SXSW Selected Filmmaker, Actress, and Writer: Mary Neely
Mary Neely is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, actress, and writer. Her short film, Pink Trailer, was selected to be screened at SXSW out of thousands of applicants and she recently directed a music video for the LA-based indie rock band, Pinky Pinky. This up and coming talent uses themes of mental health, friendship, and a killer aesthetic to execute projects that interest her. By exercising her independent voice, Mary creates her own platform for creativity. I interviewed this talented woman as SXSW raged on and our conversation is below.
Sarah Sickles for Pink Things: Tell me about yourself!
Mary Neely: I was born and raised in Los Angeles and never left, except for a six-month period where I studied in Sweden. My parents moved a lot when I was younger so I lived in 13 or 14 different houses/apartments (all in LA) by the time I graduated high school. I’m an only child and my parents divorced when I was young. They both raised me and both of them dated and a lot of times those people had kids so I had all these temporary brothers and sisters. I was exposed to so many different kinds of people and took an interest in how to relate to others, which I think led me to performing. Theater was a huge part of my identity growing up and I eventually went to UCLA to study acting.
PT: How did you get into filmmaking? I see that you’re self-taught!
MN: While I was at UCLA my focus shifted from theater to film. It started with me acting in a lot of student film projects, especially because the film school was right next door to the theater building. Yet, a big influence was an obsession I developed with the film history courses I took as electives. My ‘film school’ was just watching movies for hours in the video furnace of the UCLA Powell Library. After that I started volunteering to work on film sets for free as a PA or script supervisor just so I could learn what it was like. Then I taught myself how to edit on Final Cut by using YouTube tutorials.
PT: Can you tell me a bit about your experiences as a filmmaker?
MN: I never meant to be a filmmaker. I’ve always wanted to be an actress. I started making my own work in order to create more opportunities for myself as an actress. In other words, I saw filmmaking as a vessel for my acting. Yet when I did make a short film and then a web series, everyone started calling me a filmmaker and creator. Then I slowly started calling myself that too. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable saying I was a writer or a director maybe because of gender bias and/or because I don’t have any formal training so I was having a bit of imposter syndrome. I’ve come to learn that I have a voice and POV and sometimes people love that and other times people think I’m demanding or a diva. I’m trying to learn not to take the latter so personally.
PT: You write, you act, and you make films. How do these all relate and mesh together? Essentially, what is your creative practice?
MN: Acting, writing, filmmaking—they all inform each other. I feel really lucky that I studied acting the most/longest because it’s such a good basis for learning about tension and stakes in storytelling. A thing that comes up over and over when you take acting classes is thinking about what your character wants and what you are doing to get the thing that you want. That’s what writing is as well, and then directing is just a tool to heighten those wants to tell a story. I love to build stories around tension and high stakes. I think of moments and feelings first, then build story structure around that.
PT: How do you think your experiences as an actress in front of the lens have influenced your work behind it as a director and writer? And visa versa?
MN: I’d like to think I’m good at talking to actors when I’m directing and that I’m good at appeasing directors when I’m acting! But maybe I’m just tooting my own horn. I think the main thing that helps me is having a basic understanding of what each person’s job on a set is. That is super important for being a valuable member of a film crew.
PT: So tell me about Pink Trailer. Congrats on the selection for SXSW!
MN: Thank you! I’m so happy about SXSW. PINK TRAILER is a short film I directed/edited/produced about two best friends living out a dreary summer in a very eclectic pink-colored trailer. They’re house sitting for one of their grandmas while she’s on a psychic-themed cruise and their listlessness is interrupted by a foreboding neighbor who keeps knocking on the door. One of the girls realizes she’s run out of her anti-depressant medication and wants to leave the trailer to refill the prescription. Yet the other girl is terrified of the neighbor/outside world. The film is about the tension between one girl wanting to leave and one wanting to stay.
PT: What inspired you to direct this film?
MN: A lot of my previous work focuses on female friendships/relationships so that was a big draw for me. I also feel personally connected to things that explore mental health, especially anxiety. And it was just such a gift to be asked to direct something in such a special location!
PT: Do you have thoughts on female friendship in youth and as young women grow into adults? How those friendships change and how those kinds of friendships impact lives?
MN: I have so many thoughts on this. At any age female friendship is essential for survival. Women must have meaningful relationships with other women that are supportive and loving so as to be able to live in such a male dominated world. It keeps us sane. Yet it becomes very tricky because when these relationships let us down or we feel betrayed, the pain is that much worse because of how much we need them.
PT: What differences do you find in making a film versus a music video?
MN: The obvious difference between a film and music video is the absence of sound recording when making a music video. It’s so awesome! You don’t have to worry about planes and you can have the AC or heater on. Aside from that aspect, I love the simplicity of storytelling in a music video. You’re focused more on the aesthetic and feeling of a moment rather than capturing it from every single angle. I’m only interested in making music videos that incorporate a clear story, so there are of course a lot of similarities to making a film but the music video I just completed is shorter than any film I’ve ever made. The editing process was a breeze.
PT: Both of your recent works are indie, or out of the mainstream. Do you have any thoughts on this? Especially as it pertains to pink, the recently popularized color?
MN: I guess I realized a while ago that there’s no focal point to popular culture anymore. I was interning at a casting office and saw how many young girls were going after the same role. It’s so hard to stand out. My reaction was to be like a lot of people in my generation: self-made. I make indie work because I have artistic control. It’s a coincidence that my two most recent projects have “pink” in the title.
PT: What inspires you?
MN: My partner Bill who has the best attitude of any creative person I’ve ever met. Also, I love to listen to interviews by filmmakers I admire like Steven Soderbergh, Jordan Peele, Mark Duplass. A big inspiration for me has been Grimes because she’s a badass young woman who has created such important work in a very DIY way. She tweeted this thing the other day about how it’s taken 4 albums but people have finally stopped asking her if her male counterparts make her beats. That’s the goal.
PT: How do you relate to the color pink, personally and professionally?
MN: I’m pretty against binary gender roles (i.e. girls having pink forced upon them), BUT I also do love the color pink. A few years ago, I bought a pair of bright pink doc martens that I wear almost every day, even to meetings. I’m trying to say, “Yea I’m a lady but I’ll kick you if you fuck with me” (I have never kicked anyone, nor do I actually intend to, it’s more of a metaphorical thing).
PT: What’s next for Mary?
MN: I’m developing a few TV shows (one on my own and one with my partner) as well as taking steps to make my first feature! As always, auditioning a bunch. I really want to start pickling vegetables and fruits—I’ve had the mason jars for years but I’m finally ready to actually commit.
PT: Is there anything you would like to add?
MN: Thanks for interviewing me! Also, if anyone from the upcoming LORD OF THE RINGS Amazon series is reading this, I feel very strongly about my capabilities portraying a hobbit or elf.
This interview was conducted via email and has been edited.
All photos courtesy of Mary Neely
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