DISPATCH interviews the brave and imaginative creators of Zula the Infinite - a dramedy series about a small town girl who steals mail from her father’s post office. One day, she discovers a mysterious letter that lures her into a friendship with a troublesome passer, who may be her key to escaping small-town life by heading out onto the desert road.
Follow Zula's journey, at www.zulatheinfinite.com.
Give us a brief description of Zula and where the idea for the story came from.
Jillian Dudley: It started with an odd phrase that popped into my head one day - “she spent her life dying.” This phrase became a mantra I couldn't get out of my head. I wanted to create a story about a girl with identity issues. I’m also OBSESSED with small towns. I have a lot of childhood memories of driving with my family through the Southern California desert and thinking “who lives here?” I made a documentary short on the living ghost towns of Randsburg and Red Mountain located in Kern County in the Mojave Desert.
In a way Zula is an extension of that project. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would girl feel like to be a young woman in a nowhere town. Especially during the late 1990’s, which was such a rich time of progress and opportunity. Then the idea of stealing mail and identities came in, so Zula the mail thief was born. A little less than 3 years ago I came to Valentina with the idea and she brought the character to life - on the page and in real life.
Valentina Matosian: Jillian and I were on our way to get tacos when she told me the premise of the story. There’s a girl, named Zula, who lives in a small town and whose father is the mailman. She said, I could just see her, riding along with her dad on the routes. There was something so magical about this image. This girl. Even just her name. And from that moment, we started talking about who she could be, what her life would be like. What she would want. I couldn’t get her out of my head. I wanted to explore different dimensions of coming into your identity as a woman and who and what shapes that. Ashlake as a setting and the people that come through the town was the perfect landscape for something that I’ve been longing to explore as a writer and an actor.
What drew you to want to tell this story?
VM: I’ve always been intrigued with this idea that we are never one singular thing and what lengths we will go to, to be free. That’s what Zula longs for. True freedom. Abounding self-expression. And ultimately, what Zula does to get her freedom is courageous and wild.
Jillian and I both talked a lot about our love of experimenting with identity and how other women and popular culture have influenced our identity.
We’ve dyed our hair every color of the rainbow, our wardrobes range from goth queen to pixie dream girl, and we’ve traveled outside the confines of our conservative families. We are the rebels, the wild ones, unsettled with being boxed into one persona. At the core of our short is a girl who wants to live by her own rules. At the core of our beings we are women who want to live by our own rules. This, however, doesn’t come with a roadmap, just as Zula’s doesn’t. You make mistakes and run away from yourself before finding glimpses of truth. This short begins to explore how as women we search for freedom and sometimes inadvertently trap ourselves. The way out is through connection with our authenticity and sharing that with the world - or maybe even just one person.
Also, Jill and I talked a lot about female friendship. In our short, we dive into a very specific dynamic of female friendship. Growing up as a young woman, there’s often that one friend that you have some magnetic connection with, someone who teaches you the ropes. That person to Zula is Ramona. And there’s a very specific type of heartbreak, when that friend breaks your trust. We wanted to capture that specific heartbreak, in terms of female friendship, as it is not explored to its fullest capacity in film.
Can you tell us about your respective, creative backgrounds, and how these played a part in the creation of Zula?
VM: This is my second time writing and acting with Jill! It’s such a wonderful experience to find someone you creatively mesh with so well, as both writer and actor. Jillian and I met at USC, where I studied film, Critical Studies, and minored in acting. We had worked on “Dahlia’s Menagerie” that played at The Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival, together, so we had our workflow down pretty well, at that point. It’s such an interesting process writing, as Jillian has the awareness of bigger picture ideas and issues, where my focus came from an actor’s perspective delineating beats and actions in each scene. In addition, as an actor, it is so empowering to be able to create characters that align more directly with the realities of being a young woman.
JD: I am currently a senior at USC’s Cinema school studying Production and Screenwriting. I went to an all math/science high school, so while the arts were a part of my soul, I was very stifled. Once I got to film school I sort of unleashed all my creative energy and made a ton of projects. Besides projects in film school, I started a production company, Perpetual Productions LLC, in 2014 and used it as the universal name behind all the projects I’d work on outside of class time.
The aesthetics of are incredibly striking. Tell us a little bit about your creative influences - are there any subtextual messages within Zula’s composition?
JD: Thank you! We’re super happy with the look too! (Shoutout to our brilliant cinematographer Brandon Winters!!) Even when the sound disappeared we were so happy with the visuals that we joked about just having it subtitled and marketing it to foreign audiences.
Other than the obvious pinks and blues we didn't get too fancy with subtextual messages. We wanted our characters to have bright colors and stand out against a bleak and monochrome desert backdrop.
It’s been a difficult ride, but you have remained steadfast in your vision of Zula. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges you encountered while making the series, and how you have dealt with these?
JD: Zula was not without its challenges, that’s for certain! Beyond the production challenges of recreating the 90’s, hauling a mail truck out in the desert, and being extremely small budget, we experienced a tragedy that resulted in losing all of our sound for the film.
Everything you will hear was created on a soundstage at NBC Universal in Los Angeles, CA. On our final day of shooting in Palmdale, a car theft resulted in all of our sound equipment and files being stolen.
In addition to the sound, we lost the props and wardrobe so reshooting was impossible. Our precious project was violated, and seemed so likely that it was destroyed.
But then the most incredible thing happened and Jeff Gomillion, an ADR mixer from NBC Universal saw an article in the paper about the theft. He contacted our Producer through the production’s email account. But it wasn’t until Jillian hacked the account several months later the email was discovered. Larry Ellena, head of NBC Universal’s Sound Department approved the project, and NBC voluntarily stepped in to save the day. Christopher B Reeves did all of the sound design and Jeff recorded all the ADR, foley, and did the mixing. During this arduous process, Jeff was working on a ton of other high priority projects, but still made time for Zula. Jeff and the entire sound department at NBC came alongside and truly touched our lives and reassured us that this industry is full of amazing people. We wouldn’t want it any differently. We’re so grateful for everything.
Let’s talk funding. Could you share some insights into how you managed to get the project made?
JD: We ran a really successful Kickstarter campaign and were fortunate enough to get lot of help from friends and family. One of our most successful funding techniques involved my really cute and silly looking chihuahua named Little Lebowski who has become a bit of an Internet phenomenon. For $5 each, donors got their profile picture “Lebowski-fied” and I photoshopped him in. It was a hit! Another funding method we had was Austin Burns, lead singer of the duo Second Cousins (who scored our film), sang custom voicemails to donors. It’s that kind of creativity that really got people excited, and we’re so grateful for how supportive our friends and family were during that process. We were selected as Kickstarter’s Project of the Week and that helped build traction as well.
What advice do you have for other female filmmakers/creators?
JD: Be a doer not a dreamer! This industry needs us! Having a female perspective in moviemaking is critical. Additionally, if an idea is sacred to you, be so careful with who you entrust it to. Valentina and I are so blessed to have such a special co-collaborator relationship, but we learned to be careful who we bring onto the project.
While the industry is making strides toward including women and diverse voices, many men perceive strong women as vehicles to their own success. As the process unfolded we found this to be true in the most disheartening of ways. You are going to be confronted with both subtle and blatant sexism ALL the time. You’re going to be called “little girls” on your own set, if you are headstrong you’re a bitch, if you’re not, you’re weak. All this being said, there are beautiful people out there who will make it all worth it.
Follow your intuition always.
What’s next for Zula? How do you envision the project’s future?
JD: Exciting things are on the horizon for Zula! We have written the Pilot and we are hoping to develop it as a television mini series. We’re extremely confident that this story hasn't been told yet. Rarely has a filmmaker called back to this decade, a time before 9/11 and terror-related anxiety, and examined the ennui and comfort we took for granted. Not only is this piece a fun way to tap into the nostalgia of our youth, but it is an exciting opportunity to evaluate the years that shaped the millennial generation. We envision that this project will be a genre bending piece with a girl power message.
Do either of you have any other creative endeavours on the horizon?
VM: I'm working on a project I can’t talk about yet :)
JD: I will be directing a short film this summer called “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Burkini” about a girl experiencing Islamophobia at her high school. It’s a very important story and I can’t wait to have it told especially in this climate. I’m also writing a short set in a morgue in 1945 about hysteria.
Finally, can you tell us personally, what you feel the character of Zula and her onwards-looking journey, might say to a current generation of women and girls?
JD: We want to examine the stifling effects of a young girl like Zula stuck in a nowhere town during a time of rapid change. Our story centers on the theme of loneliness and identity and becomes a metaphor in the digital era and what is to come in a future where your online persona can be whatever you want it to be, even though digital anonymity ultimately disconnects us from our truth.
Zula, as a character, offers women of this generation a sense of optimism and creativity when fighting for her freedom. Surprisingly, Zula epitomizes the phrase “by any means necessary.” Zula speaks to the odd balls, the Jelly-shoe-obsessed adolescents, who believe in an untapped potential within themselves.
Interview by Laura Nicholson