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Director Zach Marion Talks Where She Lies

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Director Zach Marion Talks <i>Where She Lies</i>

by Paul Hansen 05 November, 2020

Where She Lies is a sensitive new documentary about a mother’s search for her child.  The documentary centers on Peggy Phillips, an assaulted teen who gave birth in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1962 and received conflicting information about the status of her newborn. One doctor stated that the baby had passed, and another said that it had not.  More than three decades after the birth, Peggy’s mother gave a deathbed confession that the baby had not died. Director Zach Marion assists Peggy on an odyssey to determine what actually happened to her child.

Marion is a two-time student recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Directing Award and Where She Lies is his first feature-length film. The film was photographed by Emma Kragen, who was featured in Variety's 110 Students to Watch in 2015.

ScreenPicks posed some questions to Zach Marion about the film.

Q. Can you describe the origins of the documentary?

A. In 2009, I was working as the Head of TV Development for Video Arts Studios in Fargo, ND developing a series called Deathbed Confessions for Investigation Discovery (ID). The network asked me to put together 6 seasons worth of stories– 60 episodes. I spent 2 months scouring the internet for stories that involved a deathbed confession.

Out of all of my research, there was one premise that stood out from the rest. Peggy Phillips of Chattanooga, Tennessee gave birth out of wedlock in 1962 and was told her baby was stillborn. Thirty-three years later, Peggy's mother confessed on her deathbed that the baby never died. Unfortunately, ID passed on the series. I moved on to other concepts, but I never forgot about Peggy's story.

By 2016, I had gotten my MFA in Film Directing from UCLA and started Zemma Productions with my partner, Emma. It had been a life goal to direct a feature film, and I felt like I had the knowledge and equipment to undertake the task.

At the time, Peggy's story only existed in the form of a short AP article from 1997 that laid out the skeleton of a conspiracy. Through some internet sleuthing, I found a mailing address for an appropriately aged woman named Peggy Phillips still living in the Chattanooga area. I sent a letter to the address, and 3 days later, Peggy called me.

From our first call, it was clear that Peggy was still searching for her daughter. We began to speak regularly, sometimes for hours as we developed a mutual trust. By sharing her deepest psychic wounds with me, I felt a moral obligation to try my best to figure out what happened to her daughter. The film, Where She Lies, captures our relationship, my investigation, and Peggy’s search for the truth over the course of 4 years.

Q.  In addition to Peggy Phillips' personal history,  do you think this documentary raises significant social issues?  

A. Where She Lies is an allegory about what I see as the greatest crisis our species is facing. How can human beings come together by finding common ground if we’re resigned to adopt emotional truth over factual truth? The film explores this existential question by helping one individual sort fact from fiction surrounding her most closely guarded belief. From viewers, the film begs a universal question that is both alarmingly timely and enduringly timeless: What is my understanding of truth? If we can all ask ourselves this question in earnest, we may truly understand Peggy’s truth, that “in this world, we all belong to each other.”

Q. What advice would you have to give to filmmakers who are considering making a documentary?

A. Begin by exploring the material. Speak to potential subjects, explore potential story structures, and try to get a sense of where the story is going. For this film, it was helpful to have an unanswered question driving the process— "What happened to Peggy's baby?"

If the material speaks to you, the film will begin to demand your time and energy. You will feel compelled to work on bringing it into existence, and it will occupy your idle thoughts.

What will follow will be an immense amount of work. Do not focus on the result. Stay open to where the story wants to go. Try to anticipate where you need to be to capture its unfolding. All the while, continue to organize the material into a story structure.

At a certain point, you may begin to recognize certain tentpole scenes— an opening, a closing, and act breaks. Restructure your footage around these scenes. Focus on bringing clarity to the more confusing aspects of your story. You may have to shoot more or create beats out of existing materials.

Ask for help and feedback, and accept it with humility. Learn to recognize a good idea, no matter where or who it comes from. Know that frustration is just resistance to unacknowledged uncertainty. Although you may be the primary engine pushing the film along, support from others is essential. I had fantastic collaborators who not only made the film oh so much better but also supported me as a friend and colleague, enabling me to do my best.

Q. Is there anything in general you would like to tell viewers about Where She Lies?

A. I would describe Where She Lies as a Southern Gothic mystery, sharing similarities with films like The Keepers, Evil Genius, and Abducted in Plain Sight. This film will resonate particularly with people close to the experience of birth, adoption, sexual assault, and trauma. Lovers of independent cinema will appreciate Where She Lies genre-bending approach and thought-provoking subject matter. Fans of the macabre will enjoy all of the darker twists and turns, including stolen babies, a deathbed confession, and an exhumation. Finally, the story resolves itself with a touching and ultimately uplifting ending that will leave viewers satisfied.

Q. Would you like to share with us what your next project is?

A. Frank Isaac, my co-producer on Where She Lies, and I are developing various documentary and scripted projects. Specifically, I have written a dark fantasy thriller I intend to direct titled Zero State. The film is about a compulsive gambler who starts receiving premonitions about games of chance. When he takes advantage of his visions, other aspects of his life suffer severely.

WHERE SHE LIES is being released by Gravitas Ventures on VOD everywhere you can rent or buy films on November 10th.