July 9, 2020

Alumni Spotlight: Caroline Friend '16

By Jason Ng

Caroline Friend is a director and writer whose short film Under Darkness garnered her numerous accolades including the Horizon Award at the Sundance Film Festival, which recognizes up-and-coming female directors. She is a recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant, and her work has been recognized and supported by the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, Panavision, and Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Caroline graduated from USC in 2016 with degrees in Film Production and History, and her passion for both is reflected in her projects. She joins us to talk about her interests in filmmaking and history.?

What inspired you to pursue both film and history as your studies at USC?

History and film have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Growing up, family vacations were going to museums, battlefields, and landmarks. My favorite movies took place in other time periods. History was always really hands-on for me, and I started creating my own short films and documentaries. Years later when I got into USC, it felt like a dream to pursue both history and film production. I’m so grateful for the education I received which fueled my passion.

How did your studies influence your work as a filmmaker?

photo credit Lenne Chai

USC completely shaped who I am as a filmmaker today. Half of my schedule was on a soundstage in production courses learning directing, producing, cinematography, and the power of storytelling. The other half I was in liberal arts focused History classes, researching and writing papers. I would go from twelve hours on set one day, to twelve hours in the library on the next day.

Under Darkness is based on the true story of a Holocaust survivor, photographer, and Partisan soldier named Faye Schulman. I did a lot of research on the WWII time period, and was able to translate this to the screen through all I learned on and off set. It was the perfect closing chapter to my time at USC.

Under Darkness received a lot of financial support, grants, from foundations such as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. What does it mean for you to see your project recognized by such prestigious organizations?

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was the first organization to believe in Under Darkness, and they fully funded the short film. I spent all my semesters at USC creatively figuring out ways to make no-budget period movies. It started small with just taking whatever clothes and props I had access to, and finding places on campus to frame the story. My senior year when the Sloan Foundation awarded me the grant, it was incredible to have so many resources available. Getting recognized by the organization gave me a lot of confidence and opportunity.

What made Under Darkness the perfect story to submit to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation?

The Sloan Foundation supports films that promote the public understanding of science. They are interested in stories outside of what we imagine a typical “scientist” to be; for instance, beyond a man in a lab coat with test tubes. This really spoke to me, and Faye fits right into that mentality. She was combining chemicals to develop photographs in the woods with rudimentary supplies. She was inventive, driven, and creative. I was inspired by these elements in her story, and I think the Sloan Foundation was as well. Also, this movie and subject was something that I genuinely was very passionate about exploring. That showed across my application, and I think it’s another big reason I received the grant.

What was your inspiration for Under Darkness?

I was sitting in Leavey Library one night and came across a black and white image of a woman wearing a fur coat in the snow, pointing a massive rifle. This striking photograph immediately drew me in, and I started researching as much as I could about the woman - Faye Schulman. The more I learned, the more inspired I became. Faye bravely fought the Nazis as one of the only women in a Soviet army brigade.  She lived less than 100 years ago, in a completely different world. Going from Leavey Library to sitting across from Faye Schulman in her living room was a life changing experience. I connected with her on a personal level because I realized that she was going through all this when she was my age. I felt a profound sense of responsibility to share her story with modern audiences around the world.

When working on Under Darkness, you were able to reach out to Faye Schulman. What was it like to be able to speak to the person who your short film is based on?

Going out to meet with Faye in person was the best decision I made on the project. I was able to hear her life story, see the photographs she took, and learn what she wants people to take away from her experience. That conversation shaped everything about Under Darkness, and the entire cast and crew worked really hard to make the short film the best it could be to honor her.

As a filmmaker, how do you mold history into an engaging narrative while being careful not to betray the historical figures and events that actually took place?

That’s a good question and something I think about often. I always feel like once I do a lot of research, I have a deeper understanding of the situation and can make decisions that respect the true figures. In a short film, you really only have time to make one point. Faye told me what she wanted most from the film, and that was that young people today are made aware of the tragedies of the Holocaust and also the resistance of the Jewish people. That became the focus of the short film, and then I built the rest of the movie around that.

What were some of the obstacles you encountered when filming Under Darkness which

is set in World War II?

photo credit Lenne Chai

This was a super challenging short to make. It was intimidating to approach such a serious subject, and we were making it on a student budget. The biggest obstacle was transforming modern day Southern California into WWII Eastern Europe. We couldn’t just walk onto the Universal Lot and film with all their costumes and sets!

We ended up transforming a Pasadena alley into a 1940s era village street, and a backyard in Big Bear into a Soviet Army base. We pre-planned all the shots as much as possible and every department came together to make it work.  Tyler Moore (Production Designer), Brian Tang (Cinematographer), and Mattie Bollich (Costume Designer) did an amazing job making everything look and feel right.

Was there anything that you took from the experience of having your film widely distributed among the film festival circuit?

Going to film festivals was a great experience! The first screening we had was at Sundance, which was a dream in itself. It took years of hard work to make Under Darkness, and it was difficult to anticipate people’s reactions. When I finally could look around a room and see an entire crowd watching the screen, and hear them gasp and even cry at certain points, it was amazing to know that the movie’s message was having an impact. Showing Under Darkness at major film festivals like Sundance and also Telluride, has given me a lot of confidence. It’s opened doors to the Industry in ways I never could have imagined, and I met so many talented filmmakers. I’m going to take all those experiences and memories with me throughout my career.

What does it mean for you to win the Horizon Award at Sundance?

The Horizon Award was the very first thing I submitted Under Darkness to, and I truly had no expectations. I was just excited to have a final export of the project and start getting it out in the world. A few weeks later, I was sitting at my cubicle at work, and received a call on my cell phone. I couldn’t believe it when it was Producer Cassian Elwes saying I won and inviting me to Sundance the following week! Everything in the industry felt really unattainable to me before going to Sundance, but the Horizon Award showed me that there is a future for me as a filmmaker. I am forever grateful to Cassian and the entire team behind the award.

How does filmmaking change from being a student filmmaker to graduating and entering the professional sphere?

At SCA, you have so much momentum to create your own projects and to learn. Teachers, deadlines, other students, and all the facilities at USC aren’t just given to you after graduation. It was hard for me to leave all of that behind, but I found in the real world that there are people who want to foster new voices. You just have to seek out learning opportunities and resources for yourself. I’ve really enjoyed my time as a graduate so far. It’s exciting to step off campus and experience all the studios, agencies, festivals, and people that make up this industry.

It’s also great to come out of graduation with a USC Film School community. Most of my major collaborators on Under Darkness are people that I have known since freshman year. We’ve been learning and trying new things throughout the years. That camaraderie carried into Under Darkness and still exists now.

Can you discuss the themes of light and darkness and seeing as opposed to not seeing the truth in Under Darkness?

One of the amazing aspects of Faye’s story is that the photographs she took throughout World War II still exist to this day and showcase truths of the Holocaust. Faye was in incredibly difficult circumstances, and had no idea that years later these very photos would be hung in museums. I used light and darkness in the film as a visual representation of this theme. It also intertwines with the scientific process of photography which is key to the movie as well. When you are developing a photograph it’s dark and you can’t see what you are working towards. Only later, when you turn on a light is the photograph revealed. Faye really did work hard to preserve these photographs. She was digging holes in a warzone to keep negatives that are now seen by future generations. I think that’s really remarkable.

History and filmmaking often come at an intersection with documentaries. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in documentary filmmaking?

Non-fiction filmmakers have such an important place in this world, and I learn a lot from them. I have made a few documentaries before, including one with the USC Shoah Foundation. As a director I want to create emotional and entertaining films, and I can definitely see myself making a documentary in the future if it’s the right story.

Do you have anything planned or are currently working on that you would like to share with our readers?

Making Under Darkness inspired me to continue creating films based on true events. This was the first time I’ve ever directed a movie focused completely on a real person, and it was extra rewarding to see it come together. I have a few projects in development right now and am working on getting them off the ground.