“I just feel like a young filmmaker,” laughs writer and director Katie Doane Avery on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, California. After a number of years working in the non-profit arts sector, Avery made the jump behind the camera during her graduate studies at the California Institute of the Arts and has already worked on an impressive list of Hollywood productions, including Jill Soloway’s Transparent (2014–present). Her thesis film Polar Sun (2016) is a muted, tonal family drama interwoven with traditional Iñupiaq stories surrounding the northern lights. This blending of genres comes naturally for Avery. “In a lot of my work there is always an aspect of trying to nurture what my cultural representation is through the story,” she explains. Gently, Jennifer (2018), her most recent short, is a humorous 1980s-tinged, coming-of-age tale, where two girls discover a porn magazine in a sibling’s room before the title character is sucked into its pages. Here, she encounters Pucker’s titular figure in the midst of a technicolour fog as the dreamy synth sounds of “Safety Dance” fill the background.
Though work on the film only recently finished, Avery already has her sights on the next project. From scripts in the works for a tale of an underground queer mafia in 1970s New York to a steam punk, alt-historical epic lead by four Indigenous women in the Old West, Avery’s category-defying stories continue to challenge the stereotypical tropes that often pervade narrative filmmaking. “I’m really interested in character-driven stories. We spend so much time drawing lines or separating out people and belief systems, but I’m really interested in opening that up for discussion.”
– Evan Pavka
Evan Pavka: How did you get started in filmmaking?
Katie Doane Avery: I had always written scripts and stories as a young kid. Writing was always something I was drawn to and did from a very early age. But, it really wasn’t until I had gone through college and was working in non-profit arts management that I started to think back to these stories I wanted to create. And, I always had these ideas for movies—some of them were documentaries, some were more narrative. I decided to see what it would be like to take some night classes when I was living in Sante Fe, NM. I got deep into the writing process, took the jump and moved to Los Angeles, CA. I enrolled in a graduate program for film directing at the California Institute of the Arts. Since then, I have been working in TV Productions like Transparent as well as working on my own short films and screenwriting.
EP: Can you tell me a bit about your film Polar Sun (2016)?
KDA: Polar Sun (2016) was my thesis film while I was at Cal Arts. I’m constantly writing, and had been writing some material that was based on dream-imagery as well as on issues surrounding missing and murdered women. In a lot of my stories, there is always some kind of aspect of trying to nurture what my cultural representation is through the narrative. Polar Sun is about a woman whose sister has passed, and she is telling her niece stories about the northern lights. I had read a number of Iñupiaq stories about the lights, and part of these tales is that they are the spirits of the deceased coming to visit—not in human form, but animal form. I liked the idea that this character would be using these stories in connection with her cultural being, but also her spiritual being in speaking with her niece.
EP: Your most recent film Gently, Jennifer (2019) takes a different approach, what was the making of that film like?
KDA: It’s an entirely different kind of story, much more linear. It’s a coming-of-age story about two teen girls who are looking at their brother’s porn magazine. It was really fun to make. We had almost no budget, but I’m lucky enough to know some really talented people so we could make it with almost no money. It’s really important for me to cast Indigenous, people of colour and queer people as much as possible. When I was casting for Gently, Jennifer, I specifically put out a call for a Native lead and then also a person of colour. It was really interesting because, in doing that, there were these young girls coming to me so excited that there was a casting call they identified with. They were saying,”this character is me, this is just about a teenager, just about another person and I feel like I can relate to this,” as it was not categorizing them. It’s just a coming-of-age story. It doesn’t lend itself to any of the stereotypical narratives that some people take liberty in using for narrative filmmaking when it comes to people who are othered—whether they are Indigenous, people of colour, queer or trans.
EP: Are there any projects you’re currently working on?
KDA: I’m trying to work out a story about an alternative mafia. It’s about this underground queer culture in New York City in the 1970s. There is also a script I was workshopping at Sundance that I want to go back to: a Western. I really envision it more as a feature film. It centres on four Native women coming together and waring up and kicking ass in the old west. It also has a little bit of steam-punkness to it. There’s a lot of actual historical references that I’m looking at and very interested in investigating as well as using. And, then of course there is the Western tropes to draw from. What do you use? What do you stay away from? That project is years in the making but it’s one of the most exciting ones when I start thinking about it. And, I think it can easily be a series too—there is so much to draw from with the genre, with the characters who are living in that world. There is definitely enough to fill out a 5 season series. I’m not sure it will go there, but I’d love to. I don’t have the complete script ready yet, but it’s going to be something. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I just feel like a young filmmaker, not in terms of age in terms of what I have to show. But, I’m just super excited about what I will be making. I’m just really excited.
EP: When people watch your films, what do you want them to take away?
KDA: I’m really interested in character driven stories. I think that there is so much more that connects us as human beings than we sometimes give credit for. We spend so much time drawing the line or separating out people and belief systems, but I’m interested in opening that up for discussion.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
This Profile appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.