May 192011

After I first contacted Andy Tauer about the idea of collaborating together somehow through film and perfume, I expected a polite but resounding no, so I was pretty surprised when he responded with a few key questions and an attempt to clarify his process for me.

I’d finished shooting the first three segments of the Woman’s Picture series, but the edit wasn’t quite done.  There was only the script to show Andy.   Trying to relate this world I’d created with actors and cameras, in real time, with only words on paper at my disposal, I felt a bit like a perfumer might, if all he had to describe the weird, psychological magic of a perfume was an exhaustive breakdown of its ingredients.

More than anything, Andy wanted to make sure I understood that, for him, perfumes can take quite a while to create.  Was I aware it could be several years between the first brainstorm and the finished result?   He explained:

“Usually, I try to think first.  Walking with ideas in my head, combining notes and chords in my imagination.  At some point, I actually start mixing, usually trying a couple of extremes, trying to find out whether basic ideas work, and if they do I start working on details, individual notes, strength, and the balance of things…”
That sounded a lot like my creative process.  I live for quite a while with the characters I eventually film roaming around in my head.  I spend a lot of time getting to know them that way, their likes and dislikes, their habits, their dispositions.
On August 5th, I sent Andy the script:
Hi Andy,

I’ve been thinking about your last letter, digesting what you told me about your working process.  I’m not surprised that your fragrances take two years to articulate.  That’s about what I imagined. Someone remarked to me recently that the films I make take a long time to complete.  They wanted to know when they can see Woman’s Picture and where they can get the popcorn.  I tried to explain that the movies take this much time because I’m doing them mostly myself; because they come from my mind and heart and involve a thousand tiny decisions, commitments, and agonies, and require a lot of reflection and living out in the world.  I understand that time-conusming part of the process and appreciate it, and know that finishing Woman’s Picture too quickly after filming it would have forever made the film feel unfinished to me.  I wouldn’t have lived with it long enough to bring more of the outside world and my experience in. My main interest in collaborating with other artists (in this case, a perfumer) is to see how that collaboration expands the world of the creation, deepening it, making it ever more personal. It’s also about conversation to me, opening up a through line for communicating about imagination and experience and points of view.  Perfume is so important to the characters in Woman’s Picture, as it is to me.  Filming and editing it I’ve tried to picture what these characters would wear and what it would say about them, and where someone else, smelling that, might be taken.It’s very similar to the conversation I had with collaborators during the film.  Who were these characters to the actors? Were they people they’d known?  Did they possess qualities they remembered from certain people they’d met?  Where did they feel these characters had been and why did they think or act the way they did through the course of the story?  With the production designer I had an ongoing conversation about where these people lived, and among what kind of things?  What kind of cars did they drive?  A designer in LA came up with the character Miriam’s wardrobe, based on similar conversations. What I love about this process is that it continually shapes and re shapes my understanding of the story and the characters and changes in ways I wouldn’t have imagined and can’t control how the story effects its viewers.  You don’t always know what will happen from this kind of collaboration and I tend to enjoy that.  I would love to hear more from you after you’ve read the screenplay.  I hope you’re doing well. Best, Brian

 Posted by on May 19, 2011
May 072011

I first corresponded with Zurich perfumer Andy Tauer in July of 2010.  I’d shot Woman’s Picture, my second film, and was involved in the edit, and it seemed a good time to approach him about the prospect of a collaboration.  Creating a perfume is no less a long term process of reflection, execution, and serendipity than making a film, so while I knew it was a long shot that Andy would be interested in the kind of project I had in mind, the idea of bringing the two arts together, there was no time like the present to find out.

The project that eventually became Tableau de Parfums, the first fragrance of which, Miriam, will be released in October, started with the following letter of introduction.  Over the course of the next several months, Evelyn Avenue will present the series of emails Andy and I exchanged relating to Tabelau, documenting our efforts to merge our love of perfume with film:

July 19, 2010

Hi Andy,

I wanted to write to you about a project I’m doing.  I’m currently in the process of editing my second feature film.  It’s called Woman’s Picture, and it’s an homage to the women’s films of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, which often focused on strong female characters and their struggles and accomplishments within domestic and workplace environments.  Woman’s Picture takes place in the present day but is very much inspired by the themes and motifs of those older films.  It features Calpernia Adams, Amy Lavere, and Ann Magnuson, and was filmed here in Memphis, TN, where I live.  We should be finished editing by September and will start submitting to film festivals in October.

The film focuses on three individual women, with a strong thematic emphasis on perfume.  Each woman has her own eponymously titled section of the film, sections I view as cinematic portraits.  One of these women, Miriam Masterson, is the host of a home shopping network show.  Ann Magnuson plays this character and I’ve attached a photo still from her performance showing the set of her TV program.  I wanted to make a film for fragrance lovers–and for myself.  I wanted to create content which would extend and enrich the conversation I’ve been having with other perfume lovers online and in person over the course of the last several years.  Woman’s Picture isn’t about perfume, per se, but perfume plays an important part in each woman’s story, and I really tried to explore aspects of fragrance I never hear much about in contemporary culture at large: the influence of fragrance on memory and identity, the fantasy world it cultivates and maintains, the connection it provides between people, creating a lingua franca of scent and mood.

The film will be self distributed and is part of a ten year series of such portraits revolving around these kinds of characters and a shared love of fragrance.  We’ve already started filming another segment in the series, which includes several characters (including Miriam Masterson) from the first three portraits.  It isn’t a sequel as much as an ongoing story. I’d like to extend the conversation about perfume in many different ways.

My hope when I started Woman’s Picture was to collaborate with three independent perfumers on creating a fragrance for each lead heroine in Woman’s Picture.  The perfumes would be inspired by the characters in the series, interpretations of their mood or stories.  I’m more interested in the conversation the exchange might create–not just around the movie and the perfume itself but around women and fragrance in general.  I want to collaborate with like minded perfumers, who recognize the value of connecting personally with one’s audience, building a relationship which means something and will last and is about more than sales and numbers.

I’m not sure you would be interested in this, but you were the first perfumer who came to mind.  You embody the spirit of the film and what it means to me to be truly independent.  I love your work very much.  I want to start with Miriam’s fragrance and wanted to talk to you first about it.  I’m interested in what you would make of her story and how you would envision capturing its essence in a fragrance.  I would love to talk to you more, if you think you might be interested.


Brian Pera

 Posted by on May 7, 2011
May 022011

I first saw actress Angela Dee about six years ago, when we were casting my first film, The Way I See Things. I put out an open call online, and everyday there were baskets of resumes and head shots from the mailman. It was like Christmas everyday for this first time filmmaker, and I saw a lot of great people, but no one fascinated me like Dee. The five minute reel she sent me was riveting; some scene involving her and the camera against a blank background. In the scene, she was breaking up with her boyfriend. She was so casually intense, so strangely real, that I had to remind myself that a.) I was gay and b.) we weren’t dating.

I wanted to cast her in The Way I See Things but Dee was reticent to go off into the sticks where we were filming, I think. Too many unknowns at play out there on location in rural Arkansas–first time filmmaker, rustic cabins, maybe snakes, and only the movie Deliverance as a reference point, I imagine. I emailed her after we finished shooting, declaring that I intended to do something with her, some way, some day, and several years later, when I wrote the Loretta section of Woman’s Picture, I created the role of Joan for her.

A few months ago, I talked to her about Joan and the experience of finally working together.

BRIAN PERA: What do you think Joan’s general bio is?

ANGELA DEE: Joan was an only child raised in her family-run motel. Her parents died suddenly when she was a young adult. The motel was left to her and due to her history of both living and working in the motel from a very early age she was able to pick up where her parents, specifically her mother, left off, managing the business. She has never traveled and rarely takes any time off. Running the motel is her one sanity and purpose in life and she does it 110%.

BRIAN: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got your mind around the character of Joan? What was your approach and what kind of background work did you do developing her character

ANGELA: Well, I approached it in a couple of ways.

She reminded me of a girl I know. Someone I have a complicated relationship with. And because I know this person really well, I had a little insight about what propels her to behave the way she does. So I spent some time playing with her physicality, her voice, the way she presents herself. As a sort of jumping off point. Whenever I got stuck, I’d consider her.

I also connected with Joan personally. I’ve experienced isolation like Joan has after a kind of systematic rejection from a close circle of friends as a teenager. I think when people experience deep loneliness they do one of two things: They either disintegrate or they fortify – crystallize, if you will. And that was the impression I got from Joan. She had a very tough, hard exterior which was created after a deep and painful loss. So I spent a lot of time considering the events in her past that would have made her who she is. Alone with all this responsibility and feeling a kind of need to prove herself to people who were no longer around. Joan survives by following and making rules – so I made sure that even the way she did her hair had an almost military system to it. When Loretta comes along, her whole approach to doing things is rattled and threatened but she also sees an opportunity to offer herself as a friend, to finally be accepted as someone to rely on. There’s a sort of personal atonement Joan is seeking through Loretta.

I also found a great deal of footing through my conversations with you. You had such insight into who this person was and her relationship to the motel and to Loretta that it was easy for me to find a way in. We discussed her past, including her relationship with her parents and then her desires for the future. It was a great and very rare experience for me to work so openly with a director on some of the specifics of a character that no one would ever really see/hear about in the final movie.

BRIAN: I imagine you had done work beforehand on the character, but you had no idea

what to expect. We’d never worked together before. So then you get here and it’s a very specific environment – and you’re meeting Joan’s peers, these others actors for the first time. And me. And our set-up. How do you carry that work you’ve done beforehand into the unknown like that? What tends to happen for you? What kind of adjustments did you make and did anything about the “reality” of the environment and our little posse of collaborators cause you to rethink your decisions about Joan or expand them in interesting ways?

ANGELA: Outside of group-dynamics and the overall vibe on set, I feel like I did know what to expect. I had a script and I’d had some conversations with you on the phone so I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to be doing. I had no idea what to expect as far as the casting of Loretta and the other characters were concerned, but I knew how Joan basically felt about the situation so there weren’t any real surprises there beyond what would probably exist in the real world. I didn’t feel like any of the actors pulled any major u-turns with their characters either, so other than the individual personalities – which only helped add dimension to our relationships – that part was pretty smooth, too.

BRIAN: So you arrived and it was just ‘jump right in’?

ANGELA: I did feel quite alien on the set when I first got there. And that was superbly helpful. All my own personal insecurities came swiftly to the surface and I got a great, hands-on chance to connect with Joan viscerally. Up until that last night of shooting (for me anyway) I kind of gently allowed that feeling to stay rather than fight against it. Of course, though, making a film can be immensely enjoyable and it’s hard not to bond with people on set, and that last night was both exhausting and a riot!

Overall I felt greatly supported and safe and if anything both the environment and you as a director helped me flesh Joan out and give her some depth. As for what I showed up with and how that may have changed once there, in general, I think I just form an impression of the character – an emotional center and a sense of a fundamental behavior – and then I show up on set and see what happens. Obviously, I get that impression from the script. I already have an idea of who this person is by the way the writer has illustrated her. Even a really minor character, I find, has some basic wash of color – some simple way of being that I can play with. But I’m not attached to it. A huge part of the fun with acting is the collaboration with the cast and director, so if I show up all locked-in over how I’m going to say this line or move my head when such-and-such happens, I’m limiting the opportunity I have to really discover who I’m playing. I really believe that it’s my job to understand what the director needs from me to help fulfill his/her vision of the script. If I don’t understand what’s needed I’ll ask a bunch of questions until it clicks. Having my lines memorized is REALLY helpful, because then I can be completely available to whatever is presenting itself in the moment and if I need to adjust what I’m doing, I can.

BRIAN: When I told you we were doing a film inspired by women’s films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, did anyone come to mind?

ANGELA: The woman that comes to mind is absolutely Giulietta Masina! My first exposure to her was in the movie Nights of Cabiria. I’d always struggled with the way actors/actresses performed in the classics – so stilted, self-conscious and pretentious, even. And then I saw that movie. All the way through it I was mind-blown by the nuances of this bright little fire-ball. And by the end of the film I’d completely fallen in love with her. That very last moment of the film, where after everything she’s been through she gives us a little smile straight to the camera and joins in with the kids messing around hit me so hard. I don’t think I’ve cried as much after a movie. The Fellini films that star her are by far my favorite.

Do you know what’s funny? Now that I’m thinking about it I just realized that I’ve been unconsciously modeling myself after her. I’m obsessed with that look!

Then, of course there are other standard favorites like Garbo, Crawford and Dietrich but I have a kind of detached admiration for them. I have a bit of a blind spot with movies from the 30s – 40s, in general. Of course there are the odd movies like Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, King Kong and Citizen Kane which are amazing but they didn’t define me as an actress or movie-lover. My obsession with films and acting most definitely kicked-in with Streetcar in ’51 and especially movies made in the 60s. Kate Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe were really amazing and their movies take me closer to the 60s (Funny Face, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Misfits, etc).

Ed. note: Stills from Woman’s Picture by Tommy Kha

 Posted by on May 2, 2011