Engaged in an acting career for most of her life, Cindy Baer would find herself becoming a filmmaker shortly after joining the Big Sisters of Los Angeles program. Her little sister, Celeste Davis, proved to be quite the talented writer and it was her story, titled Purgatory House, that grabbed Cindy’s attention. She knew this gripping story about a girl dealing with her own suicide in the afterlife had to be turned into a film. The result is the incredible feature length debut from filmmaker Cindy Baer and writer Celeste Davis. It’s an authentic story of teens in trouble, written by someone who knows better – a 14-year-old girl.
We recently spoke with director Cindy Baer about her time spent in Purgatory House.
What made you join Big Sisters of Los Angeles?
When I was a kid, there was really no one there for me. When I got older, I decided I would find a little girl who maybe didn’t have a mom around, and be the support system for her that I had always wanted and never had. When I joined the program, they told me about this 11-year-old girl who lived with her dad, and liked to write. They thought we’d be a perfect match because I was an actress and Celeste was a writer. Boy, were they right! Becoming a “big sister” is the best thing I’ve ever done, and I love my little sister!
Did you always want to direct your own movie, or did Celeste’s story bring out the hidden director in you?
That’s funny. The thought of directing a movie had never before crossed my mind! I was searching for a director, but couldn’t find anyone who had the vision of it that I had. Then it dawned on me: if I’m the one with the vision, I guess I should be the one to direct it! The way it all went down was that Celeste was going through a really challenging time, and landed herself at a teen runaway shelter. Hoping to motivate her to go back home, I told her we’d make her script into a 5-minute short that she could star in. But after I typed her latest version of the script into the computer, and read it, I realized that it had to be told in its entirety. It was like nothing I’d ever read before. It blew me away!
What was it about her story that really struck you?
Wow! Where to begin? She had this incredible way of revealing the story! It was deeply philosophical, had strong, well-defined characters, and the subtext was profound. Being the story of what happens to a 14-year-old girl after she’s committed suicide and revealed in four timelines, it was introspective and powerful, yet entertaining and amazingly creative. It was enlightening. I felt like after seeing her movie, an audience would walk away with an understanding of what it’s like to be in this kid’s skin, and the challenges of today’s teen in a brand new way. It was mature in some places and childish in others, which, to me, so beautifully captured that “in-between” age that she knew so well. It told a story I’d never heard and presented it in a way that had never been done. And it felt important. I felt like her voice spoke for all of these other kids who didn’t’ know how to say it. This was right after the Columbine shootings, and so suddenly there was a big light on all the teen angst. To me, this felt like the beginning of finding some answers.
How did you assemble your cast?
We put ads in the breakdowns and trade papers, and auditioned people for about three months! At first we tried to go non-union, but we couldn’t fill the roles. So we got a SAG limited ex agreement and it opened up a whole new world of actors. Before casting began, I already knew that Celeste would play the lead role. Even though she had never acted before, I felt strongly that she should be able to tell her own story (one of the great things about not having to report to a studio!) And she pulled it off great! Devin Witt, (Atticis) and Johnny Pacar (Sam) were both sent in by their agents. Devin actually lives in Kentucky, but was here for the summer! Casting the role of Saint James was the hardest. We had seen hundreds of actors for this role before Jim Hanks finally walked in. And it was only a couple of days before we started shooting! Talk about cutting it close. Whew…
Was it easy working with a young cast?
Once I figured out which tactics worked best for each individual actor, it was quite easy. For instance, Celeste and I are so close, and she’s so in touch with her feelings, that all I had to do to get her to cry was start crying myself. Into another actor’s ear, I might whisper a simple objective, while someone else would respond best to the focusing on the subtext or sensory recall. I found that these young actors were very open, and had not yet developed those bad habits that become difficult to overcome.
Were there any major problems in getting Purgatory House made?
Oh my God! Where do I begin? Everything from optioning a script from a minor, (which was unprecedented and therefore had to be approved by the court), to getting a work permit for Celeste from a school system that doesn’t issue them to students with poor grades, to attempted blackmail. Yes, blackmail. The day before we started production, one of my key crewmembers threatened to drop out if I would not give them a role in the film (which I did not). On set, SAG showed up three times during the 18-day shoot, and all three times our studio teacher was nowhere to be found! Our insert stage (that about ½ the movie sets were built on) was right under the flight path of the Burbank airport, so we were constantly holding for planes– hundreds of planes! It became a joke. Almost every day was a battle working with limited minor hours to get our shots in the can. So, many fires to put out. But we did it! Hallelujah!
Are there any upcoming screenings of Purgatory House?
We’ve submitted to a handful of great festivals and are waiting to hear. I’m really hoping we get into Slamdance and Cinequest. I think that our flick is a perfect match for them. It looks like we’ll be having our International Premiere screening at a new festival in Paris this coming April, and then hopefully screening at a festival in Boston right after. Tune in to our website for updates as they come!
Do you think this moviemaking experience has helped Celeste with her problems?
It did! She had the best time and learned so much about filmmaking, and herself. Being focused on a creative project got her out of the doom and gloom. Now she looks forward to creating more things, and has a reason to wake up in the morning! It also gave her a confidence that she didn’t have before. On the flipside, it’s made her much more concerned about her appearance. It’s hard for a teenage girl living in a society that’s so superficial to not buy into it all. But she’ll deal with it. And who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if these new issues get worked out via another insightful screenplay!
Will you continue making films, or will you focus on acting again?
If another project came along that I felt as passionately about, I’d definitely go for it. I’ve learned so much that the next one would be a whole lot easier! And I think I’m good at it. But my first love has always been and will always be acting. I’ll never give that up.