Deborah Kampmeier was in the midddle of pre-production on her first feature, “Hounddog,” starring Robin Wright Penn, when the film’s funding fell apart — for the fourth time.
The writer-director, who at that point had two shorts to her credit, was determined to make a feature-length movie anyway, and make it immediately. Rather than giving the $3 million “Hounddog” another go, Kampmeier dusted off another of her scripts, “Virgin,” about Jessie, a small-town teenager who gets pregnant and becomes convinced that God has chosen her to give birth to the new Christ child.
“I did ‘Virgin’ because I felt it could work on digital video, while ‘Hounddog’ needed 35mm,” Kampmeier says. “I called Robin and said, ‘Listen, I’ve got to make my first feature, period. I’ve got this other script and I’m going to shoot it on video — and I want to start shooting in three weeks. Would you produce it?'”
Not only did Wright Penn come on as executive producer, but the actress agreed to play Jessie’s mother in the film.
“She was unbelievable,” says the director, who teaches acting in New York. “She flew herself out, she worked for free, she stayed at the Holiday Inn in Orangeberg in Rockland County, which is essentially a strip of ugly highway — slumming it. She’s been so generous.”
Wright Penn committed to a week of shooting at the beginning of September 2002, a deadline Kampmeier had set and was determined to meet, the filmmaker and her producer, Sarah Schenck, had only three weeks to raise funding, hire cast and crew, and find locations.
“I was hustling up until the last minute. I raised funding from my friends and family, and I had a couple of investors,” she says. “I needed $45,000 just to shoot and I had that by the time production started, but I continued to raise money throughout production.”
In need of a star fast, Kampmeier threw herself into casting calls. One of the actors who turned up was Elisabeth Moss, best known as the president’s daughter Zoe on “The West Wing,” and one of the actors spotlighted in the Hamptons Intl. Film Festival’s Rising Stars program this year.
“Lizzy walked in the room wearing a jean skirt, a Harley T-shirt, her hair greasy, and I thought, ‘I hope she can act,’ ” Kampmeier says.
Fortunately, Moss was passionate about the role and fully capable of inhabiting it. “She has the kind of instrument where you just blow very lightly and she totally shifts,” Kampmeier says. “She’s so talented.”
The helmer took her dream cast and a Sony PD150 camera and shot for 21 days in Rockland County, N.Y., where she lives – a proximity that enabled her to keep her 15-month-old daughter, Sophia, on her hip or in sight for much of the shoot.
The result was definitely not a typical New York film (the story was originally set in Florida).
“I’ve been in New York for 20 years, and I have a community here,” she says. “But this is not a New York film; it’s a small-town American film. There’s a very particular feel to New York films. They’re urban, very gritty, very hip. My films are gritty, but they’re not urban and they’re not hip.”
Almost a year after deciding to make the movie — and with “Hound Dog” back on the front burner — this gritty, unhip New York filmmaker is having the East Coast premiere of her first feature in the Hamptons.
When the film premiered in April at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the director nabbed a sales agent, Melanie Backer, who feels strongly about the Hamptons fest.
“She feels the distributors who are going to be interested in this film are New York distributors and they go to the Hamptons,” Kampmeier says. “When we got in, we were thrilled. It was exactly what we wanted. It was the next step in the game plan.”