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The Darkest Moments Any of Us Can Imagine

December 5th, 2009 · 1 Comment

The Dead Girl 2006 poster The Dead Girl 2006 DVD

The Dead Girl (2006)
Written by Karen Moncrieff
Directed by Karen Moncrieff
Produced by Pitbull Pictures/ Lakeshore Entertainment
MPAA rating: “R for language, grisly images and sexuality/nudity”
Running time: 85 minutes

Should I Care?
A somber mediation on all things death — physical, spiritual, emotional — The Dead Girl captures the vibe of a particularly joyless funeral. Whether or not that’s something to stand up and applaud isn’t something I’ve been able to figure out. Each of the inter-connected characters involved in some way to the corpse of the title dies a bit; a fine theme, but no matter how literate the ideas or how skillfully they’re executed, I don’t know if I can recommend anyone take this trip. The overriding plus is a dream cast, which doesn’t deliver one false performance. Kerry Washington and James Franco seem to make the most of their appearances, as a junkie whore peeking out of her own personal abyss and a boyishly goofy medical examiner, respectively.

Being an anthology film of sorts, certain moments tower above others. The movie is derailed quickly and completely by its Toni Collette segment, which can’t help but come off as over-the-top and degrading. I was finally won over when Washington made her entrance and was impressed with Brittany Murphy (who decided she needed to disappear from theaters?) Hailed by one critic as “the next John Sayles”, writer-director Karen Moncrieff demonstrates terrific finesse casting and working with actors. Unlike Sayles, Moncrieff doesn’t quite pull off the moments that require people relate to each other in a natural, unforced way, but not many screenwriters do. A sense of humor and some light would definitely be welcome in the future, but Moncrieff is a major league talent worth watching.

The Dead Girl, 2006, Toni Collette

So, What’s This About?
On a stroll in the abandoned orchard near her home, Arden (Toni Collette) discovers the body of a dead girl. She notifies the police, but her bitter mother (Piper Laurie) harangues her daughter for it. A grocery store clerk (Giovanni Ribisi) obsessed with serial killers asks Arden out; desperate to escape her dismal home life, she accepts. Leah (Rose Byrne) is a medical examiner in grad school still haunted by the disappearance of her sister 20 years ago. While her mother (Mary Steenburgen) holds out hope that the missing girl will turn up alive, Leah becomes convinced that the dead girl is her sister. Coming out of her shell, she responds to the advances of a classmate (James Franco).

A neglected wife (Mary Beth Hurt) discovers an item in the self-storage facility she manages with her husband (Nick Searcy) that she believes may be connected to the dead girl. Meanwhile, Melora (Marcia Gay Harden) arrives in Los Angeles to identify the dead girl’s body as that of her runaway daughter. Collecting her daughter’s belongings, Melora meets the junkie prostitute (Kerry Washington) that her daughter was sharing a motel room with and learns that she has a granddaughter. Finally, we meet the dead girl, prostitute Krista Anne Kutcher (Brittany Murphy). She spends the last 24 hours of her life with a john/boyfriend (Josh Brolin) trying to get a ride to see her daughter on her birthday.

The Dead Girl, 2006, Giovanni Ribisi, Toni Collette

Who Made It?
Karen Moncrieff grew up in Rochester, Michigan. She attended Northwestern University in Chicago and studying theater there, met her future husband and producing partner Eric Karten. After earning a BS in Performance Studies in 1987, Moncrieff came to Los Angeles. Ten years acting in bad television demystified the directing process for Moncrieff. She signed up for screenwritng extension courses at UCLA and the AFI and got a big break winning the 1998 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting for a coming-of-age script titled Blue Car. Seeking to protect her work by directing, Moncrieff completed a certificate program in film studies at Los Angeles City College, shooting a few short films on Super 8mm. She directed Blue Car on a $400,000 budget. Starring David Strathairn and Agnes Bruckner, Moncrieff’s debut feature film became a hit at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

Jury duty on a murder trial provided the inspiration for a spec script Moncrieff wrote titled The Dead Girl. The screenwriter and her husband got the attention of Henry Winterstern, a Canadian financier who’d come to L.A. to invest in film companies. One of those companies was Lakeshore Entertainment, where producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucceshi quickly agreed to finance Moncrieff’s ambitious sophomore film at $4 million. Pre-production was underway when Moncrieff notified her producers that she was expecting. Though assured that her financing would be there after her pregnancy, Moncrieff was back at work three months after her delivery and shooting three months after that. But despite a stellar cast, The Dead Girl would barely see a theatrical release.

The Dead Girl, 2006, Rose Byrne

How’d They Do It?

In 2006, Karen Moncrieff recalled the genesis of The Dead Girl, stating, “I was a juror on a murder trial a few years ago. On the first day, it was revealed that the victim was a prostitute. I realized that I had certain preconceptions about her that were not positive. At the same time, I recognized my tendency to feel that — as the victim of a crime — she must be some kind of innocent. The testimony of the various witnesses–people who were there to corroborate the killer’s story, the victim’s mother; the woman who took care of her children, her johns, other prostitutes, and one woman who had been her lover — forced me to confront the complexities and the wholeness of her life. She was a series of contradictions: a passionate mother of her young daughters, and also an unmedicated bipolar, a drug addict, and a liar.”

Moncrieff continued, “She was neither sinner, nor saint. She was a troubled human being who didn’t deserve to die. After the month long trial, I found the tremendous waste of her life stayed with me.” Sketching out a 30-page outline, Moncrieff knocked out a first draft of The Dead Girl in two weeks. Three drafts later — in March 2005 — a script was finished. Her husband and partner in Pitbull Pictures brushed aside concerns that Moncrieff had written a downbeat female ensemble that would scare away buyers. Eric Karten recalled, “When I finished reading the first draft, I had two simultaneous responses. As a partner and collaborator, I thought, ‘Wow, this is a major step forward for Karen in scope and ambition.’ And it emerged fully formed with daring construction, cohesive narratives, vivid characterization, clear voices and smart dialogue.”

The Dead Girl, 2006, Rose Byrne, James Franco

A multi-character format was always the design. Moncrieff elaborated, “From the beginning the structure was that these five sections do not intersect or overlap. The reason I chose this structure is because when I was on a jury, I was struck by the idea that there was this community that was created by the murder of this young woman. Many of us in this community — and I include myself as a juror sitting on her murder trial — didn’t know one another and would never meet again. Yet each of us in our own way was profoundly affected by this woman’s life and death.” Sending the script out to buyers, Moncrieff and Karten piqued the interest of Henry Winterstern. The former mortgage lender arrived in Los Angeles in 1999 on behalf of Canada’s largest pension fund to invest in the film industry.

What Winterstern really wanted to do was build a company, one that would produce and distribute its own films. At the time, he enthused, “Today, the studios are owned by media conglomerates. Because of that, and the amount of capital that needs to be returned to the shareholders, they need this big product. It’s [computer-generated imagery]-driven, and it takes a long time to produce and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. We can focus on the films that independent filmmakers are making, the films they want to make — those are big enough to return capital for us.” Winterstern financed Wassup Rockers (2005) for director Larry Clark and saw in Karen Moncrieff another indie filmmaker he wanted to be in business with.

The Dead Girl, 2006, Mary Beth Hurt

Winterstern passed The Dead Girl to chairman Tom Rosenberg and president Gary Lucceshi of Lakeshore Entertainment and the producers agreed to $4 million in financing. But a month before she’d finished the script, Moncrieff learned that her and her husband’s attempt at in vitro fertilization had been a success. Breaking the news to Lakeshore that she was pregnant, it was suggested postponing the film until after she gave birth. Moncrieff wasn’t having it. “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.’” Assured that her financing would still be in place, Moncrieff took maternity leave. She gave birth in November 2005, was back in pre-production by February and shooting the film in April 2006.

Moncrieff picked cinematographer Michael Grady to collaborate with. “In general, I don’t like flashy camerawork and Michael Grady is capable of doing the flashiest, but he’s really tasteful and one of the things when I was looking at reels, one of the things that really struck me — I was looking at his work on Wonderland, for instance — is that he’s always in the right place emotionally and to have somebody who knows a lot of tricks but uses them in service of telling an emotional story, that’s what I’m always looking for. But in general, I want the camera to disappear. I don’t want the audience to be looking at my work, I want to get out of the way so that the audience can forge a bond with the characters and feel like there’s no separation, like they are in their skin.”

The Dead Girl, 2006, Marcia Gay Harden

Once Toni Collette came aboard, an ensemble quickly fell into place. Moncrieff argued for Mary Beth Hurt in particular, whom the producers had worked with previously but felt would be too strong for the role of a put upon wife. Josh Brolin, Rose Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, James Franco, Brittany Murphy, Giovanni Ribisi, Mary Steenburgen and Kerry Washington also joined the cast. Moncrieff mused, “Each one of them said it was because of the script. I think the pattern is that they read the script and then, if they responded to it, they watched Blue Car. Some listened to the commentary. I always wondered who actually listens to the commentary, and I guess it’s the actors who listen to find out if you’re an absolute nincompoop or an egomaniac who will be impossible to work with on the set.”

Filmed around Los Angeles in only 25 days, the film’s original distributor intended to release The Dead Girl in 2007. Producer Tom Rosenberg strongly opposed that. “It’s a terrific film, and you want it to come out in the fall. 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.” Instead, Henry Winterstern acquired First Look Pictures — the distributor of art house fare such as Antonia’s Line and Titus — with the ambition of making it over into a mini-studio, like Lionsgate.

The Dead Girl, 2006, Kerry Washington

Opening in a very limited release in December 2006, when screened for critics, the response was one of muted admiration. Jim Ridley, The Village Voice: “Moncrieff’s glum, somber film is something of a needed corrective at the moment, when horror movies are turning into weightless exercises in morally sanctioned sadism.” Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle:The Dead Girl is bleak, sad, and depressing — which is exactly what Moncrieff intends it to be, although it would probably help the viewer to be apprised of that quality going in, since most of us do not head to the movies in search of a bad time.” Kevin Crust, The Los Angeles Times: “If the segments are uneven, Moncrieff — with the help of her excellent cast — nevertheless crafts a gripping overall narrative that exposes a shared dissonance among the protagonists.”

Never expanding beyond two theaters in the United States, The Dead Girl would gross only $19,875 domestically and add $885,416 internationally. Despite the limited commercial appeal of her film, Karen Moncrieff defended her take. “Somebody asked me if it would be better if the movie was uplifting. 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.”

The Dead Girl 2006 Josh Brolin, Brittany Murphy

Where’d You Get All of This?
“First Look Studios at 25” By Scott Kirsner. The Hollywood Reporter, 18 January 2006

The Dead Girl – Press Notes

Dead Girl Filmmaker’s Calling Is To Break Hearts” By Mark Olsen. The Los Angeles Times, 26 December 2006

“Aftershocks” By Howard Feinstein. FilmMaker Magazine, Winter 2007

“The Facts of Life” By Shelley Gabert. Written By, January 2007

“An Aspiring Mogul’s Quick Rise and Fall” By Sharon Waxman. The New York Times, 8 March 2007

The Dead Girl. DVD audio commentary with Karen Moncrieff. First Look Entertainment (2007)

Tags: Forensic evidence · Midlife crisis · Mother/daughter relationship · Murder mystery · Prostitute · Psycho killer

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Carrie Ann // Oct 27, 2010 at 2:04 am

    This movie was one of the best, if not, the best “reality of life” movies I have ever seen. This movie will be a late bloomer in the wonderful world of DVD’s and with Brittany Murphy gone, the irony of the title gives me great sadness. It think it was different because it was so real and a real masterpiece. I could relate in many ways from a victims standpoint and being a single mother and how the choices we make in our youth effect the outcome of our lives. I was curious about Brittney’s last name “Kutcher” in the movie and if that is symbolic in some way from when they dated? I just watched it for the 3rd time. I dont understand why it did not catch on? and I love audio commentaries and I hope to get it for this movie. Excellent Movie!!!!

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