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Do not expect to find gossipy stories in Illeana Douglas’s memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies . Instead this reads as a genuine love story with film. Infused with passion and enthusiasm, actor/director/producer Illeana Douglas discusses her journey to become an independent voice in cinema. Illeana reveals disappointments and achievements with equal parts humor and honesty. She recounts her early and ongoing love for classic films and the art of film-making itself. She writes: “That’s how movies change us: in ways we cannot even remember. Those images of movies stay in our brain; those fragments become shards in our memories.” She recalls working with directors such as Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese and Allison Anders. Illeana has starred in a ton of films including Grace of My Heart, Picture Perfect, To Die For, Goodfellas, Wedding Bell Blues [check this one out. it’s so much fun], Ghost World, Return to Sender, She’s Funny That Way, Factory Girl, Happy, Texas, and Cape Fear. She directed Illeanarama and Easy to Assemble as well as several short films.
Not only did she study acting but she questioned every moment while on a film set and dissected various films to completely absorb and comprehend the film-making process. She voraciously read books about film. Illeana explains: “To me, a movie is like a roulette wheel with a series of problems where the numbers should be. The wonderful mystery of a movie is that you can never predict those problems, so fixing as many things beforehand as possible, such as answering questions in the script, is a good idea.”
I truly enjoyed this memoir. It provided so much insight and Illeana possesses such a passion for film and a respect for the entire process. She’s a great storyteller and she remembers details about everything. We met briefly when she screened Devil Talk at The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film so I ask Illeana lots of questions about it.
Illeana took the time to answer some questions by email.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write this book now?
Illeana Douglas: We are in a period where-although movies are readily available to see-we have no context with which to talk about them. I was lucky that I had my grandfather Melvyn Douglas talking to me about working with Greta Garbo and Peter Sellers. Now that’s context! I always saw and wrote about movies-but it wasn’t until I started working with Turner Classic Movies that folks became aware of it. Yes, I’m an actress, and I do talk about my own career/life story in the book but the focus is that I am a fan of movies as much as being in them. These are 15 stories about movies or movie stars that changed my life.
Amy Steele: Why the title?
Illeana Douglas: It’s called I Blame Dennis Hopper because I wanted to tell a memoir through the movies because the movies have defined who I am. In 1969 my parents saw Easy Rider. After seeing the movie they rejected their middle class life style and became hippies. The title pays homage to him because it’s how the power of that film– Easy Rider— changed my destiny. I am an actress because of Dennis Hopper—because as a child I was raised on his philosophies—which were based on the film Easy Rider. Later on of course I met and worked with Dennis Hopper—in the movie Search and Destroy— and had my own profound experience which is what I write about in the book.
Amy Steele: You talk about films at the drive-in being a major part of your childhood and teen years. Is that how you developed such an interest in classic film and film-making in general?
Illeana Douglas: I learned about classic film I think because I was spending time with my grandfather and sitting across from Myrna Loy or Robert Anderson or Diane Baker at the dinner table. I knew they were in the movies. I wanted to be able to impress my grandfather so I started reading more about classic film so I would have something to say at the grown ups table! Then when he brought me to the set of Being There I started to get an interest in the behind the scenes making of films. He picked up on my eagerness to learn, and started sending me movie books.
Amy Steele: Your childhood did surprise me. The hippy factor and uncertainties. How did this influence your acting and shape you as a person?
Illeana Douglas: My childhood seemed like a movie. It was all out of my control. I became obsessed with movies—somehow I knew this was my way out. Movies were—when I was growing up—how you could define yourself. You looked to the movies. I wanted to be Liza Minelli, or Ruby Keeler, or Richard Dreyfuss. I looked up to these icons– still do. I knew if I could be in the movies I would be happy and that has been very true!
Amy Steele: Your grandfather [Melvyn Douglas] was a well-known and Academy-Award winning actor [Being There, Hud]. What kind of relationship did you have with him and how did he influence your decision to act? Did he know that you wanted to act and what kind of advice did he give you?
Illeana Douglas: He was of course my first mentor and my first fan. He believed in me. He gave me structure. He encouraged me to read and to learn. He said, “When you find someone to learn from don’t let go of that person”. I have tried to honor that. To respect the craft and the history of acting. He also pushed me to write. So writing has been my way of making him happy.
Amy Steele: Then your grandmother was the first democratic woman elected to Congress from California. What did you learn from her?
Illeana Douglas: She was so confident. She believed strongly in her principles-which were very liberal. Politically- it was her opinion or you were on the wrong side. She also had great taste in art, music, and antiques. These are all qualities I admire. She also loved to hear little poems or songs I had written. Pictures I had painted. She created a world that I very much wanted to be a part of.
Amy Steele: How has acting influenced your directing?
Illeana Douglas: I love acting-love it-but my heart lies in directing. Acting made me want to be a director. When I work with actors I obviously know through experience what they are going through. I have a certain empathy. They are not in control. My goal as a director is to tell the stories of emotional triumph.
Amy Steele: As with many industries (journalism for one), film is quite white-male dominated, what has been your greatest challenge as a woman in the industry?
Illeana Douglas: The greatest challenge is that an “actress” will always be treated with gender bias. It’s sad because I love acting and actresses but you will never get respect as an actress if you have opinions. Shirley Maclaine has said she’s played a hooker 8 times in movies. What does that tell you about being an actress in Hollywood?
Amy Steele: Hollywood also has issue with aging actresses. Seems once you’re over 40 you get the mom roles. What do you think could change that?
Illeana Douglas: I don’t think generally it will change. All you can do as a woman is write a great part for an older woman and try like hell to get it made. In the meantime there are other areas in show business you can work in and a lot of actresses—I’m one of them have branched out to writing and directing.
Amy Steele: As Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film, I adored that section and found out many things I didn’t know like that you and Allison wanted to make a film about Anne Sexton. Is there no possibility to make that film?
Illeana Douglas: We would love to collaborate on a film. I don’t think it will be Anne Sexton.
Amy Steele: Of you and Allison you said: “Allison and I both felt like female artists who didn’t quite fit in a mold.” I would think that’s a good thing. Can you explain how that shaped the film as well as your relationship with Allison?
Illeana Douglas: I wanted a collaboration with a female director in the way that male actors did with male directors. Allison is so knowledgeable about films. That was the surprise. We just clicked because we both loved movies—especially melodramas. We wanted Grace of My Heart to be a musical melodrama and I think we achieved that. We got that movie made, and I am awfully proud of it. We are friends to this day. I love her. I loved co-hosting with her on TCM and the Trailblazing Women series.
Amy Steele: You’ve worked with mostly male directors. How are things different working with a female director?
Illeana Douglas: I have actually worked with many female directors. Allison Anders, Nancy Savoca, Kathy Bates to name a few. I sought a collaboration with Allison Anders. She was the quintessential female director I wanted to work with because I felt she would bring out the best in me and she did. What I have found is that once you are on set everyone is very supportive– it’s getting to the set.
Getting a female-driven film set up and made that is the challenge. I know when I am directing a project—I get more personally involved in the hiring of women in all departments. There are more women physically on set. I have also worked with two female D.P.s [cinematographer/Director of Photography and I have found no sexism directed towards them once they are on set. Again it’s getting the job that is the problem.
Women directors tend to write their own material. It usually feels, as in the case of Grace of My Heart that the story is very personal and very real. Everything I have written for film and directed—my shorts etc. are all based on real experiences or feelings and I have turned them into a narrative. I’ve said this before and it’s widely quoted but I believe women shoot better sex scenes than male directors. They are just prettier to look at, and certainly more arousing. Some of the male depictions of sex scenes turn my stomach a little—they seem about power—not so much about love.
Amy Steele: As you worked in the Brill Building for one of your first jobs how cool was it to make a film about its history?
Illeana Douglas: I worked in the Brill Building in 1987 and continued to work there throughout the 90’s and became fascinated by its history. I’m a big music buff—so the idea that this was Tin Pan Alley fascinated me. I started to read a lot of books about it as my grandfather’s parents were actually song-writers themselves. There were so many stories of these great song-writing teams at the Brill Building. Of course the Carole King story resonated with me—as it did Allison Anders. She’s an expert on the girl groups. I was merely a fan. We would have loved to film in the actual Brill Building.I did film there with the movie Picture Perfect. The halls are square and have linoleum on them so you could move pianos around. I liked the idea of that much creativity happening in one building. We tried to create what it would have felt like to be a singer/songwriter in that era. One of my favorite scenes is writing a song with Howard (Eric Stoltz). It felt very organic. Of course it helped that Elvis Costello had written the song for us.
Amy Steele: You also stated that the 90s was the “height of independent film-making”—how and what has changed with independent film since then?
Illeana Douglas: We don’t have enough time! The 90s represented the best of that mid-range indie film—3 to 5 million dollars. Now you can either make a big budget movie that will have to have big big stars or make a movie for under a million. It might get into a festival and it will not be released in theaters, it will be VOD. We are making a lot of movies– not as many people are seeing them. Also it was filmed. Everything now is digital. Doesn’t have the warm quality of film.
Amy Steele: Why do you think you’re more of a comedic actress than a dramatic actress?
Illeana Douglas: I enjoy satire and irony. I think funny. Situations in life I find comic. I find life absurd—like a Fellini movie. I really enjoy making people laugh, it makes me happy.
Amy Steele: Illeanarama is so funny and so is Easy to Assemble –where did those ideas come from and what has doing a web series allowed you to do these days?
Illeana Douglas: I had a couple of pilots that I made that didn’t go anywhere and then I was approached by IKEA in 2007 to create some branded interstitials. Easy to Assemble came out of my feeling of wanting to do more comedic writing. I had made a number of shorts but my directing was always put on hold so I could act. Easy to Assemble which came out of Illeanarama was a way to act in projects I had written and to have a voice comedically. I had five years to write/produce/direct because of IKEA. I was able to learn how to produce, handle budgets work with actors and write scripts without the pressure of failing. I knew I would be writing and directing films and this was a fantastic training ground. We were pioneers and I will always be proud of that and thankful to IKEA.
Amy Steele: You stated: “I’m a bit of a rebel. It’s true. I challenge the system and I question authority.” I am the same way and it hasn’t helped me much. People don’t appreciate that. Has this been problematic or beneficial for you?
Illeana Douglas: I do not like unfairness, and when something is wrong I will speak up. Does it rub people the wrong way to be outspoken– yes it does. You also have to question authority because they want to corral everyone into the same thinking. I am for the individual. Women have to rebel and risk not being liked. There is no other option for a woman than to have the attitude of “I got this” but that rubs folks the wrong way.
Amy Steele: Richard Dreyfuss seems to be the actor you’ve always admired. What do you like about him?
Illeana Douglas: Everything. He’s one of our finest amd most thoughtful actors. His films in the 70’s shaped a generation. There is no performance like Jaws or The Goodbye Girl. His energy and drive is palpable and yet underneath is strong vulnerability. And he’s DAMN funny. I like what I wrote about Richard Dreyfuss, “Was he cocky… yes… was he right? Always.”
Amy Steele: You developed a special relationship with Roddy McDowall. How much did he mean to you?
Illeana Douglas: Roddy got me into keeping journals and autograph books. He was a student of film history and was one the first people to talk about film preservation. He was gracious and kind and just the epitome of class. Everyone loved him, and he was also a very talented photographer. I never saw him complain or be sad about any blow that life dealt him. His picture is on my desk, and he is always in my thoughts.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about working at TCM?
Illeana Douglas: Working with Turner Classic Movies is a dream. There is not a person who works there who has an agenda other than to celebrate movies, movie makers and to put on a pedestal the giants of the cinema. I have great respect for Robert Osborne who gave the channel a face. They are also in tune with the fans. The fans make TCM a family, and I don’t know a TV channel today that actively thinks about pleasing the fans. I have had the opportunity to interview luminaries like Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry Lewis, Eva Marie Saint.
When I was going to write a book it aligned with what I was doing with TCM—which was shining a light on the importance of films. Our Trailblazing Women series set the agenda for female filmmakers and the contributions of female filmmakers going back to 1896. Many of the films we highlighted are now being recognized –Ida Lupino, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Loden– no one was talking about them– now their films, and the films of many other female filmmakers are being recognized.
Amy Steele: What inspires you?
Illeana Douglas: Amarcord means “to remember” I am the rememberer.
”]. She also won the Unconventional Challenge which puts her at three wins overall and in a solid spot at this point in the competition. Her style is edgy
blending street chic and vintage. I’ve been rooting for her from the first episode and not just because she’s from Boston like me. Her infectious positive attitude makes her such a delightful person. Like many cool Bostonians, Kelly balances her independence and outspokenness with a sweet caring spirit. I recently interviewed Kelly by phone where we bonded over our love of thrifting and The Middle East Club in Cambridge, Mass.
Amy Steele: How did you get into fashion designing?
Kelly Dempsey: Growing up my mom had a craft store in our house she was a very crafty woman and she made a lot of stuff and I kind of grew up watching her design I feel like a lot of clothes we had were second hand clothes like I kind of wanted to be different it was a small town and I didn’t want people to know I was wearing old clothes so I began designing my own things at 8 or 9 (years old)
Amy Steele: You haven’t had training or gone to school for fashion design?
Kelly Dempsey: I went to Mass College of Art for one year. I wanted to try all the avenues. I ended up not finishing because I had already gone so far and I continued on my own to get things moving.
Amy Steele: Where did you learn how to sew and develop techniques?
Kelly Dempsey: A lot of trial and error. I am always learning and you kind of teach yourself whatever you want to learn to mold yourself as a designer. Whatever I am curious about learning I do research on the internet and practice.
Amy Steele: Do you have your own company or line?
Kelly Dempsey: I do. It was Kelly Couture for a while and I was making a lot of one of a kind designs. I wanted to do my new brand which is Rack Addik — a ready-to-wear urban street glam line . . . and fanny packs.
Amy Steele: Why do you like fashion and fashion designing?
Kelly Dempsey: I feel like I’m a super creative individual. My mind is always going a million miles a second I do like all different kinds of art. I think fashion is the one I get the most excited about. A painting you just hang it on your wall and look at it and no one sees it. When you see people it’s your first impression of someone. I’m just very outgoing and like to embrace that and add it into my clothesAmy Steele: What inspires your designs?
Kelly Dempsey: It’s the hardest question people ask and I don’t really have an answer. Anything and everything inspires me. I just feel it comes from within and I’m super motivated with fashion design and I love it. Seeing different perspectives from different designers I just love the whole process of it.
Amy Steele: Who are some designers you admire?
Kelly Dempsey: Alexander McQueen. Jeremy Scott. Betsey Johnson.
Amy Steele: Who are you designing for?
Kelly Dempsey: I feel like my market is not 90% of the people…it’s very youthful…the girl is young and she wants to stand out and look amazing all at the same time …demographically I’d say 15 to 35.
Amy Steele: How would you describe yourself as a designer?
Kelly Dempsey: I think as a designer I definitely have that craft store/thrift store embedded in me. I design very eclectic/ in your face but sexy and fun all at the same time.
Amy Steele: What’s it like being a designer in Boston? How does it affect you being a designer in Boston versus New York or LA?
Kelly Dempsey: If I was in Kansas it would suck because you have to go so far to get to any fashion capital…being in Boston it’s so easy to get to New York I could drive there right now…Boston is great because Boston needs me to launch my brand here. It needs more edgy designs. That’s my goal.
When you’re sifting through dollar bins you see things to put together that don’t necessarily belong together. I think it is part of my brain to see things differently. I’d rather be myself and have some people not like me than to be someone I’m not happy with.
Amy Steele: You’re tough.Amy Steele: What have you learned being on Project Runway?
Kelly Dempsey: I have learned so much being on Project Runway. I think the experience of working with people who have been in the industry and talking with the other designers I have learned so much. I got more information here in one second than I did in my entire life. You talk to people who live it. Being on the show I had no idea of how I would do. That was like the most crazy thing where I am at this point– I feel being myself is what got me through. I didn’t conform. I took what the judges said and I added it to me. When I get out of here I’m going to need a market.
Amy Steele: What’s the best part of being on the show?
Kelly Dempsey: I feel like I’ve been struggling and trying to make this work for so long that I needed this in my life to take it to the next level. This is the best opportunity I could have gotten. Being here and making it to the final four is a dream to me. I feel like I have a lot of confidence but this has pushed me to a whole other level.Amy Steele: What are your favorite places in Boston?
Kelly Dempsey: I’m a huge baseball fan– I love Fenway Park. I really like the Charles River on Storrow Drive. There’s a path there by the water…it’s somewhere I can go and center myself. For the last thing I have to say the Middle East in Cambridge Downstairs because I’m a huge hip-hop fan.
Amy Steele: Thank you Kelly and best of luck! We’ll have to go thrifting. I’ll see you on twitter and Instagram.
Kelly Dempsey: Thank you.
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I love supporting women in the arts particularly women in music as I’ve been a music critic for 20 years. There’s still not enough parity. It’s still unusual to see all-female or female-fronted bands in alternative music. I’ll talk about it even if some female artists won’t discuss women in music except for Garbage’s Shirley Manson and Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches.
I *will* continue to spotlight female artists. I’m a feminist music critic and this I’ve always done.I mostly listen to female artists and female-fronted bands although I adore Death Cab for Cutie and Coldplay and Jack White and all my beloved 90s britpop bands.
So here’s Atlanta group Sydney Eloise and the Palms. The album FACES features eclectic arrangements to complement Sydney’s bluesy retro, sometimes wistful, sometimes bold vocals. There’s a retro vibe but it’s all newly packaged. Sydney worked to produce and tweak the songs with co-producers Damon Moon and Chandler Galloway. I instantly loved this album and it’s one to play in its entirety on repeat.
I interviewed Sydney Eloise via email. Currently on tour, Sydney Eloise and the Palms will perform at the PA Lounge in Somerville, Mass. on Thursday, October 8, 2015
Amy Steele: You started playing and writing music at 16. How did you become interested in music?
Sydney Eloise: My parents were musicians and had a band together into my childhood, so there was always a vast amount of music playing or being played in our house at all times. My dad had a little home studio and our place tended to be the spot for front porch jams on the weekends. I was surrounded by artist and musicians, it was a big part of my life. It wasn’t until 12 that I got into guitar and quickly after mastering a few chords I began writing songs. It was thrilling and made me feel alive. I’ve not kicked the habit since.
Amy Steele: Such distinctive vocals. How did you know you could sing? what have you done to hone your vocal skills?
Sydney Eloise: The guitar became a great tool for my songwriting, and my writing was of most importance. I just wanted to tell stories and never thought about how I sounded. To be honest I felt my voice was strange and had to grow into it. I am confident in my sound now and I think that’s the most important. I never saw myself as a singer, but a songwriter.
Amy Steele: It’s you and a band now but really neither solo or full on band of you write all the music right? What made you go that route?
Sydney Eloise: I had been writing and performing solo for years and felt a bit bored and stuck. I needed a challenge, and the challenge that came trying to keep in mind a whole band arrangement really expanded my songwriting. I would bring these skeletons of songs to the studio and play them for Damon and Chandler, and we would just experiment and tweak them. Maybe even change the whole vibe. Perspectives are so important, and I believe collaborations make us better people and artists. Learning to let go and how to compromise.
Amy Steele: Have you discovered any particular challenges as a female musician?
Sydney Eloise: Finding a clean bathroom!
Amy Steele: Can you describe your songwriting process?
Sydney Eloise: I prefer for the song to hit me like a ton of bricks. All at once and with passion. I don’t sit down and “try” and write a song- I need to feel connected to an experience to write. Usually I have a melody in my head and then pick up the guitar or sit down at the piano, but occasionally I will just be strumming and things just come together.
Amy Steele: Why did you name your new album Faces?
Sydney Eloise: Faces– like all the faces we can put on in our lives, like the many perspectives we can have over one single experience. This whole record is about my growth becoming a woman and looking back and maybe changing my mind about certain decisions.
“Always Sailing” (catchy opening melody)
Sydney Eloise: This song was a letter to myself. At the time I had been in an awful writers rut and was feeling down about it. For me, “Always Sailing” was me calling myself out. I tend to float from project to project and ideas to ideas, and at times spread myself so thin that no product is actually produced. This song is be finding my balance and accepting where I am in the moment. I am a wanderer, no way around it. As far as the production style and arrangements, we really went to town on this one. It was the first song recorded for Faces. It set the tone for the level of production for the rest of the record. We said yes to every idea!
“I Like You”
Sydney Eloise: We had fun in the studio on this one. We experimented with lots of alt percussion A La “Cecilia” Simon & Garfunkle. It’s a cheeky song, so we wanted to the production to match the playfulness of the song. We slapped our knees, stomped on wood, clapped our hand, twist and shouted. The story in this song is based on a new relationship- and the excitement, the jealousy, the fantasy, the future planning, the uncertainty, oh and the honeymoon fun.
“Sorry Not Sorry”
Sydney Eloise: This song is not just a trendy hashtag. It’s me looking back at a past relationship and standing up for my self. Yes, maybe a little bitterness. Really, I just wanted this one song, one moment to tell my side of the story and close the book. Weird fact, an unknown ectro-pop song on Spotify inspired the beginning writings of Sorry, Not Sorry.
Sydney Eloise: We worked on this one little by little and it never seemed complete. We knew it was lacking something and needed something special. That’s when the trumpet came it, and all was complete.
I met the very funny, smart and lovely Christa Weiss when she was performing at V to Shining V. Graphic designer by day and stand-up comic at night, Christa Weiss started Broad Appeal– a comedy showcase that consists primarily of female comics–a year ago. Broad Appeal celebrates its first anniversary at The Armory in Somerville, Mass. on Thursday, October 8, 2015.
Amy Steele: How did you get into stand-up?
Christa Weiss: I’ve watched standup since I was a little kid and I’ve always loved writing & performing. Standup always seemed kind of inaccessible to me when I was younger because I grew up in a smaller city and had only seen it on tv. The first comedian I saw live was John Stewart in a giant ampitheater. It was amazing but actually pursing standup seemed impossible. When I moved to Boston I started going to live shows regularly at the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square. Seeing comedy in intimate setting made me realize it was something I could realistically pursue. I started going to open mics and got addicted immediately.
Amy Steele: What do you like about being a comedian?
Christa Weiss: I love writing and performing and being able to say exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it. I work in a creative field during the day, but my work is largely dictated by what my clients want, so it’s really nice to have full creative control. I love silliness but I also want that silliness to mean something. I love being able to combine the two.
Also, many of my closest friends are comics and it’s nice to be surrounded by a community of like-minded weirdos. Comedy is kind of the Island of Misfit Toys or the new punk rock, depending on how optimistic you’re being.
Amy Steele: It’s been discussed often that women aren’t funny although Tina Fey, Margaret Cho, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Nikki Glaser, Mindy Kaling and tons of others make it clear women are definitely funny. Still late night talk shows, stand-up and the comedy world remain dominated by men. Why? (As an entertainment/music critic I think women aren’t appreciated in many areas of entertainment though stand-up seems particularly harsh.)
Christa Weiss: Haha. People are defiantly a lot more vocal about their opinions of female comedians. (Fuck you, the Internet. Go call your Mom.) I think there are a lot of reasons. In general, if a woman wants to go into the performing arts they generally lean more towards theater or music. I think that’s mostly personal preference. On top of that there’s a lot of logistical things. Being in a male dominated environment can be very intimidating to some people. The college I went to was 75% male so that was never really an issue for me.
I think the gap is starting to close, which is great. There are more women doing comedy than ever. However, that’s not always represented on stage or TV. I think a lot more people realize that women can be funny to more than just other women, but the entertainment industry is a business, and not one that particularly wants to take risks. If a straight white guy always brings in money, I don’t think think they see the need to change the formula.
Amy Steele: Why did you start Broad Appeal? What has the reception been like?
Christa Weiss: A few reasons. There are a lot of really strong female comics out there and I really want to showcase their talent. A lot of places are afraid to put more than one or two women on a show, for fear that it’ll be too….womany? Unfortunately, this means there’s less work to go around. It seems crazy to me, but you’ll almost never see a show with the acts 50% male and 50% female without someone making a big deal about it.
I thought it would be fun to do a reverse of that- book mostly women and one or two ‘token males.’ I wanted to create a female-focused show that guys would also want to go to. Sometimes all female shows have a ‘girls only vibe’ which is fine, but if you want to prove that women are funny its not a great idea to not bother inviting the part of the audience you’re trying to prove something to.
I’m happy to say that the show has been really well received by both men and women, comics and audience members alike. I make it a point to showcase strong acts with unique points of view and none of that ‘fighting with my husband about leaving the toilet seat down’ type of thing. I get a broad (HA!) audience of cool open-minded people from many different walks of life, which is exactly what I was going for.
Amy Steele: What can people expect at the Broad Appeal anniversary show on Thursday?
Christa Weiss: I run a showcase style show, with a female headliner. We’ve got an amazing lineup for Thursday with Bethany Van Delft, of Comedy Central and NickMom. We’ve also got Dan Crohn from Last Comic Standing as well as several fantastic comics who’ve been in some amazing festivals like the Boston Comedy Festival, WICF, The Seattle International Comedy Festival and Bridgetown.
The Women in Comedy Festival (WICF) will be there recording the show and doing interviews with the comedians after the show. We also lightly sexually harass the male comics but they all know what they’re getting into and it’s all in good fun. Also there will be candy. The candy bowl is very important.
Amy Steele: What challenges do women in comedy face?
Christa Weiss: Comedy is hard for everyone, male and female. I think the challenges you run into as a female comic are a little different. You have to work a lot harder to get people to take you seriously. If you’re the ‘token female’ on the show you kind of represent all women, which means there’s a lot a pressure to do well. If a guy bombs, he sucked, if a woman bombs all women suck.
Amy Steele: Which comics do admire?
Christa Weiss: Maria Bamford, Chelsea Peretti, Patton Oswalt, Mike Birbiglia, John Stewart, Sarah Silverman
Amy Steele: What comedy specials and sitcoms would you recommend?
Christa Weiss: Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special is amazing. Instead of being filmed at a club, it’s filmed at her house and the only audience members are her parents. [AS note: directed and produced by Jordan Brady who also directed I Am Road Comic. Read my interview with Jordan Brady.] Feelin Kinda Patton by Patton Oswalt is one of the first comedy albums I got really really really into. The movie Sleepwalk With Me, directed/written/starring Mike Birgbilia is based on his storytelling and gives you some great insight on what it’s like to be a comedian. [AS: agreed. Very good.] The Sarah Sliverman Program is ridiculous and amazing and if you’re into history, Drunk History is hilarious. I’m also a big fan of animated stuff, so I love Home Movies, Bob’s Burgers and Rick and Morty.
Broad Appeal Comedy Night One-Year Anniversary takes place Thursday, October 8, 2015 at 8pm at Arts at the Armory, Somerville.
Paramedic and firefighter Kali volunteers as part of the right-to-die movement. she helps the terminally ill die. Despite her youth, the twenty-something Kali knows what she’s doing—she’s worked 27 cases in a few years– yet her most recent case finds her flipped and handcuffed to the bed. Turns out Leland Moon, who works in law enforcement, tricked Kali into thinking he’s terminally ill and wants her help. Is it a sting? Leland needs something from Kali and it’s dark and involved and Kali might not be willing to do it but her other choice would be jail.
The Euthanist encompasses the hot button topic of euthanasia along with child abductions and abuse. Intriguing topics along with complex characters drive this dark riveting thriller. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. It’s smart, well-researched and at times amusing. All the right elements for a solid thriller.
Author Alex Dolan grew up in Boston and now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He received a masters in strategic communications from Columbia University and has worked in Sub-Saharan Africa among other interesting locales. Dolan’s also a musician and recorded four albums. I recently spoke with Alex Dolan by phone.
Amy Steele: I volunteered on the Massachusetts Death with Dignity ballot question and I’ve worked in healthcare and elder care. Euthanasia interests me. How did you decide to write a novel about it?
Alex Dolan: My dad passed away a few years ago. He was a healthy guy and he had ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) which is a glorified staph infection that shuts down your lungs. It was so random. We didn’t have the time to prepare mentally. My dad had a living will in place. He’d already thought about this stuff. I didn’t have a living will until this happened. But I thought what happens if you get to this point and there is no quality of life? I started to do more digging and wanted to know who does this kind of work? Kevorkian pops up a lot but there are other more prominent figures who are academics. I read what they wrote. I watched documentaries. I intentionally didn’t approach people directly on this because it’s such sensitive subject matter. Where I’m normally very much a primary research kind of guy, for a lot of this I just ended up reading and watching as much as I could to find out what sort of person would gravitate toward this sort of work.
I feel like the character who came out of this, the character I wanted to create was very different and very vibrant from a lot of people I saw. She would realistically be around death all the time and wanted to be a part of it but wasn’t Grim Reaper-y. Someone young and strong. Idealistic and relatively self-assured in the work she was doing. Someone who was a realist not a Florence Nightingale or [Jack] Kevorkian. It started with what I went through with my dad but there’s the real question of who would do this. And not in a judgmental way. This kind of work that’s outside the law in almost every case. It’s like hospice care. There’s something really traumatic about being exposed to death and being willing to put yourself in the position to see someone go through it. It takes a lot of courage for someone to go through it. And you have to be willing to go to jail to bring this mercy to someone. That’s intriguing to me.
Amy Steele: Why a female protagonist and what were the challenges of writing from a female point-of-view?
Alex Dolan: My association with the death with dignity movement was with Kevorkian. He was the face of the movement for better or worse. I actually have a lot of respect for him. But to a certain degree he was this somber stoic character. I wanted to have somebody who was the exact opposite of that. I wanted people to think differently about what this work really meant. Rather than somebody who personified an angel of death, I wanted somebody younger and physically formidable, who used her body a lot and wasn’t an academic.
I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between men and women in terms of the fundamental things they want. There’s a lot more similar characteristics than differences. People want love and respect and sex and money and community and friendships. That doesn’t change if you’re a man or a woman. The primary drives that would motivate a character don’t change that much. There are some factors I get to play with by Kali being a woman and the antagonist being a man. The tension is different than if it were two women or two men. A lot of my intimate relationships have been with women—friendships or intimate relationships—I feel like I’ve gotten to know women better than guys.
Amy Steele: Kali is very strong and independent and physically you made her strong. She’s in a male-dominated career as a firefighter/paramedic. What was involved in her character development?
Alex Dolan: Part of it was me thinking I’m somebody who loves a good read and loves something that’s exciting. And I like strong characters anyway–their mind and their body. The nature of this story too; I tend to put my characters through a lot of punishment. I think I grew up reading a lot of mythology where the central hero gets beat up a lot. They learn and they grow through suffering. I wanted someone who could take that punishment, so somebody who was already strong. I gravitate toward people I think have a certain amount of inner strength.
It also resulted from research. When I thought about the kind of person who could do this kind of work, I didn’t want a doctor who’d been doing this for 30 years who was so rigid in his or her ways who wouldn’t question it. I wanted it to be somebody younger who had some medical experience but wasn’t an expert. I wanted the person to be fallible. So I thought it could be a paramedic or EMT. A lot of paramedics are also firefighters. A lot of the calls for firefighters are medical calls. That interested me. To become a firefighter you have to be in great shape. The physical aptitude test to get in is tough. I interviewed female firefighters and these are people who are really strong people. These are people who are going to crime scenes and putting themselves in danger. Things can get ugly quick. And there’s a gray area around the ambulance. What happens in the ambulance stays in the ambulance. There’s a law that an M.D. must declare a death. Many of my interviewees said there’s a saying that nobody dies in an ambulance. There’s a line being biological death when someone dies in the ambulance and legal death when a doctor calls it. Doing something outside the law but considered a mercy killing wouldn’t be outside someone’s scope of experience in that situation.
Amy Steele: You brought in several other dark themes with childhood abuse/trauma and abduction. Did that just develop or how well did you plan out your writing?
Alex Dolan: I outline a lot. I tend to derail easily so if don’t outline it’ll be easy for me to go off on a 20 page exposition. For me it’s easier to rework a story outline then to go through a draft and realize major elements aren’t working. I did know how it was going to end. I went down that path of bringing in the abduction subplot. The protagonist is doing things that some people would find questionable. I wanted to find a villain that was morally reprehensible. The details in the book are largely drawn from actual cases.
Amy Steele: The [redacted so as not to give it away] scene in chapter seven. That was gnarly.
Alex Dolan: That was a bit much. The running blades. Way before Oscar Pistorius became a killer the image of him running on those running blades was quite heroic. Cindy is an interesting character, a secondary character. I know a lot of people who’ve survived childhood trauma. I find that some people button themselves up and protect themselves and build a psychological shell so that can’t get hurt again and there are people who tap into their inner strength and whether that’s a mask or not is up to debate. They end up become driven by that [trauma]. She’s someone who feels she needs to rise above it to make up for lost time.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to bring a law enforcement official into the novel in Leland Moon?
Alex Dolan: She was breaking the law so the ultimate threat for her is somebody who can put her in jail. It took me a long time to settle on having him be a law enforcement official. I didn’t want the scene to be contrived. I researched what it took to be a veteran law enforcement official. What informed the backbone of Leland is that I watched a lot of YouTube videos and FBI agents have a superiority complex that they have to be this smart and tough to get into this branch of law enforcement. For Leland to want to do what he does in the first few chapters, you have to have a lot of guts and confidence in your ability. Someone who’s actually in the Bureau would actually think they’re that much better than the person they’re trying to catch.
Amy Steele: Have you always been interested in writing thrillers?
Alex Dolan: I don’t read a lot of genre thrillers. A lot of what attracts me is the voice. I think Joyce Carol Oates writes a mean thriller. There was a book she wrote last year called Carthage. Her stuff is totally accessible. She writes horror that’s creepier than Steven King. I tend to read a lot of literary fiction that delves into subject matter that interests me. You’re putting people in situations that are untenable situations. I also have a soft spot for horror. You’re putting someone in a horrible situation and you see what happens to that person. Thrillers can uncover the best that people have to offer. That’s when people can rise above and be the best they can be.
Amy Steele: What do you like about Kali and Leland?
Alex Dolan: I like that [Kali] is driven. She is doing what she does to ease suffering. She has her own guilt from stuff that happened as a teenager but she’s not doing this for glorification. There’s a nobility but a humility. For Leland, I like Leland’s smarts. I respect that fact that he’s working on other people’s behalf. His motivation is similar but he’s willing to throw people under the bus to do what’s right. That I don’t agree with. Kali has a mentor and she doesn’t want those people to get into physical or legal problems. I like Leland’s drive. His acumen is notable. He’s very good at what he does. His morality is a little foggier and I question his judgment sometimes.
St. Louis, Missouri-based musician Beth Bombara creates Americana/folk songs with bluesy undertones and earthy vocals. Growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Bombara played in a punk band in high school The 32-year-old singer/songwriter moved from Michigan to St. Louis in 2007 to embark on a solo music career. Her musician/producer husband Kit Hamon collaborated on her moving and diverse self-titled fifth album. The recurring themes are existentialism and travel. Quite thoughtful and provocative. She’s currently on tour and plays Club Passim in Harvard Square tonight.
I spoke with Beth Bombara during one of her days off.
Amy Steele: How’s the tour going?
Beth Bombara: It’s been a lot of fun so far.
Amy Steele: How did you get into music and singing and playing instruments?
Beth Bombara: There were always instruments around my house. We had a piano and my mom had a guitar. I was just really into music and teaching myself how to play guitar. I met some kids that wanted to start bands and it was something I always remembered doing.
Amy Steele: What do you like about being a solo artist?
Beth Bombara: I like both but I like playing with a band, in terms of having more band members to play with. In some ways it’s more fun because I don’t have to carry as much weight. I can just focus on singing more and maybe move around stage a little more. I like both. They’re just different. The band aspect there’s more collaboration. Solo. I’m rarely just playing me alone. Usually I have at least my husband playing bass with me.
Amy Steele: You moved to St. Louis in 2007. How has the music scene had an influence on your music now?
Before I moved to St. Louis I was in rock bands and went to a lot of sweaty basement shows and it was fun. I guess that can tie back into why I got into playing music in the first place. It was so fun to go see live music as a teenager. There’s a raw energy and getting to be part of that was fun. I was enamored with instruments and melody. When I moved to St. Louis, I really started experiencing music in the Americana roots music genre and even some blues. It was this perfect evolution of these things coming together. Moving to this place that roots and blues and heritage. A lot of folk coming out of the Ozark mountains. Banjo players and things like that. It definitely had a big influence. Examples of bands that played a part in my evolution after moving to St. Louis: Wilco; Uncle Tupelo; and more underground bands like The Rum Drum Ramblers (who are now a part of Pokey LaFarge’s band); and the Hooten Hallers.
Amy Steele: What makes you work well with your husband, to produce and collaborate on the album?
We have different ideas about things. We come at things from different perspectives. We might not always agree but we realize each perspective is valid. Having a certain respect enables us to use that different perspectives to find the best thing for the song.
Amy Steele: What do you think makes a good song?
Beth Bombara: I feel like the best songs are deceivingly simple if that makes sense. It can’t seem too forced. Simplicity makes good songs. Lyrics that are simple and a melody that is simple but also says something in a brief way .
Amy Steele: Let’s talk about some songs. What they’re about or what the writing process was like.
Amy Steele: “Promised Land”
Beth Bombara: It describes a point in life where I thought that a lot of things are unknown. It’s kinda scary when you don’t know, to plan things, to get a vision for what you’re doing. That definitely came from a place of uncertainty. Feeling this is kind of scary but we have to go into this darkness, unknown and it’s good to do with someone who supports you.
Amy Steele: “Give Me Something”
Beth Bombara: The writing of that was interesting: I did that as a writing experiment where I gave myself only a couple of days to write and record it. It’s kind of an anomaly in my songwriting. I didn’t have a specific idea. It was more stream of consciousness. It speaks to that whole cycle of getting to know somebody and feeling like you’re close and then that’s gone and navigating that.
Amy Steele: “Great the Day”
Beth Bombara: It kind of embodies my mantra. My philosophy. My life philosophy. So many things happen in life that we can’t control. We’re going to experience happiness, we’re going to experience sadness and you have to take that all with a grain of salt and support each other.
Amy Steele: “It Slips Away”
Beth Bombara: I feel like I was in the same emotional state with that song as I was when I wrote “Promised Land.” You’re on a journey and things are a little bit uncertain. Questioning yourself. Did I do the right thing? Am I headed in the right direction?
Amy Steele: What are your greatest challenges?
Beth Bombara: It’s challenging to be a singer/songwriter but not to get stuck in that box. Especially as a female singer/songwriter people have expectations about that. I’m going to show up to a gig with an acoustic guitar or a piano. And those stereotypes are hard to shake off. It’s only hard for me in my mindset. I don’t think it effects how I write songs. It’s just something I run into sometimes.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about being a musician?
Beth Bombara: I like the spontaneity. There are a lot of different areas where being a musician is spontaneous whether on stage playing a song and something happens you didn’t expect to happen. Collaborating with other musicians. I always enjoy that. Getting to meet a lot of people.
I enjoy creating songs. I think that speaks to my personality. I think I’m a maker. I like to make things. I like to garden. I like to screen-print. All these things I like to do have to do with building things. Creating something from nothing.