MEMBER MONDAYS | Meredith Efken & Catrin Blythe
Meredith Efken & Catrin Blythe
are a mother/daughter duo of artists! Meredith is an author of several full-length novels, but is assisting her filmmaker daughter Catrin edit her latest short film Garden of Jennat. We spoke with them about collaborating together to bring Catrin's vision to life, as well as deep dive into their other works, both past and future!
It’s great to see a mother and daughter duo collaborate on projects together. Catrin, you’re a filmmaker and Meredith, you’re a novelist and editor. What kind of creative process do you two carry out together to create a final project?
Catrin: We sit down and talk for hours and hours!
Meredith: She’s not exaggerating!
Catrin: We’re really a team to figure out what we want and if it’s even possible.
Meredith: One thing that is important to me as a parent and as a creative coach for my daughter is to help her see how to use her creativity to get around limitations or barriers.
Catrin: For example, I wanted to do fantasy, but I thought fantasy would require a lot of special effects that I can’t do. But mom pointed out that we don’t need a lot of fancy effects.
Meredith: Yeah—the magic is in the story itself, the characters, the setting, the costumes. I told her if she creates a magical tone, nobody is going to care if there are special effects or not.
Catrin: Another thing I need a lot of help with is organizing everything—from the story itself to the filming schedule and budget. I have ADHD-inattentive type (aka ADD) and so managing a lot of details is a big challenge.
Meredith: My husband and I don’t believe that a learning disability should hold a person back from achieving their dreams and potential. But it does mean that she needs more support in these areas than maybe some other 17 year olds do. We would rather provide that support than make her get so frustrated that she loses her love of film and gives up.
Catrin: And I really appreciate that. I was really anxious about doing this capstone project. I was afraid that because I’m not great with those kind of details that the project would fail and I’d disappoint everyone.
Meredith: Helping her work through that anxiety was a big part of my job. The capstone project she’s required to do for graduation is a film of at least 20 minutes. It’s an enormous undertaking for any high school student—or even college student! Her anxiety was understandable, but it was important to help her manage her fears and not become paralyzed by them.
Catrin: So overall, that’s how we work together. I get a lot of support, but I also know my ideas and vision are respected.
Meredith: Totally. It’s always a balance for us of finding ways to empower her without letting her feel overwhelmed, helping without taking over. It’s a lot of honest communication and mutual respect to find that balance.
From looking at each of your literary and film works, there’s this fantasy and steampunk style that you both seem to share and instill in your projects, such as in Sigh No More and Poets Despair. Can you go into detail as to how this shared interest and creativity evolved?
Meredith: As soon as my husband and I started our family, I was looking forward to being able to share with my girls my favorite stories and books. A lot of them happen to be fantasy. So I think it’s something that’s always been a part of our family culture.
Catrin: I was always fascinated by the magic in these stories—they seemed grander and more exciting than non-fantasy books.
Meredith: I think fantasy gives us the chance to explore ideas and test theories about the human experience in a way that realistic stories can’t because they are bound by the rules of real life. In some ways, it seems to me that fantasy lets us be more honest about the human experience, more real. The way the world is built and how the story goes reveals a lot about what we as humans long for, fear, value, and feel because we’re not required to replicate those things in a fantasy setting. We choose to.
Catrin: Yeah—what she said!
While shooting on set, what kind of atmosphere do you normally like to set collectively as a team for the actors and crew?
Catrin: I want things to feel comfortable, but organized. We can sit down and laugh or talk, but I don’t want people wondering when the next shot is or what’s going on.
Meredith: All of that—and it’s important to me that the crew and cast know that they are cared for and feel valued and safe. Maybe that’s the mom in me talking. But when one of our actors was getting measured for costumes, they mentioned that sometimes they feel like they are treated on set as little more than living props. And that made my heart ache because no human being should ever feel like an object, and actors and crew should be recognized as the artists they are and respected accordingly.
Catrin: I don’t think that’s a mom thing. I want them to feel cared for and safe too. We are a team, and we should never forget that. It’s not just about what I want—it’s important to listen to my cast and crew as well and get their input. They are artists too, and this is as much their work as it is mine.
Meredith, you mentioned that you serve as Catrin’s mentor in terms of writing. How has your experience with novel writing helped your journey into the world of filmmaking? And how has having a filmmaker in the family affected your creativity in the literary world?
Meredith: Ooh, now you’ve done it—I’mma go full-on writer-geek on you! (Crawls out of trash can overflowing with wadded-up manuscripts, quill pen in one hand and teacup in other.) Okay, so obviously, there are huge differences between novels and screenplays in terms of conventions, formats, and simply how one approaches the story. But there are key areas that overlap as well, especially when it comes to basic story structure and character arcs and development, as well as dialogue that creates tension and subtext and moves the story forward without being “on the nose” about it.
There’s a lot I don’t know and can’t help with regarding screenwriting, but I figure if I can help Catrin internalize the above things, that’s what will really make or break any story—no matter the format. She can always pick up the rest from other teachers or on her own.
In terms of my own work, I have moved toward a more cinematic story structure for my novels—my fav teacher for this is Michael Hauge. Because films have become the primary story-telling device in our culture, people are used to the structure of a Hollywood film, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not, so it makes sense to use the same general structure in commercial fiction as well, which is what I write.
But I’m also becoming more and more interested in film editing, which is just another way to tell a story. And…lately I’ve been prowling slowly around the idea of learning screenwriting. For some reason, it feels more intimidating to me than novel writing or film editing, but that’s probably an indication that I need to go for it.
We really admire the support system you and your husband foster for Catrin. As a parent, how have you fostered creativity and the arts community in your daughter’s life? And do you have any advice for parents whose kids are interested in being involved in the arts community?
Meredith: Thank you—Jason and I feel incredibly lucky that we’ve been able to support Catrin. A lot of families these days are struggling just to get by, and when you’re having to spend all your energy and creativity on figuring out how to afford groceries for the next week, there’s not much left for nurturing your kids’ hopes and dreams. If we want to see kids reaching their creative potential, we have to support changes to the system that will allow families to thrive in all areas—financial, educational, emotional, relational, etc. And, parents or not, we all have to do our best to look out for those kids who have dreams but whose parents don’t have the resources to nurture those dreams, so we can come alongside them in support and friendship.
That said, one big thing we have done with both our daughters is encourage them to think about their futures while they were still fairly young, and once they expressed a sustained interest in something, we took it seriously. With our older daughter, it was ballet. With Catrin, it’s film. Both are incredibly demanding and competitive fields that we knew nothing about in the beginning. It would have been a lot easier to discourage those interests and hope they went away. Instead, we worked hard to inform ourselves of what it would take to help them succeed and then did what we could to help them gain the skills they need in those areas.
That’s mainly what brought us to Austin. Up until three years ago, we lived in Omaha, NE, and we knew that Catrin would not have access to a thriving film community there to help her gain the experience and skills she will need to compete in the film world. Austin was recommended to us by a friend in the industry as being a place that would be both family-friendly and yet give her good opportunities to learn and grow in her art. That was a big move, but it has been well worth it for the whole family, and we are so grateful and happy to call Austin home now.
My advice for other parents whose kids are interested in the arts (plunking down soapbox and climbing onto it):
1) Don’t discourage that interest, especially because of income potential. Yeah, most creatives are not hugely financially successful. But creative people who have their creativity suppressed and are forced into poor-fitting careers are at much greater risk of depression and other mental health issues even if they’re making a lot of money. Financial stability is an important part of adult life, but I think any loving parent would rather have their children happy and healthy even if it means a smaller paycheck. We need to help our children find ways to have marketable skills they can use to be financially stable, but still pursue their art and feel creatively fulfilled. Shoving our art kids into, for example, STEM—or even “STEAM”—when it’s not their passion can cause a lot of emotional and psychological damage. The money is just not worth it.
2) Educate yourselves about the art area your child is interested in. Find out what it’s going to take for them to compete and succeed. Then find ways to help them gain those skills and experiences. Basically, be strategic and create a plan. Don’t expect it to just happen on its own.
This may mean getting involved in the local community for that art or—if finances allow—putting them in lessons and programs to let them learn. Again, I know the money thing is a barrier for a lot of people, but if you reach out to the community of artists, you may find that there are a lot of people willing to help your child and resources you wouldn’t know about otherwise. It’s shocking to me that we don’t see more teens at local film meet-ups, for example. They’re free, and we have met so many people willing to give Catrin a chance to help out on set or advise her. I could understand not bringing a middle-schooler or younger child, but there are a lot of talented teens who are missing out on valuable learning opportunities simply because they and their parents have not connected with the community.
Catrin, you’re only 17, yet you’ve done so much in the creative world and community. What inspired you to get into filmmaking at such a young age?
Catrin: One of the big things that got me into film was film acting. I had a teacher, Patrick Sheridan, an important part of the Denver film community, who offered to coach me remotely while I lived in Omaha. At first, he worked with me just on film acting, but then he encouraged me to think more about making films. He noticed that I had more of an interest in creating stories than acting them out, plus I was showing interest in the technical aspects of how films are made.
He challenged me to try making a film—just to do it, not to worry about if I was doing it right. He did give me guidance, but he knew I just needed to experiment on my own. That ended up being my first film, Poet’s Despair, which was just a Mary Oliver poem set to a visual story.
After that, I chose directing instead of acting because I liked the idea of working with actors and guiding the story from behind the camera.
Patrick lost his battle with cancer earlier this year. We all miss him, but I’m determined to honor his life by looking for ways to inspire other artists the way that he inspired me.
How has having a novelist parent influenced the way you approach storytelling for your projects?
Catrin: It’s really useful, because although screenwriting and novels are different, there are aspects of storytelling in general that are similar that my mom can help me understand. I know that there are a lot of filmmakers my age that don’t understand how to structure a good story, so I value my mom teaching me this because it helps me not just with writing but also with directing because I understand how a story is supposed to flow, instead of only focusing on the technical aspects.
You’ve recently finished shooting your senior capstone project which features Mattias Marasigan, one of our very own Cinemaker Space members. Can you provide a little preview of what we can expect from it?
Catrin: Yes! I loved working with Mattias, and I was thrilled to find out he is a Cinemaker Space member. He and the rest of my cast were amazing to work with. I’m so lucky that they were willing to take a risk on a high school student. One thing I really appreciate about Mattias as an actor is that he seemed to intuitively understand what I wanted for his character, but he also was always looking for ways to go deeper and bring out new things that I hadn’t thought of. He was very professional and always willing to help me and share his experience, and working with him definitely made me a better director.
Oh right—I was supposed to talk about my film, not just rave about Mattias!
Garden of Jennat is a short, romantic fantasy film about a sort-of-Victorian naturalist who discovers how to save the Hamadryads (aka Wood Nymphs) from dying of a terrible disease. When lumber mill owners who want the Hamadryads to die attack him, he flees to a mysterious garden where he meets an enchanted prince. Together, the peacock prince and the man of science must find a way to save the Hamadryads and break the curse on the garden even though it may mean losing each other forever.
Making an LGBT fairytale was important to me because Disney and the other major production companies that make fairytale and fantasy/superhero films are resistant to adding gay romantic storylines. This is unfair and devalues non-straight relationships. It also sends the message that LGBT romances are inappropriate for children, and that queer people don’t deserve happily-ever-after endings. I wanted to challenge that by creating an original fairytale that follows the same folktale tropes, including a happy-ever-after, with LGBT characters.
As a young artist, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring young filmmakers?
Catrin: The most important thing about filmmaking is story because although the technical elements are crucial, the story is what makes or breaks the film. If the story is terrible, it doesn’t really matter how beautiful it looks because the audience is still going to be bored, confused, or unsatisfied at the end.
So I would advise young filmmakers to focus on how to tell a good story. Keep the technical stuff in mind, but remember that the technical is supposed to serve the story, not the other way around.
As two female artists from two generations, what do you hope to contribute to the Austin community here?
Meredith: I feel like I have a lot more practical things to offer the writing community because that’s where my expertise is. I’m still very much a learner in the film community. But one thing I’ve learned, regardless of art medium, is that being an artistic person in a world that values science and technology and wants artistic content and entertainment to be cheap or free can be incredibly frustrating, isolating, and discouraging at times. We artists need strong communities and support, and we need to be true friends to each other. It’s hard sometimes because everyone is so busy, and many of us are introverts by nature. But we truly do need each other—in meaningful, personal connections, not just business networking and project-based relationships. So if there’s one thing I want to offer to all of my art communities, it’s my loyalty, friendship, and encouragement. If I can be among the many people making Austin’s art community increasingly more welcoming and inclusive and supportive, I’d consider that a worthwhile effort.
Catrin: I want to use my work to open up opportunities to artists who are not always as well represented. I was very pleased to have a majority minority cast for Garden of Jennat. Seven out of nine cast members were non-white, and five were women—all of whom were mid-30’s or older. And out of eleven crew members, six were women, four were men, and one was gender-fluid. To me, this is one of the most exciting parts about becoming a director—having the ability to create these kind of changes and make the art that I love more welcoming and diverse.
INTERVIEW BY: Janet Lee
MEMBER MONDAYS is a weekly interview series highlighting current members & alumni of the Austin School of Film + Austin Cinemaker Space community! Each week, we’ll be featuring one of our incredibly eclectic community members and take a deep dive into their work. Gaining an insight into what makes them, them.