In the 90s, I was a teenage girl in Washington, DC watching Riot Grrrl icons Bikini Kill and other local legends like Fugazi, Slant 6, and Nation of Ulysses, up on stage singing and screaming into my soul. My world at home, the world I was entering, and the soundtrack running through it all inspired my debut feature film, Acid Test, 30 years later. Enjoy!
BECAUSE us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways.
BECAUSE we are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb,
Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak.
BECAUSE I believe with my whole heart-mind-body that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.
---Riot Grrrl Manifesto, 1991
The Riot Grrrl movement was a lightning bolt in my life. As a teenager in Washington, DC when the pioneers of the movement, Bikini Kill, hit the scene, I discovered an external manifestation of the internal torment I felt. While the movement, now called Third Wave Feminism, had problems and ultimately phased out, the fight for women’s rights, the fight for women’s voices, is not over and the validation I felt forever changed me and influenced my adulthood.
Set in 1992 and based on true events from my tumble through self-discovery, Acid Test is my feature film directorial debut. The journey took over 20 years since I first entered the industry. After an inspiring internship with Mandalay Pictures in 1999 as a senior at Oberlin College, I worked in the documentary industry in my hometown for two years. Even after I earned my MFA in Film Production from USC's School of Cinematic Arts a few years later with a focus on writing and directing scripted material, I continued to work in documentary producing a USC documentary thesis and working as a researcher and segment producer on The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing. Looking back, this foundation in documentary informs how I approach scripted filmmaking. I tend to write scripts with the scene-work I believe is crucial, but then edit as if the script never existed. I try to find ways to make my scripted work feel real and authentic, representing at least my perspective on life. With Acid Test, I was excited to bring that documentary sensibility through a live concert that we held with current Riot Grrrl Bands, shooting with 3 cameras. I didn't want any moment of that raw energy to feel artificial.
The years after USC were spent far away from LA, focusing on my two children, and struggling to maintain a sense of identity as a filmmaker. I continued to do documentary work and scripted projects on the side, but I was primarily a mother and the stark reality of the gender differences in this world hit me like another lightning bolt. I'd been lucky enough to be raised to believe I could be anything. At USC, no one talked about the struggles of being in a white male-dominated industry, and I rejected the label of "female" filmmaker because I didn't identify with many of the films being made for or by women. But as I struggled to find work and manage childcare, as I went through a divorce and had to make hard decisions, I realized that branding myself as a "female" filmmaker was the most Riot Grrrl thing I could do, and it felt good.
In 2015, a short I produced went to the Cannes Short Film Corner, and while I was there, attending my first major film festival at the age of 37, I decided I wanted to push my directing and my career to a new level. The story about me dropping acid at a concert and going home to my parents and telling them I was tripping, sparking a hallucinogenic family meltdown, felt both personally terrifying and professionally challenging. I had never scripted anything directly based on my own life, especially not about my troubled youth that would expose the darker side of my still-living family; and I had never directed anything so big as a concert scene or worked with VFX. The short film Acid Test was born and I quickly moved into production in January 2016. It took us nearly a year to finish because of the dynamic editing I wanted to bring to the footage, but the short film had a wonderful run in festivals and people responded to our tripping sequences, saying that it was one of the most accurate depictions of an acid trip and appreciating the poignant family story grounding it.
As I adapted the short into a feature script and planned production, I had two goals in mind - remain as authentic to my own story while incorporating more diversity on screen, and make sure that the production itself promoted diversity. My mother is an immigrant from the Czech Republic, and during casting, the immigrant status was more important to me than the ethnicity. When we cast Latina actresses Juliana DeStefano as "Jenny" and Mia Ruiz as her mom "Camelia," I worked hard with them and my LatinX friends to adapt the story and its elements so that it would be authentic to LatinX viewers while still remaining something I could also identify and stand behind as true. There were many parallels. In all, over 70% of our cast and crew were female and/or people of color, and included members from the LGBTQ community. My female DP, Kerianne Parker, shares Acid Test as her feature film debut, and I was also thrilled to find a female sound designer here in Texas.
With a limited budget of $50,000 for production, I wanted Acid Test to be a testament to the strength of the Houston/Texas filmmaking community and as an instructor at Houston Community College's Filmmaking Program, I also wanted to find a way to include my students. My department developed a class for my students to earn credit towards their degrees while working on my film as PAs. Many of them were able to move into positions like Script Supervisor and 2nd AC based on their skills, and they were all able to gain valuable experience and expand their professional network as a result.
We also fundraised with this #ActivistFilmmaking intention - to not just make a film but to make a difference as we did it. We were granted fiscal sponsorship by both From the Heart Productions and the Houston-based non-profit Fresh Arts, allowing us to fundraise for tax-deductible donations instead of investors.
Production was a dream and roller-coaster in one. We shot the script in 21 days. Among the highlights were throwing a live concert for the public with featured bands Fea, Pleasure Venom, ImposterBoys, and Britt and shooting it for the film 3-camera documentary-style. Our incredibly diverse cast and crew were dedicated, professional, and respectful. We all had the best time together and continue to work together on other projects.
We fundraised again for post-production using a multi-prong approach: our continued fiscal sponsorship for large donations, a Seed&Spark crowdfunding campaign, and a live event taking our guests through their own “Acid Test Experience” starting with a VIP “family” dinner with actors reprising their roles for Jenny, Jack, and Camelia and remaining in character as the event shifted into a multi-room journey featuring a trippy concert, Jenny’s bedroom, a parent confessional, and a screening room for sneak peeks. We raised almost $15,000 for post!
And then COVID hit. And a presidential election that resonated with our film's themes.
We were able to have some work-in-progress screenings through Austin Film Society and at Houston Community College before we had to finish the film remotely. Morgan Honaker came on board as our Sound Designer. My USC friend Paul Apelgren, who’s been doing amazing Music Editing on huge films like Jojo Rabbit, came on board as our Composer. Kerianne’s husband – George Parker – eventually came on board as our colorist after a COVID hiccup required us to change collaborators, which also opened up the opportunity to work again with the short film’s DP and VFX artist Sharad Patel who came on board for our VFX. Trying to evaluate color has been especially challenging across compression rates, monitor settings, and the abilities and limitations of technology, but we managed to complete a film we all feel strongly about and can’t wait to share with everyone!
While the movie is based on personal experiences, its coming-of-age themes about identity, love, and what it means to be an adult are universal. Against the backdrop of the 1992 Presidential election, it also includes the larger political landscape we must engage in. Acid Test is an activist film in both its narrative and production approach and it’s a call to action for everyone to claim their voices and use them to fight for what they believe is right.
BECAUSE one out of every six American women has been a victim of sexual violence, with women ages 18-24 three times more likely than any other. (RAINN)
BECAUSE women make 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, with African-American women at 64 cents and Latina women only 54 cents. (ACLU)
BECAUSE only 12% of directors were women in the top 100 grossing films of 2019 and only one woman has ever won the Academy Award for Best Director. (Women and Hollywood)
BECAUSE “despite representing nearly 40% of the US population – people of color made up” only ~ 20% of leads in film and television. (UCLA Diversity Report)