This article was written and featured on Ambassador Chronicles Blog for Camera Ambassador
Interviewed & Written by Rey Tang
In late 2020, Mary Tilden and Leah Raidt wrapped principal photography on their short film Rough River Lake.
Mary and Leah have the ease of a seasoned creative team, knowing when to give and take and when to check in with one another. Through their collaboration, both filmmakers worked tirelessly to create a set environment that honored and gave voice to all members of the production.
“When I taught drama and creative writing to third graders, I was telling them that every idea is a good idea. But then I would go home and be like ‘oh, I can't write anything and I don't have any good ideas’,” Mary chuckles, “so, I started to practice what I preached.”
Mary Tilden is the co-creator, writer, director, producer, and actor of Rough River Lake. She started out as a Chicago-based actor, comedian, and improviser, but eventually realized that she wanted to tell her own stories.
“I spend like hours per week on auditions that I’ll send into the void,” Mary relates, “and I don't want to keep waiting for someone else to give me permission.”
Similarly, Leah Raidt (co-creator, lead producer, and actor of Rough River Lake) also had her beginnings in acting. Nonetheless, while Leah worked as a teaching artist and creative mentor, she began to take interest in how to both advocate as a leader while performing as an actor. “Over the pandemic, I began an integrated somatics and trauma therapies certificate program,” Leah shares, “so my current work is calling me to address the root of trauma in our industry: to build more inclusive, sustainable workspaces and to keep ourselves healthy.”
With both career trajectories converging, Mary and Leah decided to embark on creating Rough River Lake together.
“I always had the impulse towards film -- I just didn't know how to access it,” Mary says.
So, she started off by producing and acting in Cool for Five Seconds - a learning experience which allowed Mary to build her own team and collaborate with like-minded passionate artists.
Then, she wrote a script based off of an experience Leah and Mary had while in the south, and thus Rough River Lake was born. The story revolves around a group of best friends who go to the lake for what they're calling a ‘Gaycation’, only to find that their lake house has been double booked by a bachelor party full of Kentucky boys.
It was the team’s first time approaching a project that is both of such a large scope and out of state. However, in 2020, the project was selected as a Semi-Finalist for the Camera Ambassador Community Builders Grant - an achievement that inspired and strengthened the duo’s belief in their ability to execute the story.
"I've found myself intuiting producer questions while crafting the grant application,” Leah noticed, “so with a beginner's mindset, it was fun to see new aspects of myself that I hadn’t fully identified with at the time. The value of those types of applications is that they require you to think all that stuff through - they start planting the seeds.”
“During that time, everyone was going through so much, so we really gave ourselves a huge challenge of creating a film set where people feel safe and cared for,” Mary remembers.
Rough River Lake was shot in late 2020. In the backdrop of production, the United States was experiencing record numbers of daily death tolls with the Coronavirus Pandemic, a racial crisis following the murder of George Floyd, and a volatile political climate caused by the 2020 Presidential Election.
In an effort to empower their team, Mary and Leah created a Community Care and Safety Plan, based on a similar document Mary encountered through the Swarm Artist Residency. It covered a variety of different procedures and established safety practices, including guidelines designed to protect Brown and Black creatives, such as explicitly stating how the set would not call police. The document also designated consenting volunteers within the community to step forward and center themselves in the situation, had there been police presence.
In essence, the plan created support networks and contingency plans in the event of an emergency, in order to allow for all cast and crew to feel safe. “It was a living document. Folks got to read it and then provide some insight,” says Mary, “and if they had any edits or asks, we crafted something and then checked in with everyone to see if the change felt good.”
“We didn't want to hire people and have them not know what they were getting into,” Leah comments, “it just seemed like having logistical preparation around those things would create a lot more brain space for the creative work once we were there.”
Building community was another goal that was near and dear to the producers’ hearts.
“The main goal while producing and to the story overall was reclaiming all of who we are (as queer individuals) in whatever space we might find ourselves in,” Mary adds, “in the process of writing the story, I envisioned specifically having Leah and my relationship in that space.”
To the creators’ surprise, the project became personal not only in story, but in production as well. The actual filming process helped bring both creators closer to their families. Leah’s family made Costco trips and prepared food for the cast and crew. Mary’s brother Ed Tilden tapped in as 1st Assistant Director, a working relationship which helped both siblings see and appreciate a new side to one another.
“My brother and I have an age gap and we’ve spent a lot of time apart, but our relationship to one another completely changed when we were able to see each other in our elements,” Mary celebrates with a smile.
When asked about their favorite moments on set, both Mary and Leah brighten up while reminiscing.
Leah: “I love our neighbor Tab next door, who hung out on his deck and truly loved every second of the setups. All the neighbors in this rural place really felt like Hollywood had come to town -- that was really fun.”
Mary: “On the last night of production, we were filming around the bonfire and the whole group just organically improvised a cheer to call back to the beginning of the movie. It was like my favorite thing and I couldn't have written that -- it was the first time I’ve ever allowed myself to just... relax into it.”
Rough River Lake is a Full Spectrum Feature sponsored short concept film to be developed into a feature film and has been featured at the Indianapolis LGBT Film Fest and London International Short Film Festival, where it received Best Short FIlm & Audience Award. Follow @roughriverlakefilm on instagram for current festival and streaming opportunities!