Life in Color Katharine Emmer

SXSW: Life in Color Writer, Director, Editor and Star Katharine Emmer

One of the impressive debuts to come out of this year’s SXSW is Life in Color, the story of a man and woman who, paired through some unusual circumstances, begin to work with one another to pull together their respective lives. All the more impressive is the fact that Life in Color marks the directorial debut of lead Katharine Emmer, who also wrote, edited and produced the romantic comedy drama, shot on a microbudget in Los Angeles. sat down with Emmer in Austin to chat about her experiences making the film, including the many hurdles and many hats it took to bring Life in Color to the screen. Check out Emmer’s story below and check back in the days to come for more interviews with the talented men and women behind all sorts of different SXSW debuts. 

CS: How did “Life in Color” begin for you?

Katharine Emmer: I began in Minneapolis in 1983! (laughs) It began because I was getting frustrated. I moved to Los Angeles eight years ago. I had this idea of what I wanted. I studied acting at NYU. I grew up in theater in Minneapolis. I take my craft very seriously, so I figured I’d just move to Los Angeles and begin acting all the time. Which didn’t happen. I was introduced to the world of low-budget filmmaking and I produced a short that had nothing to do with the feature. My boyfriend had said, “Why don’t you take the short and all the work that goes into making the short and just extend it by 24 days? Then you’ll have a feature.” So with blind naivete, I thought, “Oh, okay! That’s easy!” I sat down and I wrote the script relatively quickly. Then I took a little under six months to fine tune and to get feedback from people that I respected and admired. I put it together and wrote it for my friends.

CS: The production value is particularly remarkable for something you’re referring to as microbudget.

Emmer: We had a little write up on TheWrap just before we did our Indiegogo campaign. I think that, from that, our DP John Honoré reached out. He was amazing and had a Red Epic and we had next to no money to offer him. But he asked for the script and I sent it and he loved it. He really wanted to do it and I was so, so lucky. He has shot a ridiculous number of features for his age. I think he’s in his lower 30s and he’s very experienced and able to shoot on the fly. Every piece of equipment we used fit inside his SUV. We didn’t have a truck, although we wanted one. We couldn’t even afford to rent a truck, so it was bare bones.

CS: There’s a real sense of emotional honesty in the film and I’m curious to know how, in the writing process, you know when you’ve managed to hit that proper tone.

Emmer: I’m not very good at a facade or anything false. If anything, I tend to say too much or to be too honest. I had trouble at first manipulating things into not-the-truth. I wrote what I knew. I had never gone to film school. I decided to, instead of studying up and making a film about something that I know nothing about, to just write what I know and talk about subjects that are familiar with. I also wrote for Adam [Lustick] and Josh [McDermitt], who are my friends, specifically. I could hear their cadence. I’ve heard writers talk about this, but to actually experience it made it really easy, actually, to write dialogue. I could hear them in my head.

CS: Having come into filmmaking through acting, has your preference for acting, writing or directing changed at all?

Emmer: My first love is acting and I will always love it. Even after this experience, I still love it.

CS: “Even after”?!

Emmer: (laughs) I know! Wearing so many hats, so don’t get to focus as much on just the acting. I think that’s a good thing for actors, though. Sometimes you focus too much and you forget that the important things are just about being in the moment and knowing what your action is or your want and going for it. Sometimes, if you’re overly analytic about things, it actually becomes a very heady performance. You’re stifling impulses and you’re judging yourself. It was actually very freeing and wonderful for me from an acting point of view to not have time to really analyze. I could just go for it and have an impulsive performance as opposed to a calculated one.

CS: Is the final film very close to how you initially envisioned it?

Emmer: Yes and no. To be honest, because I had never done this, I watched a ton of low-budget films. I knew what they sort of all looked like. I didn’t really have a specific vision, though, of what ours was going to turn out to be, for better or worse. But I’m very happy with it. I really learned that filmmaking is a work in progress. Even when it’s out and people are seeing it on the big screen, you can still change it if you want to. I know some filmmakers do. They have cuts that come out years later. In that respect, I feel my personality likes for things to be finished. The nature of filmmaking as an ongoing process was a little challenging to embrace at first. I think I did, though, I’m definitely happy and proud of it. I didn’t get that way until everything was colored and the score was put in place and mixed and everything. It’s definitely a feat that I’m proud of.

CS: I know a lot of actors have a hard time watching themselves. Is it tricky to deal with yourself as a performer from the director’s chair?

Emmer: Cutting it, I was sort of desensitized just because I had just seen it so much. I also knew, though, that the second you start analyzing yourself and critiquing, whether it’s your acting or how you look, that gets in the way of the greater picture. We all have insecurities. You’re trying to construct a story and you have to think of the macro rather than, “Oh, I don’t like how I look there” or “I don’t like that thing with me teeth”. Whatever it is. I tried, throughout the whole process, to service the story as a whole rather than be vain and just focus on myself. That being said, what I learned about this process is that I loved editing because you do have so much control of what the audience will ultimately see. I also love acting and the study of what makes an honest performance. I sort of went, in constructing everyone’s performance in the piece, and looked at it as protecting each actor and not trying to use takes where they had a thing they fall back on if they fell out of the moment. I’m quite proud of how that piece of it turned out.

CS: What would you say was the biggest challenge that you didn’t see coming?

Emmer: Oh boy. The answer that comes to mind is how much work it would be. People tell you how much work it’s going to be, but until you actually do it, there’s a way to intellectually understand that and then a way to viscerally understand that. Also, there’s quite a few things that come up that you just can’t anticipate or even be prepared for. That’s why it’s so important to be prepared for what you can be prepared for. One example was one of our locations. Just about all the locations I shot in for free because I knew the people. A lot were people’s houses that they donated to the film. We were looking for a condo for Adam’s apartment and it turned out that it equaled six shooting days. I stumbled upon, in my neighborhood, an open house of a condo for sale. I talked to the realtor and she talked to the seller. We agreed on a very small fee and it was set. We had a contract in place and, I’m not even kidding, eight hours before when we were supposed to start shooting, we lost it. When I secured it a month out, I said, “Even if it sells between now and the time we have to shoot, will we still have it for these six days?” She said, “Absolutely! Escrow usually takes 45 days.” Then the night before we were supposed to start shooting, I got a call from the real estate agent. She said, “I’m sorry, but the condo has been sold.” It was a million dollar condo and they paid for it in cash. The escrow actually closed in four days! Why she didn’t tell me this on the first day, I’m not sure. Maybe she needed to make sure it was legitimate cash and not counterfeit, but you can’t believe the incredible panic that set in. Who does that?! It didn’t even have an extraordinary view or anything. It was just some condo that was for sale. We had to scramble and, luckily, were able to find a place. Stuff like that you can’t possibly anticipate.

CS: So you may have a millionaire nemesis out there?

Emmer: (laughs) I’m not going to say who they are, but they are a band. I won’t reveal their name, but I made sure to tell my friends, “Think twice before you buy their next album!”

CS: You mentioned that you wanted to start with something you knew. Looking forward, do you know what you’d like your next project to be? Is there a movie in you that’s very out there?

Emmer: Yes! I have an idea for one that I definitely want to put to paper. It’s a very different genre and I think it’s a tough genre to tackle. Now that I’ve got the confidence of having one underneath me, I’m looking forward to it. It’s a subject matter that I really believe in, so it’s going to be fun!


Marvel and DC