Giving Birth to a Butterfly – Interview with Film Director/Co-Writer Theodore Schaefer

Giving Birth to a Butterfly is a little indie feature film that blends the common everyday fears of anyone with a family and a mortgage with unsettling dream-like imagery full of melancholy and uncertainty. With the film now streaming exclusively on Fandor, viewers may find that Giving Birth to a Butterfly draws its aesthetic from anything from David Lynch’s filmography. After sitting down with Director Theodore Schaefer to discuss how he pieced this film together, we found out more about the inspiration behind the central plot and some other directors who were impactful when making the film.

Listen or read the transcript below — edited and condensed for clarity:

All right, well, to kick things off here, this is what I usually do. I just want to say congrats on the film being released and getting out there in the world.

Thank you. Yeah, I'm glad to have it out.


Yeah, definitely. So I was doing a little research, and I heard that film is loosely based off of something that happened to you, I saw in another interview.

Sort of. Yes, very loosely. Just in that I had, when I was fresh out of college, found a secret shopper scam that I, out of curiosity, followed for a little bit, and they mailed me a check. The intent was I was going to wire money to the Philippines through Western Union, but the check had a return address on it, and the return address was just a house in Kentucky, a residential address. And so that was the seed of the idea. Thankfully. I didn't actually get scammed, though.


Did you actually, like the characters do, venture out to see what was at this house?

No, I always was curious about it, but I didn't have the money to fly to Kentucky to find out, nor to the Philippines. But initially, I had thought it's interesting. There are two locations you can very easily point to, to try and find who's scamming you out of this.


Interesting. So when that information, just for any of the listeners or readers out there, what is the premise of Giving Birth to a Butterfly?

Giving Birth to a Butterfly follows Diana, who is married to Darryl and has two children, and she has been secretly trying to. Put together some extra financing to help her daughter get to college when she finds out that she's been scammed and loses all her money. So she enlists her son's pregnant new girlfriend to drive with her down to find out who scammed her.


Interesting. Okay. I was thinking to myself the whole time I was watching this, and so I needed to ask you this. What would you classify [as] the genre of this film? Is it a family drama? Is it just some sort of suspense? I don't think suspense, but I'll just let you answer. What would you classify [as] the genre of the film?

Yeah, that's a tough one. It's sort of a surreal family drama mystery.


Okay. These characters I've seen in other reviews have been talking about the family and whatnot these characters have been labeled quirky. What was your approach, if you agree with that or not, I don't know. And you can answer that as well with this question. But what is your approach in directing these actors and creating that vibe on screen? Or did it all just happen by accident?

No, definitely not by accident. I don't know that quirky is the word I would use, but I think I understand the gist of what that's trying to get at. We were very lucky. We had a week of rehearsals, but it was important for most of the characters around the two leads, Diana and Marlene, to have a sort of large presence, so they were always bordering on cartoonish but finding the grounding within that. So it was a very kind of balancing act to get that tone exactly right. And thankfully, we cast really incredible actors, and with a week of rehearsal, we were able to really fine-tune it and work off of each other so we could find the exact right pitch for each character to have throughout. So I think it was a totally collaborative process to find the exact, everyone was on the same page of what needed to be presented and we found together the ways to do that.


Now, correct me if I'm wrong. You had a co-writer on this with you as well, right?

Yes, Patrick Lawler, who I've written many a thing with and continue to write with.


So with this being somewhat of an experience that happened to you years ago, what was it like having somebody else come on board and craft the screenplay for this with the information you have of something that actually happened to you?

Well, Patrick and I had been writing together for several years before we started this script. And typically the way we work is one person has an idea or an experience and then we work together to try and find the story within it and the themes that are most of interest to us. So it's a really fun process, where we work off each other and we build a story together. So this was a seed, but then through that we found these characters and this idea of identity through identity theft and just sort of larger ideas that we had been thinking about and talking about. Because we speak fairly frequently, that has become a really organic process, the way that we work.

Okay, so the cinematography, editing, and aspect ratio really complemented the film, I felt. Just talk to me about the decision process of giving the film that aesthetic and shooting on I believe it was 16 millimeter?

Yes, it was us. There's a couple of thoughts we had. 16 was sort of always the hope and we were able to pull it off budgetarily, though it was a challenge. But a film like this exists in sort of two worlds and so as much as we can foreshadow the world in which you're entering at the end of the film, the better. And part of that is creating sort of a presentational aspect to the film with the 16 and the framing hopefully helps you really feel like you're watching a movie, and that hopefully disarms the viewer so that they are no longer looking for reality in the same way. And so they're more open to the surreality and subconsciously, more open to certain themes. That was a really big part of it, I think also, it's a film that deals with memory and dream and magic, and so the more that aesthetic could complement that, the better.

It's also shooting on film. It's something that I've done all of my career, thankfully, and it's more fun. It creates a certain discipline that I think is really useful just in terms of practice when you're actually making the film. The whole crew, everybody's sort of on a different pace, working at a different pace than if it's digital. You have to take every tape very seriously, which I think really helps when you're making a movie that you need to make very quickly.


And speaking of making it very quickly, how long was the shoot on this?

20 days. And no reshoots. So that was it.


Awesome. This is a great ensemble in the cast. Just talk to me about putting this team together for being in front of the camera.

Yeah, I mean, the credit definitely goes to Kate Geller, our casting director. Pretty early on, she, having read the script, thought we should look at mostly theater actors. They're going to understand this material better. They're going to be more attracted to this sort of, there's some very text-heavy segments of the film, and they're going to be excited about shooting on film. There is this sort of theater-quality when you're shooting on film because every take is like a performance. You really can't just screw up and go back. So once we found Annie, who plays Diana, Annie Parisse, it kind of all came together. We met, had, like, an hour-long chat, and just immediately bonded and knew this is somebody who understood what we were going for and very quick to find Gus. And then through Annie. Annie and Paul Sparks, who plays Darryl, our partners in real life, and Gus and Connie, who plays Monica, our mother, and daughter in real life. So it became this very funny, organic family affair as we were casting.


Interesting. That works perfect. So just to throw it out there, I'm sure you've heard it hundreds of times on your press tour here, the names like David Lynch. I've also heard Darren Aronovsky get thrown around in terms of comparing the film to other filmmaker styles. But I want to know, what are your filmmaking inspirations, whether who had an impact on you rather in general, or even making this film?

Yeah, I mean, I'm a very big Ingmar Bergman fan. That's one that I think always has been a big influence. [Yasujirō] Ozu, who also we talked certainly a lot about with this with the framing and the way that he uses what he calls pillow shots, which are those just small moments of clouds or the trees and the way the light plays on certain objects. That was very influenced by Ozu. And we talked a lot about Edward Yang, Chantal Akerman, and Jim Jarmusch. I mean, there's a lot I feel like a coming-of-age. When I did, I was very lucky to be exposed to a lot of film. I remember pretty young, my dad getting a list of movies that he thought we should all watch, and we would just watch everything. And I became addicted. So, there's a lot. There's a lot in there, and I went to film school, so there's a huge, I think, list of influences that have helped shape what I'm trying to accomplish, at least in the films that I make.


All right, good to hear. What do you want audiences to take away from this film when the credits roll?

Something? I don't have a specific thing that I want them to take away, but I hope they take away something. When you make a film like this, you're hoping that different people have different reactions. Hopefully, they're mostly positive or introspective at least. But we're very firm when we write, Patrick and I. There is not a clear answer to most of our work, and there's not a clear reaction we're looking for. We're just hoping that it reacts. It creates a reaction at all.


Yeah, it's definitely a film I felt that has a lot of replay value because I get to see it on screen or but I'd love to see this thing maybe play on a big screen or something. But now that it's out there in the world I heard it popped up recently on a little streaming service called Fandor. Where else can we find it? In multiple places or just on there? Is it exclusively there?

It's streaming exclusively on Fandor. You can rent it on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play — all of the traditional rental materials. But I will say to plug Fandor, it's $5 a month. So you could watch this and many other great films or just watch this many times for a month and it would cost you almost the same as it would to rent it.

To plug Fandor too. I got to say, I'm a fan. I'm a subscriber and caught it on there last night as well. So I'll probably be giving it a rewatch again at some point.


That's it for me. I just want to end here, Ted, by just saying congrats again on all the success with the movie. It was a really interesting film, I really enjoyed it.

Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

Watch Giving Birth to a Butterfly