Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Razor Blade Butterfly

On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, granddaughter of newspaper czar, William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped and held for ransom by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a radical group who claimed to be a huge army dedicated to fighting "fascist Amerika" but was in reality a handful of "guerillas" led by one Donald DeFreeze, an escaped felon. Two months later on April 15, Hearst was photographed wielding a fully automatic M1 Carbine while helping Defreeze and company hold up a bank in San Francisco.

If you're unfamiliar with the case, the question on the tip of your tongue has to be, "What the hell happened in between February and April?"

According to Hearst in her horribly written biography, Every Secret Thing, she was cocooned in a closet for six weeks where she was sexually assaulted and brainwashed into thinking the SLA really stood for something more than DeFreeze trying to get some more of his prison buddies out of the joint. Other folks claim she suffered from "Stockholm Syndrome" where an individual in a hostage situation begins to sympathize with their captors. (Named after a bank robbery gone wrong in Stockholm, Sweden where just that happened.)

After a shootout which killed most of the SLA (including DeFreeze) and another bank robbery, Patty Hearst was captured by police, tried and convicted of armed robbery and served three years in prison before Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence. (She was later given a full pardon by Bill Clinton.) The general consensus seems to be that Hearst was brainwashed by the SLA, and couldn't be held completely responsible for her actions. Today, when not acting in films by John Waters, Patty Hearst lives in Connecticut with her family. I suspect the truth of what happened in the two months between her kidnapping and the bank robbery in San Francisco is lost even to her.

My fascination with Patty Hearst, cults, and brainwashing pops up in Women's Studies through the character of Iris, who at the beginning of the story is an unhappy, insecure girl whose conservative, religious father treats her and her mother like pets. Though still working out Iris's visual look, it will definitely communicate that the girl is lonely, beaten down, and friendless. Her self-esteem is so low as to be almost non-existent. The root cause of her esteem issues is a fear of being forever misunderstood that borders on total despair.

I think one fear that is universal is the fear of being alone, not just physically alone, but feeling that no one else understands, relates, or cares. After all, when we lay down at night and close our eyes, the truly solitary nature of human existence becomes apparent. Even if a person is in the bed beside you, it's still just you in your head with all those dreams, wants and fears... especially the fears. In my more pessimistic moments, I've let myself believe that any sense of community, togetherness, or connectedness is just an illusion, a mental construct to keep individual humans from destroying themselves or each other.

When fear and confusion is all encompassing, it's easy to follow instead of lead, to find someone to guide us and show us what to do, even who to be. This is where we find Iris, searching for an identity, for someone to be. Anyone but who she thinks she is will do. She sees a leader in Mary, who taught her in an Intro to Women's Studies class. She's attracted to Mary's strength and beauty, but I believe that's secondary to the fact that Mary is kind to her, unlike her father or any of her peers. Iris is like a hungry caterpillar, and Mary feeds her a steady diet of confidence. However, Mary is older and consumed with her own issues. Besides, the unpopular kid in school is only friends with the teacher because the "cool kids" his own age want nothing to do with him.

Once at Ross-Prentiss, the "cool kids," in particular Melissa, come to Iris with acceptance. They begin to feed this hungry caterpillar with revolutionary ideas about self worth, and power, and a society that has created her insecurities. They offer a new world, a solution to her problems, and even vengeance on those who have slighted her. Scary maybe, but who cares? They make Iris feel pretty, important, and loved. That love above all things is key, because it blinds Iris into thinking the cocoon she's wrapped herself in is full of life, but it's not. It's putrid and rotten. Despite this, the pupa still lives, and the creature that eventually emerges from it, though beautiful, is deadly and destructive: a butterfly with razor blade wings.

Laura BloechlA little bit Dylan Kleibold and Eric Harris with some Manson girl and of course, Patty Hearst, thrown in for good measure, finding an actor to portray Iris's transformation was something of a challenge. Still, we think Laura Bloechl (pronounced "BLAY-KEL") is up for the job. Mostly soft spoken and fun loving, she's also capable of going to Iris's darker and more extreme places, which if I can say so, kind of freaks me out a little.

I hope it does you too.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Artemic Bomb

In Women's Studies, the character of Diane spends much of the film silent. However, there's a scene where she's about to do something rather nasty to another character. This individual asks Diane about her lack of verbosity, to which she responds with the following line of telling dialogue:

"I just choose not to most of the time. There's an awful lot of talking that goes on. Most of it isn't worth a damn. Besides, I like action more than words."

Diane is perhaps the scariest character in Women's Studies. First off, she's physically imposing. (Kelley Slagle, the actor playing Diane, clocks in at around six feet.) In many scenes, her main purpose is to use her size to intimidate others. In earlier drafts, that's all she did. Well, that and kill people. However creepy, it makes for a pretty one-dimensional character.

Contemplating Diane eventually helped me organize how the leadership hierarchy of the Ross-Prentiss cult is structured. While Judith is nominally regarded as the "ringleader" of the academy girls, it's Diane who actually holds the real power within the political and spiritual structure of the cult. Though the religion the women practice is a paganism of my own invention, it's structured not too differently from Catholicism. (And it really has more in common with the more war obsessed patriarchal religions than any religions which worship the feminine divine.) Diane is like a low-level priestess, and about to cross over to a life and "mission" outside the school. At one point, some of this was articulated in the script, but it convoluted things, so I jettisoned it.

To me, Diane is just as scary for what she represents as she is her physical presence, perhaps even more so. She is zealotry personified, a living embodiment of the cause she believes in, and code she lives by. To her, the goal of a total fascist matriarchy isn't just a mad vision. It's destiny, the only future possibility that exists. And if murder on a massive level is the only way to make that future, so be it. There is no debating with her. There is no reasoning with her. She is unswayable and merciless. Like the suicide bombers boldly running into nightclubs and blowing themselves up for some cause or another, her allegiance to her dogma is total.

The character was named Diane after Wonder Woman's alter ego. However, "Diane" is also the Roman name for the Greek Goddess Artemis, who is often regarded as the protector of those more vulnerable than she. (Also, Artemis is known as the "feminist" goddess.) The Diane of Women's Studies fulfils that role, keeping a close eye on Zack, the male interloper who finds himself at Ross-Prentiss. Funny enough, Artemis is also goddess of the hunt.

Kelley SlagleI've had the chance recently to spend some time with actor Kelley Slagle while in a stage production of Night of the Living Dead. In many ways she's nothing like Diane, but I've seen Diane's most frightening trait, the pleasure she takes in freaking you out, show it's face. Backstage, we're supposed to constantly make "zombie" noises in order to keep up the illusion that the stage is surrounded by zombies. During the show, Kelley stands beside me, hooks her hand into a claw, and scrapes her fingernails across a wall, creating a high pitched, "nails on a chalkboard" sound. I put my hands to my ears when she does this, to which Kelley always smiles manically and proceeds to pull her nails across the wood again.

Kind of scary, eh?

More on Kelley at www.cavegirl.com.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Beth" in Show

(NOTE: I'm trying to be very cautious of "spoilers" in my blog entries. However, I think I really toe the line on this one, so if you're keeping yourself in the dark on story elements of Women's Studies, you may want to skip it. You've been warned.)

"Beth, I hear you callin'
But I can't come home right now.
Me and the 'girls' are playin'
And we just can't find the sound."

--"Beth," KISS

I had to alter the KISS lyrics a bit. Gene Simmons, I beg your forgiveness, though to be honest, "Beth" is a bit dated. The whole glam ballad deal sounds pretty sub-par to these 21st century ears. Maybe Paris Hilton should do a remake. (I don't think my inbox is prepared for the leagues of hate mail I could receive from the "KISS Army" for that last comment.)

But I digress.

In the original forty-page draft of Women's Studies, there were only two interlopers: Mary (originally named Amy) and her boyfriend, Zack. Mary, instead of being intrigued and enamored by the women of the Ross-Prentiss Women's Academy, was acutely aware that something is rotten in Denmark at this particular college. As Mary's journey shifted into one that's more emotional and philosophical, I realized I still needed a character to act as a foil to the academy girls and Mary's fascination with them.

Enter Beth: "the best friend," stage right.

Perhaps "foil" is the wrong term unless we're talking about Beth's relationship with Iris, Mary's insecure student who also becomes seduced by the world of Ross-Prentiss. (Iris or Mary; whatever the case, this ain't Shakespeare.) However, Beth provides balance. If Mary is caught in her confusion of whether or not to join the Academy girls, Iris and Beth are the opposite terminals of that confusion. At Ross-Prentiss, Iris thinks she's found something which has been missing in her life. Beth, of course, falls squarely on the side of, "This school ain't cool."

Beth shoots from the hip and calls it as she sees it. To me, that confident, "Take no bullshit" attitude is her overriding character trait. Her sarcasm provides much of the humor in the script. In the earlier feature drafts, Beth's role was smaller, but I realized that much of the humor kind of slipped away when she wasn't around.

Plus, Beth is supposed to be Mary's best friend, right? If your best friend tells you that she thinks the school you're at is filled with homicidal cultists, you're going to at least hear her out. Unless maybe that friendship sits on some shaky fault lines. What if the uncomfortable tension between Zack and Mary, is countered by tension that's a bit more comfortable between Zack and Beth? I created a back story in which Beth and Mary had both dated Zack, but he eventually chose to be with Mary. Now, as Mary's emotional compass shifts towards Judith, will Zack's shift towards Beth?

"Like sand through the hourglass . . ."

Melisa-Breiner-SandersI could go on, but I don't want Melisa Breiner-Sanders, the actor playing Beth, to go too far with all this before we've sat down with the script and done some proper table work. That's "MAY-LEE-SA," by the way. "Melissa" is bound to give you a sarcastic eyebrow raise that explains exactly why she got the role. More on Melisa can be found at www.MelisaBS.com.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Plague/Cold of Death

My wife has given me her plague/cold of death. I take this as proof of a feminist plot to murder me. Anyway, it's hard to write about filmmaking when your only two thoughts are "tissues" and "sleep," so forgive this week's short blog.

There's a lot of things in action behind the scenes on Women's Studies right now that I'll hopefully be able to talk about in upcoming blogs, such as:

--Our Art Director, Stephanie Petagno has shown me some preliminary designs for the "cult tattoo" that all the academy girls sport.

--We're in talks about our main campus location. I'm really excited about this because the location is in many ways a character in the film.

--I'm almost done with my "director's script," which has a boatload of notes for all my department heads, mainly the camera, lighting, sound, and art departments.

--You're probably already aware, but the new Women's Studies website is live at www.womensstudiesmovie.com or www.ross-prentiss.org. Keep your eye out for "easter eggs."

I also want to take the time to give a big shout out to Gary Ugarek and his zombie film, Deadlands: The Rising. Gary helped Cindy and I out on our short film, Under the Bed, and has been a major cheerleader for Women's Studies from the beginning. Cindy and I both returned the favor by appearing in and helping out behind the scenes on Deadlands. In about a month, we'll again lend the assist on some pick-up shots he's working on. I'm also going to be contributing to the sequel, Deadlands: The New World. I won't say exactly how yet, since Gary may want to tell folks that himself.

Anyway, Gary's a great guy who knows his zombie films. As a filmmaker, he's not only aware of his strengths, but also his weaknesses, which makes me have a lot of respect for him. A little bird told me that a lot of folks are going to get the chance to see Deadlands here in the next six months, and I encourage you to check it out if you get the chance. Zombie fans will not be disappointed. More info about Deadlands: The Rising can be found at The Official Deadlands: The Rising website.

Next week will kick off a series of five blogs spotlighting the cast and characters of Women's Studies. I tried to figure out the best way to approach it, and just decided to go alphabetically by character. Therefore in the next blog, we'll introduce you to Beth, Mary's quick-witted, "take-no-bullshit" best friend.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Because of it's subject matter, namely homicidal feminists trying to take over the world, Women's Studies isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea. "You can't please everyone," is an adage of the theatre. It's true too. You can't. All you can do is tell the story the best and as honestly as you can, and hope for the best.

Back in March of '06, I sent out the first initial casting notices for Women's Studies, which got picked up by the Independent Women's Forum who wrote a blog about it.

In turn, a blog called Pandagon picked up on the IWF story and wrote a response to it. My thoughts are at the end.

As you can see, the negative reaction kind of rattled me the first time. Then I got my head out of the clouds and reminded myself of that old theatre adage. Now when it happens, and I'm sure it will keep happening, while I listen politely to what detractors have to say, I certainly don't try to change their opinion of the film. Just as I hope no one thinks I'm going to change my mind about making it.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I have no intention of playing politics here. My goal is to make a scary movie, not save the world or destroy it. Cults are scary. Feminism is interesting. A film about a feminist cult seems like it would be scary and interesting. The argument of Women's Studies is not, "Feminism is good/bad." Both the protagonist and antagonist are almost mirror opposites in their feminist beliefs. The difference is that one is willing to kill for their beliefs and the other wants change to come about peacefully. That's the ideological debate I'm interested in. Feminism becomes almost incidental, a "MacGuffin" as Master Hitchcock might have said. My intentions, though I'm admittedly an agent of chaos, are good. Yet, we all know what the road to hell is paved with, don't we?

Here's the bottom line for those people who find the concept of Women's Studies (or any other book, TV show, movie or art work) offensive, sad, outrageous, misogynistic, politically incorrect, or intellectually pornographic:

You ready?

It's kind of a crazy idea.

Choose not to watch it.

I'm certainly not going to come into your home and force you to watch my film. I also sincerely doubt congress is going to pass a law making Women's Studies required viewing for all Americans. Your local church group isn't going to ostracize you if you don't see this film. So, the choice whether to see it is entirely in your hands. Should I inadvertently contact you or a group you're involved with because I think you might be interested in the film and it turns out you're not, by all means politely tell me so. I won't bother you again.

Don't get me wrong. I want you to come see the film. I'd like for you to come with an open mind and put any pre-conceived notions aside and see what we have to say about cults, feminism, and the fine art of sharp, shiny knives. However, I also understand and respect that Women's Studies may simply not be your cup of tea, and as that old theatre adage goes . . .

I'll leave you with this thought to ponder: To me, anyone who thinks this film (which isn't intended to be an anti-feminist film) has the power to ruin the women's rights movement doesn't seem to have much faith in that movement's power. Also, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't womankind have bigger problems to worry about than a horror film about killer strippers?