Alumna Maggie Mahrt on her Award-winning Film ‘Unbound’

November 15, 2017 | by Sam Hendrian

Since graduating in 2010, JPCatholic alumna Maggie Mahrt has achieved substantial success in the film industry. Her short film Chow Bella was screened at film festivals around the globe and took home the Audience Choice award from the San Diego IndieFest. She also worked for three seasons on NBC’s show Grimm as Assistant to showrunner David Greenwalt.

This past year, she was one of eight women selected for the American Film Institute’s prestigious Directing Workshop for Women, a program which provides female filmmakers with professional mentoring to direct a short film or new media project. Through the workshop, she wrote and directed a 12-minute short film Unbound, which received the best Sci-Fi Award at the HollyShorts Film Festival this August.

Unbound is based on a short story titled Reeling for the Empire by the New York Times bestselling author Karen Russell. Maggie discovered it while she was reading Vampires in the Lemon Grove, a compilation of Russell’s short stories. “I was immediately captivated by the world, themes, and evocative imagery that were present therein,” she said. “I could see the story so clearly that I knew the words needed to be brought to life on screen.”

The compelling story is about a young girl in turn-of-the-century Japan who becomes a silk factory worker in order to help save her sick father. As she works in the factory, she mysteriously begins to transform into a silkworm, becoming the commodity that her factory thrives off of. “I am deeply drawn to stories that have a female protagonist who has to overcome what seems like an impossible obstacle,” Maggie said.

Bringing Unbound to life came with many challenges. As Maggie said, “I see directing as simply a long succession of solving problems and overcoming challenges.” There were several people who expressed doubt and concern beforehand about how Maggie was going to succeed in convincingly portraying the time period and the fantastical occurrence of a woman becoming a silkworm. Maggie herself was concerned about how she was going to achieve the visual effects, as she had never worked with anything like them before. Fortunately, she was able to overcome this technical challenge and prove her doubters wrong.

Maggie had several inspirations for the visual aesthetic of Unbound, among them being the 1950s Charles Laughton film The Night of the Hunter, the 1986 French film Therese, and the films of Zhang Yimou and Akira Kurosawa. When asked what she wants the audience to take away from the film, she replied, “It’s one of those films that I would rather not impose any ‘audience take-away’ beyond that of provoking inspiration. I hope that each person who views the film has their own sense of what it means to them and how it moves them.”

Unbound has achieved great success with its win for “Best Sci-Fi” at HollyShorts, an Academy Award-eligible film festival in Hollywood. When asked how the project was able to come together and be successful, Maggie answered, “Collaboration. That is what it is all about… This is a team sport, and that is what made Unbound a success.” She is quite happy with the finished product, saying, “It captures something of the pull in my heart towards telling stories that speak of feminine transcendence and transformation.” In the future, she would like to turn the story of Unbound into a limited TV series and a feature film. For now, though, she is quite satisfied with the short film’s success and is excited to move onto new projects.

Watch the trailer for Unbound here!