It’s been a very good month for two different women filmmakers whose work has been covered in these pages over the last year. One is Amy Morrison Williams, a transplanted New Yorker who cares for her family when she’s not making films, and the other is Tess Ernst, a Chapel Hill native and college filmmaker who just made a splash at the Chicago International Film Festival.
In the May 28 issue (“Odes on the Windows of the Skull”), I wrote about Amy Williams’ film, The Morrison Project, which she had recently completed. Her film is a harrowing account of her life growing up in downtown New York bohemia, surrounded by art, love and violence. Her father, Jean Morrison, was a hard-living neo-beatnik writer who became a terrifyingly violent household presence after suffering severe head injuries in a street attack. Williams completed her film, which was unsparing in its portrait of the physical and emotional tolls taken by her family, in time for her father to see it before he died late last month in her home. (For an account of Jean Morrison’s funeral, see Russ Lane’s “A Father, Remembered,” Oct.8.)
The elder Morrison, who reconciled with his ex-wife and children in his later years, lived long enough to get the news that The Morrison Project had been selected to compete for a prestigious emerging filmmaker prize at the Hamptons International Film Festival, set to begin Wednesday, Oct. 22, in East Hampton, N.Y.
Last Thursday, I caught up with Williams by telephone as she busied herself with her other job: full-time Chapel Hill mom. In the background, her daughters were clamoring noisily over the family’s new chihuahua. So, how are you feeling, Amy?
“I’m getting nervous, to be honest,” she says in her delightfully downtown New York rasp. “One of the films I’m up against is this [big-budget] movie about Broadway with all these celebrities like Alec Baldwin, Shirley MacLaine and Carol Burnett. I feel weird being up against it,” she adds, before acknowledging that the other nominees are productions on a scale of The Morrison Project.
Competing against a film with celebrities is one reason to be nervous, Williams says. Another is sharing her film with the millionaires and celebrities that make the five-day Hamptons event the most posh and star-studded of all small festivals. “I’m really uncomfortable with all the success the film has had. It’s the fact that it’s my family up there that’s going to make it so hard. I’m not going to sit in there [while my film is playing].”
Then there’s the little business of Nicole Kidman, who is expected to appear at the festival alongside Anthony Hopkins to promote the premiere of The Human Stain, an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel. Kidman is Williams’ favorite actress of all time, and there’s a possibility that Williams will be rubbing elbows with the Oscar winner at a filmmaker party. “I’m a nervous wreck.” No. “I’m going to drop dead,” she says.
True to her scruffy, underdog attitude, Williams intends to drive up to the Hamptons on Monday with her girls in tow. “We’re going to be like the Clampetts,” she says.
A year ago, in a story about the Flicker film series in Carrboro, I wrote, “the reason to be in the front lines of the microcinema scene is that chance of finding something strikingly unique and beautiful, and getting to be the first to screen it.” I was writing about a mysterious and seductive short film called Dd, the debut effort of Chapel Hill native Tess Ernst that I thought “belong[ed] to a certain tradition of photographic tawdriness, from E.J. Bellocq’s New Orleans prostitutes to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.”
A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Ernst, who’s spending a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before she returns to Hampshire College in Massachusetts to graduate in the spring. She was passing on the news that she’d won an emerging artist prize from the Princess Grace Foundation, and also that she’d made a new film called The Drive North, a 13-minute short about two teenagers driving to college. A couple of days later, Ernst wrote again with the news that The Drive North had been selected for the Chicago International Film Festival.
Not bad so far. But I got another e-mail last week, this time from the publicists of the Chicago fest, which wrapped up Oct. 16. This was a press release with the names of the winners. I scrolled down and sure enough, Tess Ernst had won a Gold Plaque for best student experimental short.
Last Thursday, I caught up with Ernst by telephone, where she was about to head into the final screening of The Drive North. “It’s a big international fest, and I’m the youngest and edgiest person here.” (The edgy and precocious Ernst turned 21 last week.)
Earlier this week, a copy of The Drive North landed in the Indy’s mailbox. The film recounts a melancholy memory of Ernst’s so-long-ago youth, when she and a close friend drove up to college together. “It’s an unknowing rite of passage, a coming of age story without the sentimentality,” Ernst told me on the phone. Indeed, in 13 short minutes, we watch the relationship come undone as Ernst (who co-stars as herself) realizes that the security of her childhood is irretrievably lost. Shot in 16 mm, with line animation interspersed with the live action, as well as subjective sound and editing, the film also features an original score by Ernst, who is a serious musician who reconfigures electronic toys as instruments. All in all, The Drive North confirms Ernst’s prodigious and quite mature talent.
Ernst is a Chapel Hill native, but she dropped out of Carolina Friends School in the ninth grade and pursued an independent course of study and “played in lots of bands.” She’s working on her thesis film at the moment, but she’s planning to take a break from filmmaking after graduation to pursue music. However, Ernst fully expects to return to filmmaking, eventually.
Ernst says that her award apparently wasn’t large enough to warrant an invitation to the Oct. 28 gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, to pick up her check from the Princess Grace Foundation. (Simply purchasing a ticket isn’t a viable option either. Tickets to the Waldorf event start at $325, and they top out at $30,000. The latter sum will get you 10 seats at the Gold Table, and the corresponding perks include a photo taken with members of the Princely Family of Monaco, 10 tickets to a reception in their “presence,” and two “Collectible Princess Grace Dolls.”)
“It’s definitely not my scene at all, but it’d be hilarious [to attend]. A friend of mine said that they probably just want to keep me from chasing after the princesses,” says the fearless Ernst.
A fax rolled in the other day from former Indy “Annual Manual” cover models Marsha and Devin Orgeron. Now that the N.C. State film professors are finished with a run of art/punk films that they curated at the Bickett Gallery in Raleigh’s Five Points, they’ve got another project in the works, one that they’re calling iFS (NCSU Independent Film Series). The Orgerons are inviting area filmmakers to submit films for their planned monthly screenings, an event that sounds like Carrboro’s Flicker series, but without any restrictions on length or format. There’s no word yet on when this series will begin, or where, but send your films to iFS, c/o Drs. Marsha Orgeron and Devin Orgeron, NCSU, Dept. of English, Campus Box 8105, Raleigh, N.C. 27695-8105. Or email with inquiries to Jenn Dorn at email@example.com.