Up to date information about children's entertainment – film, TV, DVD and more…. from founder and president of KIDS FIRST! Ranny Levy

Recommended DVD – Pearl Diver – Released April 29

Sidney King, the writer/director/producer of “Pearl Diver” graduated in 2000 from Goshen College where he studied German and music performance. In 2001 he wrote, produced, and directed “A Shroud for a Journey,” an award-winning historical documentary about the disappearance of a student from Goshen College. He pursued graduate studies in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before writing, directing, and producing “Pearl Diver.” “Pearl Diver” won Best Feature and Grand Jury prizes at the East Lansing Film Festival and Indianapolis International Film Festival, Best Narrative Feature at the Winnipeg International Film Festival and is showing now at the KIDS FIRST! Film Festival 2008. The film’s DVD release is handled by our good friends at Monterey Media. I recently had the opportunity to visit with Sidney about his film and his future plans. Allow me to share our conversation with you.
RL. Congratulations on the success of your film, Pearl Diver. You received some very prestigious awards for it and, of course, we’re delighted to be screening it at our KIDS FIRST! Film Festival this quarter. This is your first feature, correct. What does all of this mean to you?

SK. I produced a documentary right out of college but this is my first feature. It’s success is still yet to be seen. The awards are great! The film doesn’t have big name movie stars or the kind of narrative hook that would attract a big distributor. So, that puts it at a definite disadvantage. But, the awards make someone like Monterey Media look at it. The awards are sort of a seal of approval – they make it stand out. They are not cast awards, just icing on the cake. It did win a cash award at Heartland Features – their crystal heart award.

RL. You are a graduate of Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana – right in the midst of Amish country. I love how you portray the Mennonite people in this film – with great sensitivity, etc. How much did your experience there influence this film?

SK. It Influenced me quite a bit. I started an early draft of the script while a student there so a lot of these locations were already in my mind. The characters as well. I’m from a Mennonite background myself. My family is a little more progressive – not quite as plain as the people featured in the film. I guess it makes you more aware, more sensitive to the fact that these are not just simple, plain people. They live complicated lives – not the simple lives that media likes to portray them as. I was trying to go for a nuance that went beyond how they are usually portrayed.

I grew up in North Carolina. There aren’t the sizeable Mennonite communities like Goshen or Pennsylvania but that was my cultural background. The character of Hannah who left the community – I see that happen a lot – where people choose to leave the faith community they grew up in but they still have the values they grew up with.

What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?
There’s quite a range, you have the conservative Mennonites who shun technology, ride the horse & buggy. If you get to the more liberal Amish and the conservative Mennonite, there’s less of a distinction. The two women in this story are Mennonites, not Amish. They drive cars and use powered farm machinery. That was an issue. In planning the film, it was walking a fine line to distinguish between them.

RL. I read in your producer’s statement your comments about why you made this film. You tell this story: “I’m taken to a cramped basement apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1971, a clogged space punctuated by the cries of a newborn and plagued with only occasionally functioning plumbing. Here a young married couple struggles to keep things going, scraping and clawing their way through medical school while raising a child, somehow managing to do both with precious little money. And it’s during a particularly lean holiday season when they find a Christmas dinner, complete with turkey and all the trappings, literally left on their doorstep. Later they will receive an anonymous gift covering their rent for several months. “Who is this story about? How did it affect you?

SK. That was my parents. It was an anecdote. It portrayed the idea of mutual aid and made an impression in me.

RL. And this story inspired you to write the Pearl Diver?

SK. I think so. It was the kind of story that showed the impact that it made on my parents, even years later as part of a faith community where people really try to take care of each other. The part in the movie about trying to cope with the accident, when they collect money at church, exhibits how the community comes together to help each other. Or, when the sister wants to help her sibling. I think the audience who sees this might side too much with the Hannah character. So, I wanted to show the value of the other perspective as well.

RL. Have you had any criticisms of the film that made you rethink it at all?

SK. Yes, I have. There was one reviewer who said this is nothing but conservative propaganda where the religious character is idolized. But, another expressed how insightful it was. It all depends on how you interpret the psychological elements of the film.

RL. Is there anything you would change at all?

SK. There were a couple of storylines that got cut from the film that I hated to see cut. One explained the criminal elements of the community which would have explained where the necklace came from. I’ve gotten some critiques about the ending because the necklace seems to pop out of nowhere and save the day. And, in some ways it’s right. But the story is not really about the necklace or the money. So, I would consider going back and finding a way to make that issue more clear. Although, if I made all those changes it would possibly bring up other stuff. Keeping things in that explained the criminal made it too long.

RL. What will success look like for you in the release of this film? Audience? Money? What’s important to you?

SK. I guess, at this point it’s played in festivals and a few theaters but hasn’t really gotten out to a mass audience. I still hear from people who want to see it but they’re not in a place where it’s been available. There was a small theatrical release and Monterey’s DVD release is on April 8. It’s being broadcast on cable in Canada, but not in US yet. I never thought of the film as geared towards younger audiences. I spoke with one Mom whose daughter was 12-years-old and she really got it. But then, I spoke with a 10-year-old for whom it was too intense.

RL. Many of us have people or experiences in our lives who have profoundly affected them in their careers and personal development. To what do you attribute your success?

SK. Artistically or personally? (both) Personally, I would say a lot of the questions in this film were inspired by a teacher at Goshen College who had this wonderful class about Mennonite or Baptist history. That class brought up a lot of issues that came out in this film. He was also instrumental in the doc I produced in college, “A Shroud for a Journey.” Peter Weir is my absolute favorite filmmakers. He directed “Witness.” There are a lot of filmmakers who present the Amish in a slapstick way but he didn’t.

RL. What advice would you give to producers who are struggling to produce their first independent film? What do you know now that if you had known at the beginning of this journey would have made your path so much easier?

SK. If I had known what I was getting into…Would I have gotten into it? I shot this in 2004 . If I had thought that I’d still be working on it in 2008, would I have started? I had no idea. But, it’s typical. You have to really be prepared for the long haul. The one thing I learned is that you can’t really wait for everything to fall together and be perfect. You have to make a decision at some point that you’re going to do it. You might not have the money you want or the locations you want. Or both. Just do it. Don’t wait for everything to line up just right. So many things can go wrong while you’re trying to plan it. If you let anything stop you – you won’t do it. I would also say to trust the audience. I’ve been so surprised, being with a lot of different audiences. They can be very smart and very perceptive and pick up on little things that you’re trying to do. So many films seem to be dumbed down for the audience. But I’ve been surprised. For example, with the character John, there’s a scene where he’s talking about what to do and I ended up cutting it from the film. But, I was surprised, it’s one thing that the audience talks a lot about. They see his internal struggle. If I was going back, I probably wouldn’t have written that monologue. I would have let the audience see it from his acting. You don’t have to spell everything out. The audience does pick up on subtleties.

RL. What’s next up for you?

SK. Actually, I was thrilled to death. I won a Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They give out about five a year. It gives you a lot of exposure in the industry. Since that’s happened, I’ve had a lot of doors opened for me. I’ve got a lot of people interested in my writing. I’ve got two scripts – one is also set in a small mid-western town in Iowa. I’d love to get one of those scripts going. I’d love to get some other producers involved. Producing is a tough, tough road. If I can find some other producers, that would be an answer to my prayers.

To contact the writer/producer, go to his website: pearldivermovie.com

RL. Thanks for taking time to talk with me and to share your insights with KIDS FIRST! News. Best wishes for successful DVD sales and for finding a producer of your new scripts. And congratulations for winning the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. That’s a great feather in your cap.

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