Wednesday, January 13, 2010


A heated boardroom exchange between characters played by Ann Magnuson and Gerald L'Ecuyer is one of several set pieces in WOMAN'S PICTURE which have required a special kind of attention in the editing room.

The exchange is scripted at fourteen pages, much of which is delivered by Ann. The segment she appears in as Miriam Masterson is seen through the eyes of her character, a woman who recalls various classic women's film archetypes. Miriam's boss, played by L'Ecuyer, has called the meeting in question for reasons unknown to Miriam, causing her a lot of anxiety and self doubt. She enters the room wearing a mask of confidence and leaves totally shattered.

From inception I viewed the board room scene as a composite of various iconic film stills. You have a woman sitting somewhat stoically and defensively at a long table, surrounded by men. The wall behind her seems to dwarf her, yet she's shot from below, so she looms a little too. That doesn't empower her, but it does somehow ennoble her. She has an edge about her. She seems hard, or brittle, and there's a slight mania to her presence, an element of barely controlled delusion which elicits contradictory responses of empathy and rejection from her audience. She's reached an age where age is more of an issue.

Before and during the shoot, Ann and I engaged in trying to determine whether or not Miriam is likable, or whether she needs to be. Editing, I face the issue alone, and hope to see clearly. Ann has played many roles which build on this career woman template, capitalizing on the desire to see her punished or put in place. How we developed and presented Miriam was very important to her. She didn't want to make another contribution to the stereotype. I was sensitive to that. At the same time, I'm fascinated by that stereotype; specifically, where it comes from and what drives it. I wanted to create a character who embodies the qualities of that stereotype but places them within different contexts. The older films seem to be about satisfying an audience's urge to see a woman suffer and be punished; particularly a woman in some position of control or power. Mildred Pierce comes to mind, although it isn't the same kind of career woman.

A TV personality, Miriam has appeared throughout the film on the television sets of other characters, selling feminine lifestyle product. Her set is uber feminine. Chrome and white lacquer touches reference the Hollywood style of the films she once watched with her mother. She talks a lot on TV about their close bond. She seems to be holding herself up as an example of the dutiful daughter, the have-it-all career woman. She's an arbiter of taste and femininity in the eyes of her viewers, many of whom she takes calls from every day.

The moment she steps off camera, you realize what a construction this persona is. The home shopping studio which houses her set and produces her show is a sleek, modern facility, and Miriam seems out of place in it. It's as if the building has been renovated or she's never really gotten the hang of the place. She has trouble finding her way around in it. She gets lost in the halls. Her fancy, flowing silver dress looks almost ridiculous in this environment, especially compared to the attire of the mostly male staff, knit shirts and casual slacks. However close Miriam and her mother might have been at one time--and the implication is that they never were--her mother is now in a nursing home, suffering from late stage Alzheimers. "I talk to my mother every day," Miriam tells her viewers. What she doesn't say is that her mother never talks back and probably can't hear her. When we see her at her mother's bedside, she's staring off into space, like her mother. They stare in opposite directions.

The discrepancies between her on screen persona and her real life are so numerous and so glaring that you're immediately inclined to start seeing Miriam as a fraud. By the time she enters the boardroom, the stage is set to sit back and judge her, to feel a distance from her, a sense of disdain. The challenge for me is to present those discrepancies in ways which can be reviewed and reassessed as the story moves on. The boardroom meeting is a turning point and involves subtle turnabouts and peaks. Grant and Miriam are both playing roles--the affable boss, the team-playing employee. More than anything, each is pretending to understand the other's point of view. What I hope to create is a sense for how hard Miriam has to work in this scenario, how carefully she has to word everything, how much simpler she must pretend to be. Her ideas have to seem to be his ideas. Her opinion must appear to affirm his. It's an impossible situation--for both of them, but particularly for her. All Grant really has to do is remain friendly, and even that has ostensibly justifiable limits.

Miriam is surrounded on all sides by men. You never see her in the frame alone. Every reaction she has is visibly public. Grant is often shown in close up. His lines are edited so that he interrupts her. Several times, Miriam's body language telegraphs assurance--she has all the various poses down pat--but words fail her. Ultimately, she is so under attack that you'd have to be pretty heartless not to empathize with her. Her biggest illusion might be that her show, like her fantasy life, is her own domain. She feels confident in everyone's awareness that she understands her demographic, this world she's cultivated and nurtured, better than anyone could; certainly better than any man. The meeting quickly disobliges her of this idea, and she sees that the compromises she's made have bought her nothing. Just about anyone can relate to that fear and disappointment. If Miriam is delusional, we all essentially are. Hopefully, by the end of the meeting, a viewer switches sides at the table.

There are many takes where Miriam comes across a little too forcefully, upsetting a delicate balance of power in the room. I've tried to avoid those moments. While they're funny, and very good--some of Ann's best work in the piece, really--they also reinforce the impression that the men in Miriam's life are victims to her will, and they seem to confirm some of the stereotypes Ann and I want to avoid. We tried different readings; the lines could go different ways. I suspect part of the reason this forcefulness appealed to us at the time has to do with exactly the kind of expectations I'm talking about and trying to examine through the movie. Finding alternate inflections requires patience and some rethinking, but the core of the story is about taking the time to see things differently, and that involves looking harder.

My interest in Miriam and in the challenge is very personal. Miriam's character is inspired by my grandmothers, both of whom were strong, independent women whose strength was typically viewed as weakness. The judgment of the men in their lives (and even often the women) produced a distinctly steely disposition which only served to reinforce the sense that their problems were brought on by themselves, by their "difficult" personalities. Every success was a failure; every advance an hostility. Eventually, they stopped trying not to be difficult.

As a child I read their stories very differently. My impressions contradicted the things I heard. After their deaths they continued to be judged. To me, a philandering husband explained a lot. Alcoholism explained even more. To others, these served as some kind of proof that my grandmothers were impossible--to love, to live with. It was unfortunate enough to see them struggle in life; worse to watch them go up against popular opinion. I've always had tremendous admiration for them and have tried to balance my impressions, but I continue to be fascinated with our need to see strong women punished and picked apart, and it comes as no surprise to me that filming and editing this story has involved dealing with my own unconscious biases and tendencies.

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