For every film I end up making, there are dozens I only fantasize about, letting them steep in some hazy area of my imagination. These unrealized films and moments are a kind of mental sketch, like a painter working out in pencil a more ambitious project intended for canvas. I think of characters first, usually. I picture them out in the world and what maybe happens to them, or maybe just what they wear, how they walk, what they think about. Their moods, what makes them angry or happy; what kinds of conflicts they run into.
Sometimes, I see a location and a character comes out of that. Like this apartment building, here in Memphis. It’s down the street, by the grocery store. Union Avenue. The grocery store and this building share a parking lot. I’ve always liked the building but it’s peripheral to my business at the store, so I usually don’t pay much attention to it. But I read a book recently called Mrs. Ted Bliss, by Stanley Elkin, about an elderly widow who lives alone in a tower of Florida condominiums, and as I went through the book I realized that in my mind the building the woman lives in looks a lot like this one.
Mrs. Ted Bliss isn’t exactly locked inside her apartment but she spends most of her time there, and though she knows various other people in the building she’s pretty solitary. Reading the book made me look at this building on Union in a new way, not just as an interesting, quirky example of outdated architecture but more philosophically as a sort of hive full of anonymous activity. I started trying to picture the residents of the building and what their lives look like.
I think my unmade film will be about a single woman, like Mrs. Ted Bliss, only she was never married and has always lived alone. She’s in her seventies. About the most exciting thing she does is shop for groceries next door, but every day, however inactive, she dresses up as if she has something important to do. She sprays on a perfume she’s always worn. Something by Estee Lauder. Maybe Private Collection, which is strong and gets her compliments or coughs in the elevator.
I’m naming this woman Constance. Constance keeps to herself but she has a vivid fantasy life, and she spends a lot of time thinking about her fellow tenants. She makes up stories about them. The building is full of people her age. They keep dying. One day, they’re gone, and relatives appear to liquidate their belongings. When the woman across the hall passes away, and her daughters have cleared the place out, a younger woman moves in, and Constance becomes obsessed with her.
Constance starts baking for the woman, and the woman eventually invites her over for dinner. She serves food so inedible it makes Constance take pity on her. Out of a box, and she still can’t get it right. Her apartment is still in boxes. It’s like she blew into town like a tumbleweed and really doesn’t know how to make her own nest.
During dinner, something happens. The woman takes Constance into her confidence, maybe. She owes some money. She’s in some kind of trouble. And Constance gets involved, not because she’s a good samaritan but because it’s an opportunity to take her fantasies about other people out of her head and into real life. The woman isn’t what she seems and a lot of what she says contradicts itself. She was a dancer she says but she’s never heard of Martha Graham. She has kids she says but no pictures of them, no memories to relate – and anyway, where are these kids now? Eventually Constance is sucked into a series of weird dramas most women half her age couldn’t handle, but she’s dressed for it, and she has on her perfume, and she’s watched a lot of Agatha Christie on PBS, so she’s remarkably adept at handling the drama, and everyone involved in these dramas underestimates her, but she knows from watching all those Miss Marple stories that it comes with the territory and has its advantages.