“True art should have no rules.”
This mantra, uttered by a character from Jennifer Sharp’s film “Una Great Movie” who hails from the village, is not just a one-off statement; it’s the fundamental theme of the film itself and of Sharp’s vision when writing, directing, acting and editing the film over the past few years.
In fact, Sharp told The News in an interview last week, “Una Great Movie,” which was released digitally via Amazon this month, has truly been in the works for nearly two decades.
It all started after Sharp studied acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Sharp said it was difficult to find compelling and challenging acting roles. Eager to try something new, Sharp wrote and directed a short film to stretch his dramatic muscles.
“And I was like, ‘Oh, this is where I belong – behind the camera, not in front,'” Sharp said.
After graduating from Tisch and realizing that filmmaking was where her creative heart lay, Sharp visited a remote island in Mexico in 1999. From the moment she set foot on shore, she declared, she knew the island was her muse.
“Six months later, I moved back there and wrote my first screenplay there,” she said.
Sharp said she made a host of friends on the island and told them all, “I’m going to make a movie here someday.”
It ended up taking a little longer than expected.
In the years that followed, Sharp worked – and continues to work – in the film industry as a production designer, art director and editor, mostly on independent films, but also on corporate projects. She also teaches directing, producing and production design at the New York Film Academy.
All the while she was writing scripts for feature films, including revisions to the original screenplay she had written in Mexico. She sent her work to agents for review, but received rejection after rejection.
As of 2016 – more than 16 years after her initial declaration on the island – Sharp had still not returned to make her film.
“I had hoped someone would buy it or produce it, and realized that wasn’t the case – I had to do it myself,” said Sharp.
This realization was discouraging. She would have to rework her script to be manageable with an independent film budget. She should also find this budget herself. Sharp said that in addition to fundraising, she financed the film with credit cards.
But she also knew that financing the film herself meant she had full creative control. With this budget, she could make the kind of decisions that were being denied her by all the rejections she had received over the years. She could choose black and Mexican actors as the main and supporting actors of the film.
And she could include her friends on the island in the production of the film she had promised herself to make so many years ago.
“Una Great Movie” – “una” being the Spanish word for “a” – is truly a movie within a movie. The audience begins by following the journey of Susan (Numa Perrier), a woman who visits an island in Mexico to rekindle a connection with a love lost 10 years after the flame was extinguished. Susan wanders the island, meets locals and tries to find the man she once knew.
After a few scenes, however, this narrative is interrupted by a voiceover: “I’m losing interest,” the voice says. “Who is she?”
The movie cuts to an office, where an executive in a suit tells another woman — screenwriter Zoe (JoNell Kennedy), the story’s other main character — that it’s “not a great movie.”
“We have to be able to identify with her – give her a job,” insists the leader. “Make her a barista!”
And suddenly we’re back with Susan on the island, where she says to a local, “I’m a barista. It’s my job.”
This device lasts for the duration of the film: as Zoe receives more and more advice from screenwriters, film industry executives, and her own friends, Susan’s story changes. Actors are replaced, characters are added, and some characters’ motivations change.
The gamble goes hand in hand with one of the film’s underlying themes: the difficulty of staying true to one’s artistry in a system where any work will be subject to the whims of agents, producers and studios. Sharp said it was also a practical choice, however.
“I needed a plan B because I was using all my friends and you can’t always rely on them,” she said. “So if someone doesn’t show up and I need a different actor, I might have an agent say, ‘I don’t like the idea of that kind of actor’ or whatever. whatever, and then it changes.”
Sharp added that she ultimately didn’t really need Plan B, as all of the friends she recruited were excited to be on the project. Except for one scene, in which an actor backed out and had to be recast, everyone showed up. At this point, the film’s thematic backbone — and Sharp’s own experiences — were guiding the story anyway.
“I didn’t even know this movie was about me until I saw the rough cut,” Sharp said. “But that’s 100% my story.”
Much of the advice Zoe receives about her script in the film, Sharp said, has been taken almost verbatim from the rejections from agents or studios she has received in response to her own writing over the years.
“I keep all my refusals,” she said. “All the rules that people bombard you with – ‘It won’t sell because of this, it can’t do that, you can’t do that’ – all of that was told to me, and so that’s my way of saying, ‘Stop with the rules. If it works, it works.’
Sharp herself appears in the film as Jenny, who is both a friend of Zoe and ultimately written into Zoe’s script as Susan’s friend. Sharp said she chose herself “by default.”
“I actually didn’t want to play in it, but when you do everything yourself, you kind of have to do it,” she said.
Jenny’s character arc runs parallel and at times in contrast to Susan’s. She eventually falls in love with the island and the people who live there, spending scenes talking in bars and on the beaches with the locals, philosophizing about the meaning of life. It also becomes somewhat radicalized by the plight of the islanders against the encroachment of corporate and tourist interests.
Of course, Jenny is also a tourist, as Sharp pointed out. Much like Sharp herself, drawn to the island — which she said she was loath to name in press events for “Una Great Movie” — by stories she heard growing up in Yellow Springs.
Sharp said she was close friends with the local Bieri family in her youth and often spent time at the dinner table listening to naturalist George Bieri talk about her own time on the unnamed island as a teenager. He described a fishing community untouched by cars and development, where locals swam with stingrays and still caught fish with spears. He would not, however, tell his family or Sharp the name of the island.
“He didn’t want it to get touristy,” Sharp said. “He was like, ‘This place is heaven and I won’t be responsible if anyone goes there.'”
Eventually, however, Sharp said Bieri took her family to visit the island on a trip to Mexico, and the secret was out — at least, among the family and, later, Sharp herself.
The island has become a tourist attraction anyway, Sharp said. When she first visited in 1999, she said tourists were still quite rare. She was offered land on the island for around $10,000 – which she didn’t buy, not only because she couldn’t afford it at the time, but because she felt, in as a non-islander, that she “didn’t do it”. t deserves” to. Now, she says, that same land has a price tag of millions.
But Sharp added that while there is some sadness in this kind of change coming to the island, she also felt it was, in some ways, inevitable.
“I look at LA and other cities, and they were all beautiful and natural,” she said. “It’s humanity – it’s what we do.”
And for islanders, she said, coming to terms with and adapting to tourism and corporate influence is often a matter of survival — another theme that winds through “Una Great Movie.” Survival is what drives the film to its eventual, perhaps unconventional ending, though that ending isn’t spoiled here.
“Una Great Movie” itself survived, Sharp said, because she continued to believe in it, even though the movie industry didn’t. Reflecting on the film’s ending — and the many rejections she received over the years — Sharp said she hopes her work will finally find an audience that also believes in it.
“Let’s just say there are open endings all around,” she said. “And that’s life, isn’t it?”
“Una Great Movie” is now available for digital rental or purchase through Amazon.