It’s never easy to make an independent film, and never easy to find a distributor for one that you manage to complete. First-time writer-director Enid Zentelis was able to discuss both aspects of the process during a recent visit to Dallas; she had not only managed to finish her debut picture “Evergreen,” a coming-of-age story about a young girl who comes to recognize the strengths of her impoverished family by discovering the flaws in an outwardly attractive and wealthy one, but saw it chosen for inclusion in the Sundance Festival and embraced by an executive of a major theatre chain, who offered to show it on his screens throughout the country.
Zentelis started writing the script for “Evergreen,” some of it autobiographical, five years ago. “It’s not an autobiography,” she said, “it’s a fictional story. But my stepfather was a poker dealer at that first Indian casino,” where one of the characters–a Native American played by Gary Farmer–shuffles cards. “I grew up with very modest means, and certainly I know those characters. So it’s definitely writing from where I know.” The setting of the narrative in the American northwest mirrored her own experience, too: she grew up in Bellingham, Washington, north of Everett, where the story is set. “The setting is everything, definitely,” she explained. “I knew I wanted to shoot there. I’m very interested in telling stories about specific places, so I want all my films to be from a certain region and tell the story about the people in those areas.”
The script was molded and perfected, however, when Zentelis, a graduate of the NYU Film School, was invited to participate in workshops at the Sundance Institute, which she called “incredibly helpful….There’s a group of twelve professional screenwriters, and they have read your work and seen the short films you’ve made, and you have an intense four or five days there, where you’re meeting non-stop with all these advisors. Then you can call on them after.” The process continued later with a reading of the script. “They produced a live reading of my screenplay, which was cast and presented in New York City. That was very helpful in the final stages of the writing process, playing it in front of an audience, to get some sense of the characters.” The Sundance connection was also helpful in attracting people to the project, especially established performers like Bruce Davison, Mary Kay Place and Noah Fleiss. “They’re actors that want to do meaningful films, independent films, and they don’t care about salary, and they’re well-known actors, and Sundance has the reputation,” she said. “Those people key into Sundance, so there’s kind of an understanding that gives you credibility, or at least tells these actors and crew, you should give this person a shot…It’s almost too much to measure how it helps.”
The star of “Evergreen” isn’t an established screen presence, however. She’s Addie Land, a Seattle high school student who’d only done school theatricals prior to landing the central role. “Very odd,” Land, who accompanied Zentelis, replied when asked how it felt to suddenly have the lead part in a movie. “It was certainly nothing that I had ever expected to happen. I’d been doing theatre classes and productions, but I had never even considered wanting to be in films, just because (a) I didn’t ever think it would be a possibility, and (b) I didn’t grow up with that lifestyle of wanting to be rich and famous. That’s what I used to think–that you had to be that way if you were going to go that route. Then I ended up getting really interested in movies and watching them. So I just had this sleepless night, thinking maybe I do want to act in film. It was only, like, a few weeks later that I got the call to audition for this, and it was such perfect timing. I go to a non-traditional high school that allowed me to take off a month to shoot it, and I even got credit for it, so everything worked out really perfectly for me.” As Zentelis explained Ladd’s choice: “I wanted someone …who wasn’t an actress but a young person who had a life that they’ve already lived and are living…a natural performer. And Addie delivers that.” One might imagine that for a first-timer, working with the likes of Place, Davison, Fleiss, Farmer and Cara Seymour (who plays her mother) might have been intimidating, and for a moment it was. Ladd said,“Before I met them, that was scarier, because knowing that I was going in being the youngest, the only local person, and the only person who hadn’t done any film before was pretty intimidating. I was really glad that what we did for the first couple of days on set I didn’t really have very many lines and I wasn’t in as many scenes, and it gradually sort of built up to working more intensely, with more lines and meeting more people. It was a nice lead-in. Everyone was so great. Everyone was so helpful and really willing to work with me, patient if I didn’t know…things.” She got special help from Fleiss, her partner in a bedroom scene. “I was kind of nervous about it, but again everyone was so supportive and nice, and Noah…was really helpful. He talked to me about his first on-screen kiss that he had to have, and that he was nervous about it–really just tried to make me feel comfortable. It ended up not being as big a deal as I had worried.”
As Zentelis recalled, however, everything didn’t go as smoothly as that. Even with the Sundance imprimatur, she said, “the battle to get it in the can, as they say, is still a struggle.” She remembered her frustration at trying to cast friends and family in small parts: “In my darkest hours I felt like I was making ‘American Movie II,’ or something,” she joked. (She did use her mother’s car, with only one working door, in the picture.) The weather didn’t cooperate, either. “The whole film was supposed to take place in the rain,” she said. “And traditionally you want your good days to be outside, but we wanted our rainy days. And when we were shooting inside, it was flooding out. And I kept asking our DP, do we need to go out and shoot our exteriors now? [They said] it’s Washington, it’s March, you don’t have to worry, it’ll be rainy. And every day we shot outside, it didn’t rain. We didn’t have a rain machine, so we had to put hoses in whatever area we were, and put PAs on skateboards and make rain….It was like my hometown just sort of laughing at me, mocking me or something.”
But all the effort paid off when “Evergreen” was seen at Sundance by an AMC Theatres executive who made Zentelis an extraordinary offer. “He was very moved by the film and said he wanted his daughters to see it,” she remembered, and he said that he’d open the picture at a hundred screens of his chain. “We were, of course, looking at all other, more traditional distribution efforts. My goal always for this story was, I wanted the story to reach more than New York and L.A.–and on a good day you’re lucky to reach New York and L.A. It was important to me that this film have a chance in other areas of the country. [So] it was incredible that I had this meeting at the screening….If someone said to me, ‘Here’s this great opportunity, over a hundred theatres,’ we might not be able to do it because we don’t have that kind of money for the prints and distribution. AMC has this digital system where they could project the film via satellite to all these places, so it’s an incredibly cool situation, and really it’s what I dreamed, and now it’s happening in the way that I’d hoped.”
A rare happy ending for a little independent film.