When The New Idealist was asked to take a look at Catching Fireflies, it was immediately apparent that this was no ordinary short film. First time Writer/Director Lee Whittaker has used his 20+ years’ of experience working on film sets in various roles including Second-Unit Director and Stunt Coordinator to create a truly magical cinematic experience which has lit up Film Festivals all around the world, leading to numerous well-deserved award wins and nominations.
The film shares the story of 9 year-old Isabella (Gianna Gomez), who strives to survive Skid Row with her heroin addict mother Sofia (Carlotta Elektra Bosch) in a cardboard house in downtown Los Angeles. Isabella has only her whimsical imagination as a companion as she deals with life on the streets and her mother’s addiction.
Catching Fireflies effortlessly switches between the vibrant magical world created by Isabella’s imagination and the reality of her dangerous life on the streets, all the while showcasing Whittaker’s versatility as a Director in a way that far surpasses what you would expect from a debut effort.
Over the course of a lively transatlantic phone call, we discussed the Director’s vision for the project starting with Lee’s inspiration for the film.
“I was working in a third world country (India) and I saw a girl begging for money. She must have been 8 or 10 years old and I’ll never forget because she was completely naked and cloaked in filth and the only clean part on her body was under her eyes where she was crying. The driver shook his head [feeling] very sad for her and then he started to drive off and it really scarred me, it stuck with me for the remainder of my trip there working.
[Then] I had a meeting downtown in Los Angeles, I took a couple of wrong turns, ended up on Skid Row and I saw pretty much the same thing with a little boy. He wasn’t naked but I quickly realised that this isn’t just a third world country issue, it’s something that’s in every single person’s back yard in every single city around the world.
It just struck a chord within me as a man as a person. In all my 22 years in the entertainment industry I was always moving towards directing so I used all the elements I had learned in those years to do something good and be the difference in the world, because entertainment propels the world in many areas.
I want to have a message and this message rang loud and clearly for me. Downtown LA is 11 miles from Beverley Hills with the Bentley’s and Ferrari’s and here [Skid Row] you have serious poverty. Recent statistics in the LA Times show that 13,000 people a month become homeless, that’s a staggering number.
That’s where the inspiration came from, I want to talk about homeless kids and homelessness. I began my research and found out that there is over 100 million homeless children around the world. I wanted to not just tell the story but give you factual elements that show that this is a real thing.”
The discussion then moves onto the magical realism element of the film.
“I wanted to tell it from a different perspective. So, for me I wanted to tell the story through the eyes of a child because children use whimsical imagination every day, everywhere without egos like ours that get in the way and jade us.
She [Isabella] might see a homeless man and that could be her best friend or he could have magic or trash could come to life or [she could see] magical butterflies and mermaids and I wanted that journey to be that whimsical juxtaposition from the decay and disgust that we see on the streets.”
We then discuss how the film captures beautifully the power of a creative imagination as a form of escape from difficult circumstances and I ask Lee if that is something he intended to focus on.
“Absolutely, in the feature version that we’re hoping to shoot next year that is her coping mechanism. Whatever’s wrong that’s how she copes with it on a daily basis. When you don’t have a lot of friends you have imaginary friends.”
The conversation then turns to the astounding success of Catching Fireflies on the International film circuit and Lee’s plan to expand the short film in to a full length feature.
“I need to get the message out, and by doing a short I could get into International film festivals all over the world and that’s what it’s doing and it’s starting to gain that audience on a global level. I’ve realised that every culture around the world can relate to this, especially in Japan we won the Audience Award which is the most important to me because that’s a whole other culture that doesn’t speak English and it resonated with them, so it really meant that there is a calling for this [Full-length Feature version].”
When asked if Lee was surprised at the number of awards the film has won as a first-time Director he responds:
“Honestly that wasn’t the goal to win awards, nearly every film festival in the world gets over 4,000 entries so just to get selected into a film festival was kind of amazing for me. If it gets selected that means more people will go and see it, if it wins something that means it will get propelled even further. It’s just a great feeling to know that something that you did for the right reason is getting accolades.”
We discuss the strong cast including the acting debut from 11 year old Gianna Gomez who won the Best Actress Award at the International Filmmaker Festival London for her hauntingly beautiful portrayal of Isabella. Lee discussed his approach to casting the film.
“I hired Lisa Pantone and her assistant and they provided a huge casting and we had a bunch of people that came in. It was such a delight having Lisa, because without her bringing in such amazing talent it wouldn’t be what it is today, I owe a lot to her. And when Gianna came in, the minute she opened her mouth I kind of knew.
She was 9 years old at the time – she’s 11 now – she came in that door with such an old soul in her eyes and I just saw it right away…and she was absolutely magnificent.
We were in the International Filmmaker Festival in London and she was up against grown women for best actress [the Award Gianna subsequently won].”
The film has a breathtaking underwater scene featuring a very majestic-looking mermaid. I asked Lee what that scene was like to film:
“That was interesting because when I started out, I was talking to my Casting Director and I’m thinking ‘mermaids – what are we going to do!?’. We did some research and there’s actually a community of mermaids in LA and in the casting room all these mermaids were coming in – that was fun!
We did a rehearsal day in a pool with Gianna, we had safety divers in there and she was great underwater, she was fantastic. On the day of shooting when we did the underwater sequence the mermaid got her gear and all her stuff and it was amazing, everybody loved it and that’s the first thing everybody sees.”
We then discuss the choreography for the cirque performers in the film.
“That was my good friend Elisabeth Carpenter, she was the choreographer and she brought in a bunch of performers, we had rehearsals and they showed me what they could do. That was a lot of fun for me, taking them on green screen and then being able to put them in the background environment when it came to life was really awesome and fantastic.”
This film draws attention to the number of homeless children around the world and highlights that there over 1.5m homeless children in the US. We close the interview with Lee’s thoughts about this situation.
“I think it’s a wake-up call for sure, for us we’re not just a film, we’re a cause. I have two parties every year where we do spring cleaning and I challenge all my friends go to your house, get rid of your clothes and all your jackets you’re not using, your toiletries you’re not using and bring them and we have a huge party. Then I take these huge trash bags full of clothing down to the rescue mission here in LA and we donate everything. There’s all kinds of things people can do to make a difference and that’s kind of the motto for me it’s ‘Be the Difference’, it starts with you, it starts with me.”
If you want to find out when there will be a showing near you or find out how you can help make a difference you can visit the Catching Fireflies website here. You can also find out more about the ways to get involved and support the FREE ARTS charity that provides arts programs for children who have experienced homelessness, abuse, neglect, and poverty.
Interview conducted by Lydia Andal.