Angel Katherine Taormina Discusses Her Growth as a Filmmaker, Her History with 9/11, and What Inspired Her to Create “River Lights”

 

“I was 7 years old the first time I performed on stage. I knew I wanted to be out there. I also very quickly realized that I had very specific ideas and would need to be in a position where I could be in control of my performance and its surroundings. I had a vision and a story for everything I did. And, in my first outing as a director in 2003, my primary goal was the safety and comfort of those around me so as to nurture an environment where creativity could feel free to flourish. I was 13 years old at the time. But I knew what was most important in an artistic environment. I had just written, directed, and starred in an educational children’s video about a singing princess who inspired people to make the world a better and a more fun place. I was young, but it felt so natural to me that I knew I could never do anything else. That is very much thanks to my parents. I never had to wonder if they were proud of me. I still don’t. My parents were always supportive of me. Growing up, I was never looked down upon for having a unique idea. I was always encouraged and they were my greatest cheerleaders for me doing what I do. They still are. I was working on a project that involved music one day and my dad told me something that became a metaphor for the way I would live my life. He said, “Who says you have to be confined to the keys on a piano? Find new notes and, if they aren’t there, create them.” Because he permitted my inspiration to flourish, everything I do inspires itself to find new and creative ways of being done. I have been quoted as saying “See what is… then look beyond… and see what can be.” That is accurate for me, and it is very much because of my parents’ support of me. The “see what is” quote came about during promotional interviews when I was describing my penchant for wide shots and extended takes on raw and visceral shots in my film “The Saints of the Rue Scribe.” “Saints” was like an eldest daughter to me- my first feature film after years of documentaries and short films. My first award nomination was in 2008 for my short film, “Guilt”. Then I won an award for a documentary that I made in 2012. When I first wrote the novel for “Saints” that same year, I couldn’t have imagined the beauty of the ten-year journey- including “Everything”, “Courage”, and “Cristabelle”- that led me to where I am today. 13 countries and 29 awards later, here we are. I was actually still working on “Saints” when I wrote “The Anniversary” and then adapted it into the screenplay called “River Lights”. It was a week before we filmed the final multi-character scene in “Saints”. March 2019. I was up in Manhattan and I went to visit the World Trade Center, and the site, and the pools, and the museum. The last time I had been in New York had been when we were at the Café Carlyle testing out Cinétage scenes for “Saints.” So that would have been 2013. The Freedom Tower was completed in 2014. I hadn’t seen it yet and, as someone born and raised in New York City, I knew I had to see it. In March of 2019, I went to confront my past and see hope for the future. And I did. I had wanted for so long to be able to do something about that day. Something that could help people to heal. I had a voice now- I was a writer. And, on September 11th of 2019, the novel was born. And, on February 14th, 2020, I finished writing the screenplay for “River Lights” on the same day that I filmed the final shot of “Saints”. I could finally help. I was 8 days shy of my 12th birthday when 9/11 happened. Technically I was living on Long Island but my dad and I were in the city two or three times a week doing things to help build my career. I know that could have very easily been us that day. I had a hair appointment downtown for the 11th. I’d switched the date. My dad had an office downtown, but he didn’t go in that day. If we had gone there together that morning, we would have very likely gotten there a bit after 8am and would have gone up to Windows on the World for a carton of milk, to look at the spectacular views, and to recreate some pictures of me standing at the window like I did when I was four years old. We weren’t there that day. We didn’t lose anyone that we knew personally. But, from that day, the “what if” was burned into my heart. The characters of Valentina and Jace explore survivors’ guilt in varied ways in this screenplay. Circumstances could have made my dad and I just like the characters of Valentina and Marcus. So many people have so many different stories. So many others could easily have had the same stories, but didn’t, because of some variable or another. For all the Jaces and Ellies out there. For all the Valentinas and Marcuses out there. For all the Jaces and Valentinas out there. For all the hearts torn apart that day, this is my offering of healing. I hope I can finally help you. The story does not belong to one person in particular in order that it can be embraced by all. It is what unites us- our desire for healing and peace, freedom and love, a day beyond the ashes, a day- even a lifetime- of joy. I hugged people. Over the months after 9/11, I was living in the city again and I would hug people who walked up to me and needed a hug. On the Promenade. On the corner of Cortlandt Street. Anywhere where there was a reminder of the tragedy, there was a desire for people to reach out peacefully, come together, and try to find a moment of hope and healing. That is what I hope this film will bring. Hope and healing. In the story, Jace had lost his girlfriend Ellie on Flight 11, Valentina had lost her father Marcus in Windows on the World, and Jace and Valentina, now a Hollywood power couple, are dealing with the pain 20 years later, as new revelations about their pasts come to light and those truths can help others to heal as the 20th anniversary draws near in a 2021 Manhattan filled with the hope of moving forward to a bright future of what they can make it to be. We can choose our today. We can choose joy. We can heal. That is the story of “River Lights” and the story of the desire of the human heart. Peace. That is what I’m looking to bring to the big screen. The hope that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel of darkness caused by that day, and the peace of the human heart that brings healing, joy, and love. If Jace and Valentina can make it through then, yes, there is a tomorrow. And there is peace.”