Making Pictures Out of Life
The most important qualities a film director can have, according to SJ Chiro ’87, are “an opinion, a point of view, and something urgent that you need to say.
Chiro and freelance producer Erik Holmberg ’86 returned to Bennington College this autumn to meet with current students interested in drama, film, and TV. They presented screenings of their work and host a forum that spanned “From Indie Film to the Golden Age of Television.”
“It was so exciting to be with students,” said Chiro. “I felt a rush of energy and goodwill from them. It was fun to meet with them and very inspiring.”
While Chiro was a student at Bennington, she studied drama and French literature. Though she never directly studied film, her experiences at the College provided a roundabout path to her later career.
“I came to Bennington knowing I wanted to study theatre, and I never wavered from that,” said Chiro. “While other people went on trips to New York for the weekend, I spent my life in VAPA, but I loved it so much.”
During her time at Bennington, Chiro participated in study abroad programs to both Paris and London. Her love of French literature and culture led her to a love of French film, which was deepened her overseas trips.
“After I finished the Paris program, I took a term off and stayed,” said Chiro. “In Paris at the time, there was a cinema in every little neighborhood. On any given day, there were hundreds of films of all kinds playing: not just blockbusters, but also older films, foreign films. There was so much to see, and I took advantage of it.”
Chiro’s exposure to these films became a fruitful cultural education, affecting how she thought about the medium and its storytelling potential.
“The Paris program was probably how I came to film. I don’t know if I would have had I not taken that opportunity,” said Chiro.
The connections Chiro made in the world of theatre also influenced her later film career. She spent a Field Work Term interning at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Years later, while Chiro was searching for a sound designer for her first feature film Lane 1974, a friend referred her to a designer named Jim LeBrecht.
“Jim happened to be someone I’d met during my Field Work Term at Berkeley Rep, and we ended up working together again so many years later in film,” said Chiro. “You never know what is going to happen down the road, which people are going to play a role in your life so many years later.”
Connections made at Bennington, however, tend to carry a lasting legacy. After graduation, Chiro moved to Seattle, WA, with fellow graduates Julia Prud’homme '87 and Chris Mack ’87 with the intention of starting a theatre company of their own.
“One month after we got to Seattle, however, we met this group of people who had already started the theatre we were interested in making,” said Chiro.
The company was Annex Theatre, and Chiro stayed with the organization for years, eventually becoming the artistic director in the early 1990s.
“It wasn’t until 1994 that I realized I wanted to make film, and I had a strange trajectory getting there,” said Chiro.
In film, you can find pictures in life, in nature.
SJ Chiro '87
Chiro first considered attending film school at USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles. Because of the school’s selectivity, her friends in the industry encouraged her to apply a year in advance.
“They said, ‘Nobody gets in on the first chance, so if you want to go in two years, you’d better apply this year and get it rolling,’” said Chiro. “So I applied, and to my surprise, I got in on the first go round.”
However, the timing wasn’t right for Chiro. Instead, she decided “to take the money I would have spent in film school and make my own film.”
That film became her 2006 debut short Little Red Riding Hood, which garnered awards for Best Live Action Short at Children’s Film Festival Seattle and Best Cinematography at the San Francisco Women’s Film Festival.
Chiro’s many connections in theatre paid off yet again as she learned how to get creative and scrappy on her independent film’s shoestring budget.
“Film, like theatre, is not a solitary work,” said Chiro. “It’s collaborative, so you need to know people who are willing to believe in your vision. Luckily, I had that in spades because I’d worked in the theatre community for so long. I reached out to my friends—designers, actors, and even friends who made food—and making that first film became a joyful experience.”
With her debut film, Chiro also discovered a newfound love of directing.
“I didn’t like directing for theatre, but I love directing for film,” said Chiro. “In theatre, you’re usually limited to one room, and you’re making pictures in that space. That wasn’t my forte. However, in film, you can find pictures in life, in nature. That is stronger to me.”
As she progressed into larger projects, Chiro observed that, though considerations of money, investors, and staffing increase for a full-length film, core skills remain.
“If anything, with feature films, you have to be more flexible, more creative, and more on your toes,” said Chiro. “My first short film was on my timeline; I was trying something out, so the pressure wasn’t really there. Though there’s a lot more pressure with a feature film, you can’t let it get to you. You have to keep doing your work.”
Chiro’s latest project, slated for a 2020 release, is a film adaptation of East of the Mountains, based on the book by David Guterson and starring Emmy Award winner Tom Skerritt.
For aspiring directors interested in following in her footsteps, Chiro emphasizes the importance of work ethic, flexibility, and a love for other people.
“You need to be able to think on your feet quickly to find creative solutions because there are always going to be problems,” said Chiro. “They may be problems you’re afraid would happen or things you never dreamed would happen, but either way, they’re going to happen. You just need to be ready to confront them with a positive attitude and a willingness to get creative.”
By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer