THE BET starring Portia Thomas, Tim Whitcomb, Mary O’Connor, Crystal Daly, and Scott Hagood is the first feature-length production of the Community Film Studio Santa Barbara. In this romantic comedy, a teenager and his grandfather make a tempestuous wager over who will “score” first with a woman. As the plot suggests, this is a wager of deeds, but the bigger bet is a new model in film production. CFSSB is changing the entire enterprise of film-making by recruiting a volunteer, community-based cast and crew. For both professional and amateur, working in a community film studio means trying something new and for three female veterans, Annie Dahlgren, Finola Hughes and Christine Fry, this brought career-changing opportunities that are often out of reach in Hollywood.
ANNIE J. DAHLGREN
Annie Dahlgren developed an understanding of storytelling through songwriting. She learned to play the guitar when she was 13, teaching herself from the Beatles 6 Chord Songbook. “Until I was 19, I could only play 6 chords,” she recalls with a smile, “then a boyfriend taught me how to play.” As a teenager, Dahlgren began performing original work on a barstool in Bakersfield. “Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstandt were the women who most influenced the sound of my music, but songwriting just comes easily and continuously for me,” Dahlgren explains. “Writing a song is heaven.”
Her early twenties were consumed by the beat of the music scene. “I went down in flames,” she underlines with the tap of her cigarette against the ash tray, and “setting music aside, I did the corporate thing.” Her accounting firm produced software for the architectural and construction industry, and positioned Dahlgren with a talent for both the creative and the quotidian. When the recession of 1991 hit, she lost her business and decided to return to writing. “My husband wanted to make a movie about two candidates in a political race who fall in love.” The storyline appealed to her, and she wrote the screenplay. “I didn’t know if it was good, and so I focused on learning the craft. For the next 3 years for 3 hours each Saturday, I participated in the In Process Writer’s Workshop in Carpinteria. I began to place in competitions and I realized I knew what I was doing.”
In 2000, Dahlgren entered the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles. At the age of 44, she settled into a new peer group of 19-year olds and learned the mechanics of film production. Editing had a particular affinity for her. “Being a songwriter has made me a better editor because I understand rhythm and meter, and base my editing on human vibrations.” After graduating, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History approached her to produce a documentary about Maria Ignacio, the last native speaker of the Barbareño Chumash language who died in 1965. This project gave Dahlgren confidence in her production skills, and motivated her to launch a new business. Combining her interests in music and film, she created Over 40 Productions with a model of making affordable music videos for independent musicians.
When Dahlgren’s husband mused another idea for a screenplay and laid the premise for THE BET, she immediately began giving voice to the characters. “A character is realized when I fall in love with them…I understand why they are doing the things they are doing.” In describing this creative process, she relates “every character is its own song.” Layering the elements of a screenplay, from dialogue to scene description, complemented Dahlgren’s visual style and she found “the screenplay format was luxuriously long. Where a novelist might feel pinched, I found it to be expansive.” Her husband’s 30-second idea turned into 6 months of Dahlgren’s life, and the screenplay was completed in 2003.
Bringing The Bet to the screen was a course Dahlgren did not know how to chart, until she learned about the Community Film Studio Santa Barbara. Aware of her background in finance and filmmaking, a mutual friend introduced Dahlgren to Jack Presnal, President of CFFSB. “As soon as Jack told me the concept, I was all over it and haven’t moved one inch from his side.” Indeed, Dahlgren joined the Board and currently serves as the Treasurer. “I am so in love with the community theater concept being expanded to filmmaking. There are people in every city across this country who want to do this work…who need to have this creative opportunity.”
CFFSB represents an entirely new approach to film production, inviting volunteers to partner with professionals in exploring the collaborative craft of moviemaking. Dahlgren explains, “CFSSB is not trying to duplicate the Hollywood model which I perceive as being callous. People don’t get a say in the traditional top-down model. We want everyone to participate at every level. Our hope is that everyone involved will constantly be saying “what if I tried X?” and all these ideas will be considered. All jobs are genuinely important.” She is also compelled by CFFSB because it mirrors the structure of today’s music business. “CFSSB can do for film what has happened in the music industry in the past 5 years---anyone can make a record and now with digital technology anyone can make a movie. As with music, the problem is that there is so much content, it is hard to find the gold. I believe CFSSB is going to help us create the gold.”
In search of the first screenplay to shepherd through the CFSSB model, the Board solicited scripts from the screenwriting community. Many were presented, but each posed a particular challenge to the scale of what CFSSB could tackle on this maiden voyage. After some consideration, Dahlgren “realized that THE BET had three important elements---local settings, no special effects, and diverse casting. These are also three ways of saying micro-budget, so I tossed it into the ring.”
Dahlgren acknowledges “we were creating the entire infrastructure, and the script development process was challenging on me as an artist. Writers are solitary and the studio is a collaborative environment.” CFSSB hopes to bring artists into shared ventures and recent workshops demonstrate this process. Material developed in a weekend script-writing workshop will be handed over to a production class where participants will create short films during an intensive 7-week course. Dahlgren now believes that this creative exchange raises expectations and increases success. “It’s true it wasn’t my script anymore, but I when I saw where it landed, I didn’t worry. I feel so rewarded to see how good the film is. I would hold it up against any Hollywood project.”
Partnering professionals with volunteers on a film set and throughout the production process is a new idea, and even the Board was uncertain the support would come. “Until we did The Bet, we didn’t know if people would come, and they did. They kept showing up! We can’t let it die.” The commitment to hands-on learning brings everyone into the challenges and triumphs. With an eye toward the next production, Dahlgren adds “it is our hope that when the next film rolls around the mentees will now become the teachers.”
When asked what it has been like to both realize a professional milestone and to share the company of other women in leadership positions, Dahlgren emphasizes “CFSSB has a role in giving women a greater voice, but I would describe the studio as gender-blind in every arena. It is about getting the best and everybody gets a shot.” Her relationship with director Finola Hughes developed into a perfect partnership. “Finola welcomed me on set every time, always wanting to share. I loved what she was doing with the material, and I totally reveled in how she managed all the volunteers. She had a vision, yet she was also open.” And, in fact, it is just this motivation to try new things that CFFSB is betting on.
Coming in Part 2 - Director Finola Hughes