Waddell steps out with AFI workshop film

Program fostering femme filmmakers

By the time budding writer/director Amy Waddell was down to her martini shot one recent night after five frenzied days of filming, she and her crew had created 136 set-ups at four locations, rolled eight hours of footage, spent a good deal of money and, at least figuratively, added innumerable gray hairs to their respective heads.

“I’ve been bitten by the directing bug,” said Waddell, whose World War I-era short, “The Mask Maker,” is being offered to Sundance and other festivals. “Now I just want to keep on doing it.”

Waddell is one of eight helmers — out of 230 applicants — in the American Film Institute’s current Directing Workshop for Women, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

In the past, the workshop has mentored nascent filmmakers such as Dyan Cannon, Lesli Linka Glatter and Matia Karrell, all of whom received Academy Award nominations for the shorts they made under AFI’s watchful eye.

Although only about 11% of the Directors Guild of America’s helmer members are women, most of them came out of the AFI program, which provides $5,000 to each director as well as some equipment, editing space for four weeks and professional advice.

Women want up

“The world has changed a lot in 25 years,” said AFI director Jean Firstenberg. “Women are now at every rung of the ladder, but they still have not reached anywhere near the level of involvement they should have at the highest levels. I’m not talking about parity or equality — I’m just talking about participation.”

This year, in addition to Waddell, the women chosen for the workshop were author Diane Sherry Case (“Sophie and the Firefly”); thesp Yvette Freeman (“ER,” “Working”); Casey Kelley, writer of six plays, including “The Other Woman,” and two telefilms for NBC; pianist Yelena Lanskaya, who worked in her native Russia in TV journalism and commercial production; actress Lily Mariye, another “ER” staple; documentarian Kia Simon (“Pesticides: Reaping Poison”); and Joanne Small, a film editor and script supervisor.

“We don’t get into control over subject matter other than what is feasible on a limited budget and time schedule,” said Joe Petricca, who runs AFI’s special projects.

Money flowing out

There is nothing to stop the women from spending their own money. For “Mask Maker,” Waddell used the time-honored method of stretching credit cards. Petricca understood.

“Hers is a unique piece,” Petricca said. “Making World War I France in present-day L.A. is certainly a challenge.”

To put it mildly. Waddell used a turn-of-the-century factory in downtown L.A. — also used for Joel Schumacher’s “8 MM” — the Bronson Caves, the Franklin Reservoir, and a dark, stone-lined alley in Beachwood Canyon to evoke wartime Paris. She inserted archival war footage and explosive effects to denote combat in flashbacks. Costumes were elaborate, the use of light foreboding. The 24-minute movie — shot primarily in digital Beta, with some 16 mm film — has an original score by Israeli composer Yuval Ron.

Disfigured must hide

Waddell was inspired by a story she heard on National Public Radio about French soldiers, their faces disfigured in the Great War, who were asked by the government at the time not to show their injuries in public lest they mar the heroic image of the military. Some resorted to wearing masks fashioned by painters and sculptors, others hid beneath cloaks and hoods.

In “Mask Maker,” a young soldier (Christian Martin) who has lost half his face seeks help from an artist (Richard Bakalyan) before he can see his betrothed (Alexandra Sarramona). The artist, facing demons of his own, is transformed by the sacrifice he must make to help the boy.

“I wanted to make a short film for a long time, but I wanted to wait until I was really prepared to step out as a director to manifest the images I had in my head,” said Waddell, a USC graduate who grew up in Sedona, Ariz. “It was shocking to see the dark stranger from my short story — the man who had been in my mind all that time — suddenly standing in front of me.”

Bravery required

“You really have to be brave and strong about making that step into directing — as a woman or a man,” she went on. “Because it’s such a cost-prohibitive medium, you feel very fortunate to be able to do it, to be given the opportunity.”

Waddell, whose documentary “The Reluctant Muse” was shown on PBS, has just finished a full-length screenplay of “Mask Maker.” Her 10 other screenplays include “Hemlock” and “The Painted Lady of Montparnasse,” the latter based on her own novel “All the Rage,” one of five finalists in the 1997 Hemingway First Novel Contest.

Waddell’s latest script, “Castles Burning” — which she wrote in an 11-day sprint — is an autobiographical tale of a teenager’s rape and the ostracism she encounters from her family and schoolmates.

The making of “Mask Maker” was not without its traumas. Pre-production, Waddell said, was “hell.” A day before photography began, she and her crew learned that the downtown location they had counted on was suddenly off-limits; they eventually got it back, but the fiasco cost them a day’s filming time. On the last day, the provider of a crucial set piece — a faux stone wall — failed to show up. The production went over budget, just like in the real world.

The time of his life

Bakalyan, who plays the title role, said Waddell’s shoot was “the best time I ever had” making a movie in 43 years as a character actor, including his work in “Chinatown,” “Von Ryan’s Express,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and numerous TV appearances.

“Most of the time I’m playing New Yorkers, gangsters,” said Bakalyan, who is 68. “Amy offered me a role that was a joy for an actor to play, an artist in 1917 France. It was a challenge, but when you know the track, and someone gives you a Ferrari to drive, you’re doing what you know how to do. The part was a Ferrari, and if you’ve got a director you trust they won’t let you go too far.”

Cinematographer Philip Schwartz (“King Cobra,” “Hostile Takeover”) called Waddell a “highly motivated, focused director” who “had a vision and stuck to her guns.”