Lessons with Martha
This passion project about family, aging and dementia has already inspired many amazing artists to contribute their talents. In a moment when most of us are unable to be with all of our loved ones, this story of separation feels more timely than ever. Help us with finishing and festival fees!
Mission StatementFilms that feature older women in the lead, titular role are few and far between, and it has been exciting to explore the experiences of such a character. Furthermore, the film explores issues related to dementia and society's treatment of the elderly.
About The Project
My grandmother, Martha Johnson, had some very specific sayings: "It'll be better before you're married," was her benediction over minor cuts and scrapes. "This is for the best girl I know: me," was what she would say as she scooped herself a bowl of coffee ice cream with Kahlua. And, "Life is real and life is earnest," was her answer to childish complaints about chores, homework and piano practice.
Sometimes the more specific you make a piece, the more universal it feels. That has been my experience writing about my grandmother in "Lessons with Martha." The specifics of our relationship - the closeness we had during my childhood when she gave me piano lessons, the creeping distance after I moved away to college, and her mental decline when I was a young professional - tell a story of loss, nostalgia and love that spoke to the many collaborators who helped me bring this short to life. Watching a loved one slip away in dementia, and seeing them try to maintain control in the face of an inexorable loss of memories and self, is something most adults have experienced.
In Lessons with Martha, the story dances between two events: a piano lesson a young boy named Mark recieves from his Grandmother Martha, and the adult Mark's visit to his Grandmother decades later, where his Aunt Jill is taking care of her as she loses her memory and mental faculties. The story has been changed to fit the format of a short film, but many of the specifics - the piano lessons and pieces we played, our early moves to New York City, and the fact my Grandmother could not remember attending my wedding and would occasionally be mystified by my wedding band - were straight from real life.
Working with Devin Doyle, my brilliant collaborator and cinematographer, I developed a visual language to emphasize both the similarities and the differences between the two days in the film. First, we were so fortunate to shoot in the home of Gwen Hillier who plays Martha - she has lived there for close to 30 years and it feels like a warm, welcoming grandparent's home.
Through blocking, framing and color, Devin and I sought to emphasize that Martha and Mark's relationship has changed over the years - there is warmth and vibrance in the piano lesson scene that has been cooled off in the bedroom meeting.
Their hands - on the keyboard and then focused on the wedding ring - extended the mirroring circumstances. Seeing them seated in the same relationship to each other and the light emphasizes that, along with their changing status.
In coverage, we could really appreciate their transformations, and emphasize the shift in status. Our phenomenal cast really shone in these shots, and we were able to showcase their wonderful performances.
We shot "Lessons with Martha" over a weekend in December of 2019 in Burbank, California. Gwen Hillier, who was a Broadway dancer in the 1970s and has returned to acting with roles on Transparent (Amazon Prime) and Crazy Ex Girlfriend (The CW) came aboard first to play Martha, and she did an amazing job capturing the essence of my grandmother while making the part her own. We even shot in her house, which added to the authenticity of the piece. Blake Cooper Griffin, who starred in my feature Beerfest: Thirst for Victory, and has appeared on Preacher (AMC) and Marvel's Cloak & Dagger (Freeform), brought a wonderful openness to the role of Mark, coming to terms with all that he and his grandmother are losing. Sarah Lowe, who in addition to appearing in the Las Vegas casts of Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia is in The Apple Sisters, played Martha's daughter Jill - which was appropriate since she is, in fact, Gwen's daughter. And playing Young Mark is Keeler Donnelly, who is Sarah's son and Gwen's grandson. On the page and on camera, "Lessons with Martha" is very much a family affair.
The same goes behind the camera: producer Kimmy Gatewood is my wife and partner in Nerd Ranch Productions. Cinematographer and producer Devin Doyle is a long time collaborator with both of us across multiple projects, as is composer Jerome Kurtenbach, who plays music for The Apple Sisters and is an accomplished composer for stage and screen.
We had just wrapped up the edit and scoring of the film when COVID-19 arrived in the US, and it soon became clear that the entire country was going to be experiencing some unprecedented events for a while. At the time we were about to launch this campaign, but decided to put it on hold to focus, like many people, on the events going on around us. These have been some of the most challenging months of our lives, showing how vulnerable our lives and society are, but also bearing seeds of hope around racial justice and a sense of shared humanity. The virus trained our focus and concern on the most vulnerable among us, the elderly and infirm, groups that too often are ignored by our culture. This very dynamic is what is at play in "Lessons with Martha."
Now that we seem to be in a period of relative stability, it seemed like the right time to launch our campaign. Our family is looking to grow with your help: we want to take "Lessons with Martha" to film festivals across the country and around the world, when and where that is safe, and we need your help to do that. While we were able to produce the film for very little money thanks to the generosity of both time and resources of our cast and principal crew, the elements required to deliver this short to a cinema screen in all the glory it deserves requires money.
Kimmy and I have made audio mixes that will pass muster on YouTube for a comedy sketch or movie parody, but a Dolby 5.1 mix or a gorgeous web-friendly mix is beyond our skill and technological resources. For that we will be turning to Gypsy Sound. The same goes for the color correct - Devin made "Lessons with Martha" look gorgeous, but always with the intention that it would be color corrected in a way that accentuated the story without smothering the details. For that we will be using the amazing Billy Hobson.
Once we have that perfect version ready to play in theaters and online, the best way to present short films is the film festival circuit. Festival applications require fees and theatrical screenings require the creation of a special file that can play on theater projectors.
For all of this we are reaching out to you, our friends, family, fans and supporters. We need your financial support to bring "Lessons with Martha" across the finish line and into the lives of film fans around the world. If you are able to contribute, please look at the incentives page and see what level of contribution you're in a position to make. If you are not able to make a financial commitment, which is totally understandable, please be sure to "Follow" this campaign on Seed & Spark - that raises it's visibility to the broader Seed & Spark community. And please share this campaign with your community of friends - every little bit helps.
Thank you so much for supporting the arts with your time, attention and resources.
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About This Team
MATTHEW C. JOHNSON (Writer, Director, Producer) Matt is a director specializing in scripted comedy, so "Lessons with Martha" has been a new adventure in dramatic storytelling. He directed the feature film "Beerfest: Thirst for Victory" for CW Seed, Blue Ribbon Content, Gerber Pictures and Kids at Play - the first feature to debut on CW's streaming service. Matt has extensive experience creating digital content for outlets including ABC, Hearst Publications, Vice, Yahoo!, Facebook Watch, Eko and CollegeHumor. He directed the interview series "Meet My Mom" for Reese Witherspoon's Hello Sunshine. Prior to that he directed the sketch series "The Gaggle" for ABC Digital, Maker Studios and Ryan Seacrest Productions. Other highlights include YouTube versions of "Family Feud" and "Password" for FremantleMedia, game show format "Tattoo Roulette" for Maker Studios, and the Yahoo! "Sketchies" comedy series. Along with Kimmy Gatewood, he produces content through Nerd Ranch Productions. He was the showrunner for the YouTube Channel BuzzrGames, which won the 2015 Cynopsis Model D Award for Best Original Channel.
DEVIN DOYLE (Producer, Director of Photography) A two-time Emerging Cinematographer Award winner, Devin Doyle got his start in Los Angeles in the two-year program at Panavision Hollywood. After going freelance in 2008 he worked his way up in the camera department as a film loader, data manager, assistant, camera operator, and now Director of Photography. His work has taken him abroad to the Virgin Islands, Japan, China, across Europe, Brazil, Peru, and countless locales within the US. As a cinematographer Devin has worked commercially with many national brands including Disney, AT&T, Target, and Frito-Lay. His narrative work includes content for Netflix, Hulu, and Comedy Central, as well as numerous award-winning shorts. Devin resides in Los Angeles with his wife Amanda Doyle, CSA (Doyle/Fiorilli Casting) and their daughter.
Kimmy Gatewood (Producer) is a writer, director, and producer originally from Maryland. She is on all three seasons of the hit Netflix show "GLOW" as Stacey Beswick, one of the Beatdown Biddies, so she can put you in a headlock. Kimmy recently wrapped her first feature, "Play it As it Lies," which will premiere in 2021 from Universal Pictures. For television, she has directed episodes of "The Babysitters Club" (Netflix,) "Helpsters" (Apple TV,) "Just Add Magic: Mystery City" (Amazon) and an episode of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" that the AV Club called "Perfect!" She also directed segments for "The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale" on Netflix, segments for "Sesame Street" on HBO Max, and the series "HYPERLINKED" for Disney and YouTube Red. Her award winning shorts "CONTROL" (written by Alison Becker) and "Consent: a Short Comedy about a Serious Subject" (written by Rebekka Johnson) were festival darlings. Kimmy also directed the Clio Award Winning Comedy Central digital series "Junketeers," "Ladyboss" starring Rachel Bloom, "I Don't Care About Award Shows" which opened up the 2017 Creative Arts Emmys, "TRUMP VS BERNIE" for Fusion, and "MILK FACTORY" - a comedy series about Motherhood- that she wrote and directed. As a performer, she is part of the acclaimed musical comedy trio THE APPLE SISTERS and she's known to play the trombone for the Paul F Tompkins band.
GWEN HILLIER (Martha) Gwen began her career in musical theatre, sharing the Broadway stage with Ethel Merman, Ruby Keeler, and Tommy Tune, among others. She took a performing hiatus while she served as Associate Casting Director of the long-running soap opera "General Hospital." Gwen continued her theatre work during that time, directing and choreographing throughout Southern California. After 20 years at GH, Gwen stepped in front of the camera and has since appeared in spots for Toyota, T.J. Maxx, and others. As if without skipping beat, Gwen also put her dancing shoes back on and was most recently seen
on the musical series finale of Amazon's "Transparent" and the CW's "Crazy Ex Girlfriend.
BLAKE COOPER GRIFFIN (Adult Mark) is an American actor who most recently made appearances on "Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger" and the 2019 reboot of "Mad About You." Blake was also the star of the 2018 CW Seed reboot of "Beerfest: Thirst for Victory," inspired by the Broken Lizard cult classic film, “Beerfest.” Blake received significant critical acclaim for his brutal portrayal of Bill Bradley in the civil rights drama and feature film, "Love Is All You Need?" Known for roles on popular primetime shows like AMC’s "Preacher," USA’s "Necessary Roughness," and TNT’s "Major Crimes," Griffin’s notable film work includes D.J. Caruso’s "Standing Up," Helen Hunt’s "Ride," and "Life of a King." Other noteworthy television credits include: "House of Lies," "Jessie," "Castle," CW’s "90210" reboot, "Greek," "Mad Love," "NCIS: LA," and the 2017 made-for-TV rom-com, "Do I Say I Do?" A graduate of the School of Drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Blake has performed on some of Los Angeles’s most respected stages including the Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Geffen Theatre, the Skylight Theater, and the Theater at Boston Court. Blake found it particularly meaningful to work on "Lessons with Martha" as a tribute to his grandmother, and biggest supporter, who recently passed away. Blake lives in Los Angeles with his awesome dog.
SARAH LOWE (Jill) is an actress, comedian, writer, and choreographer. She is third generation show biz (Her grandmother was Ruby Keeler, and her mother Gwen is also in this film) and is proud to be ushering a fourth generation, watching her son Keeler perform in Lesson's with Martha. She was most recently seen in the film "Gloria Bell," opposite Julianne Moore, and is known for being one third of the critically acclaimed comedy trio, The Apple Sisters. Some favorite theater credits include, JERSEY BOYS, MAMMA MIA, and 42ND STREET as Peggy Sawyer, for obvious reasons. As a choreographer, her work was recently seen on the 2018 and 2019 "General Hospital" Nurses Ball and assisted Kathryn Burns for the CW's hit show,"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." She is currently performing in the hit Las Vegas show, ATOMIC SALOON SHOW, at the Palazzo in Las Vegas.
KEELER DONNELLY (Young Mark) is fourth generation show biz and was already onstage at 6 weeks old! "Lessons with Martha" is Keeler's first film. He was just seen on "General Hospital" and was part of an online Toyota marketing campaign. He has performed onstage as a Munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ and has had numerous stage appearances singing along side his Mom! He is so excited about seeing his uncle mustache's movie and was so happy to have the opportunity to act with his Nana, Gwen Hillier.
JEROME KURTENBACH (Composer) is a composer, writer and musician. He has worked on the CW's "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," along with many of Rachel Bloom's digital media and live shows, most recently the Just For Laughs Festival in Montréal. He's currently scoring Nick Demos' film "Invisible" and Matt Johnson's "Lessons With Martha," completed scores for Brian Bolster’s "Winter’s Watch" and "Departing Gesture," and Chase Darwin's "Billy & Valerie" and "Stanley and the Wolf." He has also scored the podcast "Mother of All Shows" created and hosted by "GLOW"'s Kimmy Gatewood. Jerome has also served as orchestrator, arranger, and conductor for various projects, including the opening of the "2017 MTV Movie and TV Awards," The Apple Sisters Variety Show, and Jason Mraz's musical SHINE. Along with Rachel Bloom, he has co-written the new musical Broadway CRAZY! He is also composer and lyricist for two new musicals OUTSIDE THE LINES (with Matt Mancuso) and FABRIC OF LIFE. He has premiered stage and digital works: the opera UNLEASHED, “pop” album "Exit" (as J Rod), and has co-written and produced songs on "Afraid of Karma," "Suck It Christmas!!!," and "Please Love Me." He arranges for many LGBTQ+ organizations across the country.