Spotlight: December 2015

Julie & Heather Strong
Aaron Rowan

          I recently added a beautiful new piece to my local art collection: an ink & watercolor fox painted by Julie Strong, who is as skillful with animals as Dr. Doolittle himself. Her portraits of creatures including an owl and a porcupine are equally lovely. Julie also works in the spheres of music and filmmaking alongside her sister Heather, with whom she fronts the indie group Nadine The Band and runs Strong World Films, which has produced works that have been recognized at film festivals throughout California.

Aaron: Nadine The Band has been running for almost 15 years now. Four albums and four MAMA Award nominations. You started out as a loud rock act, but have been performing acoustic lately. What’s been happening with the band in recent years?

Julie & Heather: Wow, can we just start by saying we didn’t even know we were nominated four times!? We’ve been playing off and on in recent years. Most recently, we’ve just been brainstorming how to be successful in this industry. Our most current idea is to become a Renaissance pop cover band, but that would take quite a bit of transforming. Our hearts always lie with rock’n’roll, though, so we’d most like to keep our hard edge. We took a little break from the band, just a little nap, and we woke up in this different world of music. So we’re just trying to figure out how to fit in and navigate in this social media world. We’re so painfully old school. We were trained to go to venues and talk face-to-face with owners, and to go around town plastering flyers in windows. Basically, we’re in the process of getting back into it all.

Aaron: You perform regularly with your cousins’ Americana/folk group, the Brothers Strong & Co., and have filmed music videos for them. How has your own band been influenced by their style?

Julie & Heather: I think we probably influence each other, to some extent. Our two sounds are just so different. We really enjoy playing with them because our sound plus their sound is so unexpected. It’s a good feeling to surprise an audience.

Aaron: Heather - you’re also the bass guitarist for the house band of the Merced Playhouse. Tell us a bit about that group. Also, are you active in the theatrical world in other areas?

Heather: I played with Joel Shade and the Razzapple Magic for a little while, and that was a nice experience. It’s always a fun challenge to play with other musicians and adapt to their styles. I did theatre in high school and college, but now I’m really focused on acting for the camera. Stage acting and camera acting are pretty different animals, but both are exciting and challenging. I don’t dig large groups of people, so a small film crew is a lot more comfortable for me than a whole theater production cast and crew.

Aaron: You co-own Strong World Films, and have written and directed dramas and psychological horror films alike, but also short documentaries. Jim Sanders: Liberator was a piece you produced for the California State Historical Archives. Sanders was an ambulance driver in World War Two, who was the first to rescue survivors from the labor camps in Germany. How did you come to be involved with this project?

Julie: At the time, I was enrolled in a film class at CSU Stanislaus. The state was putting together a collection of student films that highlighted a WWII veteran or survivor, and my professor nominated me as a filmmaker for the project. I was contacted by an assembly representative and went from there. Heather, our sound operator Anthony, and I worked with a couple high schoolers on the project and we filmed our interview with Jim Sanders. He was fantastic and poignant, and it was such an enlightening experience.

Aaron: The film was screened at the first Holocaust Memorial ceremony at the capital building in Sacramento, and at the Action On Film International Film Festival in southern California in 2012. What sort of buzz did your film receive at that festival, and what were your experiences like as far as networking?

Julie & Heather: We were nominated for Best Documentary at AOF. That was definitely an honor, and we were really proud that Jim’s story could be told in that arena. Everyone who has seen the film has really appreciated it, but audiences don’t generally go crazy over documentaries when there are action and comedy films in the room next door. In terms of networking, we met a few filmmakers and were even groped by the bad guy from Kindergarten Cop. It’s so splendid to be a lady filmmaker!

Aaron: Julie - you’ve also created short pieces documenting various aspects of life in the Modesto area. They’ve been featured on the website of the Building Imagination Center, based here in the Valley. A PSA for Habitat For Humanity was one of your projects there. What other sorts of subject matter have you taken on?

Julie: We did one project that I consider relatively important that addressed homelessness in our short The Marquee Lights. We’ve also addressed Tourette’s Syndrome in our first short, You Make my Heart Tic. The scripts I write tend to have a psychological aspect to them. Specifically, I like to focus on a connection between psychology and horror.

Aaron: Your most recent film work was The Marquee Lights, where you collaborated with another director friend to film two versions of the picture from the same script which he wrote. What was the story about, and how do the two finished products compare?

Julie & Heather: The Marquee Lights is a day in the life of a young woman, Kelly, who is somewhat new at being homeless. In our version, Kelly (played by Heather) is very aware of her situation and still feels fear and shame toward her current lot in life. In Jason Ryder’s version, Kelly is a little more numb to her situation. Both were filmed guerilla style and show the grittiness of downtown Merced (where both versions were filmed). Overall, the mood of each film is different, due to markedly differing music choices, different actors and directors, and a different point of view. It may be that Jason’s film has a bit of an “outside looking in” vibe to it because, as a man, he can only observe what this young woman was going through. Our film, on the other hand, is a bit more introspective, perhaps because we are more connected to the character as women.

Aaron: Julie - you majored in art at CSU Stanislaus, and have been focusing more on your painting lately. Tell us about your inspirations and favorite media to work in, and your favorite subject matter in your art.

Julie: Lately I’ve been focusing on a single subject as the center of my piece. Right now I’m on an animal kick, but I also like other subjects. Paintings of animals seem to be really popular. I really enjoy using ink and watercolor because my strength has always been drawing. This way I can draw a very detailed picture and bring it to life with color. I’ve made work in almost any medium you can think of, from oil, to printmaking, sculpture, and woodwork. Right now, I’m really enjoying the lighter subject matter of woodland creatures, but a lot of my work, historically, has been very dark and eerie.

Aaron: Heather - you hold a master’s degree in psychology, and have presented research on pre-frontal asymmetric activation in relation to emotional audio clips. Was there a musical aspect to this research, and have any of your other studies touched on psychological effects of music?

Heather: The emotional audio clips used in this study were actually from emotional scenes in animated Disney movies, such as (spoiler alert!) Mufasa’s death in The Lion King. There was music in each clip, which (likely) may have contributed to the participants’ feelings. I am interested in the positive effects of music and movies, but I haven’t studied that specifically yet. I have completed studies that examine the negative effects of sexual print advertisements, another interest of mine, and found that people do not remember a product better if a sexy, half-naked woman is selling it. I’ve completed a lot of other research, but I fear you will lose all of your readers if I continue!

Aaron: What are your next creative projects coming up?

Julie & Heather: Right now we're wrapping up post-production on our new psychological horror film It's Just the Wind. It focuses on a woman who thinks she's being stalked and terrorized by someone, but her boyfriend and sister don't believe her. It has some great dramatic moments, with some really creepy stuff thrown in. Our goal is to get it into some festivals and just promote the crap out of it. Julie is in the process of writing a script that's her version of a romance. So of course there are ghosts. We're also going to incorporate our own music into it. It'll be a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, to combine our music and movies. So for now we'll be working on new songs and finishing up the script.