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AFTERSHOCKS
Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl examines the emotional repercussions of a prostitute’s murder on five troubled L.A. women.

BY HOWARD FEINSTEIN

THE DEAD GIRL. PHOTOS BY: RON BATZDORFF

When a performer moves behind the camera, it’s often a dodgy proposition. An actor on mostly forgettable soaps and drama series in the ’80s and ’90s, Karen Moncrieff is more than an exception; having made just two features, she’s become a star filmmaker.

Having realized that her acting experience gave her a handle on directing actors, Moncrieff began her journey toward directing by studying screenwriting and production at Los Angeles City College. After shooting several Super 8mm shorts, she made a debut feature, Blue Car, which premiered at Sundance in 2002 and was released by Miramax. In that film, Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a teen girl, is bedded — and disillusioned — by her mild-mannered middle-aged high school English teacher (played by David Strathairn). And while financiers may have gotten in the way of her vision on Blue Car, her $4 million second feature, the beautiful, provocative and bravely dark The Dead Girl, has reached the screen unfiltered. Inspired by Moncrieff’s service as a juror in a trial involving a murdered prostitute, it is a five-part study of women. The distinct, individually titled episodes all revolve in some way around a young prostitute whose body is discovered just 10 minutes into the film. Suspense is not the director’s goal. Instead, it is mostly (but not totally) the probing of the psyches of and social relationships between women.

The film begins when Arden (Toni Collette), the repressed daughter of an overbearing hypochondriac (Piper Laurie), discovers a decomposed corpse on their property, and then, strangely empowered, embarks on an unsuccessful sexual escapade with potential suspect Rudy (Giovanni Ribisi). In the second segment, Leah (Rose Byrne) is a forensics expert who examines the body and becomes certain that the victim is her sister, who mysteriously vanished years before. Feeling free, Leah submits to the sexual interest of colleague Derek (James Franco), though she makes a mess of it.

WRITER-DIRECTOR KAREN MONCRIEFF.

In the third and most troubling section, nagging wife Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt) discovers that her inattentive and frequently absent husband is the serial killer everyone is talking about. Most touching is segment four, in which Melora (Marcia Gay Harden), the unconsciously inattentive mother of the slain runaway, searches for clues to her daughter’s sordid life in the cheap motel room she shared with lover and fellow prostitute Rosetta (Kerry Washington). In the final section, Moncrieff traces the last day in the life of the victim, Krista (Brittany Murphy), a high-strung druggie whose sexual abuse by her stepfather and denial by her mother precipitated her flight from suburbia to L.A. years before.

Blue Car and The Dead Girl cover some of the same themes, among them mother-daughter rivalry, ungratifying sex, problematic older men and the ambiguity of transgression. Moncrieff says the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski were a big influence, and it shows both in the consistency of her concerns and her artful aesthetic, which is built around, rather than imposed upon, her characters, for whom her affection is palpable. First Look Pictures opens the film in January.

THE DEAD GIRL. PHOTOS BY: RON BATZDORFF

Can you describe your shift from acting to writing and directing? For about 10 years I supported myself as an actor. Most of what is on my résumé are projects I’m not very proud of. I was nearing my 30th birthday and was thinking, What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Acting [in those parts] wasn’t it. I’d loved to write ever since I was small. My initial impulse was to learn screenwriting so I could write better parts for myself and show the world that I was capable of doing a lot more than the stuff I was normally cast in. But then once I started actually writing, it felt so natural to me to be doing it. While it had perhaps begun with the idea that I was writing for myself, I decided that I liked the things that I had written and really wanted the characters to be embodied by the best actors that I could find. Soon after that came the impulse to direct because I wanted to protect what I had written. The way in which the American studio and indie systems work is that the producer is the owner and officially the author of the movie. That is so wrong to me as the creator of the script. I had done enough B-movies that [acting in them] demystified the directing process for me. I have worked with people who were drunk on the set — not the best and the brightest. I knew how to direct actors, and I knew what makes a beautiful performance. What I didn’t know was camera, editing or any of the technical side of things. So I got a really solid technical education at LACC [Los Angeles City College] in photography and editing.

We know Krista’s fate from the beginning. American films usually like to tease and hold back information, thinking that’s how you keep the viewer going. The mystery for me is not how Krista dies or what the moment of her death looked like; it’s who the people that populate this world are. It’s the mystery of character unfolding that I’m most concerned with. After all, the film is called The Dead Girl. [I wanted to] throw the emphasis not on a pornographic interest in how she died but on who she was when she was alive. I was trying to get underneath the labels of “this is the dead girl,” “this is the victim,” “this is the mother of the victim.” I wanted to deal with issues of profound violence. [The Dead Girl] is the story of a violent attack on a woman, but I am not interested in adding more images of a man killing a woman to what is a very, very long history of such images.

JAMES FRANCO IN THE DEAD GIRL. PHOTO BY: RON BATZDORFF

Did you decide that the five sections would not overlap when you started writing, or did you reach that conclusion as you went along? From the beginning the structure was that these five sections do not intersect or overlap. The reason I chose this structure is because when I was on a jury, I was struck by the idea that there was this community that was created by the murder of this young woman. Many of us in this community — and I include myself as a juror sitting on her murder trial — didn’t know one another and would never meet again. Yet each of us in our own way was profoundly affected by this woman’s life and death. And I started thinking about how that extended to the people who were on the witness stand: the victim’s mother, [the person] who the victim had lived with, and another man, a john. Each of them had something to contribute to my understanding of the victim as a whole person. So I was trying to create a portrait of five different women and have each of the portraits contribute to a greater portrait of the victim.

You have said that all of the women characters are dead in some way. Can you elaborate? I think that the title of the movie can be applied to each of the main characters. We meet them at a time in their lives when they are trapped, suffocating or disconnected from the people around them. [They are] deeply in need of reclaiming their lives and reconnecting. Each character is at a turning point, and her life goes off in a new direction. I’m interested in walking through the valley of the shadow of death with these characters, and feeling and seeing what that valley is and where they draw their strength from. For me The Dead Girl is life-affirming in the sense that most of these characters find the inner resources and hope to make a change and carry on. Maybe that’s reflective of my world view. I look around and see lots of dark things happening in the world around me — I have had friends harmed. I also think a lot of my sensibilities were formed from being a child of divorced parents. I learned very young that things that appear on the surface to be very happy and full often have a dark, sad and seamy underside. I’m interested in lifting the rock and seeing what’s on that underside. Maybe that’s the attraction when I read about something in the news like girls who go missing, or when they’re murdered. I try to put myself in their shoes and try through my writing to exorcise dark feelings.

Both of your films emphasize intense mother-daughter conflicts. Yes. I write from a personal place, not autobiographical but personal, meaning I try to dig around inside myself and see what things I’m struggling with, what things move me, and try to write so that I’m working out those things, consciously or unconsciously, but always using as a barometer my own level of angst or interest in a subject. But it’s not just mother-daughter issues; I seem to have daddy issues as well. [laughs]

Let’s talk about sexual relationships. In Blue Car a sexual relationship is central. Its momentum builds, and when sex between student and teacher is consummated, it is awful. And in The Dead Girl almost all of the characters are involved in unusual sexual liaisons. If sex were good, it would have no place in any of my stories. Not because [good sex] is not interesting, but because of the kinds of stories I’m telling. I’m interested in how the narrative is furthered, and if the sex is unremarkable, then I guess it doesn’t further my story. [laughs] I’m only interested in showing it if something dramatic happens during the act.

You managed to get terrific, name actors doing relatively small parts. Each one of them said it was because of the script. I think the pattern is that they read the script and then, if they responded to it, they watched Blue Car. Some listened to the [DVD] commentary. I always wondered who actually listens to the commentary, and I guess it’s the actors who listen to find out if you’re an absolute nincompoop or an egomaniac who will be impossible to work with on the set. I think the parts [in The Dead Girl] are all really appealing to actors who are interested in growing and stretching and challenging themselves artistically. Actors are at their base exhibitionists, so being able to reveal new parts of themselves and show that they have range is really exciting. And here they don’t have to carry the movie. They can take a chance and say, Okay, if I’m not wildly successful in this part, I’m not going to get killed in the press.

THE DEAD GIRL. PHOTO BY: RON BATZDORFF

Brittany Murphy has certainly never played anyone remotely like Krista. Brittany is called upon to reveal something about human nature that she’s never had to reveal before. Some pieces of her came in really handy. She is very high energy, she survives on Red Bull, [laughs] and she’s really passionate and throws herself into her work. She likes the kinetic, visceral immediacy of a director hurling adjustments at her while the camera is rolling. She’ll immediately rewind and start again from a different point of view or with a different intention. But a lot of actors hate that. For example, Marcia Gay Harden, who comes from much more of a theater background, wants to be allowed to experience the full take. You make your adjustments and your choices at the beginning of the take, and then you live through it. Afterward, you have a quiet conversation with her, she makes the adjustments, and you do another take. Mary Beth [Hurt] wanted to play against what was in the script, something a lot of actors often do because they think it will make for a more interesting performance. We had many conversations on the set about the necessity for her to just fully embody and go with what was written rather than play against it. Finally we got there. The script asked her to embody a character who is not terribly sympathetic — risky territory for an actor. I think that a lot of times actors are worried that if they’re not playing sympathetic roles, the next time they are up for a part they will be overlooked.

You worked on both films with cinematographer Michael Grady. How do you collaborate with him on the visual design, especially on this film, in which each of the five stories seems to have its own feel? I struggled a lot, because the film occurs in five sections that are fairly self-contained. When I started out, I wasn’t certain whether I wanted each section to have its own look or, instead, a unified look across the whole film. And what I think it finally came down to was that I was going to let each character and the world of each character dictate how we moved and placed the camera, how we dealt with color and framing. Michael and I spent a lot of time together before we started shooting, storyboarding and looking at photographs and talking. I told him what images I had seen, because I write very visually. And then he brought his own sensibility and his own ideas. He shot Wonderland, which had a great kineticism. It felt very real and emotional and visceral. A lot of cinematographers know lots of fancy tricks, and they can move the camera in beautiful ways and make beautiful shots that don’t serve the story or have any emotional content. But what I was struck by [in his reel] was that every time a shot was lit a certain way or the camera moved a certain way, it served the emotional life and intent of the movie. One of the things that I felt strongly about with Blue Car and The Dead Girl was that our work behind the camera be as invisible as possible so that we disappear and all the audience is aware of is the characters living and breathing on the screen. I try to do away with anything that distances the audience from that pure emotional experience, like very self-conscious camera work or a color palette that’s un-lifelike. That said, for every shot, Michael and I put our heads together and asked, What is the most artful way we can frame this shot while still telling the story? I am attracted to beautiful images, but not for their own sake.

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