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Ani Simon-Kennedy: In for the Long Haul

Ani Simon-Kennedy's latest feature The Short History of the Long Road is a coming of age tale set on the road with questions about family and conformity at the heart of it. The film is lead by rising star Sabrina Carpenter who plays Nola, a teenager raised by her Father Clint (Steven Ogg) in an van travelling from state to state across America. Nola's learnt everything from her Father aside from visits to public libraries and cinemas. When tragedy strikes, she has to grapple with the world outside the van and discover if the life she's lead is the one she wants. Along the way she meets an array of characters (excellently played by Danny Trejo, Maggie Siff, Jashaun St. John and Rusty Schwimmer) wanting to help her but not always in the way she'd like. Whilst the film deals with difficult and emotive experiences, the tone isn't one of misery which is perhaps not only down to Simon-Kennedy's writing but also the beautiful score by Morgan Kibby combined with awe-provoking vistas of sky captured by cinematographer Cailin Yatsko. We spoke with Simon-Kennedy over zoom (was there ever any other way to communicate across seas?) about the film's themes, the predicament the film industry finds itself in during a global pandemic and her hopes for the future...

Amy Watts: What made you want to be filmmaker and what was your pathway into the film industry?

Ani Simon-Kennedy: Hmm, where to begin? I grew up in France so my parents are American but I was raised in Paris so I grew up speaking English at home and French at school and loved photography as a teenager and really thought I was going to be a photographer. But then got very lonely taking pictures and discovered the job of cinematographer and filmmaking and was like oh, this could be sort of a great group effort and started making short films in high school with my friends and started a movie club so was kind of very involved in that way. Went to college in the US, didn't major in film, majored in African studies and had sort of this fantasy of being a DP in Africa; really loved African cinema but then wound up having to get a job and worked for a production designer and worked as Wes Anderson's assistant. I was working in different capacities on these huge movies but not making them myself so then decided that I wanted to go back to school - found the least expensive film school I could find, it was Prague Film School which was great and that's where I met Cailin Yatsko. We were the only two women in the cinematography department, we were like we're either gonna hate each other or we're gonna love each other and then we spent all year basically tag-teaming shooting everyone's shorts together as kind of like a joint duo and then by the end of the year, I was like "I think I'm actually a director" and Cailin was like "Yes, you're definitely a director and this is kind of the only way we can keep working together cause I can just shoot your movies" and that is what she's done for the last eight years. We have a production company together and I direct and she shoots and we both produce and we've done 200 commercials, music videos and sort of shorts and web series. We're called Bicephaly Pictures which is the scientific term for two headed and she shot our first feature Days of Gray which is an Icelandic movie and then Short History (of the Long Road) so yeah until we shoot again we're kind of on hiatus.

AW: How has your relationship developed over eight years working together?

ASK: I mean it's been great, the running joke is that my mother says you know, I have my boyfriend but Cailin's my actual husband because we have like a joint bank account and like an LLC (private limited company) together so we've very connected. It's been a wild ride; never thought we would be small business owners but it's amazing because basically, you know, we're able to do commercial work to keep the lights on and we get to hire our friends for these sort of like huge commercial campaigns and typically our sort of like formula - I don't know what to call it - is sort of a celebrity paired with a social cause for a big brand and so it's sort of a nice way to be shining a light on issues using corporate dollars and then through that we're able to finance a lot of our not so commercial work. The commercials feel creative too; I feel like that distinction of sort of being like this is the creative stuff, the passion stuff and this is the money stuff has never really been the case for us because we really believe in a lot of the branded work that we do but it also conveniently helps finance the narrative independent features that are not as lucrative.

AW: You mentioned something when you were talking about your production company, that you get to hire your friends. There's lots of conversations we're having at the moment and particularly what I've noticed as, an outsider I guess, looking at the film industry is a lot of recruitment is networking and who you know rather than what you know and obviously that can exclude a lot of people, I just wondered if as a company you've got the opportunity, and going forward, to recruit in a wider field?

ASK: Yeah definitely and that's something we've always had on our mind from the get-go so it's been really heartening seeing all these conversations happen on a wider scale and also seeing where our shortcomings have been because in a lot of work that we've done, we've really been looking through the lens of gender and less race and a lot of it has come from different companies we've worked with kind of being like "this is amazing, we've never worked on a set with so many women" and sort of feeling like, oh I guess we've done a good job, and then realising that actually there's still so much work to be done even outside of that parameter know we're lucky to be in New York and so we have such a richness of cultures and backgrounds and diversities so it's not the heavy lifting that a lot of people make it out to be in other places.

AW: What kind of films were you watching growing up and is there a particular film that had an impact on you?

ASK: Growing up in Paris is sort of like the art house film mecca of the world and the neighbourhood that I lived in was sort of like you could walk in any direction and you would hit a small art house movie theatre that was playing just as many repertory classics as new films and movies from around the world so it never felt like seeking something that was a smaller or independent movie; there, they're given the same exposure in a lot of ways. So that was really challenged when I moved to New York but I loved, loved, loved growing up - there was a movie theatre that was a couple of blocks from my school that I would skip class to go to and they played Monsoon Wedding for a year straight when it came out which is amaaazing so I saw that movie more times than I can count and it's been a huge inspiration for me so I feel that's sort of my go-to when people say "what's the movie that made you want to make movies?" Yeah I feel very grateful to have watched it and re-watched it. It was sort of the first movie that made me realise there was this job of directing, that there was someone who was actually having a point of view and shaping the story.

AW: Are there any filmmakers that you always watch the work of?

ASK: Céline Sciamma is somebody who I've always been just so, so in love with her work - everything she makes. I used to be a synchronised swimmer in high school so Water Lilies was a big deal for me...and now with a Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the canvas keeps getting bigger but she's still so fiercely true to who she is and what she's trying to say. She's had so much recognition in France but it's been really exciting seeing her name being heard and recognised in the States now as well.

AW: What inspired you to write The Short History of the Long Road?

ASK: I started writing that movie five years ago when I was coming off my first movie Days of Gray which was an Icelandic, sci-fi, post-apocalyptic movie - very different - it's had an interesting second life 'cause it takes place in a future where everybody has to wear a mask when they go outside and wash their hands before they go back inside so it's just like a pandemic PSA (public servie announcement). But it takes place in a future where a language doesn't exist anymore so the whole film is silent and this Icelandic man called Hjaltalín composed the score and they would play the score live during the screenings like a half concert, half screening bonanza but we were basically touring for a year with the movie and so when that ended and I was thinking about what I wanted to make for my next film, I was sort of like what's a more categorisable - not necessarily traditional - but sort of like us realising once we had been through festivals, how much programmers are looking to fill these sort of categories. I always have loved road trips; I love taking road trips, I love road trip movies and so the idea of doing a classic coming of age drama was really exciting to me in the context of a road trip in sort of exploring - flipping the road trip on its head because roads trips are so often about you know someone who's sort of like breaking with their daily life and setting off on the open road and I wanted to see what that story looked like when it was somebody who had only ever lived life on the road and what happens when they try to get off it for the first time so that was Nola's experience growing up living out of a van and raised by her father so that was sort of the initial kernel.

AW: Clint and Nola live on the margins of society and Nola has a lot of tension with that, she's not totally sure if she's happy with it and gets frustrated at times, can you talk a little bit about her journey of coming to terms with her marginality?

ASK: Yeah I think there's a lot of or I guess the way I was trying to picture it, the way I thought about it cause not everyone watching this movie has grew up living out of a van but there is a moment in everyone's life when you sort of realise that - or what I'm trying to say is when you grow up you're never completely following in the footsteps of your parents but you're also never totally doing away with that either like you're sort of picking and choosing what you want to keep with you and what you want to leave behind. So in Nola's situation - raised by a single dad, living out of a van - ultimately she's always curious what a more sedentary lifestyle would look like and wonders about her Mum who left when she was a baby and kind of has absorbed Clint's life lessons that are very much like always look forward, never look back, never re-trace your steps and once he's gone she really has to figure out for herself what she wants to keep from that upbringing and what she wants to try and do differently so that does involve her expanding her world and building ties with people she wouldn't necessarily be staying in a place long enough to connect with like Blue, like Miguel. In meeting her Mum she realises that Clint wasn't a perfect parent but he did do a lot of things right and I think that's also something that's resonated both with me personally and with different friends; realising that parents are doing the best they can with what they've got in the moment. I think especially right now it's been interesting releasing this movie during a global pandemic and seeing, especially in the United States where the government's completely failed us and continues to fail us every day, what the security nets are that we've been able to weave for each other in our communities as a way to support and sustain ourselves in the lack of total effective governance.

AW: You mention Blue and Miguel there and they also occupy a marginal space even though it's quite different to Nola, can you talk about the choices you made in terms of who she meets on her journey and their characterisations?

ASK: Blue is played by Jashaun St. John who's this incredible indigenous actress who I saw for the first time in a movie called Songs My Brother Taught Me and she was much younger, I think she was 10 or 11 at the time and hadn't been in another movie since. In the case of Blue I was just like she's so perfect for this role and really connected with her through the director Chloé (Zhao) and basically wrote the role for her so there was no auditioning and Jashaun came in from South Dakota and had literally had her prom the night before and flew in and was wonderful and really built that character. You know all of the roles really felt like a collaboration, like there's a tonne of improv. That's the beauty for me being a writer and director, that you can sort of have this blueprint but then ultimately be working with actors who are also building these characters and making them their own and it sort of feels like if you were a tailor and you were making a suit for somebody and being able to tailor it to their own body and specifically with Jashaun, having her input really made the character different than maybe how I had pictured it in my head but so much more, obviously realistic and authentic, but she really infused (Blue) with Jashaun. Similarly with Danny Trejo as Miguel, originally in the first draft, there were two mechanics and they were brothers and then Danny signed on to play Miguel and it sort of felt there could just be one and so those (characters) kind of merged...Having a very transparent writing process with actors I think really lets them have ownership over the role as well and is so exciting for me 'cause they get so much more invested and really makes it feel like a much more collaborative process. Having a documentary background, there is always a part of me which feels like your putting words in somebody's mouth in a way - you know, this is your job but the artificiality of that sometimes is part of the process that I feel like as much of possible I like to bring in people that ultimately in the edit, I'm still the one building the story so a lot of it is just being able to play around and see what other versions are out there so that was the process with Danny and Jashaun and really with everybody in the film.

AW: Nola has been taught to be really independent, she's encouraged to use her imagination a lot and she's not really had the pressures of school or social media or anything like that which other teenagers her age would have, this is a bit of a big question but do you think elements of modern life for teenagers kind of stunts their imagination and their self-exploration and growth?

ASK: Oo that's such a big question...I think it's a question that I would have answered really differently if you'd have asked me four months ago cause I think there is something we've both kind of, I mean all of us, have been so screen focused in a way it does limit your experience of the wider world but at the same time it's such a portal into worlds that you wouldn't be able to access and so I think, you know it's like any tool like publishing and books in a way you're accessing so much else that you could never entirely live first-hand. It's complicated because it's also shaping - especially in the context of the pandemic our phones and our computers have been like our only access to other people. Seeing and working with families in the neighbourhood who don't have internet connection, how much you are cut off is really hard in this world right now and also feeling like similarly being able to disconnect when you do have the luxury and the privilege of being able to be connected in the first place is a way of looking away from a lot of things and so it's a complicated question. I do think for young people it's hard not to be shaped and pressured by it if you're looking at certain standards but I think the beauty of it is that it's actually opened up so many other possibilities and being able to connect with people you would never get to meet or cross paths with in real life. That's been something that's been interesting too; releasing two movies seven or eight years apart and seeing how much social media has exploded between the two for better or for worse but, it's also in a way, it's people having access in ways that we never could have showed this movie otherwise and people even hearing about it through screens so yeah the screens have won this round. I dunno, it's hard; I want to disconnect more, I have not found a healthy balance and I think there is a nostalgia I have for the pre-screen days and I think anyone who's had a before where we didn't have phones in our pockets like really remembers that and misses that but we're in it now. I'm going camping on Thursday for 10 days without any internet so that's maybe the shorter, faster answer to this!

AW: We see that Nola is very close to her Father even though she gets frustrated at times, her Mother on the other hand doesn't meet her expectations - was it important to you to show a contrasting narrative to the ones we have around gender and parenting in terms of like Father's are often seen as absent or not participating in parenting as equally whereas we have a lot of expectations of how a Mother should be...

ASK: Yeah, it was interesting after the movie came out there were people like "Was there ever a version where it was flipped, was she was ever raised by her Mum and then set out to meet her Dad?" And no, it was always lose a Dad, gain a Mum but I think there is something about the narrative of the absent Father which is one that we all know exists and is out there but I think there is less story telling around the idea that not every woman wants to be a Mother or has the capacity or the interest or the bandwidth and I think that's something that, we're still, as a society not ready to reckon with this idea of what is this maternal instinct and especially in the States where there is no support for Mothers and parenting. Even in this case, we were talking a lot with Maggie Siff who plays Cheryl and building out her (character), similarly in the first draft her character was an alcoholic, and then when we were talking more and once Maggie came on board, substance abuse as reason as to why you're unfit to be a Mum is a story that people know and have heard and has sort of its own baggage but the idea of postpartum hasn't been explored in the same way and now it's more of the conversation but it's still not widespread and it's more of a conversation within certain classes - definitely not mainstream yet. So being able to build - not as sort of a reason or an explanation - but just sort of like all these different factors, build these relationships and (ask) what is good parenting? What's the right way to raise a person in the world and all of those questions were things that we were talking about and fed into both Cheryl's character and Clint's character.

AW: Blue and Nola have a really lovely friendship and at one point says "I think that you have your biological family but also sometimes you can have your logical family too," why was this message important for you to portray in the film?

ASK: I think that's something that is the reality for so many people and I think the nuclear family has such a strong hold on all of our imaginations and upbringings and, for a lot of different communities, is not helpful and has actually been very oppressive and constrictive and you know found families and creating these bonds outside of blood are what's been able to allow people to live in their truth and have that freedom that they couldn't have within their own family. I think to a certain extent there's a little bit of truth in that in everybody and in the case of Nola, Clint is incredibly free-willing, open-minded and radical in his thinking but that's also constrictive in its own way too and he's still imposing a way of life that she hasn't chosen and the reality is none of us have chosen how we were raised, no-one ever has a say in it and so it really is the genetic lottery and your rolling the dice where ever you land and where ever you're raised is always going to inform you and shape you but I think seeking out other people or places where you do feel more comfortable, and frankly other perspectives, is what gives you growth and challenges you and in my own bias, makes you a better person.

AW: This is a big question too, what is your hope for the film industry post-global pandemic, if we ever get out of it, and since conversations about systemic racism in all areas of society have entered international discourse on this scale?

ASK: My hopes, wow, they are so big, they're so very vast, I think there is - I was talking about this with a friend recently - I feel for myself and she feels this too, that personal ambition has shrunk in a lot of ways and goals for wider society have exponentially increased. I think the film industry is so overwhelmingly white and so overwhelmingly male, so overwhelmingly straight, completely disproportionate to the wider world and there's so many ways that needs to be changed and can be changed very easily. I think a lot of it involves giving up power and that both seems monumental but also so simple - that's all there is to it. I think that goes for any industry, you know whoever is hogging the mike - pass it; that's all that needs to happen and over the past couple of years so many conversations, these very long articles and debates and I feel it's sort of built this sense of like it's a huge problem to untangle, that's going to take years and time and money to unravel. Specifically for film, film's only been around like 100 years - that's like the blink of an eye in the wider context, this can change quickly; you can choose to make it as easy or as hard as you want it to be. I hope (change) happens and I think it will, I think it's happening which is so exciting to be able to live in a world that has that richness - like I think a lot of us can't even fathom what that is like but it's going to be incredible.

AW: Last question, are you working on a project now and can you tell us anything about it?

ASK: I wrote a script about climate change and female rage that will maybe a movie one day, will we make movies one day? Yes, will this be one of them, who knows? But a lot of my focus or what I'm working on right now is figuring out how to channel filmmaking skills into like on the ground support for both our mutual aid network in our neighbourhood, for the uprisings, for the protests and seeing all the ways in which production of film can so easily pivot to that...Coming up through the crew side and starting out as a PA, I'm back to being a PA, shuttling food, doing craft services except it's for Occupy, it's not for a set. There's so much of it that is transferable and seeing other friends who are filmmakers be so galvanised and put that energy into what's at hand and realising one day film will come back and we'll all jump back in or not - I think we're in this for the long haul and I think there's something about taking stock of skills and talents you have. Seeing the flexibility of everyone and everything, you know like restaurants that turn into grocery stores, seeing streets that were only for cars that are now closed off and have pedestrians only; try and take that imagination and apply it to yourself so we'll see.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Short History of the Long Road is available to stream in the US on various digital platforms now!

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