A rediscovered Tennessee Williams screenplay opens at theaters
“The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” has the Williams touch and the feel of the south in the 20s
By Allan R. Ellenberger
The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly Last Summer – all are classic plays written by the prolific playwright, Tennessee Williams. All and several others were translated to the screen with judicious success.
This new film, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, is an original script that Williams wrote expressly for the screen decades ago. Williams affection for memorable, unstable, sometimes southern women such as Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat, now includes Teardrop’s Fisher Willow, played in the film by Bryce Dallas Howard.
Fisher is a headstrong young debutante who rises against being a proper southern belle. At a Halloween party she loses her aunt’s teardrop diamond earring and suspicion falls on her escort and possible love interest, Jimmy Dobyne (Chris Evans). Fisher is forced to face her own demons which are putting her relationship with Dobyne in peril.
When Williams was writing the script in 1957, he expressed his desire to have Julie Harris play Fisher and Elia Kazan, with whom he worked before on Broadway and in films, to direct it. “That’s premature, of course,” Williams said at the time, “but they’ll get the first chance at the completed script.”
Unfortunately that chance never came and the screenplay was not produced. It stayed in Williams catalogue of works for fifty years until first-time director, Jodie Markell decided to direct it. Markell first read the script while studying acting years earlier and was struck by the character of Fisher Willow, a young woman trying to find herself.
Filmed in Louisiana, the look of the film is authentic; the locations, cinematography, and costumes all confer the feel of the 1920s south. The acting accolades go to Howard and veteran actress, Ellen Burstyn who plays Miss Addie, a free spirit, not unlike Fisher, who is now trapped in her stroke-ridden body and asks for the girls help. Burstyn is amazing and the scenes where Addie recalls her scandalous past and how she came to be bedridden, are some of the films highlights.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview the film’s director, Jodie Markell, on the making of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.
Jodie Markell, director of “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” in limited release on December 30, 2009
Q&A with Jodie Markell:
The “Loss of a Teardrop Diamond” was made in 2007; what were the obstacles in getting the film released?
JM: Yes the film was shot in the fall of 2007, played at Toronto in the fall of 2008, but the final adjustments were made in 2009. Of course we all remember that the economy crashed last fall, which sent the independent distribution market into a tail spin that it is still recovering from. We received offers from different companies, but we were waiting for the right distributor and we found him in Mark Urman of Paladin. He has such an understanding of the film. He also knows how to market it to the right audience, not just in New York and LA but in additional markets across the country. When looking for a distributor, you have to be discerning and not desperate. I feel so grateful to be working with Mark Urman.
What’s the story behind the “rediscovered” Tennessee Williams screenplay? How did it come to your attention and what attracted you enough to want to film it?
JM: When I was fifteen, growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, I was cast as Laura Wingfield in a high school production of The Glass Menagerie. From that moment on, I was hooked. By the time I was seventeen, I had read everything I could find by Tennessee Williams and had been inspired by Elia Kazan’s classic films of A Streetcar Named Desire and my favorite, Baby Doll. As a teenager with artistic tendencies, who often felt a bit different, I had a real affinity for Williams’ sensitive characters who are searching for something authentic in a harsh world. A few years later, when I was studying to be an actress in New York City, a teacher showed me the un-produced screenplay of Williams’ The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond written in 1957. The script was the only film Williams said he had written “directly for the films.” It was re-discovered amongst his papers many years later. I was immediately struck by the lead character, Fisher Willow, a young woman struggling to find her voice. I related to Fisher’s call for understanding. When a story touches me, I tend to carry it in my heart until the time is right to see it realized. A few years after I read the screenplay, I brought it to producer Brad Michael Gilbert who has a knack not only for getting what he wants, but also for supporting an artist’s vision. Gilbert knew I had an interest in finding lost American classics that have been overlooked. He had produced my first short film, Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at the P.O. which played the festivals and won several awards. Over the course of a few years, Gilbert made several attempts to acquire Teardrop Diamond, but it wasn’t until the estate changed hands that he was able to secure the rights.
Do you have a favorite Tennessee Williams character and why?
JM: Well,aside from Fisher Willow in our film, I have always liked the character of Carol Cutrere in Orpheus Descending and in the film The Fugitive Kind. She is a rich, rebellious girl, who has a bad reputation in a small southern town. A bit older than Fisher, she is almost like what Fisher would have become if she didn’t find her Jimmy. Carol goes “juke-ing”: she drives her speedster to juke joints on old country roads, picks up men, and takes them to the local graveyard in the middle of the night. She is a wild one, but she speaks so poetically about it –in one scene she talks about how the dead have one message to us and it is “Live, just live.” She is so desperate, but she is brutally honest and she breaks our hearts. I always wanted to play that role.
This is an impressive directorial debut. What did you love about directing and what areas were not that enjoyable for you?
JM: What I love about directing most is working with the actors and the designers. I also love working with the camera and playing with color and light. And I love being on location. As a director, you have an opportunity to use your whole brain- it really wakes up areas of your mind that you don’t always use- and you need to keep so many thoughts going at once – like multi-tracking. You need to be present not only for the actors but also for everyone on the crew. Ready to answer any questions or concerns. You need to be ready to put out fires but at the same time to ignite the creative energy in your actors and designers. You need to be inspired so you can inspire others. It is quite an enlivening experience.
I had some frustrations shooting the levee sequence at the end of the film. We selected a levee in the middle of nowhere or so we thought. We soon discovered that even though we were shooting in the middle of the night we were bombarded with interfering sound issues. It was like we were suddenly at the hub of all forms of modern transportation! Not great for a period film. We heard cars on an unforeseen highway nearby, planes, trains, and worst of all the barges and tugboats that slowly went by on the river, ruining the scene we were shooting. We had to wait sometimes half an hour for a boat to go by. That was frustrating because the actors were really in a great place emotionally and we kept having to cut for sound. I hated having to say CUT when the actors were so connected. But that comes with the territory.
The look of the film is amazing. The costumes, sets and cinematography, and even the poster, recreate the 1920s. Can you briefly tell how you accomplished this?
JM: From the beginning, I wanted an authentic look set in the period. The designers and I immersed ourselves in imagery of the period from books of photographs and from early films. Our production and costume designers also have theatrical experience so they were used to making magic out of an independent film budget. We also spoke about how we did not want to create a faded old timey look, but we wanted to push the painterly use of color and light to create a dream-like atmosphere. We did not want to create an old fashioned movie, we wanted to create a film in a classic style. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens and I selected to shoot scope (anamorphic), to not only give the film a larger than life canvas, but also to heighten the intimacy of the subtle emotional shifts that take place in the characters’ faces. The widescreen enabled the actors to move within the frame, even at times to share a close up. Shooting in cinemascope also allowed us to recall the style of the great films of the fifties (like Kazan’s East of Eden) when the screenplay was written.
Bryce Dallas Howard (above) stars as Fisher Willow in “The Loss of A Teardrop Diamond”
The entire cast is incredible and Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance is, of course, central to the film. How did you decide on casting her and is the story about Lindsay Lohan originally being cast — or wanting the role — true?
JM: Bryce was always my first choice. I first saw her in Shamalyan’s The Village. She is so grounded and earthy as an actor. She is very present, honest and direct. And she has paid her dues in the theater. I knew the film called for actors with theater background because the language can be so elusive, almost as challenging as Shakespeare requiring a certain musicality. And many actresses make the mistake of playing Williams’ heroines in a very artificial mannered way that tends to keep the audience at a distance. I knew that Bryce would never fall into that trap. She prepares her work with great focus and detail and yet her work always feels fresh. But she was not available when we first offered her the role because she was pregnant. As our start date kept changing I met with several other talented actors, but had not quite found our Fisher. About 6 months later, I received a call from Bryce’s agent suggesting that we could re-approach Bryce. I was ecstatic and we were able to delay our start date until she was ready to work again after her son was born.
Academy Award winning actress, Ellen Burstyn, is memorable as Addie. What was it like to work with her?
JM: Working with Ellen was a dream come true – exactly what I wanted to experience when I became a director: to work with great actors, providing them a supportive environment where they can feel free to make discoveries. Those discoveries are what ignite the screen and make their characters come alive. Ellen arrived on location having already done a great deal of research. She even went to a hospital and met stroke victims who had been paralyzed like Miss Addie. Ellen’s emotional well is very deep and she takes us on an inner journey without moving her body. Her character is on the brink of death and only an actress with great spiritual strength like Ellen could even approach this role. She is so honest and in the moment. Her work throughout her illustrious career has been such an inspiration and it was a real honor to work with her.
What project are you working on now?
JM: I have several scripts that I have developed and am reading others…I’ve got them all on the fire – we’ll see which one lights up first.
The film’s cast also includes Chris Evans as Fisher’s love interest, Jimmy Dobyne, Ann-Margaret as Aunt Cornelia and Will Patton as Old Man Dobyne. The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond opens in limited markets on December 30, 2009 and later in wide release.