Sara Colangelo arrived at 2010’s Sundance film festival with a short entitled Little Accidents. In 2014, she was back in Park City for the world premiere of a feature of the same name. Although the title hadn’t changed, the characters and story were quite different. Featuring a terrific ensemble, including under-the-radar talents Boyd Holbrook and Jacob Lofland, as well as Elizabeth Banks, Josh Lucas and Chloe Sevigny, the film earned strong reviews.
Featuring a showcase of fantastic performances, the drama is finally coming out in theaters on January 16th. Colangelo, whose short of the same name won various awards on the festival circuit, is also earning major buzz. Despite the film’s low profile, she earned an Independent Spirit award nomination for the debut screenplay, and will compete against the likes of Dear White People’s Justin Simien and The One I Love’s Justin Lader, among others.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the rising filmmaker to talk about the inspiration for this acclaimed drama, figuring out how to shoot in a West Virginia coal mine and her advice for rookie directors.
Check it out below and enjoy!
WGTC: The plot synopsis of your 2010 short Little Accidents does not bear much similarity to the feature-length version of the same name. When did you decide to expand your short into a feature, but then create something different?
Sara Colangelo: It kind of happened pretty early on. The short film was at Sundance in 2010, and that summer I started brainstorming and thinking about ideas for the feature. I knew I wanted to move on from that cast of characters and that world. I wasn’t into the idea of a literal expansion of it. I kind of like to set things in places that I don’t know too well. I was thinking about industrial America and post-industrial America, and I knew I wanted to touch on those things.
I was sort of interested in this idea of an accident set in the past that you never really experience onscreen but you look at in its aftermath, to see how it intersects on the characters years later. I wanted to continue to explore that. I was interested still in this one-company town deal that is definitely part of the short film. At the time, I was reading a lot about coal country in the news. There were some pretty bad accidents in the mid-2000s, and then in 2010, there was a pretty awful one where 29 men died and Obama went down to coal country. There had been a lot of interesting stories in the Times and NPR did a great series on coal country, so I was definitely reading a lot about it. I thought this could be interesting.
I don’t know much about [mining], and I don’t think a lot of Americans know about it, and maybe this is an opportunity to try to represent these communities in a more fair-minded way than they have been. This is a great opportunity to shed some light on this line of work that we know so little about but which keeps the lights on in this country and I think powers more than half the country. I knew it was a controversial line of work. Coal is sort of in a period of transition and flux right now. But I thought that could actually be pretty neat to explore.
WGTC: I love how Little Accidents feels very steeped in its Appalachian setting. You’re right that it’s not an environment that we see depicted in films very often. But I like the authenticity. I liked that you shot in an actual coal mine. How did you find the county, the neighborhoods that evoked this blue-collar atmosphere and how did you decide on West Virginia?
Sara Colangelo: I knew that a lot of accidents had been taking place in West Virginia. I had started essentially driving, going on location scouting from Pennsylvania down into Kentucky and pretty much the whole length of West Virginia. There’s just something about West Virginia that I felt was really interesting. First of all, I felt that West Virginians really identified with being coal miners in a way that Pennsylvanians don’t necessarily. I think so much of [West Virginia] is devoted to coal.
And we have this tricky, logistical aspect of shooting at a coal mine. So we wanted to go in a spot where there would be a ton of coal mines that we could contact and start talking to their people about shooting on the premises. That’s why we thought of West Virginia. They also have a really attractive tax incentive, so that was another reason. But it’s also beautiful there.
WGTC: How long was the shoot and what was the biggest challenge of making a low-budget film?
Sara Colangelo: It was a 24-day shoot. It was definitely tricky business to find the coal mine to shoot at. We knew we had to go through a really rigorous safety… essentially a day of base training and put the cast and crew through that. And, it was really tough to find a place that would give us the time of day. This was the same case when I made the short film and we had to shoot in a factory. Nobody wants to slow down their production for a film crew.
Especially in the case of our film, there was sensitivity toward like… ‘Oh, are they making an anti-coal film. Are they critical of corporate coal? What are these people’s agenda?’ We really had to go from company to company and encourage these people to read the script and we just kept stressing that this was a human story about a town after a terrible accident. It was really about people coming together and going through the mourning process together and kind of becoming human again.