A Conversation With Powerhouse Valerie Brandy, And The Force Behind The 2015 Dances With Films “Lola’s Last Letter”

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Lola’s Last Letter

By Ellexia Nguyen

In this year’s Dances With Films festival, I had the honor of interviewing Valerie Brandy. She is the actress, screenwriter, and director of “Lola’s Last Letter”, a feature film which was shot in seven days in a documentary, found-footage style. Valerie’s film is part of the Competition Lineup at the 2015 Dances With Films Festival, which takes place in Hollywood, California.

To give you some insight on the bright and talented Valerie Brandy, as an actress, she had a recurring role on the FX Emmy award-winning series “Justified,” where she played Trixie, a manipulative informant for the villain Limehouse.

As a screenwriter, Valerie penned her first full-length feature “Dying with Daisy,” in 2011, which was a quarterfinalist in the Nicholl Fellowships.

Valerie graduated from UCLA as an Alumni Scholar. While there, she studied Communications. Her fascination with how people communicate with each other can be seen in her latest film “Lola’s Last Letter”. The feature film explores the impact of apologizing and the complexity of human relationships.

“Lola’s Last Letter” will have its world premiere on June 5th at 7:15 p.m. at the famed TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Ellexia Nguyen: How did you hear about Dances With Films Festival?

Valerie Brandy: I heard about Dances with Films from other filmmakers. The festival has a great reputation around Los Angeles, and I’d been told that they provide amazing resources, panels, and an incredible venue.

EN: What made you choose this festival to showcase your film?

VB: Dances with Films was one of my top choices as I looked for the best place to premiere our film, and I feel really fortunate to have been included in this year’s lineup. I had heard such amazing feedback from other filmmakers, and the festival has a reputation for being a “summer camp” in that it provides opportunities to meet other filmmakers and learn about new aspects of the industry. I feel very blessed to have our film included in this year’s competition section, and think it’s incredible to have such a fiercely independent festival right here in LA.

EN: For audiences who haven’t seen the film yet, can you share with us a logline that best summarizes the story and what makes your story unique?

VB: “Lola’s Last Letter” follows Lola—a 22 year old ex con who’s completing her community service by picking up trash on the side of the road—as she makes a video apology letter for a mysterious man named Henry. We don’t know who Henry is or what Lola is apologizing for. Who is Henry, and why can’t Lola let go?

EN: What inspired you to pick this story premise for your film? Was it based on real life experiences?

VB: I was inspired stylistically by my desire to shoot something in a found-footage style, and to do something independently where the lack of sets and special effects actually enhanced the style of the film. Thankfully, the plot was not based on real life experiences, but I was definitely inspired by the idea of apologizing. I wanted to know under what circumstances people were most likely to accept and give apologies. At the end of the day, I think most ideas come from the big “what-if,” and I stumbled onto this one by asking myself, “What if this particular thing happened to me? What if it happened to someone else?”

EN: You graduated from UCLA as an Alumni Scholar in three years, with honors.  What did you study there?

VB: I studied Communications with an emphasis in Mass Communication, which covers everything from media literacy, to entertainment, to advertising. As part of my degree, I took classes that analyzed interpersonal communication, history of television, the impact of advertising, minority inclusion in media, the way in which we communicate with each other nonverbally, and many others.

EN: Was acting your first choice?

VB: I’ve loved acting since I was nine years old. I loved to read, and would find myself reading out loud in the characters’ voices. I started doing community theatre and educational videos in my hometown, and then moved to LA where I began acting professionally. I recurred on FX’s “Justified” as Trixie, and went on to appear in indie films that have screened at over a dozen festivals collectively, from Tribeca to AFI, and now Dances with Films. Acting is always at the core of what I do, whether as a writer or as a director, and for me, it’s the place where everything begins and ends.

EN: Tell us a little bit about your character in the film. What attracted you most to the role?

VB: Lola is an interesting character, in that she’s striving to be someone better than who she is today. I have always thought of Lola as having “Peter Pan” syndrome, in that she hasn’t quite fully matured into an adult, but can’t stay a kid forever. Lola frustrates me at times, but at the end of the day, I love her for being brave enough to try and change who she is into someone better.

EN: Without giving away too much of the ending, what can the moviegoers expect to feel about the “Henry” character?

VB: Lola frequently addresses the camera and Henry directly. Because of the way the film is shot, Henry begins to feel like another character in the story, even when he’s not on camera. Audiences can expect to feel close to Henry, in that they’re experiencing the movie / apology letter with him.

EN: Roughly how many rewrites did you go through before shooting the script?

VB: None. I wrote the script, and then continued to add scenes as we shot. It was a really different experience, in that typically the script is locked down before any shooting begins. It was really freeing and amazing for me as an artist to work in such mutable conditions.

EN: As an actress, do you choose characters that you can relate to or go outside your comfort zone to test yourself?

VB: It’s interesting being an actor, because you’re typically being hired by other people that (hopefully) have an idea of what you can do or where you fit best. I’m usually called in for roles that are young, angry, and not from a privileged background. I love playing those parts, even though I don’t usually fully associate with their personal experiences. I’m not from a wealthy or privileged background either, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have an incredible family life and an amazing Mom, who supported me and made sure I had what I needed to reach my full potential every day. So it’s interesting going in for those parts, in that it’s something I’ve learned to relate to after much research and experience as an actor. I’m really thankful for those opportunities. Most of my work has also mainly been in one-hour drama, but I’m very lucky to have started getting more chances in comedy lately. Those characters are totally different, and typically have some sort of insecurity of wacky trait that makes them interesting to watch. As my career progresses, I would love to start to broaden my horizons and play different kinds of women. Most actresses dread aging, but in an odd way I’m kind of excited for it, because the roles can, if you’re lucky, become more varied in their personality and life experiences.

EN: You wrote, directed, and acted in this film. Which role was the most challenging and why?

VB: I love writing, but it often ends up being the most difficult emotionally because it’s fundamentally a solitary activity. At the end of the day though, it’s all creating, and it all takes a certain amount of energy, dedication, and risk-taking. To be honest, none of it ends up feeling challenging or like work, because I love it all so much and I’m just really thankful to get to do it.

EN: If you had a chance to work with a famous director or actor, who would it be and why?

VB: Meryl Streep. Because she’s perfect. Aaahhh …..  she’s so perfect. I would love to work with her either as an actor or a director. Basically I just want to be in the same room as her so I can breathe the same air.

EN: What message do you want the audience to take away from this film?

VB: I would love for the audience to leave the theatre feeling more forgiving, more willing to accept apologies. I would also love for them to leave feeling motivated to apologize. Finally, I want the audience to take away the sense that we all have things that we’re  trying to fix about ourselves, things that we’re working on every day. You never know what  demons someone is fighting, what secret mistakes they’re trying to overcome.

EN: What’s your next project?

VB: I’m currently adapting a young adult novel called “The Summer of Naked Swim Parties,” which I’m also attached to direct. It’s set in 1970s Santa Barbara (which is coincidentally my hometown), and it’s a female sexual coming-of-age story. It’s both funny and sad, and I’m excited to work on a project that has so much heart and is so relatable for many women. [TAOMR]

Lola’s Last Letter 

Director: Valerie Brandy