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Two Richmond filmmakers are part of the virtual Sundance Film Fest this weekend. Meet writer-director Melody C. Roscher.

click to enlarge Melody C. Roscher is the real deal -- a rising indie film writer, director and producer who moved back to her hometown of Richmond from New York last summer due to the pandemic. She has a short film, "White Wedding," in this year's virtual Sundance Film Fest and several other projects in development.

Melody C. Roscher is the real deal -- a rising indie film writer, director and producer who moved back to her hometown of Richmond from New York last summer due to the pandemic. She has a short film, "White Wedding," in this year's virtual Sundance Film Fest and several other projects in development.

Looking to stream some original new films from fresh voices?

Two rising Richmond filmmakers are in this year's Sundance Film Festival which starts today and runs through Feb. 3. Visit the festival’s website and look for Melody C. Roscher, whose short “White Wedding” was filmed at the Virginia House in Windsor Farms last February.

There’s also a feature length animated project, “Cryptozoo,” by cartoonist and animator Dash Shaw that is screening on Friday, Jan. 29 at 3 p.m. Sundance is going completely virtual this year and there are various rules and prices on the site: I was told you have to watch a film within three hours of a scheduled screening, for instance.

At just under ten minutes, “White Wedding” is an emotionally intense short film, wonderfully acted, about a biracial bride played by “Black Panther” star Nabiyah Be (also the daughter of reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, Roscher informs me) who must face her estranged Black father after he shows up as a member of the wedding band.

Roscher, 36, says the highly personal story is based on her own family. A graduate of James River High School, she grew up the biracial daughter of two local musicians. Her father played in a children’s band, Dog's New Clothes, that performed in Richmond for many years, as well the group, Family Jewels, with her mother. Roscher is estranged from her biological father, who plays in a wedding band.

“The whole thing was quite meta,” Roscher admits, noting that her parents can be seen as extras in "White Wedding" in addition to some local friends. “[The story] came from me being terrified of running into my biological father in Richmond," she says.

Elsewhere in the animated section of the festival, Shaw’s feature “Cryptozoo” tells the story of cryptozookeepers who are struggling to capture Baku, a “legendary dream-eating hybrid creature,” and to decide whether to keep the mythical beast hidden. He tells Style that his film was influenced by Windsor McCay’s classic 1921 animated short “The Centaurs,” which is worth looking up if you haven’t seen it. Gorgeous, old school stuff.

“[Our film] is a hand-painted, animated feature for adults about a zoo that rescues and houses mythological beings. My wife [Jane]and I – she’s the animation director -- have been working on it for the past five years,” Shaw says, noting that they worked with VCU to find interns from the department of kinetic energy. “It’s been a long time coming. Obviously, this past year was unexpected – but we managed to finish.”

The screening for his film is this Friday, Jan. 29 at 3 p.m. EST and there will be a 24-hour screening window on Jan. 31, he says, noting that individual tickets have sold out but you can still buy the more expensive explorer pass that includes more films. Roscher’s short film is available to view on demand throughout the festival by purchasing a pass; the window begins at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 28. Check out the Sundance site for more up-to-the-minute info on both entries.

click to enlarge A still from the feature length "Cryptozoo" by RVA animator and cartoonist Dash Shaw.
  • A still from the feature length "Cryptozoo" by RVA animator and cartoonist Dash Shaw.

Shaw is author of the graphic novels “Doctors, Bottomless Belly Button” and “Clue:Candlestick.” He also wrote and directed “My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea” (2017) and has done animation for documentaries and television, including the second season of Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.”

I only recently learned about his work during an hour-long conversation with Roscher, who I’ve wanted to meet for years, having enjoyed everything she's done; especially the last feature she produced, 2016's “Christine” starring Rebecca Hall and Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”). And I wasn’t disappointed -- over the phone, she comes across as charming, kind and funny, not to mention having great taste in films. A smart cinephile who is passionate about following her own voice, she’s been able to make valuable creative connections in the industry at a relatively young age. Roscher is half of the production team, the Wonder Club, with Craig Shilowich ("Marriage Story"), which is producing Robin Comisar's upcoming feature, "Great Choice."

Having her back from Brooklyn and living full-time in Richmond to work on writing and directing her own future projects is exciting news for the local film community.

Homegrown Talent

Roscher grew up spending time between Fulton Hill, where she lives now, and Chesterfield County. She credits her cousin, Jeff Hathaway, with exposing her to interesting indie films while she was in high school that made her want to make movies.

“He would bring over VHS titles like ‘River’s Edge,’ or weird [Alejandro] Jodorowsky films,” she recalls, reminiscing with me over how much we miss old rental shops like Fan Video. “I watched that ‘Santa Sangre’ tape like 50 times.”

Then she left for NYU film school at the age of 17.

“I wanted to direct and write and they have you try a lot of things in college. But by the end, I had lost my confidence,” she says. “I didn’t know what story I’d want to tell that the world would want to hear. I was only 21 when I graduated [laughs].”

Like so many young filmmakers, she began working on commercials and low budget music videos, switching to freelance producing for advertising companies in 2008 before making the leap to indie features a year later. Roscher cut her teeth as a producer, observing and learning on acclaimed projects such as “Martha Marcy May Marlene” starring John Hawkes and Elizabeth Olsen, and the hit Showtime documentary miniseries, “The Jinx: The Life and Times of Robert Durst,” which she line produced, mostly working on the recreation footage, she says.

“That was a strange experience making ‘The Jinx.' One of my close friends from college was the editor and when he found that audio [a crucial moment of Durst talking to himself about the crime while at a urinal] – that was so weird. We had been in the cutting room for four years when he found that audio.”

Commercial producing entails a lot of coordination regarding budget as well as communication management. In the feature world, it’s a more ambiguous job with many more iterations, Roscher explains. “I’m finding the financing, the cast, making sure the script is good enough, working on developing it, if its not. Scheduling, I’m there on set every day. You’re really there every step of the way, making sure it’s done properly."

Her proudest moment so far has been “Christine,” a powerful drama featuring British actor Rebecca Hall in a mesmerizing, Oscar-worthy performance as small-time TV reporter Christine Chubbuck. Disturbed by her local station's drift toward "if it bleeds, it leads" sensationalism, Chubbuck shot herself in the head during a live television broadcast in 1974, dying soon after.

“I loved that project so much, I felt a very deep connection to the story and everyone involved in making it,” Roscher explains. “I put every bit of myself into that movie. I even got a virus while we were in prep. I was in the ER trying to negotiate with lawyers, yelling into the phone. The doctors were like, you have to stop.”

It was "Christine" that restored her confidence, she says, knowing that she could’ve directed the movie if she had to – she was involved in every aspect. (Side note: The mother from the film, actor J. Smith Cameron, also plays the mom in "White Wedding").

Due to the pandemic, Roscher moved out of her apartment in Brooklyn last June, returning to Richmond with some professional momentum. Since she got back, she’s been developing her writing voice and several scripts, including a feature titled “Our Band Is Forever,” about a musical family set in Germany.

“Fred Armisen wrote the original music with me and I had Val Kilmer attached to play the dad,” she says. “But the German film credit system was not biting. You can’t film in Germany unless they get involved.”

Roscher had been living in Germany researching the project and raised half the money. But she had to put the project on ice. “It’s too big. If I make another film first, I think the people who write the checks will trust me more, that I can do this.”

Finding Her Voice

Enter “White Wedding,” a brave, dramatic short inspired by a director wanting to conquer her own fears, utilizing her film connections as well as Richmond talent.

“I felt like I needed to do ["White Wedding"] to process it and work through it,” Roscher says, noting that it required her “to cash in 15 years worth of favors to get it made.”

Watching the short, it’s amazing how much tension and subtle humor she conveys in just under 10 minutes. It feels like the work of a confident veteran director, especially in the climactic father/daughter scene that is both devastating and tender. She tells me that other people in similar estranged family situations have given her kudos for the film, noting that its climax speaks to their own inner wish fulfillment.

After writing the short, Roscher felt she had more to say about the story, so she's already started writing a companion feature, "Bird in Hand:" "Their same cycles of self-destruction, confusion, identity," she says. "I'm still writing."

She is still getting to know the local film community but recognizes the wealth of talent here, she says. At one point, she mentions a local sound person, Andrew Uvarov, as a true gem. He worked with her on another project that is still unannounced, so unfortunately, it can't be mentioned yet.

One thing Roscher really likes about being back in Richmond is the sense of youthful energy around places like VCU.

“I love it here. New York is awesome, but there’s a really good, solid and constant [momentum] of young thought and ideas here. Just being around VCU and seeing what people are making and doing, it feels so authentic and less jaded. I find it way more inspiring, way more liberated.”

Roscher feels like her relocation back home is an example of at least one positive change throughout the film industry in the wake of the pandemic.

“People now realize they can move around. We don’t all need to stand around the same campfires in Los Angeles, New York or Atlanta," she says. "We can move around and collaborate with more places in the world and the country … and that will be a lot clearer when this pandemic is finally over.”

You can explore this year's streaming Sundance Fest here. Also, below are some meet-the-Richmond-artist videos from Sundance:

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