A Fine Romance: Olive (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) and Dax (Cy Carter) agree to disagree over parenthood in 'A Quiet Little Marriage.'
UCSC alum Mo Perkins bellies up to the Santa Cruz Film Fest with a tale about love and birth in the American marriage.
By Richard von Busack
I'M STILL not quite sure if it's a comedy or a drama, but one of the highlights of this year's Santa Cruz Film Fest is former Santa Cruzan Mo Perkins' A Quiet Little Marriage. The Grand Jury Award winner at this year's Slamdance concerns an appropriately thorny topic: the question of whether or not a couple ought to bring another baby into the world, with all the things he or she will need for the non-negotiable American way of life.
It's as deft as it is endearingly small-scale, made on the Echo Park, Los Angeles, street where the director lives, with the front and the back of her apartment playing two different buildings. A Quiet Little Marriage intelligently tells its fablelike yet fierce story in a handful of settings and with a cafe-style soundtrack mostly of guitar and accordion, as well as the old blues tune "Careless Love."
At a dinner party, Monique (Melanie Lynskey) is getting a rare night away from her baby, but the topic turns around to the sacrifices of motherhood. Bad enough to turn up at a fancy dinner leaking breast milk on your blouse. Worse not to have a drink for the first nine months. Worst of all not to have a drink for an entire year of breastfeeding.
That night, hosts Dax (Cy Carter), a red-bearded elementary schoolteacher, and Olive (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), the manager of a failing boutique, have a bedtime discussion. The question is whether or not they're going to start a family. Dax thought the matter was settled--in the sense that absolutely no way in the world was it going to happen. Olive still thought the possibility was open.
Perkins unfolds the backstories of Dax and Olive. Olive has a father who is losing more and more of himself every day to Alzheimer's. Dax's messed-up little brother Jackson (Jimmi Simpson) has an unwise scheme to marry his latest girlfriend. We begin to get the picture of Dax's childhood; during one conversation about their upbringing, Jackson refers to their mother as "a whore." And Dax doesn't even bother contradicting his brother.
One boozy night after a party, Olive decides to take matters into her own hands by puncturing her diaphragm with a sterilized safety pin. The sex between the couple becomes more frequent and more ardent. But when Dax discovers Olive's secret plan to get pregnant, he takes retaliation on his own.
When I called Mo Perkins, the first thing I wanted to ask is if she ever knew anyone who actually sabotaged a diaphragm.
"If I did, could I tell you?" she answered. "We were poking holes in diaphragms because we had to show different stages of leakage on the camera, but when we got ready to shoot those scenes, we couldn't get them to leak! I imagine it wouldn't be effective for contraception afterward, but the holes kept closing after we punctured them. Eventually we went to a hole punch."
Perkins most likely won't be on her way to Santa Cruz for the fest, as she's due for the birth of her first child in June. "I look like a Care Bear now," she says. "I'm waddling when I walk. I stood up for the Q and A the other day at the Newport Beach Film Festival and people went, 'Ohhh.' My pregnancy really has nothing to do with the film, though--I was in my first trimester when A Quiet Little Marriage went to Slamdance and Austin, and I was throwing up right in between the Q and As."
Santa Cruz Roots
When Perkins was going to Santa Cruz as a woman's studies/film major about a decade ago, the college's film department had just formed. She caught foreign and independent films at the Nick ("I hope it still smells like gingerbread in there," she says).
"There wasn't a whole lot of things happening on campus for film. It was just starting to happen. We had a lot of access to the equipment. Kind of a guerrilla education. You could keep the camera over the weekend and make something."
After graduating, Perkins moved to San Francisco and worked with the Bay Area Video Coalition, a nonprofit outlet with production and post-production facilities. From there she went to UCLA grad school, where she reconnected with her old friend Tamara May Malone, a former Slug who'd also gone on to film school in L.A.
"The bonds you make with people are fuel for your art later on," Perkins says. "At UCSC, I was literally hanging out with Tamara before we were legally old enough to drink." As her grad thesis at UCLA, Perkins made a 2004 short film titled Piss Hat. "It's not a porno," Perkins explains. "It's the story of a woman who has low self-esteem and a reputation as an easy get in a small town." The stars were Carter and Ellis, later reunited as actors and co-writers in Perkins' feature debut. "We would rehearse the scenes and then rewrote after the rehearsal," she recalls. "It was a really rich experience for all three of us. We all had a script we were proud of after a year; we enlisted everyone we knew, and we gathered a strong cast. Then we shot the thing in this guy's apartment during the course of 14 days."
Lynskey and Simpson were something of a package deal for Perkins, since they're married. Among even the commandolike team of farceurs on TV's Two and a Half Men--oh, Conchata Ferrell, surely the illegitimate granddaughter of W. C. Fields; hurray Holland Taylor, heiress to the grand dames of screwball--Lynskey's demurely insane stalker Rose holds her own with ease. From New Zealand originally, Lynskey is never to be forgotten as one of the two self-hypnotized teens in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, recently parodied on The Simpsons.
"She is so strong," Perkins says. "Melanie's got a vehicle coming up that's going to blow people's heads off. "Fertile Ground
Working with Carter and Ellis, Perkins decided "that we three would make something that's small enough so that it'll work ... even if no one makes a quarter out of it. We'd all just been newly married. We were all fans of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh. And we all had a common subject, an interest in marriage. Movies usually end with marriage or start with a baby; we wanted to make a different story when we started out to write."
There are hundreds of movies about the decision to have a baby, with Knocked Up and Baby Mama newest among them. However, there is only one High Hopes. In Mike Leigh's 1988 picture, Cyril (Philip Davis), a motorcycle messenger, and his spunky, sweet live-in Shirley (Ruth Sheen) are eking out a living in north London. And she's starting to think about the next generation.
"Would you rather have a boy or a girl?" Shirley asks. "I'd rather have a rusty spike up me arse," Cyril says. They both tend to Cyril's mother--a doddering old lady who is being ground up by gentrification--just as Dax and Olive see to Olive's father, the ever more troublesomely senile Bruce (Michael O'Neill). Like Leigh, Perkins gives full weight to the man's fear about having children rather than presenting that reluctance as immaturity or a weakness. Daringly, she even allows that perhaps Olive's motives for wanting to get pregnant aren't as clear as the lady thinks.
Perkins says, "Those kinds of relationship are rich for drama; ... there are all those places where solution can't be found in communication, and all those intimate spots where you just disagree ... whether it's over a kid or what to do with a dad."
As in Leigh's films, Perkins has achieved a great deal of onscreen intimacy in directing the couple. "A lot of that was just kind of my own relationships, of thinking over on the day-to-day level what it's like to lay in bed with someone else--maybe there's nudity in a way that's not necessarily erotic. When you're with someone it's like a ballet, not a conversation. You're moving in sync."
After finishing A Quiet Little Marriage, Perkins took the gamble and sent it off to the Austin film festival. "I sent it there because I'd always wanted to go to Austin--I was totally motivated by that--and I had to rush and get the film done. Everyone told me that once you premiere at a big festival, none of the others will have you, but I gambled and sent $50 to Slamdance and I got in there, too. It's been a real whirlwind."
A Quiet Little Marriage's producer, Tamara (accent on the middle a) May Malone, describes the film as "a really personal journey for a couple. It's about the evolution they take as a couple in thinking of each other, instead of themselves. They start to understand each other and communicate, but it's not all about compromises."
Having taken her first film class with UCSC's Chip Lord, Malone is going back up to Santa Cruz to talk to his class. "I'm coming full circle," she says.
I asked Malone how one learns the craft of producer. "My job was getting the awareness out there about Mo's talent. The best way to become a producer is to learn how to tell stories. That way you can help keep the director from falling by the wayside, by identifying a scene that needs to be cut, or to problem-solve a scene that needs work."
While Malone won't discuss how much the film cost--"It would qualify for the John Cassavetes Spirit award, I can tell you that"--A Quiet Little Marriage is on its way to a distributor. Working on indie film is still a labor of love for Malone, who is currently tracking down work in reality television in Los Angeles.
"I'm torn between the world of making a living and doing these little films that are just passions," she said. "I was at a film festival recently, and the audience members were asking me, 'Is this your job?' At this level we're trying to make it our job by working on these passion projects, in the wee hours of the night."A QUIET LITTLE MARRIAGE (85 min.), directed by Mo Perkins and starring Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Cy Carter, Melanie Lynskey and Jimmi Simpson, screens as part of the Santa Cruz Film Festival on Thursday, May 14, at 6:30pm at the Riverfront Twin, 155 S. River St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $9 general/$7 seniors and students, available at venue or in advance at Graphfix Gallery and Framing, 1229 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.For the complete Santa Cruz Film Festival schedule, visit www.santacruzfilmfestival.org.
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