Making the Film

A Jury of Her Peers takes place largely in the kitchen of a poor farmhouse in early 1900s Midwest America. I considered the kitchen to be another character in the film, more than just a background. Its atmosphere and the objects in it had to create a mood and reveal their own story. Very little has been recorded about the way poor rural people lived at that time, and even less about their kitchens. I was able to find a few illustrations, but photographs were virtually non-existent. Much of the information came from people's reminiscences, and from letters in women's magazines from that era.

I chose a location in upstate New York, east of Albany in North Petersburg. It was a remote abandoned farmhouse, four hours from New York City, that had just the right look of loneliness and isolation that I envisioned for the film. It was half a mile from a small paved road and very quiet. I looked at other houses that were more easily accessible and had electricity and running water, but they all had noise problems, or required too much work to make them look right. I didn't want the location to look like a set. This place presented difficulties, but its authenticity heightened the realism in the film. We made contacts with area people who lent us antiques for our props and gave us more information about the period.

On the weekends we 'remodeled' the farmhouse, creating a poor, shabby kitchen and a slightly less shabby 'front room.' With volunteers we made shelves, windows and doors from the old wood we found in the sheds around the house. We papered the walls, then 'distressed' them to make them look old and worn. We slowly gathered the appropriate objects for the rooms.

I auditioned many people to find the actors. All but one (a teacher/farmer from Cambridge, NY, near North Petersburg) were professionals. They all had had experience in theater showcases, TV, and film.

It was a thrill to work with the actors. In my loft in New York City, I marked out a space the same size and shape of the farmhouse kitchen, including placement of furniture, doors and windows. The two main actresses and I rehearsed for a month in that space. We couldn't do any extensive rehearsals in the actual location, so the action was blocked out in the city. I think the long rehearsal time was crucial to the intensity and depth of the performances in the film.

With a final scramble, we were ready to start shooting. We had an electrical generator in a shed near the house, we had taken lighting tests, we had painted the roof of the old barn to make it look new, we had patched up the outside of the house and outbuildings to look right for the exterior shots, and we'd created two 19th century rooms inside the house. Next to the kitchen set we had a room for the actresses, and we had another room for eating and congregating. One of the outbuildings was converted into an outhouse.

The film takes place in the bleak time at the end of winter before spring becomes evident. I would have liked snow on the ground, but by the time we finished all our set preparations, we barely had time to get the exterior shooting finished before the leaves came out. We shot in April and early May of 1977. The weather varied from hot (in the 80s) to a blizzard on May 9. We had a portable bottled-gas heater and the film lights to keep us warm.

We also discovered something we hadn't expected: the fifth season - mud. The house was on a dirt road, and that road had a long stretch that became a sea of mud. We'd been stuck many times while preparing the site, so we had procured and fixed up an old jeep. We transported equipment, food, crew and actors (though often we walked) back and forth every day of the shoot. But eventually even the jeep got stuck and we had to be hauled out by a tractor. Finally even the tractor got stuck, and a little cat dozer came to our rescue. Fortunately for us, the nearest neighbors to our location owned all these marvelous vehicles and were generous, knowledgeable people who gave us a great deal of much-needed help.

The all-woman crew of A Jury of Her Peers and the two main actresses stayed near the location for the duration of the shoot. The scenes with the men were filmed on the weekends. This enabled the camera woman, the two actresses, and me to develop an excellent working rapport. I don't think we could have 'clicked' in the same way if we had been working in the city, going back to our own homes, each being distracted by our own lives. The sole reason for our being in the country was to film, and that singleness of purpose created a stimulating and productive environment for our work.

A Jury of Her Peers was made on the proverbial shoestring. I had initial small grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts (CAPS, or Creative Artists Public Service) and Women's Fund-Joint Foundation Support. When I ran out of money at the end of the shoot, my sister lent me some, enabling me to finish up and pay people. The crew and the actors were paid the same (very small) salary with the rest deferred, meaning they would get paid when and if the film made money.

During the entire making of A Jury of Her Peers I never had enough of a budget. I was able to get things cheaper, but it meant a wait. I saved money by doing many things myself, and that, of course, took time. I had done a lot of camera work in exchange for free editing time on a Steenbeck editing machine, so for a while I had my editing rental taken care of. I edited the film between and during my free-lance work.

I made one cut of the film and thought I was finished until, while showing it, I realized it needed to be totally re-cut. Producing it myself, I was able to take the time to pull it apart and edit it again, making it a much better film.

The next step was the sound editing, or creating and building the sound track.

The sound track is very important in A Jury of Her Peers. It was more than just removing extraneous sounds from the dialogue tracks. The full impact of the story depends on a certain atmosphere being created. Silences are pregnant with unspoken thoughts. Small sounds intrude into what's going on between the two women. All these subtle effects needed to be carefully woven into the film. Most of them had to be post-recorded by the sound editor. I worked as the sound editor's assistant. I wanted to take the time, money, and effort to do this. I wasn't willing to finish up the film without the best sound track I knew how to get.

I raised my final monies from loans (bank and individual), donations from individuals, a small grant from the Beards Fund, and my own money. We completed the sound tracks and mixed them in early 1980.

The final preparations for the lab I did myself - cutting the original negative and shooting the titles and credits. Three years from when we started shooting, I saw my first print. Of course the pre-production started a few months before that, and the original conception was a year or two before that.

Independently produced films are all made this way, with great patience and endurance on the part of the filmmaker, cast and crew. I loved the story, “A Jury of Her Peers.” I admired the way it tells a larger political truth through a personal story with believable characters. I was determined to make the film. The many grant rejections, the flood in the editing room, the chronic lack of money were only so many obstacles that persistence and resourcefulness would ultimately overcome.

Final note:

A Jury of Her Peers received an Oscar nomination among numerous awards and is considered a classic. It still enjoys a lively educational distribution, being re-released in 2005 by Women Make Movies. It is used in classes in Law, Film, Women's Studies, Theater, Literature, Sociology, and Communication. And it was able to pay off its loans and deferred salaries.