When writer/director/actor Jocelyn Towne launched the Kickstarter project page for her film I Am I at the end of 2010, it appeared alongside an inventive video pitch for the film. In a single take, Towne and a cast of actors and close friends popped up in various rooms of the house she was living in (and also her bed), selling the concept. It's a difficult piece of choreography, and rather than obsess over getting it exactly right, Towne allowed for a few flaws. It's warm, watchable, and entertaining. On Friday, June 13th, the film—which is about about a woman meeting her mentally ill father, who thinks she's his wife—will see wide release in theaters and on demand. We spoke with Towne about that notorious project video as well as what's been happening with I Am I over the last few years.
How did you arrive at the concept for your project video?
I knew that I had to do something that stood out. I watched as many Kickstarter videos as I could get my hands on. I played devil’s advocate with my own emotions watching other people’s videos. I knew I was doing it from a very intellectual place—watching the videos. So I was like, "what’s going to move me to contribute to someone else’s project?" Most of the time it was not people who said, "we have a really heartfelt project that means the world to us." That didn’t usually move me most of the time. Everybody has a heartfelt project, so hearing that didn’t turn the emotional meter for me, but what did usually was something that was humorous and light and funny and had me enjoy just watching the video itself. That was my inspiration for trying to come up with something that would do that for me.
It looks like it was done in one shot.
It was. I was overwhelmed by getting the project together and I thought, well if I don’t need an editor it would be so much simpler. So how can I do this on my own without needing an editor? Oh I’ll do it in one shot. Even though it took a lot of choreography, we got it in seven takes. It’s not perfect, but I didn’t need it to be. It’s good but it didn’t have to be perfectly framed every single time. It just had to have the right feeling. That’s what I was going for. Making sure the feeling was there. I wrote the script out and that took awhile just to think of the idea and then people came over that evening. I’d already rehearsed it with our DP and myself and we knew what we had to do and people just jumped in and did their parts and did them great.
When you were coming up with the idea was it just as simple as thinking that you wanted to get people over to your house?
All the people in the video are friends from my theater company, so whenever someone needs help, people from the theater company are there to help, so it wasn’t hard to get friends over to help out because that’s what we all do for each other.
There’s a weird balance between making a dramatic film and a lighthearted project video. Were you worried about it clashing with your film?
I worried about everything. I worried about that. I worried about what people would think of me for asking for money, which is kind of how I came up with the idea for the video of asking people to get into bed with you. I was like, "this is uncomfortable for me." Asking people for money is as uncomfortable as just asking people to get into bed with me if I didn’t know them. Which is where that idea came from. I stressed out about almost every single thing in the video and the campaign, just because it was such new territory and I didn’t know that many people who had done a Kickstarter campaign before myself. Ultimately, I thought that people would relate more to me and the project if it was more lighthearted, and I hope that even though the movie is dramatic in tone, i tried to tell the story with a lightness of touch so it wasn’t too heavy-handed. I think it accomplishes that. I don’t think it’s a melodrama, so I wanted to find that with the campaign video too.
On the I Am I site you've been conducting interviews with your father and other filmmakers. They don't come off as promotional, more just genuine interviews about filmmaking. Why did you do those?
There were definitely selfish reasons—the first one was my dad, so just getting to have that time. Getting him to talk about his experience and just having that closeness with him. It was also because I wanted advice from people I knew and admired. I wanted to do more of those interviews too. I had some other great people lined up. I still want to interview them about their first filmmaking experience, it’s just everything kind of took off and got really crazy and busy. It was just trying to get practical advice from friends and filmmakers about what it was like their first time making a film, and seeing if i could use any of that advice before I went into my first filmmaking experience.
Having a dad that worked in film means you probably grew up around it. Did you always want to get into it?
I was always interested in writing from a young age. I think that was definitely a huge influence from my dad because I always watched him writing in his office. That was something that’s always been part of the grand scheme of things. Becoming a filmmaker and directing was something that was very new and part of this project. I didn’t have any aspirations originally to direct it. It was my producers who told me that maybe I should consider doing it because I had written it just for myself to act in. That was what my dream was originally. Then refocusing to become the director of the story—which I realized I really wanted to be without knowing it. I realized how much control i wanted over the story. It was something that was new. I’ve fallen in love with in the process of doing my first film, and now I got to direct a second film and actually sit behind the camera the entire time. That was a newfound love as I ventured into this whole process.
Why is it important to you to have such complete control?
I think that when you’re telling a story that means a lot to you, to think of giving up control somewhere along the way to either a studio or other artists completely... I love collaborating, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to collaborate, I just love being able to have a voice in the decision making process as it goes down the road of everything: of distribution, post production, everything. I’m so glad I did it with I Am I because getting the film out into the world is just as difficult as getting it made, and a huge part of making sure that you have control of your film is making sure that you have that voice throughout the entire process.
You’ve already made a second movie, but now I Am I is getting a wide release. How do you feel about that?
It’s a very strange feeling because in some ways after making it through all of post-production, I kind of let it go and also because getting a distribution deal took awhile longer than the normal—or whatever normal is, i don’t even know anymore—it just took awhile to get a distribution deal, and to get the one we thought was right for the project. I got to see it with an audience a couple times when it did its film festival premiere and then it just sort of went into hibernation for awhile. I had to kind of let go of that feeling of getting to share it with the world, but not really feeling like i had to gotten to share it yet, because I hadn’t shared it with anyone from Kickstarter and those were all the people who helped get it made. It was this very strange feeling of work, work, work and then nobody really gets to share it with you. So the fact that it’s coming out now is really exciting and surreal. I feel lucky I get to have this part of the process too. In some ways I was accepting that just the process of working on it was enough, and now that I get to actually have the part of it where people see it, I’m remembering, oh yeah that’s what filmmaking is about: getting to share it with the world. I’m re-opening that feeling of actually getting to have an interaction with people after they see it. I’m excited about it.
When you initially put I Am I on Kickstarter it was a lot less common for films on the site to make it into wide theatrical release. At the time, did you feel like you were willfully removing yourself from the film industry when you needed to be part of it?
The way I thought of it was I was getting something done by any means necessary. It definitely felt like taking a step out of the known way of getting a film made, but I felt desperate enough to do whatever it took to get my project made. I had the fire underneath me of wanting to start a family and have children, and I felt like it was now or never—if I don’t do this now, there’s never going to be an easier time. Discovering Kickstarter was a complete revelation to me, because I hadn’t heard of it before my producers told me about it. So I started researching it, and all of a sudden it became this incredible possibility of being able to get things done on my own terms. It feels like I’ve always tried to do things that way. I think it has to do with having artistic control. I remember when I was writing the script to this, people said, "Oh, you could try and sell this. Maybe some big actress would be interested in playing this part." I had a lot of encouragement to relinquish control of the script and see if I could sell it and just be seen as a writer. I didn’t want to be seen just as a writer, I really wanted to play that part for myself, which was why I had written it. I had to take a different road.