By Gary M. Kramer.
Writer/director Russell Brown makes short, sharp films that investigate how and why friends treat each other badly. His enjoyable feature debut Race You to the Bottom (2005) had two BFFs taking a tour through wine country and cutting each other down over the course of their travels. His sophomore effort, The Blue Tooth Virgin (2008), was an incisive film that depicted a screenwriter asking his pal for feedback on his new script—only to regret that request.
In Annie and the Gypsy, Brown’s most ambitious, and arguably most accomplished film to date (now out on DVD), Brown provides a keenly-observed study of the title character (deftly played by Cybill Shepherd) who throws a Spanish-themed dinner party hoping to reconnect with Gordon (Lenny Von Dohlen), a man she loved in Spain decades ago. While Gordon is supposed to arrive late to the party, most of the guests cancel. The only couple that attends is Dana (Gia Carides) a bitchy Hollywood executive, and her kept husband Jonathan (David Franklin).
As such, Annie invites her catering assistant Martin (David Burtka) and his boyfriend Roger (Peter Paige) to fill out the table. The meal becomes increasable more awkward (and more entertaining) as the characters debate art, work, money and love and friendship with strongly conflicting sensibilities. After both the dinner party and some relationships deteriorate, Annie, who clings to her memories of Spain and the writing of Federico Garcia Lorca, has an epiphany.
In a recent Skype interview, Brown talked about his intriguing film and his passion for Lorca’s writing.
Gary M. Kramer: Annie and the Gypsy is all about loneliness, regrets, and compromise, cowardice and courage and the poetry of Garcia Lorca. What prompted you to intertwine these themes for this film?
Russell Brown: I think in terms of courage, that idea came out of wanting to tell a story where at the end of the movie, it is not about relying on other people—guests, friends, ex-lovers—for your happiness, but getting to that place in your soul where you’re self-centered. That’s a scary thing for people. But I think that’s a theme that a lot of people will find useful. I think the healthiest relationships are the ones where you’re not trying to fill an empty void with other people.
GMK: You artfully address the dynamics of friendships, and the power shifts and struggles between partners in relationships across both gender and sexual divides. How did you construct the characters in Annie and the Gypsy, which divide across gay and straight; male and female; old and young; rich and poor?
RB: Martin and Annie are people who see things in various shades of gray and they struggle with not knowing what things are. They are more sensitive. Dana and Roger know what they want, and are more self-assured. They end up together and negotiate that world-view difference. Within those two relationships, they were set up as parallels, negotiation about money, sex, and these two people in each relationship. I was interested in playing out that negotiation.
GMK: What about the way the characters talk about art, food, music, and poetry?
RB: How they talk about paintings is really revealing in terms of who they are, what they value, and how they interact with other people. The way people take in art says a lot about who they are and how they treat people.
GMK: Annie was devoted to Spain in everything she did—her art, music, cooking, painting, poetry. It represented the time in her life when she was happiest, wildest. Why did you give her this backstory and fondness for Lorca?
RB: I think you develop associations with places—if you were there, you’d be happier. In Chekov, if they can get to Moscow… Spain has taken on a real mythical resonance in Annie’s life. Lorca came from me. I love Lorca, his poems, and his plays. The genesis of this was that I wanted to try to write a play like Lorca. It was like a game: How do I tell a Lorca story through my own voice? Lorca’s theatre and poetry are so much about these women in a state of crisis, so how do you make that feel contemporary. Lorca’s poetry, presence and sprit came into the screenplay. Lorca and I became friends—as crazy as that sounds. It would be great if people who saw the film thought the poems were really beautiful and sought out his work.
GMK: How did you construct the film’s visual style? The dinner party scenes have a theatrical quality, interrupted from time to time with “flashback” moments of Annie’s memories of Spain.
RB: I looked a lot at two of my favorite films—Autumn Sonata and Abigail’s Party—as inspiration. You’re in a confined space but the shots have to tell an inner story. It’s hard to tell a story in real time in a confined space. The interstitial scenes [reflect] what Annie thinks she saw. Her memory and her romance turned what really happened into that type of hallucinogenic, romantic, saturated imagery.
GMK: The narrative structure is also deliberate and unusual. The first hour is mostly Annie’s absorbing dinner party; but it’s the aftermath that is the more interesting section—how she reacts to the events that unfold. Can you discuss why you eschewed the formalism in the last reel?
RB: The movie goes into her mind in that section after the dinner party. I feel that’s something Lorca does: duende. You’re conjuring this spirituality and depth and passion in the audience. That sequence in her mind and you go to this psychologically profound place with her.
GMK: Let’s talk about the casting. You get a strong, sympathetic performance from Cybill Shepherd, and she is well supported by David Burtka in his first starring role. How did you work with these actors and develop their relationship?
RB: It was different for everybody. Cybill—the first time I met her was an audition for both of us. She was feeling me out. I said I’d seen this character as Daisy Miller grown up and that clicked for her. From there, I think a lot of what she brought to this film is her own experience and wisdom—larger than life. We would talk about Spain, and she said Orson Welles took her through Spain when she was a young girl. She brought her soul and power into the part. I just encouraged her. A big theme of the film is that she’s saved by poetry. It takes hold of her and changes her. When the gypsy reads that poem to her, it changes her life. So when she reads the poems, she was relying on that…David had a successful career in the theatre. That is a lot of what working with him is like: He’s very text oriented. He’s a theatre animal and has a facility with words. He’s such a sweet person, and that helped him a lot in that part, plus he was a caterer.
GMK: OK, last question: What was the worst dinner party you’ve thrown or been to?
RB: [LAUGHS]. Oh my god! I had this dinner party once. There were eight people there. I’d invited this guy I had just started dating, and my friends were meeting him for the first time. This is not an inspiration for the movie. Halfway through the party he got up, said he’s going to the rest room and disappeared. He never came back. The rest of the dinner was awkward because everyone was thinking I was dealing with his big rejection. Then at 2 in the morning he texted me to say, “I am so sorry, I was feeling sick.”
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.