I have a feeling that Cindy Baer is a name you’re going to be hearing a lot more of in the future. Veering away from her theatrical background, she made a huge impact with her first film, Purgatory House, and is now back on the scene with her new short film, Morbid Curiosity. Crafted with the expertise of an experienced veteran and chock full of deliciously evil dark comedy, Morbid Curiosity is solidifying Cindy’s reputation as a brilliant, up and coming film maker.
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Let’s get started by having you introduce yourself to everyone.
Hi there. My name is Cindy Baer and I’m a director, producer and actress.
You began your career with the Boston Children’s Theater at the age of 14. What led up to your decision to get into acting?
It’s funny, I always thought that I discovered my desire to act when I was about thirteen years old, but years ago when I was back home in Boston, I ran into a childhood friend who I hadn’t seen since the third grade. When I told her I was in Los Angeles acting, she said “Oh yeah, I remembered that you wanted to be an actress”. So I guess it went back for much longer than I remember.
My mother didn’t like actors, and made comments like “actors are liars”, so it was very hard for me to tell her that I wanted to be an actress. When I was fourteen I finally worked up the courage to ask if I could start training in Boston. I paid for my acting classes myself, with the money I had saved from a large paper route.
I lived in Brockton, and my only obstacle was finding a ride into the city. Luckily the theater told me that there was another girl from Brockton who was in my class. Her name was Robin Brodsky. I called Robin to ask if I could ride with her, and we became fast friends. The year was 1984, and I still remember our very first telephone conversation. It went something like this: “I’m 5’2 and weight about 95 lbs”. “So am I!” “I have brown hair and blue eyes” “So do I!” My favorite TV show is “Silver Spoons” and I am in love with Ricky Schroeder”. “Me too!” Robin and I acted together all through high school, and whenever I was nervous before an audition, she sang the song “The Greatest Love Of All” to me. Now if I go to a meeting and I hear that song on the radio when I’m driving there, I know it’s going to go great. To this day Robin and I are still close friends, and in fact, she was a bridesmaid in my wedding last year.
Were you the kind of a child that was always sort of "theatrical" or were you more or less just a normal kid that happened to become an actress?
What an interesting question. I’m certainly a “theatrical” adult! As a child I was definitely a big ham. In high school I became very quiet and introverted around other people, but in private, with friends, and on stage I was still very outgoing. I think kids who are not given enough attention find some way, whether it’s in a positive way or a negative way, to get that missing attention. For me it was through acting. I have always felt that acting probably saved my life. It gave me a voice, and it gave me confidence in myself.
You garnered an extremely impressive number of stage credits by the time you joined the Screen Actor’s Guild on your 21st birthday, including plays like The Diary of Anne Frank and Fiddler on the Roof. What were some of the most important things you learned about acting, and life in general during these years, and how do you feel that they’ve affected your life and your career since?
Thank you. I think the biggest lesson I learned was that the obstacles I would encounter in my acting were usually reflections of the obstacles in my life. Art really does imitate life, and if you have a problem in life, often it will come out in your acting. I think the older we get, the more we know ourselves, and the more honest we can be in our work. In acting, and in life, it’s all about honesty. It’s about making strong choices, listening (and really hearing) your teammates, and being present. You have to be brave, and be willing to look foolish to take a risk. Just like in life, the largest risks bring the biggest rewards. And the biggest risk you can take is being vulnerable, human and imperfect.
Your first film, Purgatory House, came as a result of your work with a girl in the Big Brothers / Big Sisters Program. Tell us about that film and it’s young author and lead actress, Celeste Davis.
I felt very alone growing up as a child and as a teen. So when I got older, I wanted to find a little girl who maybe didn’t have a mom around, and be the support system for her that I had always wished I had. In 1997, I decided to become a “Big Sister” in the Big Sisters program, and was matched with Celeste, who was 11 years old at the time. Since she liked to write, and I was an actress, they thought we’d be a good pair. Little did anyone know, including Celeste or myself, that we’d end up making a movie together only 4 years later!
Around the age of 13, Celeste started going through a particularly rough time. She was having trouble at home and at school, and the teen drug culture was all around her. She started writing a screenplay called PURGATORY HOUSE as a way to express herself. When she ended up at a teen shelter, I suggested that we do something with her script, like actually make it as a short film. Since her script was about teen suicide, I wanted to make sure that was not something she was truly considering. I could tell that she needed something exciting to wake up for, and fast. I also thought her story could help a lot of other teens, since it was written from an actual teen’s point of view—a point of view we rarely see in the media. After I coached her, helping to expand the script into a feature, I knew that we needed to go for it completely. I decided to produce the movie in its entirety, as a feature.
I cast Celeste to play the lead, opposite Jim Hanks and Johnny Pacar, and a cast and crew came together to make this happen. We played the film festival circuit for over 2 years and won 7 awards and 2 Prism Award nominations. The Prism Awards honor movies and TV shows that make a positive difference in the world. PURGATORY HOUSE also received great critical acclaim, and was also listed on 5 critics lists for “Best Films of the Year”. And this was before we had distribution! Image Entertainment (one of the largest DVD distributors in North America) picked up DVD rights, and the movie will be out in January. Woo Hoo!
Purgatory House made the rounds at a large number of film festivals and earned itself many awards and kudos, which is a tribute both to you and it’s author. Were you surprised at how well it was received?
Yes, I was extremely surprised, and happy with the amazing response. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how audiences, or critics would react. I was a little afraid that because it’s very artistic, with a slower pace, and a lot of symbolism, that people might have a harder time with it. I’m relieved that audiences of all ages really seem to “get” it, and relate to it, and that so many people actually love it! I hope that with our DVD distribution, more people will get to see it.
You formed the production company, Free Dream Pictures LLC in order to create that film. Do you feel that was sort of a turning point in your whole career, and is making films anything you ever thought you’d be doing since your career up until then had been largely theatrical in nature?
Do you ever feel like things fall into place when you are doing what you are meant to be doing? That’s how it felt for me. When I moved to Los Angeles I was around the film community more than the theater community, because film production has such a huge overall presence here. It’s a movie-making town. Even the man I married makes his living working in film as a cinematographer. Matt and I met and fell in love at the Sundance Film Festival! Although I adore theater, and it will always be my first love, I feel that movies have their own special magic. I love to document my life, and to create a movie is like freezing and manipulating time! I love still photography, and movies are a natural extension of that; it’s telling stories through moving photographs. Looking back now, I do think it makes a lot of sense that I ended up crossing over into film.
Let’s move on to the film that actually introduced me to your work, Morbid Curiosity, which was written by Matthew Irving. He was also an Associate producer on Purgatory House, and as of April 2005 became your husband. He’s a well-known cinematographer, but Morbid Curiosity is his only writing credit. How much input if any did he have in its actual production?
You have certainly done your homework! I’m impressed. Let’s see: Matt was an English major at Stanford University before he got his masters at USC School of Cinema TV, where he discovered his love for cinematography. In fact right now Matt is in St. Louis shooting his thirteen feature as a cinematographer, on a movie called STILL WATERS. As a writer Matt has actually written about a dozen features –two of which he was hired to write.
The way MORBID CURIOSITY came about was that Matt had written it as a class assignment at Stanford in 1992. Years later he came across it, and showed it to me. It was a short story that was written in the first person, and I thought it would make a fantastic monologue. A few years later, when the distribution deal for PURGATORY HOUSE was taking a very long time to finalize, and I was pretty stressed out about it, Matt suggested I do something creative to take my mind off the distribution limbo. So I asked him if I could make his story into a short film that would be live action in the form of a video confessional, but revealed in still photographs. He loved the idea. So one afternoon we set up a Canon XL2 in the living room to do some tests. In two hours I had enough footage to edit together the main story. The test footage looked great, so I actually used it as the final.
I edited the storyline together in Final Cut Pro, and then made a shot list of all the still photos I wanted to take to tell the story. The actors I used in the still photos were either actor friends who I knew or actors I found at nowcasting.com. After I edited in all of the still photos, I felt like the movie was still missing something. The original ending of the film was written with the main character Destiny getting cut off mid sentence, as the plane landed on the house. So I went back to my writer Matt, and asked if had any ideas about how I could bring it to the next level. He sure did. Matt came up with a new ending, a great ending in which the cameraman would run out of the house, do a quick whip-pan and then we would show the plane on the house. We both knew we could only pull it off if we had a perfect, seamless effect. And it would be shocking as well, because you would never expect this ending on a film that was told so simplistically!
Morbid Curiosity uses a large number of still shots to flesh out the story as it’s being told by it’s lead character, Destiny. How difficult was it for you to envision the proper shots for each part of the story and how long did it take you shoot all the stills for the film, and how many shots overall did you have to sort through to find just the right ones?
Doing the still shots was so much fun. I used my little Canon Powershot Digital Elf for all the photos. I shot the sequences of: Destiny at age 7 (with the painter, little girl and mother), Destiny at age 13 montage, and the car crash, all the same day. I hired my friend Jean as a Production Assistant to help me with food, actor wrangling, paperwork and releases, and costume, prop and location changes. Teddie, my hair and make-up person, was busy making young Destiny’s (Jolie Adamson) hair darker. Jolie dyed her hair brown for the role! That day actually felt like a real shooting day, except without a sound department.
Because the story is told present day, Ithe first flashback would be the year 1983 and the second would be 1990. I researched those years in my personal photo albums, and online. I had a blast shopping in thrift stores to find the correct period clothing for my characters. In a scrapbook of 1983 I found a photo of myself in a PacMan T-shirt, and I really loved that. I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find a PacMan T-shirt. Then I realized I could recreate my own by using the Internet and iron-on transfer paper! That was really cool. For the still photos where I used only one photo for each person’s death, those shots were taken on separate individual days.
For the shot of the dad falling out the window, I stood on top of a chair, and had my actor George Lytle lay on the floor with his arms and legs sticking up toward me. Then in Photoshop, by hand, I painted his background into a chroma key blue color. Then I imported the photo into Final Cut Pro and keyed out the chroma blue, replacing it with a photo I had taken from the window of a 39th floor of a building in Las Vegas looking down onto a swimming pool. The arrow shot was very fun too. We went to an Archery range, and used a real arrow, but the broken arrow was just too heavy to stay up in the wax. So Teddie, my make-up artist, is actually standing out of frame, and using a string to hold the arrow up from actress Katrina Gourely’s face. I removed the string in Photoshop later. Good fun. I ended up using a total of 50 still shots in the film, and I would estimate that those fifty were taken from about 500.
There’s an absolutely phenomenal effect at the end of Morbid Curiosity where a plane lands on Destiny’s house. That in and of itself was pretty sweet looking, but then just as the film closes, one set of wheels from the plane comes crashing down and bounces toward the camera as the screen goes black. The effect was one of the best looking shots I’ve ever seen in an independent film. Mark Thomas, (who you also worked with on purgatory house,) did the visual effects for the film. What software did he use to create the effects and how long did it take him to put that sequence together?
Mark told me that he used a program called Electric Image for that shot, which is the same program he used for all of the CG work in his well-known fan film DUALITY. He generated the smoke in EI using a particle system plug-in called PowerParticles Pro. The plane wreckage and fire were all modified photographic/film elements projected onto basic geometry in EI. He modeled the landing gear using the EI modeler, and keyframed the bounce by hand rather than using a physics simulation since he could control it better that way. One interesting thing about that landing gear shot is that he modeled it distorted — that is, the wheels are deliberately pigeon-toed toward each other in order to make it look like they’d been smashed around a bit. And of course, the camera shake was simulated so that he wouldn’
have to track the DV footage. Mark is incredibly talented, and we are just so very lucky to have him on our team! I cannot imagine this movie without his home-run ending.
Was the result exactly what you had hoped for?
The result was EXACTLY what I was going for. And again I have to hand it to Mark because it was extremely tricky. We had to find that right blend of being ‘realistic”, so that the plane crash looked great and believable, and yet, not have it be TOO realistic (without too much destruction, bodies, blood, etc..) since it’s a dark comedy. What was really neat was that Mark lives in Santa Barbara and I’m in LA. We communicated through the Internet sending each other files back and forth with the free service at yousendit.com. I sent Mark the plate shot (shot before the effect was added) with my notes. He’d send me back the draft, and we’d go back and forth that way. I find this modern day technology truly amazing! We can be 100 miles apart, working together.
The film has been making the rounds on the film festival circuit. How has it been received so far and have you been surprised at the reaction it’s getting?
I have been blown away by the positive reception! We’ve gotten into every film festival I’ve submitted it to so far! This means we will be screening at a festival every week for the next 8 weeks! We just won an Audience Award at the Valley Film Festival, and the four reviews have all been overwhelmingly positive. People are reacting better to the movie that I ever imagined was possible. I guess it’s hard for me to be objective because I am in it. I’ve been having a blast!
Have you received any negative reactions or reviews from people? How do you deal with negative reviews or comments?
Ha! I have a funny story about that. One time I was doing a play in Hollywood, and it got a HORRIFIC review. This one critic actually called it “a flaming pile of excrement”! For some reason, it struck me as really funny. It was so hysterical that I hung it on my wall. The very same week another reviewer (from Backstage) called the same show “a dark diamond that would shine brightly for years to come”. So I just have to laugh. We are all so unique and have different opinions, issues and likes and dislikes. I try to keep a strong sense of self, and to judge my works based on my own opinions, and not to be overly influenced by the praise or criticism of others.
What can we look forward to next from you?
My husband and I wrote my next feature together. It’s a quirky little comedy called ODD BRODSKY. We are planning to shoot it in 2007. It’s about a lovable loser who leaves her secure office job to pursue her lifelong dream of acting. I’m hoping to get the script to Rachel Dratch, of Saturday Night Live fame, who I think could be a great match for it.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?
I’d love to quickly mention my amazing Sound Designer Thom Brennan. He did a fantastic job of using the sound design to bring out the humor in exactly the perfect places for MORBID CURIOSITY. I think sometimes it’s easy to take the sound for granted, because great sound does not draw too much attention to itself, it’s feels very natural and unassuming. So I just wanted to take this opportunity to send out a big “Thank you” to Thom, who was such a huge, integral member of the creative team. His sound design gives the perfect tone, and brings home the laughs. And it’s been great meeting you Duane. Thank you so much for all your support. Maybe one day we will get to meet in person! I guess to wrap it up I should mention our website. In the 9 weeks to come MORBID CURIOSITY will be screening in 9 cities, including Austin, San Diego, San Francisco, Anchorage and the Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. For more information, feel free to visit us at http://www.freedreampictures.com/morbidcuriosity.