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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 .  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)  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.

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.  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

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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