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Palo Alto filmmaker Jarrod Whaley brings his fine second feature, 'The Glass Slipper,' to Cinequest— part of a new era of sophistication in the local indie scene
Jarrod Whaley Jarrod Whaley Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

FOR YEARS, film lovers have been hoping that the Silicon Valley would develop an independent movie scene, in which Cinequest would play a significant part. Those hopes grow stronger with the debut of Jarrod Whaley's second film, The Glass Slipper, premiering March 9 at San Jose's major film festival.

Small-camera flexibility and big-movie quality meet in The Glass Slipper, which was shot locally. The soft-spoken 33-year-old Palo Alto filmmaker used well-known locations, such as the church seen in Harold and Maude: St. Thomas Aquinas on Waverly Street. One scene of a distracted father and his annoyed daughter was shot on the balcony of Michael's Cafe overlooking University Street in Palo Alto. It's the same cafe where Whaley and his producer Ginger Carden held their casting call for the film. The film's title comes from the Glass Slipper Inn, an El Camino Real landmark of vernacular architecture in the plaster-Camelot style.

Whaley's previous feature, Hell Is Other People, played at last year's Cinequest. It concerned a small-town wastrel in the Chattanooga alternative scene who poses as a life counselor. This time around, Whaley's focus is gentler. His source is Gustave Flaubert's A Simple Heart, published in 1877.

The strongest similarity between the French short story and Whaley's adaptation is that both versions share a moral center: a domestic servant named Felicity (Kelly Lou Dennis). In the film, Felicity's honesty is opposed by the figure who ultimately takes over the story: Ermir (Vahe Katros), a conniving, newly divorced high-tech marketer renting a room at the Glass Slipper Inn.

Over the course of the years, Whaley thought about a way to adapt A Simple Heart. "You have this domestic, [who is] completely pious to the point of sanctity," he explains. "Everything happens to her. She gets raped, she gets treated horribly, but she stubbornly sticks to life. Eventually she loses her mind and believes her stuffed parrot is the Holy Spirit. ... The story is about the kind of trouble a stubborn person can get into."

Flaubert's famous parrot (it is called Loulou) makes it into Whaley's film via a picture on a glass lampshade.

What both the Flaubert story and the Whaley film share is a nonplussed, nonjudgmental gaze. Is either of the two Felicities holy or are they just bovine victims? The precision in the description overrides the moral lesson about the way a tender person is crushed by a brutal world.

The Flaubert story is reportage, beyond good and evil. There's something alive in Flaubert's stolid half-bright maid that isn't breathing in her greedy betters, all those people who trick her or pressure her. She cares for the parrot because no one else wants it. It slowly sickens in the rain and fogs of Brittany, but it still keeps its alienness: "When the clouds gathered and the thunder growled, he would utter cries, recalling perhaps the deluges of his native forests."

This is symbolism, perhaps, but it's also an accurate description of what a caged parrot does when it rains (or when a vacuum cleaner mimics the sound of a storm).

When people die in Flaubert, every symptom is noted with medical precision, the sinking of eyes and the bluing of skin. We're in the presence of a human being giving up its soul. We're also in the presence of meat that is about to spoil.

The soundtrack is appropriated from the tinkling of antique music boxes; the deliberate lens-focusing visually emulates old-style 16 mm reflex cameras as it follows Felicity.

Just as Flaubert observes the pretentious shabbiness of the home Felicity tends all her life, Whaley makes sure we take in the pretensions of niceness and kindness in the comfortable Palo Alto of 2011.

In Whaley's version, the nanny Felicity is from somewhere in the cow country. She flies out to California to take a job taking care of a little girl. That's when she meets Ermir, the newly evicted father, a sleaze who spends his days lying and sexually harassing job seekers for a job that probably doesn't exist. Meanwhile, Ermir is trying impress his pissed off ex-wife with the amount of quality time he's giving his daughter (K. Paige Burns).

The scenes of Ermir with his daughter are some of The Glass Slipper's most incisive moments; the restlessness on both sides is well observed and acted.

Whaley describes directing the young girl: "It was all more or less improvised. We sort of both cooked it all up on the spot before rolling the camera. We had a vague jumping-off spot. Successive takes got it refined. We withheld a lot of things that she didn't need to know to play the part. If you give people more than they need to know, they respond to it in the back of their minds. The more info you cram into peoples' heads, the more confused they get."

Whaley shot with a standard-definition Canon XL-2 during last July and August 2010. "Basically, it was all just like on my first film. There was nothing written for the cast at all—there's an outline for my own use, but it's just an outline."

The loose improvisational approach in directing nonactors worked with the smaller parts, too, as when the real-life manager at the Glass Slipper Inn becomes a sounding board for Ermir's double-talk.

Whaley notes on his website that the motel owners were suspicious of his aims, and that they took a lot of persuading to participate in it. "His son owns the place, the whole family lives in the apartment, they take turns—the father is the primary desk guy. ... He just played along. I wanted a specific line, he had a hard time memorizing it just because of English being his second language."

Glass Slipper FLAUBERT IN THE VALLEY: Jarrod Whaley's 'The Glass Slipper' transposes a story by the French writer to Silicon Valley.

The Art of Cons

Whaley is two for two with stories of con artists. We see Richard Johnson's slouching, wily loser Morty in Hell Is Other People during the course of his life: waking and baking, mooching off women, using the self-help books his own sliding scale counselor sold him to try to counsel his even less-quick-minded friends.

The subject for his new film is similar, but the tone couldn't be more different. The Glass Slipper isn't the usual kind of encounter with a broke, lackadaisical type we've seen so much of in indie movies. Although I personally enjoy watching deadbeats, the downloadable and festival-driven cinema of today is overloaded with such Oblomovs, no doubt as an artistic opposition to how mainstream cinema is stuffed rigid with tedious "proactive" types.

The Glass Slipper takes some of its tightly focused energy from the Ben Gazzaralike Vahe Katros' acting. His Ermir is a superfluous man fluent in Successories mottos, with a New Age flair to his glad-handing ways.

"He's kind of fiercely self-interested," Whaley explains. "There's way too much of this kind of personality in the valley."

One of the big surprises of the impressive and funny The Glass Slipper is how solidly first-time actor Katros holds down the lead. Whaley says that he offered Katros the part after listening to him talk at a friend's house.

"He was hanging out. ... He just said these off-the-wall things. I had a vague sense of what the character should be like before I met this guy. It turned out to be a serendipitous type of thing to meet him."

Katros' mother survived both the Turkish genocide and the Nazi camps. Katros grew up in Watertown outside of Boston and did some college humor for a college radio station. Back east, Katros was also friends with director Jim McKay (The Wire, Treme) and screenwriter Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Ultimatum) before their careers took off. Gilroy actually once advised Katros to become an actor.

"Then came that long interlude I call 'paying for my 20s' with low-wage work," Katros says.

Katros has done this and that—he's worked in startups mostly, but he's currently in the nonprofit world.

He reminisces about his time working with "the classic Jewish doctor." He means the late Dr. Ernest Rosenbaum, a renowned cancer specialist who wrote numerous books.

"The mensch of mensches," Katros calls this physician. Katros gave me a sample of Rosenbaum's table talk: "Oh, so you're Armenian. Ah, the genocide ... do you want some soup?" Katros' character in The Glass Slipper demonstrates the exact opposite of Rosenbaum's serene selflessness.

Asked how Whaley conceived the role, Katros speculates: "It's a film about a person with no integrity in a land of plenty. He's trying to scam his way into money through the obliviousness of the world around him."

Katros continues, "Think about it. Here's Jarrod. He's this guy from Tennessee who comes to [Silicon] Valley. He sees the down side of it right away. He sees those kind of people for whom this area is gold rush territory. I doubt if Jarrod had ever experienced a world-class land grab like the kind that goes on here: the boom situation that attracts the bottom feeders, opportunists and finaglers."

Katros didn't have any misgivings about the big part. "It was not a stretch. If I was playing the one-eyed guy who was the assistant to Lord Nelson, that's one thing. I live in the Silicon Valley, and I was playing a Silicon Valley douchebag—someone who thought he was a major player, but who only hit a double. I've met so many different versions of the type I was playing: the ones who feel entitled to escaped the gravitational flow of work."

Filming with Whaley was easy, Katros claims. "He ran the show. We ad-libbed. He was editing. ... I saw the kind of work he put into this thing. It gave me more appreciation for the filmmaker than anybody has given me before."

Katros admits to one actor-director conflict: "There was one time he ordered pizza on the set, and I wished he had ordered it without pepperoni. That was about it. I haven't seen the film yet, or seen how he's pieced it together. I hope it's a good step in Jarrod and Ginger's future. If any one wants me for another acting role, I'll work cheap."

Talent Pools

Whaley comes from Cleveland, Tenn., a suburb of the Lookout City. He was from what he describes as a blue-collar family. His mother worked at an insurance company, and his father was the regional manager of a fast- food restaurant chain.

Whaley was a double major in French and English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He harbored hopes of becoming a novelist: "I was into some sort of experimental stuff, like Raymond Federman's fragmented postmodern metaphysical writing. My taste has changed, though."

There must be something of Federman's kind of writing—very spare, very influenced by Samuel Beckett—that crept into Whaley's personal style. He isn't a chatterer or a self-promoter; he uses short sentences and rounds them with silence.

"I made shorts from as far back as 2002," Whaley continues. "I stared playing bass; I did various experiments with creative things."

Colors figure in movie blogger Craig Keller's description of Passion Flower, Whaley's short documentary about a double-mastectomy survivor who is filmed as her chest is tattooed with flowers. Keller, who writes liner notes for the Masters of Cinema DVD series, which has issued films by Welles, Mizoguchi and Ophuls, likens the hues in Whaley's films to the work of artists Germaine de Stael, the Tudor-era portraitist Hans Holbein and the Japanese woodblock artist Utamaro.

This observation leads me to ask if Whaley had been a fine artist? "I dabbled with painting a few times," Whaley says, "but I spent more time writing and doing stories. Becoming a filmmaker was a very gradual process. A bunch of us when I was 19 were playing with a video cameras, almost as something to do to spend the evening. We went back and kept doing it. With time I got more and more interested. It wasn't one big epiphany."

There wasn't an extensive avant-garde film following in Chattanooga. "Honestly, I was sort of the extent of it for a while," Whaley says. "I ran a clandestine Free Film Club, on Friday nights, illegally projecting things off of DVDs in a black-box theater in town. We had the first known screenings of Joe Swanberg and Alejandro Adams in Tennessee."

In fact, the owner of the black-box theater, Anne, a dancer, was the subject of Passion Flower. She also appeared in Whaley's follow-up documentary about three other women who had mastectomies but who decided not to have prosthetic replacements.

Before he left the Lookout City, Whaley filmed some more short documentaries: Footprints, about an art center for mentally ill adults, and Relearing Everting, a film he was commissioned to make about adults with brain injuries: "It sounds dry and industrial, but I feel it would appeal to audiences."

Making ends meet was a struggle. "It helps that the cost of living is a fraction of what it is here. I managed to make some money shooting event videos, got grants and such like from various sources."

The talent pool is deeper in Silicon Valley than it is in the college zone of Chattanooga; casting directors can draw actors from the entirety of the Bay Area, and raise funds through online sites like Kickstarter. Still, the local avant-garde film scene has its own kind of coziness.

Whaley's producer, fellow Tennessean and live-in partner Ginger Carden, is also the assistant manager of the Camera 7 in Campbell; the general manager there is Alejandro Adams, the well-known avant-garde filmmaker, praised by The New York Times' Phillip Lopate, who has exhibited tantalizing work at previous Cinequests (Babnik, Around the Bay, Canary).

Whaley calls it "a coincidence, but something that's bound to come up," that both The Glass Slipper and Adams' debut, Around the Bay, concern the triangle of work-obsessed divorced father, child and nanny. (One difference, for instance: the respectability of Steve Voldseth's Wyatt in Around the Bay and the absolute illegitimacy of Kotas' Ermir in The Glass Slipper.)

Years before they met in person, Whaley and Adams were email pen pals. "Alejandro stumbled on some of my shorts," Whaley recalls, "and wrote up a really long and probing review of them all. We began to talk based on that experience."

Whaley says, "Since there wasn't really anyone to go to in Chattanooga about some of my artistic problems, Alexander was my go-to colleague. He was already living here when I met him online."

Adams had previously lived in the South also. "Yeah, there are times when we get into this Southern-boy commiseration about how we miss hush puppies," Whaley says.

The personable, redheaded Carden was a student of writing and photography both at Tennessee State and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She and her cousin ran Club Gemini, a booze-free, all-ages rock club. "Jarrod's band played there," Carden says. "In fact, many of his bands played there."

"We actually went to the same high school," Whaley says of Carden. "But we weren't extremely close. About a year and a half ago, we started talking on Facebook. We did the long-distance thing. She moved out about six months after I did."

The two weren't always in complete agreement on cinema. "To be honest," Carden says, "we didn't share tastes. My background was indie '90s movies, and Jarrod hadn't seen many of them. He preferred classics. We go to the Stanford Theatre a lot; there's a giant reserve of movies we're both catching up on."

Carden was inexperienced as a film producer, but she learned fast: "When I started producing his films, I knew that being a producer meant dealing with money. I didn't realize my hand was going to be in everything: scheduling locations, keeping actors calm. Working with Jarrod is cool, though. He's not a dictator, not afraid of input."

Working in a film theater, Carden gets submissions from indie filmmakers.

"Just got one from Bushwick," she notes.

Which leads to the question of where a movie like The Glass Slipper can go after it makes its debut.

Whaley says, "I'm still waiting to hear from more festivals. ... I've submitted it to others later in the year, keeping an eye on notification dates. How to distribute this film? That's the big question. I'm not a big believer in self-distribution, and it's sort of a ridiculous thing to hope for an older model of distribution will work, and I'm more interested in making film than being a promoter."

For now, Whaley is a full-time filmmaker in the sense that he's looking for other paying work; when The Glass Slipper debuts at Cinequest. he'll join the others who have the chance for big theater exhibition of small-scale work that deserves a big reputation.

The Glass Slipper

(Unrated; 83 min.) plays March 9 at 9:30pm at San Jose Repertory Theatre and March 12 at 2:30pm at Camera 12.