Funded! This project was successfully funded on August 19, 2011.


CalArts thesis film inspired by true events surrounding the 1965 murder of Civil Rights activist Viola Liuzzo.


Inspired by true events, While the Trees Sleep tells the story of two women: Viola, a Detroit housewife with an unrelenting desire to participate in the equality movement finding its voice in the South, and Dorothy, an Alabama nurse married to a man twisted with pressures from the KKK and the FBI.

It's summer 1965, and in two days Viola will be dead. Dorothy's husband will find himself complicit in one of the most heinous, but soon forgotten, murders of the American Civil Rights Movement, and Dorothy will be left standing in the wake.

But not today. Today, Dorothy gets ready for work, and Viola starts her journey South. The trees rustle in warning, the cicadas start their scream cycles, and the eye of the storm sits hot and calm.


The film takes a naturalistic, atmospheric and intensely personal character approach to an era and event fraught with visual stereotypes. The filmmakers are not setting out to create a documentary or a biopic, nor do they desire to take on the Civil Rights Movement, The KKK or Feminism of that era. Instead, they strive to capture the small moments before, after and around a tragic event. Told through the female characters involved, these small moments give the film its depth, and move the narrative: Dorothy ironing her husband's shirt before he participates in a vile and violent act. Viola eating oranges in her car on the drive down to the place that will be her end.

At once both delicate and harrowing, While the Trees Sleep takes a micro approach to cast, crew and production design, to serve its characters and to hint at an era, rather than exploiting it.   


Although CalArts is a wonderful school, they are unable to provide significant funding for thesis films. Additionally, the equipment cage is closed to student access in the summer, so all equipment must be rented. Due to the setting of the story and crew scheduling, the summer is our only option for shooting.


Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing fund-raising platform. If $10,500 is not pledged by August 19 at 3:30pm, then we don't get ANY of the money. None. If we don't raise the money, then this film will not be made. Period.


  • Production Design: Although the look of the film is nuanced, minimal, and naturalistic, with suggested period only, we still need several props, costumes and vehicles that work together to fill out the world we have envisioned for our characters.  We will work with many found, donated, and free objects, but know that some things will have to be purchased.  
  • Equipment: As stated above, we will need to rent all equipment, from a production sound package to the RED camera and lens set, while the campus equipment is locked away.  We are working with a very small but highly professional crew, well versed in this digital format, allowing us to keep our production calendar short and efficient.  
  • Cast/Crew: Happily, most of the crew and cast will be local hires, but there are a few positions that need to be filled with people from across the country. We need help with travel, housing and other accommodations for the out-of-staters, and in general want to keep our hard working cast and crew fed and hydrated in the Missouri heat.  
For our donors, a detailed budget breakdown is available, please email producer Kim Sherman at; we are happy to share that information with you!


I have always been interested in the eye of the storm.

The tense place, where all outcomes sit and wait, is where the stories are and where I find myself, again and again. While the Trees Sleep is no exception: upon learning of the 1965 Liuzzo murder seven years ago, I began to imagine the lives between the facts.

The journey to make this film is a story of its own: I left Los Angeles this summer and drove to Missouri, living with my mother in her one-room cabin in the rural central part of the state. As word of the film spreads in the small community I've re-joined, it's amazing and sometimes shocking to see the nerve the film has touched: so far, I've learned that one of my sweetest uncles is a card carrying member of the KKK. I've also learned that my grandfather was an avid racist until the end of his life, when he bonded over playing bluegrass fiddle and shooting pool with the Black men in his retirement home. These stories, and the people who've shared them are being recorded for a short documentary on the making of this film. The themes I worked with as the writer for the film have transcended the fiction of it, as evident in the true stories that are coming back to me.

As the oppressive Missouri heat hangs on me a shiny second skin, I feel nothing but levity: the intersection of Viola Liuzzo and Dorothy Rowe's lives has been waiting for over 40 years to be imagined, and I'm right on time.


EMILIE SABATH (Writer/Director) is a performer, filmmaker, and writer living in Los Angeles. An MFA candidate in Film/Video as well as Integrated Media at the California Institute of the Arts, her video work has shown this year at the Prague Quadrennial, the REDCAT Studio series at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the PACT Festival in Essen, Germany. She recently served as Assistant Director on the Tv on the Radio video, New Cannonball Blues, and starred in Rebecca Sgan-Cohen's beautiful Super 16mm film, LOVESONG.

KIM SHERMAN (Producer) is a Missouri-based filmmaker and musician.  She was recently awarded a Fellowship with the 2011 Sundance Institute Creative Producer Labs.  Over the last few years, she has produced several critically acclaimed features and shorts, including the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival hit, "A Horrible Way to Die" (Simon Barrett/Adam Wingard), and the upcoming drama, "Sun Don't Shine" (Amy Seimetz).

MEENA SINGH (Director of Photography) holds two advanced degrees in Cinematography: a BFA from Columbia College Chicago and an MFA from the American Film Institute. Her versatility and expertise with all shooting formats (35mm, 16mm, HD) and her exciting lighting choices make her in high-demand with independent filmmakers. Meena has shot three features, numerous shorts, and works frequently on large-scale commercial shoots. Originally from Chicago, she now lives and works in LA.

LANIE FAITH MARIE OVERTON (Production Designer) quickly rose to notoriety with her work on the True/False Film Festival 2011 Bumper Series.  In the last year alone, she has been sought after by several up and coming directors, and has worked on a wide range of projects for film and television.  Her most recent work includes the emotionally wrought short film "A Face Fixed", and as set decorator for the feature home invasion thriller, "You're Next".  Currently, Overton is working as the production designer for the independent feature, "Sun Don't Shine", directed by Amy Seimetz.


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Funding period

- (30 days)