Many have already noted that this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival has placed an emphasis on first-time filmmakers and the discovery of new work over celeb-friendly showpieces or retreads from other festivals. Which might make last Friday’s world premiere of “Paint it Black” something of an ideal intersection between the new and the familiar.
The film, which also screens Tuesday night, is the ambitious feature directing debut from actress and poet Amber Tamblyn, who also co-wrote the adaptation of Janet Fitch’s 2006 novel of the same name. Friday’s event drew what might turn out to be the biggest roster of notable faces and names at this year’s festival.
The low-key crowd at Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater included Tamblyn’s husband, comedian and actor David Cross, actors Alfred Molina, Bob Odenkirk, Thomas Sadoski, and Dan Bakkedahl, actress and filmmaker Rose McGowan, actresses Ari Graynor and America Ferrera, plus composer and musician Mac McCaughan. Actor Russ Tamblyn, Amber’s father, was there too.
After the screening, after Amber Tamblyn had discretely slipped behind a pillar outside the theater to sip from a small flask, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino slapped on a large pane of glass from inside to get her attention, capturing the notice of absolutely everyone making their way out.
Actress and producer Amy Poehler introduced the film and moderated the Q&A afterward. Tamblyn would later say Poehler gave her the book to read some 10 years ago.
“I’m very pleased to be here tonight to help most of you see for the first time this amazing film that Amber Tamblyn made with the help of the great actresses Alia Shawkat and Janet McTeer and other great people whose names I don’t know as well,” said Poehler.
“It’s a wonderful, beautiful film about time and grief and women and love,” Poehler added. “It’s a film I was incredibly moved by, especially because I recognized people in it, which is rare, at least in my experience, to go see a film that has any female characters that I recognize. Or any female characters.”
Poehler then introduced the director as “the wonderful writer, poet, actress, dreamer, big thinker, Amber Tamblyn.”
In introducing the film, Tamblyn noted, “I want to say to fans of the book tonight, keep an open mind. That’s not a bad thing, it just means this is a long dream, this entire film, and I’m really proud of it and I hope that you guys enjoy the amazing, crazy emotional places that we go with it.”
In the film Shawkat plays Josie, a young woman dealing with the emotional aftermath of her boyfriend’s suicide. After a violent confrontation at the funeral with his mother, Josie finds herself locked into an unusual dynamic with a renowned concert pianist named Meredith, played by McTeer. The two women need each other for something neither can quite understand nor provide. Molina, Rhys Wakefield and Emily Rios appear in supporting roles.
“Paint It Black” provides a platform for powerful, full-throttle performances from Shawkat and McTeer. Tamblyn gives precedent to the emotional logic of the story over direct-drive plotting, and with evocative work by cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard and editor Paul Frank the film captures the shattering, out-of-sorts feelings of deep-stage grief.
In the Q&A after the screening, with Poehler, Tamblyn and Shawkat onstage, the experience of being a woman in Hollywood, on- and off-screen, became a running theme.
Poehler began by asking Tamblyn what appealed to her about the book in the first place.
“One of the things that was so present to me about the book, which I rarely see on-screen, is extremely volatile, complicated relationships between women,” said Tamblyn.
“Janet Fitch is one of the most poetic writers ever, as a novelist,” Tamblyn said. “The way in which she can describe the interior voice of a woman is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s one of the things that drew me to also make it feel like that. What a complicated, difficult movie that would make, to try to tell that without expository dialogue.”
Tamblyn said she worked on the screenplay, co-written with Ed Dougherty, first as a vehicle for herself as an actress but eventually felt she had aged out of the role. There was another director attached to the project for a time, but eventually Tamblyn was persuaded by producer Wren Arthur to direct.
“I had to first give myself permission to do that, which I think for women is particularly difficult,” added Tamblyn. “Especially in our line of work, of acting, if you’ve been a child actor too, you feel like ‘I do this one thing, that’s what I do.’ For me there was really a head change about it, the sense of giving myself permission to do something that I had only been a part of on the acting side of things.
“If I had ideas, which I always did, I kept them to myself, or I found a way to make the director, which was 99.9% of the time men, make them feel it was their idea. So I got incredibly good at doing that.”
After a time, Poehler opened up to questions from the audience.
A voice from the front of the theater called out to ask how Tamblyn found her creative process in her new role as filmmaker.
“America Ferrera is asking me a question,” Tamblyn noted.
“I think poetry informed a lot of the creative process,” said Tamblyn, who last year published a book of poems titled “Dark Sparkler.” “When I think about writing a poem, I think about how no one wants to read a poem and get interested in it in the 17th line down. You need to hit someone immediately off the top and make them feel something.
“I think a lot of the process of the film was thinking in terms of metaphor, not thinking literally all the time, thinking about choosing feeling and choosing emotion over literal essence. I thought about that a lot while I was writing it.”
“Very female of you,” added Poehler with a laugh.
“This movie is so female,” said Tamblyn, rolling with the joke. “It’s just setting you up for failure. It’s not going to talk to you for 10 to 12 days. It is menstruating.”
Poehler also asked Tamblyn what else she wants to do. “It’s ‘The Secret’ right?” Poehler said. “Just say it and it happens, man. What do you want to do next?”