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Pepper and the Salt Sea

After losing everything in Superstorm Sandy, a devastated photographer tries to forget that she ever loved the sea. Until a mermaid appears, to seduce her into picking up her camera again.

Pepper and the Salt Sea is a magical realism fable about holding on to your dreams against all odds.

Director’s Statement

Once upon a time, there was a photographer named Pepper, and she took pictures of the sea…

This movie is a story about what it takes to keep moving forward. Pepper never really “made it” as a photographer. And she never gave up that dream. Until the day the ocean — the subject of her work — came into her home and stole all her photographs.
Just over 5 years ago, Superstorm Sandy flooded my home neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn. A lot of people lost everything. We were luckier – the apartment I share with my wife and our dog was spared.

We volunteered and helped out where we could. And as we watched our neighbors persevere and recover from this natural disaster, I found myself thinking – what would have happened if I had lost all my film equipment? All my computers and hard drives? The films I never made, and the work nobody has ever seen? Would I be able to start over after losing it all?

As a creation of my imagination, that’s exactly what happens to Pepper. At the start of the film, we find her about a year after the flood (which is, not uncoincidentally, when we shot the film). She has lost a lifetime of work, and she is finally ready to say goodbye to photography forever.

So the sea sends an emissary to bring her back under its sway. A beautiful woman who might seduce her into picking up her camera again, and devote herself to the sea once more. If only Pepper weren’t so angry with the sea…

I had the honor of working with an amazing cast and crew to bring this magical realism story to life. Producer Min Soo Elle Kim helped me elevate this story far beyond what I imagined it could be. And Kyle Kelley translated that plan into visually stunning, award-winning cinematography.

But the film hinges on the amazing performances of its two actresses: Stacie Capone and Katrina Cunningham.

Stacie and I are partners — we are married, and have been making work together for years. There’s a lot of trust and familiarity in such a relationship, but we always push each other to go outside our respective comfort zones, and this film was no exception.

Stacie had her work cut out for her with Pepper. This character starts the film broken and hopeless. It could have fallen flat. But Stacie brought both a dry sense of humor and real fire to the role — a streak of fierce energy that’s buried deep, but burns through and propels Pepper to the film’s conclusion.

When it came time to cast the mermaid, I started out with an image in my head of a very slight, waif-like young woman who would surprise us by turning out to be much more powerful than she looks. But Katrina, who is a dancer, isn’t built like that at all. She’s strong and muscular, and has this incredibly vivacious screen presence.
Katrina helped us transform the mermaid from a mere envoy of the ocean to a character who embodies the sea itself — representative of all its power and beauty and capricious moods. Through much of the film, the mermaid doesn’t speak. But Katrina’s physical energy and presence speaks volumes. (Plus, she let us almost drown her in a bathtub!)

I set out to make a movie about a lot of things that start with capital letters: Art. The Environment. The Definition of Success. Female Beauty vs. Self-Worth.

I ended up making a movie that’s about something simpler and more powerful: the inward journey each of makes to find the strength to move forward after a loss. What it takes to forgive outside forces – and ourselves – so we can move forward.

This film is dedicated to the creative, resilient residents of Red Hook, Brooklyn, who have shown incredible strength and resilience over the 5 years since Superstorm Sandy.
They, too, have proven themselves to be a force of nature.


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