Anthony R. Petersen and Professor Thomas Blair Russell, Theatre and Media Arts
Before describing the particulars of the project, it may be helpful to describe the story of the film I made as part of this ORCA grant. Mary DeMorgan’s A Toy Princess is about a young princess named Ursula who was born into an extremely stuffy and regimented kingdom where she wasn’t able to act as herself—nor was she even able to act as a human being would normally act, being restricted from laughing, crying, or displaying any sort of emotion. Seeing her unfortunate state, her fairy godmother, Taboret, offered her the chance to leave the kingdom to live with some people in a cottage who would appreciate her. In order to pull this off, she replaced the princess with a toy princess she bought from the Wizard Shop. However, when it came time for the king handover the kingdom to his successor, the fake, robotic Ursula. Upon hearing this news, Taboret thought it best to allow Ursula the chance to return and stake her claim to the kingdom. Oddly enough, the court people preferred the artificial Ursula to the real Ursula. Even the king, her father, preferred the artificial. Additionally, the real Ursula decided that the stiff, artificial kingdom wasn’t the place for her, and she opted for the real, and went back to live with the cottage people.
Adapting literature to the screen can be a huge challenge. You can either obsessively adhere to what was originally written, or you can take all sorts of liberty. This project lent itself to both approaches as it basically ended up being a balance between to two extremely different approaches. While the adaptation stuck to the storyline for the most part, some liberties were taken with the tone. Originally a fairy tale, DeMorgan’s piece contained some elements that lent themselves to postmodern interpretation, including the themes of artificiality and the idea of people preferring the artificial to the real thing. This allowed me to open up a fairly conventional story to a fairly unconventional execution. This unconventionality found itself communicated largely through the art direction, and through some of the storytelling techniques. Additionally, since we didn’t have an enormous budget, we were unable to take an extremely realistic approach. Therefore, due to the limited budget and the postmodern elements, the idea of verisimilitude was gladly put on the backburner.
Since we were taking a largely postmodern approach to the production, it felt like we could take some liberties with the time period as communicated through the art direction, thereby allowing us to use plenty of narrative anachronisms (incidentally, this also helped to compensate for our very limited budget—and thank you once again for your generous grant). In addition to the obvious narrative anachronisms, we drew from various examples of artistic styles throughout history, including Bauhaus, Pop Art (Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol), and Naïve (Henri Rouseau, etc.), thereby giving a sense of a sort of stylistic anachronism. The influence of these artistic movements can be found in the set designs for the various script locations. The stuffy kingdom seemed the most well-suited for the dark, fragmented, and at times oppressive Bauhaus style (Figure 1), while the country cottage seemed more suited to the flat, but lively, naïve style of Henri Rouseau, and the wizard shop seemed most suited to the commodity-enthroning Pop Art style (Figure 2). The different styles proved to separate the different locations from one another quite well, especially since we shot everything on the same stage space.
While the selection and the development of the artistic approaches was quite enjoyable and exciting, the actual execution thereof proved to be one of the greatest headaches of the production. Two factors contributed to the difficulty of this aspect of the production: the low budget and the selection of uncommitted crewmembers. Due to the low budget, I had to constantly downsize and scope of the original set designs and pieces. At first this was driving me mad. However, I had a good discussion with one of the faculty involved with the project, and he helped me to realize that the heart of the film and the story lies in the performances of the actors. Therefore, I started putting more focus on the actors (which, incidentally, proved to be the most satisfying aspect of the production). Secondly, film is a highly collaborative art form, so it’s vital to have people on your crew, and especially in the key crew positions, that are committed to work hard on the project. The first person I had selected to be the production designer was putting minimal effort into his job (at least partially because he was busy with other things), basically making up his set designs around five minutes before our meetings. So, I felt it necessary to replace him with someone else. However, the replacement also proved to be temperamental and couldn’t handle the workload and had to leave the job early. Luckily the production design faculty person was kind enough to help us get our set pieces built. Since we didn’t have a solid production designer during the shoot, I essentially doubled as the director and as the production designer in the setting up of the set pieces, which proved to be an added stress on the stress since I should have been working with the actors instead of the organization of the flat set pieces. Nevertheless, even with all of the trouble, the set pieces and the production design eventually worked out.
This definitely proved to be both a difficult and a worthwhile experience. It’s been positively received on the college level, and I hope the children for whom it was made as part of BYU’s Children’s Media Initiative will get as much out of the film as I got out of the experience of making it. It hasn’t been exhibited on KBYU yet, but that should hopefully come soon if all goes well. I learned a great deal on this project, which has already helped me in the execution of following projects (including one I shot during Fall Semester), and I’m sure I’ll return to my notes on this project when I undertake future directing jobs. I learned a lot about how to approach the interpretation and the conceptualization of a script, with regards to the art direction, while working within the confines of a small budget.