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.
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.
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 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.
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.