Rather than waiting around to be discovered as an actress, first-time filmmaker Katharine Emmer took matters into her own hands and created her own breakout opportunity with “Life in Color,” which premieres at South by Southwest on Saturday.
An aspiring actress who studied at NYU alongside her freshman year neighbor Gina Rodriguez, Emmer wrote, directed, produced, edited and stars in “Life in Color” alongside Josh McDermitt, who plays Dr. Eugene Porter on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” The semi-autobiographical film follows a defeated nanny who loses her job and residence thanks to an aimless clown (literally) who then takes her in, leading to a unique friendship built around artistic collaboration and shared financial circumstances.
A year prior to making “Life in Color,” Emmer produced and starred in “The Third Wheel,” an unrelated six-minute short film written and directed by Adam Lustick that helped her prepare for the leap to features. She studied a book about how to write a screenplay in 10 days and hammered out a first draft of “Life in Color” before spending six months shaping the script.
“I wrote it for myself and Josh and Adam to play to our strengths. I loved the idea of these two very different energies that Josh and I brought to these characters. Our own rapport lended itself to these two people.”
The film also features several standup comedians including Fortune Feimster, who is getting her own show on ABC that will be produced by Tina Fey. “I tried to use real comedians and I just let the comics go, though I had to pare a lot down. I gave them an outline of where I wanted things to land but there was plenty of ad-libbing,” said Emmer, a whip-smart 31-year-old redhead with a friendly Minnesota accent.
“I didn’t really know the films made by Lena Dunham or the Duplass brothers so I watched them, along with those made by Brit Marling and Ed Burns, in order to learn about no-budget filmmaking. I thought, “I can do that,” so maybe it was my own blind eagerness or my naivete, but I jumped in with both feet and said, ‘I’m gonna make it or die trying.’”
“The hardest part was not having much money,” said Emmer, who shaped the screenplay to fit her limited budget. “I wrote for locations I knew I could get. The kids in the film are the ones I used to nanny for, and we were able to use their homes so I wouldn’t have to pay for locations. I didn’t have a casting director, so I just wrote parts for people I believed in and thought were talented. There’d be times when there were only four people in the room between the actors and the crew. It was about as bare bones as it gets.”
As a result, Emmer found herself in the role of Renaissance woman, a human Swiss army knife or a jack of all trades.
“All of a sudden I was doing every single role, so the biggest challenge was covering all the bases, from parking to making sure there was toilet paper and Febreze in the bathroom. I would place a food order for lunch for the group, do a take and then buzz up the delivery man, so I was multi-tasking all day [not to mention] acting in the film as well.”
Emmer admitted she may have been naive when she first arrived in Los Angeles with a suitcase packed full of dreams of becoming a famous actress.
“NYU was very nice to me,” said Emmer, who won an artistic achievement award at the Tisch School of the Arts. “I always focused on honing my craft and took great pride in my work ethic and I thought talent alone would be enough, that of course I’d get work in LA. I believed in myself and thought I was capable, and after eight years here, I’ve learned it’s about working the system to your advantage. I’ve never been able to sit still for very long, but I wasn’t able to hone that creative energy until I was inspired to create a platform for myself to be seen and heard.”
Doing that required financing, which like most indie productions, meant turning to crowdfunding.
“When we did Indiegogo, Josh wasn’t a commodity yet. He had shot “The Walking Dead,” but his episodes hadn’t aired yet, so we only raised like $5,000 of our $30,000 goal. We asked people to work below their quotes and my 92-year-old grandmother helped out with what she could, so I made her the executive producer. I nannied throughout the whole experience, so I was taking care of the kids while reshaping the script and making sure the other actors were available. I only took off work the 24 days we shot, and I went back to nannying the very next day. Then we started the editing process, and learning how to edit was amazing because that’s where you shape the film and the performances,” said Emmer, who learned how to use Final Cut Pro for the labor-intensive job.
Emmer describes the film as “pretty autobiographical,” but said it also takes plenty of dramatic license.
“Everyone is playing versions of themselves, so there are facets of me in that character for sure. Both of my parents are alive, but there’s still a sense of isolation after you leave school, because you’re out on your own. I’ve always been very independent, but depression does run in my family and the topics and issues the film raises are definitely things I’ve experienced. I thought for my first film, I might as well talk about what I know.”
Asked to explain the title of the film, Emmer said it was in reference to depression, a common yet rarely discussed problem in Hollywood, where actors are subject to a roller coaster of emotions of various ups and downs in the industry.
“It might be a cliche, but when people talk about depression, they say they see things in black and white, but when the clouds finally do part, things become colorful again,” Emmer said.
Asked what may be the message of the film, Emmer says, “life is better when shared,” though she’s quick to add that she’s in no position to tell people what to take away from it. There’s also a reaffirming message about how it’s never too late to pursue your dreams, something that those who plan on working in Hollywood for the long run would be wise to remember.
While the media loves to celebrate female filmmakers, Emmer said she doesn’t really think of herself in terms of gender.
“I don’t think about my sex for an iota of a second. I really didn’t look at the job like that, I just wanted to focus on the task at hand. I didn’t go to film school, but I think I have an eye for good acting and know what makes a truthful moment. I just wanted to tell the best story possible and get the best performances possible.”
Emmer was subsequently thrilled to be accepted into SXSW’s competitive lineup, even more so because the filmmaking team had no connections with the festival, which programmed the film on its own merits.
“It felt amazing [getting that news]. I feel so proud because we got into SXSW purely on the strength of the film. That’s what was so exciting to me. They picked it up, watched it and felt a connection. It spoke to someone and they enjoyed it,” said Emmer, who introduced herself to festival director Janet Pierson at a recent reception for filmmakers. “I gave her a big hug, and she said it was such a pleasure to accept the film.”
While “Life in Color” was initially conceived as a vehicle to showcase her talents as a performer, Emmer is also eager to get behind the camera again, and she’s looking for both a literary and talent agent.
“I did it to get acting work and representation, but somewhere among the madness and the chaos, I actually enjoyed making the film. My first love is acting but I’d like to make a second film in a completely different genre. I have an idea I’m passionate about that I haven’t seen before.”
“Life in Color” screens Saturday at 11:30 a.m. at Alamo Lamar B; Sunday at 11 a.m. at the Alamo Slaughter; and Thursday at 11:30 a.m. at Alamo Lamar B.