INTERVIEW WITH JESS BATZLI - WRITER OF LITTLE ANNA
Third-grade teacher Anna Wheeler receives a new student with her same first and last name, triggering eerie similarities and traumatic memories when the girl’s father fails to pick her up from school.
Firstly, can you tell us a little about Little Anna? What it’s about and how did you come up with the idea?
To me, Little Anna is, more than anything, a ghost story. Miss Wheeler has had this horrible experience of losing her father at a young age, which she’s been trying to push out of mind for a long time. She feels abandoned and alone, and so when a possibly similar thing is happening to another little girl, especially a girl who seems so much like her, she wants to protect Anna from that same pain… but she can’t, really, because realistically she doesn’t know how things will turn out. With Anna having all this cosmic awareness and all the rumination on life after death within the context of Ancient Egypt, Miss Wheeler starts to feel a presence she hasn’t really felt before. Maybe she’s not alone, and maybe she never was. It’s meant to be both disturbing and strangely comforting at the same time. The idea was borne from thinking about what I’d say to my younger self if I had a chance to meet her – my father’s not dead, but he’s pretty much dead to me, so I wanted to use that specific relationship as a personal through-line. The first version of the script was something I wrote and pitched with a director as a thesis concept for my MFA at the American Film Institute. It was approved for thesis, but the director eventually decided he didn’t want to make the movie and chose to go with something else. He told me if I wanted to move ahead with the concept and change the script to make it my own, he was cool with that… so I did!
What made you want to enter it into the Short Film Fund?
I was really upset at first when my thesis director decided not to go ahead with this project. Thesis films aren’t required for graduation for Screenwriting fellows at AFI, so I was kind of just quietly brushed aside and he got to go on and make his own thing that represented him. It took me a long time to get over it. I wanted that same privilege to make a film that really spoke to me and that I could be proud of, and I felt like that chance was kind of taken away from me. I’ve been working at the script ever since (~fall 2017). In making it myself, my biggest hurdle by far was securing a budget, since I don’t have wealthy family or particularly well-connected friends like lots of filmmakers I know do. My entire fundraising plan was basically to enter contests and try to win some money. Honestly, I still can’t believe that actually worked.
How did you feel when you found out that you were our second-placed winner?
It was the first time that the possibility of making the film became reality for me. I know the script is good – professional writers are always saying that you can be sure your script is good when everyone who reads it tells you they love it. Seems obvious, but it’s much harder to achieve than it sounds. I’ve been getting overwhelmingly positive feedback on this script for a while now, but like I said, the money was the hardest part, and I had just made finals in another shorts contest where I didn’t wind up placing. I thought for sure the same thing would happen with Shore Scripts, so when I got the email that I was one of the winners, it felt very affirming for me, and very exciting, like a big step forward and a new thing to focus my energy on in 2021.
Are you looking to direct Little Anna?
I have always imagined that Little Anna would represent my first “real” directing effort. My previous directing attempts have either been casual or fraught with trauma, and I had pretty much given up the thought of trying it again until the script for Little Anna came along. I’ve struggled in the past to be the one at the helm, content to sit back and let others call the shots, especially with some prior negative experiences associated with me standing in the spotlight, but I’ve grown a lot as a person over the past few years in terms of self-confidence, and I really think I’m ready to step into my own point of view as an artist and be the one in charge. It would be very difficult for me to give the script to someone else to interpret; I’ve just spent so much time at this point thinking about how I would direct it that I struggle to see how anyone else could. I’m not saying I wouldn’t ever let it go, but that would be really tough.
Do you want to develop the script further? If so, what will you look to change?
I don’t really think the script needs major changes at this point, but I do think there are certain ways to mitigate production costs, like combining locations and shortening certain sequences. I’ve already played around with condensing the script a bit with production in mind, but I feel like the emotional story is pretty much there. That said, I’m always open to ideas.
What do you feel will be your biggest challenge in terms of getting your script off the paper and onto film?
Definitely Little Anna herself. I have lots of experience with kids in general, so I can’t foresee a specific problem directing a child vs. an adult, but finding the right little girl to play this part will be crucial in how the film turns out. It’s by far the task I find most daunting.
Do you think about the practicalities of filming when you write? If so, how has that changed your writing process, or have you always thought that way?
I normally don’t start writing a script that way unless it’s a specific aspect of the project that I’m working on. Usually, I don’t think at all about parameters when I’m just writing something for myself. I think it’s always better to go full-out and figure out how to pull it back once you know what kind of budget you’re working with and what you can accomplish. Something that was really emphasized at AFI in terms of production was working with your entire team to mold the script – I want to hear my producer’s ideas, my cinematographer’s ideas, the editor’s ideas. I might be in charge as director, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll always have the hands-down best idea. Other team members might know how to pull something off that I don’t, or they could think of a better way to get the same idea across. That’s why I want to build a killer team around me. Seeing what different people can bring to the table to shape a script into a movie is one of the most exciting things about making a film to me.
I know it’s early stages, but do you have any thoughts/preferences on camera format, aspect ratio, crew, location, and anything else for the production?
I have been discussing ideas for camera with my friend Lauren Guiteras, an accomplished cinematographer whose first feature was just selected for Sundance. She’s told me she’d really like to shoot the film if I’m going to be the one directing it, and I trust Lauren completely, but as of this point we’ve mostly been talking about look and feel and less about technical specifics. References include things like The Sixth Sense and The Invisible Man (2020) – lots of floating camera, low-angle closeups, and static wide shots… basically whatever we can do to get the visuals to underscore this increasing idea of an extra presence in the room, something that the camera sees that we can’t. I want to highlight the mystery and the eerie feeling of what’s going on, and as Lauren pretty much exclusively shoots drama and horror, I think she’s the perfect person to help me meld the two. She also knows tons of people and would have no problem pulling in a talented camera crew. I currently still do not have a producer locked in on the project, although I’ve gotten some recommendations from friends and have reached out to a few different people I already know.
Where, in an ideal world, would you like to shoot Little Anna?
I had mentioned to Dave that I was thinking about shooting in my hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. I think it could add a deeply personal layer to shoot in places I know well and grew up in, but I’m torn about the practicalities of doing such a thing within my budget. I have a friend who’s offered to draw up a dummy budget for me, just to compare the pros and cons of shooting in St. Paul vs. LA. For example, if I can get my elementary school to let me shoot there at a low rate, does that make up the cost of having to fly out and house key production members and actors for a few days? I don’t know the answer yet. I do know there are things that are infinitely easier to accomplish in LA than in St. Paul, but I can’t shake the idea of making a film inside my former elementary school. I just think that would be so cool and would make the film feel really special.
What are your aspirations for the film once it’s completed? Certain film/festivals? Help with getting a feature off the ground, etc?
I definitely intend to submit the film to as many festivals as I possibly can. While I don’t think there’s anything menacing about the story, per se, I do want to make sure the eerie, otherworldly aspect is at the forefront – horror-adjacent, if you will. Getting selected for a female-driven genre festival like Etheria would be a dream. As an offshoot of that, I want the film to be a calling card for me and really jumpstart my career, helping me to secure management and hopefully start taking meetings, selling my stuff, and making more films. I’ve noticed that most of the directors I know have transitioned to writing their own scripts even if they weren’t doing so before (and in some cases when they didn’t even want to). From what I’ve seen among my peers, it’s much easier to get a writing job if you’re a writer/director than it is if you’re just one of the two. I’ve been working the same dead-end part-time job for three years since I graduated, trying to figure out how to get in the door, and Little Anna feels like more momentum than I’ve ever had to turn film into a legitimate career for me and never look back. Transitioning to making my living solely as a filmmaker is what I really want most.
Do you have any advice for upcoming screenwriters who are either looking to direct their own material, or find a producer/director for their short script?
First, I’d say trust your instincts. Not only is that a large part of directing, but it’s a large part of pulling together a team, too. If you get bad vibes from someone, ask around about them from other people they’ve worked with. More than likely, you were getting those vibes for a reason. You don’t have to trust everyone, but you definitely need to trust the people you’re working closely with. It’s important to be able to acknowledge that just because you’re the writer or the director doesn’t mean you always have the best idea in the room. Taking in others’ notes and filtering out which ones are helpful and which aren’t is a skill in itself. Listening to and actually considering suggestions from others will only better your work, and it will make the people you’re working with feel more invested in your project.
Are there any lessons you’ve learned from your previous projects that will help you going forward with making Little Anna?
I hesitate to get too specific about what went wrong with my (unfinished) undergrad short film, just because it was nearly ten years ago at this point and it feels weird to get into personal stuff here. I guess what I’ll say is an echo of my answers to previous questions: I’ve learned how to trust my own judgment and lean less on others to make key decisions about my work. I can listen to and learn from them, but at the end of the day it’s my project, and it ultimately falls on me to make sure it turns out the way I want it to. Delegating doesn’t mean relinquishing control altogether. In the past I’d probably roll my eyes while saying something like this, but I genuinely believe now that you get what you allow yourself to have. In a life context, that means figuring out who has your back and who’s worth your time and energy. In a filmmaking context, it means knowing the ins and outs of every aspect of your film and understanding the intentions and implications behind every move and every choice. I never again want to give anyone more power over me than I have over myself, either personally or professionally. I’ve just learned, in general, to dig deeper and care more.
Is there anything else we’ve neglected to ask that might be worth mentioning?
Oh, I think I’ve probably said plenty by now.