Local filmmaker Paul Schattel has a big project up his sleeve: Thinking man's horror/suspense picture, The Mourning Portrait, set in Appalachia and staring Wentworth Miller, Dermot Mulroney, Melissa Leo and Diane Ladd. But, while that movie waits for backing to come through, Schattel decided to embark on a micro-budget undertaking just to, as he says, "stay busy." That film, a strictly local effort, shot in two bursts over a dozen days, resulted in the languid, spacious and gold-lit Alison.
There's a lot to recommend Alison, and not just because it's set amid familiar scenery and its stars are all recognizable faces — Lauren Fortuna, Bryan Marshall and David MacDonald. Fortuna's heavy, tired performance as the title character, compounded by her real-life pregnancy, aches with complication and quiet desperation. Marshall, a man of few words in person, channels that strong silence into the sketch of Ed, a sturdy, straight-foward, socially awkward truck mechanic.
Really, it's the characters who make the film. In fact, they wrote the film. Aside from a spare script that served as an outline, the story evolved largely during the filming.
"When I was preparing for The Mourning Portrait, I was watching a lot of older horror movies — 1930s horror movies — to try to learn the landscape," says Schattel. (Mourning, a period piece, deals with a widower who hires a photographer to immortalize his dead wife. The idea stems from a Victorian-era tradition of making actual post-mortem portraits for family shrines.) "There's a real stylistic similarity between early film and what some of these later filmmakers — even Stanley Kubrick — are doing. It's what I call a 'higher simplicity.' You get rid of the faux complexity. That's what we're trying to do here. We did long takes, we left mistakes in, like when somebody would misspeak. We got rid of all the fluff and the shot is what it is."
Alison has no supernatural element, but there is something edgy and slightly unnerving about the facial close-ups, the ambling conversations and the palpable humanness of the story line. "It's not a very happy story, but it is about love. It's sweet, right?" says one character, a semi-homeless man with whom Alison takes up after leaving her husband. She's months into her pregnancy, living in a faded motel and seemingly without options.
But even though Alison is myopic, it's not small. "A movie is a short story, but movies have gotten so big and grandiose, about bridges collapsing and things like that, that it's like the human scale has gotten lost," says Schattel. "I was interested in bringing that human scale back. Somebody could have a bad day at work and that's a story. Why not make a movie about that?" If that recalls "The Pitch" episode on Seinfeld (where George keeps insisting, "It's a show about nothing!"), Schattel isn't concerned. There's plenty of precedence among contemporary films (Broken Flowers, Before Sunrise) for introverted, contemplative subject matter with lots of silence and space.
In those mundane moments, Schattel fathoms magic. There's a scene in Alison where Ed and Alison go to a swimming pool at night and leap in, fully clothed. Set to classical music, and filmed in ethereal, swirling soft focus, the scene transcends the minutiae of these small lives and becomes something expansive and lovely.
The film went on to win best actress, best director and best screenplay at The Los Angeles International Film Festival, best experimental drama at the Indie Gathering and an award of merit at the Los Angeles Cinemafest. Schattel's first film, Sinkhole (also starring Marshall) won a best feature award. When Schattel presented his screenplay for Mourning at the Independent Filmmaker's Conference, it was quickly optioned by New York City-based Belladonna Productions.
Unfortunately, optioning doesn’t pay the bills. Neither does waiting for funding. "I have to have a day job. I do corporate work and commercials.," says Schattel. "If I were in L.A., I'd be making a lot more money, but it's such a good quality of life here." And Asheville has brought connections as well as interesting projects.
Currently, Schattel is working with filmmaker Rod Murphy and executive producer Andie MacDowell on a documentary about the Miss Gay Latina transgender beauty pageant, set to take the stage at Diana Wortham Theatre on Nov. 6. He also recently completed work on the short film Men of Persuasion. The dark comedy, written by Jamie Parker and starting Willie Repoley, Joseph Guice and Rebecca Morris, will screen before Alison at the Fine Arts Theatre this week.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Alison with Men of Persuasion
what: Local independent film (Q&A with cast and crew following the show)
where: Fine Arts Theatre
when: Thursday Oct. 14, 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 16, 1 p.m. ($8.75 general/$6.50 seniors and matinees. fineartstheatre.com)