Interview with Marjorie Conrad and Barret Michael Hacia
By Karen Melgar
Marjorie Conrad is currently working on her feature film debut. The French born filmmaker wrote and is directing as well as starring in Chemical Cut. The film follows the story of a young woman, Irene, who is scouted and goes into the world of modeling while she grapples with identity and perception. Her childhood friend, Arthur, sees this as less of an opportunity and her rival, Spring, contributes to the self discovery in this coming of age film. Conrad, a model herself, is probably best known for her own modeling career which got its start on the hit television show America's Next Top Model. I had the distinct pleasure of talking a little bit with Conrad and her friend and producer, Barret Michael Hacia, of the film Chemical Cut, which is still in production.
How did the idea for this movie come up? I know that Marjorie, you were on America's Next Top Model, how did that influence the writing of the movie?
Conrad: Well, it had an integral part in it. I was interested by the modeling world, I've been scouted ever since I was twelve but I never took up the offers. When I was scouted for this reality show it added a different dimension and it was kind of intensive modeling bootcamp and it definitely shaped the story. I didn't opt to write about someone who experienced a modeling bootcamp that was televised. I instead chose to write about an anonymous model, so it's more based on my experience after the show when I was signed with an agency and seeing how it worked.
Where does the title Chemical Cut come from?
Conrad: The Chemical Cut title is referring to the inciting incident. It's about this girl who is stuck selling retail and decides on an impulse to bleach her hair. She bleaches her hair off, hence the chemical cut and because she goes through a second round of bleaching, she has platinum hair which makes her more noticeable and she is scouted very quickly after. That propels her into the modeling world, which is actually very close to what happened with me. I bleached my hair and suddenly everyone saw this white bob all the time. It reflects a lot of light, as it happens.
There are a lot of possibilities for this film to be about self-image, does it veer in that direction or do you keep it about identity and self-discovery?
Conrad: It's definitely more about identity. It's not really about insecurity as in someone's looks. It's more about how should a person be and her trying to figure out what's worth pursuing in life.
Is the character of Arthur a foil for Irene, the main character, or is Spring more of a foil?
Conrad: Well, they're sort of two sides of the same coin. Arthur is her sounding board, he's her childhood friend, and he's a wannabe art star. Spring is more of a bulimic commercial model which is kind of commonplace but someone whose eyes you could stare into and it feels like you're staring into an abyss. Arthur is much more animated and much more frustrated and not necessarily sold out in the same way; someone who has a lot more ambition than he does talent whereas Spring fits in.
Does Irene fit in?
Conrad: No, I would say that she's a failed model but that's ultimately not where she finds that her interests lie. I think a lot of people don't really ask a girl many questions when she says she wants to be a model. I mean, I didn't really get that many questions as to why I would want to do this. People just take it for granted that it's something that girls would normally want to do. So, in this film, I actually have her interrogated by everyone as to why she wants to do this because you look at it, it is a bizarre thing to desire. Especially when you're not necessarily fitting that commercial model, it's not necessarily going to be easy to make that decision and to try to please clients. It's definitely a rat race.
Can you talk a little bit about the technical aspect of directing and starring in a feature? What are the drawbacks and what do you think will be most difficult?
Conrad: Technically, I would say, it's difficult to work within the limited budget and to try to give as much production value as possible. We're shooting digital, we're shooting with a very hand-picked skeleton crew and keeping our days pretty full. But everyone's really motivated and so far the quality has been very high. We have three more shoots to go in March and April, so we'll see how this goes but thus far everyone is really devoted in making this work out and look great. I think technical aspects will be difficult especially after the completion of the film and trying to make it go through the festival circuit and trying to advertise it. You have to be seen and that's always a challenge. There's an inundation of visual stimuli everywhere. It's not like people need another movie, so convincing people it's worth watching is definitely a challenge when you don't have much money.
I read that you shot your first short film at the age of thirteen. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Conrad: Yeah, I immigrated when I was small, when I was seven and when I was ten we decided to stick around and really settle in America. My parents, a graphic novel artist—well my dad, worked at Dreamworks at the time so I was around the animation studios. I decided that I wanted to study film and I went to a film school and I decided to make a twenty minute based on a Guy de Maupassant story about, actually something kind of similar. This girl who borrows a piece of clothing from a rich friend and ruins it and has to work her entire life to pay it back. Then she meets the rich friend, looking wretched after years of working off her debt, and the friend declares that it was just a piece of costume jewelry. I just adapted that to high school. It was actually kind of successful, everyone liked it for a thirteen year old, making a movie. It was kind of a similar theme with appearances deciding what’s illusory, what isn't. What's worth working for, what's not and honesty, integrity, all those things that you would be concerned about.
What are your influences as a filmmaker?
Conrad: I have a lot of very different influences but mostly I really love Catherine Breillat, who made Fat Girl and who made Anatomy of Hell. I really like Lars Von Trier, I really like David Lynch. I tend to gravitate toward visual filmmakers, And actually recently I really like Paolo Sorrentino. I think he has an amazing, distinct style and can really hold your attention for an elongated period of time with just a very fragile plot.
Barret, can you tell me a little bit about what goes into producing an independent film like this?
Hacia: The thing about independent film right now is there's thousands of projects going on right now and lots of people are trying to get you to work on their film and one of the hardest parts is trying to find material worth making or putting your time into it; and something that is new and you want to share with people and that people want to see. So, in the case of Marjorie's film, her and I, we went to school together and she approached me with this project and I was immediately interested by the content and I think one of the biggest things about this is that if I'm not excited about this, I can't get other people excited about it. If you have a really great project, it's a lot easier to convince people to do it. So whether it be crew or locations or a potential investor, I think you really just need to be really passionate about it. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty; it doesn't matter what your title is, I think the most important part is you have to be dedicated to get this film made so it doesn't matter, I could be doing craft services or producing and talking to managers. It doesn't matter, whatever needs to be done. That's the mentality that I think I need to have. So, I think the most important part is creating a strong team with limited resources but you know with a strong team that if they have the right energy and motivation, anything's possible.
Is there any take-away message you want to give? Anything you want to say about the film that might explain the heart of the film a little bit?
Conrad: I suppose, to know yourself you need to take risks. That pretty much sums up the film. She takes a lot of risks.
Hacia: Yeah, I think one of the really interesting things is that it's a film about coming-of-age in tandem with being in a spectacle industry. I think that's a really interesting thing that Marjorie is playing with. I think it's turned out really well.