Haroula Rose on Telling a Story of Healing and Survival in “Once Upon a River”

Haroula Rose works in both fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. Rose’s pilot “Lost & Found” premiered at Tribeca, and her most recent short film starring Maya Hawke premiered on Nowness. Her other short films include “Wedding Dress,” “Baby Crazy,” “Diana’s Electric Tongue,” and “Our House of Glass.” “Once Upon a River” marks her feature debut. Rose’s work has been supported by a Fulbright Fellowship, WarnerMedia, Nantucket Screenwriters Colony, Tribeca’s All Access, and Warner Brothers Directing Workshop. She makes music that is released via Thirty Tigers in Nashville, and has toured in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia.

“Once Upon a River” opens in virtual cinemas today.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

HR: “Once Upon a River” is the Americana gothic story of Margo Crane, played by Kenadi DelaCerna in her screen debut. It follows a young woman coming into her own in the late 1970s in Michigan. Margo is living in a man’s world where she is trying to find her place.

“Once Upon a River” was inspired by “The Odyssey” and Margo Crane is alluded to as being a sort of homage to Huck Finn. Indeed, the best selling novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell that this film is based on is often studied in parallel with “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” but Margo is a young woman and she is on this journey alone with her boat, the River Rose. She is of Native American descent and while on the road she encounters unlikely allies in Brian (Dominic Bogart), and love in the character of Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), and kindness in one stranger in particular, an elderly reclusive man called Smoke (John Ashton).

As she tries to find her estranged mother Luanne (Lindsay Pulsipher) after her father Crane (Tatanka Means) is killed, she’s also trying to heal — all while trying to survive.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

HR: At first it was that I liked the uniqueness of the character, then the world and the sense of adventure within it — the nature of the relationships and what Margo learns about herself from each of them.

In many ways, Margo begins the story as a quiet girl and ends as a woman with a voice and a determination. I also knew I could make something special cinematically out of each of the elements — particularly the score and the landscape of the outdoors. I could learn so much as a filmmaker both technically in working with guns, stunts, boats, shooting on the water, sexual and intimate content, and performance in both active and quiet moments, and that musically speaking I could call on some people to contribute their original work in the soundscape as well.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

HR: I want people to think about and have sympathy for how it is hard to find one’s way, especially in a certain time, especially for a woman, and without any means. I would love for people to see this as a dark but hopeful story about survival and redemption, and a reminder that we can learn from our mistakes.

Like so many heroes in storytelling, Margo is a heroine whose gift is also what brings about tragedy when it is used in a thoughtless or impulsive way. I want people to think about how there should be more stories with women on adventures, and what they find out about themselves and the world as they make their way, because it is truly inspiring to see a character like this who knows how to hunt, fish, skin animals, and survive on her own.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

HR: There were many challenges, from financing, to casting, to shooting on the water, and the weather generally in the Midwest! We shot primarily outdoors in October and November in rural Illinois and also Woodstock, New York. The day after we wrapped it snowed, so I can’t help but think someone was looking out for us. I have to believe!

But I would say the biggest challenge was finding the right lead girl, since she has to inhabit so many qualities at once and also it took a long time to find her!

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

HR: It was a lot of supportive friends, investors, and family who each contributed some amount to the total. It had to be people who would be able to support a story like this and who loved it for what it is, and I am grateful that I was able to find some incredible partners in this, who supported the story and the freedom to tell it this way, as well as its trajectory on the festival circuit until now, in finding a great distribution partner to release it.

It was a special experience from start to finish, truly, and I would say that all the times I had a strange feeling in a meeting with someone who promised things or wanted to change things about it, well, your instincts don’t lie and you have to follow that gut feeling. I ended up with the absolute best team and it has not been without its challenges, like any film, but it always felt like I had the right people who I could count on. That makes a world of difference.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

HR: I feel that film has the capacity to change people’s minds, to open people’s hearts, and to affirm life in all its complexity. It can bring about empathy in all these ways, and is a visceral storytelling tool that has the capacity to cross language barriers as well as emotional barriers if you step into someone else’s shoes for a while.

Some of my favorite times with family and friends come from conversations inspired by films and the stories that really impacted me in different ways, and being able to share in those experiences together.

I also find it incredibly inspiring to collaborate with people. The actual making of a film is an exhilarating, if challenging, experience, and there is nothing else like it.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

HR: Best advice is to go toward what you fear, within reason of course, because it means growth and strength.

I probably forgot the worst advice.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

HR: It’s helpful to empower yourself and to teach yourself in whatever way you can. Also, sometimes it feels like you have to be very direct, and maybe that can be uncomfortable at times when you’re starting out, but it’s important and always better to find a tone that works for you to communicate what you need.

It’s also great to remain open to the moment and see what transpires, because ideally you trust your collaborators and their ideas as well. Allowing for a better idea to come along, while also being very prepared with a clear vision, is essentially the tightrope walk I love so much.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

HR: “Fish Tank” by Andrea Arnold. It’s complicated, beautiful, honest, and brutal. I love the casting, the rhythm, the cinematography, the sense of authenticity, the boldness, and the way it tells the story without telling you how to feel about it.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

HR: I have been writing and also shooting a bit, scouting for a new project. It’s definitely a time to stay creative and to be able to find ways of moving forward.

It’s nice to be able to finally share the film, though I wish it was an easier time overall in the world. I hope people see it as a nice 90-minute escape outside if we need to be cooped up at home this fall/winter!

W&H: Recent protests in the U.S. and abroad have highlighted racism and anti-Black police brutality. The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

HR: Every film has to think about inclusivity in front of and behind the camera. I have always believed this and worked this way, and I like to think that the greater awareness of this issue will continue to bring about change.

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