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Suncoast Director Laura Chinn on Bringing Parts from Her Own Life to the Sundance Favorite

Filmmaker Laura Chinn recently brought her personal and cathartic project, Suncoast, to premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Suncoast takes audiences back to the early 2000s and draws on her own experiences from an emotional perspective. There are instances where the film’s lead character, Doris (Nico Parker), goes through similar things as Chinn did, while joining her mother Kristine (Laura Linney) in caring for her dying brother. For the most part, Chinn takes many dramatic liberties in bringing the story to life. Like in the film, Chinn’s sibling spent their final days at the same hospice facility as Terri Schiavo, whose request to die rocked the country. In the film, Doris strikes up a friendship with Paul Warren (Woody Harrelson), an activist who has joined others in protesting the Schiavo decision.

The filmmaker spoke with Above the Line shortly after returning from Sundance, where Suncoast was selected for the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Laura Chinn (photo courtesy Sundance Institute)

Above the Line: How was it being able to attend Sundance to premiere Suncoast and not have to worry about the stress that comes with trying to get distribution during the festival?
Laura Chinn: Oh, my goodness! I honestly can’t imagine how challenging that must be, because there’s the festival in and of itself. There’s so much activity, there’s so much energy, it’s so intense. I can’t imagine the added stress. I feel very, very grateful that we were able to go into it knowing that we had distribution.

ATL: I know the film was inspired by your own story. Did the writing process feel cathartic?

Chinn: Incredibly, yeah. It was very purging. It was like a therapy session. There were 1,000 therapy sessions, and then you get to show your therapy session to people and then they get to talk about their therapy session with you. It’s an amazing, big ball of catharsis.

ATL: How tough was it to see all this media attention at the facility, during what I imagine was a very tough time for your family?

Chinn: It was challenging. I think hospice was doing the best they can to keep it outside the doors, but there were a lot of police officers and a ton of media. On Sundays, I think there were more media than protesters, so it was a frenzy, and it was definitely challenging. I think we were able to compartmentalize and keep it in the background as much as possible. We were still getting our car searched for bombs, getting patted down at the door, and no cameras allowed inside, and this kind of thing. It was definitely not the usual experience at hospice but yeah, it was an experience. I definitely think that it helped me with empathy at that age, to see people that were on the news as people, see them like flesh and blood people, and see this protest that was on the news and being very politicized, to see it up close and chat with protesters when I was walking across the street to go to McDonald’s. It helped me see everyone as human beings.

Nico Parker in Suncoast (Searchlight/Hulu)

ATL: Were there any moments in the film that happened exactly as it did in real life, or was a lot of it just invented for dramatic liberties?

Chinn: A lot of the details were invented. I think it was the day-to-day of going to hospice that was very similar, dealing with police and that kind of thing. But Doris’s specific journey in the movie, those details were invented.

ATL: When did you know that it was the right time to direct your first feature film?

Chinn: It was really just the script. I think the script got such a positive reaction. When we were looking to put together a package to get the movie made, it felt odd to attach a director to something that I lived through, because I can’t imagine describing it to someone. I kind of just wanted to do it myself. It became like, “Do you want to direct this?” And I was like, “Yes.” And then I had to be like, “Okay, now I’m gonna figure out how to direct.” I actually took classes at Sundance. I took classes at their Co-Lab, just to learn more about cinematography, because that was sort of this hole in my career. I had never directed anything so I had never worked with a DP before. I took some classes to kind of fill that hole.

ATL: How beneficial were those classes?

Chinn: Hugely, hugely, because every other part of directing I had done when I was a showrunner. Working with department heads, figuring out the look of the movie, and all those things I had done before in TV, but I didn’t have a language to speak to a cinematographer, and I had never shot listed before. I took classes that specifically dealt with that – cinematography and shotlisting—those elements of directing that I had just not done before. It was great. It gave me a ton of confidence. I also shadowed directors—that was really helpful, too. It was great.

Laura Linney, Nico Parker in Suncoast (Searchlight/Hulu)

ATL: What was it like getting to direct the cast?

Chinn: I mean, incredible. It was also intimidating, until we started. The idea of these actors was so intimidating, but then we started, and they were just wonderful, kind, patient, and all the things. It ended up just being the absolute highlight of my career. Before I started, I was like, “How am I gonna do this?” They’re such incredible actors, and they’ve been acting for so long and have these incredible resumés—you’re gonna step into the role of director with these people, but they made it so easy and seamless. And yeah, it was wonderful.

ATL: What was the most challenging aspect of the production?

Chinn: Oh, G-d. Every day. Just everything. It’s all so challenging. Honestly, I think background actors was the hardest thing. Because in Charleston, people just don’t show up. You get them Covid-tested, you get it all ready, and then they just don’t come. That happened a lot. We have a day, where we need 70 background actors and then four people show up. We’re like, “Okay, we have to pivot.” So yeah, that happened a lot. One of our producers, Francesca Silvestri, would go on the streets of Charleston and hand out flyers, like we need background actors. She would just bring people in somehow, and it worked out, but it was definitely very stressful in the moment.

ATL: I can’t even imagine getting ready to film and all of a sudden, it’s like, “Where is everyone?”

Chinn: No one came, and there’s nothing you can do. There are so many fixes to so many different problems, but you can’t create human bodies. You’re just like, “There are no humans here, so what do we do?” So yeah, we had to get creative, but I think we worked on that.

ATL: I suppose you could always add VFX during post, but I imagine that’s not a cheap fix.

Chinn: No. No, not at all.

ATL: Speaking of technology, it has changed so much since the early 2000s. How tough was it to find the right phones to use in the film?

Chinn: Our prop master was so good. I have no idea how he did this. I don’t know how he found all of these things, but he had all the phones—Motorola Razors, Nokia phones. I mean, he was amazing. Our production designer, Valeria [De Felice], somehow found these old computers and TVs. I really don’t know. I mean, we talked about it a lot, and somehow, they all just made it happen. They’re wizards.

Nico Parker, Woody Harrelson in Suncoast (Searchlight/Hulu)

ATL: Going back to the Sundance experience this year, were you able to have fun while you were on the mountain outside of all the film obligations, or was it pretty much just film obligations the entire time?

Chinn: It was film obligations the entire time, but that was really fun, because I just love movies and have always loved movies so much. You go to Sundance, and everyone there loves movies as much as you, and some people more than you. Just being around that energy and the way they were talking about filmmaking was so fun. I wanted to start making a movie while I was there, just wanting to create stuff. I felt so energized by the whole place. So yeah, it was all film commitments, but I loved every second of it.

ATL: What was it like working with Este Haim and Christopher Stracey, when it came to the music?

Chinn: They’re so cool. It’s insane. I don’t have a musical language. I do not know what to say about music. Este’s amazing about just emotions. I would just give her the emotion that I’m looking for, and she and Chris would go off and send back the most perfect music. They were amazing. They sent early tracks in after the director’s cut and all the tracks are in the movie, everything, because they just got it and understood the tone we were going for. Este is like a whisperer with people who don’t understand how to speak music. She’s like, “I understand you,” and she goes off and makes the perfect track. I loved working with them.

ATL: Speaking of the director’s cut, how long was the initial cut?

Chinn: The assembly was two and a half hours long [laughs], but the director’s cut was only seven minutes longer than the cut currently.

ATL: What do you hope people take away from watching the film?

Chinn: For me, it was really just about grief and the way people deal with grief and sort of a light-hearted look at the way people grieve, and saying goodbye to someone. Hopefully, people don’t walk away with any kind of moral or message, because that wasn’t intended. It was really just to say, “We all grieve differently, and maybe you relate to any of these forms of grief, and they’re all okay.”

ATL: Now that you have your first feature out of the way, are you looking forward to making a second feature?

Chinn: Yeah, I wrote a memoir called Acne, and I’m looking at maybe adapting a portion of that. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m also kind of tired of talking about myself, so we’ll see what happens, but I would love to make another movie. I really love the experience.

Suncoast is available to stream on Hulu following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. You can read our review here.

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