Actress and producer Katherine Waddell launches independent filmmaking with Balloon Animal

Katherine Waddell as Poppy Valentine in “Balloon Animal”. // Courtesy of Katherine Waddell

When you think of indie films, your mind may immediately turn to A24 and their bizarre, slow-burning horrors or coming-of-age rom-coms.. These films can often have a strong presence, but the depths of indie film go much deeper than what is advertised.

Katherine Waddell is an actress and producer who has been working in independent film for years and showcased her biggest project yet at the Kansas City FilmFest International earlier this year. His latest film is called Animal Balloon and surrounds the story of a woman who chooses to stay with a life she knows or go and find what she really wants.

We sat down with Waddell to talk about his experience on camera as well as behind it and what it’s been like to bring his ideas and those of others to life.

The pitch: I know you have a lot of experience directing and producing independent films, how did you get started and what is your journey like in general?

Katherine Waddell: I started out in theater like I think so many people do, I started in fourth grade doing plays and never looked back. I went to college for this and after college I was like, how can I make a career out of it now? When I realized how hard it would be to become an actor and I couldn’t romanticize it anymore I got to a place where I knew I loved movies and that was all I ever really had known, so I got into production, which is definitely more accessible and an easier way to pay the bills.

I also thought from a business mindset that I could enter as an actor through the back door if I started producing and networking. By really expanding my repertoire, I was able to open more doors and I did.

I saw that you are co-owner of a movie studio called First Bloom Films, how did that go?

Me and my best friend, her name is Em Johnson and she wrote and directed Animal Balloon and owns First Bloom Films with me. She and I had been working together for a few years, we actually went to college together but we weren’t really dating. A few years after we graduated, she was doing her master’s degree in Chicago and I was living in Indiana and commuting to Chicago doing some acting work. I walked into his thesis audition by chance and we started this really amazing relationship where we loved working together and respected each other.

After a few projects together when we finally decided to do Animal Balloon it was a no-brainer to create a production company together and create a home for all of our work together.

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The poster for “Balloon Animal,” the film Katherine Waddell and Em Johnson presented at the Kansas City FilmFest International. // Courtesy of Katherine Waddell

Animal Balloon is the movie that you brought to the Kansas City FilmFest International and saw that it was written and directed by Em. How would you describe the movie to people?

So it’s a movie about a girl named Poppy Valentine who grew up in a traveling circus making balloon animals and that’s her only job there. She is now on the edge of a precipice deciding if she wants to stay with her family and everything she knows or if she wants to settle in this city she loves and fend for herself.

We call it coming of age, but she’s 24, which might seem a little older to a lot of people, but to us, that’s the dilemma at its core. Do I grow up and go out alone or do I stay here and play it safe? For us, what we want audiences to take away from it when they watch it is to find your own voice and put yourself forward and hopefully not vilify that decision.

For you, how different is the role of being in front of the camera and behind the camera? Do you prefer one or the other?

Acting is definitely my passion, I love producing but I’m definitely more comfortable acting. I think it also stems from feeling less responsible. Although some people might disagree because some people might look at an actor and think, oh you wear the whole movie because if your performance sucks, then the movies are going to suck. But I’m pretty confident in my abilities and in this role I kind of have only myself to answer for.

Producing is very nerve-wracking because you’re responsible for everyone. It all depends on your ability to bring a project to life from start to finish, so I feel a lot of pressure in that direction.

What’s your favorite part of working on these little films and trying to bring these projects to the world?

I think that’s just the classic underdog idea. You see people persevering against an industry that doesn’t always have room for them. It’s very difficult to release indie movies on big platforms because you’ll have a successful company like A24 and their movies will have really big budgets, but then you’ll have the low budget movies that someone released and worked on their ass to do it.

It’s a very difficult industry to break into, but even small films are still worthwhile art, simply because it’s not the most expensive or technically well-made art, it’s still the someone’s art and there’s always someone out there who will appreciate looking at it.

For more information on Katherine Waddell and her production company First Bloom Films, you can find the website here.