Jen West is an Atlanta filmmaker, designer, and blogger whose short film, Little Cabbage, had its world premiere at the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival and was featured as part of the New Mavericks program. We sat down together to discuss the film in the Filmmaker’s Lounge at the Highland Ballroom during the fest. “Little Cabbage is a story about a female composer in the 1950s who was given a musical instrument, and when she plays it distorts her perception of reality and her relationships,” Jen told me.
In the days before the deinstitutionalization movement sparked by the introduction of Medicaid and the implementation of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, asylums in America often held not only mentally ill patients but also people who were sick or otherwise considered difficult to care for in everyday life. Women especially would sometimes find themselves in a mental hospital for reasons that today would be considered commonplace or even expected, like postpartum depression and anxiety. “A lot of women during that time were hospitalized and they weren’t even actually crazy, just because they didn’t have men to take care of them.”
Jen’s inspiration for writing this plot came from thinking of the time that led to involuntary commitment for those women. She began “exploring the story of a women before she goes into one of those facilities,” inspired by a book called Letters of a Victorian Madwoman. The book is a compilation of letters from Andrewsic Moore Sheffield who was incarcerated in an asylum against her will for 30 years after setting a building on fire. Andrewsic was under the influence of opiates at the time but otherwise sane, and painstakingly documented her experiences while institutionalized.
Madeline, the film’s main character, is a passionate but eccentric musician living in relative isolation in the deep south during the 1950s. Making a living by teaching music lessons out of her home and working towards a grand opus masterpiece, Madeline begins to lose touch with reality. The reasons for her dysfunction are more fantasy than reality in Little Cabbage, as Jen explained “instead of her being on drugs, she’s under a magical spell from a harmonica.”
The film is a period piece, a distinction that requires special forethought to execute on a small budget. “One of the hardest parts of Little Cabbage was making it look authentic,” Jen explained. The reason for the film’s success was the collaboration of her art department and support team during the extensive pre-production phase. Working with a solid, committed team is the key to produce a high quality and solid finished product. “You need to have people who are very good at their craft,” she said. Overall, production went smoothly. “The whole shoot was really magical and it worked really well,” said Jen, “the movie has an aspect of magic to it.”
Little Cabbage is Jen’s fourth short film and is a prologue for a feature length film that is currently in development and slated for sometime later this year. “I kind of fell into film in a nontraditional way,” Jen told me. It wasn’t until after graduating from college that she came to know about independent films. At that time she was working at a small boutique advertising firm and the owner was an avid fan of indie films and wanted to make one. The idea hit home with Jen and a new passion was born. “It was like an instant connection.”
Outside of working on indie films, Jen makes a living as a freelance graphic designer for local organizations such as the Zoo Atlanta and various nonprofits. One of her biggest clients, the Historic Oakland Cemetery, employs Jen for her filmmaking talents as well. “I do some video work for Oakland Cemetery in more of a producer role,” she explained. For example, last fall Jen interviewed Lillian Deakins Timberlake, the first cousin of Margaret Mitchell, for the cemetery’s Living Links film series.
Jen has been instrumental in developing the New Mavericks program, a concept born from a brainstorming session with fellow Atlanta creatives Lane Skye, Robyn Rebecca Hicks, and Brantly Jackson Watts. After discussing the idea of forming a collaborative group here in the city Brantly made the connection with Kristy Breneman and Christina Humphrey to bring New Mavericks to the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival.
“It’s really exciting to think that we are going to have a group here in town that is not just female directors or writers, but also editors and cinematographers and all these other equally important roles,” Jen said. “I’m looking forward to it so much.”
Being a woman working in the film industry, Jen said her experiences have been purely positive. “As a matter of fact, people tend to celebrate what I do more because I’m a woman,” she explained, citing the absence of female directors in larger-scale productions as a reason for that added support. When you look at the metrics, only 5% of for-hire directors in mainstream cinema are women. “That’s why it’s so important for women to do their own projects and make them happen,” she said, “the more work you do the more likely you are to get hired.”
Jen recently toured with Little Cabbage to the Ozark Foothills Film Festival in Arkansas, the Chattanooga Film Festival, and Indie Grits in Columbia, South Carolina. The pre-production of her upcoming feature length film, Electric Bleau, is also well underway with the script currently in the review and editing stage. This film will again tie to the magical, cursed harmonica theme, this time taking place in one of Jen’s favorite cities, New Orleans. The film follows an African-American punk rocker in the late 1970’s as she inherits the cursed musical instrument that’s been wreaking havoc on her family for generations.
As always, Jen has her hands in a variety of projects and endeavors at any given time. Driven and passionate, her plans and ideas continue to evolve and push her to create even beyond the plans she has now. Her commitment to the craft and perseverance in her work rings true. When it comes to working in film, Jen said it best- “you can’t just half ass it, you have to go all the way.”
To read more about Jen, see behind-the-scenes shots from Little Cabbage, and stay updated on future films such as Electric Bleau, go online to her website.