LOUISIANA FILM PRIZE: Filmmaker Camille Schmoutz the Making and Meaning of on ST ESTHER DAY

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Camille Schmoutz’s St Esther Day is an elaborate period drama about the clash of socioeconomic classes in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. St Esther Day is an excellent example of how much story can be told, how much atmosphere can be evoked and how much social relevance can be conveyed in a short film. Produced in Shreveport specifically for submission for the 2019 Louisiana Film Prize, the film took advantage of the city’s unique locations and ambiance. The story revolves around a Swedish immigrant housekeeper who is quietly outraged by her snobbish upper class widowed employer whose imperious behavior impacts the woman’s sheltered daughter as well as her own. Based on a true story, the film is a beacon of feminism.
 
Jennifer Merin: Please tell us what St Esther Day is about.

Camille Schmoutz: St Esther Day is based on a true story and follows a Swedish immigrant, Esther, in her first American job as a housekeeper in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century.

Merin: How is St Esther Day stylistically distinctive?

Schmoutz: St Esther Day distinguishes itself as an ambitious costume drama with great attention to detail, despite its indie micro-budget.

Merin: How and why did you encounter and commit to the subject/theme of your film and the main characters in it?

Schmoutz: The subject of the film is Esther, the real life great-grandmother of my filmmaking partner, Jennifer Carsillo. This story was passed down to Jennifer’s mother directly from her grandmother who raised her. Jennifer grew up with the story and was bursting to tell it after we made our first film, Gloria, together for the 2018 Louisiana Film Prize competition. However, she needed help writing the screenplay and the “true story” needed fleshing out to enrich the narrative. The supporting characters were fictional or fictionalized; this was my effort to take a family story and make it universal tale of come-uppance and bonding across class divisions.

Merin: What did you learn about the subject/theme from making the film?

Schmoutz: Making a film about the immigrant experience in 1900’s America caused me to think deeply on the issues immigrants still face today. Making a film that was so different from my first film, GLORIA, which centers a transgender teen in the 1960’s American south, encouraged me to reflect on the underlying themes that I want to support and uplift in my own filmmaking in general, specifically minority stories, suppressed narratives, and the humanity of the other.

Merin: What did you learn about filmmaking from making the film?

Schmoutz: After co-directing my first film in 2018 with Christine Chen and deciding to solo direct ST. ESTHER DAY, I gave myself a crash course in cinematography so I could better communicate with my team. I learned so much about angles, framing, camera movement, and how they all conspire to tell the story without words. I feel like my first film Gloria was the story I was burning to tell because of my own personal passions, and telling a friend’s family story in ST. ESTHER DAY gave me enough emotional distance that I was able to concentrate on the technical details of filmmaking much more.

Merin: What were your biggest challenges in making the film?

Schmoutz: I had to learn when to delegate and when to micromanage. There were some elements of production that I delegated and later realized I should have micromanaged. The truth is, at this level of independent filmmaking, everyone does everything. We don’t have the luxury of the ratio of one job to one person. Someday I aspire to work with a team large enough to spread the burden around but until then, micromanagement will be the name of my game. The attention to detail required for the period pieces which obsess my imagination is so great and my vision so precise that there were many times on set that I realized the age-old truth, “if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

Merin: Do you think that being female gave you a distinct perspective and/or way of handling the filmmaking process?

Schmoutz: Absolutely. I identify as non-binary but I am AFAB and have been socialized as a woman my whole life and I wanted to surround myself with women professionals as much as possible. ST. ESTHER DAY is a female-driven narrative surrounding women’s issues, so it was important as a filmmaker to be able to connect emotionally with the characters and embrace their perspectives and problems. Overall, I think the way women handle the filmmaking process is very collaborative and at times blessedly selfless. Filmmaking bonds you in the fire and there’s nothing better than making movies with friends.

Merin: What are your plans for the future?

Schmoutz: I want to keep telling stories which highlight our shared humanity and work one step at a time to make the world a more beautiful, compassionate and creative place to live.

Merin: Who are the Filmmakers whose work has inspired/influenced your own?

Schmoutz: I love masters of style like Tim Burton and Wes Anderson and often joke that I want my overall style to be known as “Wes Burton”, but these days I take inspiration from the independent filmmakers around me who are steering their own ships and seizing their opportunities every day. I am inspired by filmmakers like Christine Chen, who co-directed and produced Gloria with me, assistant-directed on St Esther Day and is now developing her feature script En Route, and Taylor Doler, who graciously script supervised on St Esther Day and whose film War Paint has been Academy qualified this year and is doing great on the festival circuit. Seeing my friends follow their dreams makes me want to keep trying every day.

Merin: What advice do you have for other female Filmmakers who are trying to make their way through a still male-dominated industry?

Schmoutz: Find your fellow women filmmakers and collaborate! Collaboration tops competition one hundred percent of the time. If another woman filmmaker in your circle inspires you, tell her! If there is a filmmaking team you admire, go work on their sets! Do anything you can do to make yourself indispensable on set. Build your skills, put tools in your belt. Do the work and your reputation will precede you.

ABOUT CAMILLE SCHMOUTZ: Camille Gladney Schmoutz believes in the power of cinematic storytelling and its ability to alter individual perspectives and thereby shift cultural paradigms. In 2015, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her screenwriting and directorial debut GLORIA won a Founder’s Circle Award at the 2018 Louisiana Film Prize competition. She aspires to foster an ongoing commitment to examining suppressed narratives to expand collective empathy.

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