Susan Kouguell discusses collaboration, the writing process, and bringing The Short History of the Long Road to screen with filmmakers Ani Simon-Kennedy and Bettina Kadoorie.
As a filmmaker, I believe it is my duty to tell stories with truth and empathy. We are living in a divisive time, and it’s important to shed light on voices that lie in the shadows.
-- Ani Simon-Kennedy
The Short History of the Long Road had its world premiere screening in the U.S. Narrative competition at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival where it received the Best Screenplay Special Jury mention: ‘To a story of a woman finding her biological family and her logical family on the highway’ for writer and director Ani Simon-Kennedy.
About The Short History of the Long Road
For teenage Nola, home is the open road with her self-reliant father and their trusty van, two nomads against the world. When Nola’s rootless existence is turned upside-down, she realizes that life as an outsider might not be her only choice. In this coming-of-age film, The Short History of the Long Road depicts the fortitude of resilience, especially when following the most devastating of blows, in the most under-resourced of areas.
ANI SIMON-KENNEDY - Director / Writer / Producer
Raised in Paris and based in New York, Ani Simon-Kennedy is a feature film, documentary and commercial director. Under the banner of Bicephaly Pictures, she collaborates with cinematographer Cailin Yatsko on socially-conscious stories. Her first feature film, Days of Gray, played at top festivals around the world with an original live score by Icelandic band Hjaltalin. The sci-fi silent film was deemed “an assured debut” by the Hollywood Reporter. She has directed award-winning campaigns for Colgate, Smirnoff, Intel, Glamour, The New Yorker and Vice. Her work has received support from the Sundance Institute, the Tribeca Film Institute, IFP, Film Independent, Chanel and AT&T. Her second narrative feature, The Short History of the Long Road premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
BETTINA KADOORIE - Producer
Growing up in Hong Kong inspired Bettina Kadoorie to tell stories from all over the world. Her first film, Taste, was accepted to The Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011. She then produced and directed the documentary Child of Cambodia in 2012, before moving to New York to attend Columbia University. There, she wrote three features and interned on The Eagle Huntress in 2015. She graduated in 2017 with an MFA in Screenwriting, Directing, and Producing. The Short History of the Long Road marks Bettina’s first time producing a narrative feature. She is an Executive Producer on the upcoming documentary I am Belmaya about Nepal’s first female filmmaker and has directed two shorts currently in post production: Santiaguera, shot in Cartagena in January 2019, and a documentary on Chittagong’s shipbreakers, shot in February 2019.
As I was perusing the Tribeca Film Festival catalogue, seeking projects to cover for this publication, it came as a wonderful surprise to find the name of my former film and screenwriting student, Bettina Kadoorie, listed as one of the producers on this project. However, it was absolutely no surprise that her dedication to her craft and commitment to filmmaking continues to blossom, and that she is working with an impressive group of young filmmakers.
Bettina and director Ari Simon-Kennedy, and cinematographer Cailin Yatsko met while attending the Prague Film School about seven years ago. (The year after that, in 2012, I taught at the summer program at the Prague Film School.) It was a special conversation not only to reminisce about our respective times at PFS, but to learn how they grew and evolved as filmmakers.
KADOORIE: We wrote and directed many shorts together at the Prague Film School and it was cool to move to New York at the same time.
SIMON-KENNEDY: At the Prague Film school, Cailin and I were the only two in the cinematography track. I wanted to be a DP, and we started shooting everyone’s work and that’s how we came up with the name for our company Bicephaly Pictures. Then I had an awakening that I wanted to be a director, and we’ve had the company for seven years.
KADOORIE What was great was that I continue to learn from Ani; she knows what she wants as a director, and she is a strong writer. I was so impressed at how rich and deep the script was. Ani made another feature, Days of Grey, which unfortunately I was not able to work on with them because I was working on another film.
SIMON-KENNEDY: Bettina and I have been friends forever, and she has an amazing writing background, and is always a huge support. We share a lot of writing commiseration, (they both laugh) and her notes were incredible. She has a great eye for detail.
KOUGUELL: It’s interesting that this is a film set in the U.S and takes place on the road, given that you two did not grow up in the United States.
KADOORIE: Nola is a unique character that we could all relate to, despite the fact that we were not raised in the U.S. She was so inspiring and universal to us.
THE WRITING PROCESS
SIMON-KENNEDY: I started writing the script about five years ago, after Days of Gray. That film has no dialogue; it’s very sparse, and I wanted my second feature to be a talky.
Writing is lonely. The way I write is unusual; I map out the story in my head, and then I buy friends dinner and tell them the story, to gauge what’s working and what’s not working. I like that immediate feedback and to see what they’re interested in or confused about. There’s a lot of oral storytelling before I put it on the page.
I also attended the Cine Qua Non Lab that takes place in Mexico for two weeks. It was a really wonderful international place to workshop the screenplay.
Van-dwelling is a growing subculture in the US that is thriving. The hashtag #vanlife has been used over two million times on the platform since it first appeared in 2011.
SIMON-KENNEDY: I grew up in France with American parents and I feel at home in Paris and I feel at home in New York. I feel at home in both places. I was very drawn to characters who seem one way on the outside but have a backstory that you wouldn’t attribute to them. That’s why van-dwelling appealed to me. The van-dwellers are very connected, they have a very vocal presence online. Some live in vans out of necessity and others it was a choice, and that was something that fascinated me and made me very attracted to that story. I travel to make movies and make movies to travel.
KADOORIE: Ani spent two years interviewing van-dwellers of all ages and backgrounds.
SIMON-KENNEDY: The appeal of the van-dwelling lifestyle is undeniably tremendous. There is a freedom that is hard-earned and terrifying at times, but one that is endlessly expansive, too.
In France, every citizen has a right to health care, shelter and education, which is a different approach in the U.S., and having not grown up in the States, I fundamentally didn’t get it, and that was a bit part of the script and fascination I had for a long time that I wanted to get some kind of clarity. How people figure it out.
KOUGUELL: The characters were multi-dimensional; many are flawed with gray areas. Their choices may not be sympathetic, but they are empathetic characters—we feel for them—even if it’s frustration and judgment because you’ve examined why they chose the actions they did and their motivations. The audience was truly at the edge of their seats rooting for Nola to survive.
KADOORIE: It’s interesting to see people react when watching the film, there is an inherent fear for Nola. Sabrina Carpenter (the actress portraying Nola) changed up her look, and she embraced this role of a girl living in a van, exploring it with nuance.
SIMON-KENNEDY: The threat of what could happen to her was very real, Nola escapes because she has her wits about her.
KADOORIE: What’s great about the character of Nola, is that who she is on the screen is who she was on the script. Ani knew this world and populated the world with characters of this world. Ani went so deep into her.
SIMON-KENNEDY: Every person Nola encounters is someone who is trying to survive and who might not have a safety net. Miquel’s character built his own shop, he’s a lone wolf, and Cheryl, (Nola’s mother) who didn’t have the tools to have a kid made a brave choice not wanting to be a mom and not being able to in a material way, and Marcie has her big flaws. They’re all trying to do the best with what they’ve got because there’s no help, there’s nothing to fall back on, you have to be self-reliant.
I loved Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, but I didn’t want to write a cautionary tale, I wanted Nola to belong on the road; that’s where she feels the most comfortable. So many women I spoke to love it. I wanted to show Nola surviving through her unconventional upbringing and how her father gave her the tools to survive.
PRE-PRODUCTION, PRODUCTION, AND POST-PRODUCTION
KOUGUELL: How many days did you spend on pre-production and shooting?
SIMON-KENNEDY: It was a 20-day shoot. We did one month in pre-production in New Mexico on the ground there for three months, then we went back for two days for driving shots, shooting the landscape out the window.
KOUGUELL: And the editing process?
SIMON-KENNEDY: Our editor, Ron Dulin, was fantastic. We wanted to find an editor who would be on set with us. I love working that way for the editor to get the sense of the place, and atmosphere, it shapes their perspective. We were all living together in Albuquerque, like college, Ron had an editing suite there which was helpful, and we could apply to the Sundance editing lab because he was on set with us; he was cutting while we were shooting. That was hugely helpful in shaping the film. We wrapped at the end of May and went right to get the full assembly together, went to Utah, did the lab, and edited in July, August, and September. In October, we started sending out festival applications. And then we finished post—we had a wonderful kind donation from Eggplant Picture & Sound in Toronto, and we did sound and color out there.
KOUGUELL: Ani, you mentioned that visually, you and your cinematographer Cailin Yatsko were inspired by Justine Kurland’s work, particular her series of photographs depicting life on the road with her young son.
SIMON-KENNEDY: Imagery is a huge part of how we work. We do a lot of mood boards. I loved Kurland’s work forever. One of the most exciting things is the fact that she lives the lives of her subjects, and she had long periods of time on the road with and without her kid, and incredibly familiar. I had not spent time in New Mexico before. I was completely taken by the landscape. It felt like nowhere else in the States that I had been to. There was such a rich culture and history there.
For filmmakers Ani Simon-Kennedy and Bettina Kadoorie, the filmmaking road certainly looks to be long and bright. To learn more about screenings of The Short History of the Long Road, visit the film's website and follow them on Facebook.
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