From college student to filmmaker

Culture & Entertainment, Spotlight — By

Sitting in a dark theater at the 2010 Wisconsin Film Festival, Katie Greenway got pissed. The 22-year-old UW-Madison senior, then majoring in communication arts and journalism, was watching one of the top-billed films of the festival, the title of which she declines to reveal for fear of insulting its creator. “I walked out of the theater thinking, ‘That was awful. I could totally do better.’”

Still, she decided to attend the Q&A session with the director the next morning, where she learned the movie’s budget was $110,000 — a pittance in Hollywood but no small change for an indie film. Greenway was inspired. Walking out of the Q&A, she called her best friend, Alli Collie-Hartmann, and told her, “We should make a movie.”

Katie Greenway letting loose with some sparkler fun. Photo courtesy Jordy Liebowitz

Greenway had little production experience, but the screenplay was already in place. The previous semester she had taken a screenwriting class and written a 30-page script called “Strawberry Stand.” It is the story of Anna, a woman in her mid-20s who has failed at big city life and returns to her small Wisconsin hometown to live with her parents and work at a strawberry stand. Once she gets there, however, Anna realizes she no longer fits in with her family, her ex-love or her hometown.

Based on Greenway’s and Collie-Hartmann’s childhoods in Menomonie, Wis. where the film is also shot, it is a triumphant project for the first-time directors. With an idea, a miniscule budget of $1,000, and a little help from friends and community, the two friends made a film that reflects where they’re from, where they are now and where they hope to go.

Lights, Camera

“They always say to write what you know,” says Greenway, who graduated last May. “Whenever I go back home, I feel like I devolve into my high school personality. Home is a frustrating place to be, especially when you’ve already had the autonomy of living on your own. In Anna I was exploring that feeling of frustration and bitterness.”

“Menomonie is not an exciting place,” Collie–Hartmann says.

“Alli and I spent a lot of time growing up reading books, watching TV and movies, just trying to make the best of it,” adds Greenway.

Greenway focused the bulk of her writing and directing on the characterization of Anna. She was sick of the one-dimensional female characters that populate most films: “the girlfriend” in Hollywood movies (think Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl) or the “manic pixie dream-girl” in indie films (Zooey Deschanel). Greenway set out to create a complex, flawed female character with her own sense of self.

Katie Greenway and her grandfather holding a strawberry stand of their own. Photo courtesy Jordy Liebowitz

“Men become enlightened through the female character who’s quirky, but the female character who’s quirky doesn’t have a life of her own,” Greenway says of characters like Natalie Portman’s in “Garden State.” “Her sole purpose in that movie is to teach Zach Braff the meaning of life. So that’s a big inspiration for me when I write, trying to flush out female characters and give them real personalities, dimensions and imperfections.”

“Overall, it’s clearly a male-dominated field,” adds Collie-Hartmann. “There’s always the token woman director, like this year when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar for ‘The Hurt Locker’ and people were like, ‘A woman won Best Director, it’s so cool, how could this have ever happened?’… It would be really great if that wasn’t the case.”

The directors and script for “Strawberry Stand” were in place, but to move forward, the project needed someone with technical savvy. Enter Ryan Heraly. Greenway met Heraly, 27, a professional videographer and editor, in her screenwriting class. He read the “Strawberry Stand” script and was impressed.”

“It’s a very challenging thing to get somebody hooked in a few pages and then carry out an entire storyline in a matter of 30 minutes,” Heraly says. “I thought [Greenway] nailed it. It was also a script that I would never see myself writing personally, so I wanted to attach myself to the project to see what a collaboration would look like.”