I’ve worked with Angela Dee three times now, exploring a character we first started shaping together almost five years ago. The obsessively orderly, emotionally compartmentalized proprietress of a motel called the Loomis, Joan figures prominently in the Woman’s Picture film series. Dee is the kind of actress you keep trying to find things to do with. She comes to set with a unique combination of preparation and flexibility, and Joan is always so fully fleshed out upon arrival that each time we restart is like a reunion with two people at once, actress and character. Neither feels like fiction. When I heard months ago that she was working on a pilot, I was intrigued, not just because I’d watch anything she does with the full confidence I’ll be entertained, but because the show is her baby, from conception to writing and execution, and I knew she’d bring all the resources to this project that she brings to mine, flexing a whole set of muscles I haven’t had the opportunity to experience yet…
EVELYN AVENUE: Tell me about what you’re working on now…
ANGELA DEE: Primarily, this last year has been dedicated to an indie TV Pilot I wrote called Rack and Ruin – a comedy set in a toxic, high-end fashion boutique in NYC.
What made you want to do it and how did you get it started?
I have been thinking about this show ever since I got a job working at Brown’s in London almost 20 years ago! In school I was torn between Fashion and Drama – I majored in both. Initially I chose fashion because… well, frankly I was petrified of being rejected by the big drama schools in London. I ended up getting a scholarship to the London College of Fashion and that experience, combined with many years working on-and-off in high-end retail, exposed the ugly underbelly of the beauty industry. From that first day working in the store I found myself laughing at the absurdity of it all, just wanting to make fun of fashion and unmask the whole charade.
The show only came into existence a little under two years ago after I had fortified my confidence as a writer and director on a number of other projects. In the fall of last year I did a reading of the scripts with a group of friends to hear how it all worked and a couple of months after that we went into pre-production. It originated as a web-series but as I kept writing it just wanted to be a 1/2 hour show. So that’s what it is now. However, the pilot has 5 web episodes embedded in it just in case it finds a home on the web – which in today’s climate is likely. I wanted it to be as flexible as possible. I’d like to see it have a life out there however it will be taken.
You bring a unique level of acuity to the characters you play. How does that serve you in a project like this, where it’s also story and direction and a thousand other additional factoring decisions?
(Zoinks! I just had to look up acuity… should’ve looked into a language scholarship!) First off I didn’t direct the show. I really wanted to, but a few peers of mine, whose opinion I relied on talked me out of it – it can be very challenging to direct something you’ve not only written but are the lead in. So, I didn’t really have any input in the direction on set.
But, I’d say if I have acuity as an actor it might be because I’m a big observer of behaviour? It’s one of my favorite things to do. I love it. So, I suppose I’ve spent 20 years researching this project. Asking questions about the industry. Paying attention to how I behave in relation to it and trying to understand WHY? And taking copious notes on the comically sadistic things women will do to each other in the ‘privacy’ of a clothing store – as customers, employees, owners, etc.
So I know this world inside and out. I wrote each character as if I were playing her/him. It’s probably a bit obsessive, but I know EVERYTHING about them. I could answer questions about their favorite food, what underwear they wear, what their relationship with their family is like. I think it’s helpful to be that immersed in the world I am writing. So, for example, we had some dramas on set. One of the 5 main characters is a dog. And, on the day we were scheduled to shoot her… she got stuck on an elevator in midtown and didn’t show up.
I had to rewrite the entire pilot right there on set with 30 people waiting for me. I was petrified at first – the stress was unbearable – but once I sat down to do it the solution came very quickly and naturally. And I think that’s because of how well I knew the story – not just the pilot but a good 2 seasons worth of story-arcs and such. So I found a way to write her out without loosing her for the rest of the show. You know. For when I get a deal and a cable-networtk pays me to do the whole thing for real…
What have been the biggest obstacles and assets in making this happen?
The first major obstacle was the DGA (Directors Guild of America). Wow. They are not built for indie people like me.
But, I’d say the bigger obstacle would be what I am calling the “bitch” factor. There is a very key, very specific moment during the first day of shooting where I chose to be liked by people rather than stand up for the project. I’m really sitting in the residue of that. There’s always a moment on set where you have to stand up for a choice – whether it be as an actor, a director, a photographer, a writer, you name it – where you have to fight for something. And that fight is not for the weak at heart. It can make you look and feel like a “bitch.” Often times you will be the only one fighting that fight, so the stakes can feel especially high. And sometimes there’s no guarantee that what you’re fighting for is even the right thing to do but you have to fight for it nonetheless, and that can cause conflict. Sometimes in the moment that conflict can feel too overwhelming to face so you back down from it. But, I’ve learned that it’s better to suffer a little short-term discomfort (read: be a “bitch”) for long term success/satisfaction. I’m still trying to find that balance. It’s an awful feeling both in the moment and later.
The biggest asset has to be team morale. For whatever reason the entire cast and crew were pumped to be there. There is no replacing that energy. It is truly a gift. It helps get you through those tough 14-hour days, the no sleep, the cold/rain, the crises. I loved being on that set. It was very humbling.
What did you doubt during your work, and what did you have confidence in?
Doubt is truly the devil. And self-doubt is even worse. I was weathering a constant, internal self-doubt storm. Not so much as an actor but as a writer and as the de facto center of the movie-storm. I felt completely responsible for everyone there. I was acutely aware of problems as they arose and it felt awful to think that anyone on that set would suffer in anyway because of me. I burst into tears one day when I found out the actors had not been getting their call-sheets. They were all basically showing up to set not knowing what scenes they were doing or, in some cases, if they were even going to shoot at all. You kind of just pray that it’ll all be worth it at the end of the day but the doubt is there.
You know, ironically, while I had doubt as a writer at the same time I also had confidence in the story and my character. After all, I wrote the darn thing for myself! I felt so secure in my scenes and with the other actors. We had such an incredible time together. I would’ve liked to have played around with the dialogue a little more – there was absolutely no improv which to me is a shame when it comes to comedy. But regardless, it was really grounding to know so much about the world I was in. And seeing the other actors bring life to the roles that had been in my head for so long was just the most outrageous experience. Quite a high.
If you did it again what would you do differently do you think?
I would direct it.
What’s the status now?
We just finished the sound design. We still need to do some color correction and grab some pick up shots for the opening, but in the meantime we’re doing a cast and crew screening this week. My plan is to have this baby sold and/or launched at the latest by March of 2014. I have an awful lot of work ahead of me (pitching, promoting, sizzle-reels, etc). This next leg of production is a new area for me, so I imagine I’ll be on a steep learning-curve for the next few months.
(Above: A still from the series, featuring, left to right, Ashley Kuske, Markie Post, and Angela Dee)