Jun 292011

I loved filming at this place on Sunday.  It’s a vintage clothing shop here in Memphis called Garbo’s, and it has the smell my grandmother’s house used to, a smell I think of as basically the past and the people who lived in it.  Everywhere you looked at Garbo’s you felt like some story was there, right outside your reach.  How many different houses did all this stuff come from?  How many different women wore these dresses?  None of these people knew each other, or maybe they knew each other, or knew of each other, and here their clothes were sitting under the same roof, keeping the secrets.  We were filming a story for Woman’s Picture about Mackie, a recurring character from the series, and his sister Meredith.  Basically we were playing dress up, impersonating siblings who were also playing dress up.  Mackie’s making a silent film, and visits Meredith and takes her to this shop to pick out wardrobe for the project.  Every room we walked into was perfectly decorated.  We didn’t have to do a thing.  It’s the best set I’ve ever filmed on because it felt totally organic and really perfect in every conceivable way.  When the camera was rolling we argued as brother and sister, bickering about the past.  The rest of the time we roamed around trying things on, soaking up the discrepancies between now and then.

I have this big thing about attics, maybe because as a kid I spent so much time in them at my grandmothers’ houses.  Their attics were just like Garbo’s.  On the one hand, they were totally free environments and my imagination went nuts.  On the other hand, they were kind of solemn.  Attics are the place things go when people need to forget about them in order to make moving forward a little more convincing.  They’re a purgatory for the parts of a family’s experience that don’t really fit in with the master narrative the family wants to tell about itself.  You aren’t that person anymore – the one that fit in those clothes, the one in those pictures.  Somebody else is in the pictures and you might want to forget him, or forget you ever felt the way you did about him.  In the summer the attic was always hotter than the rest of the house; always colder in the winter.  It was like some kind of no man’s land, and whatever I saw up there in that parallel universe I knew not to talk about when I came back downstairs.

Garbo’s was fantastic, not just because it was an ideal setting but because the owner of the place gave us free roam.  She left me the key the night before, and stayed away all day while we shot.  The store is in an old house that dates back I guess to maybe the late 1800s, maybe early 1900s.  I don’t know.  It’s old.  To me, it felt like an entire house had been made into an attic, because the stuff you’d usually find in someone’s storage, stuffed away up there, had been essentially spilled out into the rest of the building, like all those memories hemorrhaged through the ceiling or something.  And for once I didn’t have to feel weird about being where I shouldn’t be, in the one place I wanted to be most.  I got to root around freely in people’s memories, without having to deal with their baggage too.  The best part was, we were making a movie, which is its own special kind of fantasy world.  I love these photos taken by Betsy Taylor, who was there with us, because they remind me of that subjective experience I remember whenever I was in the attic, where your attention gets driven to little details and weird juxtapositions, random pieces of loaded information that sit alongside each other telling an entirely different story than any of the items would by themselves.

 Posted by on June 29, 2011
Jun 082011

A few days ago, we finished shooting another segment of the Woman’s Picture series.

This one, called ROSE, deals with a few of the characters from an earlier episode, women played by Ann Magnuson and Glenda Mace.  The story takes place four or five years earlier, and jumps back in time even farther back, to a childhood memory shared by both characters.

In ROSE, Ann Magnuson’s character, Miriam Masterson, arrives at her mother’s house to pick her up for a consultation at a local perfume counter.  Miriam’s mother, the title character Rose, doesn’t remember the name of a perfume she’s worn since as far back as Miriam can remember, and Miriam wants to try to identify the fragrance, which is almost gone, in case they’re still making it.

Rose is slipping.  She’s forgetful and doesn’t seem to be altogether “there” much of the time.  When Miriam walks in, Rose is waking from a nap.  She’s disoriented and doesn’t seem to know who Miriam is.  When they get to the perfume counter, she doesn’t really know exactly where they are – or why.  Miriam probably knows that, like the perfume, her mother will be gone soon, so the whole incident is filled with a weird kind of tension and regret.

What I wanted to get at in the film is that thing perfume can do, the way it can take you back to something or someone you can’t put your finger on, conjuring ghosts, memories, moods, sometimes emotional mayhem.

I used to sneak into my grandmother’s bathroom a lot when I was a kid to smell a little bottle of violet perfume she had in her medicine cabinet.  I don’t know what it was called – I never found out – and the bottle and my grandmother are long gone, but sometimes I smell violet in something and I’m back in that room, and I remember how it felt being that young, when my grandmother was still alive and I was a pretty different person.

That feeling of being where I wasn’t supposed to be was pretty powerful, lonely and addictive, and the perfume took me to some weird place that crystallized everything about my grandmother and her house and life and the way I felt about her into a series of fantasies that played out like movies in my head.

I was never caught red-handed in the medicine cabinet.  I doubt my grandmother ever knew how obsessed I was with her perfume.  But I was caught doing other things, in the middle of some fantasy, and it was always so shaming and screwed up.  My grandmother’s reaction to my interest in her things was probably confusion but it came out as anger and shame.  We didn’t talk about it.  We just shared it.

I felt like a thief or a disappointment in some way.  I wanted my grandmother’s things the way you want to get closer to something more powerful than yourself.  But I accepted I was weaker than she was, for needing that and sneaking around to get it.  Sometimes, once I was older, things happened between my grandmother and me and it all came back to me, that shame, and I wondered if she was remembering it too.  We pretended it never happened but it was still alive in my mind.

Talking about her mother’s perfume takes Miriam back, too – and her mother – to a time Miriam got caught playing dress up at Rose’s vanity, when she was about eight or nine.  I’d never worked with a child actor before but it was interesting, doing those flashback scenes, because I was essentially asking her to play not just Miriam but me, as a kid, sneaking into my grandmother’s stuff.

When it was time to get started, we asked everyone to leave the room.  It was just the girl and me and the director of photography.  I wanted that sense of solitude and quiet you feel as a kid when you’re lost in your thoughts, playing around in your ideas of an adult’s world.  When an adult suddenly enters, depending on how they react, it can be pretty startling.

To me, the perfume Rose has always worn is the one Andy Tauer created for Tableau de Parfums.  The perfume comes out in October.  Andy had seen the first segment of Woman’s Picture involving Miriam and her mother, and he’d read a piece I wrote several years ago about my grandmother’s violet fragrance.  By the time we shot ROSE last week, I’d smelled “Miriam”, the perfume inspired by Miriam and Rose’s story, and as we filmed I imagined that’s the fragrance Miriam, Rose, and the sales associates at the perfume counter in ROSE are all talking about.  It was pretty intense to have that reference point, something created by two guys who love perfume the way a child loves his fantasies and had connected over material created from memories about those relationships with lost people, scents, and the places they inhabited.

ROSE was sponsored and made possible by Lucky Scent.  The still above is from the set of Rose and features Paige Hollenbeck, who played Miriam as a girl.  It was taken by Tommy Kha.

 Posted by on June 8, 2011