The Islander: Sara Werner
Photo by MICHELLE GIORLA
Like many artists who grew up in Cape May, filmmaker Sara Werner realized her creative calling at an early age. Her ambitions were nurtured by family, friends, and a true connection with the natural and architectural wonders our island offers. After graduating from Wildwood Catholic High School in 2005, she studied film at University of Miami, and launched a pursuit into the film industry, while returning home each summer to work with Cape May Beach Patrol.
With two film projects in post-production just before her return to Cape May, she eagerly agreed to a FaceTime interview from her Los Angeles apartment.
How long have you been a filmmaker? 10 years. My parents were cinephiles. The one way we really bonded was watching movies. I loved how engrossed we’d be and how we could always talk about it.
What is it that you loved so much? I loved comic books, so I related to the younger brother who enjoyed comics. And I always wanted to be the older brother who got to hook up with the hot vampire girl. I really love 80s nostalgia too. I saw it again when I first moved out here at Hollywood Forever. They screen movies in a cemetery and project it on the side of a mausoleum wall. It’s really trippy.
Which filmmakers do you admire? So many! I love Reed Morano, she’s brilliant. She was a cinematographer who moved into directing. I love David Lynch. I think his Mulholland Drive was the other movie I saw when I was about 14. I got it from the Cape May Library and knew two things were certain: I want to be a filmmaker and I’m definitely gay.
How is LGBT visibility different between your Cape May and Los Angeles home cities? Los Angeles was just ranked 16 out of 25 as one of the safest cities in the U.S. We’re one of the most queer-friendly regarding safe spaces and bars, cafes, and groups. On Sunday I was volunteering for a queer gym that came up with Dream Team Society, a group of queer surfers. They reached out to me, and I asked if they needed extra instructors. It was the first time I’ve surfed with trans surfers. Usually in Cape May, it’s just white people out in the water, but out here there’s a beautiful multitude of colors and shades, then this week I got to surf with my trans friends. It was so cool! I think that alone tells you something. In Cape May there really isn’t a standard gay bar. There are a few pride flags around and it’s wonderful that many stores display the rainbow heart. I think it’s beautiful that the first Pride march was last year in Cape May. I’m glad they are doing it again this year.
There are parts of the country that are still very homophobic. Each generation gets louder. When we see issues like the ones in Florida, it seems like we’re take three steps forward and two steps back. But we have to remember that even then, we’re still one step ahead of where we were.
What further steps do you think should be taken in mainstream films toward LGBTQ visibility? Many people are still uneducated and think being gay is a choice, but queer kids are going to be queer kids no matter what. Like in the Disney movies — if you think it’s okay that we’re focusing on movies where heterosexual couples get together in the end and their love and togetherness is their main drive, but then you can’t have a gay kiss, then there’s something wrong with you.
How would you describe your style of filmmaking for our readers? I try to have a poetic edge with a lot of my projects, to make it more of a visual landscape than verbal. The last few things I’ve created are a bit more commercial. But I want to return to some more experimental roots.
What film projects are you working on right now? I’m getting two pieces through post production. I’ve been working with my editor to meet a deadline to finish a film we shot in Cape May last year.
Is that the movie, Homecoming? Yes, I wrote the longer version of it, which would cost a lot of money to film. My girlfriend took a crack at it and wrote a beautiful script in short form so we could actually film it.
Where in Cape May was it filmed? All around the island. We have Mayor Mullock to thank for some approvals. There is this one old Victorian house on Ocean Street that we were allowed to have for a week. It was lovely. We filmed it on a shoestring because so many people believed in the project. So many friends who came in from New York and Miami said they were always interested to see where I was from, and some just asked for one good beach day. One of my lifeguard friends and his wife and daughter cooked for everyone and made the most beautiful meals.
Do you return to Cape May each summer to earn money or to relax? I do love being here and seeing my family and friends, but Cape May Beach Patrol is definitely a survival job.
Let’s talk about CMBP, where you’ve already made history. Yes, I’m the first female lieutenant of Cape May Beach Patrol whereas there should have been many more
Why weren’t there? I think there have been some very old and stereotypical ways of thinking in the past. The Beach Patrol is 50% men and 50% women. The fact that there was no one representing 50% of the patrol was a travesty. The current administration recognized that there has to be equality. I’m also there as a queer role model. We have queer kids on Beach Patrol, and I don’t think they were comfortable coming out until they had someone publicly there for them.
Is there any sensitivity training or ground rules among Beach Patrol in maintaining a gay-friendly work environment? Now there is. This will be my 19th year. Growing up it was scary, and I remember my mom begging me not to come out because I was a junior guard instructor, and she was afraid they wouldn’t let me be near the kids. That was so heartbreaking for me. I stayed closeted and got outed when I was about 21. I just owned it.
My son was a lifeguard years ago and often told of amusing questions beachgoers would ask. Do you get them too? I’ve written some down! No question is a bad question, but some are funny. I’m not at the stands anymore so I don’t get those questions like I used to. The one you hear most is, “What time do the dolphins come out?” Or people will come up when you’re on the stand in full uniform with a whistle around your neck and ask, “Are you a lifeguard?” That’s a favorite. I’ve come back in from paddling and people have asked, “Are you a dolphin trainer?” But I used to have funny ideas, too. You know the foot board that sticks out from the lifeguard stand? When I was little, I thought it was a diving board!
Is there a special lifelong bond you feel with someone when you save their life? For sure! I’m still in touch with two people I rescued. There was one gentleman in Cape May who I rescued. It was one of the largest rescues in Cape May that was after hours. There had been no lifeguard presence, so he actually thought no one was going to come and save him. He remembered me the most because I paddled out to him and told him he was going to live.
Have these lifesaving experiences and encounters with near death ever been conveyed in your filmmaking? Yes, and you’ll see it because it’s coming up in Homecoming. I also touched upon that in my first film project which was about human trafficking. I worked with survivors while studying abroad. The survivor in my film is near death when she’s getting rescued. I really play with the teetering of life and death in some of the shots. There was one shot I used in that first project that almost got me kicked out of school. I sunk a bed in their pool, 15 feet underwater. I then had my actor swim from the bed toward a beam of light to show rebirth from her old life to a new one. I really want to do more of that visual language. So much more is told through visuals than words. Cinematic language and the art of film is so beautiful to me.
Does your focus on the visual give your films a more universal appeal? I hope so. My film Aurora was the most visual and ended up getting screened all over the world.
Any closing words to our readers? Be kind to one another. You don’t know what amazing stories lie behind different eyes. Learn from them and grow all together. ■