The 11th annual McMinnville Short Film Festival returns Feb. 10-13 to the big screen with more than 100 films and the expectation that roughly half will be represented by the filmmakers themselves: directors, screenwriters, and, sometimes, actors.
With Jennifer Kramer of Los Angeles, you’re getting all three. You will find her film NAKUSA in the “Experimental/A Bit Strange” category. It’s a beautifully photographed 14-minute meditation on trauma and interiority, featuring Kramer in a raw, elegiac performance as the title character in a story she wrote and directed.
You’ve probably not seen her work, but you’ve surely spent quality time with her father’s. Stanley Kramer, who died in 2001, gave us a good dozen films that are justifiably regarded as classics: The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Judgment at Nuremberg, Ship of Fools, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, among others. Her mother is the actor and producer Karen Sharpe.
Raised in Seattle with her older siblings, Kramer has worked both in front of the camera and on stage, having trained at Carnegie Mellon and the New Actors Workshop in New York. She is also a classically trained concert pianist and a self-taught composer, which brings us back to NAKUSA. It’s the first piece of Kramer’s Living Inside Music project, a series of a half-dozen films, each of which “explore the characters, themes, and stories inside musical scores.”
NAKUSA takes Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4 as its inspiration, although it also clearly references Kramer’s own life. Her career was put on complete hold while she was treated for lymphoma; among NAKUSA’s many startling images is of the title character pulling tufts of hair loose.
“One of the most exciting elements of filmmaking for me is creating something new and opening an audience’s imagination to new concepts and ways to tell stories and always affecting them emotionally,” she said. “I don’t like playing it safe in my creativity — only in my life.”
NAKUSA and the other films in the Living Inside Music series were conceived as allegories. Although it was shot prior to the pandemic, quarantines, cancellations, and shutdowns have obviously complicated Kramer’s promotional path.
“It is hard when entering festivals to be somewhat restricted on how far you can realistically travel,” she told me. “In my case, I live with an immunocompromised person, so I have held back on getting into festivals internationally where I might have to travel an extremely long distance, even though I feel like NAKUSA would do better in Europe.”
My conversation with Kramer was conducted over several days by email and has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about a particular moment or experience that really lit the artistic fire in you as a youth, either with music or film?
Kramer: What lights my fire artistically as an actor was the concept of transforming into someone else. My earliest memories come from sitting around the dinner table and doing imitations of people, including members of my family. Gender didn’t matter; I mimicked and played men, too. I loved to change my voice, dialect, and physicality. Everyone would cry with laughter and that was pretty addicting. Later, at Carnegie Mellon, one semester had a project called the “animal exercise.” The project was to pick an animal and, through a series of steps, become the animal in their habitat and then take those qualities and transform the animal into a person. That was by far my favorite exercise and really lit an artistic fire inside me about disappearing inside characters.
As a pianist/composer, I was always drawn to classical piano. I had a grade school friend who played and studied the Suzuki Method. I was fascinated and would ask her to play her pieces for me over and over and over. She was my childhood idol. I wanted to be like her so much that I would spend hours at home on a little upright trying to imitate her. That led me to composing my own pieces. All these experiences led me to where I am now as a filmmaker and have given me a path that feels complete and authentic.
As far as choosing an artistic life as your career, did your parents encourage you or did they try to steer you away from it?
Thankfully, I always had the support from my parents in my career paths. One important detail, however: My father did not believe in nepotism. He left me and my siblings to find our own paths.
What movies were influential on your artistic growth? With a film like NAKUSA, one might wonder if you gravitated to more avant-garde material, experimental films.
I grew up watching many classic old films from my father’s generation, which I love! Ultimately, I like good films no matter what the genre. There are many that have inspired me. There’s a classic black-and- white ghost story starring Deborah Kerr called The Innocents based on the stage play The Turn of the Screw. It’s brilliantly acted and shot. The frames were slightly out of focus or distorted at times to highlight the eeriness. The director [Jack Clayton] used shadows and lighting in a very intentional way as well as symbolism. The film to me is like a puzzle and I love stuff like that.
For some reason, I have always been attracted to unusual and bold concepts with a unique visual style. I love films like Harold and Maude. It’s so quirky but also profound and heartbreaking. I love creative concepts like in Being John Malkovich, as well as Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. More recently, I liked Yorgos Lanthimos’ film, The Favourite, which was so bold and funny and visually stunning. I liked The Shape of Water by Guillermo del Toro a lot.
Tell us how you conceived NAKUSA. Did you get the idea for the big picture first, or did the inspiration for NAKUSA as a single vision come first, and then it evolved into something bigger?
In my concert training as a musician, the way the music came to life for me and kept me focused and able to deal with my nerves was to portray a character on stage as I played. I would dress in costume and even do a little monologue before I played sometimes. As crazy as all the traditional concert players thought I was, I felt very sure of my approach, because it was totally authentic. It was a very natural progression for me to take music and combine it with my acting and film background. So, NAKUSA was conceived in this type of creative process.
That is so interesting! So you’re saying that when you would perform music in concert, it wasn’t just a matter of you, Jennifer Kramer, going out and playing the instrument, but a conscious attempt to go out and play a character playing the instrument?
That is correct! And yes, at the piano.
Was that a way of dealing with nerves, or was that a way into the music for you? Or a bit of both?
It was both — it was the way I embodied the music and also helped me with nerves!
The trailer for NAKUSA mentions “the composer’s trauma.” Could you expand a bit on what that’s all about?
When Rachmaninoff was 23, his first symphony debuted and was a horrendous failure. He had a nervous breakdown and horrible writer’s block for a number of years. He had to seek professional help to get over the trauma of rejection he experienced, which haunted him throughout his life.
If it’s not too personal, can you tell us how that turned into a woman’s rejection by her mother? It’s like the inspiration was inspired by the composer’s trauma, but then you use that as the way to explore an altogether different one.
Rachmaninoff’s trauma was all about “rejection” and a feeling his music and therefore himself were “unwanted” by the public. Hence, the quote at the beginning of the film. Even though Rachmaninoff had a rejection of his music by critics and Nakusa by her mother, the emotions are the same. The film is all about the feeling of rejection and Nakusa is a personification of that feeling. There is no greater “feeling” of rejection than by a parent. Nakusa is also disabled, like Rachmaninoff “felt” when he had crippling writer’s block. Ultimately, NAKUSA was created out of many elements surrounding Rachmaninoff’s life. His Prelude in D major, Op. 23 No. 4, to me, has a kind of tragic and haunting beauty.
What can you tell us about filming?
We shot in the burn areas of Idyllwild, which was the perfect location for a dead-looking planet. There were some obstacles, however. We were scheduled to shoot and there was a huge rainstorm, so we had to cancel and reschedule several weeks later. When we got to the location, greenery was growing back, which had to be taken out. The actual shoot was just one day. The vibe was always positive and professional, regardless of the dirt and heat. Everyone on set was amazing to work with. They made my job so easy, and I owe everything to them.
It’s a very surreal, personal vision. Some artists prefer not to get into the weeds with reporters and audiences, talking about what something that’s abstract “means” or is “about.” David Lynch comes to mind; he makes his film, and then it’s up to the viewer to unravel it, with no help from him. You obviously are the opposite in that regard, and so I’m wondering if you enjoy that part of the process.
I do understand Mr. Lynch’s point of view. I also want the audience to have their own experience, especially with something like NAKUSA. It is a film that I wanted to be felt more than anything else, and I do fear that explaining too much can water down the emotional experience for an audience. However, from another perspective, my work is new to people. Perhaps an audience might benefit from understanding how I work, so they understand that there are a lot of hidden meanings and symbolism. I want them to think, too! And with NAKUSA, to be haunted by it.
How have audiences responded to the film?
The response has been mostly good. There was one occasion when someone I have admired my entire life said that I showed talent but that I must have been through something terrible to want to focus on something so dismal. Yikes! The film is about trauma and what that feels like, so it isn’t a “feel good” movie. But I think it’s a feeling that is universally understood on a deep level because we are all human. I think audiences have felt the film is dark and fascinating. I’ll take it!
Most of our readers will surely be at least familiar with your father’s body of work, and I’m wondering what you learned from him as a filmmaker and artist yourself, either from seeing the films or from hearing him talk about his work. Actually, we should include your mom, too, as they were both in the industry.
I was born after the bulk of my father’s career, and he was mostly retired. But, by example and although never directly discussed, my father taught me to be fearless. I don’t think he ever made a film to “be successful,” but rather as a need to express or explore issues that were important to him. He never had any fear, even in death. He was so brave and unafraid to speak his truth through his work and life. I feel that fearless quality has inspired me and been a guiding light. As a result, I feel ready to put my authentic work out into the world no matter how it is received.
My mother is one of the strongest people I know. She gets grossly overlooked because of my father’s fame, but she is equally as amazing in her own way. She is a Golden Globe-winning actress and Emmy nominee. She has taught me more about acting than any of the very prestigious conservatories I attended. She is also amazing with people. Everyone loves her and she just knows the art of persuasion. I’m not sure I’m as good as she is at that, but I’m trying to learn. She is also kind and generous, which shines through in everything she does, which has inspired me to try to do the same.
What are the current challenges in the film industry? What’s the state of things, basically, from your perspective?
There are always challenges in the film industry. It’s just hard to make a good film. But there are more opportunities than in the past. The industry is becoming more inclusive and there is so much content being made now. The film art form needs to reflect stories from all kinds of different cultures and perspectives, because it is a powerful medium that is about more than just entertainment. It can also enlighten, teach, and help us to understand each other better, and the world needs that, badly.
Most of the really interesting content is on television these days. I’m sad that there could be a time when no one will even go to a movie theater. We’re practically there now, especially with COVID. Mostly, the only films that do well in theaters are big comic-strip-type movies. This makes me so sad. I hope we can get back to a place where all kinds of interesting movies are playing in theaters to large crowds. I’m not sure that things are going to go in that direction, however.
What’s next for you and the Living Inside Music project? What piece of it will you tackle next, and what’s your timeline?
This year my goal is to raise the money and go into production on the second short in my film series, called THE SHOW. It’s very different from NAKUSA and a comedy. The theme of the film is duality, and it’s inspired by a piece of music by Joseph Haydn, who was known for his humor. It is on a larger scale than NAKUSA. It’s still avant-garde and requires more actors, locations, and costumes. I am hoping to raise the money by the summer and go into production shortly after.
What’s your take on film festivals? Are they a lot of work for you, or does it not seem like work?
I was hoping 2022 would be better (regarding Covid), but it does not look like that’s the case. I am still waiting to hear from Tribeca and Ann Arbor. I would really like to make an Oscar-qualifying fest if possible, but if I don’t, that’s OK, too. I am already focused on my next film, and I just hope NAKUSA can get as much exposure and audience as possible. I am grateful for the film’s accomplishments and have learned a great deal in the process.
I’ve enjoyed the festival experience so far, meeting other filmmakers and seeing their incredible work. I have also met some talented actors, some of whom I am thinking of casting in my other films. It’s a great platform to meet other artists. It is also rewarding to see your film on a big screen with an audience. That’s always an education and very exciting.
What advice would you have for artistically inclined students and young people who are thinking about making art their career?
There are three bits of advice I would give. The first one everyone’s heard, but it’s important. You have to really love what you’re doing, because it will get tough at times. There are so many ups and downs in a creative person’s career, and the love for it has to sustain you throughout the challenging times. It’s not a steady path financially, so you have to feel like there is nothing else you would be happy doing except your art.
The second is to understand from the beginning that your art is also a business. If you don’t understand this early on, you will likely suffer. It might even be a good idea to take some business courses or something that helps you understand marketing and the monetary issues surrounding what you do.
My favorite bit of advice is do not let anyone define you. It’s a big mistake to think that other people know what’s better for you than yourself. Trust your authentic point of view and vision. That’s everything.