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Karen Moncrieff on “The Dead Girl”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: “The Dead Girl,” First Look Pictures Releasing, 2006]

Those of you still hungover from all that Jennifer Hudson buzz on Christmas might be too bleary-eyed to notice this week’s real dreamgirls: Mary Beth Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Toni Collette, Kerry Washington, Rose Byrne, Piper Laurie and Brittany Murphy (stop snickering) all help breathe life into writer-director Karen Moncrieff’s “The Dead Girl.” In her follow-up to 2002’s justly praised debut “Blue Car,” Moncrieff’s pitch-black ensemble drama about loss and isolation centers around the murder of a prostitute (Murphy). Structured into five vignettes, each part sketches a portrait of a troubled soul with some connection to the eponymous victim, including her mother (Harden) and the stranger who finds her body (Collette). As poignant a kick in the chest as any film about women discovering they’re each a little dead inside should be, “The Dead Girl” was recently nominated for three Spirit Awards — including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Mary Beth Hurt), and Best Director — which only proves it’s the most wonderful time of the year… to have a short chat with Moncrieff.

Congrats on all the Spirit Award nominations. Was there any sort of marketing push, or was this is a complete surprise?

There was a push insofar as getting screeners to the committee who makes the decisions, but that’s as far as it goes. Honestly, I hoped that we would get a Best Supporting Actress nomination, so I wasn’t surprised that they recognized Mary Beth Hurt. Of course, I wanted them to recognize more of our ladies, too, but I had no expectations that we would get a Best Picture or Best Director nod at all. That was a wonderful surprise. First Look is a small-ish company and can’t compete with these huge studios that have tons of money to pour into campaigns. We’re just not in that world. “The Dead Girl” is a four-million dollar, fiercely independent movie, and I feel they’re doing a really great job with it so far.

You’re up against “Little Miss Sunshine” for Best Picture, a film that probably has the backing for a potential Oscar campaign. Does “independent film” still mean what it should nowadays, or has it become a studio term for niche product?

I’m sure other people have definitions. For me, I see myself as an independent director because I’m not just examining the lives of supermodels, super-lawyers and athletes. I want to tell stories that are perhaps a little off of the beaten path, with people who maybe exist on the fringes of society, and I’m interested in examining their lives more deeply than a run-of-the-mill Hollywood film might. This movie consists of portraits of six women, most of whom by Hollywood standards aren’t camera-ready, their lives aren’t perfect enough, they don’t wear enough make-up, or they’re “not beautiful enough.” They’re not all searching for love, I don’t know. [laughs] I expect independent films to illuminate a part of humanity that is often left out. I try to write from some personal place inside me; not autobiographical, but personal in terms of what’s troubling or interesting me. That’s usually where I get the stuff that’s ripest for my exploration.

Do you typically find yourself taking from experience and figuring out themes later, or do you begin with personal ideas you’d like to explore and work outward?

The former. I really couldn’t have imagined that I’d be writing a story that had serial killing and a drug-addict prostitute at its center. You might think that’s the stuff of generic films, but I had this unique experience of being a juror on a murder trial. When it was over, I felt like I knew this young woman who was the victim. Over time, each of the witnesses had offered up a different little detail about who she was. I pieced together a portrait of her, and her life really sprang into bold relief for me. After we convicted the guy, I was still left with this weight that I couldn’t shake, and the way I deal is to write about it. So I started taking notes, thinking about all these other people who were there, how none of us had known one another before we were pulled into this courtroom, and how murder creates this kind of community. In structuring the movie, I tried to do that. Each of the five sections is a portrait of a different woman, their lives each profoundly changed by the murder, and each offers a bit of the puzzle. By the end, the audience has to work to create this idea of who she once was.

There’s obviously a connective thread, but it’s almost like you’re directing five standalone shorts in an omnibus. Were you ever concerned that some of these segments might not work as well as others?

Yeah, I still worry. [laughs] No, honestly, I fulfilled my intentions, but I know it requires a lot of flexibility from the viewer because you become invested in each of these characters. Each vignette is such an intimate view of a life that when I then say, “Okay, you’re done looking at this person, now look over here,” it can be jarring and upsetting to an audience member: “No, I want to stay with Toni Collette and Giovanni Ribisi and see how that works out. I don’t want to move onto someone else!” I understand that it’s a challenging format, but I hope by the end, it will be satisfying and open enough that you’re left with some questions about what the connections and themes are. Ultimately, that’s what I love in movies.

How do you approach dark subject matter so that it’s not misconstrued as sensationalism?

I try to be careful about the images that I provide so that people are paying attention to the right things. For instance, if I lingered on a certain view of the dead body… I’m not interested in adding more images of women being beaten, sexually molested, abused or killed. Even though this is the arena in which these stories take place, I wasn’t trying to be coy in terms of skirting the issue. This woman is killed brutally and it’s bloody and nasty. I wouldn’t feel any need to show that for purely pornographic interests. At the end of the day, I always trust my own barometer to know when something is too much because I’m a woman and very sensitive to this. If I’m watching a film and a woman is being raped so that her boyfriend can go off on a killing spree and get vengeance, I’m very aware of how sexual assault is used as a plot point. I try not to be gratuitous and use only those things needed to tell my story.

As a former actress, why do you think there’s still a shortage of great women’s roles today?

I think it’s because there’s still this assumption that men won’t go to see women’s stories, but women will go see men’s stories. That, and the fact there aren’t that many female writers and directors compared to how many men are out there telling their stories. Women are definitely an underserved audience. They want to see stories about themselves, portrayed in all the complexity that is inherent in women’s lives. Kieslowski, he used to tell some beautiful women’s stories. But he’s dead now, so… [shrugs]

“The Dead Girl” opens in New York and L.A. on December 29th (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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