At 7:30pm on Friday, November 14, nine of Speakeasy DC’s most entertaining storytellers will perform a live set at the U.S. Navy Memorial Center’s Burke Theater. At the conclusion of each story, the tales will be randomly assigned to local filmmakers, who having only just heard them, will then have a mere five days to write, shoot, and edit an original adaptation for the big screen. All of the films then show on Saturday, November 22, with awards issued based on audience voting and a panel of judges from DC Shorts. It’s all part of the SpeakeasyShorts Film Challenge, a fantastic local event entering its third year.
Rob Raffety: What do you think of this coffee?
Jenny Splitter: It tastes like Northern Virginia. Smooth and convenient.
Rob Raffety: I don’t really know my coffee. This is a very nice cup, though. (sip) So what’s your story?
I’m a storyteller and I also write about parenting for Groundedparents.com, a skeptical parenting website. How about you?
I manage research and teach law and public policy at George Mason University. On the side I make shitty movies.
Only shitty movies?
Well, they’re not all shitty. Some of them are actually quite good, I think. What I mean is I’m just having fun with it. I treat film making like a very intense hobby. I’m learning and improving and very happy with what I produce, but I’m also very self-aware and realize I’m not yet all that accomplished. I aspire to make great films and I think I have the capacity to do that someday, but I know I’m not there yet. (sip). I’m definitely not there yet. I have tons to learn.
So how long have you been at it (film making)?
About a decade. I always enjoyed photography as a kid but I didn’t pick up my first video camera until the early 2000s when I was in my mid-20s. Something just sorta clicked. I took some classes at Arlington Independent Media, did some 48 Hour film contests and such. Things just sorta snowballed from there. How about you? When did you first start telling stories in front of a live audience and what inspired you to do that?
The first time I told a story was for SpeakeasyDC’s Mother’s Day show in 2012. I had been writing about childbirth and the way my outlook had completely changed after having my kids, and I saw this call for honest stories about motherhood for a show called Bad Mommy Moments. I decided to take a chance and audition for the show, which was completely terrifying. I was so nervous – I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide so I just stared at my notes the entire time. I feel like there’s nothing that makes you feel more vulnerable than telling your own story to a group of people.
I suppose storytelling and film making are similar in that way. For a filmmaker, you’re sitting there in the audience – watching your film with them, waiting and hoping for a positive reaction. When it happens at the right time – a laugh or a gasp – it’s a rush. But when something falls flat, that sucks. I guess a filmmaker isn’t technically as exposed as a storyteller involved a live performance, but I think I can relate. What about your material? Where does that come from? Do you have a reliable “go-to” source – motherhood, relationships, crumby jobs – or are you more or less able to shoehorn any life experience into a seven minute story structure? I guess what I’m asking is, assuming you could tell a story about anything, what guides your topic selection?
I don’t have one source. It’s usually just some little weird thing that sticks with me for some reason, and then I work on it until I figure out the story. Usually the key to the story is figuring out why some aspect of it was stuck in my brain in the first place.
And how much do you rehearse your stories? Do you change certain aspects of your delivery in real time based on the audience’s reception, or do you try to stick with the script? I’m wondering how you balance storytelling between a process of rote memorization versus improvisation.
I don’t have a script exactly, not anymore because that level of memorization makes me crazy. I ended up feeling really locked in to THE ONE WAY to tell the story. These days I usually work on ideas out loud so the story stays kind of loose. I don’t improvise exactly but my energy definitely changes depending on what the audience is doing. I’m highly aware of and insanely obsessed with the audience reaction at all times. I remember every single person who didn’t laugh. Not to be creepy or anything…
No, I get it.
So, are you ready for Speakeasy Shorts this year?
Ready or not.
(laughs) Are you nervous?
I wouldn’t say I’m nervous…
Well, you’ve done it before.
Twice, in fact.
So you’re a pro.
I wouldn’t say that either (laughs). The contest is just so unpredictable. You don’t know the genre of the story you’ll be assigned, the types of venues, the number of actors you’ll need, and so on. And as soon as you get that info it’s a mad dash to the finish line. And there’s always lots of second-guessing as you go, but there’s no time for no doubting. You make certain decisions in the tone of the script and in your shot selections and what not, and once you’re a few hours into the process there’s no going back. I suppose that’s the nature of the contest. It’s the ultimate in path dependent creativity.
Is there anything you learned from the past that you’ll incorporate into the process this year?
Two things – first, I’ve learned to stick to a very efficient and deliberate production schedule. We hear the story on Friday, write the adaptation on Saturday, shoot it on Sunday, edit it on Monday and Tuesday, then hand it in on Wednesday. Boom! That’s the game plan and we’re sticking to it – no exceptions! The other lesson I’ve learned – which I consider incredibly important – is to embrace fully the spirit of the contest. It’s not about making a literal adaptation of the story – it’s about hearing a story, finding the inspiration behind it, and then conveying those emotions to the audience in a visual and compelling manner. The filmmakers get carte blanche creative license – which is intimidating but awesome! I guess that raises a good question – given the liberties granted to filmmakers, are you nervous about having your story adapted? Because I’ll be completely honest – if the story I’m assigned is completely off-the-way crazy and impossible to adapt, I’d most likely produce a comedy about the struggles of me trying to adapt an insane story.
I wasn’t nervous until people started asking me if I’m nervous. Should I be nervous?
Nah. You can always change your name and pretend this never happened. I don’t think they said there’s a word limit on this interview or anything, right? Let’s keep talking. We can fix it in post. OK, I need to know more about this whole “storytelling” thing. Did you see that viral video with a German guy blasting people who called themselves “storytellers?” It was going around a few weeks back. Hang on, let me bring it up.
(Rob calls up the video in question. Jenny watches it).
What do you make of that?
I think that’s brilliant! He’s talking about that sort of meaningless, “what’s my personal brand” use of the word, where someone just sticks the word in their bio without having any idea what it means. That’s all bullshit. On the other hand, it’s not like storytelling is some abstract art form. I think everyone has at least one good story in them and learning how to craft that story and maybe even challenging yourself to get up and tell that story on stage – that can be a very rewarding experience.
Do you have dream film project? Who would be in it?
I have multiple fever dream projects, but one idea I’d love to see is a massive, epic-bio period piece on my personal hero, the Marquis de Lafayette. I’m envisioning a cross between Amadeus and Amistad. It would win multiple Oscars and, more importantly, re-ignite the memory of Lafayette in the hearts and minds of Americans. Trust me, this dude was amazeballs! So far ahead of his time. A true champion of human liberty. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it (deep breath). Sorry. OK – now a nutty question for you – what’s the greatest story ever told and who’s the storyteller?
Really hard to pick one example but I am still moved by Anne Thomas’s one woman show No More Hellen Keller Jokes. Anne manages to talk about her life after she became paralyzed in this way that’s incredibly honest and powerful but without any sense of self-pity. She somehow figured out a way to keep going and not just live but truly be alive. I was completely blown away by the show.
I’ll have to check that out. Back to your storytelling experience – what’s the one thing you wish somebody had told you about storytelling before you took up the challenge yourself? Any general advice to aspiring storytellers of the world?
It takes a long time to really find your own voice. Someone probably did tell me that but I didn’t really appreciate it. I’m still figuring out what I want to write and talk about. My advice? You can’t do it on your own. Storytelling is about community — you can learn by taking classes, going to shows, practicing with your friends, and (if you do a show) following the advice of your director. I still hear Amy Couchoud’s (director, Bad Mommy Moments) voice in my head when I work on a story.
I’m glad someone other than me is used to hearing voices when they write.
It’s kind of unnerving. Okay…so what is the most overrated movie ever made?
This will probably sound strange, but I try to never speak ill of any films other than the ones I make myself. That’s a personal rule. Because even if I think a film objectively sucks, it probably still means something to someone, and who am I to judge that? So the worst I’d ever say about any film is that it’s “not for me.” But I’ll tell you my favorite movie, if you’d like.
It’s a tie. Jaws and The Kentucky Fried Movie.
Dumb and Dumber?
Not for me.
I see what you did there.
SpeakeasyShorts takes place at the U.S. Navy Memorial Theater, 701 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW in two parts: Stories, Friday November 14 at 7:30pm, films, Saturday, November 22 at 7:30pm and 9:30pm, purchase tickets in advance at DCShorts.com because these shows will sell out!