CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was a long journey to the recent Sundance Film Festival for Charleston-based filmmaker Martha Stephens.
The trip began in the fall, when Stephens traveled to Iceland to film her third feature, "Land Ho!," a bawdy road-trip comedy about two retired ex-brothers-in-law who travel to the country in an attempt to reclaim their youth. Then, it premiered at the festival, which ran Jan. 16-26 in Park City, Utah, and was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.
"It feels good. For the first time since I've been doing this, I actually feel like I'm getting paid for my work, so that's totally worth it," said Stephens, who was born in Huntington, grew up in Greenup County, Ky., and moved to Charleston three years ago.
Making 'Land Ho!'
Stephens co-wrote and co-directed the film with Aaron Katz, whom she met when the two attended the University of North Carolina School of the Arts together. "Land Ho!" is the first co-directing experience for both of them.
"We figured, if Aaron and I brought our ideas together, it was more likely that we could get the movie made faster, with both of our connections," she said. "It was kind of an experiment, at first, that ended up being a really great movie."
There wasn't a lot of apprehension about sharing a project, Stephens said, because the film is unlike either her previous works or Katz's.
"My previous work is very naturalistic, slice of life; it's set in Appalachia and is more personal. This is strictly a comedy," she said. "We were having fun and coming up with jokes. It didn't feel like sharing my baby as much; it felt much more communal."
Stephens said she came up with the basics of the plot, centered on a single idea: making a movie in Iceland.
"I wanted an excuse to film something there because it's incredibly gorgeous."
It also happened to fit the theme of opposites that runs through the film.
"Our story is an odd-couple story," she explained. "The two characters are very different. It's constant opposing forces. I thought it would be fun to film a movie about two very juvenile elderly men with bathroom humor set against this beautiful, serene, haunting place.
"But I also wanted the guys to be very isolated and stuck with each other," she added. "Iceland is a very small country; it's an island."
Because Iceland is an island and must import everything, it's also quite expensive. Stephens and Katz quickly learned that they would need to make every dollar of their budget count.
"[In Iceland,] they're typically used to having more access to money than we do," she explained. "They either have big-budget Hollywood films coming in, where they shoot it to be another planet because the geography is so crazy, or if it's a local film, they tended to be government-funded.
"When we went over there with X amount of dollars, our Icelandic co-producers were like, 'Oh, that's not going to get you anywhere.' They don't have to be as resourceful as we do with independent films."
Part of that resourcefulness was using an American crew, which was less expensive than using Icelanders.
"Icelanders are used to getting paid a lot more. We really couldn't afford to hire them," Stephens said. "But we ended up renting equipment there. Renting it here would have been cheaper, and it would have been better equipment, but the cost of shipping was so crazy!"
To clarify, she added, "The equipment we rented there was fine, but there's not as much film production going on there [as in the United States], so you're limited in what you can rent. 'Interstellar' [Christopher Nolan's new movie] was filming there at the same time, so they sort of got dibs on all the best stuff."
Stephens had nothing but praise for the Icelanders her production encountered. "In general, they were very open to letting us come in and make a movie in their country," she said. "Being from Appalachia, I have a little skepticism towards outsiders; their openness was quite surprising."
The Sundance experience
The path to Sundance is different for every filmmaker, Stephens said. This is the first time at the Robert Redford-founded festival for her and Katz, but all their previous films (five total) have shown at Austin's South By Southwest, which, she said, "is like the little brother to Sundance." She also had a script at the Sundance Producers Lab this past summer.
"Sundance programmers were aware of our work," she said, "and we were able to get an extended deadline."
Just because they had an extended deadline, though, didn't mean they had plenty of time. After filming was finished, they headed straight to L.A., where Katz is based, and had just two weeks to put together a rough cut of the film to submit.
"I wouldn't recommend anyone doing that; it was pretty crazy! We'd spend 12 hours a day editing until we just couldn't stand it anymore."