For the last few months a new lesbian film, Heartland, toured the film festival circuit garnering multiple audience awards. I can see why. The film combines all the elements audiences want in a dramatic film: interesting storylines, believable emotional conflict, realistic chemistry between the leads and three-dimensional characters that audiences can relate to. One of the aspects that makes the film appealing is that Heartland is not a film about being gay, as much as it is a film about being human.
The main character, Lauren (Velinda Godfrey), loses her girlfriend after an extended battle with cancer. Devastated by the loss of her lover, her job and her apartment, Lauren returns home to stay with her conservative, religious mother played by Beth Grant. When her brother, Justin (Aaron Leddick), and his girlfriend Carrie (Laura Spencer) visit, Lauren and Carrie start an unexpected friendship that develops into an emotional connection and eventually evolves into an affair.
The only conflict surrounding Lauren’s sexuality is her mother’s refusal to fully accept it. Yet, anyone who has experienced their parent’s disapproval, whether it be for their sexuality, appearance, aptitude or some other reason, can relate to Lauren’s experience. Heartland explores universal themes of loss, family dynamics, acceptance and communication. It weaves a tapestry of seamlessly intertwined emotions: grief, love, hope and forgiveness.
Creating independent films takes vision, courage and commitment. The two women at the heart of this production, Velinda Godfrey and Maura Anderson, transformed Heartland from an idea to a reality. Velinda co-wrote the script with Todd Waring, starred in and produced the film. Maura directed and produced the movie. I recently asked the pair a few questions about Heartland. They shared their insights into the film and the filmmaking process.
Co-writer, Actress, and Producer
Delina: Heartland was your concept from the beginning. You co-wrote the script and produced it, as well as playing the main character. So, what inspired you to tell this particular story?
Velinda: When I approached Todd about writing the project, I only knew at the time that I wanted to tell a story featuring a lesbian/bisexual lead whose sexuality wasn’t her most interesting quality or the central conflict. We came up with a plot that we believed to be a universal struggle dealing with loss. Todd and I had both dealt with serious losses prior to teaming up and then again during the writing phase, causing grief and the multifaceted experience/handling of it to become a theme. The characters and flavor of the small-town was something I knew well, having grown up in Oklahoma, so those details became fun to carve.
Delina: Your character, Lauren, is a lesbian. Yet as you mention, the film isn’t about her sexuality. Except for some minor tension with her mother, it’s mostly a non-issue. Why was it important to you to create a story where her sexuality was not the central conflict?
Velinda: Coming out stories and tales of struggling with sexuality will always be important, but I wanted to add a movie to the film collection that allows queer characters to be more complex, like straight leads are in any good film. The Kids Are Alright is an example of a film I think did this beautifully. I hoped a wider audience might connect to the humanity of the story and that films with queer leads could break away from being niche and start being as common as LGBTQ individuals are in the world.
Delina: How would you describe Lauren?
Velinda: Flawed, but trying. I’d describe all of the characters this way. It was important that nobody was the villain of the story. Like in many families, it’s just more complicated than that. But Lauren, though flailing a bit due to circumstances, is also talented, fun-loving and brave as hell.
Delina: You grew up in Oklahoma. How closely does Lauren’s life reflect your experiences there?
Velinda: The insight I had as an Oklahoman came through my experience with how diverse the landscape there can be, in both land and issues of tolerance. There are the fields and cows you’d expect, along with the individuals who are limited in their ability to accept differences. But there are also hipster towns and a really cool art scene and extremely educated, lovely people. Lauren doesn’t have to escape Middle America to find people that love and support her; it just requires more combing through than it might in a more liberal town. This knowledge came through personal experience.
Delina: Lauren’s girlfriend dies at the beginning of the film and she struggles with her grief. Playing intensely dramatic roles can be draining for an actor. Did you find it difficult playing a character in such emotional turmoil?
Velinda: Doing scenes like that repeatedly can be draining, but I got to bust up with the cast between takes so it wasn’t too difficult overall.
Delina: Communication and miscommunication are a reoccurring theme in Heartland. Justin doesn’t really listen to Carrie. Lauren’s mom doesn’t want to discuss Lauren’s sexuality, and all the characters lie to each other. Carrie and Lauren are the only two characters who actually listen to one another. Do you feel this was one of the main things that drew them together?
Velinda: That definitely contributes to their attraction. They’re also both fish out of water and find each other to be a refuge. Plus, they just have a lot of fun together, something they both need. There’s a lot drawing these two together, and it’s surprising to them both when they realize it’s accumulated into amazing chemistry.
Delina: Clearly Lauren and Carrie had a connection, but she had to realize that having an affair with her brother’s girlfriend would have dramatic and destructive consequences for everyone. How much do you think her family dynamics and sibling rivalry influenced her decision to sleep with Carrie?
Velinda: I don’t think sibling rivalry plays into Lauren’s affair. It’s not something she does out of spite. Lauren and Justin were very close growing up and she misses him and enjoys seeing him quite a bit. It further complicates the struggle that results from the affair. It’d be easier if Lauren was malicious, but she isn’t.
Delina: Lauren and Carrie consummate their relationship in a bath tub during a tornado and hail storm. I love to analyze symbology in films. The storm seemed symbolic on several levels. First, it symbolized the culmination of the escalating sexual tension between the women. Second, it symbolized Lauren’s grief which built up inside her like an internal maelstrom. When she can’t hold back her feelings anymore it’s finally unleashed. Third, it seemed symbolic of their affair. Like the tornado, their affair could potentially destroy everything in its wake. Was all this symbology intentional or were you just looking for a plot device that would give you an excuse to do a love scene in a bath tub?
Velinda: I give Todd, my writing partner, full credit for the bathtub location. As for the storm, it is definitely symbolic … plus, sexy! A win, win.
Delina: While we are on the topic of bathtubs, what was it like filming a love scene in a bathtub?
Velinda: We actually did a bit of cheating during that shoot. We weren’t in a tub. We had shot in a tub the year before while making a promo teaser and had ended up quite bruised. After learning the hard way, Mike D, our cinematographer, and Maura got inventive with fiberboard sheeting and sandbags. Movie Magic!
Director and Producer
Delina: When Velinda approached you about the project, what caught your interest? Why did you want to make this film?
Maura: When I met Velinda, she and Todd had just finished an early draft of the script. I read it and I could immediately see the world and the characters. I also loved that it was a lesbian lead character, but the story wasn’t about that. It reflected the world I know and live in.
Delina: Which character in the film do you relate to the most and why?
Maura: I can honestly say I relate to pieces of all of them. It was important for me to know all of the inter-character dynamics and truly understand why each of them was doing what they were doing at any one moment in order for the story to be told properly.
Delina: The chemistry between the leading ladies can make or break a lesbian film. The chemistry between Velinda and her co-star Laura on screen seemed natural and honest. How did you choose Laura for the role?
Maura: It definitely can. This was an even bigger leap because it happened over such a short period of time with two people that didn’t know each other, weren’t falling in love, but also weren’t just lustful. As an audience you really had to understand why these two people were drawn to each other in this moment in time.
Laura actually found us. Being from Oklahoma, I think she had an extra special interest in the film. She and our casting director Chris knew each other from Oklahoma, so he passed along the script and we ultimately did a chemistry read with her and Velinda in Los Angeles. When they got together in the room and we read through a few of the scenes, I knew we had found our Carrie.
Delina: You filmed on location in Oklahoma, which gave the film an authentic feel. How did the locals react when they discovered you were filming a lesbian film?
Maura: We actually had people that wanted to be involved in the film because of that. We had others that did not, but ultimately everyone that actually came out, and helped us create this film loved the story and what we were trying to do.
Delina: You produced Heartland and it is also your feature directorial debut. As a director, what was your biggest challenge when making this film?
Maura: I would usually say time and money, but on this it was weather. Our first day we had to shut down half-way through the day because a tornado was coming. So many cars got stuck in the mud. My car was totaled by flooding and hail.
The location where we filmed the tree house was actually shut down for most of the shoot due to massive floods. It opened up for two days our last week and we were able to get there, thank God!. They had the most rain they’ve had since 1941 in the month we were shooting.
Delina: How many days did it take you to film Heartland?
Maura: We filmed for 18 days. Mike, our director of photography, Velinda and I also went out and shot all the driving stuff on the weekend days off.
Delina: Women are vastly underrepresented in film, both in front of and behind the camera. It is nice to see a film about women that is created by women. How did all this female involvement influence the film?
Maura: That’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t know what it would’ve been if it hadn’t been done by women. But, this is a real female story, and I like to think that having a female writer, director and editor helped enhance and make the point of view more truthful.
Delina: Heartland screened at a number of film festivals this year. The movie received several audience awards. I know a lot of people are anxious to see it. Can you tell us how and when it will be released to VOD or DVD?
Maura: We are working on distribution, and hope it will be widely released, but we don’t yet have a date. We’ll be keeping updates on our website and on social media, so stay tuned!
Available June 6 on DVD. Pre-order now!
More information about Heartland: