 15th, 16th, and 17th
in Los Angeles
(The Landmark Nuart Theatre)

Find out more about the screenings, times and Q & A’s here!

 

Making of MENSCHEN “Baptism in Fire” from Anastasia M. Cummings on Vimeo.

FC:  How did the two of you meet?

Sarah: I had just launched a crew call for Menschen. Anastasia answered the advertisement for a script supervisor. When I picked up the phone and talked to her for the first time, I think we were on the phone for like 3 hours. I had never met anyone who I felt I could relate to so much professionally and personally. Anastasia made a big impression on me from the very beginning. I didn’t want her to be just our film’s script supervisor, I wanted her as my producer, and I wanted her to be my partner in film. She was someone that I knew I wanted to work with for the rest of my life.

Anastasia: Yep, I answered that ad. I read up on Sarah, and I had the impression that such a young person had represented her project so thoroughly and professionally. We did talk for three hours, and I could identify with Sarah’s multi-cultural heritage. Sarah was keen to have Menschen in the German language, a language she does not speak. I couldn’t pass up on such an opportunity to work with German, which is my second language on a production in US.

FC:  What songs best describe your lives?

Sarah: Hmmm, I don’t usually think of music in those terms. The very first time I heard Henry Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 Sorrowful Songs op.36 Cantabile semplice I fell under its spell. The soprano’s epic aria emotes such strength in spite of her pain and sorrow. I want to have such a voice as a person and a filmmaker. All narrative arises from conflict or pain and how characters emerge from those experiences defines who they are. Perhaps a more contemporary song I also can identify with that conveys a similar message is Skyfall from Adele.

Anastasia: I grew up surrounded in a world of music sound.  Consequently, I developed an extremely eclectic taste in music, listening to everything from opera to disco to rock. I grew up with Arabic music, African music, the Beatles, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd. Classical music was also a big part of my life from a very young age. As someone exposed to so many cultural influences music from all spheres resonate in me.

FC:  Did you go to college?  Was college realistic in teaching you about filmmaking and the entertainment industry as a business?

Sarah: My university gave me a foundation to contextualize film from different eras across multiple cultures. I worked hard in 6 years for two degrees to get the most out of a film studies program and hands on production track. So many of my professors gave me the support and encouragement I needed to take risks and go after my vision. Nothing will teach you more than experience no matter how much you research. The moment of truth comes on set, at a film festival, or in the actual negotiations when you have to act on everything you have taught yourself. Today, independent filmmakers are expected to be self-sufficient and that goes beyond the creative choices of a writer-director. You have to have the business sense of your producer and really strategize with him or her.

Anastasia: Ditto, just kidding…So much of my film education was self-taught especially at the beginning. I was fortunate to have a mentor in Los Angeles who really encouraged me to follow up on my life long dream of going to film school. In Los Angeles I trained for script supervising under the late Jim Kelly-Durgin. Later I attended the Colorado Film School, where I directed and produced many award-winning shorts. What I appreciated about the Colorado Film School was the hands on experience I had to work with cameras and film equipment combined with film theory, script-writing and producing.

FC:  What compelled you both to make MENSCHEN? Why this story?

Sarah: I wrote Menschen because I saw an opportunity to challenge the audiences’ perception by sharing a point of view that rarely makes its way to our screens. While I was shooting The Last Bogatyr I worked with WWII re-enactors who shared memoirs of the real soldiers in the Wehrmacht caught up in the conflict. Those stories really moved me and made me want to convey ‘humanity’ instead of black and white good guys and bad guys. The challenge of embarking on a film set during WWII is that the genre is so frequented. While searching for a unique angle to construct a story I came full circle back home to my family. I remember I was researching one day and I came across a photo from the era clearly depicting a young boy with Down Syndrome taken by an SS officer. “What happened to the child and could he have survived the holocaust?” I asked myself. I thought of my siblings, grateful that they were born in a time with legislation in place to protect them from persecution. I knew that I had to tell a story of hope and survival around an individual with a developmental disability.

Anastasia: It was a good script, lol. I was really moved that Sarah wanted to tell this very unique story about disability. WWII is something I feel connected to because like many I had family who fought in that war. I really appreciated that Sarah wanted Menschen to be authentic and play for a native audience. It was a thrill for me to get involved on a production that I could relate to on so many levels from my on background.

FC:  Where do you of your best writing?  What locations or specific mind-set brings the most creativity?

Sarah: I need a tranquil quite space, natural light, a comfy couch, and lots of legal pads. I like to write out the scenes by hand first before jumping on my laptop. So much emotion is conveyed through music. When I am looking for a trigger I’ll often go for a walk listening to a film score or instrumental track and allow that piece of music to accompany the narrative I have in my head…it always produces results for me. I like to go to sleep every night asking myself a question about a character or plot point as a way of challenging my subconscious to find the answer by the time I wake up.

Anastasia:  Every time I write, I write in music. I always carry a notebook with me to scribble down each concept, note, or feeling as the inspiration comes. I think sometimes through the harshest moments of our lives comes a beautiful form of self expression.

FC:  What gives you writer’s block?

Sarah: Second-guessing yourself and stalling to see the entire picture before putting pen to paper can be two big roadblocks for me. If I go for a long hiatus from writing, it is like being out of shape. It takes some discipline to get back into the routine and find your flow.

The World of War – The Making of MENSCHEN from Anastasia M. Cummings on Vimeo.

 

Anastasia: The challenge for me is to translate the essence of what I want to convey into words that have punch. English is not my first language, and writing in English can be a challenge at times.

FC: What advice can you give female filmmakers on bringing to life a male protagonist?

Sarah: Research and observation. Men and women have different communication styles and motivations. Sometimes, I’ll call up a guy friend and get his insight as if he was the character I was writing for. At other times discreet people-watching might also be useful inspiration. Male or female, we share certain human characteristics. Characters feel real because they transcend archetypes. You have to write in ways that you yourself can identify with your characters. For me this means that I put myself into their shoes to figure out their next actions from backstories and motivations. Menschen challenged me to learn to think like a soldier of the time. I never served in the military, consulting veterans and military historians was an essential part of my process. There’s an old adage in screenwriting to “write what you know”, and you can only know your story world intimately enough to write believable characters through dedicated research regardless of their gender.

Anastasia: Ahhh, that question…This year in the industry there has been so much discussion about women writer-directors in mainstream Hollywood. There are so many male directors and writers behind female-protagonist driven works, but their ability is not brought into question. The beauty of film is that it is a collaborative endeavor. Men and women have to work hand in hand to produce one final work, gender should have nothing to do with it. Bringing any character to life on screen has to be achieved through understanding.

FC:  Where did you come up with the title for MENSCHEN?

Sarah: Menschen is the German word for “people.” I wanted a title abstract enough for people to search for the correlation in the film itself.

FC:  What was the budget for MENSCHEN?   How did you raise it?

Anastasia: Menschen was literally made on a shoe-string budget. The story of disability in the film appealed to so many of the people involved that they wanted to contribute in one way or another. The strategy was to divide fundraising into “windows” over crowd funding campaigns and private donations. Through a fiscal sponsor donations to our IndieGoGo campaigns were tax deductible, which was a huge incentive for our U.S. donors.

Making of Menschen: Behind the Lines from Anastasia M. Cummings on Vimeo.

FC:  How was working on MENSCHEN therapeutic for you both?

Sarah: The initial inspiration for a concept is terribly exciting. As you go through each stage of production your vision will be tested and the reward is the product. All the blood, sweat and tears can be appreciated when you connect with the people who made the film possible and then with the next wave of people who are discovering it for the first time. On Menschen I am most grateful to have seen my working relationship with Anastasia blossom into a beautiful friendship.

Anastasia: Right when Menschen was about to have its world premiere I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Such life-altering news affects your life professionally as well as personally. Working closely with Sarah on the film throughout treatment was a way for me to keep focus. Sarah was with me at almost every chemo session. She would come and we’d have a production meeting of sorts and the time in treatment would go by so quickly. I always joked it was my ‘filmotherapy’.

FC:  Shooting schedule /camera(s) used /Size of your crew?

Anastasia: Menschen was scheduled for 10 days of shooting but because of budget restrictions we had to find a way to truncate it into just 8 intensive days. On average we had 25 or so people on set a day. The biggest day when we had to shoot the bombing of the convoy there were 65 people on set.

Sarah: Menschen was shot on the RED One. The RED was one of the cameras our director of photography Peter Wigand was really adept with. For me he captured the intimacy between characters at the end of the war. It’s funny that there is an enduring stigma of “quality” that goes along with shooting RED. You go to a film festival and the first thing someone asks you is ‘what camera did you use?’ and the moment you mention RED their eyes widen with respect.

FC:  When working with a small, indie crew, what is essential for:

1. Saving Money
2. Morale
3. Organization

Anastasia: It’s not so much about saving money as it is about using every single dollar you can get on your production and putting it on the screen. Micro-budget filmmaking should not long term solution at the cost to working professionals. The morale of the cast and crew is won and lost by communication. Listening to their concerns and truly caring about their needs makes a difference. Sometimes circumstances are beyond your control, the way to persevere is to improvise in such a way to protect the interests of your people and not only your production.

Sarah: People are apt to get on board something they can relate to. It was so exciting to see so the cast and crew really respond to the script itself that they could really work with our limited budget to bring the story to life. Sometimes it feels like being between a rock and a hard place as the director, everything is your responsibility and the cast and crew literally look to you for more than just creative direction. I find smiling and looking in their eyes helps, lol.

 

Sarah, Connor Long, and Anastasia

FC:  Tell us about casting 17-year old Connor Long? 

Sarah: In my head when I was writing Menschen, I saw my character as a tender boy with Down Syndrome and some Autistic characteristics, so when it came time to cast I wanted to find an actor with Down Syndrome who could make it real for the camera. We reached out to many regional Down Syndrome Associations with the casting call. We saw many kids before Connor Long answered our casting call. In his audition he skipped all his lines but he performed with real emotion, so much so that the actress reading with him was moved to tears. Connor’s character Radek had lines in German, and since Connor did not speak that language he worked closely with our film’s dialect coach to speak the German in the film. Menschen was Connor’s film debut, so at times during the shoot I stood close to the camera to be Connor’s eye-line or have him mirror me through a scene. I was very proud of him when he was named ‘Best Actor’ for his performance in Menschen from Filmstock Film Festival, he worked incredibly hard.

FC:  Was there a moment while working on MENSCHEN where you knew the two of you would remain friends long after the film was shot and promoted? 

Anastasia: Like cancer, making a movie reveals your character. You discover who you are when you go through a hard time. I’ve seen Sarah grow so much. Making a movie is incredibly difficult, I have seen her come out stronger from hard situations, and it’s a true test of character.

Sarah: Anastasia and I are from different generations but it feels to me as if we are two of a kind. There is a flow in the way we can work together. Anastasia will always ‘tell it how it is’, the absolute truth, no matter how hard it may be to hear at times…that is invaluable in a working relationship. She’s someone I truly trust and care for very much. Anastasia has had a tremendous impact on me as a person.

FC:  What other artists do you both admire and want to emulate?

Sarah: I can never forget the late Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, and the allure of the complicated inter-racial relationship between east and west through a modern couple. The existential effect of Resnais’ innovative techniques to push the form, make watching his film both dreamlike and fresh every time I watch it. As a writer and director I don’t want to emulate my favorite filmmakers I have to find a way to make the storytelling my own. I am always striving to think outside the box of traditional form and structure.

Anastasia: When I saw Krzysztof Kielowski’s The Double Life of Véronique in the theater I was struck by the director’s ability to make music character of its own and evoke so much emotion as a result. Music is ingrained in my artistic identity. My family really instilled me to be true to myself. I have a great appreciation for many artists and even people who cross my path. I strive to embrace my identity instead of emulating any one artists’ style however much I admire their work.

FC:  What tips can you recommend on working with Pyrotechnics?

Anastasia: Safety first. Do not try this at home.

Sarah: Totally, you have to work with professionals. Angel Light Pyrotechnics worked with me when I was a student filmmaker on The Last Bogatyr and that experience taught me so much. I knew the drill by the time we got them on board with Menschen. They will walk the set with you, research the weather, liaise with the local fire department and hold safety meetings on set and mark off areas to keep the cast and crew safe. Where you lay the charges becomes part of the choreography of the scene and limits you to a certain amount of takes. I drew blocking charts of where the background characters would go and sequenced them. I took a paragraph or two from my original script and turned it into a minute’s worth of action on screen. It’s a huge adrenaline rush to have them on set, when the charges go off you feel the shockwave through your whole body…I love it!

FC:  What was it like attending the World Intellectual Property Organization in January 2014?

Anastasia: I was approached to participate on a film panel in the World Intellectual Property Organization’s conference on Open Innovation. Menschen had captured the attention of the organizer. I was asked for permission to screen the film during the conference and give a presentation on experiences in independent filmmaking to an international audience at the United Nations in Geneva. After watching Sarah speak on different panels and Q&As at film festivals I wanted her to have this opportunity to be the voice for our work together. Europe was my old stomping ground and it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to go back. When Sarah gave the presentation she was on panel alongside some recognizable names from the European film world.

Sarah: Anastasia and I worked very hard to co-author the presentation to give an extensive overview of independent filmmaking and share a little from our own experiences. I was overwhelmed with how warmly the film was received. Representatives from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) and the FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producer’s Associations) were present and were very complimentary about Menschen. The success of the conference led to an opportunity to participate on panel with the World Intellectual Property Organization in April 2014 at the United Nations in New York and publication in their magazine.

FC:  Lots of time and attention was put into your behind-the-scenes videos – who shot and edited these pieces?  What essence did you want to capture about the making of MENSCHEN and the festival experience?

Sarah: Behind the scenes videos are important not just for publicity, they really are a way to give back to the people who made it. It’s similar to a guestbook at a wedding; you can look at the footage and remember exactly where you were during the shoot. One of our set photographers Alexis Evelyn, (now a working actress in Los Angeles) shot the behind the scenes footage and interviews, edited one of the videos and I picked up from there. When Menschen started going to festivals I wanted to do video diaries as often as possible because it was a way of allowing our followers to take part in the journey and see what was going on. When you get into festivals you can never get enough passes to take everyone with you, but with a camera you almost can achieve the same effect.


FC:  What feedback have you received from those who’ve watched MENSCHEN?  How many individuals have shared their familial impact from the Holocaust with you?

Sarah: It’s so hard to keep track, wherever the film goes it sparks conversations. People share family stories from the Holocaust. Others with family members with disabilities share how much Connor’s portrayal moved them or made them think in an entirely new way. It’s all been so positive! I think people appreciate seeing an entirely different perspective on this chapter of WWII. My favorite story was when one man came forward extremely moved because he had a great aunt with Down Syndrome who survived WWII hidden away on a farm in Germany. Hearing a story like that is perhaps the most mind-blowing affirmation I could receive as a writer-director.

Anastasia:
After all the hours I spent working with native speakers and translators to give Sarah the authenticity she wanted in language, I felt very rewarded when the film played to European audiences. The use of various dialects of German by different characters gave a realism that was picked up by the viewers. It’s amazing to see the emotion that the film has brought back to some of the veterans who have viewed the film.

FC:  We understand MENSCHEN is screening again in Los Angeles?

Sarah: We’re finally giving Menschen is theatrical release! Menschen will have two screenings twice a day August 15th, 16th, and 17th at 11AM and 12PM and after each screening Anastasia and I along with a few other familiar faces from the film will be present for a Q&A. The theatrical release is very important to qualify Menschen for consideration in the upcoming award season. Making this release possible is The Arc of The United States, whose work supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities aligns with the message of the film. It’s an opportunity that we just cannot pass up, whatever the outcome ultimately will be.

Anastasia: You never know where a film can go. Already so many opportunities have arisen for Menschen that Sarah or I could have ever foreseen. We have been very humbled by the journey Menschen has taken us on. There are no guarantees in this business…that is why you absolutely have to give it your all!

Anastasia M. Cummings, Sarah R. Lotfi and the entire MENSCHEN cast/crew wish to thank the photographers Alexis Evelyn, Mark Mook and Celia Morissey.


ABOUT SARAH:
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Sarah R. Lotfi, is the 25-year-old award-winning writer-director of MENSCHEN, WAKING EYES, and THE LAST BOGATYR, named ‘regional winner’ and ‘national finalist’ in the 37th Student Academy Awards. A frequent panelist, she has spoken for WIPO at the United Nations in Geneva and New York. Her work has been featured in WIPO Magazine, Film Snobbery (USA), Down With Film (UK), and Screen Read (Germany). Through the EMMY Foundation, she worked on HBO Films’ production of CINEMA VERITAE. Other credits include work with ABC and National Geographic. Lotfi has also taught film studies courses at the University of Colorado.

ABOUT ANASTASIA:

Born to a Dutch father and a French mother, Anastasia Cummings hails from Algeria and Congo-Kinshasa where her ardor for filmmaking began. After working for many years in Europe, she was trained as a Script and Continuity Supervisor in Los Angeles where she lived for many years. Fluent in three languages, Cummings supervised the translation and spoken German in MENSCHEN. In January 2014, she co-authored the presentation ‘Open Collaborations in Independent Films’ for the World Intellectual Property Organization’s conference on ‘Open Innovation: Collaborative Projects and the Future of Knowledge’ at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Notable shorts she has been attached to include the award-winning BROKEN CYCLE, JACK IN THE BOX and BREATHE. She worked in television with High Noon Entertainment, ABC and National Geographic. Cummings has plans develop a feature from her noted short film CODA exploring a musical legacy out of cold- war Europe to present day America.