Jodie Markell’s adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” is currently playing in New York City at the Quad Cinemas and in several theaters in Southern California. The film focuses on the loose cannon Memphis debutante Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard) as she falls in love with a low-class man who she passes off as a class equal. Markell, an actress (“Big Love”) who is making her feature film directorial debut, responded to indieWIRE‘s questions in an email interview.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
I have always been interested in telling stories that transport an audience. I grew up one of three sisters in Memphis Tennessee. My mother is a painter and I was often around inspiring art and sculpture which helped me think in a visual way. My sisters and I even made Super 8 horror movies – and I credit my father for having that camera around the house! When I was fifteen, I was cast as Laura Wingfield in a high school production of The Glass Menagerie. By the time I was seventeen, I had read everything by Tennessee Williams that I could find and I had also been inspired by Elia Kazan’s classic films of A Streetcar Named Desire and my favorite, Baby Doll. As a teenager with artistic tendencies, who often felt a bit different, I had a real affinity for Williams’ sensitive characters who are searching for something authentic in a harsh world. At Northwestern University, I studied the adaptation of literature to the stage and screen. In this discipline, our goal was always to let go of our preconceptions and opinions. We learned to discover and consequently reveal the true voice of the story. It was often an exercise in letting go of your ego in order to see another’s vision as clearly as possible. This philosophy has really shaped me as an actor, a writer and especially a filmmaker when I became interested in guiding all the elements of film design and production towards a common vision of how to tell the story. After college, I studied acting in New York at Circle in the Square Theater School where I first encountered the screenplay of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.
Please discuss how the idea for this film came about.
I was immediately struck by the lead character, Fisher Willow, a young woman struggling to find her voice and trying to understand how to connect with someone she loves in a genuine way. I related to Fisher’s longing to be understood in a conventional society. As a young actress, I saw a number of productions of Williams that did not feel true to me, they did not feel organic to the southern sensibility that I knew. I wanted to reclaim Williams and bring his visually poetic world to the screen in a fresh way with as much vibrancy and authenticity as I could achieve in the hope of inspiring a new audience to re-discover this original American voice.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
Williams has said that everything he wrote was poetry in one form or another. I knew this might be a challenge for contemporary audiences who have become used to formulaic and prosaic narratives. I have always been inspired by films that take the audience on a poetic journey like those by Fellini, Bunuel, Terence Malick and even Spike Jonze. I knew I needed to find visual ways to support the poetic “sensibility” of Fisher Willow and her journey.
Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and I selected to shoot anamorphic, to not only give the film a larger than life canvas, but also to heighten the intimacy of the subtle emotional shifts that take place in the characters’ faces. The widescreen enabled the actors to move within the frame, even at times to share a close up. Shooting in cinemascope also recalls the style of the great films of the fifties (like Kazan’s East of Eden) when the screenplay was written.
I wanted to expand visual sequences that might only have been referenced in the original screenplay. Williams’ work often calls for an element of the surreal. I relished the opportunities in the story for a heightened reality and I wanted to bring it to life with a painterly use of color and light; finding a rich technicolor ambience to the imagery of the sparkling ballrooms, the verdant landscapes, and the striking sunsets. The South still has remnants of its old individuality and I wanted to capture them before they are lost forever.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
Producer Brad Michael Gilbert was instrumental in putting together the financing. Brad and I had a hunch that actors would respond to the opportunity to originate a Tennessee Williams role. And we found that to be true as we proceeded to cast the film. Bryce was always my first choice for the lead character, Fisher Willow. I saw her first in The Village. She is very present and her work is deeply honest and grounded. And her commitment is fierce. Many actresses make the mistake of playing Williams’ heroines in a very artificial mannered way that tends to keep the audience at a distance. I knew that Bryce would never fall into that trap. The divine Ellen Burstyn, who is simply a goddess, was also my first choice for Miss Addie.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
In addition to the filmmakers I mentioned above, I have had many creative influences including : the use of light in the work of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Edward Hopper; the music of Carl Orff and Tom Waits; the words of Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Sam Shepard. Meanwhile, the voices of Rilke, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, William Blake, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Nabokov,and Gabriel Garcia Marquez have shaped my longing to tell stories that speak to the heart, delight the mind, and feed the soul.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I am fairly obsessed with rediscovering overlooked American classics. I like stories with historical interest and mystery, but I also like contemporary character driven stories. I like to explore romance with or without comedy and I find certain family films quite powerful. I love to work with actors, create an environment for them to make discoveries and find the emotional core of the story – and then design a rich and unique visual world for their characters to inhabit.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Find a story that you just HAVE to tell before you die. Then find a producer who believes in that story as much as you do. And please study the craft of acting so you know how to talk to actors and how to actually inspire them instead of abuse or confuse them as so many directors do.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Whenever I can move an audience and share some kind of understanding- that is an achievement. And I think to be able to work with the most accomplished actors, writers, and designers in the pursuit of a common vision – that is my definition of success. I have had the good fortune to work with some truly great artists in both film and theater who I learned from every day. If fame follows, well, that is just icing on the cake, because I have always been more interested in simply doing the work – with inspiring collaborators. That’s what it is really all about.