As the WGA/SAG strike continues roiling, those who work in indie film might have a moment to gain a bit of traction. Enter Betsy Burke, a Madrid-based filmmaker whose upcoming Night of the Starlings just wrapped, and from which she’ll show a special teaser trailer at the Madrid Film Festival (7 pm Friday, Sept. 8-Sunday, Sept. 10. $25. Engine House Theater, 2846 Hwy. 14, Madrid, (505) 473-0743, madridfilmfest.org). Starlings is Burke’s take on the myth of La Llorona, that tragic, ghostly mother figure who haunts the arroyos looking to replace the children she lost. And though Burke’s version is decidedly her own, she still consulted with scholars, took more than a decade to complete the script and insists on paying homage to the intricacies of the tale. We spoke with Burke ahead of the Madrid Film Festival to learn more. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What’s the elevator pitch?
The film takes place in 1975 in a ghost town called Cold Gulch, New Mexico, and a young girl, a tomboy, is transplanted there and tries to save an abandoned young mother and baby, even though she’s in peril herself because she and her mom are being hunted by a violent man. Her name’s Rae, she’s 13, she gets pulled into this mystery and also wakes up the ghosts of the town.
[The 1970s are] when I grew up, and I find it to be such a simpler time. It was before the tech boom, and I feel like we heard ghosts and we had more telepathy then. We weren’t relying on our technical devices, so there’s a nostalgia to the time that I thought was beautiful and seemed to resonate more [than] the times of today. The story it’s based on is from that time, the story I asked for when I was up in the Madrid cemetery one night. I said out loud, ‘I’m a writer, if anybody has a story, I’m here.’ And a story came to me about a young mother and her baby. I started writing that, then I later found out a baby was buried up in the Madrid cemetery, so I feel like I sort of conjured it that night. My authentically haunted house in Madrid is the main location, and I wrote these two little girl characters and found out later they lived in my house and died quite young. I definitely filled in plenty with my own imagination.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I think all my scripts start with a sort of central image that grabs me, and the story expands around that. When I started researching the story it’s based around, it just kept opening up more and more. There’s the little baby in the story buried in the Madrid cemetery that the hero is trying to save. It was a story that haunted me, and after the first draft I gave it to a friend to read—she pointed out it was basically the story of La Llorona. La Llorona is such a huge myth, and there’s no good movie done about her, so that gave me encouragement that a lot of people would get excited about the story. I even ran the script by a La Llorona scholar. I’ve been trying to make the film for 13 years. I mean, I’m a white girl from Cleveland, so I didn’t hear about her there. When my friend pointed it out, I started researching her, and I started to see her everywhere—because she is everywhere in the Southwest. Everyone has stories about her.
I’m hoping the audience will feel the anguish—look at how we’ve destroyed our children and what their lives will be. We’re destroying the beauty and the innocents of the world, and I’m hoping people will feel that remorse. For me it’s about climate change and the destruction of nature. Species are disappearing every day. Even during this phone call we’re losing some. At some point, I imagine, our race will be like, ‘What have we done?’ and we’ll feel that horror of what we can’t reclaim, and that to me is La Llorona.
Given the ongoing WGA/SAG strike, what do you see for the future of DIY and/or indie films?
With the strike, it could actually help me if it goes on a while because my film is in the can.
I hope DIY film has a rebirth and a flourish because of this. I watch Netflix, but there’s a certain level of production value and they all have the same sort of thing going on. The more indie films, they’re scrappier and they usually have a bolder message, and because they are independent they can get away with stuff. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if this eventually made it onto Netflix, but there are different styles and voices and films that are maybe less formulaic. Telling this story, the way it came to me, it was one of the purposes of my life. It was one of the things I wanted to do before I die.