I really love this picture from the shoot of Only Child, the next feature film in the Woman’s Picture series. The film is in post production right now, so I’m living it and breathing it and everything I do somehow informs it or goes back to it. I can’t watch a movie, read a book, or have a conversation that doesn’t somehow tell me something new about it.
I love the picture because it shows a naked view of the set, a view I never allowed myself to take in – not when I first found the room and decided to use it, not when I was decorating it, not even when we were filming in it. Had I allowed myself to see those wonky ceiling tiles and the totality of the room I would never have moved forward with it. I couldn’t have convinced myself it would work. If I have any kind of gift that serves me in filmmaking it’s this ability to see not what’s there but what might be or could be or will be as if it already is. The camera sees limited information, and you have to train yourself to see the way it will, to cancel things out that contradict the fantasy, zeroing in on things that will boost it.
You’d never know, watching the finished cut of Only Child, that the motel room this set is supposed to be looks anything like it does in the picture above. You’d never suspect the reality. It doesn’t look at all claustrophobic in the pictures taken on set. On film, it feels like a cave, a setting for overactive denial. In the picture it has definite boundaries, obvious end points. On film its space is conceptual and indefinite, suggesting more beyond everything you see.
I’m fascinated with the pathological mindset, what often gets called the borderline personality or I guess psychopathology, maybe because most of my characters are precluded from seeing reality the way everyone else around them does. Most of my characters are some degree of delusional. They narrow down the field of vision. They block stuff out. It’s often pretty harmless, until someone threatens that fantasy, smoking them out into the hostile realm of the real.
Grace Zabriskie’s character in Only Child was something different for me. Delores has spent most of her life institutionalized, and she’s had a few traumatic breaks with reality along the way. She’s not content living in her own reality the way most of my characters are. She wants others to acknowledge it as their own. She wants to bring them in with her. She’s a mother looking for her daughter, Loretta, who has tried to escape from being shut in with her in that mindset over the years, where fantasies lock together like nesting dolls.
I’ve been reading a lot of Ann Rule books, mainly because they’re full of psychopaths – not just people who believe they can get away with the unthinkable but people who live in a totally different reality, blind to whatever doesn’t support what they perceive. Somehow, I stumbled onto the Casey Anthony case, which is old news now to most but revelatory to me; I guess I’m struck by the similarities between daughter Casey Anthony and mother Cindy Anthony and my fictional mother-daughter pair, Delores and Loretta. According to Jose Baez, her lawyer, Casey Anthony lived in a pretty complex world of her own construction, with a made up cast of characters and events which only indirectly involved the truth. The line between her belief in those people and her awareness of her deception is so fine you’re crossing it before you see it.
The relationship between Casey and her mother, like the one between Delores and Loretta, is a sort of folie a deux no one who isn’t inside their reality can ever hope to break down or begin to understand. At the center of this spell, the death of a child. Setting aside what the media made of the events surrounding the death of Casey’s daughter, it’s obvious that at the very least Casey lived in another dimension. She was in that room and didn’t ever allow herself to see the ceiling tiles. Setting aside whether or not her mother believes she’s innocent or guilty, it’s obvious Cindy Anthony doesn’t see the tiles either.
It probably seems like a leap to make a connection between the creative process and Casey Anthony, but I think a lot about the fact that the inner life of a filmmaker or an artist in general involves a kind of borderline – if far more benign – pathology, sublimating what is to what isn’t yet, superimposing fantasy over reality. Making films doesn’t involve homicide usually. It does involve believing in something that doesn’t exist, sharing it with a group of people and, crucially, seeing it vividly even at times when no one else can.
We shot in that room for something like four or five days. I prepared it for something like a month. I’m not certifiably delusional: I know there’s no such thing as that motel room in the film; I know there’s no such person as this woman named Delores. But every night when I’d go home she lived in my head, very much alive, an unreal person who represented very real things, to such an extent that she took on some sort of unusual real time presence in the process. And for the last year, working on the edit of Only Child, she’s been, like Casey Anthony’s cast of characters, an imaginary friend of mine that no one else can see, the existence of whom can’t exactly be verified. Making a film is full of those powerful delusions, and when I saw this picture of our set for the first time I was amazed just how much I’d blocked out to make my vision feel real, and just how close to crazy I might have seemed.
(Illustrations: top photo by Philip Horowitz, featuring, left to right, Jessica Jones, Grace Zabriskie, and Brian Pera; middle photo by unknown, featuring, left to right, Cindy Anthony and Casey Anthony; bottom photo by unknown, featuring Casey Anthony’s defense lawyer, Jose Biaz and a chart he called “Casey’s Imaginary Friends”.)