[tabs tab1=”Intro” tab2=”Yellow” tab3=”Industry & Message” count=”3″]
Here at TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (TIFF) 2012, we meet up with HEATHER WAHLQUIST, co-writer of and lead actress in YELLOW an American movie co-written and directed by Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook,” “My Sister’s Keeper,” “John Q”), also starring Sienna Miller and Ray Liotta and a host of other names.
It’s an intense piece, a slow-burner, but one which you’ll appreciate sticking with. As we’re drawn slowly into the life and mind of Mary Holmes (played by Wahlquist), we become familiar with a woman who is living on the edge floating somewhere between denial and self-destruction. It’s tempting to think of the story of a substitute schoolteacher who struggles to cope as a recipe for dreary TV film material, but the cast and storyline are more than tight enough to keep you engaged and wondering how much of this is actually happening or is a figment of her troubled mind. The revelation of an incestuous relationship with her half-brother and its widespread impact gives the film its backbone and provides us with sufficient insight into the psychology of a protagonist who will go on to struggle with the trainwreck of her life beyond the close of the film.
It’s a brave project, with the film experiencing its fair share of rollercoaster, having been put to bed quite dramatically, only to be later revived and reach completion. It’s with beaming smiles and probably a huge degree of relief that co-writers Cassevetes and Wahlquist are attending Tokyo TIFF to celebrate the screening of “Yellow” following its premiere at Toronto International Film Festival.
At the official press conference, we discover that the title is random and not related to anything specific (despite speculation), that the film took 5 years to develop with necessary relocation to Oklahoma, and that a convenient casino win helped rescue the project. Talking about the early shutdown of the film, Cassavetes called the incident “very embarrassing,” explaining the difficulty in securing funding due to the non-mainstream theme. On the subject of independent film, he goes on to say quite movingly, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I didn’t finish college. I’m ill-equipped to do anything in life, but I get to write words and dream dreams and they actually pay me to do it.” And about independent films: “The highest form of film is to take an idea out of thin air. Independent film is the most fun for the filmmaker, and hopefully for the audience.”
We book some time with Wahlquist during the festival. Admiring the artwork on the interview room wall, Wahlquist comes across as an inquisitive mind, constantly fascinated by people and art. It’s no wonder that she’s absorbing herself in writing and has a down-to-earth head on her shoulders.
Nick said in yesterday’s press conference that you could have chosen a much simpler scenario for “Yellow” but you chose to develop an edgier storyline. What is it about the combination of your writing brains that allows you to choose the more difficult storylines?
I think we just wanted to let loose and go crazy. The movie is about pain and disconnect, coping mechanisms and how you cope with pain. Everyone has pain. To say this movie is a ‘drug movie’ or about taking drugs, or taking too many drugs is ridiculous. This is about quietening the voices, Everybody copes in all sorts of different ways: some people go to church five times a day, some people eat, eat, eat… We shouldn’t judge it – it’s just how we cope. We were just writing a non-judgmental movie about coping mechanisms.
And towards the end of the film, you get the feeling that Mary is still having to cope. It’s not like you were trying to fix her…
I’ve never had something happen to me, and then it’s concluded and that’s it, ‘the end.’ Life kind of goes on – this problem overlaps with another one, the problems are still there, and another problem comes up.
The thing that resonated with me is the sense of alienation she’s coping with. I suppose you had to have a strong understanding of her because you’re writing from her perspective with no judgment. When you were scripting this, did you have to go back to yourself and relate to her in any way?
Yeah, I did, in a lot of ways. They come out from me differently, but internally it’s the same. I think she represents everybody, just people. When there’s too much pain – say you are in a major car wreck, you pass out, and your body takes care of you – it’s the same way. After a while, it’s too much, nature takes over and you think, “I must end this pain,” and whatever you pick is what you pick.
There’s a lot of black humour in the movie, but it’s rattling when it’s revealed what has happened to her. Incest is a big taboo still in cinema…
Yeah, I was doing my research on that particular part, and it’s so taboo which is ridiculous. Because In America, 3 in 10 brothers and sisters who are within 3 years apart have had some sort of relation. I only did the research on the States, but there’s a whole community that people don’t talk about. And that’s not even what the message was with this film, but it’s an aspect of it – I mean, you can’t help who you fall in love with.
You worked with a very interesting cast of people for the film. Did you have to work hard to secure them, or were they on board from the start?
They were all first choice. Every one of them went in the hole as far as money goes to do this film. On this film, every person on there was there because they liked the piece and that was so exciting.
The cast includes the amazing Melanie Griffith: did you guys have a chance to talk about how the industry is? Because she’s been through the ringer quite a lot herself…
Yeah, she was a child star, her mother was Tippi Hedren… She’s pretty cool, she’s very easy going, she’s very excited. We knew her from before, we didn’t meet her on the movie.
In yesterday’s press conference, you talked about independent cinema and the struggle to get the film made. How much more committed are you now to investing in your own independent films given the horrific up and down experience you had with this one?
Well, you have to have other forms of distraction. I’m writing a new one now, which is probably never going to get made, and I really don’t care – I just want to write it and I’m willing to leave it on the shelf, and it will probably be the death of me!
So, what keeps you going?
Just the need to say what I want to say.
Do you feel it’s getting easier for women in the U.S. film industry to find good roles or do you think it’s still very difficult to push those scripts?
I think it’s getting better, but it takes decades to catch up. That’s an interesting question because Nick addresses it and he says there are no great roles for women. He’s kind of a renegade – all the women in his movies are very tough and very self-sufficient, and his dad was a big fan of that too.
In my case, I’m stereotyped. It’s like, “Oh, we need someone that’s really addicted to heroin. I know – we’ll call Heather.” So those are my roles: druggie or bathing suit, but I’m getting out of that now…
So you can find the roles, but you get niched…
Absolutely – women are stereotyped and that is a problem.
Do you have a message for anyone thinking of doing what you guys do?
Yes: Do it! Write it! And if you can’t get it made, call your friends, go to the casino, shoot it over 2 years’ time, whatever you gotta do! And there are wonderful websites now – they’re picking up web series to put on television now, because they know what it is and they already have a following. So the Internet is pretty cool like that because it gives everyone a chance to do what they want to do. A digital camera nowadays is nothing and the theatres right now are equipped for digital. It used to just be film at the theatres, but now it’s film and video. So you can shoot a video and actually get it shown.
But do it because you love it – don’t do it for the fame. A very small percentage of actors experience fame, and of all Screen Actors Guild members, only a small percentage are able to pay their rent with their work. So… just have a side job!