Escape To The Texas Desert With 'Untitled Marfa Project'
Emily Elizabeth Thomas is sitting in the dirt in her cowboy boots, thinking about her life. This is a scene she finds herself in often—not officially part of her desert movie, but certainly a part of her desert life (of which many movie scenes have emerged). From these introspective moments comes Untitled Marfa Project, her new film exploring a complicated relationship between three characters — two women, and the desert itself.
Untitled Marfa Project is the second in a trilogy of films created by Thomas, where all three are connected by concept, not narrative: “we are growing with generations of women as we see them confront serious pain and see themselves come out stronger or not stronger—and that’s ok too.” Thomas’ Texas trilogy kicked off with Lola (get acquainted with that short here) and will close out with Sweet Georgia, a story about a small town woman exploring her options after she finds out she’s pregnant.
“The thesis of it is, I think, is that we are faced with very difficult decisions as women and no choice is wrong—how do we remain who we are and not be so self-critical and self-loathing when we have to make decisions about our lives.”
Above all, Thomas identifies first as a southern woman and a Texas artist, and she’s representing the people of her homeland with as much nuance as she can muster. Bottom line: “Stories about women are important.” We couldn’t agree more.
Where did the idea for Untitled Marfa Project come from?
The opening line of the film is, “the desert told me a story once,” which is where it all started. My really intense connection with the ground in Marfa and my relationship to the Texas desert and how contemplative and healing and beautiful that space is. I’ve been going out there for a really long time and there’s something about the energy of that area that makes you cathartic and it makes you think about the conflicts in your life and the wounds that aren’t healed yet. It offers you this arid space to feel what you’re going through. So, the landscape really started informing where the story was going to go. I knew I wanted it to be about women and the way we relate to each other and these deep seeded beautiful friendships that are very special—it seemed like the perfect thing to put a really intense female friendship at odds in the desert and make these characters deal with it with nothing else around them. So it really started with, “the desert told me a story once,” which is at the same time poetic, but simple and the story just exploded from there.
It’s like how a physical emptiness allows you to have a mental emptying—it’s an interesting experience.
Yeah, I think there is something about the mysticism of the desert where the veil between our world and another space opens because it’s so silent, it’s so beautiful, and strange, like a natural phenomenon, which really affects the humanity of the people that live there. So there is this really beautiful esoteric space created whenever you’re open receiving your own thoughts, feelings, and conflicts, and sitting in the dirt thinking about your life. And I’ve done that so many times throughout the course of my life. Even when making this movie every morning before the sun came up and before going out to shoot, I would drive out to this one specific spot out there and go with my cowboy boots and sit it the dirt. Because I wanted the movie to continue to be about where it started, which was the desert and the emptiness of that space. Every morning it was me sitting and crying in the dirt and continue to honor “the desert told me a story once,” and what that means for this narrative, for me, and this team of 12 people that were making this movie. I was really conscious of the fact we were dealing with the space we were in as a character in it of itself and an entity of its own—that really informed the way we shot things and the way the characters were responding. The actors, three of them had never been to Marfa before and one of them had—and to see the actors respond to the environment was unreal. For every moment there was a way for the ground, the landscape, the energy to inform what we were doing. I really feel that Marfa and the desert itself is a fifth character in this movie, which is rad.
The opening line of the film is, “the desert told me a story once,” which is where it all started.
For people watching who have never been to the desert or aren’t from the southwest or had that experience, how do you translate all of those feelings for them in 20 minutes and make sure they get it?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I strongly identify as a southern woman and as a Texas artist even though I live in New York City and make work here. I’m continuously reevaluating what it means for me to be a southern person and trying to translate the female experience in the South—so that’s kind of a continual process for me. But, I think in general there’s a really specific grit and energy to any story that’s in the South especially when you’re going out to the wild west and stripping away a city and any distractions and you’re really performing and creating and making this movie on the ground where the west was born. I think it was just about taking who I know I am as an artist and knowing that I am so informed by these southern creative sensibilities and getting back to what started it—and letting this movie just take form and allow me to go with it. In so many ways, this film was about letting go for me. I worked on it for over a year before we made it and I was so incredibly confident in the team we had built and what we were going to go out there and do. We were so prepared and had such a specific vision for what this was—and it was really about me as a human letting go and letting the film gently show itself to me. There’s no way to control the desert and there was no way to control this movie.
How did you cast the actors?
So the two supporting characters, Anonymous Cowboy and Bella, those are two actors I worked with before—they were in my last film, Lola. And I have a really beautiful collaborative and trusting relationship with both of them. And it was so cool to see how my relationship with these performers shifted and changed from our first film into our second. I wrote those characters specifically for them so that they could be a catalyst to get them to go deeper into their process and really have their supporting characters allow the lead characters to explore the story. Then, the lead characters came to me through a casting director and I had an immediate gut reaction to both of them. I really try to lead with my intuition especially in a casting—like if I feel this person is the character, this person is the character. I felt really strongly about both of them. They both knocked it out of the park.
In so many ways, this film was about letting go for me.
Speaking of Lola—how are the films connected?
They are connected by region and creating this trilogy of mine where we are exploring stories of southern women. In that way they are connected—but Lola was really about the exploration of a southern girl in her childhood. Exploring the conflicts that southern girls are presented with and how southern girls show courage, strength, and resilience while still maintaining their innocence when dealing with serious issues such as gun violence. So they’re not necessarily narrative related, but in concept: we are growing with generations of women as we see them confront serious pain and see themselves come out stronger or not stronger—and that’s ok too.
What can you share about the last film in the trilogy?
I can share that it’s showing itself to me in a way that I’m really excited about. I’m working on the story and I’m still sort of waiting for the heartbeat of it to hit me, but it’s close—titled Sweet Georgia. It’s about a woman in her 40s, named Georgia, living in 1959 small town Texas, and she gets pregnant. The story is her journey dealing with her pregnancy and exploring options of abortion, adoption, or keeping the baby—and what that means in 1959 Texas. The thesis of it is, I think, is that we are faced with very difficult decisions as women and no choice is wrong—how do we remain who we are and not be so self-critical and self-loathing when we have to make decisions about our lives.
You said you could see this becoming a feature—and I wanted to see more of these characters and their lives. Do you think you will end up making this into a feature?
I hope so. I think the trilogy itself is proof of concept that my body of work can stretch through a feature length time code and can live in long form. But there is something about Untitled Marfa Project, that is very cinematic to me and there’s a lot more to explore. I can’t explain exactly why this one feels like a feature to me, but there’s this energy and texture to it and so much emotion to explore.
I feel like there is a lot to unpack between those two women.
We are dipping our head in the water and where they are going to go afterwards—it feels like a really exciting space to explore.
When is going to premiere?
TBD… It will be in the 2019 festival circuit, but she’s finding her way of where she is going to show herself first. I love this movie so much and I’m so proud of it. I think it marks so much growth for me as an artist and is a really good indiciation to where I’m headed as a storyteller. The important part for me with this movie was honoring it in the way that I know I needed to which is making this film as vulnerable and as difficult and as moving as it needed to be. Where it goes from here I don’t really know, but I’m really excited that I made it. I’m just so honored that it’s mine. It chose me—it’s my child. [Laughs]
Anything else you would like to mention?
Women are fucking rad. Stories about women are important. And different kinds of stories about women are important—whether or not we are seeing a woman broken down in the middle of the desert or if we are seeing her contemplating a difficult decision. Seeing all of those kinds of stories on the screen are so important for the way we are developing the female existence in film. So I’m just really honored and excited to continue to tell stories about women.
Images courtesy of Emily Elizabeth Thomas
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