Interview: Lori Petty on 'The Poker House'
Tue, 08 Jul 2008 10:35:43
The Poker House is the product of actress—and now director—Lori Petty’s tumultuous upbringing, realized on screen with atmospheric and magical resolve. The dismal shades of destitution are juxtaposed against airy childhood virtue, brought to life by a cast of talented young unknowns led by Jennifer Lawrence, who plays a character based on Petty herself. Though admittedly not “100 percent factual,” the film is still intensely personal, based on Petty’s own experiences and translated into a story which, given the strong emotional response she received at the 2008 L.A. Film Festival, resonates with viewers. Through Petty’s creative lens, burgeoning teen sexuality, the loss of innocence, parental drug addiction, and other harrowing issues unique to the filmmaker’s formative years are addressed.
ARTISTdirect spoke with Petty at the festival, and with candor she discussed her directorial debut, crafting an honest coming of age story, and how her various creative pursuits were filtered into what results onscreen.
There are certain experiences that women are taught not to talk about. You deign to go there with your first film.
The movie is 100 percent true. It may not be 100 percent factual, because it [took place] 30 years ago and it’s a film. There was no gun. I don’t know whether I would’ve won that [basketball] game that night. [I had] to make it into a movie. It never crossed my mind that I would get such a response from women. Even a man came up to me just now; I did a talk for an hour next door. A man came up to me and said he was molested for years by these women and he was so fucked up, totally fucked up. He’s like, “Thank you for telling the story.” I had no idea that I was going to cause people to tell me, “Oh, this happened to me, that happened to me, I was raped.” But it’s so great that they see, “Oh, Lori Petty can talk about it. [That means] I can talk about it.” I love that, but I had no clue, had no thought of that happening.
A lot of coming of age stories tend to gloss over a lot, and it takes away from the honesty of that experience.
On the crew, 80 percent of the women came up to me and told me, “This happened to me; that happened to me.” People [have] these insane stories, and women don’t talk about it. At a Q&A the other day, a guy raised his hand and said, “Oh, [Agnes is] so smart. Her character’s so smart. Why didn’t she know what was happening?” And I said, “Because she’s 14.” If a 14-year-old girl is butt naked and comes over to you and asks you to have sex with her, you say, “No.” You call her mother, you call her father, you call her teacher, you call someone, because a 14-year-old’s brain cannot process that. That’s why there are children and there are adults, because children think as children and adults think as adults.
The relationship between Agnes and her seducer/attacker—there’s a very important line there. It’s very tender and romantic, and it quickly turns into something else.
Oprah—and I’m not an Oprah maniac—she’s talked about this before.The reason people don’t bring it up is because it feels good for the first week, or whatever. You don’t say anything because you’re like, “I’m guilty because I liked it.” And that’s why I put in the movie [Agnes saying,] “I don’t want no part about what goes on in there, but I sure like being kissed.” That’s what you like; you like being touched, you like being kissed, you like the attention, and then it turns selfish on [the other] person’s part.
I had another girl come up to me, and she’s like, “I’m a rape survivor.” I said, “No you’re not. Stop that.” She’s like, “What?” She’s 17 and came up to me night before last after the movie. She said, “I was raped at 14.” I said, “That stupid ass man did a fucked up thing. It has nothing to do with you. You are not tarnished, you are not changed, you are fine. He’s fucked up. You’re fine.” Her eyes opened. She’s in high school, and for three years in high school she [told herself] she was abused and ugly. She probably thinks that she’s broken. God knows what she thinks.
The film creates an atmosphere. There’s something that’s dark and realistic about it, but also magical in a way.
It’s because of the children. I told my cinematographer, “This is from the kids’ point of view, so I want colors.” Because everything as a child is prettier, it’s bigger, it’s better. I’m a kid in many ways and I always dream of, like, great big airplanes or great big boats. It’s never normal-sized. And also as an actress, I’ve been photographed so much in my life; I want them [the actors] all to look beautiful. I want everyone to look beautiful. I hate when they make people look ugly [in films], like, “Oh, here’s the bad guy, let’s put a slash of blue across his face.”
Also, because the lines [between villains and innocents] are blurred in your film.
My mother was a victim. My mother was sexually abused as a child, she was beaten as a grown up, she was addicted to drugs and alcohol. She’s a bigger victim than I am. I’m not mad at her. I’ve had people say, “How can you forgive her?” I’m like, “It was 30 fucking years ago. How can you not? You’re a woman. You know what happens.” I always say I wouldn’t want my worst day put on film.
In your creative career, did you ever anticipate that your debut feature would be semi-autobiographical?
I figured it would, actually, because I’m a writer and I’m a painter. All art comes from you, whoever you are, whatever you are. So, certainly it would be autobiographical.
“I’m shocked by the number of people who are so deeply affected and want to tell me that.”
How do you think you incorporated [things like] your painting and your experience with writing and acting into the movie? How did those influences filter their way into the film?
The whole movie was finished in my head before I made it. I didn’t go in surprised like, “Oh, let’s put that over there.” I knew what I was going to make already. It was already done. I’ve said this before, and it might sound geeky, but Michael Jackson said, “I’ve never written a song. I wake up and write them down.” That’s how this movie was. I woke up and wrote it down. It was already done, and I just wrote it down.
Was there a catharsis in the writing process?
No, not at all. It wasn’t something I was carrying around. It was just part of my life. It wasn’t any different than going to Africa and almost dying of dehydration and heatstroke. Shit happens in your life. So, I really never really felt like I carried it around.
But it is a story you felt needed to be told, and now it’s out there.
It’s great. I’m really shocked by the number of people who are so deeply affected and want to tell me that.
A large part of that has to do with the superb acting you get from your young cast. How do you work with them as a director?
I hire the best people and I just let them do whatever they’re going to do. Being an actress I know how to talk to them to get them to change it.
Multicultural/racial influences played a huge part in [the film], not only in your life, but in the musical choices, the atmosphere that you created. How did you vet through that material?
It’s so irritating to me, the whole black, white, Mexican, Spanish, whatever, [distinction]. I’m over it. Especially when you’re poor, you’re just poor. When you’re poor you don’t have enough energy to be racist. There’s a different between rich and poor people, and poor people don’t have time to be racist. It’s silly. I [got] this review [which emphasized], “Oh, the black people…” I was so mortified by this review.
You never see poor white people in movies, ever. I love showing that. Most of the poor people in America are white, but they don’t make movies about that. Also, these are good people. Jeanette, the prostitute that lives in the garage—she’s a good person. So she steals clothes, and so she’s a hooker. So what? These are just nice people and good people that are just trying to get by. We don’t judge.
When you were growing up did you feel like you were cultivating your own creative capacities to sort through what was happening in your own life? Did that develop early on for you?
Yeah, it was very early. I remember being six and someone gave me a balloon, and I took a pen and was drawing pictures on it. I didn’t appreciate the balloon; I wanted to draw on it. I was born an artist, definitely. I was invited to the 2009 Florence Biennale as a painter, and I’m writing a film now that’s going to star Savion Glover.