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Interview: Talking ‘Sophie Jones’ with Jessie Barr

Don’t worry, you’re not seeing double if you noticed that Sophie Jones is written by Jessica Barr and Jessie Barr. The two are cousins with the same name, and they worked together to write the script for the film that would mark Jessie’s feature directing debut. 

Having mostly worked as an actress in series like Dates Like This and OM City, along with directing a few shorts, Jessie’s first feature as director comes from a very personal place for both her and her cousin. The two brought their experiences together to tell a story that was specific to them, while also finding ways to make it relatable for any viewer. 

After her mother’s death, 16-year-old Sophie (Jessica Barr) grapples with trying to process her grief while also living through her final years in high school, navigating a sea of complicated relationship dynamics with boys, her best friend, and her family. 

The indie film hits several coming-of-age trademarks, such as losing your virginity and having an emotional heart-to-heart with a parent, yet Sophie Jones sets itself apart from the crowd with the Barr cousins’ unrelenting commitment to authenticity. While not a documentary, nor an autobiographical recreation of either of their exact lives, the duo strove to make every detail feel as real as they possibly could, and it’s an approach that makes the film remarkably true to life. 

I got the chance to speak with the film’s co-writer/director Jessie Barr, where she opened up about where the movie came from, and gave great insight into the extensive attention to detail that she applied that allowed the movie to feel so rich and lived-in. I was already very fond of the film (see our review here), and this conversation with Jessie only served to strengthen my appreciation of it. 

Read on for my interview with Jessie Barr: 

Mitchell Beaupre: You wrote the movie with your cousin Jessica, who plays Sophie. I wanted to start by asking you how the two of you decided to join forces on this project, and how the idea for this story came to you? 

Jessie Barr: It’s a really interesting story, with lots of synchronicity and confluence of events. I lost my dad when I was 16, and I never really spoke about that loss. It’s kind of like I ran from the truth of it for my whole life. It was at a point where the same amount of time had passed that I had been without him that I had been with him, and I think that for whatever reason I started to open up to my grief, and was starting to examine it, and dance with it. At exactly that same time my younger cousin Jessica sent me this early draft of a very raw rough script that was inspired by her experience grieving the loss of her mother when she was 16. We both have the same name, we’re both named after our grandmother, and we both lost a parent when we were 16, and so there was this crazy synchronicity where I read those early pages and I immediately knew that I know this story, and that this is my story too. I knew I had to make this film, and to give this voice. 

We then dove in pretty immediately. I think that there’s something really powerful about speaking the truth of who you are, and I think we both wanted to examine that narratively. Although the film is not a documentary, and it’s not a recreation, it’s inspired by real experiences. I also wanted to make sure that there was room for us to explore, and for her especially to step into this as a role, for her to feel safe, and for it to be a character. It had to be something that was of course so personal, but also universal. 

MB: I think that’s something the movie succeeds in really well, making it feel personal to what Sophie is going through while also finding ways to make it relatable for anyone who’s watching. Considering that it was such a personal story for you both, did you always know that Jessica was going to be playing the part of Sophie? 

JB: This was her first time acting – it was actually the first time for the majority of the actors to be acting on camera – but it wouldn’t have made sense to try to cast someone else to play this role. It was the story of our lives, and inspired by the story of her life, so it just felt like that was an undeniable part of the film. It was this sort of strength that we needed to lean into. Something that I felt compelled to do was just to tell this as honestly and authentically as possible. I knew from just being around Jessica that she has this quality that really draws you in, and she has a deep inner life. I thought if I could work with her that we could access her vulnerability. The amount of work we did together was so intense and immersive, digging into the script, and talking about acting and performance. Talking about, you know, dropping your jaw and breathing in the back of your heart, and asking, “What was the moment before?”, and there was so much that we did to sink into the role. It really felt like it was what needed to happen. It was never a question for me. 

MB: You mentioned it feeling authentic, which I think is something that really stands out, especially compared to other movies of its type. There are so many indie coming-of-age movies, especially ones centered on young women, that get into this realm of being quirky, and needing to make the main character charming and lovable the whole time. With Sophie, even though you do empathize with her, you’re also not afraid to make her abrasive at times, to behave in ways and make decisions that we might not agree with. Could you speak about the importance of making her so multi-dimensional? 

JB: I think that abrasiveness came from this idea that like, sometimes we all can be kind of an asshole. For Sophie that was always coming from pain, like this was a coping mechanism, and for me that facade was always so clear. As a storyteller it was about how I can help facilitate this environment so that this character can really be who she is, and we can lean into those sensibilities, but then also be able to access vulnerability. There has to be that feeling underneath for us to go on this journey with her, so a lot of that was working with Jessica to access that vulnerability, and to find more ways not only in the script, but also in the filming, and in the edit, that we could create those moments where we could feel connected and open. 

It was all about tapping into that reality, you know? I mean, in the movie she’s wearing my bras a lot, and the clothes on the wall are things that her and her sister and I were putting up on the wall at like 5am. It is so of the material of our life. I didn’t want them to wear makeup, I wanted to see the zits, I wanted to see the capillaries, and use the natural sweat as like a highlight in her collarbone. All of that was really intentional. 

I knew I wanted it to be filmed in a way that’s documentary-esque for a couple of reasons. It’s really emotional, it’s evocative of the quality of the film, this lyricism, and how to find this structure of grief, but also this was an independent film and we didn’t have access to a lot of locations. Because of that we really needed to be able to feel free to move, and for the actors to not feel like they needed to hit a mark or perform a certain moment. I used Coppola’s bible actually, from The Godfather. Probably just because I was terrified, but like for each scene I wanted everyone to be asking, “What is the essence?”, “What are the pitfalls?”, “What do I want to play with?”, “What’s the tone?”. Once I knew all of that I was able to facilitate moments for them, and lead them through things in a way that felt really playful and exploratory, rather than them feeling like they needed to hit this spot here, and that we’re going to light them like this with a shot coming through the window, and they can’t move their head. It was trying to really set them up for success as much as possible, performance wise. 

MB: Was the camerawork all handheld? 

JB: All of it was, yeah. Scott Miller, who is my incredible director of photography, just like total genius bodhisattva man, just like family man, he would be like dancing with the camera, and there were moments where he would just prop up on tables or prop up on wherever to get the shots. 

MB: You can tell because it has this aesthetic similar to someone like Andrea Arnold where it all feels very lived-in, none of it feels manufactured. You mentioned the locations you used, and I had read that the house that Sophie and her family live in was actually Jessica’s childhood home. Could you talk about the inspiration for wanting to use that as Sophie’s home in the movie? 

JB: This movie, along with everything I had made before this, had always been about what locations I have access to. A lot of that is working with really limited resources on a micro budget, and you’ve got to take all of your obstacles and turn them into your strengths. The house was going to be sold, so we had to shoot that summer, the summer of 2018. I got the script and then me and my producers Lindsay Guerrero and Joe Dinnen were all hands on deck immediately. We started raising funds and casting, and then we shot like five months later during that summer. The party houses belonged to family friends that were very generous. Mike and Sandy opened up their homes to us. I stayed in my uncle’s best friend’s basement for the shoot. Dave, who plays Sophie’s father Aaron, stayed in Sandy and Mike’s spare bedroom. It was that kind of experience. For the house it was about capturing that moment. Sophie’s bedroom is actually her sister Sarah’s bedroom, and it was again this idea of not wanting to create a recreation, but using these real elements. It was by design, but also by necessity, 

MB: It really helps everything in the movie feel so authentic. There was this scene where Sophie is washing her hands in the bathroom, and she goes to dry her hands, and the metal ring holding the towel has this obnoxiously loud squeak. It’s the kind of thing that you stop noticing when you’ve lived in a house so long. That sort of detail makes the movie feel so real. 

JB: Thank you! Yeah, I love that. I’ve never done anything on a soundstage. Place is so important, and having those textures and sounds and that visceral quality. I knew that was such a part of my vision for the film, so anything that I could find that embodied that tactile, honest, authentic reality I wanted to infuse into the film. 

MB: Something that stood out to me was the costuming. It’s not a movie where you went out to some high end fashion boutique and got Sophie a new outfit every day. You’ll see her wearing the same outfits multiple times, or she’ll be wearing the same overalls that she wore earlier, but with a different shirt on underneath. It felt so much more authentic to how we live our lives. 

JB: The costume designer, Mary Wuliger, she’s a friend of mine from college, and she’s just incredible. It was another instance of being a mix of design and necessity. She’s got a very specific taste, and we both had a vision for this ensemble that was very throwback ‘90s. That was sort of like our childhood, that era, but it’s also weirdly coming back right now, so it’s very in. It created this feeling of being both vintage, but also timeless, which I think worked really well for the film. It was a combination of Mary thrifting, finding really classic pieces like the jacket that Skyler Verity, who plays Kevin, wears, and then also incorporating some of the cast’s real wardrobe. A lot of the clothes were their actual clothes. Mary went and sourced from their closets and would send me photos. Then there would also be like my shirts and my bras. It was a lot of integration and enmeshment. 

MB: I’d like to end by asking you about one smaller scene in the movie that hit me on a very personal level. There’s this moment where Sophie asks her dad what his favorite color is, and she tells him that she never asked her mom that before she died, and she regrets it. Something that I’ve always struggled with is the fact that my parents are very closed off, they don’t talk about themselves, and so that scene clicked with me because I’ve always wanted to know more about who my parents are, just as regular human beings. Could you speak about where that moment came from for you, and if there was something personal attached to it? 

JB: That was Jessica, she wrote that. Originally it was a longer scene, but I cut it because when I was distilling it down that was the essence of what we needed. It’s interesting though because it was inspired by Jessica’s experiences, but mine as well, this feeling that comes up when you have a family that doesn’t know how to talk about grief, and there are all of these different ways of coping. 

I’m so glad to hear that resonated with you, and thank you for sharing that. I hope that scene, and the film as a whole, can serve as a transmission of our vulnerabilities, that it encourages these conversations. It’s like, we have this life now, this is what we have. Ask the question, make the time to say you love the person, hold their hand if you want. Be like, “Hey dad, I’ve never asked you this thing, and can we talk about it?”. He may be like, “No!”, and at least you can think, “Well, okay, I tried”. Ultimately, although the film is about girlhood and grief and growing up, it’s also about aliveness and waking up to aliveness and to connection. 

Sophie Jones is available in select theaters and on VOD now 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Mitchell Beaupre

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