Amber McGinnis’ feature film directing debut is International Falls, which stars Rachael Harris as a dissatisfied Minnesota woman who finds her way to stand-up comedy. The film is part of the line-up at this year’s Bentonville Film Festival, which McGinnis is attending with her 3-month-old daughter. Her directing background includes short films and theater; she has received several Helen Hayes Award nominations in Washington, D.C., and her screenplay was a 2018 semifinalist at the Sundance Writers Lab.
AMBER MCGINNIS: The story follows Dee. She’s a woman who lives in a small, snowbound border town called International Falls in northern Minnesota, and she’s sort of stuck in a dead-end job and a dead-end marriage and has these secret aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian that she’s never really had the guts to pursue. And in the course of the film she meets Tim, who’s a touring comedian who’s sort of a deadbeat at the end of his road. And as their lives collide, they sort of explore how truth and authenticity comes into your comedy and how, to be the funniest, you actually have to be authentic and true to yourself. I think the film blurs the line between comedy and tragedy in a really exciting way.
BB: What inspired the story?
AM: Well, the writer, Thomas Ward, actually did a brief stint as a touring comedian and spent some time in International Falls. And he actually wrote a two-person play of the same title, and then he and I partnered together, and he adapted into a screenplay. And then I’ve been working with him on the development of it and sort of took the reins to produce it, started my own LLC, and made it happen.
Betsy Bozdech: And had you been making films before?
AM: I’ve been doing short films. I actually come from a theater background as well. My training is directing theater. So I have a theater career in D.C. and had done short films, and I’d done a lot of industrials, but this is my first feature.
BB: And you said you recently became a mom. How recently?
AM: She’s three months old.
BB: That IS very recent!
AM: Yeah! So I was pregnant when we were on set, filming everything and, you know, sending emails from the hospital when I was in labor. And between nap times, we were finishing up the final sound mix and everything. So it’s no small task giving birth to your first feature film and a baby in the same year!
BB: Are you sleeping?
AM: Not much.
BB: I just recently heard about a group called Parenting at Film Festivals on Facebook that’s dedicated to helping make it easier to bring your kids with you to festivals.
AM: I need to look them up! That’s amazing. Right now, because Bentonville is so inclusive, I reached out to them, and they offered an extra filmmaker pass for a friend of mine that lives in LA. So I flew her out to stay with my kiddo. So we’re sort of tag-teaming responsibilities.
BB: What are some of the hurdles that female filmmakers have to overcome?
AM: That is such a good question. I think that the old adage that, you know, a lot of times men are hired for their potential and women, they want to see that you’ve already done stuff and proven yourself, I’ve sadly found that to be true. Because I have just seen my male contemporaries get opportunities that I haven’t, when we have the same resume. So really this film was about, like, I just got tired of waiting on someone else to give me an opportunity and had to make an opportunity for myself. And so it’s really rewarding to be at festivals like this, not just because you have your film on a big screen and you’re getting it out to people. But the way we’re interacting with other filmmakers here who’ve taken the same journey and how the festival is supporting us and sort of taking the next steps in our career is really, really important.
BB: I find the mission of this festival particularly positive, the inclusion and diversity.
AM: And it’s not just talk, they’re actually doing it, you know? It’s not for publicity — they actually mean all the stuff that they’re saying and it’s great.
BB: Especially now, thinking about this from your mom perspective, are there any female characters that you think of as particularly good role models for young women?
AM: Oh wow. This is kind of an odd answer because I would not necessarily call them good role models, but, you know, with Game of Thrones — I would never show it to my daughter while she’s young — but seeing how TV is sort of changing certain dynamics and seeing women in powerful positions I think is really, really important. … It’s not just about having female characters, it’s “what kind of role do they play in the story?” Do they have the same amount of dialogue as the men? Are they in positions of power?
BB: Do you have any favorite female filmmakers besides yourself?
AM: I think all of us, all the female filmmakers, love Kathryn Bigelow. I was so inspired by The Hurt Locker and actually spent my early film career working with an interactive filmmaking company where we were doing a lot of stuff for the DOD [Department of Defense]. So I was working with the Army a lot. I think a lot of times people think, “oh, military, that’s something that men know better,” or that men are going to be able to tell that story better. And, you know, I’ve been out where I’m the only female person on the crew with a bunch of men with a bunch of strikers and Humvees. I like debunking that myth, and I love that she did that with a film that to the average viewer could be seen as a “male movie.”
BB: Do you think that female directors approach projects differently than male directors do?
AM: Absolutely. Someone asked me what I’m most proud of with having completed this project. And I think it has been my ability to stay cool under pressure, because when you’re an independent filmmaker, when you’re working with a small budget, when you’re doing a lot of stuff yourself and you have a tiny crew, there’s a tragedy every day. You know, there’s something that comes up. A permit doesn’t come through, someone’s sick, the costume didn’t show up when it was supposed to. And I think that, at least from my experience as a female director, I think it’s about being able to lead, not as someone who’s power hungry or that is inspiring fear in people, but actually inspiring the crew and leading with kindness and leading as someone who can be like right there in the trenches with the rest of the people. My crew worked so hard, and we were filming in subzero temperatures in northern Minnesota, and none of them ever complained. And I think that everyone just led with a spirit of kindness. Which I think a lot of female filmmakers do really well and is something I’m really proud of. And my story follows a female protagonist, but I think whether you’re following a female protagonist or a male protagonist, we see the world slightly differently. Or as a mom. I already see the world in a new way than I did a year ago, you know, so those experiences only enhance our ability to become better storytellers.