Sara Colangelo and the Making of Little Accidents

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Little Accidents opens with a bang, though we never actually hear it. The debut feature from writer-director Sara Colangelo focuses on the aftermath of a mining accident that kills 10 and divides a small West Virginia community. At the center of it all is Amos Jenkins (Boyd Holbrook), the lone survivor of the accident, who is torn between competing loyalties. His father and others dependent on the mine want him to keep quiet about the safety conditions that may have led to the accident, while the dead miners’ families expect him to participate in a class-action lawsuit against the company. As Amos grapples with all of this, a high school student, Owen (Jacob Lofland), tries to cope with the death of his father. And across town and seemingly worlds away, Diane Doyle (Elizabeth Banks), the wife of an implicated mining executive, struggles with the sudden disappearance of her son.

Colangelo gets fabulous—and often surprising—performances from her lead actors (fans of Pitch Perfect or The Hunger Games will hardly recognize Banks). Paste spoke with the director about assembling her talented cast, the challenges of making a film about a coal mining accident, and what it was like working with a female-dominated crew.

Paste: First of all, congratulations on the film and the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. I read that you developed Little Accidents in the 2011 Sundance Screenwriting Lab. What was that process like, and how do you think it benefited you?
Colangelo: I wrote the script fairly quickly. There was a lot of research that I put into it over the summer of 2010, but then I wrote it pretty quickly in the fall. It kind of just came out, fortunately, pretty quickly. So when I went to the [Sundance Screenwriter’s] Lab for the first time in January 2011, I really had a fresh draft, which I think was actually great because I hadn’t gone through a process of over-thinking it or torturing myself too much with it.

It was just a really fantastic experience and I feel so fortunate to have gone through it. Essentially, there were six wonderful advisers, just incredibly smart people and seasoned writers, giving me notes, and it was just a great opportunity to really think about Okay, what are my motivations in writing this? What do these characters really mean to me? How have they been spiritually bound to each other?

They really pushed me to sculpt really specific arcs and really think about their every move psychologically and carefully. That was the greatest, the most valuable advice that they gave to me.

Paste: Why did you decide to use a mining accident as the inciting event?
Colangelo: I had made a short film in 2010 that ended up going to Sundance that year in January. The short film dealt with the same thematic thread: an accident set in the past that you never really see on screen, but you’re experiencing its aftermath and looking at its effects on the characters years or months later. In the case of the short film, it was years later and it was a car accident that one of the factory workers had been in previously that thwarted his college plans, and he comes back to town and has to work in the factory. It was totally different. It was set in my hometown in the Northeast in Massachusetts, and it’s a very wintery landscape. So I knew that I wanted to expand on that idea, but I didn’t want to do a literal expansion. I wanted to set it in a different place.

I’m really interested in post-industrial America, these sorts of communities where industry is kind of on the wane or there’s a threat that it could disappear, and what the blow-back is on communities when that happens. I had been reading about coal country in the news around the time that I was brainstorming for feature ideas. There had been some pretty tragic accidents in the mid-2000s and a really bad one in 2010 in West Virginia. I just realized that I knew nothing about a part of the country that is still providing over 50 percent of the country’s energy needs. And I realized that most Americans probably don’t know what the day-to-day work of coal mining is about and what it looks like to be in a coal mine. Coal is such a controversial topic in the American energy conversation, it was something that I kind of wanted to look at. But I also realized that I had a lot of dramatic fodder in front of me if I wanted to set this story in a one-company town in Appalachia, and if I wanted to create these connections between characters within a town, between the haves and have-nots, and people on either side of an accident. In a way I thought it was a perfect backdrop.

Paste: Absolutely. But it’s also a pretty big story. It’s a lot to tackle in a first feature. Did you have difficulty trying to get this film made?
Colangelo: After the Labs, I met with a bunch of producers and was really fortunate to have been introduced to Anne Carey. We hit it off. We were probably in development for about a year, looking at some casting options and trying to cobble together money in 2012. And in 2013, it seemed to come together.

I think we realized that one of the huge challenges of the script was really the bigness of it. We were trying to create a portrait of a town, but at the same time be small enough to really show the humanity and idiosyncrasies and psychologies of three characters within this town. That was what was tough in that we were always balancing those two things.

We tried to simplify the script as much as possible, but then we also realized that that was part of the DNA of the script, as well. Much of what we had to do, much of our homework, was really getting into coal country early and try to connect with communities down there and get this coal mine locked down, which we tried to do early, but we didn’t get a green light until really a day or two before shooting.

Paste: It must have been pretty nerve-wrecking making a film centered around a coal mining disaster and not knowing if you’ll have a mine to shoot in.
Colangelo: We were shooting it at the end, more or less, of our 24 days in West Virginia, but it was really this kind of nail-bitingly nervous process. I was shooting other scenes, but I didn’t know if we were ever going to get the coal mine folks to say yes. We were really fortunate enough to have found a family-run place. We still had to go through crazy safety protocols to shoot there, but we found that kind of smaller, family-run places were a little easier to approach. Finally, we did get the green light, but that was just an emotional roller coaster. It was really tough on my producers, because there was just a lot of politics in it, too, in terms of approaching these companies and saying, “Look, we’re not really aligning ourselves as anti-coal or pro-coal—we’re really telling a human story. And if we are critical, we’re critical of the corporate system and not of coal specifically.” It was just a very sensitive issue down there.

Paste: The film stars a few big-name actors: Elizabeth Banks, Josh Lucas and Chloë Sevigny. How did they all get involved?
Colangelo: The first person I attached was actually Boyd [Holbrook], who wasn’t as well known then as he is now, certainly. But he was someone that I met through the Sundance Labs and I was fortunate to have met him. He was actually the son of a coal miner and grew up in the Kentucky coal fields, and I just felt like this story was in his bones and this was something that he—when he read it, I think it really moved him in a visceral and palpable way. He really understood the world. Pretty early on he said, “I really want to do this. I know I can do it.”

Pretty early on, we found out that Elizabeth Banks was interested. The script had been circulating at a number of agencies and she got her hands on it. I was actually really surprised. I knew Elizabeth Banks from her comedy work, but I had remembered really loving her in W.

I met with her over Skype, and I was just really impressed with her wit and how smart she is and how she wanted to approach this character. I think she just wanted to sink her teeth into something meaty and dramatic. So we ended up attaching her next, and I think that maybe relieved a lot of financiers or made them feel better about giving us money.

Chloë Sevigny also came on around the time that Elizabeth contacted us. We met over coffee, and I asked, “What’s your interest in this project?” And she said, “Actually, I really loved Kendra. I’m really interested in playing the mom of these two boys who are just reeling from the death of their dad.” I said, “That’s great. I think that would be kind of a perfect role for you.” It was actually an incredibly humbling thing. I had no idea that the script would even get into her hands. And I’m such a fan of her work, too, that it was just sort of a surreal moment when I was suddenly in a coffee shop sitting across from her.

And of course, we ended up reaching up to Jacob Lofland. He was somebody that I had definitely watched in Mud and thought, Okay, that’s an incredible kid. He was playing the sidekick and the comic relief in a way in that movie, but there’s something just really spellbinding about him. So we went up to him and again, it was sort of like, Will he even give me the time of day? He was just in a Jeff Nichols movie! He really ended up liking the script, and we just hit it off. He gave us an amazing audition tape.

Paste: The whole cast is incredible. But I was particularly impressed by Jacob’s performance. It was only his second role, I think, at that point. What was it like for you to work with a cast with such a wide-range of experience?
Colangelo: It’s kind of fun, and it keeps you on your toes because you’re having to keep in mind everyone’s background with acting. But, at the same time, I tried to approach my directing in a human way. [I’d say,]“Okay, this is the character. Let’s sit down, and let’s think about it. What do you think this character wants? And what do you think their fears are? What do you think gives this character joy?” I think the questions I asked Elizabeth Banks were the same ones that I would’ve asked Jacob.

Paste: Let’s talk about the crew. A lot of women worked on this film with you. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
Colangelo: We assembled a team in which women played so many of the key roles and headed a lot of departments, which is something that, in retrospect now, I’m really proud of. I’m really excited about that. But when I was crewing up, it just came about organically.

In a weird way, I think it’s fantastic that I came to these people. They were the best people for the job. Whether it’s Anne Carey or Summer Shelton as producers, or Rachel [Morrison] behind the camera, or Meghan Kasperlik doing costumes and Suzy [Elmiger] as editor, I think it’s so cool that they were incredibly talented and capable women in their own right, just contributing to the creative choices of the film. I wasn’t necessarily thinking, Okay I want to hire women for these positions, or I want a certain ratio between men and women—it just sort of ended up that way.

Paste: While there aren’t many woman directors in Hollywood, there are even fewer woman cinematographers. So it was very exciting to see that you worked with Rachel Morrison on this film.
Colangelo: I will say that, for Rachel, it was conscious, in that she approached the script in a way that I just thought was so emotionally present. I think particularly with Diane Doyle’s storyline, she kind of came to it with a lot of great ideas. In that sense, was it due to the fact that she was a woman? Yeah, probably actually. She certainly was really in tune with the psychologies of the characters in a way that I thought was really important.

Paste: Can you give an example?
Colangelo: One of the things that we had spoken about was the stillness of the camerawork in Diane’s house. We wanted to move the camera a lot more with, say, [Jacob Lofland’s] Owen, because he was going through this frenetic, teenage moment. But he was also hiding things, and he was moving through school as if he was a ghost. With Diane, she kind of falls into a depression. I remember in our meetings, Rachel and I were often talking about that we literally wanted the space to feel empty. We talked a lot about not moving the camera so that you could almost feel the character. She would just seem incredibly lonely in the big space and you would just watch her move from one side of the frame to the other.

Paste: You also worked with veteran editor Suzy Elmiger.
Colangelo: I met Suzy at the Sundance Labs, as an advisor actually, and I just thought she was incredibly smart. I was sort of blown away by the fact that she wanted to do the project. I mean she’d worked with the likes of Robert Altman. But I was just impressed. She was really comfortable with the idea of multiple story lines and how to weave these stories together (probably because of her work with Altman). She’s a really seasoned editor, and I learned so much sitting in that editing room with her. I can’t even tell you.

Paste: On the topic of working with women, you recently joined Film Fatales, a peer-mentoring and networking group for women filmmakers. Why did you decide to join the group?
Colangelo: I actually joined before shooting [Little Accidents]. It was when I was in development and working on the script and trying to put the film together. I know [Film Fatales founder] Leah Meyerhoff from film school—we’d actually done our undergrad together. And she was sort of putting it together around 2012/2013 and I was like, Wow, this is such a neat idea. There were so many female filmmakers that we all knew, and a bunch of us were friends. We got together, and I thought, Yeah, why haven’t we been organizing ourselves in this way and really helping each other? Why haven’t we been creating a network?

It really encompasses women at different stages in their careers and people who are really working in different genres and formats, which I think is fantastic. It’s really cool because you can see the practical ways that it helps women filmmakers day-to-day. [Just] look at the Facebook page, where people ask for help. “Do you know a costume designer who can work these days?” You realize that it’s now become a vast network of women who are essentially bolstering each other and who are giving advice to people who are just starting, people who are panicked and about to shoot the next day. It just kind of [became] a community.

Paste: What’s next for you?
Colangelo: I’m working on a TV pilot now for a series that I’d really love to start pitching to some networks in the next month or two. That’s been on the front burner. That’s also dealing with industrial America. And it has a female protagonist, which is pretty exciting. The other thing I’m working on is I’m trying to get the rights to a book, that would be the next feature.

Paste: What interested you about writing for TV?
Colangelo: I think you can probably sense it a little bit in Little Accidents, but there is a bigness to it. I was really interested in connecting characters within a community, and I was really enticed by the opportunity to continue the stories and develop their psychologies over a longer period of time. The world of this series really has a lot of different elements to it, and it’s just a really rich landscape where you can keep exploring this community and all of its interesting layers, hopefully. That’s something that you can’t do in two hours.

Little Accidents opened on January 16 in select theatres and on VOD.

Regan Reid is a Toronto-based freelance writer. You can follow her on Twitter.

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