Martha Stephens on Shooting ‘To the Stars’ Simultaneously in Black and White and Color

We chat with the director about why she chose the impossible task of shooting two versions of her film.
To The Stars Press
Kyle Kaplan/Samuel Goldwyn Films
By  · Published on May 2nd, 2020

To penetrate the heart of America, one must travel inward, away from the coasts and into the mountains and prairies where so many families staked their claim on happiness. Director Martha Stephens felt a deep mythological pull toward the tiny social clusters eager to circle wagons to protect their own and blockade outsiders. The claustrophobic hold these groups maintain only highlights the beauty of the irregulars anxious to bust out.

You’ll recognize the community at the center of To the Stars. It’s ripped from the landscape of cinema charted in the 1950s by filmmakers like Elia Kazan, and in the 1980s, wrangled into pop bubblegum treasures like Footloose and Dirty Dancing. Parents just don’t understand, because such a simple act of contemplation would require them to register how they failed their teenage selves.

Iris (Kara Hayward) is a young woman stumbling through a god-fearing Oklahoma burg. Set against the 1960s, on the cusp of a societal awakening, she suffers the barbs of her classmates, who sense the doubt steering her every action. When Maggie (Liana Liberato), the new girl, arrives in her class, Iris discovers a kinship in a similar mind desperate to tear away from accepted norms. Small towns don’t do well with rebels.

Stephens was looking to make a much larger budgeted film after her Sundance debut, Land Ho! After all, that’s the process the system would have you venerate. Stepping stones to bigger and better things, but bigger doesn’t equal better; it equals more cooks in a tiny enough kitchen.

“I took a pause,” says Stephens. “I was like, ‘Okay, so the things I want to write personally right now for whatever in my brain are big, and I want to see if someone else out there has a small story that’s already written that I could turn into a film.”

Shannon BradleyColleary‘s screenplay came preloaded with everything Stephens was looking for at the time. She didn’t have to scramble to make it work; the story she needed in her life right now was already on the page just waiting for a camera to shoot it.

“The script reminded me of the studio films I grew up on,” says Stephens. “Movies that studios don’t make anymore. Things like My Girl and Now and Then and Dirty Dancing. Stuff that’s a little earnest. To the Stars is very classic in terms of the archetypes. Maybe it’s a story we’ve seen before, but I felt like it had all the makings of what made those movies so good. There’s warmth. There’s humanity. There’s heart.”

Authenticity doesn’t require anger. Snark need not apply in a passion project. Stephens needed to see hope on the screen. She was looking for a story that could inspire action through aspiration. We’re all trying to do the best we can. Sometimes, that’s enough to rally a movement. One person at a time. Baby steps transform into leaps.

“I was at a point where I was tired of cynicism,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, maybe I can make my version of one of those movies but make it a little more artful or a little more nuanced.’ To put my spin on it.”

For Stephens, black and white photography was essential to capturing the time and the place and the aura of old studio filmmaking. To the Stars had to connect to the stark melodrama of the past pop culture, but selling such an idea in today’s market is nearly impossible. A plan was required.

“We wanted to make a black and white film,” Stephens states. “That’s tricky right now. You’re asking someone to finance a black and white period film. You’re just asking for a button for people to tell you no. So, our idea was let’s make two versions, and let’s make sure we can have both versions available.”

If no distributor bit on their black and white cut, there was always a color film to sell. To the Stars played Sundance and other festivals in black and white, and their distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films is making that version available in certain circles (such as virtual screening rooms associated with the Alamo Drafthouse and the Grand Cinema). Of course, filming for black and white as well as color is not a matter of simply flipping a switch on the camera.

“Basically, we had to create two films,” says Stephens. “It’s not only [cinematographer] Andrew Reed and his gaffer having to do that, but also our production designer and our costume designer. On set, I had a monitor that could toggle back and forth between the color and black and white. Our hope was to make choices that would have been made on a movie in that time in terms of our lens choices and some of our framing but also using some more modern tools that weren’t around, like the Steadicam.”

Striking a balance within the frame was critical to not losing one version of the film for the other. If Stephens leaned too heavily into the black and white, the color film would become a muddy muck. If she blew out the color, the black and white contrast would disappear.

“We don’t want to make it feel like some love poem to old films,” she continues. “We also don’t want to make it so modern that it pulls you out of the world.”

Whichever version of To the Stars you watch, the film should look like it was meant to be seen in that fashion. The black and white must feel like it was meant for black and white. The color must feel like it was meant for color. The frame is filled with purpose.

“With the design elements,” Stephens explains, “it was really important to make sure there’s a lot of texture on screen. Whether that was making sure an actress is wearing a fuzzy Angora sweater that’ll pop regardless, or making sure we put up wallpaper in the kitchen to break it up. Creating through textures is a way to differentiate for the black and white version.”

Achieving two films for the price of one is a big ask. While the results ultimately fall on Stephens, every department has to be on the same page (or the same two pages) to accomplish picture lock. There has to be philosophical synchronization across the board.

“It’s a big machine,” says Stephens. “There are a lot of moving parts, and if someone is having a bad day regardless of where they are on the supposed food chain, it can cause problems. I do like to think of it as a big collaborative family. You should all show each other as much kindness as you possibly can, especially if you’re the director, and all these people are there to help you fulfill your vision. Be good to people as much as you can.”

To the Stars is now available on VOD 

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)