Director Katherine Propper Talks ‘Street Flame’ And Giving A Voice To Young People

Katherine Propper’s Street Flame is a touching short film that follows a group of street teens as they come to terms with the loss of a friend in their own unique way.

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Katherine to learn more about Street Flame ahead of its screening at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Q: ‘Street Flame’ is inspired by your time spent hanging out with local teens in Austin, Texas. Can you tell us about your experience and what you wanted to explore in this film?

A: For a few months, I brought a cheap handheld camera everywhere with me and filmed a lot with a local group of teens. We would go to skate spots, ditches, tunnels and would just talk about life. The thing that struck me the most were the close bonds everyone had with each other and the enviable amount of freedom they all exercised.

Despite struggles and difficult circumstances, these friends I spent time with always knew how to make the most of the present moment. Even when their troubles were intense, they didn’t become cynical, but actually exuded a kind of faith. I loved that.

In the film, I wanted to explore their friendships and their rituals, using their oral histories as the inspiration for the story.

Q: This is a tremendous young cast. Can you tell us about casting them and working with them to capture this incredible authenticity?

A: The casting was a multi-faceted process. I knew a few of the guys I had already filmed with were down to be in the short, but I was always uncertain that anybody would actually show up. A lot of cast are friends in real life and are somewhat difficult to get ahold of!

I think there was a lot of serendipity that enough of them showed up to set when we needed them too. Some of them only came on certain days so I worked with whoever was there when that happened.

I met Sauve Sidle, the lead actor who plays One-way, on craigslist when he was 16, a few years ago for a class project. I knew he was a rapper and a skater so I asked if he’d be interested in being in the film. He was excited to be in a film and his cousin, Curtis Rhodes, also stars in the film.

Isaiah Shepard, the other lead, responded to a craigslist ad I posted for the short. At the time, he was a nascent YouTuber who was looking to get into acting. Now he has over a million subscribers on YouTube.

I think a lot of the authenticity comes from the real camaraderie everyone had with each other. We shot certain scenes like a documentary with uninterrupted takes and just let them improvise as if it was the real thing.

aerial ditch kids-2

Q: Most of the film takes place outside and in the secluded areas where these youngsters hangout. How was the shoot? 

A: The shoot was difficult, fun and ambitious!

We had a lot of locations, short winter days, rain, unexpected cold weather, and other contingent variables. There were definitely a lot of hijinks on set, especially when we were a big group. Some days I thought our film would get shut down. The set attracted some trouble, but it was normal stuff for a lot of these guys.

My favourite scene to shoot was the bonfire scene since we basically experienced a real celebratory bonfire with fireworks in the middle of nowhere.

Q: What did you learn from the time you spent with the cast?

A: I think one thing I re-learned is that you really can’t judge a book by its cover. People surprise you.

Q: She isn’t on screen for long, but I was blown away by Jessica Price’s performance as Jinx’s mother. What did Jessica bring to the project?

A: I can’t say enough good things about Jessica. Her presence on set gave me so much peace on an otherwise hectic shooting day. She has a wonderful soul that I think comes across in her performance. She is so compassionate and was a joy to work with while also being a very versatile actor.

She spent one whole day on set with us—a day it was pouring rain—and elevated everybody’s performance.

STREET FLAME 1920 300dpi

Q: As with ‘Pentecost’, this is a visually intimate and poetic film. Can you talk about putting the visual style together with DP Isaiah Rendon?

A: I place a lot of emphasis on the visual approach of my films. My film professor, Deb Lewis, once told me that 80% of good cinematography is what’s happening in front of the camera— choosing compelling locations, shooting in ideal lighting situations, production design, and working with great actors. I always start with those things and then I think about the shooting process that makes sense for the story we’re telling.

To facilitate our shoot in this film, we wanted to be mobile and flexible—handheld. We almost always used natural light and had very few artificial set ups for camera or G&E.

I gave Isaiah visual references that included photo books, music videos, and movies I was inspired by. Unlike Pentecost which was shot on 16mm film, we didn’t have the budget to shoot on film for Street Flame so we definitely aimed at capturing that filmic look with the resources we had available to us.

Q: How did you develop passion for filmmaking?

A: I grew up in Los Angeles with a lot of freedom and independence as a kid. That independence allowed me to dabble in a lot of activities and to discover what interests were important to me.

I’ve always loved the arts and watching movies, but never really thought of it as a profession until I was 18-19. I remember interviewing producer Jason Blum for a newspaper when I was a freshman in college and asking him what he thought made him a good producer, and he said it was because he never wanted to direct. Weirdly enough, that moment made me realise I might want to direct myself.

For the most part, a string of seemingly unconnected events and choices led me on a path to filmmaking. It sometimes feels like a calling that I didn’t necessarily choose.

Q: How is life as a filmmaker different in Austin compared to LA?

I love LA, but I’m living in Austin now— and ironically, I think it’s easier for me to make films in Austin than in LA. Both cities have great things to offer. LA is culturally vibrant, diverse, and beautiful. Austin is a lot more intimate, community-oriented, and down-to-earth.

Q: What are your hopes and ambitions for the future?

A: I hope to keep growing as a filmmaker and continue making films. The dream is to make feature films.


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