Sunny in the Dark: Hill Country Film Festival spotlight

Sometimes life gets too tough and you want to shut the world out.

Imagine being able to close out everything and everyone as soon as you get home from work, only to realize you’re not as alone you think.

It’s the premise for a horror film, right?

Not exactly.

Try Texas-based independent drama.

Dallas-based filmmaker Courtney Ware will bring the Texas premiere of her feature film debut, “Sunny in the Dark,” to this year’s Hill Country Film Festival.

“‘Sunny in the Dark’ explores the tension between our greatest fear and our greatest desire, and that is to be truly known,” Ware said. “The really unique thing about our film is that there is this sort of your worst nightmare of this woman who’s living in the crawlspace above you and she’s spying on your every move taking notes and watching every moment of your life.”

World building

The film, which centers around family therapist Jonah and his apprehension interacting socially with the outside world, utilizes cinematography as much as script or character development to develop a unique dichotomy between Jonah and the homeless girl, Sunny, living in the ceiling of his apartment.

“The cinematographer, Jake Wilganowski, and I had conversations early on, just about this very vertical world and how do we move the camera in a way that allows us to see it horizontally and move the camera so that we see this world in a vertical way,” Ware said. “We have a few tracking shots that show Jonah and Sunny in the same space, but it’s of course broken up by time or by physical space. It was something that we were very keen on early on.”

The contrast between worlds — Jonah’s life outside, his isolation at home and Sunny’s cramped crawlspace — is most adeptly realized through Ware’s use of light (or lack thereof).

Each scene is carefully crafted and dynamic visually, with a nuanced attention to every shadow falling in the nooks and crannies of Jonah’s world.

The warehouse-esque location that serves as Jonah’s apartment building added new layers of cinematic depth, with a single window providing light into the interior space, Ware said.

“We were actually able, when we were shooting, to easily go between day and night, which you normally don’t get the luxury of being able to go back and forth that way,” she said. “It kind of helped us bring a consistency to our shots to be able to shoot a direction and to shoot all of the day and the night stuff at that certain direction. I’m so thrilled with how visually everything came together.”

Acting in the void

For much of the film, Jay Huguley (Jonah) and Hannah Ward (Sunny) are isolated in solo scenes with no one to lean on, save for a few choice moments with Jonah’s mother, played by famed ‘Batman: The Movie’ actress Lee Meriwether.

“It’s an interesting thing to have actors sharing scenes where they’re not acting against each other,” Ware said. “Both of them just blew me away when the edit started with how seamlessly their scenes were coming together.”

While Huguley does a steady job advancing the storyline and keeping the audience engaged, “Sunny in the Dark” works only because of the depth in character Ward was able to pull out of Sunny, a young girl whose complexities are never fully realized but always on display.

Over 4,000 actresses competed for the role of Sunny, Ware said, but it was Ward’s unique blend of non-verbal cues — which come out in full force in “Sunny” — that helped land her the role.

“The audition itself was very hard because you’re not speaking dialogue,” Ware said. “I remember very specifically that she was doing something with her hands, just very small movement with her hands and the way that she would touch the floor below her and it was those things that immediately told me that Hannah was the one to play Sunny.”

Ward, a Hill Country Film Festival nominee for Best Actress, will be in attendance for this year’s event.

“Hannah Ward does an exceptional job of playing a character (Sunny) that is not quite right.  Her performance deserves a ‘best actress’ nomination,” Chad Mathews, HCFF executive director, said.

Evolution as a filmmaker

Spending most of her directorial career making short films, “Sunny in the Dark” is the feature-length debut for Ware as a filmmaker, who saw the additional time to tell the story as both a challenge and a reward.

“The most fun and the most difficult (part) was figuring out how do we tell this story in over a long period of time,” Ware said. “For me as an editor, figuring out what does pacing mean for a feature film and how do we emotionally bring the audience through over this long period of time and honestly keep the audience interested.”

While it’s easy to label female directors based on their gender — and Ware admits that the rarity of women in the industry has changed her perspective on the issue — it’s probably appropriate to tag the young director with a different label: Texan.

“I grew up in this area (Dallas) and I would say I grew up in this industry here,” she said, working as an intern and production assistant at age 18.

“It’s been a really exciting journey because the crews that I learned from and grew up with are crews that then turn around and worked on my film, which is really incredible to have those relationships and to have that type of trust and ability to work together,” she noted.

Ware also represents a growing trend of Texas-based filmmakers holding on to their roots and staying grounded in the Lone Star State.

“Everyone always is asking me, ‘Well when are you moving out to LA or New York?’ and for me, just the types of truths that are in Dallas, it’s a family here,” she said. “I have a great love for working here and I can do everything here that I would need to do elsewhere and I would much prefer to do it with family that I’ve grown up with than anywhere else.”

The film is just starting out on the festival circuit, with its world premiere held earlier this month at the Arizona International Film Festival.

Ware hopes that the film continues to connect with audiences as it makes its way across the country, stopping in Dubuque, Iowa, and Newport Beach, California, before coming to Fredericksburg.

“Hopefully, you fall in love with Sunny and you follow the way that she learns to care for Jonah. It takes a terrifying thing and turns it into really a beautiful relationship, if you will,” Ware said. “It’s a different film. It’s one that has bits of other genres in it but it’s one that I’m extremely excited to share.”

More information about “Sunny in the Dark” can be found online at sunnyinthedark.com.

(Note: Film critic Matt Ward is a programmer for the Hill Country Film Festival.)

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