Mary Sweeney returns to the Wisconsin Film Festival to present Baraboo 10 years after appearing as writer-producer-editor of The Straight Story, directed by David Lynch. Her feature-length directorial debut focuses on a cluster of rural Wisconsin motel cabins where residents and staff compose an intimate micro-community.
At its nucleus are Jane, a single mother (American Players Theatre associate artistic director Brenda DeVita); Chris, her rebellious teenage son (Harry Loeffler-Bell); and Bernice, a take-charge older woman (Milwaukee stage veteran Ruth Schudson) who decides the run-down property could stand some sprucing up - and her neighbors some guidance.
In an email exchange from Los Angeles, where she is an associate professor at the University of Southern California, the Madison native discusses the joy of creative control, finding the sweet spots in character dynamics, and her anticipation at sharing Baraboo with the Wisconsin Film Festival audience.
Isthmus: How does the creative control afforded you as writer/director/editor/co-producer compare to awards recognition?
Sweeney: It's gratifying to win awards after putting so much time and effort into a project, and it can extend the life of your film, but as a good friend says, it's important to keep your eye on the doughnut, not the hole, and the work, creativity, is the doughnut. For me the joy of collaborating with cast and crew, with total creative control, is incomparable. Winning the Golden Badger Award for Best Narrative Feature and Best Director at the WFF is especially gratifying because it honors everyone on the cast and crew.
In a film so rich in subtle interpersonal dynamics, how did you create the complexities at play between Jane and her son?
Probably by relating to both the mother and the son. I'm chagrined at how often I feel like a pissed-off teenage boy.
How would you describe your feelings about bringing your own film home to share with your family, friends and neighbors?
I had a cast and crew screening last summer in Madison, which was very emotional for me. That was tied up in how much love I have for all the people who helped me make the film, and the fantastic time we had shooting it. Like The Straight Story, which I produced, wrote and edited, this is a film about a place and people that I cherish, where I have deep family ties, and so screening at the WFF is probably the most perfect place and something I look forward to very much.