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    Martha Stephens Talks Pilgrim Song

    by Wesley Johnson

    Filmmaker Martha Stephens was born & raised in Kentucky. Although she now lives in West Virginia, her work makes it evident that she still has a great fondness for  the Bluegrass State. Her latest feature, Pilgrim Song, tells the story of a freshly pink-slipped music teacher leaving his home in Louisville to figure life out while hiking the Sheltowee Trace Trail in Eastern Kentucky.

    Pilgrim Song will show at the library this Saturday promptly at 7:00 PM (doors open at 6:30 PM). Miss Stephens will be in attendance and participate in a brief Q&A after the film. She kindly answered a few questions via email to let folks know what to expect from the film.

    Lounging on the trail.

    Lounging on the trail.

    Wesley- Give our patrons an overview of what Pilgrim Song is about.

    Martha- Pilgrim Song follows a recently laid-off middle-school music teacher who embarks on a cathartic solo backpacking adventure along Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail.  He’s essentially hitting the trail in hopes of rediscovering a lost sense of personal fulfillment.

    Wesley- Your two features – Passenger Pigeons and Pilgrim Song – are set in Eastern Kentucky, where you’re originally from. How did your upbringing there inform your style of filmmaking and the stories you wish to tell? What’s one thing you hope the world learns about Kentucky from your work?

    Martha- Both of my first features could be considered “slow cinema”, where the pacing and rhythm of each film more or less beat with the rhythm of a measured life.  Growing up in Greenup County, Kentucky, life was very deliberately spent.  As a kid, I thought it was an incredibly dull place to live, but as an adult, I really appreciate the solitude one can easily find and the intoxicating hill country that engulfs Eastern Kentucky.  I also believe the scripts I write tend to be fairly naturalistic, inspired by real people I’ve known from back home.  I had an interesting family dynamic that I’ve drawn a lot from.  My mother is a terrific painter and came from a very creative family including novelists, poets, and musicians; my father grew up baptist and is very religious and conservative.  I guess that’s why you may find a lot of religious elements in my films as well as a lot of dope smoking.  Ha.  Folks from the Kentucky hills are a breed unlike any other.  I have a lot of admiration for their spirit, their toughness, and their ties to their land and heritage.  I guess that’s why I tend to contain my stories here.  I hope that any audience watching my films will fall in love with the beautiful landscape, and get a better sense of the character and beauty surrounding this country.

    Wesley- You mentioned in one of your emails to me that the film is purposely paced like a novel. What books most influenced its creation?

    Martha- It’s funny, I definitely think in terms of novels when I’m writing scripts.  A good book is always more influential to me than other films.  John Steinbeck is one of my heroes, so Travels with Charley was very inspirational.  I recall reading a lot of travel literature a few years prior to writing the script, so books like A Walk in the Woods, A Walk Across America, and Into the Wild also moved me to write a script like Pilgrim Song.  In all of these works, the author or subject hiked/drove/hitchhiked away from the mundane security of their normal lives to find answers to questions, seek happiness, or as a way of reaching personal redemption.

    Getting water on the trail.

    Getting water on the trail.

    Wesley- What regional creative works do you feel need more attention?

    Martha- Anyone who has interest in Appalachian literature should subscribe to Appalachian Heritage.  It’s a quarterly journal that celebrates various Appalachian writers and I’m quite taken with its simplicity and sincerity.  Roger May is a KY/WV native that will be publishing his photography book, Testify in the near future.  His pictures depict his visits to his ancestral land (KY/WV) as well as investigating his relationship with his childhood home now that it’s no longer his home.  In a nutshell, it’s a lovely prodigal son story told through visuals.

    Wesley- What’s next?

    Martha- I’m currently developing two projects: one Appalachian coming of age story called Papaw Easy and one comedy I’m co-directing called Lay of the Land.  The latter film is set in Iceland and is a story of two mismatched babyboomers sowing some wild oats in an unassuming place.  Papaw Easy is a very nuanced, meditative story about an abandoned child forming a friendship with a foul-mouthed, down-and-out elderly playboy.  I hope to film Lay of the Land later this year and Papaw Easy in early 2014.

    Pilgrim Song Trailer:

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