Supporting creative work by women
Sarah Wharton is a New York-based actor, writer and producer. She stars in The Ring Thing, an incisive, moving film about same-sex marriage. The film mixes documentary footage of real-life same-sex couples talking about marriage and divorce with a narrative that follows Sarah (Wharton) and Kristen (Nicole Pursell) as their long-term relationship is put to the test over the decision to get married or not. The Ring Thing is now available on DVD and many VOD platforms.
Sarah spoke to Works by Women about making micro-budget films, how being a producing makes her a better actor and another project–Bite Me–that will soon be out in the world.
WORKS BY WOMEN: The Ring Thing mixes documentary footage about same-sex couples discussing marriage and a narrative film about Sarah and Kristen figuring out whether marriage is the best thing for their relationship. Tell me about the documentary footage. How did you find the couples? How did their interviews influence the film’s structure?
SARAH WHARTON: We knew from the beginning that we wanted documentary footage to be a part of our story-telling. I play Sarah in the film, who embarks on making a documentary about same-gender marriage in an effort to untangle her own feelings about it. We wanted to include pieces of Sarah’s documentary because we were investigating such an intimate and personal story through the carrier of this big universal question– “What Is Marriage?”. It felt important to gather as many perspectives as we could on the subject and use them as a chorus to the characters’ decision-making process. We found our subjects by putting out a public call to LGBTQ community members who were willing to share their stories about marriage, relationships, and divorce. The response was overwhelming. Clearly this was something that people wanted and needed to talk about. The process of reading the stories people submitted and then getting to interview many of them in-depth was extraordinary. Even though what ended up in the film are these brief snippets of people’s lives and stories, we have hours and hours of interview footage that is incredibly illuminating and inspiring. All of those interviews certainly informed the decisions we made about how the narrative story of the film unfolded, and I carried all of them with me as I was building my character and mapping out her arc.
WBW: I’d love to hear more about the process before the actual shoot for the narrative part of the film. Your rehearsal and other processes.
SW: One of the great joys of making a micro-budget film with a collective of people you love and trust is that the whole process is truly collaborative. There’s a freedom in it. At this point, our core crew – Will Sullivan (director and writer), Derek Dodge (writer and DP), Nicole Pursell (actor and Production Designer) and I have developed a kind of short hand for creating work together that makes for the best kind of creative playground. Will and Derek write what is essentially a script with the dialogue extracted. The story is very structured from start to finish, but the actors have the freedom to create their own dialogue. This in an intensely challenging and satisfying process to be a part of as an actor because there is so much freedom to play within the form. That said, we rehearse a lot. Because there aren’t set lines for each scene, it’s essential that we internalize the important beats moment to moment and know exactly what needs to happen when we show up to set. The combination of the improvised dialogue and the time spent in rehearsal to really establish character backgrounds and relationships makes the film feel hyper-real and intimate. I love getting to draw the audience into the story in that way.
Nicole Pursell and Sarah Wharton in The Ring Thing
WBW: You serve as a producer on this film and as one of the leads, how do you juggle both during the shoot? What are the challenges? What are the triumphs?
SW: Being a producer makes me a better actor. I get to be a part of the entire creative process, from script development to location scouts to design meetings. By the first day of production I have absorbed a wealth of information about the film, the story, and style that allows me to make much better choices as an actor and feel fully integrated in the creative process. That’s the triumph. The challenge is being able to successfully divide my attention between what’s going on in front of and behind the camera. I’m very lucky to have produced this film with Jess Weiss who really took the producing reins during production so that I could focus on being an actor. Still, there is never any down time and I’m always conscious of what needs to happen in order to keep production moving at all times.
WBW: You star opposite Nicole Pursell, who plays Kristen. You’ve worked together before. How does that history benefit your work together on this film?
SW: Nicole is an amazingly talented and generous actor (not to mention production designer) and I feel so lucky to have been able to work with her multiple times. Playing opposite each other again in this film was a great joy because we had an already established chemistry and comfortability that is essential to feeling safe and free enough to make big choices and take risks. Especially when we’re playing a couple whose relationship unfolds throughout the course of the film over several years, there is a familiarity and ease with each other that you just can’t fake.
Sarah Wharton and Nicole Pursell in The Ring Thing
WBW: Likewise, you, Nicole and the team behind The Ring Thing–director/co-writer William Sullivan and co-writer/DP Derek Dodge–also created the great film That’s Not Us. Tell me about your working relationship. How you met and made two fab indie films together. Making one is tough enough, but two!
SW: We should all probably have our heads examined! Will, Nicole and I met in school–we were all in the NYU Tisch acting program, and Will was the first-ever NYU student to double major in theatre and film. I blame him for being the gateway drug into this crazy business. He took a very economical model of theatre (which essentially boils down to getting your friends together and using the resources that you have to make some art) and turned the cameras on it. It’s brilliant because my frustration with theatre has always been that you work hard for months and months to put on a show, but then after the performance, it’s done. If you missed it, it’s gone forever. But film is eternal! All that work you did will forever be available for people to see–there’s something really special about the perpetuity of it. But on the other hand, film can be frustrating because of the sheer expense of it. You might spend years just trying to finance your project and by the time you get to do the thing, you’re sick of it, it almost doesn’t matter. So Will comes along and puts the two together–ask these savvy, crafty theatre people who have literally been trained to turn water into wine to collaborate on a film. And I have to say, despite the challenges, it’s been magical. I should also say that Will and Derek are now married–if you can make films together and still have a happy, loving relationship, you deserve an award. And they do!
WBW: Did making The Ring Thing influence or change your thoughts on marriage?
SW: Making The Ring Thing taught me that marriage is whatever you want it to be. It seems kind of obvious, but culturally we receive a very different message, and I didn’t realize how much that message had infiltrated my thinking until I made this film. I grew up knowing that I wanted a life-long romantic partner, but I had no desire to get married. Making this film helped me realize that what I have an aversion to are some of the traditional rituals around getting married–the white dress, the expensive event, the extravagant rings, the rigid gender roles–not the commitment. Also the feeling that I did not see myself represented in how marriage is frequently portrayed in the media. Making this film–particularly interviewing people for it–allowed me to let go of whatever cultural messaging surrounds what marriage “should” be and start to define it for myself.
WBW: The Ring Thing has played at a variety of festivals. What’s been the reaction? What was the most surprising thing you learned from audiences at festivals?
SW: It’s been a fascinating journey. This film ends very ambiguously. It’s really up to the audience to decide what happens to our two main characters. We’ve found that people tend to project their own hopes and fears onto the ending, so it’s been amazing to have conversations with people about where they see these characters going and how their imagining of how the story ends up relates to their own life. I love getting to have those conversations with people. I don’t know if I would call it a surprise so much, but it gives me hope so I’ll mention it–the film plays just as strongly to audience outside the LGBTQ festival circuit as it does within. I’ve loved hearing from older, self-identified more “conservative” couples that they completely connected with the characters and the questions that the film asks about marriage apply to everyone, regardless of sexuality or gender.
The Ring Thing
WBW: You also produced the independent film Bite Me. I’m excited to see it too. What was that experience like–producing a bigger budget independent rom com about people who really think they are vampires?
SW: Producing Bite Me was an absolute joy! I got to wake up every day and think about how to bring a modern-day fairy(vampy)-tale to life. Working in a higher budget range comes with its specific challenges, but I held onto the lessons I learned from making micro-budget films–work with people you would take with you to a deserted island, the work is better when it’s collaborative. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” aka anything is possible, aka change your perspective, change your reality, and if at first you don’t succeed, try again, try again, try again. Bite Me is such a fun, wild, delightful story, and I think the whole process of making it happen has been too. I can’t wait to share it with audiences so they can join the ride!
WBW: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and why?
SW: “Don’t make any decisions based on fear.” It always helps me remember to operate from a place of hope, joy and love–suddenly everything feels more expansive and I’m able to see opportunity rather than closures.