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Margaret Brown, The Order Of Myths

MARDI GRAS QUEEN HELEN MEAHER IN DIRECTOR MARGARET BROWN’S THE ORDER OF MYTHS. COURTESY CINEMA GUILD.

Though she may appear to casual observers as simply a gifted young chronicler of Southern culture, Margaret Brown’s talents extend beyond that. The daughter of Milton Brown, the songwriter who penned the catchy title song for the Clint Eastwood vehicle Every Which Way But Loose, Brown was raised in Mobile, Alabama, and since graduating from university has been highly active behind the camera. In the past decade, Brown’s filmmaking career has been impressively diverse: she first produced the Student Academy Award-winning short Six Miles of Eight Feet (1998), then wrote and directed the narrative short 99 Threadwaxing the same year, and has since acted as D.P. on the Sundance award-winning doc Ice Fishing (2000) and produced her father’s first film as a director, the comedy western musical Mi Amigo (2002). In 2004, she made her own directorial debut with Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, an acclaimed documentary about the late, iconoclastic singer songwriter.

Brown’s follow-up film, The Order of Myths, sees her return to her roots as she chronicles the Mardi Gras in her hometown of Mobile, where the first Mardi Gras was celebrated in 1703. The documentary looks at the different groups that contribute to the carnival festivities, including the Strikers and the Mystics, and principally focuses on the Mobile Carnival Association (which organizes the white Mardi Gras parade) and their African American counterparts, Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association. Though Brown adopts a vérité style for the film, she does not simply observe but rather uses the inherent segregation within the Mardi Gras festivities to examine the historical context of race relations in Mobile. As a result, The Order of Myths not only offers insight into the complexities of an ancient ritual but also presents a picture of a time when the tensions between tradition and modernity, white and black, are beginning to shift.

Filmmaker spoke to Brown about the challenges of filming secretive organizations, her mother’s anticipated response to a burning cross in her yard, and the rule about when it’s OK to leave your friend’s bad movie.

MARGARET BROWN, DIRECTOR OF THE ORDER OF MYTHS. COURTESY CINEMA GUILD.

Filmmaker: How long had you been thinking about this project prior to making it?

Brown: In different permutations, a really long time. When I was in grad school even, I was developing a project that was a narrative about a runaway Mardi Gras queen, kind of based on my mom. Friends of mine from film school have been like, “When are you going to make that project?” So I went down there after I made the Townes Van Zandt film, Be Here To Love Me, thinking I was researching for a narrative but when I got there it just turned into a documentary. I started meeting the people there and at first I was thinking, “This is great research for my narrative,” and then I thought, “This is just a great film. These people are better than I could ever write – why don’t I just make a documentary?” It felt like living history, like a point in time that needed to be documented, so it wasn’t that hard to make.

Filmmaker: So when did doing research for a narrative project metamorphose into making the documentary?

Brown: We started filming probably a year and a half ago, and it happened really fast. We edited it in 6 months and there was 370 hours [of footage], so that’s no small feat. It was a quick project compared to my first documentary.

Filmmaker: How easy was for it for you to become accepted by the people you were filming?

Brown: When you film 370 hours, some people forget the camera’s there. When we were filming, I didn’t know how much the film was going to end up being about race – I thought it was really more about Mobile. I was following so many different organizations and characters that the film only really took shape after I saw a lot of the footage. Going in, I didn’t know what it was going to be to some degree, but that was sort of the fun of it.

Filmmaker: You filmed a number of different Mardi Gras societies – was there a significant difference in the way that they responded to you?

Brown: Yes. [laughs] In the MCA, there were some people in that group who knew my family and would say, “Oh, it’s Margaret, she used to babysit my kids. She’s cool.” But there were other people who just totally didn’t trust me [and would say] “What’s your motivation?” My dad’s Jewish, and someone even said to me, “Do you have an axe to grind because your dad’s Jewish?” (because I guess they don’t let that many Jews in, I guess…) And I was like, “No, I’m making an observational movie about Mardi Gras.” It was interesting, people had all kinds of ideas about what it meant that I was making the film. People from MAMGA, the black group, were very polite to me. In the South, people are so polite for the most part, so you can’t really tell [what they’re thinking], and I still don’t know what people think of me or the film. Some people are straight shooters, but other people are always polite. In a way that’s nice, but in another way you just have to watch your back. I feel that surface is visible in the film, the façade of “We get along!,” or rather Southern hospitality – and the reason that’s a stereotype is because it’s a real thing. It exists. My mother was kidding, but she said, “If people in Mobile don’t like the movie and someone burns a cross on my yard, I’m just going to plant around it!”

Filmmaker: How much did your perception of Mardi Gras – based on your memories of it from growing up in Mobile – shift as a result of the film?

Brown: Just immensely. The main example – which surprises people, though it shouldn’t – is that I wasn’t really aware of the black Mardi Gras. It was not part of my life because it’s separate and my family was so tied up in the white Mardi Gras. I was dimly aware that there were parades in the black part of town, but I didn’t know. And that’s such ignorance, which I hope the film might help correct. I’m a pretty inquisitive person and the fact that I didn’t know probably speaks a lot. I also didn’t understand how history was so directly connected to now – and we didn’t know the way that [the MCA Mardi Gras queen] Helen and [MAMGA queen] Stefannie’s families were connected going in. That was revealed after Mardi Gras: Stefannie’s grandfather, when he’s talking to Stefannie, says that his family came in on [Helen’s family’s boat]. Mike [Simmonds, the DP] and I looked at each other and at that moment we knew we had a movie.

Filmmaker: Were people uncomfortable with how much you were bringing race and historical context into the film?

Brown: A lot of people are like, “It’s not segregated,” but it is. Everyone knows that. I mean, how is it not segregated, please tell me? In a lot of ways, Mobile is moving forward but in certain ways it isn’t and I think the film shows both. It’s complex, and that’s what’s interesting about it.

Filmmaker: Did you interview Helen about her family’s position within the racial context of Mobile and the carnivals?

Brown: I did interview her about it, but it’s not in the film. When she saw the film for the first time at Sundance, the day before the first screening, she turned to me and said, “There’s a lot of things in that film that I didn’t know about my family.” I was like, “Wow!” Something interesting that’s coming out of the film is that tomorrow Joseph [the MAMGA king], Helen and Stefannie are all having lunch together, which I don’t think would have happened if they hadn’t just toured all over with the film. I think the only way things change is when people barbecue together or when people hang out – it’s not formal meetings where someone’s reading a scroll. What they have seems to me a real friendship. When we were at the Edinburgh Film Festival, people asked how things were changing and Helen said, “Well, I hope our children will play together.”

Filmmaker: How did you approach balancing a personal perspective with the necessary objectivity that this project required? I’m asking particularly because we discover at the end that one of the interviewees is your grandfather.

Brown: Well, I knew that the film was a personal film: it’s about where I’m from, I knew my family would be a part of it. My grandfather got me unprecedented access – I don’t think anyone else could have made this film because these are highly secretive groups, they don’t let people film them. Everyone was asking, “Well, who else is letting you film?” My granddad opened so many doors to me. He would call around and he’s someone who’s universally liked. I knew that I wanted the film to not be that idea I had of a personal film, which is a cathartic film which is about you and your journey because I was very intent on making an observational film where vérité was the main guiding force. I didn’t want to make a movie that was about race, class and gender that was like “Kachong!” with a mallet. I wanted people to see it and draw their own conclusions. I felt like by revealing at the end, rather than at the beginning, that my grandfather has this relationship to me, it would just be another layer that you added on to your experience. And hopefully it would be moving in a certain way.

Filmmaker: Looking at your resumé, you’ve been a producer, a D.P., and you’ve directed a fiction short in addition to your two doc features. Though most peopled would pigeonhole you as documentarian, how do you personally perceive yourself as a filmmaker?

Brown: I won’t be pigeonholed as a documentarian after the next one! I definitely just like being thought of as a film storyteller, because I like making music videos too. I don’t really like producing, but that’s sometimes a way to make dough. But I think the second film is a response to the first film. On the second film, I was like “I’m so sick of talking heads!” so it was vérité based. I think for the third film I’d definitely like to try a narrative next because it would be a different kind of challenge.

Filmmaker: How much of what you learned from the Townes Van Zandt film helped you make The Order of Myths?

Brown: I think I learned patience, and holding on things. Just because something’s moving very quickly doesn’t mean that’s what you should film. On the first film, I worked very closely with Lee Daniel, who shoots a lot with Richard Linklater and is a master documentary photographer. I learned a lot from him about patience, and that helped with this film a lot. A lot of stuff you learn in editing. This is going to sound hippie dippy, but just paying attention to your subconscious and being open to things evolving and not being what you expected, which is what I found really exciting about it.

Filmmaker: How did you come to produce Mi Amigo?

Brown: That was right out of film school. My dad’s a songwriter – he wrote the song “Every Which Way But Loose” – and he wrote a script. Through his songwriting connections he was able to raise enough money to make this feature. First, he was like, “Do you want to be my assistant?” but then I ended up producing it. It was a wild ride – I learned a lot about making films! My dad had never made a narrative feature, and it was a total family affair: my mother was the accountant, my brother was the sound P.A. Somebody should have made a documentary about my family making this crazy western in the middle of Alabama. It was absolutely mad.

Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?

Brown: The first one I remember is that Bo Derek movie 10, because I wasn’t allowed to see it and my dad was like, “Come on, you can watch it with me.” That was the first one I remember because it was… contraband. My mother said I couldn’t see it. I remember Bo Derek running along the beach.

Filmmaker: Do you always try and get into the theater early enough to watch the previews?

Brown: I’m chronically late, so I’d like to say that I do, but I never do. People are always mad at me because I’m late. I sit on the end. I like to leave if I need to. I’m not one of those people who have to watch the whole film. I used to have that rule for myself for a long time, but now I think life’s too short.

Filmmaker: So do you leave films early at festivals?

Brown: Well, if it’s your friend’s film who you had like 80 beers with the night before, obviously you’re not going to walk out of their film. Even if it’s terrible.

Filmmaker: Is there a specific one you’re thinking of?

Brown: Yes. [laughs] But I’m not going to say.

Filmmaker: Finally, when was the last time you burst out laughing on set?

Brown: I remember I was doing this music video for Okkervil River. Oh, this is bad… I might get someone into trouble, but it was really funny. Jonathan [Meiburg, the lead singer] was engaged and there was this girl who was the star of the video and she played all these different parts. He had to make out with her over and over, but he didn’t know that this was going to be his part in the video. I kind of wrote it in the last minute and he didn’t realize just how much he’d have to make out with her. We were teasing him a lot.

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