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‘Siesta’ Wakes Up Her Film-Directing Career

“There will be people who won’t like or understand ‘Siesta’ and that’s OK,” says Mary Lambert about her debut feature film, currently playing at Century City 14.

Lambert’s name may be unfamiliar to filmgoers, but she’s been the toast of the video world for five years. Director of Madonna’s most popular videos, Lambert earned a reputation as an innovative maker of musical commercials and has worked with the Eurythmics, the GoGo’s, Sting, the B-52s and others. Her reputation in video landed her the job of directing “Siesta,” her first feature.

“ ‘Siesta’ is not a genre film,” said the 35-year-old director over tea at the Hollywood Hills home of her manager and “Siesta” producer Gary Kurfirst. “Nor is it a film where you can easily see who the audience will be. It’s a film about the scary side of sex and death, and it employs a fragmented, non-sequential mode of storytelling that’s off-putting to some people.

“But this film takes risks and it does something different, and I think there are people who are interested in seeing that.”

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“Siesta” does require a sizable leap of imagination on the part of the viewer, and while there are those willing to accept the unorthodox logic that governs the film, others refuse to play by Lambert’s rules.

The movie was hailed as “this year’s ‘Blue Velvet’ ” by Susan Linfield, editor of American Film, and described by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin as having “an appealing, ripe bohemianism and mischievous spirit.” But “Siesta” was lambasted by The Times’ critic Sheila Benson as “a monumentally bad, awesomely wrongheaded, pretentious conceit,” and dismissed by J. Hoberman in the Village Voice as “unrelentingly pretentious connect-the-dots Gothic.” One way or another, this movie seems to touch a nerve in people.

Based on a novel by Patrice Chaplin (daughter-in-law of Charlie Chaplin), “Siesta” follows a daredevil through her final days leading up to a potentially fatal leap.

Rife with Jungian imagery, the film is a post-modern fable of destiny and change, peopled with a gallery of lost souls including a guardian angel (portrayed by British heartthrob Julian Sands), a sorceress (played by pop star Grace Jones) and the angel of death (Alexi Sayle).

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Shot on location in Spain on a budget of $3.5 million, the film stars Ellen Barkin as Claire, the ill-fated sky diver, and features Jodie Foster, Isabella Rossellini, Martin Sheen and Gabriel Byrne (along with Sands, Jones and Sayle) in supporting roles. “Siesta’s” players, however, are all upstaged by the unusual manner in which its story unfolds.

“Interpreted literally, the story is about a daredevil about to do a stunt, and the movie can be read as her last 20 seconds of consciousness,” Lambert said.

“The story tracks her as she moves back through the landscape of her life toward the realization of her own death, and, in the broadest sense, the film is about the necessity for accepting change.

“It’s the story of a woman facing the end of a love affair, and because she can’t accept that change, she experiences a form of spiritual death. The central character may or may not be physically dead--that interpretation is up to the viewer--but either way, death, along with everything in the film, should be seen as a metaphor.

“Sky diving is a metaphor for falling through life and for the loss of control we feel when we fall in love. The idea of control is central to the story; it’s becoming increasingly impossible to control the world around us, and it seems to me that the trick to surviving is how you deal with your own mythology and what things are important to you spiritually.”

The product of happily married parents and a traditional religious upbringing, Lambert describes herself as a polytheist.

Lambert said her exotic views on love, sex and death were shaped “probably (by) the men--and the women--that I’ve loved in my life.”

Born and reared in Arkansas in the small Mississippi River town of Helena, Lambert fell in love with movies at age 5 when her parents took her to see “Pinocchio.” In 1975 she left Arkansas for the Rhode Island School of Design where she received a degree in painting, then went on to a job as an assistant editor at WGBH-TV in Boston. In 1978 she relocated to Los Angeles and began directing commercials, but the good money she was making didn’t compensate for the creative dead-end she found herself in.

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“I was just getting to the point where I was starting to make money when I realized that commercials weren’t the best route to feature film making, which had been my goal all along,” she said. “This was in 1980, and around that time I noticed people were making the kind of short, avant-garde films I made in art school, only they were called rock videos.

“At that point I’d been trying to make a documentary about L.A.'s underground scene but I’d run out of money, so two old friends from art school, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth (drummer and bassist with the Talking Heads pop group), helped me finish the film as a video for a song for their (spinoff) group, the Tom Tom Club.”

After completing a string of other videos, Prince hired Lambert to direct his second feature film, “Under the Cherry Moon.” Prince fired her just two weeks into the shoot.

“It seems unnecessary to discuss the Prince thing,” she said, “because the parting was amicable as far as I’m concerned. He wanted to direct the film, so it seemed best for him to go ahead and do it.”

Though it’s generally assumed that aspiring directors use video as a steppingstone to features, never to return once they’ve scored their first movie, Lambert has directed three videos (two for Mick Jagger, one for Sting), and a television commercial for Arrow shirts since completing “Siesta.”

“I still love doing videos, but I don’t want them to become a treadmill I’m unable to get off,” she said. “And although I’ve gotten invaluable technical experience working in video, I hope video hasn’t shaped my style as a director of features because they’re vastly different forms. With music video you shape your images to the rhythm of a song, whereas in film the story and the characters set the pace.”

Though it’s unlikely that “Siesta,” which grossed $13,000 in its first weekend in Los Angeles, will be a blockbuster, the chances of this director getting the opportunity to make more features look good. The fact that she has a number of influential friends doesn’t hurt.

Madonna and she are developing a film, Lambert said. “The story has a lot of music, but it’s not a musical--it’s a story about the fact that fear is the big killer. People are incredibly afraid of so many things--intimacy, disease, poverty--and this story attempts to show that fear itself is the worst thing that’s out there.

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“I’m also developing this thing called ‘Stagger Lee,’ which I hope to shoot in New Orleans next year. It’s set in the year 2000 and is about the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.” In addition to these projects, Lambert is busy doing what she can to help “Siesta” connect with the audience she thinks will respond to it.

“I’ve been told that some people are repulsed by images in the film, and it does include things that are intentionally macabre or disturbing,” Lambert said. “There is, for example, a sequence where a love scene is intercut with a brutal rape--but for me, that dichotomy is what the movie is about. There is a dark, sordid side to sex, but it also has the capacity to be the greatest thing that ever happens to you. Similarly, death can regarded as the end of your existence, or it can be your soul merging with the universe and coming into a higher state of consciousness.

“Obviously these are fairly unusual subjects for a feature film, and ‘Siesta’ invites the viewer to fall into a chasm that’s scary for some people. But it was never my intention to make a weird or creepy movie. I wanted to say something hopeful and positive about death and spiritual change, and to illustrate that there is another plane of reality in life where we can go for comfort.”


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