Julia Christgau regarded 2018 as a year of yes.
“I just got cast, cast, cast in all these things. I made three films and I did two plays,” she recalls. “I was like ‘Wow, maybe I’m an actor, finally.’”
Then, through the auditions she took in 2019, the Asheville actress absorbed one rejection after another.
“I’ve got a lot of nos,” she said. “I'm learning to let that roll off my back, and maybe that means something bigger is coming.”
Those bigger things might be around the corner. Christgau wrote, co-directed and co-stars in a locally made short film called “Whistle Down Wind.” It’s a patient, understated story about a complex situation, involving a young woman in a small town—Christgau’s character—juggling a boyfriend and secret female lover.
“Whistle Down Wind” screens locally 7pm March 29 at the Masonic Temple in Asheville and 4pm April 6 through the Homegrown Films block at the Cat Fly Film Festival. Christgau is also singing April 6 as part of the North Carolina music showcase at the Connect Beyond Festival.
Christgau tasted glimmers of success as an actress in New York City but not enough to sustain her. More often, she would join her partner, the singer-songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling, along his tours around the country, singing on stage with him and wondering if her own career would ever find a groove.
The couple moved to Asheville two years ago.
“My goals are big, like I want to be really successful as an actor,” she said. “While I was on tour, I was starting to feel that feeling that I haven’t lived my creativity in a while and I was starting to freak out. I hadn’t been in a show in a really long time.”
Christgau got a call to audition for a play in Greenville and, then at 30 years old, learned to drive by getting herself to and from rehearsals. She taught drama at Odyssey Community School, waited tables and enrolled in improv classes. All along, she worked on her own scripts—one of them inspired by the Tom Waits song “Whistle Down the Wind.”
“I would sit down at the piano I was like ‘Oh, duh,’ it’s about being stuck in a place and feeling you can’t leave,” she said. “‘The naked river flows’ was one of the lyrics, and I started furiously writing in my journal. All of the sudden, I felt I had burst forth.”
Andie Morgenlander came on to join Christgau as a creative partner to co-write, direct and produce “Whistle Down Wind.”
“I’m pretty connected to the queer community here,” Morgenlander said. “So just the narrative about struggling with your sexuality in a town that maybe accepts it and maybe doesn’t, and the nuance and complexity of that, well, it personally resonated and seemed an important story to tell.”
“I had never made a film before that was all my own idea, and while it was a very exciting thing, I also felt super intimidated,” Christgau said. “Short form is hard because a lot needs to happen in order for the audience to feel really invested in the characters. We wanted there to be a really strong build and then a change. It’s a really simple thing, but it takes a lot of development.”
It only cost about $500 to make the movie, Christgau said, most of that going to food and submissions to film festivals. On that end, “Whistle Down Wind” is already a success, landing spots in Asheville’s Cat Fly Film Festival and Connect Beyond Festival, along with the Indie Grits Festival in Columbia, S.C.
Even before the film’s premieres, Christgau said she already feels taken more seriously by directors in the work she’s made since the film’s production. She and Morgenlander are looking to co-produce other scripts they’ve written, and Christgau is now framing her future as both as an actress and director.
“As an actor you’re constantly put into a box, and if you don’t fit into the bubble that someone wants you to fit into, you don’t get to do the thing you love,” Christgau said. “That sucks, so it’s very liberating to feel you have the opportunity and power to make your own work.”