Dream makers: Sisters share their filmmaking journey

Dawn Ouellette Nixon//January 15, 2020

Dream makers: Sisters share their filmmaking journey

Dawn Ouellette Nixon//January 15, 2020

Sisters Katina Sossiadis and Koula Sossiadis Kazista are award winning filmmakers who released their first feature film, “Epiphany,” last year when both were in their mid 40s.

At midlife, when many women sense that their best years are behind them, Koula and Katina say they are just beginning. Wrapping up their lifelong dream of making a movie, the two are already looking ahead to their next film and beyond.

Sisters Katina Sossiadis and Koula Sossiadis Kazista, Lehigh Valley-based filmmakers – submitted

“Our movie is about familial relationships and how do you write about that when you are in your 20s and you don’t know everything yet?” Koula asked. “The experience of years and years of people interacting with one another makes you wise. I feel like we are the right age to make this movie.”

Both graduates of Bethlehem-based high schools and colleges, the two are proud of their Lehigh Valley roots, and their Greek-American culture.

Epiphany, filmed on location in the Greek-American community of Tarpon Springs, Florida, tells the story of Luca, a young girl struggling to make sense of her fractured family, against the backdrop of the Epiphany dive. The Epiphany dive is a 100 year-old tradition in Tarpon Springs that celebrates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan. Local teen boys dive into the Spring Bayou to retrieve a cross thrown into the water by an archbishop. The boy who surfaces with the cross is said to have good luck for the following year and bring peace to his family.

The twist in “Epiphany” is that one of those trying to retrieve the cross, is Luka, a girl.

“Epiphany,” was honored at both national and international film festivals including the Hoboken International Film Festival, the London Greek Film Festival, the Hollywood Music in Media Awards and the International Christian Film and Music Festival.

LVB recently sat down with Katina and Koula to learn more about the movie, the challenges of independent filmmaking, and the importance of following your dreams.

LVB: You both made your first feature film at what some might consider a late age. Why now?

Koula: We both had film and arts backgrounds, but life gets in the way. We had other jobs, we married and had children. There are people who say you should give up on your dreams. I never did. I thought, “I am going to make this film if it’s the last thing I do.”  I was working on it for years. I came to Katina in 2016 and asked for help with the script. Then I said, “Write it with me. Let’s do this together.”

Katina: We had a director, a young man in the beginning, but it just didn’t feel right. We thought, this is our story. We know our vision. We need to do this together.

LVB: How much of the film did you take from your own lives?

Koula: At first the main character was a boy. But Katina called me one day and said “I had a dream that the main character was a girl.” And we thought, of course, the main character should be a girl. We are girls. It’s a girl raised by two men, Theo and Peter, who are siblings, like we are, so obviously we take some inspiration from our own lives.

Katina: I’m probably more the Theo character — I’ve got a darker personality — and Koula is Peter.

Koula: It’s interesting because if you look at my father and his brother, you can see who the Theo and Peter are, and if you look at my cousin and his brother, you can see who the Theo and Peter are. It’s people we have come across our whole lives, and we have just taken pieces here and there.

LVB: You have well-known actors with impressive resumes acting in the film. Tell me about the casting.

Katina: We were able to get this cast because of Jane Kelly Kosek, our producer, and the power of the script. We were auditioning tons of girls from ages 13 to 18. We couldn’t find anyone who was right. We needed someone who could carry a whole movie. A friend of mine had given me a movie called “Monsters” to check out, that I had shown to my film class. I remembered the young girl who was in there, and I thought, I think I found the girl. I said we need to go after Caitlin Carmichael.

Film still from “Epiphany,” featuring Caitlyn Carmichael (front) and Alex Dimitriades (behind). – submitted

Koula: She was a little more expensive than the average kid. But we both agree that she was integral to the film, that she could carry the film. Another thing that was important to us was to cast Greek actors.

Katina: My friend Derek said he had the perfect guy for us, Alex Dimitriades. Australian, very big in Australia. At first I thought he was too young, but the more we looked at his work, we thought, this guy is perfect. He is charismatic. He can act.

Koula: Then there is Burt Young (“Rocky,” “Chinatown,”). We did feel like we needed a heavy. Someone to open doors for us. And he was a bigger actor. He was a name.

LVB: Tell me about the experience of working together on this project as sisters. I imagine that was both rewarding and challenging.

Katina: It wasn’t challenging at all. We thought it would be going into it. Even just having two directors. But outside of film, we have different interests, which helps.  I was always off in my room alone growing up. And she was knocking on the door saying, “Come play with me.”

Koula: I was like Anna from “Frozen.” (laughs).

LVB: What about being women and making your first feature film? Did anyone doubt you?

Koula: In the film business, everyone is trying to make a movie. I think honestly, some people resented us for it; that we thought we were at that level. We did get some push back on set. Some of the crew thought we didn’t know what we were doing. Katina needs time for her wheels to turn, and they are turning all the time. And the crew would be looking at us, like, we need answers, now, now.

We could be disheartened, because some of the best shots, we got pushback on. We made an agreement to never disagree in front of the crew. The second they see you disagree, you lose respect. That was integral to our success.

Sometimes you get back and you feel down and concerned, like, do we even have a real movie here? And then you hand it over to the editor and they do their magic, and it’s fantastic. I love this movie.

LVB: What did you want to share about Greek-American culture with the film?

Katina: We understand and appreciate the success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But I think for us we wanted something a little more natural, more subtle, to explore all types of symbolism. Even some Greek mythology and history.

Koula: I always say our father was always talking about Greek this, Greek that. Like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but without the Windex. “Oh the Greeks invented everything”…As American teenagers, we were like, “Ok, shut up.”

You grow up around this, go to the Greek church, the Greek weddings. And then you wake up one day and realize, “That is who I am, that’s what sets me apart, my Greek identity.” This is who we are. We want to share it with the world.

 LVB: What is most challenging about making an independent film?

Koula: We had to use private financing, family, friends, private donors. That’s how we got there. Now we have this finished movie to showcase, where investors can see what we have done and what we are capable of, and that makes it easier to get financing for our next film. (The sisters are hard at work on a new film project centered around a Greek-American family and the history of Bethlehem Steel.)

Katina: The more people who make movies in the Valley, the better for all of us. Dan Roebuck’s film, “Getting Grace,” which I was an associate producer on, was huge for the Valley. More local vendors now understand the needs of the film industry, the discounts and timelines we need and how to work with filmmakers.

Katina: There were lots of challenges filming on location. Water, beach, the timing. We were always hearing, “We don’t have enough time to get that shot.” When you are working with money, you have to be mindful of the time things take.

There was 28 days of filming. And we each had our children with us during that time. Our next film will be shot in Bethlehem, which will be a lot easier for us.

LVB: I imagine your parents are very proud of you and the film.

Koula: The biggest moment for me was when we took our parents to screen the movie at ArtsQuest. We knew our mom would love it and cry. But our dad never cries or expresses emotion.  We showed him the film and he got choked up.  He couldn’t even speak. He’s telling all his relatives about it. The amount of proud our dad is, I would have done it just for that.

Katina: You need people who believe in you, who are experienced, and who are behind you. We have all of that and we aren’t stopping. Our lives are just getting started.