USA, 2003, Color, 10 minutes
Originated on HD
I have always been a storyteller. Even as a child growing up in the South, I told stories, whether it was directing my siblings in plays I had written, performing short monologues at the dinner table or spinning crazy, exotic tales for the hell of it. I guess it was inevitable that I would end up in Los Angeles hoping to bring my stories to a greater audience via television and film.
From the moment I finished reading Miss Ella, a published collection of my father’s memoirs about his grandmother, I knew I had to bring this fascinating story of two sisters to the screen. Here was this incredible woman—my great grandmother—who stood up to the KKK, who opened her home to those in need even though she had nothing, and who raised fourteen children ALONE in 1920s Selma, Alabama.
I was compelled by how Ella contrasted with her adopted sister Rose, a beautiful woman who craved attention and an easy life, but wound up feeling trapped in an empty marriage. Thus, I was motivated to write A Single Rose to take the audience to another place, and still gain insight into issues that are relevant to us today.
I desired to approach the story like a blues song, with its rhythms and mood to fully capture how Rose views her world. With this in mind, the cinematographer and I incorporated movement as much as possible into the camera design to create a poetic and musical effect, and to contrast with Rose’s feeling of stagnation.
I was also inspired by the colors and framing in artwork by Edward Hopper. His simple paintings spoke volumes; women stare wistfully into the distance—women who are obviously so utterly alone, yet one could tell they still believed in that thing or person that would bring them an escape.
Rather than have the usual list of questions and answers, I thought it would be more fun to share with you our war story:
When is a rose, not a rose – when it’s a movie
Shooting A Single Rose was a lesson on what not to attempt when making a short film, or rather, a short film with a limited budget – 11 cast members, period piece, music playback, cheating Los Angeles for Alabama. It all made for the most challenging short film.
Searching for Alabama – in the studio zone…
Due to their agreement with SAG, the American Film Institute restricts their DWW (Directing Workshop for Women) projects to the “studio zone”, a 30-mile radius around the City of Los Angeles. My script takes place in Alabama in the late 1920s, so the challenge was on to find rural Alabama in L.A. I “hired” a location scout, Marshall Davis, who criss-crossed the studio zone several times, logging hundreds of miles. I was surprised at how easily he would walk up to a stranger’s house and ask if they’d let us shoot there. I was more surprised how often the owner would invite him into their home to take pictures and give him a tour – this is Los Angeles after all. Unfortunately, and as expected, most of these areas were not rural enough, 1920s enough or Southern enough to work.
Believe it or not, we did find several areas that were perfect. In fact, they were so perfect that big-budget movies shot there all the time. The owners were not interested in the but-it’s-a-student-film-with-no-money song and dance. The location rental fees were astounding – 2000/day, 3500/day, 5000/day! The best location visually, and who usually works with students, was the Disney Ranch. But the last AFI project that shot there decided to sue them, and the Disney Ranch wasn’t feeling very loving anymore to AFI students.
We finally found a place in Topanga Canyon whose owner enjoyed working with students. He was willing to lower his fee from 4000/day to 600/shoot day and 300/prep/wrap day. My production design consultant hated it because the house didn’t look Alabama-enough. My DP hated it because the house had white trim. The line producer didn’t like the logistics behind parking 30-40 cast & crew cars and trucks down a muddy canyon on a dirt road wide enough for one car. But the price was right, or rather, as right as the price was going to be and our location was locked.
Your total is…
Two days before principal photography, I sat down with the line producer, Linda Zufall, and she presented me with our actual budget – a budget that was almost $10,000 over the maximum AFI allows DWW women to spend on their projects. As much as I loved my script, a cut-down of my feature script Miss Ella , drastic changes were immediately instituted and I found myself cutting again. Three less pages later, I had saved myself two kids, a welfare teacher and a bunch of extras. A few roles were consolidated and two actors I’d just signed the day before had to be told that their roles were cut. A quick snip here and my beloved owl over the full moon shot was gone, and thus the $100 to rent a realistic looking stuffed owl.
The biggest savings came from cutting one shoot day. All DWW projects are allowed a maximum of 5 shooting days. The 1st AD, Carey Dietrich, had come up with a pretty tight schedule for those five days. I had deleted two scenes, but squeezing our shooting schedule into four days required the 1st AD’s magic touch. The money saved on the location fee, a day’s less rental on equipment and catering was significant.
The second biggest savings came from wardrobe. The costume designer, Averi Bell, had found so many great vintage clothes to rent from the studios, but their student discounts were not good enough. All those $3 ties and $15 hats and $5 dresses added up. I asked her to take as much back as possible and look in people’s closets. I think half of the wardrobe ended up coming from my own closet. The actors were disappointed they wouldn’t get to wear authentic period clothes. But they came around. The rental houses were another story. They wanted to charge us a fee to put the clothes back. We finally came to a solution. I gave Averi $50 to put it all back herself. I hear she had to do some yoga moves to get everything into its place.
And just when you think the worst is over…
We were already dealing with a compressed schedule, a 5-day shoot turned into 4. The day was lost from our location in Topanga which was Rose’s home. I was challenging myself to be more visual with A Single Rose, and thus had storyboarded many interesting but choreographically challenging shots. Time was of the utmost essence. But the first day, we found ourselves waiting around for the camera truck. My incredibly talented German DP, Anette Haellmigk, kept coming to me and saying with her accent “Hanelle, I have no camera.” It was quite the understatement, and what could I do. Even though I kept shooting looks of desperation at the producers, the camera couldn’t get there any sooner. The camera truck had been instructed to pick up set dressing on its way, a critical error. We almost didn’t have a camera because none of our PAs showed up for pick-up day. Finally, about 2 hours before Panavision was closing (they donated Hi-Def cameras for our shoot), I had to jump in the van myself and commute to the far valley through Friday afternoon traffic to pick up the camera.
As we waited for the camera truck, I started whittling down my shot list, just as I had whittled down the script when I got the budget. Two hours after call time, the camera truck arrived. We had to shuffle the shooting order since lighting had changed. We ran out of time and three actors who were supposed to work that morning never worked at all and had to return the next day. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they were getting paid.
We ended up getting everything we need, though we had to shoot some close-ups that took place in a bedroom on the soundstage where the juke joint was built. This meant erecting a fake wall and covering it with digitally re-created wallpaper. This was a scramble in itself, but finally the close-ups were done and the film was wrapped.