Not the Passion of Christ, but certainly a project of passion. Deborah Kampmeier’s debut feature film “Virgin” has been fueled by passion from beginning to end. Kampmeier’s own passion, for filmmaking, for speaking her thruth, telling her stories and getting women’s authentic voices onto the screen was a magnet for attracting other’s passion to the project as well. From the support and godmothering of Robin Wright, to the heart rending and award winning performance of Elisabeth Moss as Jessie, to the nominating committee for the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards (Virgin was nominated for two) to a Sarasota Businessman who is financing the self-distribution of the film.
Each step of the way was riddled with the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that face an essentially “no-budget” film (“Virgin” was shot for $65,000) and it was through the persistant passion of the cast, crew, producers and Kampmeier herself that they prevailed.
Robin Wright was attached to Kampmeier’s feature screenplay “Hounddog”, when the financing for the $4million budget fell through in the Spring of 2002…for the 4th year in a row. Kampmeier was overwhelmed by a ferocious determination to get her first feature made, and made immediately. She had several other scripts, Virgin was one of them, the one she was most passionate about, and one she thought could withstand digital video. She called Wright and asked her to do it. Wright read the script and called Kampmeier, saying she loved the script and thought it was much more commercial than “Hounddog”. She thought Kampmeier could raise $10million for this film. Kampmeier responded “Yeah but that will take me 2 years and I’m shooting it now…will you do it?” Wright agreed, flying herself to New York, working for free, staying in a cheap motel. Kampmeier’s gratitude is clear, she speaks highly of Wright, “I know no other woman with more integrity, humanity and generosity. I’ll never have the words to thank her for the gift she has given me.” Wright’s gift came with its own challenges. She had a week of time available in September, giving Kampmeier 5 weeks to raise the money, 3 weeks of pre-production and 21 days to shoot.
Kampmeier harrassed daily her friends, family, colleagues and everyone on her email list until she’d raised the $45,000 she needed to feel comfortable beginning pre-production. And her campaign for money continued through the shoot.
Robin asked Deborah if there was anything that would stop her from going forward with the shoot. Kampmeier said the only thing that would stop her was if she didn’t find “Jessie”. Kampmeier recalls “When Lizzy walked into the room I knew it was her, she was wearing a jean skirt, a Harley t-shirt and greasy hair. I thought to myself, ‘dear god let her be able to act’. And could she ever.” Even so Kampmeier felt she needed to see Elisabeth again. We such a short rehearsal period and intense shooting schedule she had to make sure Elisabeth could really do it. Moss says of her hour long callback “it was the hardest audition of my life, and I’ve been acting a long time. But by the end of the audition not only had I convinced Deborah that I could do the role, but I had convinced myself as well.”
Kampmeier says the shoot of Virgin stretched her way beyond her limits. “I feel like I’ve given birth a hundred times to this baby…you know the famed final phase in labor where you feel like you can’t possibly go on any longer, you’re literally screaming ‘I can’t do it anymore’ plus profanities, and then the baby is immediately born…I’ve had to push so many times on this one.
Kampmeier began storyboarding as soon as preproduction began. Says Kampmeier, “It’s a great way for a director to rehearse, the only way really. And creating the form as stongly as I can gives me an enormous amount of freedom to let go and follow the moment when I’m actually on set.” But with just three weeks of pre-production she only completed about 1/3 of the storyboards before shooting began. So she carved out three hours to storyboard every morning before going to set. “By the last week I was bringing scenes in the day we were shooting them. Drove my poor AD a bit crazy.”
Kampmeier insisted on shooting split days. Another demand that drove her AD a bit crazy. But Kampmeier was determined to be a good mother thru the shoot and that meant not waking her daughter, Sophia, before her usual 8am schedule. And then going thru their morning routine which included nursing as well as reading and dressing. Meaning Kampmeier couldn’t make it to the set before 10am. She also knew it would be impossible to get her daughter onto a night shooting schedule working 6pm to 6am. And if Kampmeier wasn’t getting home from work until 8am she would literally have no time to sleep, she would have to take care of an awake and active child (the nanny had to sleep!). Therefore she set the requirement that no day began before 10am or after 2pm. Getting to the set with her nanny, Patrizia, in tow, Kampmeier would shoot her day out, taking breaks whenever needed to attend to her daughter’s needs, or just nursing right thru a take. At about 10pm she would take a break and nurse Sophia to sleep. She would pop her daughter onto Patrizia’s lap in the reclined front seat of her car (parked just outside of frame) where they would sleep until the final take of the night. Deborah would then drive all three back to her house, slip Sophia into bed, climb into bed herself, grab 2 to 3 hours of sleep, wake up at 5am to storyboard for three hours, get her daughter up at 8am and start the day again.
Kampmeier actually lost several key crew members she had her eye on because she explained during their interviews that she would have her daughter on set, and if Sophia was having a problem they would stop shooting and take care of it. Several professionals felt this was utterly unreasonable. Ultimately it kept the set very sane and very real having a child there. No acting out.
The Birds!!! Kampmeier had to have the birds. She felt she was attempting to do the impossible, capture the uncapturable, somehow get Jessie’s experience of the divine on screen. She felt any kind of special effects generated in post production wouldn’t do it. She expressed that her own experience of the divine is complicated. She felt the birds would capture not just the beauty and the awesomeness but also the choas and the confusion experienced with the divine encounter. When producer Schenck said early on “You know Deborah you’re going to have to cut the birds?” Kampmeier burst into tears saying absolutely not. She had to have the birds!!! This placed an enourmous challenge in front of Schenck who proceeded to send the script out to every possible animal trainer in the country. There were two women at “Birds and Animals Unltd” who loved the script. It just so happened that there was a shipment of birds being flow from LA to the East Coast at the time and they put twenty extra birds on at no charge and flew them for free to NY. The trainers then agreed to work for half their rate for two weeks. Our Production Coordinator, Dave Berry, who was wearing many hats, would be found lying on a bed covered in bird seed with the birds landing on him at least once a day. Still, not a single actor got paid, but the birds were 1/8 of the entire budget.
One of the hazards of having no money to work with is the inability to lock in locations for real. When customers at the diner began complaining and leaving after the second or third take of the character “Lorna” saying “fuck mother fuck, sons of bitch, sons of bitch…” the owner of the restraunt renigged on his agreement to allow us to use his establishment. After slipping him several hundred dollars cash and desperately begging we were alowed back in, but we had to wait in the parking lot until the lunch crowd was finished…and the dinner crowd. Of course all the footage we’d already shot the day before set up day scenes and so we could only shoot in one direction for the entire night…away from the windows.
We also lost our location at the local high school when the superintendent and the principal marched onto the field where we were shooting the track meet and asked what the title “Virgin” had to do with “this synopsis”, waiving a one page piece of paper that discribed the film as a lovely coming of age story between two sisters. Once again, after pleading on the phone with lawyers, we were allowed to continue our day of shooting but the principal had to look into the camera on every take and make sure the school was not in frame. And we were not allowed to return the next day to shoot our interiors. Producers and location scout were immediately on the phone trying to secure another school. Finally La Guardia High School in NYC gave us permission and we packed up the next day and headed from “small town America” into the “Big City.” But you’ll notice when, for example, Jessie is picking the wounded bird up off the sidewalk that we stay very close, if we went any wider the shot would catch the buses running up 10th Avenue and kill our illusion of the country.
We were also thrown out of the drug store because the owner had a date with his wife for dinner and it was time to close…we were given an extra half hour in which we had to shoot two pivitol scene the film could not have been edited without.
Most distressing for Kampmeier was the night the first rape scene was shot. It was the same night the exterior bird scenes were shot, which took up much time. And when the company move to the second site was finally complete she was already four hours over schedule. Her crew was ready to walk but agreed to give her two takes for the entire scene. And of course with a 21 day schedule there were no extra days to reshoot.
A stroke of good fortune came the last day of the shoot which included the final scene of Jessie’s vision with 40 (in the big budget version there would have been 4,000) naked people in the Hudson River. The local police, who had been quite welcoming and accomodating throughout the shoot, had agreed to look the other way when we let them know ahead of time that we would be having folks in the Hudson river. We “neglected” to mention however that these people (composed primarily of nudists, informed of the event thru “Nude and Natural Magazine”) would be naked. Very soon after everyone had stripped down and taken to the water the squad cars swarmed. Lucky for us their hands were tied. Just as they were about to descend on us and haul us off to the same jail cell Jessie had occupied only days before, it was noticed that one of their own (yes a cop) was in the water naked with the rest of the cast.
Once again, because of limited funds, post-production had to move very fast. After the initial loading of the footage into the Final Cut Pro 3 system every scene was edited and assembled back to back in a week. The total running time was 3 hours and 48 minutes. We then had to continue trimming as well as cutting entire scenes from the film. Editor, Abramowitz’ mantra was “cut everything that is good and leave only what’s great”. Kampmeier was known to say “but what if its really really good”… “No!” After two weeks a rough cut, which was sent off for festival consideration, was finished at 2 hours and 20 minutes. Producer Dowell’s mantra was “under 2 hours!!”. Kampmeier was comparing hers to every European film over 2 hours. Dowell again… “under 2 hours!” After ten weeks they had a final cut at 1 hour 48 minutes.
Virgin has had a very successful festival run and we have garnered many awards…
-Best Screenwriter @ the Hamptons Int’l Film Festival
-Rising Star – Elisabeth Moss @ the Hamptons Int’l Film Festival
-Best Feature Film @ the Female Eye Film Festival
-Best Independent Spirit @ the Santa Fe Film Festival
-Best Actress @ the Sedona Film Festival
-Dreammaker Award, Honorable Mention @ the Nashville Film Festival
And most exciting we were nominated for two 2004 Independent Spirit Awards (The John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature Film under $500,000, and Best Actress for Elisabeth Moss)
Even with all of the accolades and the strong audience response, no distributor wanted the film. Which was especially puzzling when after “distributor screenings” in which Kampmeier filled the house with women responding audibly with tears and gratitude, the distributors would say they just didn’t know who the audience was. Kampmeier, exasperated, would mutter to herself, “Our target audience is over half the population. Our film raises many issues for women. Other than the obvious and pressing issue of rape, there are basic issues of self-esteem. Of women trusting their intuition. Of hearing their own voice. Women have expressed over and over again they are hungry for films like this.”
One of the most moving examples of this hunger was a “testimonial” at the Hampton’s Int’l Film Festival when a woman stood up during the Q&A. She first thanked the filmmakers for making the film and then proceeded to share that she was HIV positive and that she had hoped to find a message that day to take back to a group of 300 at risk teenagers she would be speaking to. She was inspired by the film, and realized that all of these desperate kids, running after sex and drugs, were all looking for one thing…and that was love. She continued with wisdom and passion to articulate an experience echoed in many different ways by many different audience members.. that Kampmeier has time and again experienced in the movie theater and that led her to want to make films…that when someone speaks their truth and holds up a mirror for you to see your own truths, no matter how dark, how secret, how frightening … you feel less alone in the world.
Interestingly, a couple Kampmeier met while at the Sarasota Film Festival heard the voice of the film and saw the audience response. They felt it was addressing socially important issues and offered to finance the distribution. They were immediately raised to the position of “angels” for Kampmeier and her team.
With an actual budget in hand Full Moon Films wanted to engage the best company possible to get their film out into the world. And with that intention in mind they found Sande Zeig and Artistic License films. Thrilled with their response to the film and trusting their sensibility and ability to lead the film to its audience Kampmeier embarked on the final phase of this journey.
Virgin is had its New York release August 13th , 2004 at the Angelika Theater. And was acquired by Hart Sharp Video for its dvd/home video release in January 2005.
“As we are moving this story out into the world there is an audience passionate to receive it because it’s a film about the power of the imagination,” explains Kampmeier “About our ability to turn what could be paralyzing traumas into meaningful myths for ourselves. It’s about looking honestly at the darkness in our world and in ourselves but its also a statement of hope. And I think, in this day and age, we are all longing for the sober truth and also for hope.”