By Madelyn Ritrosky
It’s a short film. But girl, it’s long on positive vibes.
The Monstrosity, which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, is about a 12-year-old girl named Milly as she embarks on that most treacherous of passages her first day of middle school. Problem is a big zit decides to make that day twice as nice.
As always, I was all the more curious about the film after reading that it was basically a female coming-of-age comedy, by a woman writer-director. That woman is Alyssa Price.
When I met her, Alyssa informed me that she had another short film that had just won the “Get L.A.” film competition and was beginning its own festival run. Luckily, through the filmmaker, I soon saw that film as well.
And that film is Pearl, short on running time, long on the stuff of ocean sunsets those gentle breezes of inspiration and constancy. That was the feeling. Again, such positive vibes.
Pearl is, in fact, a surprising narrator and co-star for a film, for Pearl is a car. Not a computer animated or cartoon creature, but an actual Prius. A female Prius. I like that. Pearl’s voice-over (done by Alyssa) reveals her steadfastness as Alyssa’s faithful partner while we watch the two of them go to auditions and enjoy quiet moments together.
These two films are sweet little stories grounded solidly in female subjectivity that’s neither stereotypical nor strident. It’s a subtle yet strong combination that makes for slice-of-life bits that are like breaths of fresh air. It makes for feminist films in the truest sense of the word rather than in the sense of political filmmakers’ labels.
(Photo left: DP Samrod Shenassa and director Alyssa Price on the set of The Monstrosity)
So, I talked with Alyssa Price and discovered that she had a lot to say.
Tell us about the origins of your acting and your transition to filmmaking.
I watched a lot of TV and film as a kid, which is ironic because my parents were strict about how often and what I watched. I’m actually thankful to them because their rules forced me to play in my room or outside and use my imagination. But I was a cunning child. I’d sneak downstairs when the rest of my family was sleeping and watch television. I also manipulated my babysitters to put my brothers to bed then let me come down and watch TV with them. If they didn’t, they weren’t invited back. I had say over who was the best babysitter as the oldest and most “responsible” child.
I was also sick a lot as a kid, resulting in missed school and more time to watch every possible Disney or PG-rated film. Looking back, my “weak immune system” may have resulted from my lack of sleep. If I wasn’t watching TV or movies, I’d stay up all night reading. An uncle installed a nightlight in my headboard so even before I could read my mom said I’d stay up looking through books. I still read myself to sleep every night. When I was home sick from school, I’d watch video after video Oliver, Pete’s Dragon, Star Wars, Auntie Mame, Thoroughly Modern Millie, etc.
A lot of filmmakers cite one film that really influenced them, but for me there are many: Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Sydney Pollack, Elia Kazan, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, John Hughes, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, Charlie Chaplin seriously, the list goes on and on.
(Photo left: Alyssa and Pearl getting where they need to go)
My desire to entertain people and be an actress started at a very young age. I would dance and sing for any adult who’d take the time to listen I saw it as the “real world” and resented being stuck in the “kid world.” I remember performing a chicken number for my mom and her friend. When they started laughing, I was angry because I felt they weren’t taking me seriously. The more angry and frustrated I got the more they laughed. I’m sure they thought I was cute and it probably was funny, but if people tell me I can’t do something it’s a sure way to get me to do it.
Pursuing acting for the past 10 years has been an act of sheer stubbornness. Because acting is something I get to do only occasionally on an independent or student film, I didn’t have to think about “moving” into filmmaking. I started writing, shooting and editing to stay creative, and opportunities followed. The most important step for an aspiring filmmaker is to write something, or get a piece of great writing, and shoot it to the best of their ability. If it’s good, it will find an audience and you will be so busy you’ll wonder when you can carve out time to do it again. As much as I love the response The Monstrosity is getting, my greatest desire is to be in production, either behind or in front of the camera.
Did you have particular story/film ideas you wanted to see become reality?
I definitely daydreamed ideas and stories long before I made my first film. I once found emails I sent myself from 2003 telling me to make a film in the vein of The Craft and The Witches of Eastwick. I have tons of journals littered with cryptic notes, goals, quotes and random thoughts. I’ve learned in the past couple years that the only films I’ll shoot are the ones I’ve written and made some sort of shot list for. I started this routine when I was writing, shooting and acting in short videos for my YouTube channel “LifeWithBabs.”
What are the origins of The Monstrosity and Pearl?
The Monstrosity definitely came off the coattails of Pearl, so I’ll start with her.
February of last year I was filled with angst wondering what to do next. I had produced a lot of Internet content, but I needed a project to pour all my energy into I just didn’t know what. I find uncertainty the hardest element of pursuing a creative career. Once I have a script and am busy, I don’t have time to think about my life that’s the most miserable thing a person can do. I was especially miserable that February when my husband mentioned an article in Variety about a short film competition by Los Angeles Magazine and LA Works called “Get L.A.” I decided I’d love to do it.
They asked for LA artists (actors, writers, filmmakers, etc.) to make short films of three minutes or less about their experience living in Los Angeles. I happen to LOVE LA with a passion and appreciated them wanting to hear from local artists instead of celebrities who overshadow the scene here. I brainstormed ideas and among them was a story about my Prius, Pearl, named for Janis Joplin by a friend. I love the wide angle image of its back up camera. I wrote a script utilizing it and originally had a continuous shot of Pearl driving in reverse down a winding road in the Hollywood hills. My photographer, Jen May, shot it while I drove in reverse. But it didn’t make the cut as it didn’t help tell Pearl’s story and was too long for a 3-minute film.
(Photo left: Leanna Zamora as Milly)
When Pearl became one of eight finalists, I decided to write again. I wanted another project going before the competition ended. The Monstrosity was originally just a writing exercise. I’d read Mary Karr’s memoir, Cherry, and one of her zit stories reminded me of when I was teased by a boy about a blemish I unknowingly had on my forehead. The first time Milly gets teased on the bus by Dylan is a dramatized version of that moment. The rest of the story I built around that memory.
After Pearl won the Los Angeles Magazine competition, I met with composer Ricardo Veiga. He and my husband Jesse Singer (who became executive producer) responded very positively to Milly’s story about her first day in middle school. After getting such good feedback, I decided why not? If nothing else, I’d learn a lot since it was a bigger production than Pearl, which I shot with a Sony mini-DV camera and edited on iMovie.
How did it feel when you first moved behind the camera in a professional way?
When we started prep for The Monstrosity, I knew as the director I’d have a new set of responsibilities and it was a sink or swim situation, so I decided to swim starting with the doggy paddle. Directing is a very challenging exercise in communication. When I work alone, I rely on intuition and trust in what I call “magic” for lack of a better word. When working with others, you have to make “magic” tangible through communication and learn how to effectively collaborate, respecting each person’s unique perspective and skill set.
In production, it was an exercise in maintaining confidence, trust, and calm while always mindful of a strict timeline and physical restrictions. Working with kids was a rich experience, but it also meant our days were very short, with a lot of required breaks despite summer shooting. I was giddy about the first shot DP Samrod Shenassa and I did a dolly shot of the bus pulling into Milly’s driveway. Filmmaking is incredibly challenging, but when you and the DP or editor or sound designer or composer find a sweet spot, it’s such a high.
Anything noteworthy happen on set?
We had a few not-so-minor catastrophes during pre-production. One happened the day before production was set to begin. I decided to visit our location, my former elementary school, one last time just to better familiarize myself with the space. When I got there some construction workers were unfurling blueprints in the parking lot, where we planned to shoot all the bus scenes. In the office, I found out the government was coming in unannounced to re-pave the parking lot. Even though we had reserved the space months in advance I was told there was nothing I could do to stop the re-paving. I knew I couldn’t shoot with the noise, let alone expose the 20+ kids to the tar fumes. I had one afternoon to find a new school location on a Friday, in the middle of summer.
I immediately started driving to each grade school, while one of the parents, Laura Healey, tried calling the offices. After pleading my case to one school and her trying to get through to others, we were at a dead end. Then at literally 5 minutes to 6 PM we got a call from the superintendent of a school in Buellton. I told him the situation. After a long dramatic pause he said, “Here's what you're going to do. Call so-and-so and tell him the days you’ll be shooting, and that I told him to open any classrooms or facilities you may need.” When I hung up, Laura and I literally jumped for joy. In retrospect, the setbacks I had to deal with the week before the shoot hazed me well. When it got time to be on set, the challenges seemed minor in comparison and I was able to keep a clear head and enjoy the shoot.
How did you cast The Monstrosity? When did you shoot it relative to Pearl?
Ricardo, Samrod and I held auditions in the Santa Ynez Valley in June 2010. I had finished Pearl in March. I wanted to shoot it in my hometown, where I originally saw it set, and I had a feeling there might be kids like me who wanted to act in film but didn’t live close enough to LA. I was right. With two days notice, over 40 kids showed up to audition. Leanna Zamora, who plays Milly, actually attends my grade school alma mater. I had them talk to me and then improv a short scene. It was a great way for the kids to express their personalities and keep it informal and fun.
So both of your films are currently playing different festivals?
When I started submitting The Monstrosity to festivals, I realized Pearl met most short film requirements. Submissions are costly so I have only submitted Pearl to 3 festivals and The Monstrosity to less than 20. So far Pearl has been accepted into 1 and The Monstrosity into 7. I am really happy about all the positive feedback, but it’s costly and takes a lot of time. Meanwhile, all I want to do is edit a short I shot a month ago called Skyview Motel, a psychological thriller with a style very much influenced by Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I also want to write about an idea I have for a feature.
How much thought have you given the fact that you’re a woman filmmaker in a field where women directors are a clear minority?
I have always been fascinated by and think often about gender roles. Before I hit puberty, my perspective was typical some women were sex objects, others fascinating characters, etc. But I never had to be one because I was a kid. Observing women (what men get to do) and being one in today’s society are very different experiences. I have had long conversations with other women and men about gender, including in the film industry. It was exciting that Kathyrn Bigelow won the Oscar last year as a female director, but I still thought Avatar should have won Best Picture. And like most of my filmmaking idols, James Cameron is a man.
So the question is how do female filmmakers have faith in themselves when all of their role models are men? One of my good friends, director Soo Hwang, said, “It doesn’t matter if all my role models are men and it does not matter that I am a woman. They are human and I am human, we are the same.” I don’t think she realizes how much that comment helped me drop my gender baggage and say, oh yeah, if it’s humanly possible, I can do it. My vision for the future of filmmaking is that women can be radiant, interesting, feminine AND get recognition for making great films that entertain millions of people. It’s up to women to do it.
I don’t appreciate that a lot of women in film movements foster the gender divide instead of simply giving women who make great films opportunities. At the San Luis Obispo Film Festival, I saw a great short called The Interview. It had wonderful writing, acting and visual effects. I met the filmmaker, Michelle Steffes, and was surprised to learn she didn’t get much recognition from the women’s festivals. We discussed how they might be encouraging what they want women’s films to be instead of recognizing women who make really good films.
What filmmakers or films have inspired or influenced you?
There are too many to mention! I often pray to Billy Wilder and Sydney Pollack: “Billy, what kind of films would you make if you were alive today? Sydney, how did you feel when this happened to you?” I know that sounds nuts, but I would have loved to learn from them.
So many films have influenced me. When I was tightening the script for The Monstrosity, I watched Pixar films. Before I shot Skyview Motel, I watched Alfred Hitchcock, Polanski and Lynch. This craft is so visual, with so many greats to learn from. Time is the only enemy.
What would you like to add about your current project?
I’m doing Skyview Motel to keep sane. I was in Los Alamos for three days with Jen May as DP and Suzanna Musotto as the actress and we shot our hearts out. It needs lots of post-production work. I shot it because I don’t have a film school background and I want to learn as much as I can by just doing. This project is filmmaker’s boot camp. I spent $8 making it a mop, converted into a boom pole, the only equipment I couldn’t borrow.
Soo Hwang got the chance to ask director Sam Raimi, “What is your advice to aspiring directors?” He replied, “Write for a week, shoot for a week, and edit for a week. Do that every month and show industry people your films until you get work.” I haven’t kept up with his regimen, but I love his advice: just do it and work will follow.
I’m still in the process of discovering answers to these questions. Through books and film, I feel I can inch closer to observing the elusive human spirit and explore as much of the human experience as possible in one relatively short lifetime.
What a great place to end the interview and begin a filmmaking career . . . Thanks so much, Alyssa. I look forward to hearing more as that next project progresses. And your next project, and your next . . . .
Pearl can be seen online at http://vimeo.com/12724602