MEMPHIS, Tennessee – While she was pregnant with her second child, Lauren Cox also wrote, produced, directed and starred in her third short film.
“Without a Roof,” starring Cox as a pregnant woman who resorts to homelessness to escape her abusive marriage, was one of the Top 10 finalists earlier this month for the Memphis Film Prize, where Cox also was a nominee for best performance by an actress.
“I feel like it’s an exciting time to be a female filmmaker. … Women are fighting for more opportunities, and they have a great voice right now. So, it’s cool to be a part of that community and to kind of cheer each other along and use that just to encourage one another, raise awareness for women filmmakers and to stand out,” Cox said. “There’s 10 films here, I’m one of two female filmmakers. Last year, I was the only female filmmaker in Memphis Film Prize (Top 10), so that alone kind of sets you aside from everything else – in a positive way.”
The Memphis Film Prize is a short film festival with two rules: Moviemakers must shoot their projects in Shelby County, Tennessee, and the resulting film must run between five and 15 minutes. A committee of filmmakers and creatives outside of Memphis narrowed this year’s field of submissions to the Top 10 films, which screened as a block multiple times during the Aug. 2-3 festival weekend.
A 50/50 combination of audience and juror votes determined the winner of the $10,000 Memphis Film Prize – one of the largest cash prizes awarded at any film festival. This year’s panel of six expert judges included Alliance of Women Film Journalists members Sarah Knight Adamson, Lynn Venhaus and myself, along with film producers Kevin Arbouet, Milan Chakraborty and Melodie Sisk.
Cox made the Top 10 two years in a row, becoming a finalist at the 2018 Memphis Film Prize with her period drama “Traveling Soldier.” Kevin Brooks — who co-wrote and directed the 2019 winning film “A Night Out” with Abby Meyers, the other female helmer in the competition — became the fledgling fest’s first repeat winner this year, after also taking the prize in 2018 for his short “Last Day.”
But Cox said she was excited to get to bring an issue she felt strongly about to this year’s Memphis Film Prize.
“It’s about a big women’s issue, which is domestic violence,” she said. “It’s a great, positive way to open people’s eyes to things. I’m a very visual person, so watching someone onscreen and kind of getting a look into their life visually helps me to connect with people and their situations and their circumstances a little bit more than other outlets would.”
In an interview at the festival, Cox talked with me about how she chooses her projects, how her faith affects her films and how she hopes to make a difference with “Without a Roof”:
Brandy McDonnell: How do you decide what stories you want to tell?
Lauren Cox: It’s different every time. It depends on who I’m planning to work with. My first short was really just me and a group of friends kind of like ‘Hey, this is fun. It’s a cute little story. I’ve never made a short before, so let’s do this for a trial-and-error run type deal.’ ‘Traveling Soldier’ came about (when) I started writing a feature for that in 2015, and that’s my passion project. … Before I leave this earth, I want that to be a feature. So, in an effort to make that feature happen, I turned it into a short film kind of like a visual concept to be able to pass along to, hopefully, investors and someone that wants to turn that into a movie.
Then, ‘Without a Roof,’ honestly, there were a couple of different elements that went into the story of that, just different inspirations from friends’ lives.
I’m mostly an actor, I write and direct and produce because I love it, but also because I want to act. And if I’m not getting hired by someone else, then I’m just going to do it myself.
‘Without a Roof’ was me expressing my passion for the homeless community and for women, pregnant mothers. It was also me scratching an itch to play a grittier role. … Even though I’m from Memphis originally, a lot of my work has been out on the West Coast. So, I’m kind of new to the Memphis film industry even though this is my home. But everyone here has been really fun and cool to network with. Every single person in ‘Without a Roof’ I met at Memphis Film Prize last year, so it’s a fun community. I feel very welcomed into it, and it’s been a really great experience for me.
McDonnell: We often hear people wonder ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ when it comes to domestic violence situations. Do you feel like ‘Without a Roof’ maybe addresses some of those reason of why a woman might have a hard time leaving?
Cox: I would hope so, yeah. You know, I’m 30 years old, and I’ve got three good friends that are divorced because of this situation, and two of them have kids. And I had no idea that they were going through that until they went through their divorce. It’s like, ‘How did I miss it? How did I miss the signs? What could I have done better as a friend? Or how could I have been more proactive in looking around me and figuring out like “OK, this seems a little off. What’s going on with you? Do you need help?”’
So, yes, I absolutely hope that it raises that awareness. … It’s tough. One of my friends, her family were not supportive of her marriage, so she’d been cut off by them. So then when she ended up going through her divorce and had two kids, she didn’t have any family to turn to. And she’s living in a city that she didn’t grow up in, so it’s kind of like, ‘Where do I go? What I do? Who do I reach out to? Who’s going to help me in this situation? … I’ve burned everybody in my past because they didn’t want me to be in this relationship to begin with.’ So, it’s tough … and it can happen to anyone.
It’s not just one day you’re in a great place and the next day you’re on the street. It’s a slow avalanche of unfortunate things that gets you to that point. So, you need people around you to pay attention and to reach out.
McDonnell: Obviously, this is a very personal story because of what you saw your friends go through. But it’s also a very advocacy-centered story. Do you feel like that that’s a good place a short filmmaker to be, is as a filmmaker-advocate?
Cox: I hope so, yeah. I mean, that’s what I’m going for. Again, I love filmmaking. I love this way of telling a story, and so, if this is what I’m becoming good at and it’s affecting people in a positive way, then I would love to take all different types of awareness topics and create films. … Making a film is very, very hard, but it’s easy for someone to watch a six-minute film and then to think about it for days after and be like, ‘You know, I’ve never put myself in that person’s shoes before.’ … So, yes, I hope that it raises awareness, I plan to continue to do this, and I hope that it helps as many people as it has.
McDonnell: Your faith is sort of worked into ‘Without a Roof.’ Was that important to you?
Cox: It is. It is. It’s very important to me. It’s the basis of who I am. And I want to model myself after what I believe in and who I believe in and that’s Jesus Christ. I think that living for Him daily is important to me, and what better way to say who I am than to incorporate that into everything I do?
McDonnell: But you still wanted to make sure your film was sort of accessible to anyone?
Cox: Right, right, right. You know, there are ways to share what I believe in and what I stand for without beating someone over the head with it. Like the Bible verse at the end was important to me, and you can take it or leave it. But the message that I wanted to get across was just loving everyone and accepting everyone and trying to help without bias or opinions or judgments.
McDonnell: It has a little bit of a twist ending to it, that sort of concept that everybody is dealing with something. It may not end you up on the street, but it doesn’t mean it’s not something that you have to work through in your life. How did you get to that place with the storytelling?
Cox: The character of Christine (played by Rosalyn Ross) for me is a reminder that everyone’s going through something. Everyone’s facing a battle. You look at Rachel (played by Cox), who’s homeless and pregnant, and you say, ‘Wow, she’s really got it rough right now. She’s fighting a battle.’ You look at Christine, who’s completely put together, you would never know what she’s going through. And you don’t think to yourself like, ‘Oh, she might be going through something, too.’ And I think that a lot of times we can get wrapped up in judging people’s appearances or get wrapped in ourselves and our own battles, and we forget to help those people around us. And that’s kind of what the Bible verse at the end says, it’s (Proverbs 11:25), ‘A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.’ Through her trial, she’s still working to help this homeless woman. And I think that when we do that, we also are refreshed in ways that we need to be – whether we knew it or not.
For more on “Without a Roof,” go to www.facebook.com/withoutaroofmovie.
For more on the Memphis Film Prize, go to memphisfilmprize.com.