Sweetback (SB): You’ve been very active in film-making over the past five years, starting with a series of shorts. Your recent projects have been edging towards feature length – with CLAUDIA QUI breaking the hour mark. Do you see yourself continuing to continue to switch between longer and shorter pieces, or are you focused mainly on features at this point?

Tonjia Atomic (TA): I have a few ideas for projects in the near future and they are of various lengths. I have plans for a few features and a few shorts. I do have more of an affinity for feature projects because of the nature of a longer piece. You can tell more of a story and get to know the characters better. You can immerse yourself into a whole world in a way that you can’t with a short film.

SB: When writing a piece like CLAUDIA QUI, do you go into it with an idea of its length ahead of time? Do the resources you already have available play into the process, or do you let the material dictate what will need to be assembled afterward?

TA: CLAUDIA QUI was a unique project for me. I wanted to make a more serious toned horror film entirely with improvisation. There was no scripted dialogue of any kind. I had a loose outline but even that changed as we filmed. Because of that, shooting was almost completely in order of scene with a few exceptions. It was a fun way to create the scenes, but very difficult when it came to editing the story together. I’m used to having a script as a blueprint. I didn’t have that for CLAUDIA QUI. I had no idea what I was going to get or how long it would be. I tried to assemble everything in a way that flowed and made sense. It was very nerve-wracking to let go of control that way, but I had decided to do it as an exercise and I had to just keep forcing myself to let go and sort of sculpt the pieces together in the end.

Awesome Ouija Board from Tonjia Atomic on Vimeo.

SB: You’re a woman of many talents – writer, director, actor, and musician. One of the incredible things about film-making is that it allows you to contribute all of your talents – and find new ones. Do you find all of these artistic endeavors to be equally fulfilling?

TA: Honestly, music is my first love. I stopped working on film and video projects for a few years while I was with the band Huh-Uh. We practiced and played out quite a bit so that was taking up a lot of my time. I was able to meld film-making and music when we would work on music videos. It wasn’t until Huh-Uh stopped practicing on a regular basis that I got into film-making again. I’m constantly looking to balance those two loves and, fortunately, there are moments when I get to work on both for the same project.

SB: While there are a number of striking things about the film, the one I was most impressed with was the lead performance of Barbara Burgio. Perhaps some of this is the result of her experience in performing music, but she’s so naturally comfortable and believable on-screen. Was the intention always for her to star, and how did she first get involved in the project?

TA: I created the project with Barbara and Don in mind. They are from the band Luminol who provided all of the music for the film. The original idea was always to create an improvised horror using Luminol’s music and Barbara and Don as the actors. It grew from there.

Phyllis Stein presents Wig in a Box from Tonjia Atomic on Vimeo.

SB: While often dreamlike and otherworldly, the supernatural elements in CLAUDIA QUI are kept to the bare minimum. In fact, whether there’s anything supernatural at all occurring is open to interpretation. Are you drawn to films and writing that are less overtly horrific? Or, would you even consider CLAUDIA QUI a horror film?

TA: I consider CLAUDIA QUI horror in the sense that something unexplained is going on and Claudia is experiencing a horrific reality where she is in crisis. As for the reasons I did want to leave it up to interpretation, it’s because that’s how I think many unusual circumstances of life are. Many times we don’t have the answers for situations and we must interpret them to the best of our knowledge. It seems like a scary thought but we do it all the time. We just go with what we know and plow forwards. In CLAUDIA QUI, Claudia and Mark are trying to do that but whatever is happening is beyond their control. For this particular movie I wanted the horror to be internal in that way. However, it depends on the story of what will work better- to be more subtle or more outwardly overt. I like either as long as it’s psychologically appropriate to the story.

SB: You obviously have a great interest in music, and cast two musicians as your leads in the film. How important are the songs by Luminol to the texture of your film?

TA: My original intent was to fill the movie with Luminol songs. Their songs are so atmospheric, moody, and intense. I almost feel like the music was another character or at least a large component of the finished piece.

Companion from Tonjia Atomic on Vimeo.

SB: What’s coming up next for the film. Are you currently booking it in film festivals? For those looking to check it out, what would be the best way to do so?

TA: I have and will be applying to several film festivals. It is very early on in that process and I’m not sure what the response will be like. I’m thinking about different ways to release it but haven’t made any firm decisions yet.

SB: And for those interested in checking out your other work – or keep up on future projects – what’s the best way to do so?

TA: You can find pretty much everything at my website

SB: Anything else to plug?

TA: I’m working on a feature comedy about clueless girl gang members called PLAIN DEVIL as well as a short that I co-wrote with Bill Oberst Jr. about a skinless killer called RAW MEAT.

SB: Now that you’ve lensed some longer projects, and have worked – and been inspired by – young and inexperienced directors, what advice would you have for someone looking to tackle their first feature?

TA: I would say learn as much as you can about films and film-making.  Volunteer on a feature crew if possible, shoot a short first, and most importantly put yourself out there and meet other filmmakers. You will find support and valuable knowledge from people who have done it before.

Read the No-Budget Nightmares review of CLAUDIA QUI here. 

doug “sweetback” tilley

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