8 Female Filmmakers: Sarah Durham on Cincinnati Film Nerds and More
This story is part of a series of interviews spotlighting eight local female filmmakers in collaboration with the Cindependent Film Festival. Read more female filmmaker stories and thank you to everyone who came to support the inaugural Cindependent Film Festival! Stay tuned for our recap on this incredible event.
Glasses clinked; martinis were shaken (not stirred). Japp’s Since 1879 was preparing for a busy summer Saturday night. Before the rush, we met college senior Sarah Durham for a drink to chat about what it takes to be a student actress and filmmaker, what it’s like going to school in Cincinnati, and finding balance. As we settled in at the corner of the bar, Sarah’s smile was contagious in the unusually quiet speakeasy.
Is film what brought you here to Cincinnati?
I came for school. I auditioned for the acting program [at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music] and got in, and it's got a great reputation. I always had been interested in film and acting, directing, producing, writing, etc., and because the conservatory is so big, it seems like the right fit for me because I could explore multiple options.
When did you realize you wanted to go into film? What was that moment like?
Well, I’d say there are two moments. I was about eight, and my mom dragged me to an audition. I didn’t know what that was. I told her that acting was stupid; auditions were stupid. I didn’t know what they were. Then I walked on the stage and loved it. That was one moment where it really clicked.
The other is really random: I was sitting in Spanish class in high school. It was ridiculous. I just remember sitting there, listening to the lesson, thinking I don’t want to sit behind a desk for my whole life. I want to go somewhere fun. I want to do something I love. I think that acting, film, writing, directing, and all of that – I think they pretty much check all of those things off. You meet a lot of really cool people. You get to ask cool questions.
Nowadays, are you more the acting side or the directing side?
I'm not sure yet. Acting's a lot of fun. And you get to do some weird stuff, which is cool. It's always different. There's not as much planning or stress involved. You're usually doing your job. You're there for your job, so you don't have to worry about stuff outside of what you're doing, versus when you're directing or producing, you have a lot of eggs that you have to juggle around. That said, it's also so much fun and it's nice to be able to control and shape something from nothing. You get to do that with acting, too, but you also have to sometimes compromise what you see a character as or situation as with the multiple visions of other people. Which is a good thing, because it makes it better. But sometimes it's hard to swallow. …
I told her that acting was stupid. Then I walked on the stage and loved it.
What I always say is “acting while I'm younger and have the face for it.” And then once Hollywood is like, “All right, you're gettin' too old,” then I'll move more into writing/directing, that kind of thing. [Laughs.] One of my role models is Patty Jenkins.
She just did “Wonder Woman.”
Yeah. She signed on for the second one. I just saw “Monster” the other week; it completely undid me. It was intense. But, she's a director I really look up to ... but yeah, acting first, it's more fun. Not so much pressure.
That's true. Do you plan to continue with both filmmaking and acting after school?
That's the goal. After I graduate next year, move out to Hollywood; figure out how to be an adult out there. And yeah, just go down the path ... keep plugging away.
Have you noticed – because I've noticed, at least in the past year – there have been more movies such as the one with Cate Blanchett…
Thank you. “Carol” was just here, and one in Covington. Have you noticed that more movies are being filmed here in Cincinnati? Do you think people are noticing it on the map?
It seems as though a lot of films have come through here in the past five years, I think. It was still a hub for film before I got here, but definitely since coming to school, the number of films that are made here in Cincinnati – produced here, or cast here – seems to increase every year. I know a bunch of friends of mine were in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”
“Goat” – wasn't that one?
Yeah, “Goat” was another one! Actually, there were a few people in the acting program who were in it – just extras in the background, but they got that job through one of our teachers who is a casting director – we have a class with Lynn Meyers.
Are you excited about the Cindependent Film Festival?
Yeah! I'm really pumped. I think it's going to be really cool just to see all of the film nerds of Cincinnati come together and really get to have a community experience.
What do you like about independent film?
I think independent films are really cool because it's a genre that's super diverse. You can have content that is more real life – or not. But you can have messages that are maybe a little bit more applicable than superhero movies. And I love superheroes, but it's just more relatable to people.
Can you tell me a little bit about the movies you submitted?
Editor’s note: After this interview, it was announced that Sarah’s short film “Roommate Diaries #1” will be shown during the Student Shorts viewing at 10 a.m. on Saturday, August 25, and her original screenplay “Island” has been selected for the screenplay competition.
Yeah! They're short films. They've all been produced within the past school year. They're all very goofy, very comedic, very lighthearted. We don't really take ourselves too seriously, or we try not to.
Can you tell me more about Pajama Island Productions?
My best friend, Graham [Rogers], and I started it. We came to school together; we're in the same class, eight hours a day, every day, and all of that. So we got really close, and we ended up being roommates our sophomore year when we moved out of the dorms. I had been working on this short film my freshman year and finished it. He helped me release it on social media. And we're sitting in our living room, actually, and we looked at each other and I was like, "Wow, this was really fun to do together.” He said, "Yeah, we should do more." I said, "Okay, let's come up with a name and make a company." And he agreed.
Is there any significance behind the name?
Yeah, there is! So, he does a lot poetry and his pseudonym is the Pajama Poet. So he really likes the whole pajama thing, and I wanted part of me to be represented in it. I'm from Saint Simons Island, Georgia. So Pajama Island. People always laugh when they hear it. So, I think it works.
I think it's going to be really cool just to see all of the film nerds of Cincinnati come together and really get to have a community experience.
Where do you find people to work on your films?
The majority of it is from UC. It's really convenient for us. We have about 45 people in our program. So you have a lot of actors to pull from; you know a lot of their work pretty well. But we have pulled in a few Cincinnati-based actors to our films, as well. It's all no payment. It's for students. It's usually friends doing [us] a favor.
You said you look up to Patty Jenkins; is there another female filmmaker that’s also has an influence on you?
Oh gosh, there are so many! [Laughs.] I really admire Kathryn Bigelow's work as a director. I don't like to re-watch her films because they're usually so intense. But I also really respect everything she's done in the industry for women. I also really love Greta Gerwig.
“Lady Bird” was so good. That was her opening film that she'd ever directed. She also wrote it, which is so cool. And on top of all that, she's a fantastic actress with incredible comedic timing. And is also a fantastic dramatic actress, as well. She has chops in all the categories. As far as actresses... old British women. [Laughs.] Emma Thompson, Judi Dench, like all of them. Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Why did you choose Japp’s for us to meet at today?
This is my favorite bar in Cincinnati, and I love coming here. We have a class of eight people that we've gone through school with. We're all very different. Our whole college lives have been together. I'd say about half our class is very young; wants to go out to the dance club. And then there's four of us who are kind of like the "grandmas and grandpas" of the group. [Laughs.] We like a more chill place where you can come to just sit and chat. They also have great music here, too.
Would you ever use Japp's as a filming location?
I would very much like to.
Japp’s owner Molly Wellmann: You can! I know people here.
Durham: Then yes is your answer! We've actually talked about it when we come in. Just the backdrop, the vibe of the place is super cool.
Is there anything you want young girls, fellow women, students to know before they get into film, acting, directing, and production?
It's a lot of fun! Keep plugging along. Things aren't always going to be easy; that's for sure. Things most definitely are never fair – in the world in general, for women, especially in this industry. I think a lot of things are changing. Do the best you can with what you've got, and just keep working as hard as you can. Eventually, it'll pay off. And keep a positive attitude – I think that's the best thing you can do.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far in the film industry? What do you think you struggle with the most?
[Pauses.] As far as acting goes, I think staying out of my head on camera. [Laughs.] Just staying relaxed and loose the whole time. Especially when so many things are going on. I think as the director, honestly, it's not to take on too many projects at one time. I think I struggle with finding balance and focusing on one thing. Sometimes I spread myself too thin. So it's good to recognize it and try to work on it – and I still always overwhelm myself every time! It still happens.
Do you have any projects going on right now that you're super excited about?
Yeah! There are like, three. There's actually one I just finished where I was acting. A friend of mine, who I've worked with a lot in the past, he was directing the film; he wrote it. It was called "A Murder Most Fowl." It was like a comedic film-noir short that had chickens in it. I got to be murdered by chickens. [Laughs.] We shot all day, every day for like two or three days. I had corn syrup all over me. It was crazy! Fake blood and everything. That's the fun acting side. I was super pumped while we were filming it.
Can we know how the chicken kills you? Is that a spoiler?
You know, it was never really explained. You only see me in the background, flailing with blood everywhere.
Things aren't always going to be easy; that's for sure.
As far as writing or directing, I have the idea of a script that I heard on Moth Radio Hour. There were two women in Russia, and I think they were based out of Vancouver back in the early 2000s, late ’90s. They fell in love online, via email. But I thought it's a really cool, beautiful story. The woman from Canada goes to meet her, and kind of ends up rescuing this woman from Russia. She can't be open about who she is because it's illegal [in Russia] and she'd be thrown in jail. They escape and sail across the ocean, all the way back to Canada on a 30-foot sailboat. So, I want to read her book and write a script on that.
I've been working on one that's slightly autobiographical for a while. I need a break from it. I've always found that telling the stories of other people usually turn out better, for me anyway.
Have you fallen in love with Cincinnati as an outsider, or do you think we're a crazy little town?
I think it's a crazy little town, but in a good way. I think it's a really cool spot to go to college, because you get the UC campus experience, but then you've got OTR and everything all around. It's just super cool. It's also fun being this close to Kentucky. I really like it. It's been an awesome spot to go to college in and get a city experience. So it was it was an upgrade!
Explore the rest of our female filmmaker series here, and thank you for joining us in celebrating independent film in Cincinnati.