By Aaron Hillis
[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).