Russell Brown on His New Film with Cybill Shepherd
By Danny Peary
I am pleased that Russell’s Brown’s (pictured, left) new indie, Annie and the Gypsy, is now available on DVD, iTunes, and VOD on most satellite and cable systems across the country. The talented writer-director makes character-and-dialogue driven films that are witty and perceptive but are so quirky and personal—one might say “noncommercial”–that he has probably sabotaged his own best efforts to find a mass audience. I hope his third feature gets him some deserved exposure. Brown’s debut film, Race You to the Bottom, is about a topsy-turvy road trip to Napa Valley taken by a brash young male writer and his female best friend, whose trusting boyfriends back home don’t realize their relationship isn’t platonic. In his little gem, The Blue Tooth Virgin, an aspiring screenwriter gives his new screenplay to his best friend to read—and he hates it! Annie and the Gypsy is his third film about smart but not particularly wise, seemingly confident but insecure people. Whereas his first two films had male leads who are young writers, the male writers in Annie are supporting players and the title character is a female painter in her early sixties. Given a rare starring role in a feature, Cybill Shepherd gives her all as a romantic who, because she refuses to compromise, hasn’t experienced true romance since her youth in Spain. With the help of her young gay assistant, Martin (David Burtka), she prepares a Spanish-themed dinner party in hopes of luring the lover from her past, Gordon, to her house and rekindling their romance. But most guests cancel at the last minute and it looks increasingly doubtful that Gordon will show up. Will the evening be a total disaster? The following is an interview I did this week with Russell Brown about his new movie and his unusual career.
Danny Peary: What was your background leading into your making your first film?
Russell Brown: I made small films when I was in high school, in Los Angeles. Mostly they were non-narrative and much like film essays. I really fell in love with film criticism and went to USC film school with the intention of being a critic. It’s funny to get these questions from you, because Guide for the Film Fanatic was a big part of my early film education. What I loved so much about your book (and what I believe in now) is that it taught me to take movies on their own terms. I also learned to appreciate what a vast landscape there is in film, and that allows a filmmaker to play around in a lot of different areas. After film school I worked in the Hollywood development ranks for a few years, but I tired of that. I made my first film–a documentary about blues musicians–when I was 24 and fell in love with handmade filmmaking, which is what I’ve done ever since.
DP: How long did you have to think about each of your three feature films before you started writing the scripts?
RB: Each film was really different. My first feature, Race You to the Bottom, was the most fun to write because those two kids played by Cole Williams and Amber Benson were so funny and vivacious and wicked and youthful. I loved Nathan and Maggie because they were so much what being young is about. The movie was patterned on Two for the Road and I wanted to capture that zesty intelligence. The Blue Tooth Virgin was written really quickly. I did set the rules upfront for that script regarding the two-character scenes; the changing perspective on whether or not Sam’s script is good or bad; and how the script within the movie was going comment on the characters in the actual movie. Annie and the Gypsy was really hard to write. I reworked that script a lot and labored over it.
DP: Why did you have so much trouble with the writing?
RB: Because Annie is extremely complicated in my mind. She’s very deep. She is the most difficult character I’ve ever written. I had a hard time grasping her and staying true to her. I think I got it in the end, but it wasn’t nearly as organic as with other characters I’ve written. I think I was studying her more than letting her speak through me. My inclination at the beginning was to cut out all her weirdness, like the moment when she asks Martin to father her child. It would have been easy to make her much more likeable. But I felt really drawn to all her idiosyncrasies and oddness. She’s so sad and very flawed but beautiful at the same time. I like that she’s strange and I think I portrayed her honestly. The best a writer can do is be honest about the characters living in his imagination, and if I had dulled all her edges, it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or honest. I think I feel sadder for Annie than any of my other characters. I wanted things to be better for her and people like her, but at the same time I wanted to be real about how hard it is to be Annie.
DP: Could you have made Annie and the Gypsy as your first film or did you need to make Race You to the Bottom and The Blue Tooth Virgin before you were ready for it?
RB: There’s no way I could’ve made Annie and the Gypsy first. It was too weird and too much of a risk. It’s been ignored in comparison to my other movies but I was aware that it was a strange project. There’s no way I could’ve communicated with Cybill Shepherd and David Burtka without the experience of my first two movies. What they had to do was really difficult and I wouldn’t have had the tools yet. Similarly, I couldn’t have made Race You to the Bottom in my thirties. The movie is about being young and I needed to make it when I was young. I needed to be feeling all those things they did and caring about what those kids care about and feeling as free as they do. I don’t have that highness of spirit and frivolity anymore so I think it would be hard for me to direct those scenes now. That said, I love watching it and remembering what it felt like to be there.
DP: Do you see a progression in the films you make or are you still exploring the same things and still asking the same questions?
RB: I think there are certain ideas that I will always be exploring. All my films are about self-actualization and identity, so I’ll probably keep attacking that from different directions. Because a 60-year old woman and a 24-year old woman experience self-actualization in different ways, they are different movies. Also, I’m always going to be interested in language and how we use words and how both deceptive and perceptive words can be. I will always love the sounds of words and fitting words together. I hope that my progression as a filmmaker will be more about mastering the craft and being more specific in how I tell stories using the camera. I hope to get more confident and skilled in that area.
DP: I might classify your films as mumblecore but as far as I can tell your actors stay very close to precise scripts. Your dialogue is always driving the movie. Do you think there are anyone else’s films that are similar to yours?
RB: I haven’t seen many mumblecore movies other than those made by Jay and Mark Duplass [The Puffy Chair; Cyrus; Baghead; Jeff, Who Lives at Home]. Jay is a really good friend and I love the films he makes with his brother. They’re typically characterized as mumblecore, but I’m not sure they are. Their films are unique to them. I think we make films for similar reasons and care about being real. I think you can tell that we really care about our characters and what they are going through without judging them. We also both believe in this handcrafted approach, which is sort of a philosophy about doing art that requires facility in all the aspects of making something. But I think the mumblecore effect–-whether it’s a visual style or an approach to dialogue–is a very different experience than my movies. I also think all the mumblecore filmmakers are different from each other, from what I’ve seen, and that it’s a little unfair that they’ve all been grouped together. They’re not all the same, in terms of sophistication and quality. In terms of style and themes, I hope that my films reflect the sensibility of some of my heroes–Rohmer, Antonioni, Bergman–in that they made kind of philosophical movies. I’m not putting myself at their level, but that’s where my head’s at in terms of having moviemaking heroes.
DP: Following up, I think you try to make movie movies because you love movies, but do you think your movies are inspired most by other movies or more by the real life that is never shown in movies or theater or poetry or literature?
RB: I’ve never been interested in reflecting so-called “real life” in my movies. I’m not even sure what that term means, since nobody making narrative films is really showing real life. I think there’s a misperception out there that colloquial language is more real, even though lots of people talk in lots of different ways. So it doesn’t concern me if the dialogue sounds theatrical or literary. I only care if it sounds good, if it zings, if it has energy. I try to plan images and words that are suggestive of other ideas, metaphorical and layered. Old Hollywood movies had a fantastic use of language, so I guess in this way, my movies are inspired by another time.
DP: In The Blue Tooth Virgin, your lead character, a writer played by Austin Peck, hopes to sell a movie script called The Blue Tooth Virgin, although everyone hates that title. That you gave your movie itself that title gives a clue to who you are as a filmmaker. Is it true that your big dilemma is: you stubbornly make the films you want to make although you know you may turn off many viewers by how personal and esoteric they are BUT at the same time you really want viewers, maybe even the masses, to embrace your movies?
RB: I don’t think I have a problem with stubbornness. I make movies because I want to communicate. But sometimes the ideas that I want to communicate are complicated and I don’t really see the point in uncomplicating them. It’s not an interesting movie to me if its ideas are so thin that the audience has already worked them out before sitting down to watch it. But I never try to make a movie deliberately obtuse. I actually think The Blue Tooth Virgin is a good name for a movie. It has sex. It has color. It’s unspecific enough to make you wonder what it is. It also has a nice sound–it sort of trips along. So I thought it was a title that would intrigue people. I definitely want people to see my movies and enjoy them and find them satisfying. I think people have been turned off by the unusual structures of my movies, or the “unlikeable” characters, but I think there’s a lot of entertainment value in all of them. In my new film, there’s Annie talking to the ghost of her aborted son and then, after downing a bottle of pills and booze, flamenco dancing with a hallucinated gypsy to the poetry of Garcia Lorca. In my mind, that’s heaven.
DP: Your lead characters tend to seek validation from others while never compromising for their sake. They are unmoving and sure they are right, but are they also insecure and in need of praise?
RB: I think you are referring to Sam in Blue Tooth and Annie, and both are really incapable of changing that part of themselves. They are both romantics and it’s part of their nature to believe in things passionately. I think the need for praise is part of what they are working out, and part of their growth and self-actualization.
DP: Talk about “compromise”—a theme in your movie in regard to Annie and also to you as a filmmaker.
RB: Life is pretty difficult and I think we all make compromises to get through things. There’s a lot of interesting play in compromise, a lot to explore about our values and desires. I don’t think compromise is necessarily a bad thing–it’s what’s required for survival most of the time. All filmmaking involves compromises. Very few filmmakers, if any, are compromise free. Whether it is cutting out shots to make the day, or switching music cues because you can’t afford the licenses, there are always compromises, and a realistic part of filmmaking is setting your priorities.
DP: Were you compromising when you renamed your film Annie and the Gypsy?
RB: Yes, in a sense. Because I personally liked the original title–Regrets of White Camellias. But that title wasn’t communicating with people. So the compromise was between me and the audience. I will rename my movie if it will make it easier for people to see it and understand it. What was important to me was that people saw the movie, because what’s important is in the movie, not in the title.
DP: Another theme, found in both The Blue Tooth Virgin and Annie and the Gypsy, is that shallow writers and filmmakers have a better chance of making it than true artists.
RB: Well, I think history is on my side on that one. I don’t necessarily think that all successful writers and filmmakers are shallow, but I do think it is easier to make money doing what is familiar to people. It’s a lot easier to market a genre movie.
DP: In your movies, you seem to imply that people are content being superficial and that it usually pays off for them. Is that a theme you think about because you work in Hollywood?
RB: I worked with a lot of people in the studio system and found that they generally want to do good work and make good movies. It’s not everyone’s responsibility to make handmade movies about esoteric subjects. Most filmmakers, even if they are doing genre movies, want to get better and be good at what they do and be respected for their craftsmanship. I’m not sure that superficiality pays off; if it did, then making money at the movie game would be a lot easier. The successful people in my stories—Sam’s friend David [Bryce Johnson] in Blue Tooth and Annie’s friend Dana [Gia Carides] in Annie and the Gypsy–are successful because they are smart and driven, and we need smart and driven people. I guess it’s true that there’s a lot of superficiality in the mainstream movie business, but it’s not just Hollywood; that kind of thing runs through all the arts.
DP: Although your first feature was about two young people, your next two films reveal your fondness for veteran actors, Karen Black and Cybill Shepherd. I love the scene in Blue Tooth in which the troubled writer gets advice from a brilliant but LA-spacey script advisor played by Black.
RB: Everyone talks about the Karen Black scene and I think it’s the best scene I’ve ever written. I’m really proud of it. Karen was amazing. We bonded and she became a very close friend. I ended up making a documentary about her. Both Karen and Cybill were in films that are very important to me–The Last Picture Show, Daisy Miller, Five Easy Pieces, Nashville. So I felt humbled to work with them. I wanted to learn from them, and they were both very generous. It’s an interesting relationship to be a relatively novice director working with actors who have had such vast careers. With those actresses, I had a real awareness that they would bring more to the movie than I expected, and it was very important to create an atmosphere of “allowing” onset.
DP: When I interviewed Karen Black about one of her last films before her death, Maria, My Love, I said, “I liked you very much in Russell Brown’s The Blue Tooth Virgin. You were very funny.” And she said, “Thank you, that’s one of my favorites. Russell is a great writer-director and one of my best friends. I just love him.”
RB: It means so much to me that Karen said that. I loved her so much–I really miss her.
DP: You remember Cybill Shepherd as the lead in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1974 film, Daisy Miller. Is that why you cast her as Annie?
RB: I think Daisy Miller is a massively underappreciated movie. When I first met Cybill, I told her that I saw Annie as Daisy Miller if she had grown up. I think that idea really appealed to Cybill, and she used it in her performance.
DP: What did she bring to the part?
RB: Cybill brought a life force to the part–a real heartbeat, worldliness and life experience. There are moments in Annie when she is really heartbreaking and complicated, and I think she should be given more attention for what she did. She brought a lot of her own history into that part and I think there was a lot of courage there. She’s so fascinating to watch. Plus, she just looks so great.
DP: Talk about your discussions with her about Annie.
RB: My discussions about her character were mostly moment to moment in terms of the progression of the movie. I rarely discuss themes with actors. I don’t want to get into that kind of overview. I’m more interested in the scene and the moment, and what the character wants at each moment of the story. My preparation as a director in terms of actors has to do with understanding and mining the details, and also understanding practical things, like how to cook or what putting a golf ball looks like. Cybill and I read a lot of Lorca poetry together. We would drink wine and read poems to each other from an anthology. I guess you could call it mood preparation. My style of directing involves trying to be open to what an actor is doing in the first take without any direction, and playing around from there.
DP: Our first image of Shepherd’s Annie is her preparing dinner in the kitchen. I immediately thought of her as Martha Stewart. Was that intentional?
RB: Not really. I’d seen the movies where Cybill played Martha, and was aware of how she approached that part. I figured there would be some connection for the audience, and it was a fun little thing that she had played Martha, but I wasn’t trying to do anything with that idea.
DP: Annie keeps “Waiting for Gordon,” her lover from years ago, to come to her party. Is that a Waiting for Godot reference? Is there just as much chance Gordon will arrive?
RB: I love Godot, but wasn’t really thinking of it here. I think the audience always expects that Gordon is going to arrive, and that there will be some confrontation or moment. I wanted to play with that and have Gordon arrive in a way that surprises the audience. I don’t think anyone watching the film ever expects him to arrive in the manner that he does. That’s fun for me. The expectation is that he will arrive or not arrive, but in the movie, he “sort of” arrives. I think that’s satisfying and different.
DP: Talk about the genesis of this film, about how almost every guest cancels on Annie’s party at the last minute with feeble excuses.
RB: There’s nothing here that’s based in reality. I didn’t have a dinner where everyone canceled and so I decided to make a movie about it. I was thinking a lot about expectations we place on other people and how dangerous that can be. And this setup about the dinner just felt like something we could all relate to, the fear that our friends won’t show up when we need them. Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is one of my favorite films and I wanted to emulate the tone of that movie, the uncomfortable humor.
DP: Is Annie a bad friend or does she have bad friends?
RB: I think Annie is a difficult person to be around. People feel her neediness and her pain, as well as respect her passion and talent. At the same time, I think her friends are rude. People can be very rude in life, and very ungracious, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad. It just makes them unevolved.
DP: Annie is presented as the film’s one true romantic. How do you relate to her?
RB: I believe in paintings and poetry and music and food and living a life filled with all these things. That’s the nice side of Annie. But I don’t let this damage me as it does Annie. A lot of Annie’s issue has to do with believing too strongly in art as a spiritual practice. Spirituality and art are very different things, and I think loving art doesn’t necessarily make one wise. Making art can make one wise. Annie gave up making art, which I think is part of where she went off track.
DP: As the film’s one true romantic, why would she stop her bickering married friends from rekindling their relationship by having sex?
RB: I don’t think Annie has a problem with passionate sex. I just think she finds the idea of it in her bathroom during the party is distasteful and ungracious.
DP: Talk about the importance of the line in your movie “If love is so incredibly disappointing, what’s the big deal about being in love?”
RB: I’m glad you picked up on that line. There are certain lines in my movies that deliberately are played as throwaways but actually have a lot of significance. I think this line is really an interesting philosophical dilemma for Annie and for a lot of people. Why do we place so much of our self-worth and happiness on something that brings so much disappointment? I think it’s a really valid question.
RB: At the end of this movie, Annie decides to go back to Spain alone, and is feeling good about herself. To me, that’s a happy ending. She answered her own question–being in love is not a big deal–and she’s going to be really peaceful wandering around the Alhambra and drinking sangria by herself. I like this picture of her–just feeling good about herself and where she is. I think that’s a positive idea to put out in the world.
END SPOILER ALERT
RB: I think there are way too many movies about “making relationships work” or “finding a relationship,” which often comes at the expense of coming to terms with oneself.
DP: Talk about the romanticism that exists in this film, mostly through Annie but the Lorca poetry as well. It’s sad poetry because it is about not giving birth, not “bearing fruit,” something that affects Annie greatly these many years later.
RB: I think there’s something very lush and rich in the movie because of the romanticism. It’s kind of pregnant in a way, with words and flowers and dance and color and wonderful classical Spanish music. All of this is how Annie sees the world. Annie’s “barrenness” is a very Lorca-inspired idea. It’s the theme of Yerma, which I think is Lorca’s greatest play and a major inspiration for this movie. Since the movie deals in tragedy and melodrama, I think it’s fitting to use poems that address this issue in a romantic and haunting way.
DP: How did you choose this group of characters to be at the party? It’s certainly not a full spectrum of Hollywood types—or is it?
RB: The movie always had this theme of camellias and non-camellias, in terms of people. Camellias are sensitive and vulnerable and live in the shades of grey of life. Non-camellias are more practical and hard-edged and avoid the unknown. And camellias and non-camellias often end up in relationships together. I think it’s really this camellia and non-camellia thing that made me choose this group of characters. Every character in the movie fits into one of those two categories. I’m not sure they are really types beyond that –they’re supposed to be characters with their own lives and spirits. I wasn’t trying to make a general statement about LA or the movie business.
DP: To me Martin is the most sympathetic character in the film. How did you and David Burtka see him amidst all these other people.
RB: Martin is a camellia, he’s a caretaker and a sensitive. He sees that his role in life is to keep everyone together, to hold the party together, so to speak. Martin had an unstable family– he alludes to it–so he’s willing to put up with bad behavior in service of keeping things together. David was wonderful in the movie–I always loved what he was doing. He’s such a gifted actor and I can’t wait to see what he does in the future.
DP: Martin is Annie’s assistant and there is talk about “assistants” in this film and in your past works. Do you have a special interest in assistants?
RB: I think being an assistant is an interesting job. I’ve been an assistant to a few people, and you get really involved in the life of your boss. You know everything about him or her and start to really care about their well-being. Your boss becomes an extension of yourself. And a lot of times, an assistant’s feelings of self-worth are connected to the power of their boss. And on the flip side, a boss starts to care for the assistant like a child, because, ultimately, you have responsibility for that person and his or her well-being. It’s very close, very familial. And then, a lot of people marry their actual assistants, or marry a person who takes on an assistant role in their life together. People become very comfortable with “assistants” versus “partners”–and the two roles merge and actually become the same thing, because in a lot of ways, they are the same thing. I love a wonderful  British movie that was scripted by Harold Pinter, The Servant, in which Dirk Bogarde plays James Fox’s manservant. That gets into these issues in a real way. I’m making a short film right now that tonally is similar to The Servant.
DP: In addition to assistants, your films include writers. They’re usually the leads, but here they’re supporting characters. Is the struggling, pretentious but sympathetic scriptwriter, Jonathan [David Franklin], connected to the struggling scriptwriter, Sam [Austin Peck], in The Blue Tooth Virgin? How do you, a writer-director, relate to them?
RB: I think the struggling writer in Annie and the Gypsy is lazy. I think Jonathan is a shallow artist who isn’t really committed to his craft. It’s a goof for him. Sam, in Blue Tooth, genuinely cares about writing. He may not be successful, but it’s not for lack of trying and dedication. His heart is in the right place. I think Austin Peck was very genuine in his performance in this way, and funny too; he really got that balance. I think I relate to Sam in that I really care about what I’m doing, and it means something to me. I don’t connect personally to Jonathan, but I know a lot of people like him.
DP: You have a scene late in the movie that could be classified as experimental or avant-garde. It’s a chancy scene as far as viewers go, so did you include it because Lorca was into the avant-garde or for another reason?
RB: It had to be this way, because the movie is in the spirit of Lorca, and there needed to be this moment of duende. Lorca wrote extensively about it–a kind of heightened state of emotion, the presence of death, spirits, darkness, passion. It’s a little difficult to describe, but if you read Lorca’s essay on the subject, it makes sense. So the scene in the movie isn’t intended as experimental or avant-garde as much as it is attempting to be a scene of duende. And the techniques that I used–the opacity shifts, long dissolves, ghostlike images, and references to the moon–all were in an effort to conjure a cinematic duende moment. The woman singing during the dance sequence is La Niña de los Peines. She’s the most famous female flamenco singer–she definitely has the duende–and it had to be her singing during this sequence.
DP: I praise you for making the exact films you want to make. But I would think you would worry that since your films are so personal and go off on artistic tangents few viewers will fully grasp—including in Annie and the Gypsy–you might fear being accused of being pretentious or self-indulgent.
RB: I have a different definition of pretentiousness or self-indulgence. There are certain things–poetry, for example, or Scott Joplin music–that some people might categorize as pretentious. Some people think Bergman and Antonioni are pretentious. Why? Because they have the courage to tackle life’s most complicated questions? Just because something is thoughtful or complicated doesn’t make it pretentious. For me, glibness is self-indulgent, snarkiness is pretentious. I think many film festivals are terribly pretentious in how they glorify themselves and boast about the number of films that are rejected by their selection committees. I think awards shows are self-indulgent–they are mostly designed to empower the people granting the awards, not the recipients. So I’m not really bothered by those labels because I don’t think they are true for me. I’m not trying to prove anything by using this stuff in my movies. I think my films are actually inviting and I’m trying to communicate my genuine passion for certain things, whether it be poetry, or wordplay, or cooking paella. So if people want to accuse me of those things, I hope they consider it carefully. But that’s not really the way of things these days–people write whatever they want online and get their jollies out of being mean. I’m not into it. The great majority of people writing about movies and filmmakers don’t have the goods– the knowledge or background–to be evaluating the work of others.
DP: Was this movie filmed chronologically?
RB: We tried to film it as much as possible in chronological order. But it’s actually very difficult to film a movie in real time, in two or three rooms, and have it feel dynamic. I think it’s something that’s not understood by a lot of critics and festival people. Technically speaking, what we accomplished in Annie and Blue Tooth was pretty remarkable in terms of using space and tracking time. I think people assume that shooting an entire movie in a room is easy. And yeah, it would be easy if you set up the camera and never moved it. But the camera placement in my movies is always changing, the shots are very much designed to the emotional moment in the scene. I’ve never heard the criticism that Blue Tooth or Annie feel static, and considering how static they actually are, I’m proud of the visual energy in those movies. One time someone commented that Blue Tooth was all coverage. I think that’s a misunderstanding of what “coverage” is. Blue Tooth was very deliberately designed and “shot,” as was Annie and the Gypsy.
DP: Annie talks about her and Martin moving forward with “courage.” Why does she use that word? Do you think about that kind of courage yourself?
RB: Yes, I think it takes a lot of courage to be unconventional. And her life is going to be unconventional, and I’m proud of how brave she is in that moment. At the same time, Cybill played that scene with a slight hint of insanity. And I love that about Annie in that scene. In terms of myself, I think there is some insanity in making movies that are unconventional, but also a lot of joy. I think back to when I worked as a development executive, which was actually a pretty high-status job, and one that most people understood. But for me personally, it would’ve been insane to follow that path. So really, I think we all have to choose the work that will keep us sane, and for me, this is it.
DP: I know your films are on DVD and now Annie and the Gypsy is available on VOD on satellite and most cable providers in the country. How else can people see your movies?
RB: You can find them all on Amazon. Race You to the Bottom and The Blue Tooth Virgin are both on Netflix, Annie and the Gypsy is on iTunes. I’m happy to help anyone see my movies, so if they have trouble finding them, they should write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on facebook. Also, there are some of my short films on DVD that I think are good!