You could ask Billie to describe her film Heart Breaks Open, but don’t expect a conventional response. She would rather describe her film with a quote from Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces): “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
We have not been able to interview Billie in person, but she did agree to succumb to our unconventional line of questioning…but then why wouldn’t she…her whole filmmaking process isn’t conventional and that’s exactly why Heart Breaks Open is a film to see.
#1. what does being “true to yourself” and “grounded in radical social change” mean for you as a filmmaker?
billie: being true to myself as a filmmaker is about doing film in the ways that i, uniquely, do everything. i’m really into the true diversity of human perspectives and experiences. i think this diversity enriches the overall human tapestry. in the same way, asking myself and the other cast and crew members to be their authentic selves can create unique and hopefully exciting films. additionally, being a person with disabilities and making movies means creating a process that is accessible to me as a disabled filmmaker.
radical social change means that social problems need to be tackled at their roots. i’m not sure if my films will challenge oppression, that’s more up to us as individuals, but i do hope that they shine a light on underlying issues. i believe that a good film can help get us there emotionally by drawing us into it’s tapestry. if we can viscerally connect with topics such as HIV, queerness and community without being manipulated by typical hollywood plot devices, hopefully it will help open us to a deeper reality.
#2. how do explain yourself in terms of “queer.”
billie: i live in a queer world. i love queer people and i fuck queer people. queer is the air that i breathe. how do i describe the air that i breathe?
#3. how does living with disabilities inspire you as an artist?
billie: being a disabled person automatically makes me an outsider, so i embrace the margin. i have little to lose in terms of social status. in return, i gain the freedom to create the art i want to create.
#4. for your first feature film, why did you chose the complexities of sex, hiv, drag, queer life, public health and religion to create heart breaks open?
billie: when you put it in a list like that, it looks complicated, but i don’t think the story itself is particularly complicated. perhaps the story is simple to me because i understand it. i guess a lot of folks are freaked out by these multilayered and marginal realities. perhaps it is naive of me to hope that the universality of the story would outweigh the strangeness that outsiders might feel. i see the beauty in all of it. these are all elements that i am reasonably familiar and comfortable with, so it made sense to utilize them in my first feature.
#5. why did you choose improvisational acting to tell the story instead of writing a script.
billie: for two reasons: one, it was easier. two, we wanted to create something that merged documentary and fiction. we mostly put the actors into situations that happen every day, actors working alongside people in their real lives. we were lucky that most of the actors and community members were able to act naturally without a formal script. fiction and non-fiction merged to tell the story.
#6. what direction did you give the actors to get the results you wanted?
billie: we spent a lot of time during pre-production on character development. our actors were very proactive about the creation of their characters. we also spent time crafting the arc and goals of each scene, so the actors knew what to do when it was time to shoot. as a director, i was in sync with the emotional tone of the scenes and of the characters. when we were shooting, i gave more direction on the emotional tone rather than the content of the scene.
#7. why did you chose to connect the story to religion and the second coming of jesus?
billie: my co-writer is a recovering catholic, and when we were creating the initial story we talked a lot about religion and catholicism. i was raised by parents who rejected the religions they were raised with, but i’ve always been interested in religion as an outsider. i’m fascinated by the stories and iconography of religion in general and catholicism in particular.
the story of christ is a Hero’s Journey, perhaps the ultimate hero’s journey. we wanted to explore that in a modern day setting. we wanted to take jesus path of ascension and put it in the context of hiv and the ways we fail and try to learn to love ourselves.
“when we speak
we are afraid our words will not be heard
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive”
Heart Breaks Open will be screened at the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Film Festival on Oct. 18th @ 7:15PM. For more information and to purchase tickets visit their website: SGLFF
Heart Breaks Open with also be screened on Oct. 26th & 30th in Cape Town, South Africa as part of the film festival Out of Africa. For more information about the festival visit their website: OIA