PHOTO JENN DeNIKE
IT’S 3 AM, and I’m stranded in a furious snowstorm with the cast and crew of Certain Women, Peggy Ahwesh and Bobby Abate’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s 1958 pulp-fiction novel. Ahwesh is further up the road caught in a snow drift, while Abate shuttles back and forth between us making sure we have enough cigarettes and water as we wait for the tow trucks. A crew of four, a few makeup smeared actors, a couple of DV cameras and too many cell phones without reception… it all seems rather appropriate for this re-creation of Caldwell’s original story of feminine distress in a world rife with pathos.
“So many weird things have happened on this shoot,” says Mike Albo, who plays diner owner Joe Rand. “It feels very gritty and dirty, and that’s always a good sign.”
The film is being shot in upstate New York near Bard College where Ahwesh and Abate first met when he was a student of hers in the Bard MFA program. “The first time we talked we discovered a mutual love of the writings of Erskine Caldwell. We both had a collection of his novels, which we initially picked up at thrift stores for their lurid, melodramatic covers,” says Ahwesh. “After realizing how similar we were in our love of genre, we started talking about doing a project together, and then settled on Certain Women, a collection of tawdry tales that follows the lives of five women doomed to a fate of misery and suffering colored by typical small-town morality. Without overt political posturing, Caldwell uses the plight of women [in the ’50s] as a metaphor for all of human suffering.”
Ahwesh and Abate are translating the gritty feel of the original novel through a no-budget production shot on miniDV and an assortment of spy cameras and low-end VHS cameras run into a miniDV deck. Dialogue is taken straight from the book, and the two directors take on almost all roles of production. “The entire cast is made up of people we know, people we chose because they had a certain look or personality trait that merged with Caldwell’s characters.” says Abate. “We have a cast of over 100 and have used only one professional actor.”
In true Warholian fashion the film is cast with an array of cultural luminaries such as painter Amy Sillman and conceptual artist Nayland Blake, along with students of both Ahwesh and Abate, and Mary Mary, one of the original members of The Living Theater.
I’ve been cast as Jenny Rand, a slutty sports-bar tramp out to revenge her husband’s infidelities. Earlier in the night, when I arrived at the designated location, a truck stop off of Highway 9, I’m told we can’t shoot there because the manager got pissed off the previous night, so now we’re heading toward an abandoned motel up the side of the road. Without permits, risking arrest, relying on friends to double as actors one day, crew the next — these are the kind of challenges that seem to appease the guerrilla-filmmaking nature of both Abate and Ahwesh.
Ahwesh, whose Super-8 work from the ’80s helped shape a new generation of experimental makers, is no stranger to the collaborative process. Her 1987 film The Deadman, based on a George Bataille novel, was a collaboration with Keith Sanborn, and she’s recently released a CD of experimental sound work with photographer Barbara Ess. Abate is a young videomaker whose work has been featured in the New York Film Festival and is quickly garnering the attention of the avant-garde film and video community.
The tow trucks arrive and we’re back at the house by 5 AM preparing for the next day’s shoot. This is the final story of the film, and after a year of weekend shooting Ahwesh and Abate welcome the post-production process. “Both Bobby and I direct through shooting,” says Ahwesh. “We lead the action through the camera. But editing is a whole different process. Who knows what direction the film will take now. That’s the challenge of working with two minds.”