By David Llewellyn
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2nd September 2019

INTERVIEW: SPARKMAN CLARK

Sparkman Clark is the writer, director and star of the film 'Greta', which is shortlisted for this year's Iris Prize. She talked to the Iris Blogger about mental health, rom-coms and New York City.

There are picture descriptions for the visually impaired at the end of this post.

IRIS BLOGGER:  How did the film come into being?

SPARKMAN CLARK:         Greta started as an incomplete short film script that wasn’t going anywhere – ha-ha-ha!

It wasn’t until my Director of Photography, Edgar Velez, bumped into me as we were walking to work one morning that something started to happen. At the time, he was an Assistant Camera and I was a PA on NBC’s The Blacklist. He mentioned that he wanted to make a film during the show’s summer hiatus and be the Director of Photography. He said he missed being creative and heard I wrote screenplays and wanted to direct someday. I looked at him and said, “You’re right. And I do have a screenplay for a short film that I want to make… I still need to finish it, but how about I send it to you when I’m done?” He said, “Let’s do it.”

That one moment made me pick that script back up, get back to writing, and find a way to finish the story. When we finished shooting Season 5 of The Blacklist, Edgar and I got to work on making Greta happen.

IB:           As someone with Major Depressive Disorder, the first thing that struck me was the film’s authentic depiction of mental health. So much of it – zoning out in the shower, the difficulty of writing a two-sentence email or filling in an application form – was familiar, mainly because it acknowledges the absurdity of it. Was the comic approach a conscious decision, or did that just happen organically while you were developing it?

SC: It was both! It happened organically because, when it comes to mental illness, I’ve been there. I’ve been unable to write an email because it seemed impossible. I’ve been unable to eat because food tasted like dirt to me. I once came home from work, laid down on my floor, and actually stayed there until my mother came and picked me up off of it! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You see, even though what I went through was serious, humour and laughing at myself was (and still is) my only way of dealing with my mental health problems. Eventually, I lifted out of my dark place in my own way. But I knew that humour was the only way I could get somebody, anybody, else to understand what it is truly like. Because going on and on and on about your depression and how it’s the worst and how life is miserable to someone who doesn’t understand it is… well…. depressing.

But! What I’m happiest about…. is that my film struck you. If I can help someone with MDD feel seen, even for a moment… or help someone who knows someone with MDD understand their suffering even marginally better… then so far as I am concerned, I have done my job.

IB:           Greta has privilege in spades, and the film is also very good at depicting how self-absorbed depression can make you. Was it a challenge making a potentially unsympathetic, unlikeable protagonist both sympathetic and likeable, without softening the edges?

SC:          I love that you asked this question! Greta has it so easy doesn’t she? She has a family that loves her and pays her rent. She has a job. She lives in New York City, the “Greatest City” in the world! Why can’t she see how good she has it? What’s her problem? Why can’t she snap out of it? Answer: Because you can’t “snap out” of depression.

And to take it a step further, in Greta’s case, she is a bisexual woman, trapped in a closet that she cannot even see. Because of that closet, she hates herself. Everyone in the LGBTQ community understands what that’s like. And from what I understand, depression is what happens when you hate yourself. Even when it’s just part of yourself.

It wasn’t difficult at all to make this potentially very unlikeable protagonist likeable, because even though there’s so much about Greta that is unlikeable, at the same time, she’s hilarious! Even though she’s depressed she’s still quirky and weird. She’s feisty enough to chuck coffee at a car that honks at her, yet kind enough to let a perfect stranger into her life. Under all of those rough edges, under the depression and selfishness, is a girl who is kind, who can love… who is alive. Creating Greta as a character was effortless.

Sparkman Clark and Callan Suozzi-Rearic in ‘Greta’

IB:           I hesitate to say that Brooklyn “is a character in its own right”, because that’s a little cliché, but it’s an important element in the film.

SC:          You wanna know what I love most about Brooklyn? It can be seen as so beautiful, and SO hideous at the same time. I’m a filmmaker who loves to make “hideous” look beautiful. When you look at Brooklyn the right way, if you capture it at the right moment, suddenly all that barbed wire, trash, and sub-par street art is gorgeous.

IB:           Could the story have been set anywhere, or was it vital that it be Brooklyn?

SC:          For the purposes of this film it had to be there! Because when you are in a place as dark as clinical depression, you are literally forced to find beauty in the world wherever you can find it.

IB:           And do you think there’s something about New York that lends itself to offbeat romantic comedies? I’m thinking of movies like Annie Hall, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, When Harry Met Sally

SC:          Yes! Do you have any idea how many romantic comedies have been filmed in New York City? Too many! The first big feature film I worked on was Isn’t It Romantic? That city breeds rom-coms! But yes – you are spot on about romantic comedies being filmed in New York City. It’s a romantic place! But it’s also a hell hole at times, so that’s probably why all of those Rom Coms are off-beat. You’ve gotta find love somehow, someway. I guess the same can be said about finding love when you are horribly depressed, which is exactly what Greta has to do.

IB:           And are there any practical difficulties or challenges in making a short film in NYC?

Sparkman Clark

SC:         Between everything being expensive and people being grouchy as a base-line emotion, filmmaking in New York is a challenge, period. We had to rely a LOT on our friends and pulling favours to make this possible. A friend of mine owns Forgotten Works Studio, and he let us build our Therapist Office there. Another friend let us use Gotham Writer’s office space to create “McMeyer Publishing.” Other friends let us throw a mini party in their apartment so that we could get a very short, yet very important 5-second scene! Our crew showed up, and worked their asses off, carrying equipment into parks (that we did not have the authority to shoot in) and then carried it back, in very hot and uncomfortable weather. Not to mention every friend, relative, college professor and long lost family friend that donated money to our Go-Fund me page. All to create this film. They say it takes a village…. believe me, it does. I guess what I’m saying is, without the village behind me, I wouldn’t have stood a chance against the challenges that come with making a no-budget film in New York City.

IB:           Greta feels perfectly self-contained, but can you see yourself expanding it into a feature? What’s next for you?

SC:          You are absolutely correct. Greta is self-contained. I’ve got a TV pilot that I’d like to shoot next, and a feature film screenplay that I am working on for the future. I’m a creative person, so the possibilities are endless. But that TV pilot is next on my list.

Programme 7 | This is America | Cineworld Screen 15 | Fri 11 Oct 10am

Buy tickets for Programme 7 / Buy festival passes

 @sparkmanclark
   @gretatheshort | @sparkmanclark 

Picture Descriptions

  1. Screenshot of the opening credits of ‘Greta’, the title to the right of the screen in small pink letters. In the centre of the frame is Greta, played by Sparkman Clark. She is in bed, lying on her side, asleep, with a feathery pink accessory around her neck.
  2. Greta walks along a street in Brooklyn. It is daytime. She is wearing a large, probably fake fur hat with pom-pommed tassels either side and a light blue denim jacket. She looks peeved and has her hands in her pockets.
  3. Greta talks to her therapist. He’s a middle-aged man, wearing a tweed jacket and brown slacks, blue socks and black shoes.  He sits in a faded yellow armchair. The therapist’s office has bare brick walls painted white, a few cluttered shelves, an antique birdcage and an old desk. There’s a globe on the desk. Greta sits opposite her therapist in a checked or plaid shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. The therapist is taking notes.
  4. Greta and her love interest, April, stand facing one another on the roof of Greta’s apartment building in Brooklyn. In the background is the East River and the skyline of midtown Manhattan. Greta is wearing the probably fake fur hat and jacket mentioned earlier. April has short brown hair and is wearing a patterned scarf and a dark green jacket.
  5. A portrait photograph of Sparkman Clark wearing a multicoloured bearded necklace and a navy blue t-shirt with white stars. She also has a beaded wristband and a pair of headphones slung around her neck. And she has a smile I would describe as whimsical.

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