It is 1937, Scotland. Stella, a 20 year-old German Jewish student, finds work on a large country estate owned by the fascist Earl of Rig. With war looming and desperate to find her missing parents, Stella is quickly accepted as one of the family and must hide her true identity to survive. While there she falls in love, with life changing consequences. Based on the folktale of Cinderella, championing the struggle with identity, home and love, "Stella" is the tale of a refugee.
Jessica Fox is a tv/film director, writer and nerd whisperer. On graduating Prague’s National Film School, Fox directed her first feature documentary "The First Last Tour" with The Dresden Dolls for iTunes. Founding Mythic Image Studios in Boston, Fox wrote and directed festival award winning shorts including “Bluebeard”, “Birth”, “An American Imbecile in Paris” and wrote and starred in youtube series My Famous Dead Boyfriend. Moving to Scotland, Fox continued her love of period drama co-founding Innerwell Media and directing her first feature “Stella” which won Best Drama at Tel Aviv International Film Festival (2022) and Best First Time Filmmaker at Montreal Independent Film Festival (2022). She is currently working on a new genre-bending feature, produced “The Lady Foxes” podcast and has a new book set for publication this year. As an author, Fox’s articles have appeared in The Guardian, HelloGiggles and the Independent. Her first novel Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets was Waterstone's Book of the Month, featured in Oprah Magazine and is currently in development with Endeavor Content. Creator of Airbnb’s most popular destination The Open Book in Scotland’s National Book Town, Fox also feeds her inner nerd by consulting as a storyteller for science organisations. She was the resident storyteller at NASA. We recently spoke to her about the making of her feature film project.
What makes you fascinated with the cinematic language and what was the first film project you worked on? I've always had a vivid imagination. Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, I loved theater, movies and stories, and spending hours in the woods, building worlds out of tree branches and rocks, and playing pretend. Images of all kinds, especially moving images, spoke to me. Perhaps it was because I was mildly dyslexic so reading wasn't a world I could escape into (though I did love when people read to me) but pictures to me were a language more powerful than words; they spoke directly to a primal place within, connecting my inner-world with the outer one. Films quickly became my artistic obsession. Perhaps like all film nerds, they also became my roadmaps where I could emulate heroic qualities and learn life lessons. Joseph Campbell beautifully wonders in his book 'The Mythic Image' how pictures can 'cause a thrill in the mind'. I often wonder the same thing of movies when music, sound, images and story all come together to create an almost transcendent experience. The very first project I worked on was a rap music video featuring my loving and very patient grandmother. I was 8 years old and convinced her that her spunky spirit, big gold jewelry and penchant for wearing track suits was a perfect fit for my new found obsession with emulating the short videos I saw on MTV. Decades later, I put my home video recorder aside for a proper cast and crew, and worked on my first short film, Bluebeard. It was based on an old folktale, set in the colonial era at a historic house in Concord, Massachusetts.
Please tell us how your film came to life and let us know about the process from pre-production to completion. Living in South West Scotland, it is easy to be swept away by the romance of the area. The picture perfect landscape, timeless beaches, small roads, cottages and its magical light of endless golden hour would turn anyone into a filmmaker. I knew I wanted to set a feature here but it was the hight of pandemic lock down; if we were going to film a feature it would have to be in one location, so the cast and crew could all bubble safely together. When the opportunity to film at Galloway House presented itself (thanks to the owner Kamal) I began to storyboard and write a story that would make the most of the house, its outbuildings and gardens. “Stella”, an adaptation of Cinderella, was born. It also provided a wonderful chance to explore an untold history of Scotland in 1937.
I never liked the story of Cinderella - her fairy god-mother, the glass slippers or the fuss of the ball - until I heard the older folk versions. In these stories, Cinderella has no magical transformation. Instead, she flees her kingdom to find safety in another. She takes on a new name and identity. The only magic she’s allowed is a secret chest that sinks into the ground, filled with a few belongings, that follows her where ever she goes. As a grandchild of holocaust survivors, who had to flee their homes, find new identities and keep only what they could carry, this Cinderella resonated. She wasn’t the fairy tale archetype, an epitome of goodness waiting to be rescued; she was a refugee, a survivor, heroic. This Cinderella, her story, was one I wanted to tell. We fundraised, prepped, filmed and completed the whole film in under a year. One priority was to keep everything as local as possible. So much talent exists in Scotland, especially in the south west, that it was easy to hire the majority of our key crew locally and give equal production opportunities to those living in rural areas outside the cities. Wigtownshire especially is a special place and we had huge support from the community with armies of volunteers, donations of supplies and support. We even created an impromptu foley stage in one of the Wigtown Book Festival office buildings. Another priority was not wasting time. Working on larger projects I know how much entropy takes hold of the development process. Here was a project we had full control over and therefore could achieve more with our small but mighty cast and crew.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on this genre? The most challenge aspect of working on this genre is when you finish a scene or film out a location. I love the building of worlds, I do not like the deconstruction or ending of them. It's sad to say goodbye to a set piece or costume. Also, it came as a surprise to me that many of the young people on our set thought I had created the historical character of Oswald Mosley, who appears in one of the scenes. Another challenge it highlights of the genre is the responsibility period dramas have in people's awareness (or lack of awareness) of history. What is your next film project and what are you currently working on? The next film project is a genre-bending, food, adventure, period drama/comedy. I'm currently very excited and working on that, and i'm co-developing a new series based on the female transcendentalists and famous American 19th century authors called "Nature".
What is the most creative part of directing a project for you? The most creative part of directing a project for me is challenge of how to share a vision; in the process of making a film you collaborate with your amazing team and the film becomes a shared vision - hopefully better than you could have imagined - all the while trying to remain true to the original that has been in your mind all along.
Does the language of cinema stand out more than other arts to you? And why? The language of cinema to me has always been closer to dance than any other art form. Images have potential energy, depending on where you place people and things in a frame. Playing with the pay off of that energy and movement is fun storytelling. Colour to me reads in emotion, blocking and placement in a scene tells me about power relationships, all the while everything is dancing, evolving and helping to tell the story.
Why do you make films?
While films don't offer a meaning to life, they do put us in touch with the experience, the thrill, of being alive. That is why I make them, and love watching them.