Up-and-coming director Amber McGinnis debuted her first feature film “International Falls” to close out the Indie Street Film Festival on the evening of July 28.
“International Falls,” starring Rachael Harris and Rob Huebel, is a fictional film about a woman (Harris) stuck in the real town of International Falls, MN where she meets a washed-up comedian (Huebel) who has dreams of doing anything other than his current occupation.
Growing up in North Carolina, McGinnis’ mother ran a dance studio where she spent most of her childhood involved and learning of the different aspects that went into her mother’s career.
“I grew up dancing with that and sort of had a natural transition into theater from dance and ended up becoming a theater in college, eventually pursuing my MFA in theater,” McGinnis said. “As I was studying my craft with theater, my passion for film started to grow. It was really after I finished graduate school when I received an opportunity to come up to [Washington] D.C. and work as a writer at a production company, that’s when I started developing my filmmaking skills as a director.”
Now as a Washington D.C. resident, McGinnis still continues her career in theater where she directs many productions throughout the metro area. It is with her career in theater that McGinnis uses her directing abilities and adapts them over to film.
“It has just been about getting these opportunities and crafting the technical skills that are needed with film because there is a lot of overlap between the two mediums, in terms of acting and crafting a story,” she said. “But it was on the technical side, where I spent a lot of my time growing my knowledge. I have done a lot of shorts and industrial things in D.C., and ‘International Falls’ is sort of my leap of faith in terms of doing a feature.”
McGinnis got involved with the production when her friend and writer of the film, Thomas Ward, after the two had spent some time working together on one of her plays in D.C., Ward had asked McGinnis to be the director of his film.
“I had actually supported the stage version of ‘International Falls’ and started a Kickstarter campaign and had read the early draft. A lot of people don’t know this, but Thomas is actually an actor, so I had cast him in a project in D.C.,” she said. “We had worked together and after working with him as a director, he had sent me a screen adaption of the story and said that he would love for me to direct it. We had a great script and we knew that we wanted to work together, but we just looked at each other like ‘now what’?”
From there, McGinnis and Ward spent four to five years developing the script. After pitching it to many producers, the two could not get any traction. So, McGinnis decided that she would start her own production company instead. Through Outskirt Media, LLC, McGinnis raised all of the funding they needed to create “International Falls.”
“I found a great casting director who put us in touch with Rachael [Harris] and Rob [Huebel], and it’s been this incredible labor of love to make this film happen,” she said. “Every time I see it on the big screen, I’m still in awe over the fact that we actually got this done because there had been so many times where we didn’t know if the pieces would fall into place.”
International Falls, which is not just the title of the film, but a real town in the state of Minnesota, played a pivotal role in making the film as well. Spending five days in the town, the team shot all exterior footage of the film there with the support of the International Falls Chamber of Commerce.
Also playing a part for the plot of the script, the town of International Falls acted as a way for Ward to tell his own personal story in a way.
“I guess [the film] is semi-biographical,” McGinnis said. “Thomas had a brief stint as a touring comedian, and he played two nights in International Falls as a comedian when he was first starting out. He journaled about the experience and 10 years later, he actually wrote the first draft of what was a stage draft version of [the story]. That is what inspired the story because it is such a unique town, also [Ward] had such a strong desire to explore that theme of what is behind comedy. There’s a lot of stories out there about comedians. A lot of times people aren’t digging into what’s behind the comedy and what comedy is sometimes masking, and that is just one of the things that I love about this script.”
For McGinnis, the directing aspect of the film came naturally to her, as she has been doing it for so long now. But she still accredits her team and her cast.
“From a directing perspective, we knew that because the film sort of centered around things of authenticity we wanted to cast actors who would bring a lot of truth and authenticity to themselves, but then had come from a comedy background. We were so lucky with both Rachael and Rob, because they are both improvers. They both had these amazing improv skills, but serious acting chops as well,” she said. “We had a script that we believed in, we found talent we knew would be incredible and then it was about crafting the right environment for them to feel that they could be open to feeling like they could be open to the darker tones of the story, but then also feel like they could bring in some jokes along the way, as well. It’s hard to separate from the directing, because I was doing so much of the producing at the same time. But I am very grateful for the awesome team that I had and my co-producer, who helped shoulder that burden as much as possible.”