Jan 292012
 

APRIL:

Memphis, Spring 2011

About 24 years ago, when I first lived in Memphis, the colors around springtime really blew me away. Memphis isn’t the prettiest city most of the time, but for about two months out of the year, everything seems to be blooming. I must have taken the above picture some time in April last year, out walking in my neighborhood.

By that time, I was pretty eager to work on another film. So much of my time in 2010 had been taken up with post production on Woman’s Picture – getting the edit right, getting the sound right, working out a million details having to do not just with the film itself but everything surrounding it. I only feel human when I’m shooting a film. Something about that environment makes sense of my personality for me. A film shoot serves as a helpful periodic, if stressful, barometer for me. I needed to make something sooner than later, because we’d be launching the first related Tableau de Parfums fragrance in October, and it made sense to check back in with Miriam Masterson, the character in the Woman’s Picture series played by Ann Magnuson, since the first fragrance was inspired by her.

The initial experience shooting with Ann, back in 2009, had been good, and throughout that first Woman’s Picture edit I kept wondering what might have happened to Miriam before that crisis point in her life. The relationship with her mother was one of the more fascinating aspects of her story, and I was curious to see what their relationship might have been like in the years leading up to her mother’s institutionalization. I started talking to Ann about doing a sort of prequel, and she liked the idea. We set a shoot date of June 2nd.

Setting up a film, even a short, takes forever, so giving myself just over a month and a half to get everything ready was pretty ambitious. Before I did anything else, I had to write the story. You never know how long that will take. Some of them come easy. Some take their time. I knew the story I wanted to tell but not exactly how to make it work.

I also knew the basic locations. I wanted to shoot at my aunt’s house in Memphis, because she has a lot of my grandmother’s things there, and I liked the idea of Miriam’s mother living in that environment. I needed to find a perfume store, which was a little tricky – it’s always tricky shooting in a public place – but I had a store in mind. I immediately started the long process of communication involved in persuading people to let you shoot in their spaces.  I trimmed my aunt’s hedges, trying to return the favor in advance. The perfume shop didn’t have any hedges but I started meeting with the owner, who said I could shoot there, then said I couldn’t, then said I could, then said I couldn’t. I’d already purchased Ann’s plane ticket, so the pressure was on.

MAY:

Brian Pera, Spring 2011

Sometime around the middle of the month, Evelyn Avenue launched. It was a soft launch, and over the rest of the month we kept making changes.

I dyed my hair red. I wanted to do something else with Mackie, the character I play in the Woman’s Picture series, who’s sort of a chameleon. I’m not much of a chameleon myself. If anything, I’d been a creature of habit over the last six months, working on the same things, mostly behind the scenes. I figured the hair change would give me some ideas and help me get in character. More than anything I wanted something to shake things up.

I’d met Savannah Bearden in March, and we’d been spending a lot of time together. The way we interacted reminded me of siblings, that weird, loaded banter they can have, the way they can switch gears quickly and seem to speak a kind of secret language an outside observer doesn’t always understand. I liked the idea of Mackie having a sister. During his first appearance in the Woman’s Picture series, in the segment called INGRID, he’d alluded to his family, implying things weren’t so tight there. That made me curious to explore his background a little more, and because so much of Woman’s Picture had dealt with mother daughter relationships, I was ready to steer in another direction thematically.

Savannah Bearden / Photo by Brian Pera

My sister and I had never been all that close but it seemed like both of us wished we could be, and in the last year, she at least, had been making more of an effort. In a lot of ways, I felt the main stumbling block was my own personality. I’m not an easy person to get close to. Savannah and I started talking about Mackie and what his sister might be like. I showed her pictures of my sister, and talked a lot about our relationship.

Savannah has four siblings herself. Typically, with a strong collaborator, I start talking about character from my own point of view, and before long we’re talking about someone who comes from a mixture of our experiences. We find some common ground. I felt like Savannah understood my sister with a complexity that came from her own point of view, based on her own background.

Robert Gordon, a filmmaker and writer here in Memphis, agreed to help on the June shoot. We’d met through my friend Melissa Dunn several years back but had only really started getting to know each other over the last year or so. We got along well and had been talking about doing a film project for a while. The June shoot seemed like a good way to see how well we worked together. He happened to know the owner of the perfume store I wanted to use as a location, and proved to be a big help winning her confidence.

I rounded out the cast with Glenda Mace (who had played Ann’s mother before), Kim Howard (who I’d wanted to cast in something for a long time and in fact had asked to be one of Miriam’s callers for the MIRIAM segment of Woman’s Picture already), and Paige Hollenbeck (a child actress I’d seen in the rough cut of a fantastic short called Fresh Skweezed, a film by my longtime DP, Ryan Parker, and Bart Shannon, another insanely talented friend who’d played a small role in MIRIAM as well).

I’d finished the script for the June short and was calling it ROSE. It seemed an apt name for Miriam’s mother, as the color had become a motif for her in the first film. In the story, which takes place two years earlier, Miriam arrives at her mother’s house after shooting a segment of her home shopping show. She’s there to pick Rose up for an appointment Miriam has made at a fragrance store. Rose’s fragrance plays a big part in the MIRIAM segment, as basically Rose’s signature scent. I wanted to look at the history of the perfume and the woman and how the two combined for Miriam so that one was nearly synonymous with the other.

Kim Howard

Kim Howard seemed like a perfect compliment to Ann Magnuson, and I wanted to see what a scene between the two of them would be like. Like Ann, Kim has great comic timing, and the two share a similar sensibility on screen. We’d been talking about doing something together for a while. One of the challenges with the Woman’s Picture series is that once you cast someone they’re stuck with that character for the duration. I needed to make sure that the character I gave Kim would be something she could bring something to not just once but repeatedly. I’d written the role of the girl at the perfume counter specifically for her, careful to make sure it had room built in to grow over time.

JUNE:

Paige Hollenbeck in a still from ROSE / Photo by Tommy Kha

Spring is pretty in Memphis. Usually, June is pretty cool. Not this time. In the past, I’ve shot everything in the fall. It’s a nightmare sound-wise (a thousand leaf blowers going at once) but cool enough that you can work comfortably without the air conditioning on. By the time Ann Magnuson arrived in town, I knew ROSE was going to be a difficult shoot in more ways than one. All you needed to do was look at Ann’s reaction to the heat, stepping out of the airport.

Everything was ready, but the first day was an endurance test. The crew walked around in a stupor. It had been a few years since we’d worked together, and everywhere you looked people’s faces said, How do you do this again? I instantly realized what I hadn’t seen before: the risks of shooting in a family member’s house. My aunt’s house is small and cozy – not a lot of room, even for a crew our size. Though I liked the place as it was, filming in it meant moving things around. Given many or most of these things were family heirlooms, anxiety conspired with the heat at a rate faster than the increased adrenaline of a set could handle.

I’d spent weeks trying to walk through what to expect with my aunt, but I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of filmmaking: expect the unexpected. Nothing calamitous happened. The main problem, for us and for my aunt, was how long we were taking. At four we still had several shots to get. That was several too many for her. She’d been driving around in 100 degree weather, circling the neighborhood for well over an hour. She called to let me know we all needed to be out about two hours ago. That threw us all into high gear. We did without the final shots, which were pick up things anyway, and put the place back together with a speed that was totally incongruous with our overall stupor up until then. I felt like the kid who has a keg party when his parents are out of town, kicking everyone out when the folks call to say they’re on their way back, sooner than anyone expected. It’s a wonder nothing was broken or out of place. It’s a miracle we had everything packed up when my aunt pulled into the driveway.

The rest of the shoot went more smoothly, but it was still piping hot. We had a full day at the perfume shop, working with the biggest crew I’d ever experienced. The night before, Robert Gordon encouraged me to whittle down the scene. As it stood, there were fourteen pages. When I considered that larger, more efficient shoots tackle about four pages a day, and took into account our day at my aunt’s house, it seemed hubristic to forge ahead without rethinking the dialogue. I got it down to 7 and a half pages, and Robert took the new script to get it copied for the crew and cast.

Shooting in the perfume shop was stressful. In addition to a tripled crew, there were more actors than I usually put in a scene. I believe there were about ten – four with speaking parts. The owner had put three of her employees on my payroll. She had a lot of expensive inventory in the store and understandably strict restrictions were placed on where we could shoot, where we could congregate off camera, and what kind of equipment we could bring in. Her staff was wonderful and proved a huge help, moving things around, helping us navigate the complicated lighting system, and really just structuring our time there in a way that relieved a lot of my stress.

Eileen Meyer helped me with script continuity. I’d never had anyone do that before; nor had I ever employed an assistant director. I didn’t have an assistant director this time either, but someone looking at the script was a blessing. The scene was a little more complicated than I usually write, and we were under a lot of pressure. We might easily have overlooked something and left without what we needed where we needed it. It helped that Eileen is an editor. She knew not just what the script said we needed but what we would probably need later too.

After the first day, I swore I’d never do “this” again, though I didn’t know exactly what I meant. I knew I’d be shooting. What else do I know how to do? I doubted I’d be working with a cast or crew that size anytime soon. Maybe I meant I wouldn’t work without an assistant director. Maybe I meant I wouldn’t try to do so much in so little time. I think I realized, more than anything, during that ROSE shoot, that something had to change about the way I worked.

It’s great having the energy and focus to get movies made, when so many people talk about them and so few of those people are able to get one done. And I didn’t even mind, theoretically, that my whole life was making movies. But it seemed obvious that in order to keep making films, whatever personal life you happen to have needs to maintain some kind of equilibrium, because as much as you might feel human on a set, you live the majority of your life off of one, and off set is where all the real problems of a film come into play anyway.

I was happy I’d gotten the material I needed, but I didn’t want any future shoot to be that stressful, if I could help it, and it seemed to me that in order for a shoot to go smoothly I needed to start trying to make my personal life a little smoother too. As on a movie set, easier said than done.

 

 Posted by on January 29, 2012
Jan 102012
 

This dress was on sale at Flashback, a vintage shop here in Memphis.  I think it must be from the fifties.  It’s in perfect condition and looks like it might have been a prom dress.  It’s a little strappy for a bridesmaid dress.  But it was clearly worn only once, if that, so there was some special occasion in mind.  It’s in perfect condition.

It amazes me that anyone would wear the thing ever.  It’s incredibly stiff, almost military in its total disregard for comfort or ease of movement.  There’s a tulle underskirt on top of a rayon sheath.  On top of that, stacked rows of pinched tulle, so stiff it feels like wire netting.  Sitting on it must be misery, but you can tell from looking at it: this is the kind of dress that expects to be asked to dance a lot and kept busy out on the floor.  Pity the guy who leads; the flare of the skirt demands you keep your distance.

I usually only buy clothes for films I know I’m making, but I saw this dress and thought it would generate a story all on its own.  It hasn’t yet but I figure it will eventually.  For now, it’s wrapped in cellophane, like a bright easter decoration puckered up under plastic.

 Posted by on January 10, 2012
Jan 072012
 

JANUARY/FEBRUARY:

By January, I’d started submitting Woman’s Picture to film festivals, though there was still some sound work to do.  Eileen Meyer and I had been working on the edit for about a year, and had gotten to know each other pretty well.  Getting rejected by festivals is never fun, but inevitable, and it’s good to have someone as imaginative and supportive as Eileen on board.  I’d worked alongside her enough to know that I trusted her input, and she always helped create a bigger picture perspective for me during moments of disappointment.

It was Eileen who first mentioned the Creative Capital Foundation to me, sometime in early February.  She sent me a link to the online application, saying, “Let’s seriously consider this grant.”

Creative Capital, its website states, is:

“…a national nonprofit organization that provides integrated financial and advisory support to artists pursuing adventurous projects in all disciplines.  Our pioneering approach combines funding, counsel and career development services to enable a project’s success and foster sustainable practices for our grantees.”

The application, like all grant applications, looked like a nightmare to me.  I knew it would take me weeks to complete, so I put it out of my mind until March, closer to the deadline.  I had way too many things on my plate and figured something like Creative Capital, though it might mean much needed money and resources for the ongoing Woman’s Picture series, was a long shot.  I was too consumed with long shots as it was.

WHAT’S A MOVIE POSTER SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE?

Sometime around November 0f 2010, I’d started talking to Eileen’s partner, Jones, about posters for Woman’s Picture.  I wanted something that felt vintage, telegraphing the style and thematic conceits of the film.

Spending time around Eileen had meant getting to know Jones, too, mainly because we worked in their house during the edit.  Jones would come home during her lunch hour, at which point Eileen and I would take a break and chat, getting our heads out of the material a little.

(Jones making bread at home)

Jones and Eileen cook a lot so there was typically something good to eat; often home made bread, once or twice home made bagels.   I looked forward to the breaks not just to get away from the computer screen but because, when there was bread, Eileen always let me have three pieces, and I got to smother them in peanut butter.

(April Novak – Hardy, Arkansas, July 2010)

I’d spent a lot of time the year before with April Novak.  During June of 2010, she helped on a film in Hot Springs, and we just generally hung out a lot.  April is a substitute teacher so during the summer she had probably too much free time.  We exploited that by taking pictures, making the Hot Springs film, visiting her family in Henderson, Tennessee (where I bought a lot of perfume), and traveling to Hardy, Arkansas, where we stayed in a cabin called Never Inn, playing Go Fish.

I loved photographing April because she seemed like someone from a different era.  She studied old images and shopped in thrift stores to remake herself into something out of the fifties.  And she wore lipstick.  Her house was crammed full of estate sale finds and she had the most extensive record collection I’ve ever seen.  She seemed very much like her own person, and though she imitated and reassembled looks from the past belonging to other people, she made them into something inimitable.  Once school started, I rarely saw her.

(April Novak – Woman’s Picture poster prototype)

When Jones and I started working on the poster design for Woman’s Picture, I played around with an image I’d taken of April months before.  I’m not sure what appealed to me about the kaleidoscopic treatment I came up with, other than maybe the fact that it reminded me of the compartmentalized female faces on the cover of Haunted Houses, one of my favorite books.

Like Woman’s Picture, this novel by Lynne Tillman follows the stories of three women, none of whom ever meet.  I’d thought a lot about Haunted Houses during the Woman’s Picture edit because there was some pressure from people who saw early cuts to intercut the stories in a more traditional way, and though I resisted that pressure, I didn’t ultimately have any other response than to say I didn’t want the stories presented that way.  Haunted Houses was something I knew worked, and I kept revisiting the novel to remind myself that characters don’t have to intersect in order to feel thematically connected.

(Final Woman’s Picture poster, designed by Jessica Jones, with photography by Austin Young)

Austin Young had done photos of the lead actresses for Woman’s Picture‘s poster art back in May of 2010.  Figuring out how to use those images, once he’d done his magic to them, was a challenge.  I didn’t want to change the look of them.  I like Austin’s work and wanted the poster to reflect his style somehow.

Jones and I tried various iterations, trying to figure out how to group the women (Calpernia Addams, Amy LaVere, and Ann Magnuson) together while sort of emphasizing their separateness at the same time.  Ultimately we outlined their portraits, which gave them a curious one dimensional vs. three dimensional quality I liked.

(Jones and Eileen, out for drinks, February 2011)

I think what I liked most of all is that this reminded me of the paper dolls I played with as a kid at my grandmother’s house.  I’d always liked mixing and matching the doll clothes, making them different people.  I’d felt that way about the characters in Woman’s Picture – that they were personal and real but also total fabrications, fantasy projections.

Jones was a dream to work with.  She was patient and inventive, and she liked and understood Woman’s Picture, having watched it take shape in her own house.  I felt like she knew what was important to me and really respected the story and the characters.  Working with me requires a lot of patience I think because I come up with “bright” ideas constantly, always somewhat more ambitious than my present circumstances or resources will realistically allow.  It can make finishing one project a challenge for my collaborators because I’m jumping ahead simultaneously to six equally complicated and unlikely things.

WHAT’S A WEBSITE SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE?

I had a lot of ideas in January and February especially.  Really until about May of 2011 I was engaged in a lot of preliminary work, which can drive me crazy.  I like to get out and do things as soon after the idea hits as possible.  2011 brought a lot of planning and leg work, and all these projects weren’t set to launch until months later.

In addition to working on the posters, I was designing this site, Evelyn Avenue, trying to figure out what it should include and how I wanted it to work.  And what I should name it.  I ran many names by Eileen and Jones, the overwhelming majority of which were vetoed.

Before I’d even decided on a name, I started speaking with several web designers.  It was never really a match and I thought if I had to deal with these guys on a regular basis – and I knew I would – nothing much would get done, certainly not the way I wanted it.   Ultimately I was introduced to David Averbach, a designer out of San Francisco and a very good fit for me.  David ultimately built this site, working off my sketches.

I picked the name Evelyn Avenue because it’s the street I live on, and most of what I was doing was out of my house, or started there, or finished there.  I liked the idea of an online neighborhood.  I liked the idea that this online site, which is all over the place and visited from everywhere potentially, might represent a core group of collaborators who pass in and out of each other’s houses the way people link to interconnected stories and material online.  Eileen and Jones liked the name, so I went with it.

(Preliminary sketch for the Evelyn Avenue home page, March 2011)

MARCH:

The relationship with David was intense – there was a lot to work out properly – and the winter and spring of 2011 were full of these kinds of partnerships, some long distance, others closer to home.  At one point I said I felt like a polygamist, married to many different people, trying to make each tricky relationship work.  We always had a child together (a project) and were sharing the responsibility of raising it properly.  And usually we had different ideas about parenting.

BIG PLANS: CECIL B. DEMILLE OF THE DELTA…

Around this time, I had fantasies of making Evelyn Avenue a shared production company, though I didn’t know exactly what that might mean.

In the seventies, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola had tried to create this kind of collaborative independence and failed.  I believed their failure had to do with thinking too expansively.  It was a time of freedom in film and they were given a lot of money.  They were ambitious and wanted to do fifty different things.  I related to that, and tried to remind myself, with everything on my plate, that doing a lot was only really great if you were doing it well, efficiently, and as economically as humanly possible.

I wanted to do what Altman and Coppola had tried to do, to create a repertory of actors, filmmakers, artists, and writers, a space, a neighborhood called Evelyn Avenue, in which all the people I knew could thrive.

But as plans for Evelyn Avenue progressed I knew that all the sacrifice and responsibility involved in making such an enterprise a success would be far too much to expect of anyone I knew.  If we failed, I’d be responsible.  I had no idea how or whether anyone could make a living off such a proposition.  I was barely handling the responsibilities myself, and I was just getting started.

I thrive on collaboration and hoped for a while to make what my collaborators and I were already doing more official, more equal, but ultimately I settled on the idea that Evelyn Avenue Inc. and related projects would be repertory in theory only for the time being, and possibly indefinitely.

THE GUY IN ZURICH:

Some of these collaborative relationships are more fruitful than others.  One of the most fruitful for me has been my collaboration with perfumer Andy Tauer, who lives in Zurich, but in March I was still really getting to know him.  I’d approached him in the fall of 2010, and since then we’d been working on a line of perfumes inspired by the stories inWoman’s Picture.

During January, February, and March, we exchanged ideas about packaging, not just the bottles but their boxes.  We worked on articulating for others exactly what we were doing, in the most common sense terms.  We tried to come up with a name for the line. It wasn’t until late March that we landed on Tableau de Parfums.  By then I was pretty sick of trying to come up with names.

We wanted the Tableau line to look like it came out of Evelyn Avenue, and the challenge in conceiving the packaging and publicity involved making Tableau, Woman’s Picture, and Evelyn Avenue feel cohesive but distinguishable as individual projects as well.  We knew that some people would discover Evelyn through Tableau or Woman’s Picture, and vice versa, so how these things related had to be clear to anyone who approached any one of them.

(Preliminary sketch for the Tableau de Parfums page on Evelyn Avenue.)

I wanted to respect and extend the design Jones had created for the posters, so for the graphics of the Tableau line and the Evelyn website we used wallpaper patterns she’d sourced months earlier.  It was important to me that Evelyn Avenue felt weirdly vintage the moment you landed on it, and I wanted it to be complex and full of ideas but easily navigable.  I also had to figure out what we’d be doing with Tableau for the next year, and really the next several years, and thinking that far ahead with such detail is a challenge for me sometimes.  It’s hard to know what will excite you a year from now, and I knew that Tableau and Evelyn, like Woman’s Picture, would need to keep me interested in order to keep doing them well.

(Brian Pera, thinking about Tableau, Evelyn Avenue, and Woman’s Picture during their formative stages)

Andy and I worked very well together, without ever meeting.  What started as a three perfume line morphed into a ten year project.  I knew Woman’s Picture was to be an ongoing series of related films about women and memory, and after realizing how smoothly the collaboration with Andy worked, it made sense to give ourselves the same time frame in which to grow and evolve.

DEADLINES:

The site needed to be up by May.  Tableau was set to release it’s first perfume, Miriam, in October.  Final decisions on the fragrance were important because it would take some time to produce.

In spring of 2011, I smelled several versions of Miriam for the first time, and it was amazing.  I had no idea whether people would like this slightly old fashioned, nostalgic fragrance, but I was pleased that Andy had come up with something that fit so perfectly with the character who inspired it.  I knew that many people – enough people – would consider a perfume tied into a film to be something of a gimmick, so the fragrance needed to be so good that it was unquestionably a work of art in its own right.

Andy doesn’t do anything half-assed, but still I worried.  And while the prospect of a perfume line was exciting it was also daunting.  I kept asking myself what the hell I thought I was doing, wondering whether I’d have the stamina to not only help realize the perfumes but to promote and package them effectively.  I was terrified of disappointing Andy, who had been doing this for years and had a trusted, highly devoted group of admirers.  At the same time, none of our work was yet public.  We hadn’t even announced the project yet.  So the pressure came without the embarrassment and rigor of failure.

In March, I completed the Creative Capital application.  As expected, it took several weeks.  I really don’t have time for this, I told myself, but with Eileen’s encouragement I kept at it.  You had to answer ten questions, each in under a hundred or so words.  Coming up with this kind of text is excruciating, and I was sick of it.  I’d written a press release for Woman’s Picture, all the text for Evelyn Avenue’s pages, content for a facebook page revolving around the film, text for Tableau’s packaging.  In addition to answering the questions I had to create a bibliography of my past work.  Eileen reviewed my answers and pushed me to clarify even further.  By the time I finished the application I told her I was glad THAT was over, and that I never intended to apply for another grant again.

I forgot about Creative Capital and got back to work on Tableau and Evelyn Avenue.  And I started entering Woman’s Picture into more festivals, bracing myself for rejection.

 

 Posted by on January 7, 2012