In July, I spoke with Allison Mattox about the short film she wrote and directed through the Taliesin Nexus Smash Cut Film Lab last year. Her film, Échappé, is about a young Russian ballerina who is tempted toward defection while she is performing at a show in America with her ballet company.
As a former dancer myself, I was impressed with the level of skill and quality Mattox was able to command from the dancers she cast in the short film. I was curious what led this young director to explore such a story on the screen; a transcription of our conversation is below.
You can watch the trailer for Échappé at https://www.echappefilm.com/.
To learn more about the Taliesin Nexus program that helped Mattox complete her project, visit http://talnexus.com/programs/smashcut-film-lab/.
What inspired you to come up with the story for Échappé? How long did it take you to write the story?
Échappé was inspired by the defections of famous ballet dancers in the 1960s and 1970s. I became very interested in researching these dancers and their journeys—most notably Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, and Natalia Makarova. From that inspiration and research, I honed the storyline to something that I could actually explore in a twelve-minute fictional short. By the time that I finally started to write, the script came very quickly.
Do you have any background in ballet?
Yes, I grew up doing ballet and actually had a very hard time leaving it when it came time to focus on other things. It was lovely to re-engage with that passion through this project.
How did you choose actors and compile the rest of your production team?
I worked with a wonderful casting director who helped me find the cast. Since much of the script is in Russian, I was really nervous about finding these specific roles but was overwhelmed with the performances that I got from my cast. The lead, Olesya Senchenko, is an international model but this was one of her first films, and it was so exciting to watch her grow and work during the process.
I worked with a cinematographer, Beth Napoli, who shot my previous short and with whom I really love collaborating.
What was the filming process like? What were some of the most surprising challenges along the way?
We shot the majority of the film in a historic landmark which made the shoot very challenging. It was not up to fire code, so we had to abide by so many specific rules and adapt the space to our needs—including rolling out specific flooring that was safe for our dancers to dance on. It definitely added an additional layer of stress to the shoot itself.
If you could go back and change anything about Échappé, would you? And if so, what would you change?
I wish I had had a little more time to work more ballet into the film. I had a wish list of shots with more dancing, but with the time that we had, I had to prioritize getting everything that we needed to tell the story.
What new things did you learn about filmmaking? How did your skills develop as a writer-director through this short film?
With this film, I really learned a lot about telling a story visually. I always gravitate towards writing dialogue, and I feel like I really challenged myself in this project to keep it more simple and visual. It was also a really unique challenge to direct a film in a foreign language. I did not think that it would work at first, but it actually made certain things clearer and provided some really interesting ways to collaborate with the Russian actors, who are native speakers.
What was it like to participate in the Smash Cut workshop and complete the project?
It was great to have the support and resources from the workshop throughout the process. I had a wonderful mentor, who really helped me refine the script, and was paired with P.J. Walsh as a producer. From the very beginning, he had a real sense of the project and was a wonderful collaborator in pulling all of this together.
What other projects are you working on now?
I’ve written a feature-length script of Échappé and would love to see that come to fruition. Other than that, I’m working on a few other scripts and enjoying this time to focus on writing after being in the throes of production.
Are there any underlying themes or motifs that you think inform your work overall or specifically in Échappé?
I’m very drawn to period dramas. My other short film, Three in June, is set in 1960s Georgia. I especially enjoy working on a piece that draws from and can illuminate something about contemporary society. Working on Échappé this past year has been interesting given the renewed tensions between the United States and Russia. Exploring themes of immigration, artistic freedom, and oppressive regimes in this context has added another layer to the creation of this film.
What made you want to pursue filmmaking?
My background is in theater, and so I fell into filmmaking from that side of things. I love the balance of writing a script—which is often very solitary—and then bringing it into a collaborative process and seeing it open up in new ways.
Do you have any advice for young writers or filmmakers?
Have fun on set. It’s such a short part of the process, so put in as much work as you can beforehand so that you can hopefully enjoy production.
Rebecca Toscano is the Editor in Chief of Cinder Quarterly Journal.