Catherine Eaton on “The Sounding,” Her Film About a Woman Fighting for Her Voice and Freedom

Catherine Eaton is a writer, director, and actor. She was chosen for Tribeca’s Through Her Lens Lab and Grant for her pilot “On the Outs,” and was selected as a Shadowing Director for showrunner Ryan Murphy’s Half Program. Her newest pilot script, “Breaking News,” based on her personal experience working with freelance news crews in conflict zones, was selected for IFP’s Independent Film Week Project Forum. She shares an Emmy with the production team on “The Human Toll of Ethanol” for Bloomberg TV. As an actor, she’s been seen on Broadway, TV, and film, and is currently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. Eaton teaches Screen Directing at Harvard University. “The Sounding” marks her feature directorial debut. It has won two dozen awards on the festival circuit, including four Festival Grand Prizes. Eaton and “The Sounding” are the subject of a branded mini-doc by Stella Artois currently running on Hulu.

“The Sounding” opens on digital platforms October 20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

CE: Liv, after years of silence, begins to weave a language out of Shakespeare’s words. Committed to a psychiatric hospital, she becomes a full-blown rebel; her increasing violence threatens to keep her locked up for life as she fights for her voice and her freedom. Liv’s story begins as a mysterious romance and then explodes into personal revolution.

At its core, “The Sounding” is a film about empathy as a courageous act, about otherness, about love, loss, and life. The film stands as a tale of revolt against any system of oppression.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CE: “The Sounding” pushes forward the freedoms of those who have been marginalized, and I hope Liv’s voice will inspire others to find and fight for their own. I wanted to create a character – an outlier – with an extraordinarily strong life force and explore what happens when this life force comes into conflict with society’s expectations.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

CE: Just the film itself. I’d love them to privately engage with the story.

If I was to be prescriptive, I suppose I’d love people to think about how exclusion limits us, the value and beauty of otherness, Oliver Sacks’ humanity and curiosity about the mind, and Shakespeare’s insights into the human condition.

And, of course, the story of one distinct woman who dares to live her own authentic life. I hope folks might think about that.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

CE: There were a few fun ones – shooting in a monastery with actual monks living and practicing around us, for instance! But I’d say the biggest — and most comical — was taking a very urban crew out of New York City to an island 12 miles off the coast of Maine with only one ferry to the mainland per day, and setting up the first shot of the film on a 30-foot cliff that drops off into the sea.

You find out quickly who is comfortable with nature and who isn’t! Luckily my all-in DP David Kruta and I both had climbed and bouldered before, so I had a partner in crime.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

CE: “The Sounding” was funded largely by private equity investors. We also did a crowdfunding campaign that was an incredible, humbling, wild success. Finding those early champions of the film – some of whom were friends and family and some were people we didn’t know at all who found the film online and have become true advocates for the film – that has been inspiring.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

CE: Before I began directing, I was a professional stage actor, and I wrote a play for myself about a woman who takes on an acquired language woven from Shakespeare’s words. I played the show at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and in Europe, and also in this unique glassed-in space in Manhattan on 47th and Lexington where the sound is piped out onto the street and thousands of pedestrians have the option to stop and watch, or walk on by.

Wildly, the show became a kind of little cult hit. The police had to come, the sidewalks were over-crowded, traffic backed up at the light. Folks who were homeless came banging on the glass, wanting to free me. Stockbrokers stood in old phone booths in the rain. Pizza delivery guys let their pizzas got cold as they chatted to each other in Spanish about the girl in the glass box.

And every day a man came in a tuxedo – with his family or alone – always carrying a peach colored newspaper under his arm, The Financial Times. The guys in the back jokingly called him “the financier,” despite my certainty he was a caterer – who else wears a tuxedo every day?

After the final performance, “the financier” waited for me afterwards, warmly shook my hand and said, “I want to turn your play into a feature film.” He became a major investor in the project, a champion of the film overall, and changed my life. I was always a story-teller, but he lit the path to my becoming a director.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

CE: The best advice I ever got as a director was by way of my 1st AD, Jeremiah Kipp, who gave me his cherished copy of “My First Movie,” in which Gary Oldman says that making your first film is like saving things from a burning building. You have to choose between the dog and the silver, and then get the hell out of there before the roof caves in. Knowing that in advance saved me at least once a day on “The Sounding.” Spoiler: I chose the dog.

Worst advice? I came up as an actor, so I was once advised that I didn’t need to worry about the technical side of things to direct a picture. Even then, even before day one, I knew that was madness. Don’t let it inhibit you, but do the work. Learn lenses. Understand lighting. Know your craft. Show your collaborators you care enough to learn how to communicate with them on their terms.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

CE: Your vision is entirely unique to you, and is literally the one thing that will set you apart from everyone else. Nourish and nurture and feed your vision. Let it be yours and yours alone.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

CE: Picking one is genuinely impossible! But I’d like to lift up my friend Isabel Sandoval’s film “Lingua Franca.” It has enough courage and beauty in it to get us through 2020.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

CE: I’ve gotten to direct and write an episode of an amazing podcast series called “The Light Ahead.” I’ve been finishing rewrites on two television shows – one about my own experience freelancing with news crews in conflict zones, and the other with Deborah Rayne called “Flawless: A Feminist Fairytale,” a satirical dramedy about what happens if all the fairy tale princesses lived in New York City today and got pissed at the narrative they’re stuck in.

I also acted in a few Zoom films and online performances.

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of under-representing people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

CE: Be brave! Greenlight more work written or created or produced by underrepresented creators, hire more underrepresented creators at all levels, diversify the gate-keepers and the accolade-givers, give shadowing directors their first episode.

Put energy, time, and money into discovering creative talent that isn’t in any of the usual pipelines. The industry likes to use the same ports of entry — top-tier festivals, labs, etc. — to vet a newer creator before they are considered viable. But a lot of valuable underrepresented creators aren’t on that radar yet, or don’t have access or means or insider intelligence to get on the map. Put more resources behind regularly tapping new unexpected points of entry.

As the storytellers change, the stories will change, and the collective imagination – and the vision of what we are and who we can be – will follow. That’ll be a great day.

October 26, 2020
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