How To Be Louise

Go Big or Go Bust: The Practice Pitch (Part 2 - with mystery professional *Lynn*)

And so last Friday morning I set off to meet Lynn, someone I’ve known for almost forty years during which time she has worked in top positions in Development.

When I was trying to make the leap from shorts to a feature, Lynn was the one who suggested that I give her a call each day before I’d sit down to contemplate the ream of blank pages I would have to fill to write a feature film. She further encouraged me to give her a call five (or two hundred) minutes later, whenever I finished. Without her support and encouragement, it’s an open question if I would ever have made “How To Be Louise”.  

And so, sitting under this auspicious grouping of photographs, I explained that after Thursday night’s pitch fiasco with Mr. Green, I was going to try to wing it, abandoning all the preparation of the past weeks and flying by the seat of my pants.

Lynn chuckled and encouraged me to give it a shot and so I dove off the high board, (this is a metaphor) pitching the essential short summary (the so-called ‘logline’), relating it to my own life experience.

Lynn listened, beaming at me with love and acceptance even when, after the opening summary, my pitch became somewhat scattershot. There were some good moments and at these Lynn nodded and called out ‘YES’. There were also a number of weak moments which began to overwhelm the good moments and so, after a while, I ground to a halt, admitting that I had lost my way.

We sat for well over an hour while she brainstormed what directions I might take, what points seemed essential and in the meantime, she came up with evocative and hilarious language to get the substance and the tone across in the fewest number of words.

She reminded me that this pitch was going to be a work in progress, that the people I’d be meeting would also have suggestions on how to improve it and that it might be a good idea to set up a camera on a tripod and practice practice practice it.

It’s funny that I left feeling neither elated or dejected as I’d imagined I would.  Instead I left with clarity that this job is a big and new challenge which has mostly to do with letting go. It has to do with radical self-acceptance and with figuring out a way to connect the points I need to make to my life experience so that it comes out as naturally and effortlessly as an anecdote.

Naturally I was so thrown by going out to do this first serious practice that I ran out the door leaving my house keys in the house. There’s certainly at least one telling metaphor in that ... the deciphering of which will have to wait for another day.

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Go Big or Go Bust: Plaster Jackets, My Rogue's Gallery

So to wrap up this saga, I wanted to show you some examples of this 'plaster jacket' in my work from 1990 and 2010. I had no idea what it meant at the time but couldn't resist using it. Who knew this image would turn out to be a message to me about myself, just like in a dream, where everything (allegedly) represents the dreamer.

"How To Be Louise" (1990)  Maggie Burke and Mr. Green         Dir. of Photography Vladimir Tukan

"How To Be Louise" (1990)  Maggie Burke and Mr. Green         Dir. of Photography Vladimir Tukan

"How To Make Matters Worse: The Louise Log #22" (2010)           Pascal Yen-Pfister is under there.

"How To Make Matters Worse: The Louise Log #22" (2010)           Pascal Yen-Pfister is under there.

Go Big or Go Bust: On Putting On A Show of Being A Nice Person, Donkeys and The New Yorker

At the end of the last post before this blog was hijacked by the saga of How To Be Louise, was a ‘suggestion’ that I would finish another story:  

< < The clenched-fist-and-teeth approach to career success carried me through pretty much to this Summer. >>

Wishing I’d made some notes to know just what that was referring to, I’ll try to muddle through.  

Blame it on my childhood.  Or, as Dr. Kumar (Vedic Astrologer) would say, “Blame it on your karma!”.  Everybody’s more or less afraid of people, right?  Well, I fall squarely on the ‘more’ side of that equation.  And along with that fact, as far back as I can remember, I’ve had the feeling that it was my job to put on a show - not only a show that I wasn’t afraid but, notching it up, to make a convincing case that I really liked everyone and was an all-around ‘nice person’.  

An accepted fact of life in our house was having to hug and pretend to be at ease with distant relatives who showed up out of the blue. This was usually restricted to major holidays and I’m pretty sure all of my sisters colluded with me on that.  It was part of the deal.  We curtsied.  We passed hors d’oeuvres at our parents parties.  And we hugged old relatives who we didn’t especially know or like.  

But one afternoon, when I was at most seven years old, I distinctly remember that all of my sisters ran the other way while I walked into the belly of the beast.  We were still living on our grandparent’s farm with a large herd of Sardinian donkeys.  My mother announced that some ‘reporters’ from The New Yorker had come to write a story about the donkeys and that it would be very nice if some of us went out to meet them.  We lived over two hours from New York City in the rolling green country of Warren County, New Jersey.  I had less than no interest in New York City or The New Yorker.  I vividly remember a wave of exhaustion passing through me, my eyes rolling back in my head and the silent scream “Noooooooooo.”  “Can’t Lee (my older sister) do it?”  Lee liked to read and was always in the middle of something she couldn’t put down.  And Lee had a laboratory in the basement where she could always say she was in the middle of an experiment.  Lee definitely had some great valid excuse.  But the funny thing is, I don’t remember my mother insisting.  I remember some feeling of pushing myself.  “Aww righttt.”  I gave in, lowered my head and submitted to my fate.  I’d go meet the darn grownups and put on a show of being a nice person.

As an adult, I once saw a clipping of the account of that visit (in the 'Talk of the Town'?) It featured a little sketch of my sister Victoria and me with our hair in our eyes but I don’t even remember if we were mentioned.  Much more vividly, to the marrow of my bones, I can recall that feeling of so many more decades ago, that I was wasn't enough as I was, that I'd have to ‘rise to the occasion’ to go meet these grownups.  

Living from a tap root of the conviction of my inadequacy is what (I think) I was referring to as ‘the clenched-teeth-and-fist approach to career success’ (and to life, for that matter).  I’d like to think that that belief has been falling away for decades.  It may have taken a more decisive hit this summer ...  but only a look through those free-writing pages will jog my memory on the details. 

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: the challenge of finding distribution for a NY indie film (Part 11 of 11)

(I’m reprinting the last two paragraphs of the last blog post for context.)

Jackie Raynal, who had been on the crew of early Godard films I had loved and watched at her Bleecker Street Cinema, was the first to call.  She loved the film and wanted to invite Mr. Green and me to her Central Park South apartment for drinks.  It was all very understated, all very restrained but I’m telling you, it was a love fest.  Jackie is French, Jackie is sophisticated, Jackie is a woman.  Jackie felt that people in France would go crazy for this film and she and her husband were interested in talking about launching it at the Bleecker Street and then distributing it.  

My first New York apartment had been just off Bleecker Street.  I’d gone to art school in Paris.  The Bleecker Street Cinema was my favorite downtown movie theatre.  It was all coming together.  

I never heard from Jackie Raynal again.  Nor did I ever hear from Lucky Red.  The Fort Lauderdale Festival sent press clips which included two wonderful reviews of How To Be Louise on two different days in The Miami Herald.  I clung to them.   

It was a hot July that summer in New York, hot and humid as I remember.  Ralph McKay the director of Jonas MekasAnthology Film Archives on Second Avenue in the East Village had called to ask me to come over to talk about the possibility of screening HTBL.  I stuffed myself into a pair of black jeans as I was going to the East Village, after all, where a tough version of cool trumps even the weather.  Or so I figured.  

Ralph McKay was not at all what I expected.  He was young and gentle and seemed more like an artist than a businessman.  He and Jonas Mekas wanted to give HTBL a month long screening.  (!!)  They thought the film would do well and build an audience and they wanted to open it on a Thursday.  Most films in New York City opened on Friday so this would make a bigger audience and longer reviews more likely.  And, Ralph McKay assured me, this was just the kind of film that Vincent Canby of The New York Times, a friend of Jonas Mekas, would love.  They would do everything they could to make sure Canby came to the press screening.   We wouldn’t have to pay for a four-wall.  We wouldn’t have to buy ads.  And if we got a good review in the Times, I could go back to Dan Talbot and his offer from New Yorker Films.  Indeed, all my dreams were coming true.

Anthology Film Archives, New York City

Anthology Film Archives, New York City

I went into high gear designing and having a poster made up to plaster downtown New York.  The poster came back not looking anything like a movie poster but I figured that by getting a strip to paste over the top and another strip with all the credits to paste over the bottom, we could salvage it.  And in spite of the cat and Frank and glue all over everything, a handful of our old crew and I hand-pasted headers and footers and made up a gorgeous black and white poster.

On the day of the press screening, I got a call from the Anthology.  Vincent Canby was in the hospital.  He wouldn’t be at the press screening.

The next morning, on the day of our opening at Anthology, I heard NPR’s Neil Rosen give HTBL a very positive review live on WNYC and rushed out to get the papers.  The New York Post had given us three stars and called it “very sexy”.  After reading the first few lines of the review in The Times, I called Lea Floden who had starred as Louise, and shouted them at her into the phone: “A Judy Holliday character who seems to have fallen into a Jean-Luc Godard film.”  Lea, in Los Angeles, had already read the review and told me to take a deep breath. 

Caryn James, who had reviewed it for The Times, was not a fan.  In fact, her ‘review’ seemed to veer into personal attack territory.  “Anne Flournoy, who wrote, directed and produced this low budget film ... sometimes pulls back to suggest an arch superiority … “How To Be Louise” quickly becomes a low-energy exercise in directorial attitude…”  Ow ow owww.  

The New Yorker Films deal was contingent on a good review in The Times.  Our hopes for distribution, which only five minutes before had seemed well-founded, were suddenly bleak.

The audiences at the nightly screenings at The Anthology grew over the month but they never filled the house.  The review in The Times put a pall over everything.

My artist energy and whatever free time I had went into writing the script for ‘the next film’.  Mostly I was focused on all that goes into keeping a family clean and fed and the job of raising two children.  Telling other mothers at the playground that I was a filmmaker began to feel like a fiction from another lifetime.  Time after time, I wrote and rewrote my script with notes from producers, with notes from friends.  On good days I was certain that all this would come to something.  On the many bad days, I swallowed the bitter pill that my life as a filmmaker was over. 

Seventeen years later, in a summer of desperation, The Louise Log sprouted out of my experiences of marriage and motherhood and my fear that if I didn't set some deadlines for myself, I'd never finish anything again.  I'd make one video a month.  Six months later I 'finished' the first one.  It was supposed to be a one-off thigh slapper and it was anything but.  It was dark.  It was a meditation on mortality and wasted time.  Armed with some self-knowledge at this point, I realized I could spend the next seventeen years bringing it up to my standards.  I uploaded it to YouTube on the last day of the month which happened to be the last day of the year.  People in my address book wrote that they loved the actor (Christine Cook) and asked for another one with her. Thrilled at the response, I did one video a month for four months in a row.  But I was running out of ideas as everything I had was in that script of so many rewrites.  With Bob Berney and Mr. Green's encouragement, I decided to shoot and throw this enormous effort up on YouTube for free.  It became the basis for episodes 5-17 of The Louise Log

In 2013, The Sundance Institute launched How To Be Louise online and to celebrate that, we had a screening at Indiescreen in Williamsburg. 

And that's my whole, never-before-told, story.

What did I learn from all of this? 

I leaned the importance of working on what I love and with people I respect.  That way, regardless of artistic or commercial success or failure, I’ll have used whatever (days, years) it takes, feeding my soul.  

And I learned that 'failure' is not necessarily all bad.  In the clear light of twenty-five years later, I think this ‘failure’ may actually have been my lucky break.  With my tendency toward maniac workaholism, if I’d had the option of a career when my children were small, it’s possible that I might have managed to avoid the life-changing experience of that surrender historically demanded of mothers.  Had I been busy as a bee with my big career, I doubt that being completely broken by the loneliness, the drudgery and the exhaustion of motherhood would have been anywhere on my agenda.  In avoiding that, I might have also missed out on the great love of my life, of and for my family.

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Go Big or Go Bust: How An Indie Filmmaker Hunts Down A Distributor (Part 10)

After sweeping the Italian press with rave reviews, I returned from Pesaro feeling as I had when How To Be Louise had been invited to be in competition at Sundance: my career was assured.  I would soon be joining Susan Seidelman, Jim Jarmusch and the new generation of New York film directors.

With an active eighteen month old, it took a while to notice that the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook for the first step of that plan to go into effect:

Where were the offers of distribution?  Figuring I should strike where the iron was most hot, I asked around about Italian distributors and called Lucky Red, a film distribution company in Italy, who’d been highly recommended as ‘right up my alley’.  As I remember, the phone call wasn’t exactly a love fest but hey, the language barrier was certainly an issue.  I mailed them hard copies of the press, a VHS tape and a very good letter.  

In the meantime, I started cold-calling and mailing off VHS copies of the film and the press to distribution companies in the States.  Janet Grillo at New Line Cinema got right back to me.  “I don’t know.  It’s not for New Line.  it’s … it’s PETITE.”  Petite?  Hey are we talking about dresses or my life’s work?  What the heck, New Line distributes Nightmare on Elm Street.  I vowed to be more careful about which companies I approached.  

Dan Talbot of New Yorker Films liked what he saw and told me over the phone: “If you get a good review in The New York Times, I’ll distribute this film.”  Wow.  YESSS.  New Yorker Films!  Reputable.  Solid.  First class!  

My job instantly narrowed: 1) find a New York City film programmer who would show HTBL so it would get a review in the Times or 2) ‘four-wall’ it (Rent a movie theatre for a long-enough run so that HTBL can qualify for newspaper reviews.)  The bad thing about option number two is that you have to lay out a fair amount of cash to rent the theatre and then (this is the pre-internet era) spend a huge amount of energy trying to tell everyone you know about it as well as make up ads and pay newspapers to run them to get an audience in there to defray the cost of the four-wall.  

Just making this film I had gone to the mat with the begging and borrowing for the past four years.  I’d thought my job was to make the darn film.  I picked up the phone and started calling all the independent theatres: Bleecker Street Cinema, Cinema Village, The Quad and the newcomer, Anthology Film Archives.  I mailed or Frank and I hand-delivered VHS/press packages.  

Jackie Raynal, who had been on the crew of so many of my favorite early Godard films I had watched at her Bleecker Street Cinema, was the first to call.  She loved the film and wanted to invite Mr. Green and me to her Central Park South apartment for drinks.  It was all very understated, all very restrained but I’m telling you, it was a love fest.  Jackie is French, Jackie is sophisticated, Jackie is a woman.  Jackie felt that people in France would go crazy for this film and she and her husband Sid Geffen were interested in talking about launching it at the Bleecker Street and then distributing it.   

My first New York apartment had been just off Bleecker Street.  I’d gone to art school in Paris and my family name is French.  The Bleecker Street Cinema was my favorite downtown movie theatre.  It was all coming together.  

(to be continued)     

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Go Big or Go Bust When You Least Expect It - How I Love Italy (Part 9)

If you’re here for the first time, welcome to a post about the making of my first feature film (How To Be Louise) (trailer below) and my adventures with it on the festival circuit and beyond in search of distribution.  What I’d imagined would be one or two entries has turned into a multi-installment epic.

Returning from six months in Japan to the broken-down charm of Williamsburg was a shock: the bloom of living in bohemia was off the rose.  

With Frank in Williamsburg pretending that the bloom was not off the rose.

With Frank in Williamsburg pretending that the bloom was not off the rose.

Our neighbor Larry Ungarten with Frank and me. (I'm wearing my Berlin Festival t-shirt)

Our neighbor Larry Ungarten with Frank and me. (I'm wearing my Berlin Festival t-shirt)

Lea Floden, Larry Ungarten (under the arrow) and Bruce McCarty in "How To Be Louise".&nbsp; Larry has a great moment in this scene.

Lea Floden, Larry Ungarten (under the arrow) and Bruce McCarty in "How To Be Louise".  Larry has a great moment in this scene.

n Japan, I remember once leaving a bakery and breaking up a big cookie to share with Frank who was confined to his stroller.  When some large pieces fell onto the street, I figured “Big deal. The birds’ll get ‘em.”  But looking around, I had second thoughts.  The street was immaculate and the people in their impeccably pressed suits and knife-pleated skirts all seemed complicit in keeping it that way.  I bent down and picked up the crumbs to throw away in a proper garbage can.  

Here in Williamsburg, with our now walking sixteen-month-old Frank, the distressed look I had so loved had become a burden. Even the appeal of a low-population neighborhood within one subway stop of Manhattan had lost its allure. None of my artist friends had children and the only people in the kiddie park were drinking bottles of English 800 in their wheel chairs.  

We started working every angle to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan.  

In the meantime, How To Be Louise was going on to festivals without me.  Antwerp, Atlantic International Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale, Haifa Intl Film Festival, and Santa Barbara Film Festival among others.  

And then, there came an invitation from a festival I’d never heard of —in Pesaro, Italy.  There was going to be a section for American Independents.  Having been in competition at Sundance and in Berlin, I have to admit that my ‘high standards’ had crossed the line into outright snobbery.  I’d heard of Venice.  But, Pesaro?  At first I shrugged and thought, well, okay maybe the film can go.  If the print is available.  (We had only one print for screenings as even a 16mm print could cost over a thousand dollars.)

Truth is actually stranger than fiction because Mr. Green had been planning to leave at just the time of the festival for a lecture tour in that general region of Italy.  My dear sister Mary arranged to take off from work to join Frank and me in Pesaro for a few days so I could take my eyes off Frank and be there as a filmaker.  

The festival put us up in a lovely small hotel with the other indie filmmakers, many of them from New York:  Paul Morrissey who had made many films with Warhol, Jon Jost, Abigail Child, Su Friedrich and others. 

Here I am posing in front of the festival posters and the cinema in Pesaro where the screenings took place.

Here I am posing in front of the festival posters and the cinema in Pesaro where the screenings took place.

Frank and I standing in the middle of the street in Pesaro

Frank and I standing in the middle of the street in Pesaro

All of our meals at the hotel were taken care of by the festival and, unlike at Sundance and Berlin where everyone was pretty much on their own, there was a delightful spirit of camaraderie at the large tables in the hotel dining room.  Frank, with his passionate love of spaghetti, was always in a good mood.  We were artists and being treated so well, respectfully.  How could I have ever considered passing this up?  

We all have our strengths and our weaknesses.  I like to think that I’m good in the moment, present and real.  Unfortunately, as far as executive function, that's a card missing from my deck.  When my sister Mary left to go back to her job in New York, the full horror of my lack of foresight and planning hit me like a Mack truck. 

at the kiddie park in Pesaro

at the kiddie park in Pesaro

At eighteen months, Frank was a big talker.  Furthermore, he was in constant motion.  There was no way we could go to screenings.  In fact, there was no way I could have a conversation.  Here I was in Pesaro, surrounded by filmmakers, film lovers and even film curators from MoMA and beyond.  I saw the filmaking crowd at meals, but other than that, I was attending to my toddler, so close and yet so far.  We had more than twenty-four hours until Mr. Green would arrive and give me back my freedom. Frank and I hit the beach.  We spent time at the kiddie park. I was counting the seconds.
 
After one very long morning picking Frank up and depositing him on the seat of yet another enormous motorcycle parked around the town square, Adrienne Mancia and Jutte Jensen from MoMA came running toward me.  “There you are, Anne!  Your film is the hit of the festival!”  I actually thought they were being sarcastic but apparently the Italian press had gone crazy for How To Be LouiseCorriere della Sera had used the phrase “unreserved praise” along with my name in one sentence and seven other papers had singled out How to Be Louise as the film of the festival.


(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Codependency from Japan to San Francisco (Part 8)

With both Sundance and now Berlin behind me and no big distribution deal in the works, I felt the emotional equivalent of having the tendons behind my knees cut.  There was nothing to do but to accept my situation.  Hey we weren't going to sell off the rights to just anybody. 

I flew from Berlin to Brooklyn to meet Frank and Mr. Green and we headed back for two more months in the suburbs of Osaka, Mr. Green to finish out his guest professorship, me to my exile with Frank. 

Frank learning to walk

Frank learning to walk

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I didn’t love Japan.  Visually, gastronomically and culturally, it's one of my favorite places.  The cleanliness alone makes me feel more relaxed and safe than almost anywhere I’ve ever been.  It was the combination of not speaking the language, being in a suburb without a friend and this active one-year old for my constant companion which made the experience a little like being exiled to Mars.

I settled in for the duration, resigned to the fact that my film just might not get distributed.  And I set right to work on a revenge action plan: whenever Frank went to sleep I would work on the script for my second feature.  It would be a comedy about the incredible loneliness of marriage and motherhood, the dashed expectations of my highest hopes and dreams. But this next film would not be made on a shoestring.  At the very least, I’d need a budget for a babysitter, and anyway, to insure distribution, we’d need a star - so we’d have a budget of millions.  When it opened to rave reviews, everyone would be clamoring for my first feature, How To Be Louise.  I’d show them

We toured a little around Japan.

With students of  Kagoshima University  on a boat in front of Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.&nbsp; The towns on either side of the volcano share ash-removal equipment depending on where the prevailing wind is depositing the ash.

With students of Kagoshima University on a boat in front of Sakurajima, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.  The towns on either side of the volcano share ash-removal equipment depending on where the prevailing wind is depositing the ash.

In April, we headed back to the States.  The first stop was the San Francisco International Film Festival.

My to die for papier maché earrings were made by an artist in Berlin.&nbsp;

My to die for papier maché earrings were made by an artist in Berlin. 

I’d been reading about David Lynch’s new hit television show Twin Peaks which hadn’t been available in Japan. We watched an episode in our hotel room, aptly named I thought, the Queen Anne Hotel.  I scoured the San Francisco phone book to see if there were any Flournoys.  It was fun to be back in the US.  

The festival gave an elegant lunch for the indie filmmakers where I met Wayne Wang, whose Chan Is Missing had been a huge inspiration.  Peter Scarlet, the Director of the festival, told me that HTBL had a very high audience rating (I think he said it was the second most popular!!) and that a radio station wanted to interview me.  It was all happening so effortlessly. Things were looking up!  

I’d never done a live interview but figured I’d be all right as I love to talk if I know the subject matter which, in this case, I certainly did.  Mr. Green and Frank and I went over to the radio station in Berkeley. 

Halfway into the interview, the radio show host managed to render me speechless: “You know, I was watching a screener of your film with my girlfriend the other night and she remarked: “This is actually a portrait of codependency!” Panic engulfed me.  Codependency?  I wanted to change the subject immediately but, overwhelmed by fear and then suddenly by anger, was afraid to open my mouth.  And well I didn't:  A portrait of codependency?  My film is a comedy!  You make it sound like a mental health tract!  And why is your girlfriend even qualified to comment?  You know you're probably turning away potential viewers!  ARE YOU SAYING I HAVE ISSUES?

I have no idea what I did say out loud (if anything) after his 'observation'.  

So as we walked away from the radio station, I asked Mr. Green how it went.  He winced.  And then his face froze in the wince:  “Well…”  He made that little twisting motion with his hand like he was unscrewing a candle flame light bulb sticking down from the ceiling.  I'm not exactly sure what he was saying.  And come to think of it, I still don't really want to know.

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Surprises at The Berlin Film Festival (Part 7)

Having a projector bulb burst five minutes into the screening of your first feature film and watching a very influential person get up and leave the room should be high on any filmmaker’s list of Things To Avoid.  I tried to put the recurring image of Richard Pena, Director of The New York Film Festival, out of my mind.  But there he was, in instant replay in my head, over and over, and over, rising from his seat and heading for the exit. Fortunately, we had our big screening still ahead of us, in the Panorama section of The Berlin International Film Festival aka Berlinale.

Official Trailer (2:07)

I’d seen How To Be Louise so many times, I did not need to watch it again.  But the chance to see it anonymously, surrounded by hundreds of film lovers, was too tempting an opportunity to miss.  What if they didn’t get it?  What if they booed?  What if, God forbid, they walked out?  Heck, I'd already weathered that.  It would be instructive.  It would be a once in a lifetime experience.  And it would be important to know if and when they didn't 'get it'.

To my joy (and great relief) none of my dark fantasies came to pass.  They LOVED it.  They laughed everywhere I hoped they would and then some.  Their applause over the final credits sounded like thunder.  I was beaming.  My face hurt from smiling.  The Berlin Festival crowd got our film.  I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Green.  

After spending a good thirty minutes mastering the basics of German pay phones, I rushed to call him with about three pounds of Deutsche Marks.

On the fourth ring he answered: “Oh Annie.  I’m so glad you called.  Where are the long pants?  For Frank.  I can’t find any clean long pants.”   The demands of life with the one-year old I’d left him to take care of were much more pressing than my news and I think Mr. Green listened to only part of my recap before he cut me off with a quick congratulations, signing off to get back to his charge.

Frank, age one

Frank, age one

Berlin

Berlin

I headed for the airport with invitations to more film festivals but again without a distribution deal.  But I left Berlin having connected with a lot more filmmakers.  And the more peers I met, the more I realized that my plan and vision were extremely naive.  Here I figured, I’ve done my part, I made the film.  Come and get it.  A lot of these other filmmakers were taking a different attitude.  They were planning on spending a year on the festival circuit.  My idea of hitting two or three festivals and finding a distributor started to seem laughable.

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - It's the Tiny Little Actions (Part 4)

So I’ve dropped all semblance of an attempt to wrest control of the direction of this story and am going with the flow.  

It was the end of February of 1987 when we finished shooting the second half of How To Be Louise.  To my eye, the dailies were stunning.  The performances by Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty were beyond my wildest dreams.  The performances by the circle of friends they’d cast in the other roles were equally top-notch, friends like theatrical legends Maggie Burke and Lisa Emery, Mary Carol Johnson, Hollywood and tv regular Josh Pais, and Michael Patrick King (who went on to write, produce and direct Sex and the City, The Comeback and more). 

Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty in the scene about which  The   New York Post  said: "This is very sexy."

Lea Floden and Bruce McCarty in the scene about which The New York Post said: "This is very sexy."

Lisa Emery, Josh Pais and Steve Simpson

Lisa Emery, Josh Pais and Steve Simpson

Josh Pais (dancing with himself in the mirror), Mary Carol Johnson and Lea Floden

Josh Pais (dancing with himself in the mirror), Mary Carol Johnson and Lea Floden

Michael Patrick King and Alice Spivak on the steps of the WIlliamsburgh Savings Bank on Broadway near Peter Luger's

Michael Patrick King and Alice Spivak on the steps of the WIlliamsburgh Savings Bank on Broadway near Peter Luger's

Maggie Burke

Maggie Burke

Our Director of Photography Vladimir Tukan had shot footage which itself had a power and beauty independent of the story.  Yes it was 16mm, but it was luminously rich black and white: Vladimir had studied cinematography in the classic old school tradition in Russia. He was passionately committed to this film, so much so that there were more than a few unforgettable moments when I had to put my foot down about the complexity of the camera moves.  In pre-production, we’d watched Bunuel’s Viridiana and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz specifically for the long moving shots.  Vladimir was going to the mat to give me what I wanted, so much so that I once had to pull out all the stops and use tears to get him to agree to a simpler shot.

Along with the job he did shooting HTBL and Nadja Yet, I'll always be grateful to Vladimir for a life lesson he taught me as one artist to another.  Sometimes, in the heat of the moment of blocking and framing a shot, I'd lose my confidence and dismiss what I'd sketched out in a storyboard.  Vladimir would turn to me with the full force of his considerable personality:  "No!  Ehnn!"  (That's a phonetic spelling of my name with Vladimir's accent.) "Don't deesmiss your idea.  That comes from unconscious.  That's very valuable.  Let's see if we can do it."

Vladimir is on the left in profile.&nbsp;

Vladimir is on the left in profile. 

And we did.  And when we finished, it looked so good.  I realized that we weren’t just going to be able to have a babysitter, we’d be on Fifth Avenue with a nanny.  I got pregnant within the month.

While Walis Johnson assembled a rough cut, I wrote every person and grant organization I could get to, asking for money for post-production.  

Flash-forward three months: the production had run aground, out of money.  I painted the apartment and sewed curtains for every window in it.  Our downstairs neighbor Charles came up and commented to Mr. Green that I’d turned the place into a womb.  

One day, getting thick around the middle and out of breath trying to do a little yoga stretch, the full reality hit me: I’ve really done it this time, seriously shot myself in the foot.  I was exhausted and couldn’t even touch my toes.  How was I ever going to finish this film?  A voice in my head I didn’t know answered: “You’re on the right track.”  

And so I went back to taking the tiny little actions I could.  We got a very nice grant from The Jerome FoundationAmy Taubin wrote a profile piece for the Village Voice which a young man in Rockford, Illinois read and then sent us $5000.  And we got other donations including a big one from someone who seemed so cheap that I’d thought twice about wasting a postage stamp on him.  

We screened at what was then called the Independent Feature Project (IFP) in New York in October.  Ulrich Gregor of the Forum at the Berlin Film Festival ran at me after the screening:  “Are you the filmmaker?  I LOVE this film!”  A well-connected entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles told me to call him.  Jim Stark who had produced my favorite indie film Stranger Than Paradise stopped in to one of the screenings and gave a thumbs up:  “You’ve got something there.”  This was happening.

The sardonic and sometimes dark Philip Johnston started composing a score with his band The Happy New Yorkers and Kathleen Killeen worked on locking the picture.    

Ten weeks later, Frank Thurston Green was born.  Someone told me about a documentary filmmaker who gave birth to her first child on Sunday and went back to work on Monday.  The story made me wonder about both my commitment to film and her sanity.  My picture wasn’t locked, the sound was still to be edited, the score had to be recorded and laid in and I didn’t give a damn about any of it.  I was out of my mind with hormones and sleeplessness and falling madly in love with this chubby little baby.  

The next thing I remember was feeling irritated that my attempt to lay in the music (as if it were wall-to-wall carpet) had ruined the film.  Fortunately Mr. Green has a deep intuitive connection to storytelling and somehow knew how to cut in the score so it would amplify instead of flattening out the story.    

Soon after, we scheduled a sound mix with Dominick Tavella at Sound One.  As an assistant film editor, I’d been to many sound mixes, dreaming of the day when I’d be the director working with the mixer.  But as my passion for this baby was growing, so was my irritation at any distraction that could take me away from him.  Self-discipline pure and simple got me on the M train to the F train to midtown and the mix.  And then there was what I thought was ‘the last step’ of my job: submitting to film festivals.  Sundance and Berlin were at the top of our list.  

In the meantime, Mr. Green had been invited to spend six months as a guest professor at Osaka University in Japan.  Of course we would go with him.  But what if the film got into festivals?  Mr. Green and I agreed that we’d “work it out.”

Ulrich Gregor from Berlin’s Forum, who had professed love for our rough cut the year before, was the first to respond.  In a dagger to my heart, he let us know (by telegram, I think) that he wasn’t excited about the final film and had passed on it.  I was packing suitcases and chasing Frank, now an energetic nine-month old, as he crawled around the apartment terrorizing the cat.  Still there was no word from Sundance.  This was 1989, before email and cell phones and I was frantic that, off in a suburb of Osaka, I might never get word from Sundance or any of the other festivals we'd submitted to. 

The night before we left for Japan, I got the phone call from Sundance that they wanted How To Be Louise for the Dramatic Competition.  Soon after, Manfred Salzgeber, curator of the Berlin Festival’s Panorama, sent similarly good news.  

(to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - The Darkness Before the Dawn (Part 3)

Before continuing with this saga, I want to backtrack to explain the difficult beginnings of making my first feature, How To Be Louise, which was eventually invited to be in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance. To this workaholic, the astonishing fact is that it wasn’t effort but rather surrender which made it possible.

Lea Floden as Louise with (l. to r.) Michael Moneagle and William Zimmer

Lea Floden as Louise with (l. to r.) Michael Moneagle and William Zimmer

As a young artist in my twenties, I had a clarity that my life would be devoted to art.  I had no interest in being married and less than no interest in having children.  Anyone can see that children are a huge distraction not to mention expensive, noisy and so demanding that, unless you have a lot of help, you can forget about your own agenda.  Why would any woman with a dream shoot herself in the foot by having a baby, GOD FORBID more than one?  

And then I turned thirty.  Like a rogue wave, the biological desire to have children turned me upside down.  I decided to try to find a man.  And then one day, I surprised myself by flirting with a handsome guy who held the door for me as I walked into the wonderful artist-run restaurant that used to be on the corner of Prince and Wooster in Soho, FOOD.

Fast-forward to the year before we shot How To Be Louise, I was newlywed to Mr. Green, the man I’d met at FOOD.  Yes, I’d wanted this husband so I could have children with him but I dared to believe that if I could get my career going before having a baby, there would be enough money for help so that I could ‘have it all’: I could have a child and continue to pursue my dream of making indie films.

One May afternoon, en route to the post office to mail off a film to a film festival, Sara Driver and Jim Jarmusch crossed my path, their rolling luggage behind them.  They were headed to JFK to go to Cannes with Down By Law.  Not long after, I saw Spike Lee on the nightly news.  He was outside the theatre where his first feature She’s Gotta Have It was playing.  They were developing international reputations.  They were getting paid.  I decided that if I was ever going to turn filmmaking into a career and have children, I’d have to figure out how to make a feature.  

But I didn’t have any obvious source of funding much less the connections or the chutzpah to pitch: the budget for my feature would have to be on a shoestring.  My first two shorts had been inspired by What’s Up Tiger Lily and Rose Hobart: they were made by recutting rejected lab prints in the editing room where I worked.  I’d go back to that idea!  And I’d shoot some new material with an actor or two and intercut that to make sense of the found footage.  All I’d need was a few thousand dollars.

Louise Smells A Rat  (1982) was made by duplicating a few shots from  The Poppy Is Also a Flower  starring Senta Berger and Trevor Howard and intercutting them with newsreel footage and a shot from Phil Silvers'  Sergeant Bilko .&nbsp; Original subtitles and music by Johnny Ventura made it into a different story.

Louise Smells A Rat (1982) was made by duplicating a few shots from The Poppy Is Also a Flower starring Senta Berger and Trevor Howard and intercutting them with newsreel footage and a shot from Phil Silvers' Sergeant Bilko.  Original subtitles and music by Johnny Ventura made it into a different story.

There was a particularly discouraging afternoon when I took my place in line among scores of others to present my proposal for a measly $300 grant.  I’d brought my own projector, assembled a 16mm sample reel from rejected lab prints and faced what felt like disparaging and hostile questions from this Brooklyn arts organization.  

Soon after, reading in bed on a Sunday night, tears started leaking from my eyes.  I’m not a person who cries easily, but the steepness of the cliff I was trying to scale and the difficulty of the challenge was suddenly clear.  “What is it, Annie?”  I answered Mr. Green with sobs and more and louder sobs, eventually losing all control.  “What am I supposed to do?  Give up this idea of making a feature?  Should I try to get a job at an advertising agency and make a lot of money?  Or have a bunch of kids?  I can’t take it anymore!  I’m getting bitter!  I’m stuck!”  Mr. Green put his arm around me and I cried myself to sleep, confused.  I felt broken.  

And that night I had a dream that changed my life.  I was in a low-ceilinged kitchen right out of the 1950’s.  There was a witch in the kitchen, her hair was wild and she was intense, pointing a long skinny arm and finger off into the distance.  She was forceful: “Don’t stop now!  You’re almost there!”

I woke the next morning with a new confidence.  Suddenly I could take the big and little steps to get going.  And that message from the witch carried me through the next four years it took to make this film.  

As I write this, I’m still scratching my head over the fact that the power came to me after a total breakdown and surrender.  It was only after letting go of all my self-discipline, strength, force, will and control that I had the clarity and felt the confidence to do the job.  That it was in allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the utterly corny and embarrassing fact of ’feelings’ is a lesson I’m still trying to learn today.  (to be continued)  

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Go Big or Go Bust: New Efficiency Model - Comfort, Ease and Relaxation (Part 2)


Another word for my 'clenched fist and teeth approach to career success' might be 'control'. 

But before I get into that, I want to say that my intention was to wrap this post up in one, two entries at most.  For better or for worse, this piece seems to be extending itself.  In the spirit of my ‘New Efficiency Model’ (’relaxing’ and ‘taking it easy’ har har) it’s just going to have to unravel:

When I met and married the dynamic Mr. Green, I put all my chips on a man who valued honesty and the truth even more than he valued control.  His emotional honesty opened a door and made me feel alive in a way I never had.  It also made me feel safe with him.  Luckily I'd gotten some grants right around the time we met and so didn't have to report to a job.  It took virtually all that I had to come out from behind my shield and learn to get angry and vulnerable.  My old way would have been to act like a lady and bolt when the going got tough.  For the first time ever, I didn't do that. 

But after getting engaged, I did go to Cornelia Street to see Ralph Weston, an amazing astrologer whom my psychic friend Julia Wolfe had introduced me to.  I walked in the door saying: ”I don't THINK he's an axe murderer."  Ralph reassured me, knowing all kinds of things about Mr. Green that I hadn't told him and that we were the yin and the yang, that this was my man.  We married sixteen months and one day after we’d met.  

My friend Jayne was once describing Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne’s marriage on the reality show The Osbournes: “She’s always calling the cops on him and throwing him out.  Their marriage is very alive!”  I won’t say our marriage is at that level of ‘aliveness’ but Mr. Green continues to amuse, delight, surprise and occasionally infuriate me.  It’s exciting to be married to someone who has my number.  And it enforced a sense of security so great that it was one of my first non-substance-induced lessons in how to relax.  

Mr. Green liked to get up on a Sunday morning and make breakfast in a leisurely way.  He wasn’t afraid of getting lost in a book.  He started me on an unravelling that’s still going.  It’s very much related to relaxing and letting go and the opposite of taking a physical risk, something that has always come easily to me.  Sometimes I wonder if the adrenaline rush of risk-taking isn't the equivalent of a street drug.  It overwhelms the rational brain (already in handcuffs in my case) and it allows me to plunge into action before I've really had a chance to look into the details.

This is sort of what happened with going into production on my first feature film How To Be Louise with a big cast headed by Lea Floden and a huge crew headed by Vladimir Tukan.  With a $5000 NYFA prize, we started shooting what was supposed to be a trailer but ended up being the first forty minutes. 

Left to right: Kevin 'Killer' Smith (Key Grip), Bruce McCarty (co-star), Deirdre Fishel (Production Manager), Elena _____ (Second Asst. Camera), Vladimir Tukan (Dir. of Photography), me, _____, ______, Carol Guidry (Production Sound Mixer), Jacquelyn Coffee (Script Supervisor)&nbsp; PHOTO BY Warner Dick  The conditions were difficult in the blazing humid heat of August and the bone-cracking cold of February and the work was hard.&nbsp; But the people in the cast and crew were Great.&nbsp; (Most of the people…&nbsp; There was that make-up person (soon ‘released’) who clucked and moaned as she made up one of the actors: “Such small eyes!”.)&nbsp; It was an experience of working with a team where everyone was doing it for love.&nbsp; There was the love of indie filmmaking, the love of working with people you learn from and have fun with and the love of making something happen out of almost nothing, where your contribution is absolutely necessary and valuable.&nbsp;There was lots and lots of positive energy and even a romance or two behind the scenes.&nbsp; For someone who had started off wanting to be an artist in a garret, alone alone, this huge collaborative effort was completely new territory.

Left to right: Kevin 'Killer' Smith (Key Grip), Bruce McCarty (co-star), Deirdre Fishel (Production Manager), Elena _____ (Second Asst. Camera), Vladimir Tukan (Dir. of Photography), me, _____, ______, Carol Guidry (Production Sound Mixer), Jacquelyn Coffee (Script Supervisor)  PHOTO BY Warner Dick

The conditions were difficult in the blazing humid heat of August and the bone-cracking cold of February and the work was hard.  But the people in the cast and crew were Great.  (Most of the people…  There was that make-up person (soon ‘released’) who clucked and moaned as she made up one of the actors: “Such small eyes!”.)  It was an experience of working with a team where everyone was doing it for love.  There was the love of indie filmmaking, the love of working with people you learn from and have fun with and the love of making something happen out of almost nothing, where your contribution is absolutely necessary and valuable. There was lots and lots of positive energy and even a romance or two behind the scenes.  For someone who had started off wanting to be an artist in a garret, alone alone, this huge collaborative effort was completely new territory.

on the far right is Lea Floden who played Louise, Mary Carrol Johnson who played Louise's best friend has her back to the camera.&nbsp; I'm pained that I don't remember the name of the young woman holding the slate.&nbsp; Neil Danziger is the boom standing above us.&nbsp; PHOTO BY Warner Dick

on the far right is Lea Floden who played Louise, Mary Carrol Johnson who played Louise's best friend has her back to the camera.  I'm pained that I don't remember the name of the young woman holding the slate.  Neil Danziger is the boom standing above us.  PHOTO BY Warner Dick

Knowing as little as I did about directing actors or working with a crew, it might not come as a surprise that I started sleepwalking during the shoot.   Mr. Green woke me one night as I was standing at our window in the light of the streetlight, holding an imaginary clipboard in my hand and trying to communicate with Vladimir the DP whom I imagined was working on the street below. 

Two steps forward, five steps back.  It’s not easy to let go of the fear that tells you you can’t let go… even in your sleep.  (to be continued)

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Go Big or Go Bust: Day 226 (on justifying hanging out as working 'smarter')

The divine Lea Floden, star of (my first and probably only feature) How To Be Louise, is in New York for a few days.  We hung out all day long eating tomato sandwiches, guzzling kale smoothies (kale from the garden) and even went to my friend Heather's birthday party in a penthouse loft.  SO elegant.  Really interesting-looking people, especially one amazing guy who defies description and bust out multiple psychic insights about Lea scattered through a regular conversation. 

So guess who lost track of the time and didn't get around to writing a blog today?  Me!  The same person who didn't take one single action toward going 'Big'.  Unless, of course, you count being around Lea who is so inspiring and fun.

I'm chalking it up to a "working smarter, not harder" day. 


Go Big or Go Bust: Day 158 (on my new office and studio)

I have a history of tiny little offices in New York City apartments.  My first office was a room that had once been a kitchen.  It was about 5' X 7,  partly tiled in white subway tiles (with an inset band of burgundy tiles) and had a north window facing the now tony Gretsch building's parking lot in Williamsburg.  I loved this little office.  The space felt like it concentrated my ideas and protected me from distractions.  I wrote the script for and produced my feature film (How To Be Louise) in this office.  There were some cabinets left over from the kitchen days for storage, and a thick piece of plywood served as a desk.  The desk stretched from wall to wall (supported by file cabinets) and when I sat at it, my back to the window, daylight poured in over my shoulder. 

The Director of Photography Vladimir Tukan is behind the camera on the far left, standing in my white-tiled office.&nbsp; Lea Floden, Louise in  How To Be Louise , is on the far right.&nbsp;

The Director of Photography Vladimir Tukan is behind the camera on the far left, standing in my white-tiled office.  Lea Floden, Louise in How To Be Louise, is on the far right. 

After the kids were born, we moved four times in seven years and I was thinking more about diapers and getting a nap than about an office.  In the third apartment, I had a desk in the bedroom. In the fourth apartment, I commandeered a hallway and wore ear plugs to block out the kids.  This is still my office in New York City but now it has a fourth wall with a lockable door in it.  It's a small office, about 6' X 9' and I love it. There's room for the camcorder and a couple of hard drives, but the paper I've accumulated, God help me, the reams and reams of paper, there's no way it can all fit in this office.  There are files in the basement, files in my bureau, in the linen closet and every other closet and bookshelf in the house - trying to keep track of it all is a full-time job.

Upstate, I'm back to a desk in the corner of the bedroom and a bookshelf filled with, yup, papers.  But I've had an eye on one of the sheds.

Maybe you saw the picture of me pick-axing a dirt floor last week?  Tonight that dirt is all smoothed out, covered with a layer of crushed stone and ... paved in cement tiles.  This shed is about to be my first-ever, free-standing 'office and studio'! 

Last Fall, trying to justify to myself that I wanted this entire shed, including the lean-to section in the back, all for my own, I explained to Mr. Green that the lean-to part could be my office (as I like small spaces to concentrate my thoughts).  The other part, which is twice the size and with a higher ceiling, could be where actors and I could sit around a big table and have table readings before we shoot.  (And hey, it could even be a place to shoot.)  Mr. Green said something like: "Oh.  A conference room. You need an office and a conference room."  So now my shed has been dubbed my Office and Conference Room.  It sounds so corporate that it makes me laugh out loud but, in fact, tonight I'm not laughing.  I'm completely in awe. 

We finished the floor tonight.  I went in, closed the doors and said in a voice so low that even if someone else was there, they couldn't have heard me:  "This is my office.  This is my studio." 

But I'll tell you, I wasn't feeling AT ALL like I 'owned this room'.  I felt more like when I first meet an intimidating person or a very powerful and large animal or when I walk into a building or a room that takes my breath away. 

While we were fixing it up, I went through spells of worrying that it was too big, that it would overwhelm me, that I'd feel ridiculous, that I don't deserve it and, the topper, that because of it, I'll never do anything again...  Tonight I can't wait for tomorrow so I can go vacuum it, wash the windows and move my stuff in. 

Pictures tomorrow. 

Go Big or Go Bust: Day 115 (on self-promotion, braggy captions, Sundance and Berlin)

So today I want to talk about two things: that picture from yesterday's post and the braggy caption.  They get to the heart of why this Go Big or Go Bust thing is like pulling teeth. 

My grandmother used to say that the only time your name should ever be in the paper is when you get married and when you die.  If then.  It wasn't that she was cautioning us to stay on the right side of the law, it was that there was something seamy and unsavory about women and publicity. (It may have gone for men too, but she would have been addressing only her grandaughters.  So I'll never know.)  Hey my grandmother was born in the 1800's. 

from the left: Michael Moneagle, Lea Floden and Bill Zimmer

from the left: Michael Moneagle, Lea Floden and Bill Zimmer

So for me to be relentlessly posting pictures of myself, telling stories about myself, yammering on and on about me ME  ME ... and my accomplishments (the braggy caption) ...  it doesn't sit well. 

Not that that's stopping me ...  If this is what's necessary to spread the word about The Louise Log, I'm doing it.

About this picture from yesterday's post (see above on right) which is shown in context on the page from the Berlin Festival catalogue: it was taken shortly after I learned that my first and so far only feature (How To Be Louise) had been invited to be in the Berlin Film Festival's Panorama and Sundance's Dramatic Competition.  A sizable cast, headed by the wonderful actors Lea Floden, Bruce McCarty and Maggie Burke and an even bigger crew with Vladimir Tukan, Mark Serman and Deirdre Fishel in key roles, had worked very long hours for very little reward to make this film and now we'd grabbed the brass ring.  Sundance!  Berlin!  I'm wearing a fake leopard skin coat from Loehmann's and a smile of disbelief. 

Here's the (2:05) trailer: