September 13, 2004
Interview: Enid Zentelis
The writer-director discusses her debut film, Evergreen.
By Todd Gilchrist
After receiving a nomination for the Grand Jury prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Enid Zentelis' feature writing and directing debut Evergreen finally makes its way to theaters this week in a limited run that promises to win the film a modest degree of commercial success in addition to the accolades of months past. At the same time, its themes of poverty and affluence and their relative effect on everyday problems becomes an interesting quandary for the filmmakers to confront as the picture reaches out towards audiences nationwide: does box office success resolve those heady production problems and miserable negotiations that transpired during the incipient stages of the film's development, or do they merely obscure the battle that was fought to bring the material to the screen? As Zentelis recently described to IGN FilmForce, the victory is just earning Evergreen the chance to be seen.
"There was nothing easy about making this film," Zentelis said at the film's recent press day. "Waking up today was one of those revelatory moments; I made this brick by brick, starting out alone without producers or anyone else. I just started gathering nuts and berries hoping that one day it would pull together," she says with a laugh. Detailing some of the hurdles she had to overcome, Zentelis says, "I was a first time director, and the lead was a fourteen-year-old girl, which I didn't want a starlet [for], I wanted to shoot it in Washington state. There were certainly some support systems I had, like the Sundance Institute, but essentially no one thought it was a good idea for me to go up to small town Washington and bring in all of the actors and shoot half on 35mm and half on HD, and all of these kinds of things that slowly but surely started aligning themselves in a really amazing and efficient way.
"We were able to pull it off in a really short amount of time, I [was lucky] that I had gotten what I needed to get on film emotionally and story-wise."
Evergreen follows the coming-of-age story of Henri (Addie Land), a mopey 14 year old who begins to idolize the affluent but far-from-perfect lifestyle of her boyfriend Chat (Noah Fleiss) and his parents Frank (Bruce Davison) and Susan (Mary Kay Place). Even though it traces her existence with the same basic framework as recent films like Thirteen, Zentelis insists that it was not her intention to make the film appealing only as a teen tome. "I didn't set out to make a teen movie or think about those kinds of films," she says. "I really wanted to find a way to talk about class in small town America and talk about it directly without any excuses. I thought the best way to do that was to create characters that were as sympathetic as possible, but flawed. I wanted to make a realistic story. To me, the 14-year-old girl in the movie is just an interesting character and not at all a 'teen movie' [character]."
Part of Zentelis' insistence of focus on the subject of class was based on her own childhood, which more closely resembled Henri's life at home with her mother and immigrant grandmother than her well-to-do hosts across town. "I grew up poor, but I grew up with many other privileges. Both my parents were immigrants, but they were very well educated and I had a lot more privileges than most people in a lot of respects – except for economically – so I was able to have an outside eye on what it was I was experiencing. Making this film, one of the key things I wanted to counter was some of those 'wish fulfillment' films that are so popular. It's not that I am opposed to escapist films, but in the case of class, I think it's [likely] to do more damage than good for a lot of people, particularly the working poor, because [these movies] all but sculpt what we're supposed to dream and aspire to.
"It pushes one more untruth onto people, especially young people who maybe don't have a perspective on the situation," Zentelis continues. "They think, 'Oh, once I get paid, this is all going to change. This is what I aspire to, and this is how it all works – I just keep working, and it's rags to riches.'"
Zentelis notes that much of the feedback she received from potential studios and production companies asked her to soften the edges of her unflinching scrutiny of the divide between the haves and have-nots. "As I was trying to get the film made, and one note that was repeated [from studios] was 'Can you make the poor family less poor and make the wealthy family wealthier?' Some studio people just could not understand how the mother could end up in such a bad situation. She was so intelligent, so how could she be so poor? The notes asked if she could be an alcoholic or in an abusive relationship; drama is big, they said, and audiences expect a big event to shock them.
"To me, there are plenty of events in everyday life that don't involve crack cocaine or someone getting their head blown off that are plenty dramatic and can engage audiences."
As Evergreen engaged audiences at Sundance this year, one member in attendance happened to be no less than AMC Theatres' Chairman Dick Walsh, and he ultimately inked a deal for the exclusive distribution rights to the film, which is now playing across the country. For Zentelis, the lessons learned on her first film are more valuable than multi-picture deals or potential commercial success, nice though both of those things may be. "There's this political aspect to my personality that pushes me to make films that are difficult to get made," she says. "There also is this artistic side of me that is interested in getting people involved in the story and makes them empathize in a way that's not political.
"Finding a way to balance both sides of my personality for Evergreen definitely taught me things I'll use again," Zentelis reflects. "I have an agent and I have scripts sent to me, which is a big difference, but I want to stay committed to writing and directing my own stories.
"I did so much on my own for this film that I know the ins and outs of what it takes, and feel I can use that to make more informed creative decisions in the future."