We Become the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Writer-director Jessie Barr on the personal story of death, grief and family that underpins her debut feature, Sophie Jones.

I kept thinking over the past few months, as I was trying to write this piece, what is the perfect thing to write? What would capture the moment? What could I contribute? My thoughts kept unraveling, like in Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Lost Thought.”

But maybe the lack of resolution is right. It is a part of life and a part of the artistic process, a part of the grieving process. It is a part of becoming.

I have two quotes up on my wall, by a rickety antique desk I got from a friend for 20 bucks. It’s the desk I’ve been working at for years and it’s been my lonely island during this pandemic, but also a place where I study and dream and gather my angels, gather my mentors, most times unbeknownst to them. I think it’s important to gather and claim co-conspirators, even if it’s just secretly – even if only you know. The two quotes are both by Robert Bresson, and I’ve kept coming back to them when I think of the process of making my debut feature, Sophie Jones. The first is, “Film as exploration, transformation, a quest, a question not a thesis,” and the second, “Making a film is like constantly practicing believing.”

Making Sophie Jones has been an odyssey, a quest, my coming of age, in a lot of ways. It’s been a relentless three-year journey. It has been the ultimate practice in belief. Before making the film, I’d spent my whole life running away from the story of my life. I lost my dad to cancer when I was 16; he died at home, in our arms. They say that even though the person dying cannot see you anymore, the dying can hear you, so we said how much we loved him and kept repeating, “We love you, we love you, we love you.” “We’re going to be OK, you can go now, you don’t have to keep fighting, you can let go.” Let go. Release.

Jessie Barr, as a baby, with her father.

I remember the day he died, I was numb. I went up to my bedroom and lay down alone with a pillow between my knees and one of my dad’s T-shirts on my pillow. It still smelled like him. As I lay there, I kept thinking of this image of cool, silvery blue water and a lone palm tipping back and forth in the wind. I kept playing this image over and over, like a movie in my mind. I’d not thought of this image again until very recently, right before we were about to release Sophie Jones into the world. I’d been feeling overwhelmed and groundless, the letting go, the releasing, the releasing of the release, and that image came back into my mind: the ocean and the palm tree.

After my dad’s death, my coping mechanism was to barrel through and stuff all my feelings down. For almost 15 years, I continued living in denial, trying to outrun the trauma. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, it is a process, a dance, and I’m learning to be gentle with myself rather than judge that 16-year-old-girl. She did what she had to survive.

In February 2018, I had been alive without my dad almost as long as I had with him, and I started to open up inside to the truth I had been trying to escape. For whatever reason, I started to look at my grief and write a script that dealt with some of the themes I’d been running from my whole life. Then, in a strange twist of fate, my younger cousin sent me an early draft of a script, inspired by her experiences grieving her mother’s death. My cousin and I are both named after my great-grandmother. We share the same name and we share the loss of a parent at the exact same age. There was a powerful synchronicity.

Through the years, Jessie Barr with her younger namesake cousin, Jessica Barr.

It’s hard to explain now; because it happened so quickly, it was not a rational choice. I just felt compelled to make this into a film, to honor my cousin’s story, to explore the reflexivity and mirroring, and to be the person I desperately needed growing up, for my cousin and for the character of Sophie. I dove into giving my cousin notes and developing the story and rewriting the script together that would become Sophie Jones. Since she was to play the title role of Sophie, we also worked relentlessly on character and how to play a version of yourself that simultaneously felt safe and free.

When prepping for Sophie Jones I created a “bible” inspired by Coppola’s The Godfather bible, with research and notes on the essence of each scene, what I needed for story and character and quality, the tone and atmosphere, pitfalls and improvisations I wanted to include. I felt like I was channeling something. A lot of times when it felt impossible and I was out of my depth, I’d feel my dad. I think he is the reason I was able to persevere against all odds – raising financing for the film, gathering co-conspirators, studying, envisioning, learning about building a film out of thin air with my incredible producers, willing it into existence, building a family to bring this film life. The Sophie Jones cast and crew really became a family. A wild circus family.

Shooting a beach scene during the making of Sophie Jones.

In prep, I dove into a sea of coming-of-age films, like a woman possessed. I wanted to swim around in them, braid them into my hair, eat them up for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As a film, I wanted Sophie Jones to be its own creature. I knew I had to listen to what the film wanted to be and not try to emulate someone else or force something that had been done before. At the same time, I also felt a responsibility to be in communication with films that had come before, to be in communion with the genre: What did the essence of coming-of-age films feel like, what was the truth about them that lit me on fire?

Maybe I was trying to gather my angels. I think of all the filmmakers who’ve mentored me without their knowledge: Ida Lupino, Athina Rachel Tsangari, Julie Dash, Jane Campion, Maren Ade, Mati Diop, Andrea Arnold, Alice Rohrwacher, Gus Van Sant, Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, Lukas Moodysson, Ousmane Sembène, Marielle Heller, Jean-Luc Godard, Věra Chytilová, Sofia Coppola, Terrence Malick, Nicole Holofcener, and on and on. I think you become like your teachers. So I watched films on an endless loop, went deeper into credit-card debt (I don’t recommend this, but I want to tell the truth), drove to the desert, lived off spaghetti, red sauce and beer. I reread poems by Anne Sexton, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Mary Oliver and my 16-year-old self. I cried while clutching a pillow between my legs, thinking, “What is it about coming-of-age films that I feel so desperate to feed on?”

Is it that coming-of-age narratives feel vital and disruptive?

Skyler Verity and Jessica Barr in Sophie Jones.

It’s a miracle that this film exists. There was no infrastructure, no labs, no stars, just belief and heart and will and a desire for this story to breathe, and a group of fiercely talented, generous and hardworking humans coming together to give this film life. It’s been years of grit, determination and will. I feel like I lost myself making Sophie Jones, but also like I found myself, too.

When I look back now, I think making this film was me trying to bring my father back. I was trying to save him, save my aunt, save my cousin and our 16-year-old selves. I feel similarly to Ocean Vuong in some ways; he wrote his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, for his mother, who is illiterate and will never be able to read it. And I made a film for my father, who will never see it.

It’s strange, but I feel as if Sophie Jones is a person. The film is like this little girl I’ve been taking care of for years – brushing her hair, making sure she eats her lunch, giving her that red sweater she loves to bury her nose in when she doesn’t feel safe. I am looking forward to sharing the film with an audience, but there is also something about it that leaves me aching. I have to let her go. Release. The film belongs to everyone now and it is alive in such a different way when an audience can imprint themselves and their own imagination on it. It’s the next stage of the film becoming alive again. It is this new stage of its life, and it is a part of its becoming.

With millions dead from COVID-19 and so many intimates lost, the collective grief and trauma that we are all experiencing right now is overwhelming. So many people are grieving, and we are also reckoning with the fact that our country was founded on suffering and unresolved grief in so many ways. Right now, I sense this longing from a lot of people, myself included, to be accompanied through our experiences of suffering. This is the truth of the film too, in a way. It’s a film about both witnessing and experiencing grief; as an audience, you are accompanying and being accompanied. I hope people feel seen by this film. I hope it’s a call to normalize suffering and help us move toward conversations about grief as nonlinear and a part of life to be explored – grief as a practice almost, rather than as something to pathologize or fix. There is often this push in our culture to just “get over it,” as if grief and suffering are things to be avoided or problems to be solved. There is a transformative power in grief, a lot of tenderness, compassion and meaning that, in a strange way, can awaken us to our capacity for joy.

Jessica Barr in Sophie Jones.

I believe we become the stories we tell ourselves, so I’m just going to tell myself and anyone else who needs it: keep going.

Featured image shows Jessie Barr during the making of Sophie Jones.

Jessie Barr is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She is a director, writer, actor, and producer with a background in independent film, digital storytelling, and theater. Jessie makes her feature film directorial debut with Sophie Jones, from executive producer Nicole Holofcener, which Jessie directed, co-wrote, and produced. Sophie Jones had its world premiere in competition at the Festival du Cinéma Américain de Deauville, went on to screen in competition at Mar del Plata, Festival de Cinéma de la Ville de Québec, and is out now through Oscilloscope Laboratories, in virtual cinemas, on VOD or directly through Oscilloscope. Jessie is a two-time 2020 Sundance Fellow. With the support of the Sundance Episodic Lab and the Episodic Makers Lab, Jessie is developing her original series with co-writer/co-star Lena Hudson inspired by their award-winning short film Too Long at the Fair. Jessie also stars in the critically acclaimed, award-winning original series Om City, which she created, co-wrote, and produced with her husband, filmmaker Tom O’Brien. As an actor, Jessie can be seen next in The Beta Test by Jim Cummings, which premiered at the 2021 Berlinale. (Photo by Emma Meade.)