STORMCHASER swept the awards at the February 2020 FEMALE Feedback Film Festival in Toronto. Winner of BEST FILM. BEST PERFORMANCES. BEST CINEMATROGRAPHY
Matthew Toffolo: How did you come up with the idea for this short film? And… What motivated you to make the film?
“He’s a door-to-door ‘door’ salesman,” my friend said.
“A what…?” I thought I’d misheard what her new boyfriend did for a living.
“He lost his job. Now, he sells storm doors, door-to-door.
Our exchange conjured black-and-white images from the Maysles’ documentary, Salesman, about door-to-door bible peddlers in the ‘60s. Surely, this daily grind was a thing of the past. But as I did some digging, I discovered it still exists; and that many contractors targeting weather-torn areas this way are called “storm chasers” — instead of “ambulance chasers” — because of their predatory practices.
This triggered a deep compulsion in me to express my own sardonic commentary on what I’d experienced growing up in small-town Tornado Alley, plus selling incentives as the lone woman in an old-boys’ club: America’s culture of greed, its celebration of bad behavior, and the rise of “disaster capitalism” which preys upon the most vulnerable suffering from man-made and natural catastrophes.
All that eventually gave birth to Bonnie Blue, a down-on-her-luck storm chaser turned naive, door-to-door huckster of roofing, siding and storm doors.
From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?
The idea for STORMCHASER first started as a poem.
One night, while on a scholarship at Squaw Valley Writer’s Conference — where one must produce a poem a day — I wrote “Storm Secrets,” a lyrical narrative featuring a down-on-his luck salesman, Don Stuckey. I remember laughing and gasping as the poem gushed onto the page, taking me by surprise — a blend of my experiences in sales plus fantasy, as well as sardonic social commentary. I thought I’d said my piece. But even after “Storm Secrets” appeared in my poetry collection, MONSOON SOLO: Voices Once Submerged (WordTech Editions, 2012), something about Don and the storyline kept nagging me.
After finishing my first short film, Happy Hour — also based on one of my poems, narrated by Julianne Moore — which explores the memories and complexities of child sexual abuse, frequently and mistakenly deemed a woman’s issue, I wanted to delve into something completely different. Don was still there, knocking on my door. So, I started the screenplay in 2014, while juggling multiple creative projects and working full-time as a Senior Creative Director.
The first drafts focused on Don Stuckey as the unlucky salesman with a latent passion for storm chasing. Bonnie Blue — now the film’s anti-heroine — played a supporting role as Don’s love interest and the secretary of their tyrannical boss, Flip Smyth. The script placed as a finalist and won honorable mentions in several screenwriting contests but called out for something more. Always open to improving projects, when a friend suggested a major rewrite — turn the chaser into a door-to-door ‘door’ saleswoman — I took the challenge.
To start, I simply switched Don and Bonnie’s names, then re-read the script with fresh eyes to see what I could leave the same and what had to change. This made me acutely aware of my own biases about gender roles in the bedroom and boardroom — spurring me to make more conscious, authentic and quirky choices throughout the significant revision process. Ultimately, this intense script-work reaped a unique, complex female protagonist, plus two memorable male leads — with developed arcs — in a taut, timely short screenplay that aims to pack the punch of a feature.
After working on the screenplay on-and-off for about 4 years, I felt the story was strong enough to head into production. That said, even on location while filming and in post-production, I was still doing some rewrites…
How would you describe your short film in two words?
That’s tough. Not sure I can do it in just two words. Hm, maybe… “Metaphoric Storms” or “Disaster Capitalism” or even “Kali Rising.”
What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?
Financing the film. This is usually the biggest obstacles for indie filmmakers — made even tougher if producing a short-form project that generally won’t reap any returns on investment.
What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?
It was informative, inspiring and humbling to hear comments and feelings about the film from a totally objective audience. I was thrilled that both women and men enjoyed the tone and humor of the film, expressing specific personal connections to various characters, while also acknowledging the larger socio-political commentary that’s intentionally embedded in the story. This kind of feedback is invaluable.
Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:
What film have you seen the most in your life?
When I was growing up, my father collected 16mm films which he projected onto a large folding screen in a makeshift “theater” in our house — first, in our living room, then later, upstairs in a spare room, where he built a small projection booth and installed a row of old theater seats from a cinema that was torn down in our town. Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator is a film I’ve seen countless times — it was one of my father’s favorite films and is among my favorites.
You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are you feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?
I think FilmFreeway is a great platform. But it’s tricky sometimes knowing which festivals — beyond the major ones — are truly worth submitting to because the costs add up quickly, and things aren’t always what they seem to be. As an indie creator/filmmaker, it’s important to do research and be smart about developing a festival strategy. More and more, I go with my gut, and really feel into the energy and intention of any given festival. I was impressed by the mission behind the Toronto FEEDBACK Film Festival, and that’s why I submitted.
What song have you listened to the most times in your life?
Hm, not sure about that. It’s probably a classic Prince song, but not sure which one!
What is next for you? A new film?
This January, I directed 3 episodes of Chronicles of a BLEEP Year Old Woman, a comedic indie digital series; we’re currently in post-production on that project. I’m also delving back into writing a memoir project, plus developing a feature-length and a long-form narrative project.