Interview: Award-winning Atlanta Film Society Senior Filmmaker-in-Residence Brantly Jackson Watts

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By Cameron McAllister

I first encountered Brantly Jackson Watts at the sold out encore screening of her debut feature, “AKA Blondie,” at the 2012 Atlanta Film Festival. Brantly served as writer and producer for the film alongside her director/producer/ cinematographer husband, Jon Watts. It wasn’t until the 2012 Rome International Film Festival when I actually met Brantly. Since then, it has been a pleasure to see one of my good friends become one of the most prominent content creators in Atlanta’s independent film scene.

After “AKA Blondie” enjoyed astounding success in Atlanta and a strong festival run, Brantly and Jon founded the Homespun Series, a recurring documentary short film series from local filmmakers and featuring local subjects. Brantly launched the series with a doc short of her own, “Golden Child,” before making the move into narrative work with “Birthday Cake.” A Southern Gothic short about a woman ‘celebrating’ the anniversary of her escape from an abusive relationship, “Birthday Cake” received critical acclaim and the Audience Award at the 2017 Atlanta Film Festival, where it made its World Premiere.

Since 2014, Brantly has been one of the Atlanta Film Society’s Filmmakers-in-Residence, stepping into the role of Senior Filmmaker-in-Residence earlier this year. Additionally, Brantly was one of the founding board members of the ATLFS New Mavericks program, which serves to highlight and be a resource for female filmmakers in Atlanta. Brantly stays busy with her involvement with ATLFS and other organizations, but thankfully is still finding the time to work on her own projects. Brantly and I caught up recently to chat about her career thus far, her upcoming work and her personal favorites in the film world.

Tell me about where you grew up and your education.
I grew up on a farm in Madison, GA, which is about 30 minutes outside of Athens. My father was a hunter and always wanted a farm with a lake that looked just like his grandfather’s in the mountains of NC. Back then in order to have cable you were forced to install enormous satellite dishes next to your house. My father thought they were hideous, so my only access to films was checking them out from the local library. For entertainment, I escaped into the world of books. I devoured them. Eventually, my love of words translated into a passion for storytelling. When I turned 10, my parents’ best friends gave me an old secondhand typewriter as a birthday gift. I wrote short stories on that old machine and gave them to my mother to mail to the local newspaper. I’ve been writing ever since.

Growing up isolated on a farm wasn’t always easy for an extroverted kid. When I reached the ripe age of 18, I chose to go as far as I could from the family home, at least within the state of Georgia. I chose Valdosta State University, as it was three hours away. Originally, I was an English major, but switched after taking my first communication course as an elective. My degree combined communication theory, public speaking, sociology, interviewing techniques, and cultural studies. The skills I learned in college have not only informed my ability to work with actors and documentary subjects, but have also made me a better speaker, writer and communicator.

When did you first set your sights on working in film?
I never considered working in film until I reconnected with my now husband, a boy I knew for a few years in grade school. After finding one another on social media, we started dating and eventually moved in together. Jon was already working in the industry, and I began to have a small role in some of his projects. I fell in love with the medium pretty quickly.

I know you started as a writer and producer before directing, what is your preferred role now?
I actually started as a director. Jon and I were co-directors on “AKA Blondie,” but quickly realized that someone needed to take that role exclusively, so I focused my efforts on producing and writing.

I definitely prefer the writer/director role. The creative process of from script, to casting, to production, to post is invigorating. As a writer to see characters that have been swimming in your head realized on screen is intoxicating. Better yet, to be able to facilitate that process as the director is why I do what I do.

Do you prefer documentary or narrative filmmaking?
There are aspects of doc and narrative filmmaking that I both love and hate. As a writer/director, you have more creative control of narrative. However, documentaries can be less expensive to make. Working with actors and doc subjects can often be very similar. I probably feel a greater sense of creative satisfaction from narrative filmmaking. Plus, documentaries can take years to make, and I have a shorter attention span these days.

What was the most important thing you learned from “AKA BLONDIE?”
Collaboration! We handled so many of the production roles of that film ourselves. Once we brought on our editor, Alex Kreuter, we realized how much the collaborative process of filmmaking can positively impact your film. Now, I bring on an editor as soon as I finish the script/come up with a documentary concept. Input from the other key creatives is so important from the very beginning stages of pre-production.

What was the most important thing you learned from “BIRTHDAY CAKE?”
Balance! Because “Birthday Cake” was my first narrative film, I didn’t understand the grueling pre-pro process. You have so much more breathing room with documentaries, at least in my experience. I struggled to be able to unplug from the project, which didn’t actually serve the film. Every filmmaker needs to be able to take a step back once in awhile. When you’re in a healthy state of mind it shows in your decision making (and in your relationships.)

What are you working on now?
I have a few narrative projects in the works currently. I’m in the pre-production process on a one-shot narrative short called “SPOON.” Fortunately, I have the privilege to work again with the DP from “Birthday Cake,” Kristian Zuniga. We’re planning to shoot the short on Super 16mm.

I’m also developing a feature southern gothic thriller called “Copperhead” I hope to direct in the next year or two. The entire film features only three characters and takes place entirely in the woods of Appalachia.

Aside from your film projects, how else are you connected within the Atlanta film community?
After premiering “AKA Blondie” in 2012, Jon and I established a documentary film series called Homespun. Through a partnership with the Atlanta Film Society, we host screening of short character-driven documentaries by local filmmakers highlighting the people in Atlanta that make the city unique. For the past two years, Homespun has also co-hosted a block of films during the Atlanta Film Festival.

A few years ago, I helped establish the expanded New Mavericks program to support local women in the film community to achieve a strong voice in the industry.

What do you think is the best thing about Atlanta’s film industry currently?
Filmmakers in the indie scene are incredibly supportive of one another. It’s refreshing to see creatives helping other creatives

What is needed most (in the current Atlanta film climate)?
There are several things missing in the Atlanta film climate. The first, and most important, is more development opportunities for local projects. Secondly, we need representation for above the line talent. Third, we need more distribution options.

Are you seeing more content creators in Atlanta succeeding in bringing their projects to light?
I think there are a few key people who have managed to get their projects greenlit or distributed. We still have a long way to go.

Whose filmography do you most admire?
David Gordon Green, Eliza Hitman and Jeff Nichols! I admire Jeff Nichols’ subtlety. David Gordon Green is able to create the most rich Southern Gothic worlds, which feel like home. Eliza Hittman’s work hits me hardest. Watching her films makes me ache. She’s an incredible visual storyteller.

Which filmmaker would you most like to collaborate with?
I’d love to collaborate with DP Sean Porter. He is the cinematographer behind “Green Room” and Eliza Hitman’s “It Felt Like Love.” He’s one of my favorite DP’s right now.

Whose talent would you steal if you could?
Stanley Kubrick’s directing skills. Terrence Malick’s writing skills.

All time favorite feature film?
I have too many favorites… Currently, I’ve been obsessed with “American Honey.”

All time favorite short film?
Miracle Boy!”

Anything else we should know?
I’m going to try and squeeze pie-baking in tomorrow evening.*

*Brantly owed me a homemade buttermilk pie as a perk for supporting her crowdfunding campaign for “Birthday Cake” in 2015. Having just recently received it, I will tell you this—it was worth the wait.

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