MOVIE SWEET MOVIE
FLOOD STREETS AND THE REBIRTH OF A CITY
It was Halloween night in New Orleans, just two months after many of us had evacuated for Katrina, and we gathered by the hundreds on Frenchmen Street while 18-year-old National Guardsmen watched with semi automatics slung over their shoulders.
People were dressed as FEMA inspectors, as flooded houses with crass graffiti messages to politicians, as the Meals Ready to Eat we had to rely on until grocery stores reopened. Some people dressed like the blue tarps that were patching our roofs, while others painted themselves to resemble those Mexican day-of-the-dead skeletons so presciently called catrinas.
Was it too soon to be making jokes about a national disaster? Probably, but in New Orleans we deal with tragedy through humor. In the city of the jazz funeral, celebration and suffering are two sides to the same coin, and on that sweaty night, as I watched a guy dressed like a rotting refrigerator pose for a picture next to an actual rotting refrigerator, I realized what it was I loved about the city.
The next day, as I braked at all the intersections with broken traffic lights, I couldn’t stop thinking about Halloween. This was a side of the city people needed to see. There had been enough bleak footage of us going through our flooded houses while sad pianos played in the background. It was time to show the other side of the jazz funeral. It was time to show how life carries on, no matter how surreal the backdrop.
I started taking notes on all the strange details of post Katrina life – I was working as a real estate agent, so my days were full of strange details. Slowly those notes became a collection of stories which then morphed into an unusual screenplay; think Robert Altman’s Shortcuts set in a carnivalesque, Fellini village. (You can see our 60-second trailer here.)
How could investors say no to that pitch, right? Well, here’s how. 1 – Joseph and I had never made a feature film before, 2 – The financial meltdown hit right as we approached investors, and 3 – Katrina was politely being called “box office poison.” Never mind that popular documentaries had already come out about the storm, and that HBO would later announce a fictional series, Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans. People always think they know what the next big trend is, or isn’t, going to be.
So rather than waste time trying to change people’s minds, we decided to put all that energy into actually making the movie. And we’d just fund it ourselves. By selling our house. The house that we had finally fixed. And no, we weren’t inhaling paint fumes when we made this decision.
The hurricane was like an early midlife crisis. It disrupted our lives and forced us to reexamine what we were doing. We both had dreams we’d been deferring – for me it was writing and for Joseph acting – and we realized we could combine these talents to tell the strange story of New Orleans’ recovery that was unfolding around us.
Dreams aside, it was an insane idea. It was our first feature, and even after selling our house and moving into the back of Joseph’s martial arts school, we still didn’t have much of a budget, not enough to cover what our ambitious, ensemble script called for – 42 characters, 48 locations, 147 extras, dozens of musicians and a huge parade through our neighborhood.
Luckily, people came to our aid. The legendary comic Harry Shearer wanted to be attached because he said it was a script that finally got New Orleans right. Other friends and neighbors offered to help with shooting locations, artwork and labor.
We shot for 25 days on 2-6 digital cameras, tallying almost 150 hours of footage. And then came the hard part. For the next 15 months we worked all day, almost every day, on post production, until we’d whittled that footage down to the 84-minute edit we’ve been taking to festivals. (For an update on our next screenings, visit our Facebook fan page.)
I’d love to say a big distributor picked us up for millions, and we bought a new, bigger house, but… you guys obviously keep up with indie film. You know that’s not where this is heading. Flood Streets has been wowing audiences everywhere it’s played, and distributors are interested, but this isn’t a get-rich-quick plan, and we never expected it to be. It’s the start of our career as filmmakers, and our downsized lifestyle means we can spend a little less time at day jobs and more time on our next project.
We live in a world where people can shoot full-length HD movies on their phones, and where most kids have edited video by the time they finish high school. The question is no longer, can you make a movie. Of course you can. The question is, what do you have to say? And do you have the staying power so we can see how that evolves throughout your career?
It’s a pretty surreal landscape, but trust me, life goes on.
Helen Krieger is a writer and producer living in New Orleans with her husband Joseph Meissner. Their first feature, Flood Streets, makes its West Coast premiere on Wednesday, July 27th at the Regency Academy Cinemas in Pasadena as part of the Action on Film Festival . Her book of short stories that inspired the movie, In the Land of What Now, is available through Amazon or here.