PICTURES OF THE SKY: A Struggling Young Painter Searches For Inspiration — and Healing — Through Her Art
Even the most brilliant artists suffer periods of creative frustration; times where the once-flowing pool of ideas and visions that abound in their minds suddenly run dry for reasons internal (such as “imposter syndrome”) and external (family, marriage, children, money, etc.). While those moments severely test artists both famous and as-yet undiscovered, the way they respond to them can make as much of a difference in the way they live as it can in the work they do.
In the dramatic short film Pictures Of The Sky, it’s a lesson learned by a talented young painter (Morgan, played by Zoe Graham) whose boundless imagination is soon overtaken by feelings of immeasurable grief after the loss of her mother (Joni, played by Hannah Roark), herself a troubled artist who passed when Morgan was only a child.
However, Zoe’s beloved dad (Terry Milam), Aunt Ella (played by legendary Shreveport TV news anchor-turned actor Liz Swaine) and a blind collegian she assists with her studies (Samantha, played by Lisa O’Neal, who also supervised the film’s makeup design) help the struggling artist to rediscover both herself and the creative gift she’s tried to share with the world.
Directed by Reece Roark, written by the film’s co-star and Reece’s real life spouse Hannah and produced for the 2021 Louisiana Film Prize competition, Pictures Of The Sky was among an outstanding group of 20 short films featured at this year’s event, held in Shreveport from Sept. 30th-Oct. 2nd in both virtual and in-person form after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the 2020 edition to be an all-digital showcase.
Having also been selected as one of the top five finalists for the film festival’s $25,000 grand prize, Pictures Of The Sky and the other four films in that class — Film Prize-winning thriller Shreveport Son, family dramas Nana Ki Dum and Bamboo House, and the Christopher Nolan-inspired suspense comedy MOMento — will soon be broadcast nationally on short film-programmed cable network SHORTS HD. Reece also says that he plans to submit Pictures to more festivals across the country in the coming weeks and months.
Pictures Of The Sky is destined to inspire and impact both artists and their loved ones, just as it did the Roarks during their collaboration on the project. While Hannah experienced the same personal and creative challenges that the film’s fictional painter went through in her early years as an artist, her then-boyfriend Reece also remembers the feelings of potential and pain they shared as their relationship — and careers — developed. As it turned out, those memories added realism and heart to the story told in Pictures Of The Sky.
Chris Hadley: What inspired you to make this film? Were there any real life and/or cinematic inspirations that prompted you to create both its plot and characters?
Reece Roark (director/co-producer, Pictures Of The Sky): (Hannah’s) script mirrors the time in her life when she was trying to establish herself as an artist freshly out of college. This is the time in her life that I met her and started dating her, so the script really resonated with me, and I felt connected to it very strongly and wanted to make it.
CH: Since Pictures Of The Sky is about an artist who’s facing the emotional pain of losing a family member while also dealing with creative struggles, in what ways did you and Hannah personally identify with the film’s story and its lead character?
RR: As alluded to above, the struggle to produce creative content when that is now your job comes from Hannah (my wife)’s very own experience. I was there as she experienced this. The joy of art and the pontification of the nature of art can be very fervent, even as you struggle to create a piece of art. This is very true of filmmaking, too!
CH: You co-produced Pictures Of The Sky with your real life spouse and the film’s co-star, Hannah Roark, who also wrote it. Since you’ve described the film’s story as “semi-autobiographical”, describe how your relationship with Hannah inspired both that storyline and the character Zoe plays in the film.
RR: The story is basically Hannah’s, except that she hasn’t lost her mother. She did lose her grandmother at age two and has no memory of her, so that part has some grounding in truth. She did read to blind students for extra money, though!
CH: How did you get yourself and your film involved with the Louisiana Film Prize?
RR: (Hannah and I)’ve made films for the Louisiana Film Prize the last 4 years. Some have been included in the Top 20, (and) some have not, but the process of making our first film that did not get accepted to the Prize but did get shown at other festivals made us determined to keep making our own films each year and submitting them.
CH: When did you find out that your movie would be in the top 20 for the 2021 Film Prize, and how did you prepare for the whole experience of being part of this year’s event?
RR: We were at the Top 20 announcement party. Hearing our title called was everything! It took a moment to just convince myself that I heard correctly! As far as preparing for the experience, it was just accepting the fact that I’m now a part of this community of filmmakers and soaking it in.
CH: What was the casting process like for your film?
RR: I got to work with our lead actress, Zoe Graham, on a feature film back in the Spring (as a prop master on Erzulie, directed by fellow Film Prize alumna Christine Chen), while we were prepping and planning our short. She was great to work with, and I just kept thinking about her for the lead, so I asked. She said yes! Samantha, our blind student, was the hardest to cast, and I reached out to our makeup artist, Lisa O’Neal, to send an audition video just based on her personality and ability to engage with a person by simply listening. She killed it, and we cast her!
I worked with Terry Milam, who played Morgan’s dad (in Pictures), on another Film Prize short (2021 top 20 drama Promises Of Snow) and he agreed. We randomly reached out to Liz Swaine, a local icon, about (playing) the role of Aunt Ella, and she jumped on board. We really learned to just ask, because so many people are willing to be a part of a good project.
CH: Given that COVID wreaked considerable havoc on filmmakers and actors alike, and given that strict safety protocols had to be adhered to during production, what steps did you take to make sure that filming was both safe and efficient?
RR: We had a cast and crew that was almost entirely fully vaccinated. We were fortunate to be shooting during a dip in the number of cases, shortly before the summer spike, but we abided by the standard precautions of mask wearing and distancing. (There were) no cases on our set!
CH: Overall, what have you taken away from the experiences of making your film and of having it be among the top 20 — and ultimately, the top 5 — shorts in this year’s Film Prize competition?
RR: It is a huge feeling of validation. As (the film’s) producer/director/director of photography/editor, so much of this film is a result of my creative choices. On the same token, it gives me a lot of confidence that I know how to surround myself with a cast and crew that can make a film successful, and nothing would be successful without all of those contributions of our personnel. I’m eternally grateful. Additionally, I’m so stinking honored to be included in the ranks of the other filmmakers.
CH: What memories do you have of seeing the film with in-person audiences, and how did they react to it?
RR: Seeing it in-person was magical. They laughed when they should have laughed and cried when they should have cried.
CH: What audiences are you hoping to attract with this film, and who do you think would like to see it?
RR: I really think it is a film that will resonate with a broad audience. It deals with so many themes that are common to us all: insecurity, loss, searching for meaning, the creative process, etc. I really think other artists, in any medium, would get something from it. From feedback from the audience, just the idea of struggling with the loss of a loved one has resonated with many people too.
CH: What do you hope audiences take away from watching this film?
RR: Generally, I hope any audience sees the film in a way that validates their own feelings about the main themes — struggling to be who you want to be, struggling with the loss of people in your life, but also realizing that there are moments and people in your life that can help lift you from the struggle and help you move forward.
CH: Finally, what projects are you working on now? What’s the status of those?
RR: I’m currently wrapping a feature, Man in the White Van, a true crime 1970’s thriller that has Sean Astin and Ali Larter. I am the prop master on it. I’m also prepping to production design a horror/thriller feature called #Chadgetstheaxe, directed by Film Prize alumnus Travis Bible (who helmed the 2017 Film Prize-winning sci-fi thriller Exit Strategy)!