Q&A WITH ALISON BAGNALL
How did the project get started?
I met a young actress Savannah Haske when she came in to do some improv opposite Vincent Gallo when we were writing BUFFALO 66. She just had a special, singular quality, like a feral creature - and she was really pretty. So, I called her the day after the script was completed to ask if she wanted to collaborate on a screenplay. I had no idea whether she had ever written anything, but I hadn't seen Vincent write anything either and it had worked out.
I then took a job as a secretary in an investment bank with a carpeted wall for a window for 10 months while we wrote the script. We went upstate to where the film is set in Delaware County, New York for a week to finish it up. I found a casting director whose work I greatly admired, Ellen Parks - then a wonderful producer and collaborator Alison Dickey, to help me realize the film, which ended up taking of course far longer than I expected, but I did have two children between the completion of the script and reaching the final cut of the movie. So did my producer.
What compelled you to tell this story?
I was interested in portraying the fierce intensity, obsession and single-minded determination I felt as an adolescent whenever I had a crush on someone (Savannah described similar experiences). So, in this movie I wanted to watch a girl - in this case a truculent, unsocialized girl - as she goes after her chosen object of desire without the slightest nuance or subtlety. And I thought it would be funny if she believed that she was so clever and cunning, when in fact her designs are utterly transparent.
How did you find your lead actors?
NILE - Fannie's love interest - was very difficult to cast. It was just proving impossible to find American actors who could convincingly portray an ex-heroin addict - they were all so buff and healthy-looking. (in France it would probably have been easy). After a long fruitless search, I was at a small New Year's dinner party with - among others - Dean Wareham, the lead singer/guitarist of the band Luna. Dean was pretty silent for the whole dinner but, toward the end of the meal, bored with the chit chat, he suddenly stood up and started clearing everyone's dishes. It was as though he snapped into the character of a passive/aggressive waiter at a Parisian cafe, those guys who yank your coffee cups from in front of you. So, as he went around the table my husband Rufus - the D.P. on the movie - was pointing at him and mouthing 'NILE! NILE' (the character's name) After dinner I asked Dean if he was interested in acting and it turned out he had done a lot of it back in high school, but that - by college - he had opted for a career in music (first starting the legendary band 'Galaxie 500' with some Harvard friends and then 'Luna'). We did a screen test and found he was very photogenic and had a lot of screen presence. So my casting director recommended a good acting coach to help him prepare for the role. I think he's a real discovery.
As for JIM (Savannah's dad in the movie) Ellen Parks had pulled some photos of possible fathers and when I walked into her office one day I saw a headshot of Robert Burke lying on her desk. He looked more like Savannah's father than her real Dad. I then watched Hal Hartley's UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH which he stars in and that was that, there was never another Jim.
With the lead actors set, the project gathered momentum and we pieced in the rest of the cast, at which point John C. Reilly (husband of my producer) joined us, thus perfectly filling a final key role as scary RUSSELL.
As a first time feature director, how did you approach making PIGGIE?
After a period of time where our funding kept collapsing at the last minute, we were rapidly losing the season - summer - that we needed to shoot in, and actor availability was limited. In the end, a relative said he'd put up a little money to shoot the whole movie, so we had to shift into full production in a matter of days.
I decided to shoot on DV for many reasons, including the incredible intimacy it allows in capturing actor's performances. I also wanted to use 35mm for the scenic shots where the DV wouldn't hold up, and some static portraits of the characters that I could use throughout the film.
For the shoot, I told the D.P. that I was going to focus on creating scenes with the actors that were as real as possible and it would be up to him to record them - as though he were shooting a documentary. That said, I did end up blocking and making quick sketches for most of the scenes moments before we shot them, but often we had to work on the fly. We had a small, fast crew, but considering the logistics of the film it was still really difficult.
From a directing point of view - a main concern I had was to make sure a scene was truly working before I considered it 'in the can'. It's easy to have the illusion that somehow some kind of magic is going to happen in the film lab or in the editing room. Even though we were completely short on time, I still went back and re-shot key scenes because I knew they just weren't there. In one - a love scene - I asked the actors to forget about all the words from the script and do the scene silently, unless a new line came to them in the moment. We then ended up cutting the two different sets of footage together into one scene - even though we had picked out a completely different location for the re-shoot. It's one of the more beautiful scenes for me now.
Did you rehearse very much with the actors?
We rehearsed over the course of a week - a month before the shoot began - with only the three main actors. We didn't do any of the key, emotional scenes because I was afraid to have the best performance be in the rehearsal. So Dean and Savannah - the romantic leads - improvised a number of scenes together. And a few non-key scenes we sort of read through woodenly. Dean surprised us on the improvs - he's not a trained actor, but he soared to the occasion. As a result I was confident during the shoot, to ask him to improvise a line or two when needed, and Savannah as well.
Robert Burke's character JIM, is based on Savannah's real father, who is a very particular person – impossible to describe with words alone. So I asked Robert to hang out with him for a couple of days at his farmhouse. The meeting completely blew apart all of Roberts impressions of the character as he had understood him, and he came back very confused. But after he was able to digest the experience, he started to innately feel what this character – full of contradictions – was about. He didn't ape her father in any way, rather he sort of emanated out through Robert's skin.
How did you approach your editing process? Sometimes with DV films there is an abundance of footage.
Yes, in fact we had 90 hours of footage. Rufus Standefer - the DP - would sometimes leave the camera running when he felt he still hadn't seen in the little DV camera screen - a real 'moment'.
My editor - the New Zealander Cushla Dillon - was politely berating me for all the 10 to 20 minute takes and for the 60 DVcam tapes. Cushla said her brain would go numb five minutes into a particularly long take. But, as we got further along in the edit and deeper and deeper into the footage, many of those little found moments right at the very end of a 15 minute take started to find their way into the movie. I even named my daughter after Cushla but I'm pretty sure she's still mad at me for those long takes!
But, seriously, it took us proportionately longer to cut all of that footage. We took long periods away from the editing which was possible because I didn't have investors or a company tapping their fingers waiting for it. It was very helpful to be able to get a distance from the material. I went months without ever looking at the cursed beast, but it's much the better for all the time away. I think if I had to cut it all in one go, it wouldn't be the same.
They say comedy is harder than drama. Would you agree?
I would be nervous trying to do anything that wasn't a comedy. On the other hand, I may have an off-kilter sense of what is funny. I was remembering the other day of when I was seven I found an enormous dead mole under a pine tree. It was hideous; no eyes, star-shaped mouth for ingesting dirt and the short shovel claws instead of arms. I thought it would be a be an ingenious, ironic joke if I were to wrap it up like a birthday present and give it to one of my friends at school - 'lovely surprise turns out to be bloated furry corpse' - and then we'd both have a good laugh about it. Needless to say it ended in tears. I figured my friend was just too young to get the joke, so I re-wrapped the gift and gave it to a teacher - who would surely be able to appreciate the subtle irony therein. The reaction was pretty much the same, minus the tears. I gave up after the teacher, but I still felt that there must have been someone out there who would have gotten it.
I'm hoping that PIGGIE is funnier than that mole joke but I really don't know for sure. I did want it to be funny in an excruciating way, and I think we pulled that off.
Talk about the music in the film.
Music plays a big part in the movie because the main character aspires to be a singer and she sings a lot of songs that she has composed. Savannah wrote the lyrics of all of her character's songs in the film, and they're pretty arresting. In the early screenings, everyone responded to the songs so much that I asked Savannah to write two more than were originally scripted, to which Dean Wareham then composed the melody. They recorded it on a little 8-track and we were good to go.
For the score, I asked Dean if he knew any good composers and he had just met a duo who called themselves Dusty Trails. It turned out that they were Vivian Trimble, the keyboard player from Luscious Jackson - and Josephine Wiggs, the bass player from the Breeders. Just the idea of those two cool women doing the music seemed so perfect (not to mention that they had really great-sounding names.) Also, between the two of them, they could play all the instruments and do vocals too, a bonus since I had no funds to pay studio musicians or singers. Bass guitar is my favorite instrument, and drums, so I just asked them to create music where those instruments were at the fore. And I asked Vivian to do some vocalese, singing without words, which she did and it's beautiful, bringing a lot of emotion to certain scenes where I needed it.
Q&A WITH DEAN WAREHAM
Were you ever the object of an obsessive adolescent crush?
No adolescent crushes. I had a Japanese stalker for a while. She would
turn up at Luna shows all over the world - London, Tokyo, a small town
in Wales. She asked me "why you are writing all your songs to me!?" And
then she slapped me in the face.
When you were an adolescent, did you usually pursue a girl? Or did you wait for girls to come after you?
When I was an adolescent, there were a few older girls who used to
tease me. Invite me over to their houses after school, and tell me that
I was too young right now, but that I was very cute. I definitely
enjoyed the attention. I rarely asked a girl on a date, I'm not very
good at being so direct.
Did you ever use any tricky lines on girls?
My best friend in tenth grade had a pick-up line.
Do you wanna play Pup Tent?
Girls didn't know what that meant. And they would always run away from
him. I tried using this line once, with a girl named Kristina. She said
yes, she would like to play pup tent. Kristina was two years older than
me, and everyone had a crush on her. We went over to her place. I
wanted to build a little tent, out of a blanket and a broom, and crawl
into it together. I figured we'd figure out the rest of the game as we
went along. But Kristina just wanted to tease me, and take photographs
of me with drug paraphernalia. I later wrote a song called Pup Tent,
about a little game of pup tent, with a blanket and a broom. Kristina
also found her way into another song, "Superfreaky Memories".
Kristina took your photo
with a needle and a spoon
but she said we have to hurry
'cos her dad will be home soon,
What was your approach to acting in the movie? Did you try to become the character?
I am not a trained actor. I thought it best to just be myself, to play
the character as close to myself as possible, instead of putting on
another character. Nile is an ex-junkie, but that doesn't mean he has
to be played in an exaggerated manner. I know some junkies, and they
can come across as perfectly normal. I figured Nile is mean and cranky
and depressed, and I can be that way sometimes, so I tried to
concentrate on that part of myself.
I happen to think Woody Allen is a great actor. Some people will tell
you "he just plays himself". But he does it well, and he can make you
Did you find it fun to play Nile?
It was kind of fun to be mean and cranky all the time. And to tell
lies. But I had to wear that same brown polyester shirt every day, it's
too bad Nile didn't have a better wardrobe.
Were you attracted to Savannah during the shoot?
Well, Savannah is a very attractive woman. But Fannie was so annoying
that I didn't want anything to do with her. I kind of enjoyed pushing
her out of the car.