Madison Park’s Sudeshna Sen did the unthinkable last year: She quit her job as a university professor to write her first screenplay and produce her first short, “Julia’s Farm.”
Sen was a professor for many years, teaching Japanese culture, literature and language at universities, including the University of Washington and Seattle University. She had always had a love for film and often included the medium in her courses.
When she turned 40, she found herself wondering, “Is this really all I want? What am I leaving behind as a legacy?” So she started writing.
First, it was food and travel blogs. Then it was the screenplay, which would eventually become “Julia’s Farm.”
Sen quit her job and took a three-week film course. John Jeffcoat, a director whose previous success, “Outsourced,” Sen had admired, was a guest lecturer in the class. Sen connected with Jeffcoat and eventually began working with him and his wife on her film, “My Last Year with the Nuns.”
Sen wanted to create a screenplay that had two female lead characters, inspired by her favorites from the film “Thelma & Louise.” Her film is a crime drama, but it’s much more about the relationship between main characters Jenny and Julia.
“Julia’s Farm” is dark, emotional and hopeful, Sen said.
Sen discovered a new thrill of hearing writers read her lines when they did the initial script read through.
“It’s thrilling and super-satisfying,” she said.
A local production
Many of the shots for “Julia’s Farm” were filmed inside a one-bedroom apartment on 43rd Avenue in Madison Park and a travel agency in the neighborhood. Everyone graciously welcomed the 10-person crew, Sen said.
The film shot over three days at the beginning of May. The crew’s availability and a narrow window of good weather before the major shooting season in Seattle gave them the push they needed to squeeze the production into that weekend.
The crew worked 12-hour days each day. Despite the crunch, the production was successful, and Sen got all the shots she needed and more. She attributes the success to the professional experience of the crew, who kept the shoot creative by suggesting different possibilities and kept them on schedule and on track.
“I was lucky I had great people,” she said. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened.”
If Sen were to do another production like this, she expects that she would space out the schedule a little more, to not burn out the crew.
Once you start shooting, there’s no going back, so the initial shoot was nerve-wracking for Sen. Not only had she never written a screenplay before, but she’d never directed. She had hoped Jeffcoat would take the reigns, admitting she “shamelessly begged” him to, but because of his schedule, she was put in charge and he became the director of photography.
Sen had good luck throughout the filming process. “I had Seattle’s A-team of production,” she said. Through her connections, Sen was able to assemble a cast and crew that were very experienced; in fact, she was the only rookie on the team.
Kate Witt, who has been heavily involved with Seattle’s theater scene since she moved here in the mid-‘90s, plays the film’s lead, Julia. A little more than a year ago, she decided to explore film and started working on independent film sets throughout Seattle.
Working with such an experienced group of people, Sen learned to “shut up and let the magic happen,” she said. There were some takes where the creativity would fly and Sen would just see where it went, often with unexpected but promising results.
Sen relished in the feedback. When the production started, she told the crew that she had a thick skin and not to hold back with their honest feedback.
“I find writers are too precious about their words,” she said.
Witt took a lot of time to prepare to become Julia, and when the film wrapped, she found herself missing the character. Julia is smart and caring, but it takes a little while to get to know her, Witt said. She was drawn by the character’s complexity and her relationship with her best friend, Jenny.
“She’s not a stock character,” Witt said.
Witt always hopes audiences who see her work can find something they can connect with. But with this firm in particular, she hopes people see two “interesting, complex, non-stereotypical women and their friendship, and hopefully, they root for them,” she said.
It was important to Sen to write complex female characters who are real and tough. She hopes people think the story is a well-written one about women they can relate to.
With this first foray into film and writing, Sen learned to make interesting choices. “Don’t be afraid to make unconventional choices and listen, and you’ll learn an enormous amount,” she said.
There was a lot riding on her decisions as a first-time director, but it was important to her to make those risky but worthwhile decisions.
This fall, Sen will start submitting the 17-minute film to festivals. She plans to have it completed by mid-September and may host private screenings before it is unveiled to larger audiences.
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