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Blue Jay

An exclusive interview with Michael Ciulla and Sara Lindsay

Blue Jay centers on a couple hiking Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range when a group of mountain men take an unhealthy interest in the woman played by Sara Lindsay. What makes this story even more interesting is what went on behind the scenes, as Lindsay co-wrote the film with Michael Ciulla, who directed as well – all in the months leading up to their wedding.

I had the opportunity to talk with the couple about the process of making Blue Jay:

Having climbed Mt. Whitney myself, I know it can be an unforgiving environment. Was the film shot there or did you use other locations to stand in for it?

Michael: Yes and no. We were able to use the road headed up to the Mount Whitney Portal, and the actual Mount Whitney Portal itself. I also cut in some footage from my trip to the summit, taken on the camera that Ashley carries and uses throughout the film. Besides that, we pieced the mountain together using different locations up and down the Eastern Sierra. What we discovered in scouting was that different altitudes had different looks. The challenge became finding ways to get a film crew to the various heights.

Sara: We put a 30-minute hike limit on each location. 

Michael: We eventually found different places that came pretty close to matching each of the environments that I experienced when I climbed Whitney in 2010. We ended up using the top of Mammoth Mountain for the summit, because it was the tallest place we could get a crew in the Sierra Nevada without actually hiking.

What inspired the idea to make the movie?

Michael: When I climbed Mount Whitney and got to Trail Crest, there’s a second approach to the mountain which comes up from the East. Sometimes people on the PCT take that approach to summit Whitney. I was struggling pretty heavily at this point, moving pretty slow, because you’re at 13,000 feet. We were watching people come up this other trail, and they were moving incredibly fast. Something that probably would have taken me all day, they came up in maybe an hour and actually passed us. When they passed us, they were this group of guys that had been out on the trail for several hundred days, and they were a little ‘off.’ Here I was covered head-to-toe in North Face… They were barely wearing anything, were skittish when they talked to us, and generally seemed a little strange. 

Sara: When Mike told me about these guys, we started wondering what would happen if they ran into a woman on the trail. Especially considering the difference between hiking with REI gear and traveling for months at a time with virtually nothing, we thought it would be interesting to play up that contrast and see what would happen. We researched lightweight backpacking and talked to some friends who were into it, one being our friend Jute (Julius Ramsay) who inspired the name for James’ character.

What made you choose Mt. Whitney for the setting?

Sara: Since we based the story on Michael’s experience summiting Whitney, we decided to keep the location and track the story piece by piece with landmark locations on the actual hike. 

What was the experience of making the film like, considering it was happening in the lead up to your wedding?

Sara: It was pretty intense!

Michael: It was stressful to make this film in general, given the locations, time frame, and budget constraints. But I did feel like if we survived making this movie, it definitely meant that we were making the right decision in getting married.

Sara: I did still want to marry him after we wrapped, even though he gave me hypothermia… It actually took a lot of the pressure off of the wedding itself because we didn’t really have time to stress out about it. 

How did being engaged effect your dynamic while shooting?

Michael: The effects of working with somebody that you’re that close with are almost entirely positive. It allows you to have a shorthand that you just can’t replicate. You spend so much time with someone, and you really start to understand how they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. I think it really allowed me to push the limits in a way that I would not have been able to do with any other actress. At the same time, the only drawback to that can be that maybe you ask for a little too much…

Sara: I don’t think you asked for too much, I agreed to do everything in the script while we were writing! Michael and I met working together, so our dynamic on set has always felt very natural to me. I think because we were getting married so soon after the movie, the crew was a little worried about dropping me in a frozen lake. But overall I love getting to work with Mike and agree that the shorthand makes it easier for us to push the limits. We both trust each other’s ability completely, which is nice to have established from day one.

Michael – were there any challenges in directing your fiancé? 

I think there are challenges with directing any actor. They all have a very specific way in which they want to be spoken to. So I would say that it’s not any more or less challenging directing Sara than anyone else. If anything, she might understand me a little better because we spend a lot of time together. The only challenge is if you have something between you personally, it can creep into the work, but on a project this fast-paced, there wasn’t much time for us to really be discussing anything except for the movie.

Sara – were there any challenges in being directed by your fiancé? 

Generally no, I love being directed by Mike because he knows me so well and does know exactly what to say. He speaks in story and specific thoughts which work really well for me. There is only one moment I remember having a conflict. On the last day of principal photography, we had a lot to do, and everyone was stressed out. Mike said one thing to me – I can’t even remember what it was – but his tone was demanding and impatient. I pulled him aside and told him to knock it off, firmly. He apologized, and that was that.

Was this the first project you had worked on together? Do you have other projects you hope to collaborate on in the future? 

Sara: This was the first feature we had worked on together. We met working on some smaller projects a few years ago, a short film and a couple of other things. I worked with him in several different capacities – producing, helping out, clapping the slate, and acting.

Michael: We have started working on our second film. I don’t want to say too much. It has kind of an unconventional format, a slightly different structure to how we’re making the film. But it is a feature, and we’re working with some of the same people that we did with Blue Jay, including our cinematographer, Evan Pesses.

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