Jessica Kaye—director, writer, actress, and producer—has been met with phenomenal success in her film career these last few months. One film of hers recently won its category at Cinequest Film Festival and another has been selected for multiple film festivals across the country. And amidst this all, she has found time to write a feature film, as well as collaborate on two other films this year. She kindly took the time to speak with Metamobilix, thoughtfully and modestly, looking at her work—past, present, and future.
While Jessica was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she moved at a very young age and was raised in Minneapolis. Yet, Johannesburg remained very much a part of her life—with family still residing there, she, her parents, and two sisters visited often. While her parents embraced their lives in America, Jessica could always sense they felt immediately at home in South Africa when they returned. This affected Jessica’s own sense of home—Jess expressed it as an enduring awareness that “you’re not from the place where you live.” Pulled between two places.
Her history with Johannesburg played a role in the beginning of her film career. Having these two places in her life, which complicated her sense of home, forced her into a broader perspective. And she found film to be a rewarding way to explore different perspectives. In fact, the first film she helped produced took place in Johannesburg—in content and in its shooting location. After receiving a BA from Harvard University and continuing on to complete an MFA for acting at Columbia University, Jessica co-produced and starred in the short film Gargoyle. Co-producing with her friend Kelsey Egan provided Jessica with a dramatically different experience from the acting she had been doing in New York City; she enjoyed the agency it awarded her, her capacity to control so many crucial aspects of the film. Gargoyle also went on to be nominated for a 2010 SAFTA (South African Film and Television Award), making the experience only that much for moving.
But during the process, Jessica spent a lot of time alone in Johannesburg. She devoted hours to reading about film and film directing. She decided to make her own film. Two short films later, Jessica was on her way to USC for her second Masters. This time for Film Production.
While at USC, she wrote the script for her recent short narrative film, Angel, though it was made independently from the school. Jessica loved having the ability to choose with whom she worked. Among her crew was her producer Jim Augustine—an old friend from Harvard. With Jim having to work in New York for much of pre-production, Jessica remembers one of her biggest challenges in Angel’s making was balancing her time between logistics and creativity. Despite the inevitable stress that comes with directing a first film, Jess recalls the excitement of the production—“I was seeing the little world that I had made realized. Seeing it all come together. That’s an amazing feeling.” Angel has been met with quite some success, recently screening at Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, as well as being admitted to the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival and NewFilmmakers in New York.
Among Jessica’s recent work creating a buzz is her short documentary, Fabian Debora, A Life for Art. It won its category in “Best Documentary Short Film” at the Cinequest Film Festival. Jessica laughed good-naturedly at this significant triumph, saying that she hadn’t even planned on attending the awards until the Festival offered to change her flights around so she could make it. “Then I got a little suspicious.” Fabian Debora focuses on an East Los Angeles painter—Fabian Debora—and how a near-death experience awakened him from the darkness of gang life, incarceration, and drug addiction. Jessica said that she was most touched by “the way we could connect as two artists, even though we came from different backgrounds. There was an immediate connection because at the root of it, we were two artists who respected each other.”
Her recent accomplishments haven’t slowed Jessica’s progression with her current work. She’s writing a script for her first feature film about two young, female ice-skaters trying to reach their potential in the competitive world of ice-skating through the turbulence of adolescence. She’s also collaborating on a film that takes place in Belize—an overlapping coming-of-age story about an American couple that goes to Belize to settle their father’s land and end up meeting two young kids who have grown up on that land. “With these next projects, I’m being more rigorous,” declares Jessica. “The one feature I’m writing, I’m going to direct when it’s ready. I know the difference now. Why put it in the world if it’s not all it can be?”
In addition to these two projects, Jessica is also collaborating with Jim Augustine on a Metamobilix production, The UnWedding—a heartwarming and quirky romantic comedy feature film. Jessica expressed almost a childish excitement to be working with such a close friend again.
As a director, Jessica endeavors to create a space that is conducive to creativity. A quiet, nurturing set. She wants her actors to have space and stillness amidst the frenetic energy of a film shoot. Often, she won’t even call “Action!” on set, so as not to break the mood that has been generated. Jessica emphasized how much she learned about film directing on the other side of the camera: as an actress. She believes that every aspiring director should take an acting course. “As a director, your ears, your eyes, your heart, your mind must be open to everything!”
When asked who she’d most like to collaborate with, Jessica responded that she’d love to work with an exceptionally talented writer. She admitted that the writing is the hardest part of the filmmaking process for her. “I think everyone thinks writing is the hardest thing though! I don’t know anybody who’s like, ‘writing’s really easy!’” she laughs.
Reviewing her past work and looking ahead to her future projects, Jessica fervidly expressed her desire to put more stories of strong, complex characters on the screen—especially women. As an actress, Jessica remembers feeling incredibly underrepresented in parts. There seemed so few interesting roles for women. Jessica hopes that she will continue challenging herself to create complex characters through her writing and directing.
From acting to producing to directing and from South Africa to New York to LA—Jessica has had an expansive and diverse exposure to film. For such a young artist she has told poignant and beautiful stories. And she’s accomplished quite bit. We here at Metamobilix can’t wait to see the films she goes on to make and the stories she chooses to tell!