Romancing the past

Special to The Times

"This movie we always think of as the anti-indie, because it lacks all edge," declares Isabel Rose, star and co-writer of the new musical romantic comedy "Anything but Love," in from New York for the West Coast premiere of her film. "Our film is round."

Round and unapologetically retro, with a sincerity that apparently began with the making of the film, shot in New York on a tight budget and tight schedule that were strictly adhered to.

"You think of an indie film being made with DV cameras and everyone super grungy," Rose continues. "If you came to our set, you'd find me in curlers listening to Henry Mancini's 'Moon River' and Robert sitting around in argyle socks and a V-neck sweater vest."

Robert is Robert Cary, director and co-writer and former Yale schoolmate. Both are 35.

"Independent film has always been adept at showing the world as chaotic," says Cary, a Los Angeleno who divides his time between L.A. and New York. "I think there's room for independent film to be inspirational."

And no apologies for any of that, since the result was just what they aimed for -- a sweet, uplifting movie about the power of dreams and the possibility of true love. Inspired by movies from the 1940s and '50s, the first-time filmmakers tell a story set in contemporary New York but glossed with a period style replete with love triangle, song-and-dance numbers and color-drenched dream sequences.

The protagonist, Billie Golden (Rose), is a waitress with a secret life; her aspiration is to make it as a cabaret singer in a Manhattan nightclub, like Eartha Kitt, who does a turn as herself in the film.

"I decided to create a movie which is told visually and narratively in the style of film which this woman [Billie] loves," Cary says. "To the degree we were able to achieve on our budget, the entire film has the look of an old studio picture."

They shot in 35-millimeter, on tripod; they used orchestral scoring, giving a musical theme to the major characters; and they even redubbed some outdoors scenes "to give them a patina of artificiality."

Story wise, he says, "Billie's life begins to imitate the tropes of a classic Hollywood melodrama -- the love triangle, the professional versus the romantic working-girl crisis."

A shared passion

New Yorker Rose and L.A. native Cary met at Yale University in the mid-1980s. They shared a love for musicals, performed in several together and were roommates for a semester.

After college they kept in touch, and several years ago, Rose had an idea for writing a movie about a struggling, cabaret-singer wannabe.

She makes clear the film isn't about her -- exactly. "It's always tempting to think all works are autobiographical," she points out, "but I'm a writer of fiction and I'm an actress. My job is to create something that's believable." Rose grew up in an affluent household on Manhattan's East Side and got a master's in fiction and literature from Bennington College. Her character grew up in working-class Queens.

But Cary points out, "Isabel really had a strong empathetic connection with this woman's love for an era that's passed. She's got a lot of the clothes."

Rose says she used to dress up more, but certainly never to the extent Billie does. (In one scene, Billie dons a Holly Golightly "Breakfast at Tiffany"-style black cocktail dress, replete with pearls.) Indeed, today Rose is dressed in a simple turquoise cashmere sweater and jeans. The film does reflect a sensibility she and Cary share.

"I was raised on the movies of the '40s and '50s," Rose says. "Every Friday night from age 6 to 16, I saw one in my living room. My father had a Bell and Howell projector, and during the reel changes, we would reenact our favorite numbers, my two sisters and I."

Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, Cary says, "I grew up on the lots at Paramount and MGM. My father was a writer for 'Mork & Mindy,' my mother was a 'Carol Burnett Show' dancer, and later she worked in production." He's a big fan of musical theater and film scores. "I love juxtaposing music against life."

Inspired by a crisis

"I got the idea for the movie in a taxi on the way to hear Eartha Kitt at the Carlyle," Rose recalls, referring to one of Manhattan's premier nightclub venues. "I was engaged to be married and my husband had been transferred to London, and I felt I was being forced to choose between the stability of marrying my banker husband or having my creative world in New York. I married him and moved to London and was desperately unhappy."

In short, Rose says, "the movie came out of the crisis in my own life."

She became so determined to make the film that she helped get the funding together.

Kitt is a strong drawing card for the movie; she appears toward the beginning and at the end of the film, acting as both shining icon of all Billie would wish to achieve and then as worldly advisor on affairs of the heart.

Currently headlining to rave reviews in "Nine" on Broadway, the indomitable Kitt spoke by phone from New York, explaining that she agreed to the role in "Anything" because she likes helping younger performers and liked Rose when she met her. The famous chanteuse entered the cabaret world in the 1950s, becoming a hit at a time when race barriers were still up.

"When you first get into it, it may sound glamorous," she says in her familiarly raspy voice. "Then it becomes haaaard work." She laughs. Does she agree with a pivotal line her movie self delivers, that two people in love "have to hear the same music"? "Of course you do," she snaps. Then adds, "I think it's true for friendship too. To be really good friends, you have to hear the same music."

Ironically, the film drove home that central lesson for the filmmakers as well. "Sometimes you write the truth before you're able to live it," Cary observes. "It's not always autobiography, it's more like premonition."

Since making the film, Cary realized that he wasn't with the partner who "heard the same music" and has since found one who does. He says he is much happier in his new relationship. It changed Rose's life too. After the film was made and touring festival circuits, Rose and her husband had a falling out. They have since divorced, Rose says, without rancor. "We just didn't hear the same music."

For a moment, she evokes her character Billie as she declares, "This is who I am, and this is my voice." Of course, she has had her share of stumbles and rejections along the way. How did she deal with those setbacks? "Rather than hearing 'No,' " Rose says, "I hear 'Next!' "

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