Tuesday, November 28, 2006


My father hounded me all through college to get a degree in business. He was a big believer in the idea that education brings financial success. As screwed up as it sounds, he wanted me to be a desk jockey. I could understand his reasoning, having spent most of his life busting ass twelve hours a day as a pipe-fitter. He thought he was doing me a favor, my dad; providing money so I could have the things I needed and wanted. He was getting money so I could go to college. The sad humor is that on the day I left for college my father and I looked at each other and realized we had no idea who the other was.

I left college in 1998 needing twelve credits to get my degree in theatre arts with a minor in communications. I "walked " with my class. It was time for me to go though. I had already been there five years, and even just one more semester seemed unbearable. Besides, since then I've gone back and finished up the twelve lousy credits and from a career standpoint, actually having the piece of paper in my possession has changed absolutely dick.

Anyway, I got a job with a temp agency, and they landed me a long term gig with an up and coming software company. I was a go getter. I've kind of always been a go getter, which tends to impress those with authority over me. The kicker is I've always hated authority. I'm an idealist sure, but with the heart of an anarchist. Still, I'm a hard worker. That's one of the things my dad did teach me.

So, when the term of the temp job was up, the guys at this software company liked me so much they offered me a regular position. It was a salaried job with great benefits: health, dental, 401k, the works. All I could do was go up. My dad was ecstatic. I took the job.

After six pretty miserable weeks, I quit. I went into my boss's office, and told him exactly how I felt; that while I appreciated the opportunity he was giving me, it wasn't for me. I had other things I needed to be doing, other paths I needed to walk. "I'm not a business guy," I said. Anti-authoritarian to the bone, I think I expected him to chew me out and be shocked that I was turning my back on what was really a pretty damned good job. He didn't though. In fact, he told me how much he respected me for following my heart.

My dad said nothing when I told him, just kind of shook his head.

The ultimate irony is that the past year I've spent putting together Women's Studies has been more about business than any sort of creative expression. Forget the business degree, I think I've learned what I would have been taught simply by trying to make a go of this thing.

Rather than even doing basic production work like scheduling and loaction scouting, my time has been spent writing business plans, researching the DVD market, setting up corporations, drafting contracts, working with a lawyer to make sure all my state and federal paperwork is correct, weighing the ton of risks against the ounce of hope, and about a thousand other minute detailed things that have nothing to with telling a story. Unfortunately, they have everything to do with making a marketable film. My life is a world of crunching numbers, begging for money, wheeling and dealing, trying to turn "no" into "yes." Hell, even "maybe" would do.

And you know what?

I fucking hate it.

The last six months of my life have been the most soul sucking, humiliating, ego-crushing time I've ever endeavored. I wake up every day and my first registered emotion is uncertainty. My first conscious thought is, "Why am I doing this?" Half the time I feel physically ill. The other half I think I'm losing my mind. A day doesn't go by that I don't want to quit. Nor does a day go by when I know I can't.

I can't. I mean, I physically can't stop myself from trying to move forward. If I walk away, even take a vacation, I somehow find myself turning the film over in my head: "What if I change this line? What if I shot it this way? Maybe Mary should wear yellow in that scene. Music like this would go well in this sequence."

Making movies is all I want to do. It's all I've ever wanted to do, since I was old enough to want anything. If there was a company that hired for "professional dreamer," I 'd be perfect. Experience? I've been doing it all my life. But if you won't hire me to do it, I'll do it anyway. That the sickness of it I think. Even when everyone is telling me the odds are impossible, I still do it. Even when it seems like trying to scale Everest in shorts and flip-flops, I still keep climbing.

A guy I've been hounding to invest in Women's Studies recently said to me, "If persistence leads to success, you're going to be successful." A compliment sure, but I don't think he understand the scary truth beneath it, the reason why I'm so persistent.

I'm a junkie, man.

Creative expression is an addiction. Filmmaking is my drug. I'm just trying to get another hit. Addicts do whatever it takes to get their high. They beg, steal, and sell themselves. Telling a real estate agent how much Dark Harvest made in it's first month on the Blockbuster shelves? That's just me sucking dick in the alleyway for a ten spot. See, a ten spot brings me closer to getting the junk. I'm an addict, remember? Only the camera's my needle, the boom mike my spoon, and the tungsten lights my flame.

Ask any addict busted for stealing, and he'll tell you he didn't do it for the money. The money is just a means to an end. The money just gets him to the high. "I can't help myself," he'll say.

"I just don't know how to quit."

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Mary's Confession

I've talked briefly about Mary in a previous blog entry, Married to "Mary." However, now that we've had a little analysis of the supporting characters, I wouldn't mind taking a deeper look at her. After all, Women's Studies, if nothing else, is the story of Mary and the physical, spiritual, and emotional journey she takes through some very strange countryside.

I believe that story should trump all other aspects of a film, be it theme, style, symbolism, etc. The most important thing I need to convey is "What is this about?" I was taught that story, more than being a series of interconnected events, is a chunk of the main character's life. In this case, we're following along with part of Mary's life. The particular chunk of her life I'm focusing on is that weird time she got trapped at a school run by a cult of homicidal feminists.

There comes a point where "who a character is" has to be decided more by the actor than the writer or director. Certain elements already exist in the script, and the director is there to help guide the character through the world he/she is trying to create. However, I think it's more important for the actor to in many cases decide things like motivation and emotion. After all, having to inhabit these characters, the actors are the ones who know these people best.

Cindy Marie MartinThat said, Cindy Marie Martin and I have had a few chances to talk about who Mary is and why she makes some of her choices. I thought rather than have me talk about who Mary is, it might be more informative to have Cindy do it.

There's probably a couple of spoilers in here, but I think they're vague and minor.

What would you say is Mary's overriding character trait?

"Nie-iv-a-tay." She believes so strongly in her convictions that she can't understand why other people aren't as passionate as she is. Mary is an optimistic person with a really good heart, and she sees other people through her "humanity is good" glasses. In doing so, she blinds herself to people's faults.

Sounds kind of "goody-two shoes."

Ew. "Goody-two shoes" is such a stereotype. Mary is a rounded character, a person. That's what I love about her. Everyone knows a Mary. She has a good heart, loads of determination, believes the best in people no matter what they throw at her, and thinks that she can make a difference. (Insert cheesy music here.) But, (dun, dun, dunnnnn) she is also jealous of her best friend's relationship with her own boyfriend which indicates some insecurity beneath her happy little exterior. She chooses to side with strangers instead of listening to her best friend when she tries to talk to her about the weirdness of the situation they're in. She's managed to get herself into a pregnancy that she doesn't want. Finally, (Spoiler Alert) though she loves Zack, she's not real sure that he's "the one" and has no earthly clue how to straighten out her confusion, being too chicken to approach him with her fears and concerns and talk it through like mature adults. She has complex emotions and dirty little secrets just like everyone else in this film. Just like life.

Interesting. When I was writing Mary, I envisioned her as a sort of "Everyman." You think people will respond to her as such?

Yes, I do. She's a good person who has her faults with hard choices in a really sucky situation. One thing that makes the film so attractive to the actresses involved (excuse me while I speak for us all for a moment) is the fact that it has so many well rounded female roles. But, let's be honest. The bad aspects of the Academy Girls are exaggerated. Mary is closest to a person you'd meet on the street. She's not overly evil. She's not completely perfect. She's just a person thrown into hell who has to react.

Talk a bit about where Mary is at the beginning of the film.

She's just found out that she's pregnant. She's confused. She wants a career in Washington and her boss, Senator Hamlin, has told her that she has one if she wants it. But, a baby doesn't fit in with a high powered career forcing change for women. She's not sure she wants to stay with her boyfriend, Zack, and has no idea how to end it. Further confusion. Zack doesn't truly respect her desire for a career. He wants kids and a wife at home. In his own way of only hearing what he wants to hear, (similar to Mary's condition), he doesn't listen to her when she repeatedly tells him that's not what she wants. She's craving a solution to her problems. And she finds it. In Judith, et al.

But what Judith and Ross-Prentiss offer Mary isn't a real solution, at least not the right one.

The solution they offer her isn't the dogma they preach. It's the friendship. Mary is confused and feels not listened to. Judith and her clan are more than attentive. They listen to Mary's views. They even "gasp" agree with them. Judith shows undivided best-friend-like attention to Mary without any ugly past connections to her boyfriend. Unlike Beth. It's a solution to her insecurity problem. She fits in. She's valued. The Academy Girls keep Zack away from her so she doesn't even have to focus on that mess. She doesn't realize the extent of their "solution" until she's really trapped. When her eyes are opened, she doesn't just sign right up for their army. She fights.

There seems to be a strange attraction between Mary and Judith. Explain it from Mary's point of view.

I think Mary is captivated by Judith's authority. She commands the respect of all these powerful, (she thinks) tuned in women, and yet has a warmth to her that appeals to Mary's "humanity is good" side. Remember, that at the beginning, Judith isn't showing Mary her killer side. She's wooing her. Mary is falling in love with her in a platonic way. Judith is taking over Beth's role in her life. Judith does have some romantic infatuation with Mary, but I don't think Mary sees it until Judith makes it obvious. (Again, naive.) Then, at that point, I think Mary is so confused over Zack and her love life that she's willing to give anything a try. I haven't worked with Tara yet, so I don't know exactly how things between Mary and Judith are going to shape up.

Any final thoughts?

Mary is a facinating young woman. She lives her life making herself an element of constructive, peaceful change. Then, she's thrown into this bizarro world of feminism led by Judith whose ideals and desires mirror Mary's in almost every way- except for the method of implimentation. Suddenly, harmony and integration are no longer valued. Judith leads a cult of otherwise intelligent women forcing change through violence while preaching about the Goddess. Anyone smell the stench of irony? What factor pushed the Academy Girls over the edge into terrorism and will Mary fall victim in order to save herself and her convictions?...(Insert techno fight music here.) That and honestly... I just can't wait to start shooting. I want to get on set with the other actors and discover who this woman really is. For Womens Studies to succeed in playing the extreme, man-hating, homicidal feminist and show how outrageous that is, Mary has to be a grounded, believable person the audience identifies with. No pressure, right?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Spiritual Definition

(*Since there's no qualms about it on this one, here's your big, fat SPOILER WARNING: If you don't want to know a major plot point about Women's Studies, do not read this blog.*)

A supporting character like Melissa inherently creates problems. If you write "by the book," which none of the best writers ever do, the job of supporting characters is to inform us about the main character; what my communications professor defined as "symbolic interactionism." In other words, the similarities or differences Melissa has to the main character, Mary, are what defines her. (Mary, not Melissa. Do you hate me yet? It gets worse.)

Melissa, however, has very little direct interaction with Mary. In fact, Melissa spends most of her screen time, when she's not killing people, with Iris. If you'll allow me to invent a literary term out of thin air, Melissa is what I would call a "Tercerary Character." It breaks down like this: Mary is the "Primary Character." Iris, is the "Secondary Character" who informs the audience about Mary. Melissa is the "Tercerary Character" who informs us about Iris, who in turn is informing us about Mary. So, Melissa's effect on our view of Iris in turn effects our view of Mary.

What exactly am I trying to say here? Isn't it clear?

Of all the characters in Women's Studies, Melissa has changed the most from her original inception. In the original draft, she was purely and simply dumb; not just run of the mill dumb either. We're talking dumber than a bag of rocks. There's no nice way to say it. She said dumb things. She did dumb things. I'd like to tell you that her antics were comedy gold of the highest karat. I'd also like to tell you that a little green fairy will come to you in the night and bring you candy and flowers.

Melissa's original role was little more than padding out the academy girls' numbers and comic relief, if you're the type of person who finds dumb, blonde jokes funny. Later, when I introduced Iris into the story, Melissa stayed dumb, except it didn't quite work anymore. Why? Well, if Melissa is dumb and Iris is naive, isn't that kind of like the blond leading the blind? ("Bum-Dum-Chh!" Thank you, I'll be here all night.)

So, Melissa had to evolve, and I wasn't exactly sure what she should evolve into. My first idea (or second idea, depending on your point of view.) was to have her be exceptionally, unbelievably heartless. Perhaps, of all the academy girls, Melissa was the only one who was truly evil. If Diane was in it for the cause and Judith was in it for the passion, Melissa was in it for the kicks. She doesn't care about liberating womankind or finding herself. She just wants to create chaos. In a way, she was the "anti-frat boy:" "Let's get drunk and kill some fuckers!" Ultimately, I decided that since Melissa's primary goal was to convert Iris to the cause, this interp wasn't the best, since Iris would probably be more frightened than seduced by someone so blatantly cruel.

My next idea was to make Melissa very trendy, immature, and obsessed with beauty, the kind of girl who was afraid of stabbing too hard for fear of breaking a nail. The problem was, this just didn't seem to fit into the world I created. If she was that vain and shallow, would Melissa really give a shit about any kind of social revolution?

For auditions, I tried Melissa as stoner though that just seemed to be doing "dumb" from a different angle. I got a lot of Keanu Reeves impressions, and while it was entertaining, most of the girls exaggerated it horribly. During one woman's audition (who ironically enough didn't end up getting the role) I got a "new age" spiritual vibe I hadn't seen before. Suddenly, the picture of who Melissa was began to fall into shape.

If Iris comes from a strict Christian background, it stands to serve that it would be spiritual ideas that would pull her away from that. Melissa sees the Ross-Prentiss dogma as a spiritual path encompassing all the universe and it's energy, the future matriarchy as the patriarchy's bad karma coming back around, and the killing as a present physical sacrifice being made for the greater good of a balanced spiritual future. Of all the academy girls, I think Melissa is the happiest and most comfortable with the heinous acts she performs because she understands that without the knowledge of darkness, we could never understand or even recognize the light.

Tiffany JamesTo say that Tiffany James, who's playing Melissa, has her hands full is something of an understatement. The character, while now on more solid footing than before, still has some evolution to endure. However, I think it needs an actor more than a writer to feed it. I also think Tiffany understands the balance between light and dark, and the importance of walking both paths because she seems to have done so. There's some elusive quality in her that's wild yet also wise. It's going to be interesting to see how those qualities show themselves in Melissa.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Queen of the Damned

(*NOTE: More than any other character, Judith is tough to talk about without giving away certain story elements. Though I've couched spoilers in the vaguest terms, if you're avoiding them, you may want to skip this one.*)

"Once upon a time, Mary, the Good Witch, and her companions were traveling through a dark and enchanted forest. There she met Judith, the Dark Enchantress, and her coven of wicked witches who with the promise of freedom and love, lured Mary and her friends back to their lair . . ."

While I like to try to boil Women's Studies down to the above fairy tale essence, it's really not that black and white. Sure there's purity and light, represented by Mary. There's also violence and darkness which as the script nears its climax becomes represented by Judith. However, there's a lot of grey area as well, places where the difference between light and dark, right and wrong is not so clear cut. You see, both Mary and Judith are fallen angels. They both have secrets; Mary's which causes her fall, and Judith's which shows how she fell.

With the character of Judith, I fully acknowledge the archetype (stereotype?) of the "Bad Witch," a woman of power who due to some negative emotion, uses her powers for ill instead of good. The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Evil Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, both consumed by jealousy, come to mind. (Also, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and a list of any other Grimm's fairy tale which describes a cruel matriarch.) The ultimate expression of the "Bad Witch" (Which, lets be honest, created the modern stereotype) is the Wicked Witch of the West from the film version of The Wizard of Oz who, after the accidental death of her sister, promises a swift and cruel revenge on Dorothy of Kansas. (And her little dog too!)

Thankfully, Judith is not so over the top as Margaret Hamilton cackling "I'll get you my pretty," in her cronish, green make-up. (However, do not interpret "over the top" as "ineffectual.") Still, the basic elements of the "Bad Witch" are alive and well in her. It's negative emotions, vengeance, jealousy, pride, and above all, loneliness that drive Judith to commit her wicked deeds. Also, as often happens with the "Bad Witch," she takes on a different form to seduce the naive heroine. Judith's transformation isn't physical, but it's there all the same. (I cast Judith as a redhead, because in medieval times, red hair was a sure sign a woman was in league with the devil . . . just in case no one had a duck handy.)

Lastly, though nothing overtly supernatural occurs in Women's Studies, I imply on more than one occasion that Judith has somehow survived her own death. But as we all know, there's always a price for such a feat. Judith you see, is like Medusa, the Gorgon, once beautiful and loved, now a monster and alone. We can't see the monster, but we know it's there. SHE knows it's there, and she thinks that with Mary's help, she can defeat this monster and restore the real Judith. The problem is that the real Judith is already dead. The damned can't get out of their deal with the devil.

From this standpoint, Women's Studies becomes a tragic love story between Mary and Judith. They both think that each other's redemption, forgiveness for their dark secrets, lies within the other, but Mary soon finds that to not be the case. Only then does their relationship become black and white, for if Mary won't walk Judith's path, Judith cannot allow her to walk any other. They become each other's nemesis; light and dark, Athena and Medusa, the Goddess of Light and the Queen of the Damned.

When I first conceived of Judith, I envisioned her as a "femme fatale," dark, sexy, and deadly serious. She was originally written as your stereotypical, dark haired, pouty lipped villainess. I realized quickly that she was neither scary nor funny, but just kind of there, a villain whose only purpose was to serve the plot because every story of this sort needs a bad guy, or in this case, bad girl.

Tara GarwoodWhen Tara Garwood read for Judith, I realized how humorless I had conceived the character. It's okay though, because Tara knew that Judith, though scary, is also a little bit funny; a ball of contradictions, intertwined in a bundle of nervous, expressive, yet frightening energy; like the love child of a tryst between Squeaky Fromme and Freddy Krueger. Kind of a funny image, no?

Then again, I wouldn't want their kid sitting next to mine in kindergarten.

More on Tara at www.taragarwood.com