When Skylar, a young cloistered nun, gets word of her sister’s death, questions of doubt permeate through her once solid understanding of self. Infected with rebellion and unable to maintain her commitment to the vows, Skylar is granted eight days outside of the convent to venture out on a pilgrimage of truth and self discovery to the religious town of Chimayo, New Mexico.
On her journey Skylar’s path is crossed by two others seeking purpose and meaning in the sandblasted desert, a gentle runaway teenage boy and a handsome train-hopper, whose presence and friendship challenge Skylar’s uncertain commitment to the cloistered life. The trials the group experiences force Skylar to weigh the different possibilities of what her future could look like, but at what cost?
I AM THAT, an adventure story set under the wide-open skies of New Mexico, is not your average nun story. The world written and created by director Joy Marzec is a magical-realist place that’s layered with complex, quirky characters and plays to the tune of a modern, original soundtrack that nods to the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, and 1950’s love pop. The movie’s unexpected ending speaks to the courage and power it takes to devote oneself to finding the truth.
"Any movie that begins with a nun flogging herself while repeating her various sins, set to a punk rock guitar riff, immediately grabs my attention. Any film that can sustain that style for the entire time it’s on has my respect. Marzec’s debut film (short or feature-length), requires both attention and respect. Attention as a lot of crucial details are told visually, in long sequences without dialogue. On her journey, Skylar has several hallucinatory nightmares that directly relate her vices, that involve fake-looking monsters, crazy lighting, and quick, close-up edits. It is an excellent way to tell the audience how she’s feeling without resorting to needless exposition."
I AM THAT took 3 years to make.
The first draft of the screenplay was about a train hopper but the only scene I enjoyed in the entire script was the one I'd written about the train hopper meeting a nun who had left her convent and was also train hopping. I couldn't stop writing about this nun. She fascinated me but i didn't know what or why i was writing about her. Why had she been a nun? Why did she leave the convent? Why train hopping?
I started to research nuns and the vows that they all take. I discovered the book, Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. In that book, there was a nun who described how she missed her sister's death because she was cloistered (all cloistered nuns take the vow of Enclosure). In the book, she retells the story of what happened when her sister's coffin was brought into the visitors hall of the convent. She tried to touch her sister's hand and even though she couldn't physically touch it she still felt this amazing connection with her. I decided to flip that story around and ask the question, "What if she didn't have an amazing connection? What if this is the moment she regrets her choice of becoming a nun? " This doubt became my emotional jumping off place for Sister Skylar and why she questions her vocation and decides she needs to leave...which then led me to the question, "If she leave, will she find the life that she wants to live?" And I didn't know how the film would end. I write to discover who my characters are...I wait for them to surprise me...and what makes Sister Skylar an interesting character to watch is that she does make surprising choices. Nobody expects THAT ending of the film.
One of the greatest apsects about being a writer is seeing yourself grow up, age. Because my films are always somewhat personal, I can see myself emotionally grow in each one. Bhakti Boy is the story of a person discovering they are on the wrong path. I AM THAT is the story of a person attempting to get on the right path. 24 Frames Lalla is about a person committing to their path. And lastly, Survival of the Holy Fool is about a person walking their path. In some ways, the first chunk of my career is about a person's calling in life...if you believe in that type of thing...and clearly, whether I like it or not, I've been trying to tell myself that I strongly do believe I have a calling. And with each film perhaps I'm trying to reinforce that idea to myself and making sure I understand that I need to live it, to do it.
We shot I AM THAT in New Mexico over 24 days for 150K. It was the first time that I had a legit crew. It was a hard shoot but only because the vision I had for the story was massive, probably too big, for that small of a budget.
I truly believe that if I didn't have Christine Meyers on both costumes and production design the film wouldn't have worked. Her design, executed on a miniscule budget, is a huge reason the film turned out so great. The UPM, Amber Earles, was also pivotal. She kept the ship afloat and made sure we completed our shooting days...some of which were a real grind between 14 or 16 hours a day.
The post production took about two years. I edited the film with Ziggy Gamble. He was insanely patient with me. We'd edit a sequence, spend hours on it, and then I'd go home completely recut it in a real shoddy way and then bring it back to him in an entirely different way that he'd have to put back together again. But he never complained.
I've always been a reluctant editor of my films. I always think I can hand the edit over to someone else but when the footage is in front of me I just want to spend hours playing and messing around with different versions of scenes. Even though editing can be absolute hell. It's a form of intense tapas and I enjoy the obsession of 1 frame to the left or right in order to satisfy the precise rhythm that a story requires.
The music was a real beast. There are 35 different music pieces. Mitch did absolutely everything on the score. He wrote all the music, recorded it, and engineered all but 2 of the songs. To me, this is the last film we made where making pop songs was more of the objective as opposed to a score. It is a true soundtrack which is what we always wanted. I can remember writing the screenplay and thinking that the only way any one would watch this story is if it was as much like pop art as possible...and the music is at the heart of that idea.