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Austin Film Festival 2019: Interview With “Jane” Filmmaker Kathryn Prescott

Kathryn (Kat) Prescott has been well-known as a British actress, but she’s recently forayed into writing and directing. Her short film, “Jane,” is about a woman living in an SRO hotel and struggling with addiction. The short was at the 2019 Austin Film Festival, and we were able to speak with Kat about the film and its topical messaging, as affordable housing, homelessness and related issues are at the forefront of a lot of minds in the U.S.

To start off, could you explain SROs in your own terms?

Kat: SRO hotel stands for ‘single-room occupancy hotel.’ It’s basically a form of very low-income housing, often for former or otherwise homeless people. They’re very commonly inside hotels that have been refurbished to accommodate that kind of housing. Oftentimes people rent a room and share bathrooms and kitchens and common spaces. So it’s a very vital form of housing.

What led you to write and direct a short about a resident of an SRO?

Kat: A few things. “Jane” was originally about a woman who lived in her car. I then moved to downtown Los Angeles, and the building next to mine was an SRO hotel, and I had no idea what they were before two and a half years ago. I didn’t know they even existed. But I got to know a lot of my neighbors who lived in the SRO hotel, and just really getting to know them. I did a PSA for a harm reduction organization called Homeless Health Care Los Angeles a couple years ago, about the opioid epidemic and its effect on America’s youth. And through that, and through my own life, I know a lot of people whose lives have been touched by addiction, so it was kind of that combined with living next door to this SRO hotel and getting to know my neighbors.

I feel like addiction has really profoundly touched my family and a lot of my close friends, and I’ve always felt, kind of as I got older and became more aware, this stigma against people with addiction that acts as a sort of catalyst to sort of worsening their addiction: shame, isolation — it becomes very cyclical. And I really notice it in film and particularly in the media, where it’s like ‘junkie,’ especially with the opioid epidemic. The way people suffering with addiction are reported on I just felt was very damaging and wasn’t true to the people I knew who were suffering from addiction. I almost felt it was irresponsible when news outlets cover it and they’re shown in such a negative light. You know, often in TV and film, the person suffering from addiction is the ‘bad person’ who is depicted often as immoral, as selfish, as making a choice over and over to do this thing, which just wasn’t how I saw it and how I knew it to be. And I knew it wasn’t like that in real life, and I just wanted to tell a story.

A lot of the neighbors I knew who were living in the SRO hotel were suffering from addiction — not all of them, not everyone in an SRO by any means — and still to this day some of the best people in my life have had issues with addiction. I was just so tired of seeing them depicted in this one way that I just wanted to tell a story that showed the kind of deep humanity that still exists in someone, even when they’re making choices that you maybe don’t understand or you might think a certain way about, that they’re sort of acting from a place of pain. And just to show the goodness, and the profound power of kindness coming from the innocence of a child who doesn’t judge someone for the same reasons that an adult might judge someone.

What’s your transition been like, going from acting to writing and directing?

Kat: I kind of always, in my head, was like, ‘Oh, that’d be so cool to be a writer. You write something and you get to see it come to life; that’s amazing.’ And I’ve always loved stories and storytelling, but I never thought of it as something that I could do. Acting was always a far more accessible — even though acting is not exactly easy to get into — it was much more accessible to me than writing. I was like, ‘I haven’t been to film school. I don’t know anyone who does that.’ I was very lucky that, because of acting, I was able to be on set and speak to writers and watch people work. That kind of pipe dream of maybe one day writing something, I started to see what it looked like and what people who were actually doing that looked like, spoke like, sounded like. I don’t know; it made it more of a real thing that maybe I could do.

I really loved the process of when I was looking at something as an actor and breaking down the character for myself. You know, I’ve been really lucky to work on a few shows that were very loose with the lines. So if there was a line that wasn’t working, they’d be like, ‘Let’s do it once how it’s written and then however you want to say it.’ And I always loved hearing the writer come up with something different, or how just that little thing would change the whole scene. Writing, always, I think is life.

Would you consider doing sort of a series of shorts or a feature on SRO residents?

Kat: Actually I’ve never thought of a series of shorts; that’s a really good idea. “Jane” is basically — we made this short, but I have a feature version of it. It’s not the same story, but it’s the same setting and the same character. The short is hopefully going to hopefully, eventually help us get the feature made, so yes.

What was it like shooting on location? Were there any difficulties with that?

Kat: I live downtown, and we live kind of two or three blocks away from Skid Row, and there are a lot of SRO hotels near us. When we were location scouting, we were literally going into hotels — not all of them are SROs; some are just residential hotels that aren’t technically SRO hotels. They are just hotels, where anyone could just go and rent a room there, whereas SRO hotels are sometimes owned by the government or by organizations who get people into housing. So we just went into hotels downtown and were speaking to the management, seeing if they would be open to it.

We were actually lucky; we shot at somewhere called The Baltimore Hotel. The manager told us that they’d actually vacated a lot of the residents because they were changing into Section 8 housing, so we were lucky in that it wasn’t like we were interrupting these people’s lives very much because the building was only 20% filled still. So yeah, we went into this hotel and filmed in one of the actual rooms. We honestly didn’t have issues. Everyone was lovely, and I stand by it: Everyone I’ve met who lives in an SRO hotel — and there’s no reason why they wouldn’t be — but they’re all, my neighbors are, fantastic.

What do you think makes “Jane” a good fit for the Austin Film Festival?

Kat: SRO hotels exist in Austin as well, and I feel like they’re on the rise. I don’t know. I think there’s a few more being built recently, but I don’t know the ins and outs of it in Austin as much as LA. I think for Austin Film Festival, though, it’s very writer-focused. And, of all the things, the writing part is most important to me. I don’t know why Austin picked it, but I’m really glad they did. I feel like the story — I hope that story can be translated to everyone. The idea that you don’t judge someone and you just see them how they are, that can sometimes have this profound effect on someone. I hope it’s universal, so that’s why it could appeal all over, even though it’s set in LA.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Kat: I think mainly that there are people in Austin living in this situation that Jane is living in. And we also wanted to make the story that even though she is living in an SRO hotel, even though she is struggling with heroin addiction and she is a prostitute, which some people don’t even catch from the film because we didn’t want it to be the main point. The story wasn’t about that; the story was ‘Here’s this human being who just wants love like the rest of us and would love to be with her daughter but maybe feels like in that moment she makes the ultimate selfless choice of keeping away from her.’ We’re not saying necessarily that’s the right choice or that it would’ve been selfish to go in, but just that there’s that goodness that exists in everyone, even people whose lives or choices we don’t understand.

We want to give a shout out to Kat for speaking with us.

Check out our review of “Jane.”

Featured image credit: Jackie Ruth

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