When veteran actor Peter Riegert decided to try his hand at directing, he didn't rifle through his Rolodex and pluck out one of the many producers he'd already come to know and trust. Instead, the star of films like Local Hero, Crossing Delancey and National Lampoon's Animal House opted for a novice. "I wanted an inexperienced producer, because I think sometimes, when people don't have a lot of knowledge, they're freer to take chances," Riegert explained during a telephone interview from Los Angeles.
Ericka Frederick took the chance, and ran with it all the way to the Oscars. With a skimpy budget and only one day of shooting, Riegert and Frederick made a 13-minute film, By Courier. An adaptation of the O. Henry story of the same name, the work was one of five nominees selected from 177 entries in the live-action short film category at this year's Academy Awards.
If Frederick's name is familiar to you, it might be because she and her husband Jack Campbell used to call the Triangle home, and because they made such an impact on the arts here. In the mid-1990s, Frederick helped found the North Carolina Media Arts Alliance, a consortium of filmmakers dedicated to nurturing the movie industry in our region. Their "North Carolina Visions" series of indigenous films runs on UNC-TV. And you might recognize Campbell as the former owner of Poindexter Records, and as a member of the rock bands Johnny Quest and the Pressure Boys. Three years ago, Frederick and Campbell left Durham for the Big Apple.
The producing job "kind of fell on my head," Frederick said last week from New York, as she was making final preparations for the Academy Awards ceremony. She met Riegert last year at the Newport International Film Festival. "We found out we were neighbors, and started talking about how he was interested in shooting some short films. He called me up--I was sure he was just going to ask for free film--and he actually asked me to produce his film for him, and I was floored."
Riegert says that it took a little convincing to get Frederick on board. "Our initial concern was that she'd never done it," he remembers. "And I said, 'Look, I've never directed, it's only a weekend, it's my money--so what the hell?'" Frederick wasn't a total neophyte; she works as an account representative for Eastman-Kodak, handling sales to independent filmmakers in New York City, so she was familiar with many of the logistics of producing. "She's very organized, responsible, protective--everything that you'd want in a person in that position," Riegert says. "And I think that those kind of qualities can overcome inexperience. She saw it as an adventure, and that's really what I was selling."
In truth, the adventure took more than a weekend. Months of careful pre-production work put Frederick's 33-member crew in a position to handle the kind of unexpected pitfalls that pop up in the film business. For example, when freezing rain spoiled the first of two scheduled shooting days in upstate New York, the crew made do. "You have to remember that my job as producer is not so creative," Frederick says. "My most creative moment came when we planned for hot weather and it ended up being a cold storm. I suddenly had to find hot soup for freezing actors."
Frederick didn't have to look far for an associate producer to complement her skills--she signed up her husband. "It's like any good married couple," she says. "He picks up for what I can't do. Part of it comes from running Poindexter--he has a natural knack for small business when it comes to detailing finances and organizing paperwork. I'd make big sweeping ideas, and he'd kind of pull it all together for me and outline it."
It's fitting and ironic that a cooperative couple helped bring By Courier to film, because more than anything else, the story is about what it takes to get two discordant people on the same wavelength. It also shows how sometimes it takes a middle-man to do a little translating.
Set on a sleepy, sunny day circa 1910, the story poignantly demonstrates the meanings that are lost, and gained, in translation when an intermediary carries messages between lovers. The courier is a young boy, played by Joey Temperini, who mends fences between an estranged high-society couple by delivering their missives in street slang.
The man's first message begins: "Tell her, that since she has commanded me neither to speak nor to write to her, that I take this means as making one last appeal to her sense of justice. Tell her, that to condemn and discard one who does not deserve such treatment, without giving him her reasons or a chance to explain, is contrary to her nature as I believe it to be." The courier delivers it thus: "He says you told him not to send 'round no more pink notes, don't come hanging over the garden fence, and he takes this means of puttin' you wise. He says you refereed him out like a has-been, never game him no chance to kick it to this issue. He says you swiped him, never said why."
The woman replies, in part: "Tell him that I have studied my own heart as well as one can, and I know its weakness as well as I do its needs. That is why I decline to hear his pleas, whatever they may be." The courier's rendering: "The lady says that she's on to the fact that gals is dead-easy when a fella' comes spieling ghost stories and trying to make up, and that's why she won't listen to no soft soap."
Riegert chose the story, he says, because he was so fascinated with how Henry's courier conveyed the messages. "I think that the story was very modern--this question of how language is the tool that differentiates us from all the other species. It's almost an organ. Sometimes, or very often, it's ineffective."
The story shows its age, but Riegert contends that its central theme--how communication can misfire, evolve, and even be enhanced because of its conduit--contains lessons for the present day. "In a funny kind of way, rap music is a corollary," he says, "because a lot of people don't hear it, don't understand exactly what they're saying, and there's a debate about whether it's articulate or not or whether there's any message at all." Riegert points out that the same debate went on with Shakespeare's work. "It's the Queen's English versus the people's English."
Riegert's screenplay was a very literal adaptation, but he did add flourishes that drive home some of Henry's points. For example, Riegert has the woman deliver her final message not in her erudite tongue, but in the lowbrow lexicon of the courier. "She speaks to him in his dialect," Riegert says, because "it's as if they are bilingual at that point, understanding each other's languages."
The filmmakers were aware of the risk that the jargon in a period piece wouldn't translate to a contemporary audience, but they think that this story, as Henry told it, will still strike a chord in the 21st century. The film is currently making its way around the festival circuit and entertaining offers from cable networks, but Frederick says she's seen signs that some potential venues are closed off because of the archaic language and simple script. "The festivals we aren't getting into are the more contemporary ones," she says. "The stuff that's happening now, the films that are winning festivals, are black and white, apocalyptic, surreal ones--not as basic as our film. Our film is Filmmaking 101--'How to Make a Beautiful Film'--and traditional filmmaking is just not what the current fad is."
But there's room outside the fad for film success, the By Courier crew has learned. "I think that that's one reason why the academy liked it," Frederick says. "It not only bucked the trend, it went back to basics."
Riegert says he had to witness screenings of the film before he was certain his approach would resonate. "You are skeptical until you see whether it works or not. Seeing it with audiences really made me happy and excited, because it took a minute or two where you could feel the audience going, 'What is this?' And then all of a sudden they get it. That's what creativity's about: You throw it out there, and who knows what anybody's going to get?"
By Courier makes its North Carolina debut at the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington, which runs from March 21 through 25. Call (910) 343-5995 or visit www.cuca lorus.org for more information.