I have been wanting to write about the making of Water Wings since I participated as a cast member in November of last year. I have not written about it yet for several reasons. The first is that, after the November filming, I saw the film on December 12 at its screening and then did not see it again until I got my personal copy recently and was able to re-watch the film several times. (The second has to do with how personal this topic is to me, dealing with a family member’s suicide.)
In a hyperspeed world where there is very little delayed gratification, the making of this four-minute FSU film was the foremost personal experience in 2009 that I could not control. Once I completed my day on set, I had absolutely no idea what to expect from the finished product that I would not see for three weeks. By forcing me to take a risk (and wait to see the outcome), Water Wings energized me in a way very few personal ventures have recently.
I got involved in the local film community when Tenley auditioned, around 8 years old. It didn’t take me too many trips, delivering her (and subsequently her brother) to auditions, to say, “heck I might as well audition too.” Any time I got a chance to be an extra, I did it. That’s how I quickly learned that I must have “that nurse look,” based on how many sets of scrubs and white uniforms I have worn on set. I have also been an attorney, “grieved” at funerals, submitted an entry to an “online dating” service, been a “partygoer” at the opera, a bank customer, a woman on a date at a jazz club, and a bus driver. When I got an email from the producer of Water Wings asking if I was available to play the mom, I was SO happy to be able to be involved (many student films are produced on weekdays, so I am unable to be involved because of my primary work schedule) and get my first “non extra” role.
When I arrived on set, I was introduced to my “husband,” who had significantly ratcheted up the dysfunction level of our family unit by killing himself. I also met my three “children,” all around 18 and 19 years old. When I look back on that day, I still am amazed to be perceived as the “mom” in that situation. I guess 18 is really only five years older than Tenley’s 13, but that five-year difference seems like a vast developmental expanse to me. And, frankly, in many ways I would still rather be one of them.
This blog’s title, “Disheveled,” has to do with wardrobe, an aspect of filmmaking that I really need to improve upon (case in point, arriving at the “Recount” set with a suit as I had been instructed but having only a pink suit for a film that was ostensibly occurring in frigid November). For Water Wings, I had brought a bunch of black/dark things as I had discussed with the director, but at the very last minute I threw in a purple shirt that was balled up in the back of my vehicle, a cast off from some day at the office when I had probably changed into running clothes. Shane’s eyes wandered to the wrinkly purple shirt and he said, “what’s that?” Me: “Um, something that was laying around in my car.” Shane: “I like it — it has that disheveled look.” I guess I was supposed to look like I had been sitting around the hospital for a while. But in general I don’t think irons are a hot commodity (pun intended) with the film/college crowd. I love being released from the tyranny of the perfectly pressed crease.
I had rehearsed my monologue many, many times by the time I arrived on set. I had written it down (because I memorize things better if I write them myself) and treated my car to many renderings of it. However, when I sat down with Shane, the director, to go over my lines right before delivering them, the experience felt eerily like the moment when I was in labor with Tenley, when my thought process (between the excruciating gut-wrenching pains) was essentially, “I wanted this so much but this is not possibly something I can pull off.” My brain was threatening to jettison precisely the words I needed to get us all through the next scenes, where I rail at my husband/son for hurting me and breaking our family.
This is such a cliche but the main thing I learned from my first “more than an extra” role was ….. how much I still have to learn.
It is amazing how one sentence said by someone who you are not likely ever to see again can undermine your confidence forever. I recall working as a substitute teacher at First Baptist Daycare here in Tallahassee when I was in college. I was on the floor playing with the adorable babies, and I distinctly heard one of the staff, who had been there for a lifetime and was a bona fide “baby person,” say, “that one doesn’t know what to do with babies.” Not a good omen considering I was majoring in child development and loved babies (still do).
Working with the film school students is one of those experiences in life where your chronological age really doesn’t matter an iota because, in my case at least, I was clearly the student and they were the teachers. I asked myself repeatedly after the filming if there was any possibility my performance had been a “First Baptist Baby Room” moment — were the student crew sitting there saying, “that one doesn’t know what to do with an embittered-mom monologue”? I need to get the training and experience to feel confident that, although there’s always more to learn, this is no First Baptist Baby Room and I have something to contribute.
I continue to think, as I take fledgling acting steps, how ironic it is that playing someone else brings you closer to who you really are.
At yesterday’s Writers’ Conference, Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, said, “if you put any two things next to each other, you get a third thing.” He did a masterful job of explaining how writing intersects with “The Cinema of the Mind.”
Maybe in the case of Water Wings, the things the viewer sees are a disheveled, embittered mom and a family on the edge. The third thing, not seen by the viewer, is the empowerment I snagged by taking a risk.
I’ll “run” into you next week, readers. I’ll be the disheveled one.
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.
Susan Fields says
Great post, Paula! You are so brave to try your hand at acting – that is one thing that would make me a nervous wreck. I hope I'll get to see your film someday! And I'm sorry that thoughtless baby comment has stuck with you all this time – clearly, you DO know what to do with babies (and you have two wonderful children to attest to it!)