INTERVIEW: Singing Story, Korean Master's "Chunhyang" Comes to America
by Howard Feinstein
(indieWIRE/ 06.14.01) — On the living room wall of the fourth-floor walkup in Brooklyn’s Park Slope that Maggie Greenwald shares with her composer husband, David Mansfield, and their three-year-old daughter Maisie, there’s a striking photograph of a very old, very naked Mexican prostitute who exudes pride in who she is and what she does.
Greenwald’s films, especially her third, “The Ballad of Little Jo,” and her fourth, the upcoming “Songcatcher,” feature uncommon women with the same trait: Little Jo (Suzy Amis) courageously passed for a man in the rugged Old West and “Songcatcher”‘s Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a turn-of-the-century musicologist in male-dominated academia, ventures into the rugged southern Appalachian mountains to collect the ballads they have been singing for 200 years. It’s no accident that Greenwald’s interest in the subject was piqued by the fact that the women passed on the music.
Greenwald, a physically small, dark-haired, attractive woman with a highly developed sense of humor, is as generous to an interviewer as she is to her actors, who say, like Aidan Quinn, they adore working with her. A tour of her home reveals the unvarnished wooden bed slept in by Little Jo, lots of folkloric collectibles, a collection of Asian dolls for Maisie, whom Greenwald and Mansfield adopted in China, and a playroom which will soon become a bedroom for a little girl whom the couple will soon adopt on a return trip to China.
Without question, Greenwald has a knack for improving the lot of women, whether they are growing up today or were struggling against difficult odds a century ago. The evidence suggests that she is successful on both counts.
Howard Feinstein speaks to Greenwald about breaking into the business, and the music and women of “Songcatcher.”
indieWIRE: So what’s your background?
Maggie Greenwald: I grew up in Queens and Manhattan, in Washington Square Village. My parents did their doctoral work there. I went to the performing arts school; I started doing drama for 10 years, from the time I was 10 till I was 20; I was a dancer also. I also wanted to make movies, but as a kid I didn’t GET that it was directors that made the stories; I thought the actors did. I was not crazy about performing, so I then moved to Los Angeles to shift into filmmaking out there. I guess growing up in New York, where do you go when you leave home, you go to Los Angeles. I went to film school for about a year to Los Angeles City College, which had a terrific film program. I decided to stay in LA. And go to work in business. That was my path. I got a job as a driver for Sun Classic Pictures, which was making Grizzly Adams movies. I worked my way up and became an editor. In my mid-20s, I began to write and develop my own projects. It took about 5 scripts and 5 years to eventually connect with some financing for a first feature, and that came from a businessman here who thought it would be fun to make a movie; he offered me $200,000. That was “Home Remedy.” So I wrote a script that could be done for $200,000 and came home, which I was ready to do.
iW: What was “Home Remedies” (1987) about?
Greenwald: It was released at the Film Forum; it had a nice life at festivals. It’s a black comedy about a young man turning 30 who’s having an existential crisis and he locks himself in his house in effort to find meaning in ordinary things in life. While he does this, he videotapes himself, and talks to himself. A bored housewife who lives down the street starts to hang out on his driveway, and they begin to have a relationship through the window of the house. They eventually have to break through their own inability to relate. They blow up the house.
iW: There’s a unique, skewed angle on relationships in your films?
Greenwald: Every script I’ve written is built around a single character I’m fascinated with. I’ve searched the landscape of whatever the environment of the story is and try to create honest relationships. What kind of relationship would this person really have? In the case of “Home Remedies,” the young man was totally shut down. The only way he could develop a relationship was with a window, and with someone very improbable.
iW: How does this apply to “Songcatcher”?
Greenwald: I started with the music. To make a film around the music coincided with some research into the origins of country music. The producer had approached me and David to do a film about the early days of the country music business. I did some research. Word came out of the mountains about the music primarily from women teachers and missionaries who were up in mountains at that time. It was a women’s tradition. The story appealed to me on all those levels. I was also intrigued by the music; the passionate narratives are incredible.
The first generation of college educated women were making their way into all areas of American life, part of what they had been taught was to be of service, so a lot of them were teachers who went into the mountains. Olive Campbell was an extraordinary woman; she’s not the inspiration for Lily, but she was a brilliant woman who was one of the first people to collect ballads and write about them. I set the film in 1907 in honor of Olive Campbell. That was the year that she heard a schoolgirl sing Barbara Allen and recognized it and collected ballads. But it was not until 1917 that she actually brought this small collection to a famous English musicologist, Cecil Sharp. He sensed a great discovery and went into the mountains to collect the ballads. They were going to collect them together, but Olive was pregnant and couldn’t travel through the mountains with him. He did indeed publish the definitive book of mountain ballads that he collected over two summers, 1917 and 1918 and he put her name on the book.
iW: Can you talk about working with Janet McTeer?
Greenwald: She’s a goddess. She’s extraordinary. I wanted an actress who was unquestionably powerful, beautiful. But plain, powerful, feminine. A year before I connected with Janet, other names came up, people with names, but without that power. I had seen her on Broadway in “The Doll’s House,” and David did the score to “Tumbleweeds.” David came home from the screening of the first rough cut of “Tumbleweeds and said, “You should see this woman, she’d be perfect for Lily.” I thought, how could I convince my investors to back her? But because of David’s involvement with film, the day after the “Tumbleweeds” screening at Sundance, with the buzz, I knew I could do it. I went to her a week after Sundance. She has a very English disdain for all this (publicity), I think she’s been very disillusioned. She’s so personable. She came to the set right after shooting “The King is Alive” in Africa, so she and Kristian Levring were together.
I worked a lot with her and Aidan; they both came down early. Aidan had done a huge prep; he prepared for 2 months. He didn’t play banjo, he didn’t sing. David taught him how to play the guitar; he took singing lessons, worked with a dialect coach for 2 months. The principal rehearsal was with the two of them, and they adored each other. Aidan is wonderful; he adored her. They worked wonderfully together. Aidan’s performance is the finest of his career. I hope you’ll say that. Janet is a life force, always a pleasure, always very professional. It was physically very painful for her, with the corset; we had a bizarre nightmare with hair extensions, which were painful. It was a very short shoot, so we worked very long hours. It was very strenuous for her. It was summer in the mountains, it was hot and humid, she had a corset on and hair extensions that had been put in improperly, so she was in agony all the time. She was always so giving.
iW: The connection of banjo with African instruments is so interesting.
Greenwald: David knew a lot; he’s had a lifelong love of American folk music, going back to his days playing for Dylan, even before that. He was on the Rolling Thunder review. Played fiddle. His earliest score was for “Heaven’s Gate.” We’ve been together for eight years; he did the score for “Ballad of Little Jo.”
iW: What is your interest in lesbian characters?
Greenwald: I always find that the reality is wilder than anything I could imagine. In a film like “Songcatcher,” which was intended to be a patchwork quilt of different women’s lives in the mountains at that time, that is a real type of woman. Certainly not all of the spinster schoolteachers at that time were gay, but I’m sure quite a few have been, the Boston marriage, the women who lived covert but very fulfilling lives, under our noses. It’s another aspect of me saying what women’s lives have been really like.
iW: Your cinematographer said the music speaks for itself and that’s why it’s shot straight on?
Greenwald: Yeah. These songs are what people sing on their front porch. I was concerned with how to film that, because I know audiences are concerned with very kinetic visuals. I’ve always viewed the film as a musical. Enrique [Chediak] thought the performances speak for themselves; they don’t need a lot of elaborate camera work. It would have been gratuitous. Here we’re making a movie about a cappella ballad singing, and we’re not moving the camera. It was organic to what the piece was. A dynamic camera would have been contrary.
iW: What are you working on next?
Greenwald: I’m working on something that is premature to talk about. It’s a post-holocaust love story that takes place in the camps after the liberation.