INTERVIEW: Lost and Found, Katherine Dieckmann Raises "Good Baby"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/11.30.00) — Good films do fall through the cracks. It’s a statement that most film biz cynics would scoff at, but Katherine Dieckmann‘s debut effort “A Good Baby” is the perfect example of a powerful movie that got overlooked. As Dieckmann herself comments, “The perception is if it goes straight to cable or it goes straight to video, it’s got to be stinker, but, in fact, there’s a lot of really interesting films getting made that we’re not seeing.” Picked up for a week-run at New York’s Walter Reade Theater as part of the American Independent Visions program — a joint venture of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Independent Feature Project — “A Good Baby” will premiere Friday night (Dec. 1); the rest of its future remains uncertain.
After its premiere at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival back in 1999, The Hollywood Reporter praised the film for its “rich, Flannery O’Conner-meets-Krzysztof Kieslowski feeling” and Variety called it “a poetic, ambitious, and intelligently crafted film.” With pull quotes like that, and stellar performances from Henry Thomas (“All the Pretty Horses“) as a rugged recluse with a tragic past, David Strathairn (“Limbo“) as an ominous salesman, Cara Seymour (“Dancer in the Dark“) as the local girl who wants to leave her small town, and a 12 week-old baby that illuminates the screen, it’s hard to believe that the industry missed this independent gem of subtle mood and sensitivity.
Dieckmann began her career as a journalist, writing about film and books for The Village Voice, among other publications. She then segued to music videos with R.E.M.‘s “Stand,” and continued her collaboration with R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe with “The Adventures of Pete and Pete,” a children’s show for Nickelodeon. With “A Good Baby,” Dieckmann proves her filmmaking skills with little doubt, and appears ready for a career as a feature filmmaker; she is now at work on the screenplay for “The Shaggs,” the story of the 1960s all-girl rock band for Artisan Entertainment. Dieckmann recently spoke with indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about the troubles of the marketplace, almost getting into Sundance, her circle of filmmaking friends, and being a critic-turned-filmmaker.
indieWIRE: Why do you think it took so long to get this movie seen?
Katherine Dieckmann: Because it’s a totally unfashionable movie, that’s why. Little did I know when I was making it that distributors are terrified of a quiet movie set in the mountains about a guy and a baby. I had no idea. I just knew it was something that compelled me. Obviously, when you go to make a movie, ideally, you don’t worry about who’s going to buy it and why. But also, in the period of time when I started to work on it, and when it got completed and sent out into the marketplace, a lot of things changed. There was a woman in acquisitions at Miramax who was tracking the project and loved the script and came to see the movie the first time it showed, flipped out and really wanted it. She said, “If this was three years ago, I could have bought it.” Which is not really what you want to hear when you’ve struggled 5 years to make a movie. But the climate did really change.
And there were a lot of other things that happened that made things difficult, including almost getting into Sundance, which is a horrifying story. There was an unofficial list that went around the week before the official list came out, and we were on it. Everybody in the New York film community had this list, and we started getting calls from Sony Pictures Classics, and then the list came out in Variety, and we weren’t on it. Two films without distributors had been taken out and two films with distributors had been put in. So that did not make me very happy. So when you don’t get into Sundance, it’s really an uphill climb. Especially for a movie that went through the Sundance labs, because there’s a perception that means you’re a shoo-in for the festival, but in fact, it’s sort of the opposite. If anything, the festival bends over backwards to not look preferential.
iW: It’s a very good film. It got great reviews in the trades. What else do you think happened?
Dieckmann: There was this whole obsession with the idea of “edge.” And the film has to be “edgy,” dealing with subculture, urban culture, drugs, domestic violence, whatever. And when I made it, I was very conscious of making an edgeless movie, in that sense. The edges are really subtle and buried deep in the film and they’re not really spelled out. That’s what I wanted to make and the fact that it wasn’t in vogue, I could have really given a shit. I’m sorry it can’t get seen on a wider level, but that’s the film I wanted to make. Also, the years I spent as a film critic, I kept going where are films like Terrence Malick‘s movies, where are the movies that deal with American characters in a way that is not ironic or not, on the other hand, mindlessly elevating and one-dimensional. I think my urge to make this movie came out of that frustration.
iW: I haven’t seen many first films that have been written so well. How long did you sit with this story?
Dieckmann: A long time, because I first read the book in 1991. I started corresponding with the author for about two years, bugging him, and I’d go out in the woods taking photographs of abandoned cars, make mix tapes of music that were “Good Baby”-esque, and send them to him, and by the end, he was won over and gave me the option for a good, cheap price, because I was paying it for myself, and was very supportive of me having the book — and of changing the book. When I got the option and put it into treatment form, I hooked up with a producer Lianne Halfon and she really nursed me through the screenplay process. It changed a lot after I went to the Sundance labs with it, which was 1996. If I had shot the script I had before that, it would have been a disaster.
iW: What exactly did you learn from that process?
Dieckmann: People were ruthless on the script in the screenwriter’s lab. People give you really hard criticism. It teaches you to be less precious about your script, which you need. After working with actors, and doing these crude versions of the scenes in the Directing Lab — you shoot in Digi-Betacam and you cast, that’s where I met Henry Thomas — and you really hear the dialogue. And then you have a totally different perception of it.
iW: So how did you find a baby that was so expressive?
Dieckmann: We started with these twin boys, and we had them in these pink suits. And I swear I thought they were boys in drag. So I just started freaking out the day before shooting started. We put an ad in the local paper and this couple came in with this baby that was exactly the right age. She was just incredible. Not only a beautiful child, but it was very unusual to see a baby that young — she was 12 weeks old — who focuses with that intensity. She and Henry really did bond. He found it really hard to leave her, in the end. In a way, the chemistry that had to happen in this movie was between him and that baby. And he did not have chemistry with those twins.
iW: I’m wondering about this group of film people that I think of when I think of you. You’re friends with Daniel Minahan [“Series 7”] who worked with Mary Harron [“American Psycho”], and you worked with Michael Stipe, and then there’s that circle, with Jim McKay [“Our Song”] and Tom Gilroy [“Spring Forward”]. So is this some sort of collective?
Dieckmann: Loosely. I think most of those people you mentioned have separate affiliations with each other. With Dan and Mary, we have this extended family, because Mary and I were pregnant at the same time and our daughters were born five days apart. We all read each other’s work and get together periodically and have dinner with the kids. And Jim and Tom and Michael were really close friends of mine, but that was a long time ago, like in the mid-’80s. We certainly came of age together.
iW: People sometimes lament that there’s this lack of mutual support in the indie filmmaking community; what do you think?
Dieckmann: I feel the opposite. Alison Maclean [“Jesus’ Son“] lives a block away and Maggie Greenwald [“Songcatcher“], we both shot our films in Appalachia and her husband scored both of our films, she also has a daughter about my daughter’s age. Maggie got me a teaching job at Columbia; I got Maggie a job on Pete and Pete. Mary’s recommended me for jobs; Dan put me up for a job. I feel like we all have each other’s best interests at heart and support each other. I feel very strongly supported, especially by this small circle of female directors, Alison, Mary, Maggie and Bettie Gordon, who I used to be her assistant when I was 19.
iW: So I wanted to ask you about critics turned filmmakers; it’s a scary concept to many.
Dieckmann: It’s a huge stigma. I guess because people think the critical part of your brain is an un-sensuous part. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think it’s a very American stigma that you have to split those two things into two parts. But you know I feel like all my years as a critic helped me be a director. I saw so many movies, every day. You watch and you become very steeped in cinematic language if you watch that much film. Especially if you’re watching it with the intent to write about it, and really trying to scrutinize the acting, the directing, the camera work. . . I understand people’s trepidation and I tried at a certain point to distance myself from that world. It’s hard, though, because almost every film critic knows me, so it’s hard to get people to write about my movie. Jim Hoberman hired me at the Voice when I was 24. Amy [Taubin] is like, ‘That’s why I haven’t come to visit you and your daughter, because I want to write about your movie.’ So that area can get very muddy.
iW: So do you see yourself as a career filmmaker?
Dieckmann: Definitely, there’s nothing else I really want to do. I’m very realistic about the business, and the ups and downs of the business. So you have to buckle in. You have your life and integrity and the things you care about apart from whatever happens to you with movies. Otherwise, you lose your mind. But I love doing it. And it seems like the most challenging and rewarding work I can think of.