Racing Along in the “Blue Car” with Karen Moncrieff
by Brandon Judell
She’s made us weep, gasp, and writhe in such soap operas as “Days of Our Lives,” “The Bold and the Beautiful,” and “Santa Barbara,” and in series like “Silk Stalkings” and “Diagnosis Murder.” Now actress-turned-writer/directr Karen Moncrieff has accomplished the same with her Sundance 2002 success “Blue Car,” opening on Friday from Miramax.
In “Blue Car,” teenager Meg (Agnes Bruckner) finds her chaotic life unraveling until her English teacher (David Strathairn) helps her find poetry in her soul. When he also helps her find lust elsewhere, that’s when the problems arise. Delicately wrenching and unconventionally insightful, “Blue Car” carries along fine performances, astute direction, and fluid writing to a strong finale.
Citybeat.com put it this way: “the searing drama [was] Sundance’s real breakout.” Bought by Miramax for a reported $1.5 million at Sundance 2002, the Weinsteins have also inked on Moncrieff for future projects which might include Edith Wharton’s novel “Summer.”
indieWIRE contributor Brandon Judell hooked up with the celluloid femme of the moment at the Montreal World Film Festival late last summer, where she was riding from a huge amount of Canadian bravos.
indieWIRE: Are there still any special difficulties being a woman director nowadays, or does talent always win out now over one’s sex?
Karen Moncrieff: I wonder if I will have more perspective on this as I go on in the business, and also as I start to work a bit within the studio system. I know Miramax doesn’t consider itself a studio. It’ll be interesting to see.
I feel like people from my actors to my crew have been very respectful. There were a few times where I encountered little bits of sexism that I identified and put the kibosh on very, very quickly. People test you and you know that they are, and they’re telling you they can’t do something that you know they can do.
This was not from the core people on my crew. But in the postproduction process when we redid some things, there were people who were kind of hired hands for the day. You know they’re on the clock, and they don’t care about the project. They’re not invested in it, and I got tested a few times there. I’m not a very confrontational person. I tend to avoid it but I needed to say, “No! What I said is what I want, and is there a reason why you can’t give it to me?” I knew what was going on. So there were only little bits and pieces, but you know that might not even have been sexism. It might have just been “Well, she’s a first-time director. She doesn’t really know what she wants.”
iW: I interviewed Sandra Nettelbeck who directed “Mostly Martha,” and she said she in fact hired a male assistant director on purpose so if she and her aid were yelling or asking for something, people couldn’t say, “Oh, these two bitches are acting up.”
iW: She used some psychology there.
Moncrieff: That’s interesting. I’m guessing because I’ve just heard enough of other women talk about the struggles they’ve had, maybe they will be there for me. It may be that one of my strengths is in getting people to rally behind my vision and help me get it. I felt very much like my crew…The keys had come from Los Angeles. The cinematographer. The gaffer. The production designer. And most of the actors. Some were hired locally. All the rest of the crew were locals from Ohio who had gone to film school at Wright State University and were doing what they were doing because they loved the script. I have to say that the crew had so much heart and were so staunchly behind me.
We had these insane days. We shot the movie in 20 days. We did 18 days in Ohio and two in Oxnard, California. Sometimes we had 35 set ups a day, which is just insane. We were working at a furious pace. There were days that seemed like it would be impossible that we would make our day. So I’m looking at the script thinking, “Okay, well, what can I cut from the day?” because I’ve been told we cannot add extra days.
I just felt my crew coalesced. Just sort of really came together at the last moment and pulled it out. I just felt really proud of them and proud of me. I felt like we all accomplished something really great. There was a lot of heart in that crew, which I’m really am so thankful for.
iW: Being a former actress, are you ever going to direct yourself?
Moncrieff: I’ll never say never. I don’t know if it will change but I’m not very interested in seeing myself on screen. And at least right now, I feel like it’s so important to be as objective as you can be as a director. To me, at every stage, once you’ve written a screenplay, it’s important to try and see it with fresh eyes and scrutinize it and see what works and doesn’t work, and throw out what doesn’t work. Not to cling to things that don’t work. The same is true with performance moments.
In the editing room is a great time to sort of be brutal with your material and throw it out. I just don’t know if I could be objective enough about myself and my own work. Also I want to work with better actors than me. (Laughs)
iW: So you used Final Cut Pro. Was that helpful?
Moncrieff: We shot on 35mm. We used Final Cut Pro to edit. Honestly, my editor was at first a little reticent. He had only worked on Avids and there was a little learning curve to climb up so that he could figure out the differences. But one really wonderful thing for the filmmaker about Final Cut is you get to see detail in the images that you wouldn’t necessarily get to see if your medium is compressed, which I understand at least historically, it has always been in the Avid. So the picture looks a lot better initially. (Laughs) This is nice and also kind of important in that you want to be able to see if there’s a boom shadow or something going on because we didn’t have the luxury of doing a check print. We transferred right to video and edited on video and cut our negative based on the cut list, the edit decisions, that came out of Final Cut Pro. So we never at any time saw a print of it until we cut negative and saw the result in print. So we kind of were going, “Oh please, God! Let us not have missed like a big boom in the shot!” which I had heard happens a lot more if you’re watching the Avid or some system where you can’t see into all the details and the shadows.
iW: At one point you weren’t sure whether you were going to shoot on film or digital.
Moncrieff: The cinematographer and I always wanted to shoot on film. It was really strictly budgetary. Obviously [our producer] wanted to lower his risk.
iW: If “Blue Car” had been shot digitally, do you think it would have achieved the same success?
Moncrieff: I’m seeing now that it doesn’t seem to matter. At least at Sundance last year, several features that were made, they were shot on digital video. I’m thinking of “Personal Velocity,” which won the grand prize. I thought that was a really beautiful movie. And “Tadpole,” which was a lot of fun, and Miramax paid a lot of money for. It was shot on digital video. But “Personal Velocity,” which Ellen Kuras shot, was beautiful to look at, really beautiful, which made me very excited about the possibility of digital video. I’d be excited to try that for a small project that I’m thinking about. That’s a project that I might be financing myself eventually. And so digital would be something that I would certainly investigate.
But for “Blue Car.” for some reason I’ve always saw it on film. There’s something stark and insular [about the film]. There’s also something sort of lush. And when the cinematographer and I were talking about it, I always thought it’s not the landscape of this terrain, the actual physical place where they are that I want to see so much, but I really want to see the landscape of faces. I want to see faces that are naked to camera, and where you can actually look at someone’s face. Look into their eyes and see what’s going on in them. Somehow I just felt like the nuance of that might get lost if it wasn’t film. Also I just love the look of film.