Producer, Writer, and Director Rhianon Jones recently spoke with us about her latest project,Cora Bora, which premiered at SXSW. Cora Bora is an 2022 American comedy-drama film, directed by Hannah Pearl Utt. In our interview, Rhianon shared the inspiration behind Cora Bora, her inspirations, and what it takes to bring a script to screen.
PH: Hi Rhianon! Let's start with learning a bit more about you! What's your background? How did you get involved with writing and producing?
Rhianon Jones: I have actually been making films since I was a kid, and would often do films as projects for classes, so it's always been a natural form of expression for me. When it comes to making narrative film, I found through my first few projects that getting the writing solid ahead of time was key to creating a successful film, especially when you have little to no budget. If it doesn't work in the script, it's not going to work on the screen. And producing is something I enjoy doing because it's a chance to give back to other filmmakers and help them express themselves. So while writing is a very specific form of expression for myself, producing is a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture and collaborate with other writers and directors.
PH: How would you describe your early life? What were your interests and passions?
Rhianon Jones: Well, my mom was a writer, professionally as a journalist, but also writing fiction and poetry on her own, so it was something I grew up around. I never really questioned if writing was something I would do. And I often felt lonely and misunderstood as a kid (like all artists, right?), so writing was a way for me to get my thoughts and feelings out onto paper. Both of my parents were also avid film watchers-- they took us to see everything, like Lawrence of Arabia on 65mm, and even though we weren't rolling in cash, they installed a home movie theater in the basement with a laserdisc player (I'm old). I must have watched Fritz Lang's Metropolis a hundred times by the time I was in highschool.
PH: What films/scripts have inspired you? What do you love most about reading a new script?
Rhianon Jones: I think films that have inspired me are the ones I find myself thinking about years later. One film, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Peter Weir, made such an impression on me when I was a kid that my first real feature, Wonder Valley, was basically based on it. Sometimes I see a movie that is so good I get discouraged, like "I could never make something that great", but other times a great film can inspire you instead.
PH: In your own work, what inspires you?
Rhianon Jones: I find real life to be the most inspiring thing. I get why some people are inspired by escapism or fantasy, but to me nothing is more worth exploring than trying to understand what makes us, as humans, tick.
PH: How did your latest feature film, Cora Bora, come to life? What inspired this story?
Rhianon Jones: Cora Bora is based on a story a guy I went on a Tinder date with told me about his previous open, long distance relationship and how it eventually ended. But part of why I loved his story was that he reminded me of a few specific friends I have who are incredibly open and find themselves in surprising situations that only make sense if you're that type of person-- which I am definitely not. But I admire people who know themselves and accept themselves so unconditionally that they aren't afraid to take risks. Personally I'm much more risk-adverse.
PH: How long did the entire process of writing the script take? How many edits did you make to it?
Rhianon Jones: Well, in a way that is pretty typical for me as a writer, the first 50 or 60 pages came pretty easily and then I had to spend a long time fleshing the rest of the story out- little details like "how does it end" and such... you know, details. I'd say once the script was actually complete there were at least 10 to 15 edits on my end and a few more with the director's notes incorporated. Then I handed the script off to her and made a few tweaks to her tweaks. And ultimately a few things changed on set and in the edit, so the final product doesn't necessarily read the way the original shooting script does.
PH: What went into selecting the actors for the film? How did they assume the roles of the characters?
Rhianon Jones: Both myself and my producing partner, Tristan Scott Behrends, landed on Meg Stalter as our star around the same time that our director, Hannah Pearl Utt and her producing partner discovered her and became obsessed, as were we. Once Meg was attached it was really just a matter of chemistry and availability, since we were just coming out of Covid and a lot of things were suddenly shooting at once. But we got lucky and got really the perfect cast to make the script come to life. I still kind of can't believe all the amazing people we got to be in the film.
PH: So, you have a script. You decide you want to turn it into a film. What happens next? What steps do you take?
Rhianon Jones: Well, in this case I really owe it all to Tristan who sort of championed the script. We get sent a lot of scripts at our company, Neon Heart Productions, and he kept coming back to Cora and insisted that we put some effort into it instead of taking on another script from somebody outside the company. He knew Hannah and got it to her, and it all just sort of fell into place from there.
PH: What does the timeline for something like this look like?
Rhianon Jones: It depends on a lot of factors, a lot of different elements coming together at once. You start with the script and build your team around it-- the director, producer, lead cast, sometimes even the cinematographer, and then build out from there. Then, of course, there is the search for financing-- the bigger and stronger the team you've assembled the easier it is to get financing. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to build your dream team when you don't have any financing in place, so it's a bit of a catch-22.
PH: What roadblocks/challenges do you run into?
Rhianon Jones: I think for Cora Bora specifically, until Meg got attached as the lead, a lot of people were worried about finding an actor to pull off playing a difficult character-- somewhat who was unbearable at times but that the audience would still find themselves rooting for.
PH: The film is heavily centered on music. Did you have songs already ready for the film?
Rhianon Jones: Most of the lyrics to the songs Cora sings in the film were written by me-- I used to be a musician, and actually had some of the songs lying around-- with the melody provided by Miya Folick. Then Miya also provided some original songs as actually plays her bandmate in the movie.
PH: How did you tackle and address dialogue for each of the unique characters?
Rhianon Jones: Luckily there is really only room in the script for one character as lovably obnoxious as Cora, and she is such a strong personality that it was easy to form contrasting and conflicting personalities to play against her. But it did take a while to find a way to justify why each character would put up with her, which required going a little deeper with each character.
PH: How did you lead with being vulnerable in the script? What advice would you have for other filmmakers to do that as well?
Rhianon Jones: The original script had Cora being a little less nuanced, but once we attached the director, she wanted to make sure that her vulnerabilities were more present, so the audience could have a chance to care about her more. But to do that I had to mine some of my own darker moments and incorporate them into the story, which was pretty scary at first.
PH: What piece(s) of advice do you have for others who want to bring a script to screen?
Rhianon Jones: Write a solid short film of a similar tone, world, vibe or whatever, to show that you can tell a story from beginning to end before asking people to get on board with your feature. It will help you make connections with possible collaborators and help you to convince financiers to invest in your film if you have a solid short film that has played festivals under your belt.
PH: Would you like to share some of your upcoming work?
Rhianon Jones: I'm actually 8 months pregnant so right now my upcoming work will hopefully be keeping the baby alive and well and keeping myself and my partner sane, but once maternity leave ends in a couple of months, I will continue with Neon Heart Productions and finding another in-house script to develop. The nice thing about Cora Bora having a bit of a dramedy angle is that I feel like I can do comedy or drama next. We'll just have to see what project makes the most sense for where we are as a company at that time.