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Signe Baumane, Mental Health and her Brutally Frank ‘Rocks in my Pockets’

The New York indie animator riffs on her struggles with depression, film financing, gender bias and the challenges of making her first feature film.

'Rocks in my Pockets.' All images courtesy of Signe Baumane.

With the online release for rental and purchase of Rocks in my Pockets, filmmaker Signe Baumane has reached a pinnacle of sorts in her first animated feature film production, a project that began with the seed of an idea way back in 2009. After an international theatrical run in more than 40 North American cities and 30 countries, the film is now available for the first time as a digital download as well as on DVD.  Now the entire world can share in her torment from the comfort of their living room or comfy sanitarium chair.

Known for her sometimes blunt, often hilarious short films about sex and, well, sex, like Teat Beat of Sex: Episodes 8, 9, 10, 11, Baumane, who professes to having thoughts about sex every nine seconds, shifted gears thematically to tackle the subject she professes to having thoughts about every 12 seconds: suicide. A sometimes funny, sometimes disconcerting film chronicling the demons of depression and mental instability that plague the lives of the filmmaker and members of her family, Rocks in my Pockets is Baumane’s first attempt at writing, animating, distributing and promoting her own animated feature film. I recently had a chance to talk to her about the film and herculean tasks she faced getting the project completed. She shared her insights on the difficulties faced at every step of the way, both practical and emotional, from the tough life issues she struggled with, to how she brought her unique perspective to the screen, and ultimately, the message of hope she is trying to communicate to her audience.

Dan Sarto: In all your films, in everything I’ve ever seen you create, there is a direct, often blunt honesty in your narrative. You delve into adult issues like gender, sex and depression without pretense. You derive your humor directly from the painful, often ironic truths of the reality you’re exposing. That’s what I enjoy most about your work. There’s nothing contrived. And that’s why people love your work…

Signe Baumane: …Or they hate it. Truly. When we premiered this film, it was the culmination of a really tough year for me. Starting in July of 2013, that whole next year was really tough for me. I had encountered a lot of rejection, a lot of pessimism. That included Chris Robinson not selecting my film for competition in Ottawa. When I emailed him to ask why, he told me, “The film is unwatchable. I couldn’t keep watching it.” OK, so my film sucks. It confounded me. I thought he was my friend and could devote 88 minutes to watching my film.

Signe Baumane

But then I realized, it was “difficult” for him to watch this film. And I don’t disagree. For whatever reason, it’s not an easy film to watch. When it opened the first week in Latvia, people contacted me online to tell me they loved the film, what it meant to them. I’m telling their family story. But then there were people who couldn’t bear the voice over. “The voice over drives me crazy.” OK, fine.

Every time I make a film, I hope everyone will love it. And every time I make a film, there are people who love it and there are people who absolutely hate it. This is my reality as a filmmaker.

DS: It’s impossible to please everybody. If that becomes the overriding goal, then an artist loses their voice.

SB: The one good thing about me is that I don’t have a memory. As a filmmaker, you kind of have to be a bit delusional. It’s like with Bill [Plympton]. Every film he makes, he thinks maybe this will be my breakthrough film. Every year he makes two shorts, every two years a feature. He’s made what seems likes hundreds of films. Each film gets him closer, but not where he hopes it will take him. I’m also motivated by a desire to connect with a wide audience. A desire to see how many people like my films.

DS: I’ve talked to Bill many times and he’s driven by a very admirable, simple and compelling force: he loves to draw, to animate, to connect with his audience and he’s going to keep on pushing ahead making his films as long as he is able to. 

SB: He’s super human. He’s amazing. Personally, I don’t like to draw as much as he does. It’s not a natural skill for me. I studied philosophy before I studied art. I only started life drawing some years ago. Drawing has always been hard for me. But I’m driven by the concept. By the idea. By the story. Every time I start a project I want to finish it yesterday.

I made three films in Latvia, where I come from, before coming to New York. Once I got here, I started working for Bill. He really influenced the way I make films. We’re driven by different things and aspire to tell different types of stories. But he really showed me how to “make” films. His undying optimism is really contagious. When I look at Rocks in my Pockets, it’s a perfect blend of my Eastern European creative roots of metaphor and surreal imagery and crazy things only Eastern European filmmakers come up with, and this direct American style of storytelling. Nothing obscure. My film is a unique blend of both sensibilities. I’m happy I was able to do that.

DS: As an independent short film maker, things are tough enough. The jump to making an animated feature is even more challenging. Financing and distributing your own films is tremendously difficult as well. You work on commissioned work when available. You’ve cobbled together a career in an extremely tough and unforgiving field. And each hard-fought and earned success by no means signifies your next effort will be any easier.

SB: My goodness yes. For this particular film, the odds stacked against me were even higher. Yes, I am an animator. And so many filmmakers look down on animation. It’s considered some type of lesser form of filmmaking. I don’t understand it because it’s a far more superior form and animation came along before any of these other types of filmmaking. Animation is like the mother of these other forms. Why look down on it?

But, OK, so everyone looks down on animation as a lesser form of filmmaking. Fine. But being a female animator, we don’t get as much respect as men in the film industry. That’s another thing.

Then, choosing difficult subjects for your films. My film. It’s about depression [laughs].

DS: It’s like you’re working your way down a checklist of “How Can We Make This Movie Production as Difficult as Possible?”

SB: [Laughs] You know, I can’t choose my gender. But these facts pushing against me as a filmmaker and against my film actually all made me feel very free. Nobody is going to throw money into my project. Nobody is going to invest their money to finance me. When you finance a film yourself, you have the freedom to make the film you want to make. Rocks in My Pockets also had another strike against it in that I didn’t follow any formula of filmmaking. I truly made the film I wanted to make. It’s not for everybody. But it’s unique in that it’s one person’s vision. Most big studio films, and even many smaller independent film, they’re made by committee. There’s a formula. There’s a producer saying, “I don’t like this character. Why don’t you make her blonde…I don’t like the camera move…I don’t like your choice of lighting.” I didn’t have any of that. I made the best film I was capable of making at that particular moment. I didn’t change anything because someone said I have to.

DS: Aside from the obvious difference in the scale and length of the process, what have been the biggest differences for you making a feature as opposed to make a short?

SB: Good question. From early on, I was very conscious about the differences. The first was the writing. I told myself, “Let me write a feature about these crazy thoughts I have in my head.” Every nine seconds I think about sex. Every twelve seconds I think about killing myself. So I thought, sex, OK, that’s fine, but let me go into this dark place. Let me explore this other side. How do these dark thoughts happen in my head? Why do I want to die?

So I started to write and I wrote five pages of a script about how I was not going to commit suicide. It was really hilarious that there are all these ways to kill yourself and none of them interested me. None fit my character. But after five pages, I knew I couldn’t sustain a feature film. I had to go somewhere else. So I started to write about my family history. And after another five pages I realized how much material was there. I couldn’t stop. Then there had to be an arc to it. So everything I wrote in the beginning I had to throw out. It was sort of short filmy, gaggy, funny observations, not part of a feature film story arc. So that’s when I realized I had to write this very differently, that I was writing a feature, not a short story.

The second biggest difference is financing. For my short films, I could work on someone else’s project for a while, then come off that and be able to afford to work on my own film for a few months. For a feature film, I had to raise $100,000 so I could really sit down and start working on it. Not only that, in the beginning, I was delusional thinking it would only take $100,000. Bill told me he makes his films for $200,000. I know how he makes his films, what he pays his people, how long they take. I told myself, “You know what? If he can make a film for $200,000, I should be able to make one for $100,000.” [Editor’s Note: in a 2013 AWN Plympton interview, he mentioned his budget on Idiots and Angels was $150,000 and around $400,000 on Cheatin’].

So I started fundraising and I got very lucky to get some support. We dealt with the issue of fundraising with a non-profit organization so people could take a tax deduction. And slowly we raised the money. But then, somewhere in the middle of production, I realized we were running out of money. So, we did a Kickstarter campaign, we raised $50,000, as well as some more money from other donors, and in the end, to be honest, in the end, including money for marketing and distribution, it’s going to be around $300,000.

DS: Now that you’ve made your first feature, are you going back to shorts? Where does this latest effort position you as an animator and filmmaker?

SB: I’ve been thinking the same thing – where does this film bring me as an artist? What is the next thing? This technique, a mix of three dimensional paper mache and flat drawings, I haven’t explored even 20% of what I could do with that. I’d like to do another film with even more bizarre and surreal backgrounds. Technically, I feel I understand this form of visual language much better now. In the beginning, I had no idea. I hadn’t done stop-motion before. Lighting, lens focus, camera, so many new things for me. I’d like to make one more film continuing on with this technique.

For me, shorts are an amazing breeding ground of ideas. Shorts allow you to experiment, to develop concepts. For example, without shorts, I would never have thought to narrate my own feature film.

So I’m considering, should I make another raw personal film? I have four really personal films in me. Marriage, children, really deep subjects. But I also think it would be fun to make a children’s film. A simple story for children. That would go against anyone’s expectations about what type of film they’d think I would do.

DS: What do you hope your audience comes away with when they watch Rocks in my Pockets? Ultimately, what are you trying to express and communicate to your audience?

SB:  I make films to engage people in a conversation. A film is a form of communication. For me, sex is also a form of communication. I make a film because I want to say something that’s important for me to say. Once I’ve said it, I want to hear back. It’s a conversation to me. I don’t just express and walk away. I don’t give speeches. I engage in dialogue. It’s important to me.

So when I make a film, I want to entertain, to engage and incite a dialogue. I want to shake people up a bit. I have a reputation as a provocateur but I’m not. I don’t provoke people, but I do shake them up some and say, “Hey start thinking for yourself. Think independently.” People get brainwashed by advertising…this is sexy, this is passion…wear these shoes…you’re cool if you drive this car. But I feel, “You’re human! Wake up! There are other realities of human existence to experience!”

When I made Rocks in my Pockets, I wanted people to be entertained, to be drawn into the story. I also wanted them to walk away with “hope.” Hope is a very important thing for me. The film asks the question, “Are you really a prisoner of your own genetics?” I don’t have an answer. In the end, I’m saying, “I have very bad genetics, but this is how I live. This is how I survive.” Maybe, there is the possibility you could do something like that too. I want people to walk out of the movie feeling they have hope.

DS: People struggle with all types of demons in their lives. That’s part of being human. By taking an honest and unvarnished view of real demons, you humanize them, demystify them in a way and show they can be dealt with. Your message of hope is an important one.

SB: People say, “I can’t see your film about depression. I’ll get depressed.” I get asked all the time, “Is it going to be entertaining?” How do you define entertainment? If you define entertainment as anything that takes you out of your reality and transports you into another world, and in the process, you learn something about yourself but in a different perspective, and when you return, you see things a little differently, then yes, my film is entertaining. When you experience something new, something different, that to me is entertainment.

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Experience firsthand Signe’s first feature by visiting the film’s website at http://www.rocksinmypocketsmovie.com/, where you can watch the trailer, go behind the scenes as well as rent or buy the film.

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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