Toys in the Attic, with voice actors like Forest Whitaker and Joan Cusack, has received wild acclaim for its creativity with stop-action cinematography among the characteristics to be admired. Vivian Schilling is a resident of Fayetteville and served as director, producer and screenplay adapter of the film released Sept. 7 in theatres locally and throughout the country. We were lucky enough to speak with Vivian and get her insight on working as a successful director, producer, writer and actress while stationing herself right here in Northwest Arkansas.
Tell us a little bit of your history with Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas.
After I moved to Los Angeles, I often flew into Tulsa, Okla. … to visit my grandparents and other family members. One night, while driving from my grandparents’ house back to Tulsa to catch my flight to LA, I got lost while passing through Fayetteville and ended up in the square. It was during the Christmas season and the lights were up and I sat marveling at the beauty and serenity of the square. At the time my husband and I were leading a fairly hectic life in Los Angeles and were craving a calmer place to live. I remember sitting in my car that night thinking, who are these incredibly lucky people that live in this beautiful town? My brother Joseph also lived in Los Angeles with his wife and four small children and he wanted to get out … As a family we all made the commitment to move to Fayetteville. My brother’s family moved first and then my husband and I followed. It’s been our home ever since.
When did you first know you wanted to be in the film industry?
When I moved to Los Angeles to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into theater or film. It wasn’t until a couple of years later when I was cast in a film that I fell in love with filmmaking. It was a ridiculously low-budget and cheesy film, but I had so much fun. The film was non-union and they worked us very long, hard hours, and I ended up in the emergency room one night because of the bad catering, but I still loved it. I loved the camaraderie on the set and the challenge of repeating a performance take after take. I loved the whole inner-workings of the crew and knew I wanted to be a part of all of it – not just as an actress. That’s when I began to write.
How did you break into the film industry as just a regular gal from Kansas?
That’s funny. I never did feel like a regular gal. Even as a child I felt like a bit of an oddity. I was an imaginative little kid. In LA, I threw myself into the training at Strasberg, and was determined to become the best actress I could possibly be. Along with my fellow classmates I went out on a lot of auditions and suffered the usual rejections. My big break, I suppose, was when I was cast in a role on the soap opera General Hospital. This got me into AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), which qualified me to join the Screen Actors Guild. Part of the biggest problem in breaking into the film business was getting into the union. Without a SAG card no one would hire you for a legitimate film, yet you couldn’t get a SAG card without appearing in a SAG film. It’s was a horrible Catch-22. If you belonged to AFTRA, however, you were automatically eligible for SAG after six months. It was a big break for me.
Suddenly I was considered for union films whereas many of my friends had to struggle for years longer to get their union cards. AFTRA and SAG joined into one union this past year and the rules are completely different now.
What was your favorite part of working on Toys in the Attic?
As the sole producer it was a liberating feeling to know I was at the top of the creative chain. I had no one else to answer to other than my objective to remain as true to Jiri Barta’s original film as possible.
I enjoyed the research into Czech culture and the challenge of adapting the script. I had to match the dialogue to the character’s mouth movements and at times it was a bit of a Rubik’s cube, especially when working on the live-action characters. I very much enjoyed the directing aspects of the project – overseeing the tone of the entire adaptation and making decisions accordingly. I really loved directing the actors. As an actor myself, this part came very easily to me.
I enjoyed the quiet winter months in which I worked on the opening and closing title sequences here in Fayetteville without having to be away from home. The original credits started over a pan through a dark attic. With the addition of the American credits I needed a longer sequence. It was a fun challenge to come up with a sequence that would tie into the film and add to the story rather than simply tacking on a meaningless title sequence. When I told Jiri that I wanted to create a toy catalogue that would introduce the characters and would give insight into their backgrounds, he offered to resurrect the original puppets and to take photographs of them for me to use in the catalogue. It was so much fun to collaborate with him in this way. He is such a revered and respected animator and filmmaker.
What are your future plans for films and writing?
When I started Toys in the Attic I was halfway through my third novel. I would like to finish that as well as begin the process of putting together a film I would like to shoot here in Arkansas. It’s a period piece screenplay that I wrote a number of years back. Rather than shopping it to the studios for someone else to make, I’ve simply been sitting on it, waiting for the right time to put it together on my own. I would like to direct it. If by chance that opportunity does not come to fruition, I plan to novelize it. Either way, I want to tell the story I started a number of years back with the screenplay. My great-great grandparents settled into Newton County and I have a long family history here. My script is fiction, but it touches upon the rich Arkansas heritage.