In Conversation With: Becky Aikman

Written By Debra Vago

The Utah Film Center, in partnership with The King’s English Bookshop, hosted a special screening of the made-in-Utah classic Thelma & Louise, followed by a discussion with author Becky Aikman and our very ow Utah Film Commission director, Virginia Pearce.

Aikman’s newly released book, Off the Cliff: How the Making of Thelma & Louise Drove Hollywood to the Edge, chronicles the remarkable story of a boundary-breaking project written by an unknown female, that ended up becoming an award-winning movie.

Virginia Pearce and Becky Aikman at the Utah Film Center screening and discussion event.

Thelma & Louise remains one of the most iconic films to be shot in Utah. Released in 1991, it was one of the earlier productions that saw the beauty and sheer versatility of our locations. Since then, many more have recognized Utah’s potential as a destination for filming everything from adventure genre, sci-fi and new-age westerns, to dramas and romantic comedies.

After copious research, author Aikman shares a revealing behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most controversial and influential movies, with interesting revelations – from industry facts and figures to intimate conversations with the cast and crew.

Here is an excerpt from the book to give you a glimpse of what an interesting read it is!

The writing was sharp, whipsawing from humor to deep-seated longing. The characters were complicated, vulnerable and flawed, careening through the sorts of hairpin emotional turns that could win awards for the players who snagged the roles. The plot hurtled along from one brazen surprise to the next, yet it was simple, too: Two outlaws lam it in a hot convertible after shooting a would-be rapist. The story fit safely within the cinema template of broken taboos, anti-heroes and screw-the-system attitudes that Hollywood had championed since the breakup of the old-time studios.

But there was a catch, as they say in the movies, and it was a sticky one. The outlaws behind the wheel of that convertible were named Thelma and Louise, both of them women, recognizably ordinary as the story began. Yet along the way they drove fast, drank hard, picked up a one-night stand and shed their conformist skins to embrace intoxicating freedom against the landscape of the American West. With the law closing in, they realized they couldn’t go back — “Something’s crossed over in me,” one said — and rather than submit to convention, they chose a shocking fate, certain to polarize the audience … But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Contributing writer Debra Vago is a mountain mama, nature lover and film enthusiast. 

Wonder Woman: Breaking the glass ceiling for women in film?

Written By Debra Vago

Director Patty Jenkins is being touted as Hollywood’s new superhero, having achieved the best box-office opening weekend by a female director, ever. Wonder Woman finally made it to the big screen this month, exceeding expectations by bringing in $103.1 million for its opening weekend in North America and grossing more than $438 million worldwide to date. The film’s long-awaited debut has caused quite a stir, forcing the industry to address the much-debated matter of gender equality.

The 19th annual Celluloid Ceiling report found that women comprised just 7% of all directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016 – a figure that represents a decline from 2015’s 9%. According to a 2017 Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative report by USC Annenberg, females rarely direct in lucrative film genres such as actions and thrillers, instead sticking to dramas and comedies, which generally bring in less at the box office.

Despite it being 2017, Wonder Woman is the first major superhero film to be led by a woman. A welcome disruption for many, Jenkins’ Wonder Woman screams female empowerment. Not only does it feature a female protagonist, but most of the cast and crew are women – from the director to the production designer, set decorators, special effects technician and visual effects coordinator.

But the question remains: will Hollywood change?

Wonder Woman has proved that female-focused action films most certainly have an audience, but as history suggests, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a broader change across the industry will follow. Thelma and Louise, one of the most iconic films to be shot in Utah, seemed poised to be a game-changer for gender politics following its 1991 release. At the time, the film stirred controversy but is now considered a classic and has become a landmark of feminist film. 2016 saw filmmaker Sydney Freeland direct Netflix’s smart comedy Deidra and Laney Rob a Train, and this year sees Clare Niederpruem make her directorial debut with a modern adaption of Little Women, both filmed in Utah. We are certainly seeing women creating content and landing roles, but in stereo-typically ‘female’ genres. And when it comes to un-apologetically strong women in action roles, the likes of The Hunger Games and Max Max: Fury Road, the statistics suggest that these remain few and far between.

Patty Jenkins has said: “The world is changing, so if Hollywood wants to get rich, pay attention to this: Women are our biggest audience in the world right now. It would be wise to go after them.” If there’s a hint that Hollywood is changing its attitude toward women, this may be it.

Contributing writer Debra Vago is a mountain mama, nature lover and film enthusiast. 

Hit shows, global screenings and prestigious awards: It’s been a great year so far

Written By Debra Vago

The sun is shining, the snow has melted (well, at least in the valley) and we are officially half way through the year. And what a (half) year it has been for Utah’s film industry. 13 productions have been approved this calendar year to date under the Motion Picture Incentive Program, including a modern remake of Little Women and second seasons of HBO’s Westworld and Disney’s Andi Mack. An estimated $32 million has been spent in state and more than 1,600 local jobs have been created. Here’s a recap of just some of the great content coming out of Utah:

Seconds all round

2016 saw HBO come to town to shoot its anticipated western-sci-fi series, Westworld. With an all-star cast and breathtaking southern Utah backdrop, the show garnered an average of 12 million viewers across all platforms and now ranks as the network’s most watched first season ever. This year saw the series renewed for a second season, with HBO returning to film here in Utah and a ten-episode series set to air in 2018.

WESTWORLD – James Landry Herbert, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes. (HBO) 

Disney Channel gave us further reason to celebrate with the announcement of a return to Utah! The network will be back this year to shoot a second season of its popular new series, Andi Mack. The first season, which aired this spring, neared 40 million views across seven digital platforms and ranks as the number one show of 2017 to date among girls aged 6-11, 9-14 and 6-14. Over the last 20 years, Disney has filmed 39 productions in Utah, including Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Lone Ranger and all three High School Musical films, but the return of a network series is a first.

ANDI MACK – Production set in Magna, UT.(Disney/ABC Television Group)

Sci-fi series Extinct is the second scripted series for BYUtv, following its successful Granite Flats show. Extinct was picked up by the network for ten episodes and is set to premiere in October, having filmed in Southern and Northern Utah

Check out our YouTube playlist to see more.

Festival features

Four made-in-Utah productions premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January – more than ever before. Together, they created an estimated $13 million for the state and hired 370 local cast and crew. Two of these features, Wind River and Brigsby Bear, went on to screen at Festival de Cannes last month, with Utah resident Taylor Sheridan picking up the Best Director Award for Wind River. Brigsby Bear went on to compete in the main competition section of this month’s Shanghai International Film Festival, before its July 28th release date. Wind River will be released August 4th.

Horror-comedy series Snatchers made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight Episodic Showcase. The eight-episode show recently began its run on Verizon’s go90 streaming service . And last but not least, indie-feature Small Town Crime premiered at Austin’s SXSW in March, having filmed in Utah earlier this year.

More than movies 

It’s not just movies and series shooting here. Rock band Imagine Dragons filmed the music video for their hit ‘Believer’ at Park City Film Studios earlier this year, and we have seen big brands including Volkswagen, Ford and Woolwich capturing content across the state for their latest ads, showcasing Utah’s natural beauty.

What will the rest of the year hold? We’re just getting started, so stay tuned!

Contributing writer Debra Vago is a mountain mama, nature lover and film enthusiast. 

A Local News Round-up of the 2017 Festival de Cannes

Written By Debra Vago
Photo: Wind River director Taylor Sheridan, staring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen

From made-in-Utah productions to made-in-Utah stars, we can’t contain our excitement with all the Utah-focused news coming out of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. 

We were so proud to see two feature films that were shot in Utah and premiered at our very own Sundance Film Festival go on to screen at Cannes. Starring and co-written by Saturday Night Live’s Kyle Mooney, Brigsby Bear was named ‘one to watch’ by influential film title Deadline. The whimsical comedy that filmed in Salt Lake City last year, closed the Critics’ Week Sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival. Speaking about what attracted them to Utah, Mooney said: “We needed a desert area and we needed the suburbs. Utah had all of those things.” Mooney also cited Utah’s Film Incentive Program as a factor that ‘helped’ their decision making process.

Our locations and industry resources are increasingly attracting high-level filmmaking talent. Writer, director and actor, Taylor Sheridan, “became so enthralled with Utah’s beauty and sense of community” that he now calls it home. Sheridan picked up the ‘Best Director’ Award for Wind River following its international premiere at Cannes, receiving a lengthy standing ovation at the end of its screening. Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, the crime thriller filmed in Coalville, Heber and Midway, and originally premiered at January’s Sundance Film Festival.

On the topic of standing ovations, Bountiful’s own Millicent Simmonds stole the show as she took to the Cannes red carpet at the premiere of the much anticipated Wonderstruck. Todd Haynes’ follow up to his Oscar-nominated Carol is based on the novel by Brian Selznick, telling the partly wordless tale of two eras in film history. 14-year-old Millie plays the hearing-impaired Rose seeking more to life in 1920’s New York. Wildly praised for her performance and pinpointed as the real star of the movie, Millie’s screen debut is being hailed as a breathtaking breakthrough.

And in other news to come out of Cannes, Crimson Forest Entertainment acquired North American rights to Chinese period romance The Jade Pendant. Based on L.P. Leung’s best-selling novel, The Jade Pendant filmed entirely in Salt Lake in 2015 on a western set constructed just west of Salt Lake City. The tragic love story is set against the 1871 burning of Chinatown in Los Angeles and the largest mass lynching in American history.

All in all, it has been an exciting Festival year for the state and 2017 is shaping up to be another impressive year all-round for the Utah film community.

“Andi Mack” Gets Second Season!

The Disney Channel’s new series, “Andi Mack” will be returning to Utah this summer, with production once again coming out of Salt Lake City.

See the official press release below:


— Production Resumes in Salt Lake City in July — 

On the strength of strong and consistently growing ratings over its first seven original telecasts, Disney Channel has quickly ordered a second season of “Andi Mack,” the contemporary comedic series about a 13 year-old girl’s typical — and not so typical — life with her family and friends.  Production will resume in Salt Lake City in July.

The series ranks as the #1 TV series of 2017 to-date among Girls 6-11, Girls 9-14 and Girls 6-14.

“Andi Mack” was created and is executive-produced by Terri Minsky (“Lizzie McGuire”). Michelle Manning (“The Breakfast Club,” Disney Channel Original Movies “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Teen Beach 2”) is also an executive producer.  Phil Baker (Disney Channel’s “Good Luck Charlie”) is co-executive producer.

Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer, Disney Channels Worldwide, said, “There is not another series out right now — on any platform —  that speaks to our core demographic with the authenticity and insight that Terri and her creative team have captured with ‘Andi Mack.’  This series, and these characters, are well on their way to becoming this generation’s ‘Lizzie McGuire.”

As ‘Andi Mack’ increasingly engages viewers and prepares for an imminent debut on Disney Channels around the world, several programming events are scheduled including “Back to Back ‘Andi Mack” on FRIDAY, MAY 26 (5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., ET/PT).  Then, four weeks of new episodes each Friday will culminate with Andi convinced that her parents Bex and Bowie are destined to be together.  Meanwhile, Jonah Beck and Amber reach a pivotal moment in their relationship.

Nearing 40 million views on seven digital platforms, linear TV and social media, the series stands apart from the pack as one of TV’s continuous ratings growth leaders, recently hitting a ratings high (May 19) in Total Viewers, marking its fifth consecutive week of growth and a 34% ratings increase from its premiere telecast.  It also exceeded its high mark among Kids 6-11, Girls 6-11, and Girls 6-14 (May 12).

“Andi Mack” stars: Peyton Elizabeth Lee as Andi Mack, Lilan Bowden as Bex Mack, Lauren Tom as Celia Mack, Joshua Rush as Cyrus Goodman, Sofia Wylie as Buffy Driscoll and Asher Angel as Jonah Beck. Recurring cast members are Stoney Westmoreland as Henry “HAM” Mack, Emily Skinner as Amber, and Trent Garrett as Bowie Quinn.

The series is from Horizon Productions and is filmed in Salt Lake City, Utah. It carries a TV-G parental guideline.