I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY in a Russian immigrant family. My childhood home was a hotbed of struggle and strong opinions, every conversation a matter of life and death.
Growing up, I looked up to my older sister, who wanted to be an actor and took me to see my first movies. She was strong-willed, a rebel and my hero. When I started exploring movies on my own, it is perhaps not surprising that I took to the films of John Cassavetes, a first-generation American director whose raw emotional work is rooted in his love of the actor. The standard of performance and collaboration in his films became a model for my own process and aspirations for MATERNA.
MATERNA began with private conversations between myself and my co-writers/lead actors, Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina. In close creative collaboration with producers Emily McEvoy and Liz Cardenas, we adapted our own real-life family dramas, and both Jade and Assol went on to assume their own fictionalized roles on screen.
As we dove into the work, we found that the conflicts within our families and our struggles for self actualization had political implications that extended beyond our personal dramas. The recesses of our own psyches became, over the course of the process, a jumping off point to the wounds and psyche of country and culture—a window into the challenges of being alive in the world right now.
In my approach to some of the difficult political subject matter we came to wrestle with, I turned to another actor’s director, Nicholas Ray. Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE asked audiences to sympathize with a gay character in 1955 America; JOHNNY GUITAR was one of the first feminist westerns; IN A LONELY PLACE and ON DANGEROUS GROUND took on toxic masculinity; BITTER VICTORY was an anti-war screed; BIGGER THAN LIFE was a send-up of the all-American family that is as shocking now as it was then. These were radical political films that were personal, character-driven and grounded in some of the most vulnerable performances ever captured on screen.
I wanted to navigate similarly sensitive terrain with equal intimacy, working always to root the story in the main characters’ perspectives. This is a film that happens in bathrooms, living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms—the battlegrounds in our homes. I wanted to delve with extreme closeness into the battles waging in our most personal, private spaces to tell a story of modern loneliness and interconnection, while capturing the frighteningly volatile moment in which we find ourselves, drifting further and further apart from one another. I wanted to allow for conflict, to watch characters disagree, change their minds, and grow. If the film is successful, it will allow for audiences to do the same.
— David Gutnik / Co-Writer, Director