By Gordon K. Smith
A film years in the making, as Hollywood ballyhoo artists used to love to proclaim, THE PLAYROOM is an intense family-dynamics drama set in the mid-’70s suburbia of boozy swingers and key parties. As parents Martin and Donna (John Hawkes and Molly Parker, both of Deadwood) confront some nasty truths downstairs, upstairs their four children, led by oldest daughter Maggie (Olivia Harris) create their own storybook world. After numerous setbacks and false starts, the film will make its Texas premiere during the 25th Annual Dallas VideoFest. Its director, Julia Dyer, director of photography Russell Blair, and “star discovery” (as the flaks would have said) Olivia Harris talked about that long journey at La Madeleine’s
“THE PLAYROOM took a long time to get made because it was not perceived as a commercially viable film,” Dyer says. “It was considered a tough sell to audiences, a quality film that would be hard to get right, first of all, and hard to get butts in seats for. It hung around as long as it did because the script (by Julia’s late sister Gretchen) was so good, people couldn’t forget about it…(after years) other people brought it back into play in 2007, and interesting people were attached. A production was started that ultimately fell apart, but the momentum continued. I decided to bring it back home to Texas and get it done. The first step was casting, and we found Olivia, who was a senior at Booker T. Washington. She was really committed and passionate about the part, and was a gift to everyone else. Two months later, my sister died. Gretchen had battled illness successfully for quite a long time, we thought she’d live forever, but she didn’t…the tragedy of her passing away before we got this done just broke everyone’s heart. Friends and colleagues said we’ll do whatever it takes to get this done now.”
Olivia spoke about her role, a pretty intense one for a young, first-time film actor. “I hadn’t read very many scripts. It wasn’t like I was weeding through a lot of scripts. I felt I could really relate to this character, which I didn’t tell my mom…it was about the struggles and frustrations of a young female adolescent – she has one foot in the doorway of childhood and one foot in the doorway of adulthood – and that’s the most confusing place to be and that’s where I was in my life, about to go to college, about to start a whole new life. And it really spoke to me…it was a real interesting perspective, that of the children. I haven’t worked with many other kids but they were awesome. I learned how to handle it all from Molly and John, very quickly. The kids would be bratty, but Molly would be in her world, very focused. I learned a lot from them, and from the kids, who were so light and fresh.”
The most difficult scene to direct, according to Dyer and DP Blair, was the turning point dining scene wherein we are introduced to the Knotts (Jonathan Brooks, Lydia MacKay). “It was an eight or nine page scene. It was incredibly challenging for sound, we had two cameras, two boom operators and a lot of mirrors. To get those shots clean and matching took a lot of figuring, and a lot of scheduling. And three children under age, so their work hours were shortened. It was a huge scene dramatically, and quite a puzzle to put together. It introduces the family dynamics and the neighbors – it was a huge challenge to get the nuance right. Also have to credit our production designer Robert Winn – every take we had to have the food right for continuity…John was a big help too. He got his Oscar nomination (for WINTERS BONE) a week after we wrapped.”
I asked Julia if she was able to shoot the film in sequence, since it was mostly a single set. “You would think, but because of everyone’s schedule, we couldn’t, no way. John and Molly had other commitments and came in between them. John was shooting CONTAGION for Soderbergh at the same time, and the youngest kids could only work less than eight hours a day… In fact, Olivia had to do a lot of her big emotional closeups while staring at a piece of gaffe tape on a C-stand…the house was the home of some very close family friends – I spent a lot of time growing up in that house…I had a lot of emotional geography in that house. It really lent to the kids kibbutzing on the parents’ relationships. That landing, those stairs, all were perfect. It was a gift.
THE PLAYROOM will be presented on September 27 at 9:15pm at the Horchow Auditorium of the Dallas Museum of Art. For more details go to www.videofest.org.