After honing her skills in front of the camera, actress Jodie Markell ("Big Love") chose to make her directorial debut with a rather daunting project that began, long before she was born, as a rare and long-forgotten film script by A Streetcar Named Desire playwright Tennessee Williams. Years after Williams' death, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond – conceived to be directed by Elia Kazan decades ago – marks the return of Southern Gothic romance to the big screen, full of Tennessee Williams's signature melodramatic flavor. (Read Jenni Miller's review here.)
The films alights on Fisher Willow (Bryce Dallas Howard), a spoiled Southern belle who returns from abroad on the eve of the Great Depression and bristles against the social ranks of Memphis high society, even as she attempts to re-enter it. The script has the markings of a Tennessee Williams story -- a mad heroine, romantic longing galore, and plenty of cruel, fickle moments between Fisher and the object of her affection, the enigmatic Jimmy (Chris Evans).
Cinematical spoke with Jodie Markell about the road she traveled to bring The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond to the big screen.
Cinematical: This seems like a highly unlikely project to come to bear, fifty years after Tennessee Williams wrote it. How did you find and acquire his script?
Jodie Markell: I had been interested in Tennessee Williams since I was a teenager. I'd read a lot of his work, everything I could find. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and it really spoke to me. When I was in acting school one of my teachers showed me a collection of his screenplays, and when I read The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond I couldn't believe it had never been made. I really related to the character, Fisher Willow – mostly in her struggle to be heard in a society that keeps those who are more sensitive, more perceptive, more artistic, more romantic, witty – those people, he had an affinity for. He makes us understand them, he makes us see their vulnerabilities.
We tried to get the rights to do it when I was fairly young, but we found that the estate was very tight, at the time they weren't giving out rights to a lot of his work. In time things changed, and the people who were in control of the rights changed, and we kept approaching them every few years with producer Brad Gilbert, who was really great and obtained the rights eventually. Together, we sought out the actors we wanted and the project started to come alive and the financing came together.
Cinematical: Lindsay Lohan was said to be attached to the film at one point. Did you seek Bryce Dallas Howard early on in the casting process?
Jodie Markell: Yes, she was always my first choice. When we first approached her, she wasn't available at the time; later, everyone found out it was because she was pregnant. Another actress approached us but we were still hoping for Bryce, and for many other reasons we had to delay shooting and it worked out that Bryce got back in touch with us and we were able to work with her.
Cinematical: Why was Howard your perfect Fisher Willow?
Jodie Markell: When I saw Bryce in The Village, I thought, this is the best actress of her generation. I really felt like I'd never seen a young actress with so much focus and discipline. She has a lot of soul that comes across on screen. But she also has a great determination, and I knew that would be wonderful for the character. I knew it would be a challenge for her in many ways, because she isn't Fisher Willow, but I knew that if there was anyone who could do it, she would be able to; she's had training and experience in the theater, which I really respect in a young actor. That's what we looked for when we were casting for the younger roles. We looked for actors who could work with the language – it's almost like doing Shakespeare, it sometimes seems so foreign to an actor's ear, but I knew that Bryce had that training and experience and could handle that. She's beautiful and she's so smart, her energy and her commitment is admirable and astounding to us all.
Cinematical: It's amazing that you shot the entire film in six weeks. How long were you able to rehearse before that?
Jodie Markell: It was very difficult, with all of the actors' schedules and the financing, to build in rehearsal time to an independent film's schedule. But that was one thing I felt was very important, so I fought for that. The producer was behind me on that and all the actors that could be there were there. Some of the more cameo roles, the actors couldn't be there. But we worked with a tight group for about five days, which is a lot... and then, to the actors' credit, I would get a phone call from Bryce at 2 in the morning when we were shooting at 8 the next day, and she would say, "Chris and I are rehearsing right now!" They just loved rehearsing, they were so committed to it. They would rehearse on their off days. Everyone put a lot of work into it. Some of those scenes were so difficult, and you really needed as much time as you could get. Usually on a film set, you don't get a chance to look at the whole picture.
Cinematical: Did these rehearsals feel more like stage rehearsals than film rehearsals?
Jodie Markell: Usually on a film you get one table read, but we did four of them a day, so that the actors had a chance to see how their characters flowed through the piece, where their beginning, middle and end is. Where they come from, where they're going. That's so key for an actor, to understand what to do when you show up out of sequence on a set. We'd also look at a scene and get on our feet and experiment with different blocking ideas. We answered a lot of text questions, because there are some strange and interesting ways of saying things that Tennessee Williams has; talked about the history of the place and how the film takes place in the 1920s, which was a time in the South, and in the rest of the world, when the modern age was taking hold. The Old South was especially the last bastion of that, and you see the New South becoming... Williams said everything he ever wrote was about loss, so we talked about how each character was handling the transition from the Old South to the New South. Were they handling it well? Were they not handling it well? How were they dealing with this? That was a great perspective on seeing how each character traveled through and how the characterscome together.
Cinematical: Since it is such a specific period piece, in both setting and sentiment, how do you think it resonates to a modern audience?
Jodie Markell: Of course, I hope it does [resonate] because Williams is able to touch the heart of his characters... he said once, "I never wrote about a vice I didn't find in myself," and that, to me, is timeless. The humanity of his characters is what is timeless. And he wrote this in the 1950s, but placed it in the 1920s, so that helps enough, to me, because he was already writing about another time. It helps remove that feeling of, this can only work in the '50s. So yes, there are the societal trappings that we aren't dealing with anymore, but we don't usually go to debutante balls! [Laughs] I think that people can see stories about kings and queens, stories that happen in English history; I'm interested in recovering the stories in American history. There are so many untapped, untold stories in the cinema from our own history -- our own period films -- and I really believe in seeing those on film.
Cinematical: While Fisher's character is straightforward and honest, to a fault, Chris Evans' character Jimmy is more of an enigma. Why is that?
Jodie Markell: A lot of the men in Williams' work – think of Marlon Brando or Montgomery Clift – you don't really know what they're thinking about the woman in their life until near the end, and that carries you through. They're someone that the women project upon, they throw themselves upon, and they battle with; these men, you're not sure what's brewing underneath but you see something brewing. We talked a lot in rehearsal about the arc of Chris's character, and I think he did an incredible job; it's very unusual for a contemporary actor to be able to hold what he holds in the film. He's so strong. We talked a lot about when it is that he finds Fisher attractive, what parts of Fisher are attractive to him, and how that slowly builds. When he loses it, what makes him lose attraction to her? It was an on and off thing that was happening for him; his character had never seen anyone like her, someone who was so honest. He was also searching for something real and honest in his world; his mother's in an asylum, his father's an alcoholic, and he's searching for a connection. That's how they really come together at the end, and that's what he's looking for.
Cinematical: Is this a romantic film, to you?
Jodie Markell: Well, that's a good question. I didn't set out to make a romantic film, I set out to make a film about two people trying to find something authentic. But the world of Tennessee Williams, and the character of the South, is filled with romance and poetry and you can't get away from it. And yet, it is deeply romantic in that two people are searching – it's more about longing than attaining.
Cinematical: The ending of the film strikes an unexpected chord, especially considering the mostly-happy resolutions of romance films of the 1950s, when Williams wrote The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.
Jodie Markell: I think the ending is very modern. And I think it's also pragmatic for the characters; that word resonates a lot for me when you talk about the Old South and the New South. There was a pragmatism happening for the people who were learning to be a little more crass, a little more hard-edged, a little more modern. I think that's what these two young adults are realizing.
Cinematical: Why do you think Williams wanted to make this a cinematic work, rather than a stage play?
Jodie Markell: I think he was interested in seeing the environment of the South – traveling to the different houses and traveling to the parties, traveling from Memphis to Mississippi... You can't really do that in a stage play – I mean, you can, but in his day that wasn't really the way, you didn't jump around to a lot of different locations. I think he was interested in music being a big part of it, but definitely the environment and nature of the South. He often talked about the birds calling, and things like that. There's a moment when the wind picks up and nature reflects what the characters are [experiencing].
Cinematical: Speaking of music, there's a great scene when Fisher expresses her heartbreak by playing Liszt's Liebestraum No. 3. Was that a song you chose for the film, or was it in Williams' script?
Jodie Markell: He selected that piece of music. And when I first found it and read aloud the passages that needed to play over that music, it was astounding the way it fit with the music. We had to do some editing once we were working with it, but it's still so powerful it breaks my heart every time we get to the section that change with the character.
Cinematical: This is your first time directing, but you've been acting for years. What made you want to step behind the camera, and is this a step toward a career change for you?
Jodie Markell: I think I'll always do both, because they feed each other. As an actress I've worked with a lot of directors, some of them who did not know how to talk to actors, and it was very frustrating. I just love what actors do, and I respect the work so much, that I want to create an environment for them to make discoveries. Those discoveries light up the screen. I love being a part, and I'm willing to be able to listen to their work and answer their questions and be there for them. I also have a visual sense and I've always been interested in telling a story visually. I studied Interpretation at Northwestern University, which was the adaptation of literature to stage and screen. One of my mentors there was Dr. Frank Galati, who is a Steppenwolf director now and did The Grapes of Wrath on Broadway. We were interested in finding the voice of whatever work we were adapting, and that holistic approach to the material has stayed with me. I never, even as an actor, go onto a set or a stage without thinking about how my character fits in the whole piece and what my role serves. So I've always thought from a directorial point of view.