Rachel M. Ussery is a filmmaker based in Savannah, Georgia. Originally from a small town in Texas, Rachel studied film at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and aspires to make films that build common ground between communities.
Last month, Rachel sat down with Lyvie Scott to discuss her most recent projects, the state of the film industry, and the change she wants to see in it.
LS: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from, where did you grow up?
RU: I am originally from this little town called Waxahachie, Texas. It’s just far enough south that you’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but you’re still a 20 minute drive from Dallas. It also took me 20 minutes to get to school, because I went to the special STEM high school. It was project-based [learning], which was actually my favorite part of it, because I feel like that helped set me up for a career in film.
LS: Did you originally wanna go into STEM?
RU: Well, here’s the thing. I wanted to make movies the whole time, like since I was 10. I just went to this school instead [because] I didn’t wanna go to my regular high school. [The school I went to had] a smaller community... and I really like math! I ran the robotics team for the last two years, and a bunch of other fun stuff. I literally love robots so much. Things like that are really interesting to me, but that’s only because of that little weird part of my life.
LS: I feel like we pursue film, but we still have other hobbies and facets of ourselves that go into our craft.
RU: My therapist hates me because I don’t have hobbies. Every single week, she’s like “Rachel, you have to find a hobby.” So I’m trying to crochet, and trying to walk my anxious little dog, and trying to find hobbies because I’m such a workaholic. I’m so bad at it, especially when I’m stressed about my next [film] job.
LS: What do you do in film?
RU: In my paid time I’m a PA, and in my free time I’m a director. I really like to make little films about the humanistic qualities [of life]. What I aspire to do is tell a story that makes somebody else feel okay.
I believe that film kind of serves two purposes. The first purpose is outward. Film connects people and helps people have a common understanding of each other’s stories. The other [purpose] is inward, where it also helps you to feel like you belong in that community.
LS: Is that what made you fall in love with film in the first place?
RU: There were actually a couple of stages. When I was 10 I was making music videos to Owl City songs on my little web camera, so for a long time, I thought I was gonna be an editor because I liked the building of a video. Then, when I was 14, I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I was like “Whoa... movies can be art?”
LS: Wes Anderson has definitely impacted a lot of people. Apart from Grand Budapest, were there any other films you watched when you were young that just made you go “Oh my God”?
RU: John Hughes films. All the Brat Pack stuff is definitely in that category. Of course, The Breakfast Club is a classic. But I almost get nervous saying this, because I showed my boyfriend Sixteen Candles the other day…
LS: It did not age well. It’s tough now, to be a John Hughes fan.
RU: Yeah! Sometimes you just don’t remember things. But Greta [Gerwig] is one of my more recent inspirations. She’s telling stories that are connecting women. I’m proud of her. I think she is phenomenal, and I wish we were friends.
LS: She’d love to be your friend.
RU: That’d be nuts.
LS: So we’ve touched on your inspirations. What motivates you to keep pursuing filmmaking as a career?
RU: Honestly … I am just a set rat. I love to be on set. I don’t even care that I’m going to be a PA for the next three years. Just making magic happen is the coolest thing. Also, PAs are the foundation of the team. If they’re not working like a well-oiled machine, if there’s a piece missing, the shoot is going to go worse. So I really enjoy the chance to be that foundation. I feel like Kenneth [Parcell] from 30 Rock, just happy to be here.
LS: You recently completed your latest short film, Rootbound. Can you tell us a bit about it?
RU: Rootbound is like my cry for help. [Laughs] It is me trying to emulate what it is to be twenty-something and just desperate. It’s really about the life that we were promised when we were children versus what we actually have to struggle through just to stay on our feet.
It’s basically about a man who’s walking home and having a conversation with his girlfriend about a pregnancy they want, but can’t afford. He’s thinking about what to say to convince her that he can take care of his child, because he feels like that’s where he needs to be in life.
LS: That’s definitely a realistic story. There’s this pressure to fit into societal expectations, especially for our generation. Does change represent anything significant for you as an artist?
RU: I often talk a lot about change, and how much I hate it. One of the most interesting things I was ever told is that, once you reach the finale of a film and you know who your main character is, they don’t necessarily have to change. They just have to be presented with the opportunity to change. Whether they accept or reject that, either of those could be a satisfying ending. I’m really interested in exploring the part where they reject the change.
LS: Have you thought about how much you’ve changed just in the past year?
RU: Oh, yeah. We actually shot Rootbound last November, and now it’s November again — and we’re currently submitting to festivals, so when it comes out, it’ll probably be November again.
The other day I went back and watched Rootbound, and for the first time [I thought], “Actually, I have some problems and things that I’d like to change about this.” And that’s how I know that I’ve changed. That piece is gonna be from that moment forever. So whenever I go back and watch my other films I’m like, “I need to do the next thing, because I’m different from this moment of me.”
So much of films have to do with where exactly you are in that moment and your circumstances, so much more than people give it credit for. Everyone’s been having such a hard time lately, and they do need to credit that to the pandemic. There’s no going back to any kind of normal, and the sooner that everybody just kind of gets on board, the sooner [we can focus on] what we can make life into.
LS: That makes me think about the shift that film festivals went through these past two years. Last year, they moved online, and that was amazing.
RU: We finally got to watch films accessibly.
LS: Yes. And this year, some promised they would be hybrid — but most have gone right back to in-person screenings. It’s so frustrating.
RU: It’s very unfortunate. Film is so important because it has the potential to change society. [It] can reflect our potential futures back to us. [But] if it’s gonna do its job of creating a more empathetic or connected society, it has to reach the most audiences. We’ve [also] gotta be hella careful with that.
LS: If you had to go back in time and speak to your younger self, is there anything you would tell them to do differently?
RU: I actually think about this a lot because, just finishing at SCAD, I’m kind of like “Ugh… didn’t really love all of that.” [Laughs] Half the time I think I should have just moved out [after high school], started working, figured it out, y’know? Like where could I be now if I didn’t spend the last five years going to that school?
LS: I think about that all the time.
RU: Right? But also, the people that I met are so integral to who I am now, and the artist that I am. I didn’t know anything before I came to SCAD. That's the only reason I learned anything.
It’s complicated. Ultimately, I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out. Especially now that I’m working. I cannot endorse a SCAD education, though.
LS: No. Attend SCAD at your own risk.
LS: If you had the opportunity to remake a classic film, which would you choose, and what would you do differently?
RU: Do you know the 1958 musical Gigi? I’ve only seen it once, in this like Classic American box set that my grandma had. The first half of it is so solid and feminist and hardcore… and the second half is just the opposite. Gigi’s training [as a courtesan] and she’s just this cool, rambunctious girl, and the guy falls in love with her the way that she is! With her being just a crazy, happy-go-lucky little rascal, y’know? But the whole movie is about how you have to like “tame” girls into marriage. So over the second half, they tame her into “wife material.”
Still, I feel like there’s such a solid heart to the idea of the movie. I love, also, the idea of making a great American musical, because I really enjoy that era. The aesthetics of this film are off the rails.
LS: Are there any films you saw recently that changed you, for better or worse?
RU: There are three pieces that have been eating me alive lately. The first is Nomadland, which got me in my heart. It’s like all these things I’ve been talking about, about change and going on to the next stage of life, and figuring it out, living day-to-day... all that stuff is really incorporated into the film in the most raw, beautiful, heart-tugging kind of way.
The second is the new Suicide Squad, directed by James Gunn. My boyfriend has been taking me through the history of the superhero in media. This was my first time seeing a superhero film in theatres and understanding what was happening. Plus, Ratcatcher II? Nobody expected [her] to be great, but I’m in love with her. The way that she is all about love and connection and, at the end of the day, doing the right thing… [she’s] very much thematically similar to the things that I like to do.
The very last piece of media, and the least serious answer, is Bo Burnam’s Inside, because I’m desperate for a general labor movement.
LS: I feel like that’s a pretty poignant film, though!
RU: I’ve never felt so depressed and also so comforted watching something. It really hit all the right notes. I’m a very big fan of labor reform, and I think it’s about time we all kind of come together and figure that out. There actually hasn’t been a Federal Labor Law reform since like, the 40s. Life is a little bit different now, friends!
LS: That’s definitely one of the things that pandemic shed light onto. Things aren’t good.
RU: Things are not good! I’m really worried about the IATSE strike. [Note: At the time of this interview, entertainment crew members were in the midst of coordinating a strike to protest the working conditions on streaming projects. A negotiation was reached to avert the strike on October 18, 2021.]
I might have to be a barista for a while again. But that’s okay; I really miss pouring latte art. That’s also a form of art for me.
LS: That could be your hobby!
RU: Yeah, pretty much! My friend Ryan did this thing called Milktober, and I was going to try to do all those pours with them, but I was in Atlanta for a shoot so things got complicated.
LS: You should do it next month. Call it Pourvember. That kind of has a nice ring to it.
RU: I do love that. I might do Pourvember.
For more information about Rachel’s latest project Rootbound, and to check out Rachel’s pandemic projects, visit her website. You can also check out her behind-the-scenes process on her Instagram, as well as her burgeoning latte art hobby on TikTok.