Interview with Jaret Martino the director of Donna: Stronger Than Pretty, a moving drama based on the true story about his mother’s struggle with domestic abuse whilst raising a family in Long Island, New York. Jaret has become a champion for women’s empowerment in the film industry.
(Listen to the audio here)
Please introduce yourself.
Hi I’m Jaret Martino, the director of Donna: Stronger Than Pretty.
Tell me about your film that has just been released.
It’s actually released on iTunes Donna: Stronger Than Pretty, July 24th available everywhere worldwide where you buy and rent movies.
So, Donna is my mother, so it is my mother’s true story and it’s her journey of her escape of domestic violence but more than that the journey of a woman finding her voice.
A very personal story but maybe one that would be kept private. So, how did the film come about?
I think that you just touched upon a big inspiration that it is very much kept private a lot of the time and we’ve seen movies, different versions of this story but I really wanted to focus on the empowerment of leaving, creating a life for yourself and your children because that’s what I watched our mum do. She really focused on the positive part of rebuilding her life and making a life for herself and her children.
We don’t really see that. We see film and TV playing into the stereo types and stigmas of domestic violence. I think it takes films like this and art to help undo 1,000s of years of damage because women have been held back from men for a really long time.
At first my company is very much about hiring females, I was adamant about a female director, but I really wanted it to be my mum’s authentic true story so I ended up directing the film because I wanted it to be her true story. Other directors wanted to stamp their pain on it which is fine for another story just not this time around.
I have produced 20 other projects that we’ve hired all predominantly female crew on and minorities so focusing on diversity and inclusion is a big thing for us.
Could you go into more detail about the film and how you made the film and how you cast the film?
You know, it was definitely…I wrote the film almost as a journal entry but I wrote it in screenplay format, since I’ve been an actor since I was a kid, it was just the easiest way to get it down. I wrote it between two flights. I was travelling back and forth to New York between New York and LA at that point. So we ended up doing a stage reading almost 8 years ago now and a lot of the key cast like Kate Amundsen who plays Donna and Anthony Ficco who plays Nic, the two stars and a lot of other people have stayed on board with us for the past 8 years, which as many know in the industry that’s not typical. So it was really important to me because they all became an extended family. It went from a stage reading to table reads, multiple table-reads after that for notes and the short film which premiered at the Indie Lounge at Sundance and it kind of went worldwide with that to different festivals and that really created our partnership with the national coalition against domestic violence where my mum and I spent a lot of time getting to know everybody there helping and we spoke at the conference in 2017 in front of 1000 advocates.
It was really in that moment that I … besides it just being a passion project to get my mother’s story out there I was one of 3 guys out of 1000 advocates, you know it was predominantly female in that room so I just knew there needs to be more done. There needs to be more men coming to the table to talk about this and to talk about a subject that doesn’t get…you know gets swept under the rug too often.
So we band together and made the feature film happen and Kate got to walk in my mother’s footsteps. She actually…my mum gave up her bed, she slept in my mum’s room while my mum was at her parent’s house. So Kate really, it came full circle, she got to see Donna’s actual home, and what she created and we shot some of the scenes, the later scenes after she becomes a teacher and she starts making and building that home.
So it was incredible for Kate as an actor to do…to be able to be a part of that, and you know really special for us and the family to, really hard, obviously difficult to be on set as the director I was reliving a lot of moments that are very vivid for me. So…but as hard as it was, you know I was hyper focused on the mission of helping other people escape their situations. So…but…It was definitely one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. Going from director to then I had to play myself at one point later on in the film. So…it was pretty wild. I never give that advice…you know I think each job is so unique, so I don’t really like to do the cross-over and I don’t promote that and I’ve seen people sabotage their projects doing…juggling all those really big jobs. I just was left no choice because we had to do character matches and we were under budget constraints and things like that.
I’m really proud of it, you know it’s part of my mum’s legacy. She passed away unfortunately this past September 3rd of 2020 rather quickly of pancreatic cancer. So…it was…She never actually got to see the release of the film. Because ultimately…she got to see the premiere and like starting the festival rout, but…and she knew that the film was getting distribution but she didn’t make it to the distribution date.
It’s an amazing tribute and dedication. The locations showed the difficult times as well as the huge mansions you lived in. Were they a true reflection?
Definitely, I mean I think you know that is a big part of the history, I’m really proud of creating like a time capsule with this film too, so much has changed just in the past couple of years. A big thing on the east coast, is that all the time everyone settled in Brooklyn in the inner cities, so moving out to Long Island was very much part of my mum’s upbringing. Her parents, like many parents, moving from Brooklyn in the boroughs out to the suburbs because there was more space. She grew up in I think a one bedroom apartment and they had a ton of family over, they had the big Italian Sunday dinners and they’d all just squeeze in and make it work. They all moved out eventually as the families grew and a lot of people ended up on Long Island, where there was just more room and bigger houses. So that definitely matches my mum’s true story as well.
There are some strong New York accents which match with your mum who speaks at the end of the film.
That’s a compliment to Kate and Anthony because they actually are both not from New York they are both from or grew up on the West Coast. So they’ll be happy to hear that. It was fun, we had over 200 actors, there is such a wealth of talent in New York City, a lot of theatre trained actors, it was really fun to get back to the East Coast myself because I’ve been in L.A.
The relationship between the 2 lead actors show how things don’t always go the way you want them to in life and love, and the relationship starts in a slightly wild way.
Which was fun for my mum, a lot of women can relate to, she grew up in a catholic school, she has a catholic school background. You know meets this fun eccentric guy who was kind of a little dangerous and mysterious to her. Kate and Antony got to know my mum really well and the family and our co-writer Pat Branch spoke to my mum at length and read her journal, her actual journal entries through that time. Thankfully Pat came on board and I didn’t have to dive into that too much because I felt I knew enough and I had so much on my plate, that I didn’t want to know any more of the details but that really helped Pat finesse the story and pull it together and make it the screen play that it is. I wrote the heartbeat of it, but it was 150 pages and it was an enormous job to get everything in there and bring it down to ultimately 97 pages and that’s really with the help of Pat Branch, she’s a WGA screen writer and she became, she likes to say, she is an honorary Martino now, and is part of the family now. She has been through every major and even the little details too, she has really been a part of the whole making of the film.
Anthony plays the bad guy, your dad, but there was also a charming side too.
What I liked about Anthony, what I always said, he didn’t play him trying to demonise him, we never wanted to demonise the character because it’s about conditioning. So my dad didn’t necessarily want to become that. He does have a good heart, he wanted better but he just didn’t know better because he watched his dad do the same thing and that’s very much a part of the story. I think that’s the biggest message for men that don’t want to abuse, it’s a really good look into how you can become your parents really quickly.
And then for women you know the biggest message is, it is not your fault. I think that you know you always try to drive that home and now I’ve worked with 1000s of domestic violence victims and trying to turn the victims into survivors. I think that’s the most crucial point because emotional, verbal, physical, financial abuse really has them broken down and they lose their sense of selflove and you know I think that definitely is the biggest thing for women to walk away with, that they are valuable and that their heart matters, their voice matters and it is not their fault even though they might have gone through this situation and maybe even contributed in certain ways. It becomes a cycle and a pattern and that is the hardest part to break because there is love there. No one is going to fall in love with somebody that slaps them in the face immediately on the first date, that just doesn’t typically happen, that’s not the real life version of how people get caught in these toxic situations.
Coming from a broken home with divorced parents is quite common unfortunately
I have a different perspective on it because we thought we were the richest kids on the block. My mum filled the house with love, we did everything and more. It might have been free – free theatre or free events. She was always finding things to do, so she very much walked away from a different lifestyle in terms of the support and what she could have had easier but we gained so much, so much love and respect and really grounding and values. I looked back on my childhood and I think that was really a huge inspiration for making the film that my mum just did such a remarkable job.
The wardrobe stood out as something important to show as part of your mum’s story
My mum made her own clothes, she made our clothes, we matched on Easter Sunday. She still made it all happen which was part of the beauty about who she is. So that was definitely important and I happened to be blessed with a neighbour who was a vintage costume designer and had a whole load of really beautiful pieces and then we just went to the thrift stores locally and pulled from the shops and it was just a lot of fun. Kate actually loves that era, her essence is the 70s, so she definitely kind of encapsulated that.
It was a long film that includes interviews with your mum at the end. Was it hard to leave anything out?
It was only 97 pages ultimately, but once you put all the B roll in there and everything and when you span 40 years, it is really hard and we needed to tell this story beginning to end because of the conditioning part of it. Getting the sense of the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s was really, really important because it shows how far we’ve come but it also shows how much more work we need to do here in 2021.
For more about Donna: Stronger than Pretty go to www.donnathemovie.com
Film: Donna: Stronger Than Pretty
Director: Jaret Martino
Stars: Kate Amundsen, Anthony Ficco, Catharine Daddario
Run time: 1hr 50min