Catherine Eaton’s feature debut as a director and writer, “The Sounding,” starring Harris Yulin and Frankie Faison has won two-dozen awards on the festival circuit and was called “a lyrical and audacious debut feature” by the WSJ. Eaton and “The Sounding” are the subject of a branded mini-doc by Stella Artois currently running on Hulu. Eaton was chosen for Tribeca’s “Through Her Lens” Lab and Grant for her pilot “On the Outs,” and was selected as a Shadowing Director for Showrunner Ryan Murphy’s “Half” Initiative. Her newest pilot script, “Breaking News,” based on her personal experience working with freelance news crews in conflict zones, was selected for IFP’s Independent Film Week Project Forum. Eaton shares an Emmy with the production team on “The Human Toll of Ethanol” for Bloomberg TV and did freelance production work for various news crews for five years. As an actor, she has been seen on Broadway, TV and film, and is currently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award. She teaches Screen Directing at Harvard University.
Tara Karajica talks to Catherine Eaton about “The Sounding.”
How did you make the jump from theater to filmmaking? How did The Sounding come about?
Catherine Eaton: My journey from being a stage actor to directing features is a bit of a glass-slipper moment. Before I began directing, I was a professional stage actor – Broadway, Lincoln Center, etc. – and I wrote a play for myself about a woman who takes on an acquired language woven from Shakespeare’s words. I played the show at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and in Europe, and also in this unique glassed-in space in Manhattan on 47th and Lexington where the sound is piped out onto the street and thousands of pedestrians have the option to stop and watch, or walk on by. Wildly, the show became a kind of little cult-hit. The police had to come, the sidewalks were overcrowded, traffic backed up at the light. Folks who were homeless came banging on the glass, wanting to free Liv. Stockbrokers stood in old phone booths in the rain. Pizza delivery guys let their pizzas get cold as they chatted to each other in Spanish about the girl in the glass box. And, every day a man came in a tuxedo always carrying a Financial Times. The crew backstage jokingly called him “the financier.” After the last performance, “the financier” waited for me afterwards, warmly shook my hand and said “I want to turn your play into a feature film.” He became a major investor in the project, and – after a ton of preparation – I became a film director. The character in that show became Liv, the protagonist in The Sounding.
Liv is happy to exist on her own terms and she is a woman who dares to live her own authentic life. How do you see her? Can you talk about the character of Liv – how did you create her and her psychology?
C.E.: Liv came from my own experience turning to Shakespeare’s words out of hunger. I was classically trained as an actor and a family member of mine was sick. I moved home to help. One night, I pulled out my Complete Works and began tearing out the pages that meant something to me and hanging them on the walls. Liv was born out of that. I wondered why I craved that language, what would happen if that was the only language I had, what might lead someone there. Liv, to me, is a character that understands connection on a deeper level than many of us and doesn’t need to dress it up or make it comfortable. She can just be there, in it, with you, in the space that silence opens up, or in the wild terrain of a made-up language.
You interrogate the failings of the medical community when dealing with otherness or the atypical. Can you talk about that?
C.E.: For my part, I see it less as an interrogation of failings and more that the film is asking questions of all of us – what we, as a society, do when we are faced with someone who seems to be willfully standing outside the box we’ve built, or resistant to being invited inside. What we’re afraid of and how we respond to that fear tells us a lot about what we value.
Also, with The Sounding, you show the value and beauty of being different and the importance of embracing it, but also society’s desire to assimilate rather than accept otherness, which is a very relevant topic now. Can you comment on that?
C.E.: Sure. Empathy and inclusion are courageous acts. Actual power is not threatened by difference, but recognizes the value in diversity and nurtures it. Real strength recognizes we are stronger collectively when we are a diverse team, unified. Our survival – and our ability to thrive – depends on it. In nature, diverse ecosystems are often the strongest. So why aren’t empathy and inclusion celebrated as acts of strength and power? Why is inclusion based on assimilation? It makes no sense. Diversity is strength. We are only as strong and as healthy as the depth and breadth of our diversity.
The film is also about love, loss, life, revolt against oppression. Can you elaborate on that?
C.E.: Thanks for saying that. I can tell you a little story about it: We had a wonderful experience with that when we were at the Istanbul Film Festival. We had three sold-out screenings to a very diverse audience – practicing Muslims, Christians, secular folks, all genders, many races. After the screenings, people would wait for hours to speak with us, and we learned that, in light of their political situation – that week, for example, the Turkish government banned women from the stage –, they were seeing the film as a call to revolt against the oppression they were experiencing. The Museum of Modern Art in Istanbul then invited us to screen at the Museum, but when we shipped them the DCP, they asked us to label it with a made-up film title because they were afraid of censorship due to the reception of The Sounding at the Festival. The Sounding made it through and had two more sold-out screenings at the Museum. That journey of the film encapsulates for me the power of stories that affirm love and vitality. They can be revolutionary, threatening the status quo, inspiring us to live and love as we choose.
The film had a long journey from stage to the reel and then from film festival three years ago to its release. Can you talk about this journey?
C.E.: We stayed on the festival circuit for a year and a half, something we wanted to do to experience The Sounding with audiences around the world, and also something we recognized would help the film as we were being honored with awards that were bringing the film attention. During that time, we were acquired by HBO Europe for release abroad. We’ve been playing on HBO abroad since the beginning of this year. We held back our release in North America because we really wanted theatrical distribution here and we eventually ended up getting picked up for that. We were set for a twenty-city release with a further thirty-city roll out in May, but the pandemic hit and we lost that opportunity when cinemas shuttered. So, we pivoted to a digital release which – at last! – happened last week, and has been a joy. You can find The Sounding on tons of platforms: https://geni.us/TheSounding
What do you prefer: film, TV or the stage?
C.E.: That depends on which hat I’m wearing! As a director, film is perhaps the biggest adventure, but I’m beginning to move into television and am really loving the collaboration. You essentially get the gift of working with collaborators who are true experts on that particular story as they craft episode after episode, so it really ups your game. As a writer, television definitely! You have a much bigger palette to play with. As an actor, each form has its own joys. Right now, I miss them all terribly – being on set or on stage.
Times are uncertain now, but do you have anything in the pipeline for when they are better?
C.E.: Always! I have three fiction television shows at the pilot script/series bible stage – one based loosely on my own experience freelancing with news crews in conflict zones, currently called Breaking News, which was chosen for IFP’s Project Forum; a half-hour traumedy called On the Outs that was selected for Tribeca’s “Through Her Lens” Program, and a half-hour social satire series written with Deborah Rayne called Flawless: A Feminist Fairytale that explores what happens if all the fairytale princesses lived in New York City today and got pissed at the narrative they’re stuck in. I’m also working on a limited series based on award-winning IP out of Ireland. I have a feature treatment for a new socially satirical thriller in the vein of Get Out or Parasite. And, I wrote and directed an episode of an amazing podcast series called “The Light Ahead,” which will release January in 2021.