‘Dead Girl’ filmmaker’s calling is to break hearts

Special to The Times

At the world premiere of “The Dead Girl” last month as part of AFI Fest, writer and director Karen Moncrieff held her young daughter as she introduced the film. Moncrieff announced that the night was also the little girl’s first birthday.

As the crowd began to clap at the news, so too did young Ruby. For a few moments the night seemed an unexpectedly joyous occasion. As Moncrieff made her way out of the theater before the screening began, she playfully hollered from the aisle, “For those of you who thought ‘How inappropriate to bring a baby,’ she’s going home now!”

After the film began, however, the mood of the room shifted and darkened: Made up of five vignettes -- “The Stranger,” “The Sister,” “The Wife,” “The Mother,” and “The Dead Girl” -- the film is a delicately heartbreaking portrait of quiet resolve and small steps forward as it follows largely disconnected characters whose lives are all in some way catalyzed by the murder of a drug-addicted prostitute.

The unusual structure meant the production was somewhat like making five small movies, and Moncrieff was able to buoy her film with a group of performers known for their strength as character actors, including Toni Collette, Giovanni Ribisi, Rose Byrne, Brittany Murphy, Mary Beth Hurt, James Franco, Marcia Gay Harden, Kerry Washington, Nick Searcy and others.


The film, which opens Friday in Los Angeles, has a relentless consistency from story to story, a somber, death-stained look at lives in stasis, in desperate need of new directions, though it is leavened by slight slivers of hope. For her part, Moncrieff acknowledges that titling the film “The Dead Girl” serves as a form of truth-in-advertising and that those uninterested in the occasionally disturbing subject matter might be better served elsewhere.

“I understand making an unrelenting film may make some people feel like ‘Life’s difficult enough, I don’t want to see a movie that’s going to make me that uncomfortable for that amount of time,’” she said. “And I absolutely respect their right to go choose another movie.

“I feel like I’m making films for people who are like me, who like to go to movies and be shaken up, literally taken by the throat and shaken up for an hour and a half. And moved and forced to look at things that are ugly, forced to contemplate the darkest moments any of us can imagine.”

Director, interrupted

Baby Ruby’s inadvertent star turn at the premiere of “The Dead Girl” was, strangely, entirely appropriate, as Moncrieff’s daughter has played a significant and ongoing role in the production history of the film.

After the 2003 release of her debut feature, “Blue Car” -- a drama about a troubled young woman who enters a poetry contest -- Moncrieff was dismayed by the lack of creative control she had over a series of for-hire writing jobs that followed. Drawing inspiration from time spent on the jury of a murder trial, Moncrieff wrote “The Dead Girl” as a spec script. She and Eric Karten, her husband and producing partner, sent it out shortly after she finished in early 2005.

The script landed with producer Henry Winterstern, then at the company Glass Key, and he in turn sent it to Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi, respectively chairman and president at Lakeshore Entertainment. Lakeshore agreed to fully finance the film’s $4-million budget. Pre-production was just underway when Moncrieff told her financiers that she was pregnant. While they insisted on postponing everything until after her baby was born, Moncrieff’s instinct was to charge ahead.

Moncrieff recalled, “It had been such a struggle getting a movie off the ground since ‘Blue Car,’ and ‘The Dead Girl’ had sort of tumbled into place so quickly, I just thought, ‘Oh, they’ll lose interest.’ ” With assurances that her financing would still be in place, she was eventually persuaded to hold off production and Ruby was born in November 2005. By February , “The Dead Girl” was back in pre-production and shooting commenced in April.

Some of her anxiety came from experience.

Moncrieff’s previous feature, “Blue Car,” had been purchased at Sundance in 2002 and exited the festival as one of the year’s buzz items. It was the beginning of an arduous year and a half before the film finally came to theaters in May 2003, a period marked by numerous bumped release dates, lost momentum and the seemingly waning support of a then-floundering distributor.

“The Dead Girl” at one time was set up with a distributor who was looking to hold its release until 2007. Lakeshore’s Lucchesi and Rosenberg were vehemently against that idea and made arrangements to take back the film. They eventually landed with First Look Pictures, a distribution company acquired in the interim by Winterstern, another of the film’s producers. He wholeheartedly agreed with the strategy of getting the film into theaters sooner rather than later.

“It’s a terrific film, and you want it to come out in the fall,” Rosenberg said. “What are we doing, we’re going to be waiting around for a full year? What is the point in not going? There was none. We had entered into this, and shot and edited, so we could come out this year. And we were determined to do it. Also, I didn’t want Karen waiting around for another year for people to see what she can do.”

The tactic has already paid off, as “The Dead Girl” garnered a surprising three nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards, including best director and best feature. The shoot-from-the-hip, true-indie style of the film’s release is in concert with the uncompromised vision Moncrieff puts up on screen, which makes her something of an inverse version of Hollywood-slick filmmakers who traffic in fairy-tale perversions of modern life.

“Somebody asked me if it would be better if the movie was uplifting,” Moncrieff recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, to me this is uplifting.’ To me what’s depressing is to see lies on-screen, to see lives sugar-coated, a fake version of life as I know it or I feel it. Anything less than that and I’d feel like I hadn’t done my job.

“There are other people who are much better at shining a light on what’s funny or what’s sweet. Maybe my calling is to feel deeply some aspects of human pain and grief. Maybe I’m working something out in my work, but it’s what I’m attracted to. People making choices, struggling to do better and change, to me is uplifting.”