Seeking Dolly Parton insightfully explores the mutable nature of relationships through an unique love triangle. The story centers around a young lesbian couple, Cerina and Charlie, who are facing the challenges of trying to have a child. After exploring different avenues, they decide to ask Cerina's ex-boyfriend to donate the sperm. That creates a whole new set of complications. The film stars Kacy Barnfield (Resident Evil: Afterlife) and Anya Monzikova (Iron Man 2). The film also stars Michael Worth, the filmmaker and creative force behind the endeavor. While this movie is Michael's first foray into lesbian-themed cinema, he is a seasoned actor, writer, and director. Some of his most recent projects include God’s Ears, Enchanting the Mortals and Bring Me the Head of Lance Henriksen. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael. We discussed his motivations for making a lesbian film, the challenges of shooting a movie in eight days and the rewards of independent filmmaking. The text of the interview follows below the movie trailer.
The film will release on September 25. Rent it for only $3.99 (72 hour rental) at the following link: Vimeo.com/ondemand/seekingdollyparton.
LezFlix.com: Today I'm speaking with Michael Worth, the writer, director and co-star of the new lesbian film, Seeking Dolly Parton. The film recently premiered at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today Michael.
Michael Worth: Oh, it's my pleasure.
LF: Can you start by briefly describing the plot of your movie, Seeking Dolly Parton?
MW: The story is about two women who decide they want to have a baby together. They find the impersonal nature of getting a sperm donor online to be too much. So, they turn to a friend of theirs, who at first is interested, but then chickens out. That ultimately leads them to the idea, the crazy idea, of asking an ex-boyfriend to donate. The ex finally agrees and joins them for a week at their house. Of course that opens all kinds of doors and leads to all sorts of emotions and feelings.
LF: It definitely sounds like it could lead to some interesting situations.
MW: That was the idea. You try and find ways to mix up the pot and make things interesting.
LF: In the film your two main characters are Charlie and Cerina, played by Kacey Barnfield and Anya Monzikova respectively. They are the lesbian couple trying to have the baby, and you play Josh, who is Cerina's ex-boyfriend, right?
LF: Charlie and Cerina are both really strong women and the central characters of your film. There are not a lot of female-led movies and even fewer lesbian films. Most lesbian movies are created by lesbian filmmakers. I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that you're not a lesbian . . .
MW: (Laughter) Well, some people accuse me of being one. It's funny, because I actually was raised mostly by women. In my household a lot of the men passed away early. I was brought up in the Bay Area, and a lot of the close friends of our family were lesbians or lesbian couples. It was an area that at least I was familiar with. Usually when I write films I tend to, for that reason I think, write for women a lot. I like to write strong women characters. This was the first time I tried to tackle the idea of having the two leads be in a lesbian relationship.
LF: I noticed there were some very insightful parts in your film. Did you draw from any personal experiences when you wrote the script?
MW: Well, as I've gotten older, one thing I realized is that filmmaking is "my art form." It's like when a painter has something that inspires him and he puts it on canvas. I realized as a filmmaker if I don't utilize this medium for that reason, I'm missing a golden opportunity. Pretty much everything over the last five or seven years that I've written or directed has involved some autobiographical parts, because it's what I can write about. It's that personal experience. I tried to do that with this film. In this case, I tried to explore and look at letting go of past lives and embracing new ones.
We go through that at different times in our life, if we're lucky to live long enough. Sometimes we let go of little pieces of our past, and embrace smaller pieces in front of us. There are times when big chunks suddenly get left behind and we embrace newer ones. That's what this film was about. You have these three characters that are all facing letting go at a certain time in their life. Even if they don't see it right away, they realize they all have something to let go of, and then something new to embrace.
LF: I found it refreshing that the central drama of your film was not about the main characters being gay. This film could just as easily have been about a straight couple with fertility problems who are trying to get pregnant. Was this a conscious decision on your part to make their sexuality a non-issue?
MW: It's funny you say that because in a large sense it was. I'd done a film called God's Ears a few years before, which dealt with an autistic character, and I tried my best to not make the story about his autism. That's just who he was. It's not like it's a non-issue; people react to it, but it wasn't what motivated the story. When I made Seeking Dolly Parton, I wanted to achieve that. The idea here should be universal. It's a story about two women, but what they're going through in their life could be embodied by two men, or by a man and a woman. That was my hope. Obviously, I'm not going to try to write a film about the lesbian experience in that sense, because I didn't go to school for it. So I don't know.
I know enough about life, I know enough about emotions and I know enough about feelings, human beings and relationships in general, that I can write a story. That's my central focus. I just made the lead characters women who are lesbians. The funny thing is, it didn't even dawn on me until the first or second day of shooting that it might be an anomaly that I, as a male, am writing a story about two women. Now, since the movie has come out, it's been brought to my attention. At the time, I wasn't really thinking about it. I was so involved with the characters as people and what they were going through. I wasn't thinking about their sexuality per se.
LF: That's great.
MW: The other thing is I'm an actor myself, my background is acting. So, it's important for me when I am making a film that I let the actors really inherit their roles. In other words, I'm not like a puppeteer who's controlling my two lead actresses, Kacey and Anya in this case. It's not just me telling them, "You guys stand this way, and behave this way, and move this way." I may have a blueprint, but I want the actors to make these characters theirs. They need to infuse their own femininity and experience into them. When they come up to me and say, "Hey, I was thinking maybe I would do this, rather than what you wrote," and it's coming from a genuine place, unless it's totally disrupting the whole story line, I'm going to embrace what they suggest. Filmmaking is a very collaborative process with me.
LF: They felt very natural together, the two of them.
MW: Well, it's funny, because I had written Charlie's part with Kacey in mind. I had known her for a while. We'd done a couple of films together. I based Cerina's character on another actress I knew, but she ended up not being able to do the film. So, I got online with Kacey and found all the actresses that I knew and liked. I basically had her pick the girl she was most attracted to. I said, "Who do you want to make out with?" She went down the list and sure enough when we got to Anya, she said, "That girl, that girl, that girl!" Luckily we called Anya and she was game for it.
LF: That's great because so many times in lesbian films I feel like the main characters don't have any chemistry. Those two definitely did.
MW: I'm glad it came across because it wasn't manufactured. The two of them really enjoyed being with each other, so it wasn't that difficult. They barely knew each other initially, which was great. I made them live together while we were shooting. I put them in the same room. They got to sleep in bunk beds one on top of the other. Now, they actually want to do a sequel because they had so much fun doing the movie.
LF: Another thing that really resonated with me about your movie was that the validity of Charlie and Cerina's relationship was never to be questioned. Josh got schooled a few times by different characters who told him he needed to take the two girls seriously, even though it was a lesbian relationship. Obviously, in the gay community we get a lot of feedback that our relationships aren't as “real” as straight relationships. Do you feel like, or do you hope that your film will positively influence people to perceive the equality of gay relationships?
MW: Yes, because I think it's so important. Again in a subtle way, I didn't want to make it an issue movie. Look, there are people more capable of making an issue film than I am. I know I can make a film about love. I can do a film about people who go through struggles and about letting go. So, I'm just going to embody that into two women and tell the story from that viewpoint. I wanted to show that when anybody loves somebody, it should just be taken for what it is. That's why with Cerina and Charlie, I didn't want to make it a movie where they weren't being accepted as a couple. I didn't want it to come across like Cerina and Charlie were struggling with who they were as two people. They were in love. That's it, end of story.
When Josh comes in, it's not that he looks at them as being unable to love. It's just that he's still so in love with his ex-girlfriend that he's hoping it's just a phase because he wants her back. When she, like you said, schools him, he gets it; and when her brother comes up and says, "Hey, I see this relationship. I believe in it," Josh finally has to accept it. I did want that.
Plus it helps me learn as I'm doing it. I have discussions. Our sound mixer is gay, and our graphics designer on the film is gay. It's fun for me when I'm editing to sit down with them and pick their brains. To ask, "What do you think about this reaction?" I'm trying not to make the movie a fantasy like some male ideal. A reviewer once, a couple months back, commented something to the effect that Josh was the male Peeping Tom in this relationship. It never felt that way to me as I was making it.
LF: It didn't feel voyeuristic as I watched it.
MW: I'm glad because I didn't want it to come across that way. It certainly wasn't how I felt. When we have the character of Josh come in, there were moments when he, as an outsider who is still in love Cerina, has to adjust to this new circumstance. So, there's going to be a little awkwardness there. I wanted Cerina and Charlie's relationship to always be holy. I wanted it to always feel like – it is what it is, so let's move on to the rest of the story.
LF: Let's talk about the title of your film, Seeking Dolly Parton. The story has nothing to do with the famous country music singer, can you explain the title?
MW: Again this is going to point back to the collaboration of the film. There are flowers involved in the story. When I was writing the script, I knew I wanted that to be part of the title. I started going through all these different names of roses. There was Pink Mermaids. There was another one called Tattooed Ladies. Then I found out there was a rose called a Dolly Parton. I talked to the actresses, and I said, "Well, what do you guys like? This film is about you as much as it is about me."
For some reason, the title Seeking Dolly Parton kept coming up. We liked it because we all felt that you can't quite get what the title means until you see a certain part of the story. I didn't realize until afterwards that some people would hear the title and think it's going to be a totally different film. It's not really about Dolly Parton; it's about the flower named after her.
LF: That's very interesting. I immediately thought of Desperately Seeking Susan when I saw the title, but it's nothing like that movie either.
MW: That's right; that was a great show.
LF: When I heard the premise of your film, I thought to myself that it could be either a funny sitcom or play out like a reality TV show, but you didn't take it in either of those directions. It was an honest, emotional drama about how relationships evolve. Do you personally believe that love, which was once romantic, can transform into a more platonic love?
MW: Can it? You mean in the story or in real life?
LF: I meant in real life.
MW: It's a really interesting question. I guess I would say yes because I think love is transformative sometimes. Love may be at its core this very giving and sacrificial thing, but it can express itself in various ways. I remember one of my first relationships was with somebody that was very passionate, and it was full of all those crazy physical chemicals of necessity. Then it turned into a relationship of much deeper concern and deep love, but the romantic side of it was now transforming into a friendship. I think it can go the opposite way too. I've seen people who have been just friends for years that eventually fall deeply in love. Some of the deepest feelings I ever felt for someone came out of a slowly developed, almost reluctant start to a relationship. One time I was still reeling from a bad prior relationship when this girl came along and locked on to me like nobody's business. She just hung in there with me. I can tell you, that reluctance eventually gave way to diving into the most memorable and greatest experience of my life. So yes, a great passionate connection can manifest into a brand new expression that may not involve the throes of passion but has no less of the magic.
I did a film with Kacey after Seeking Dolly Parton called Enchanting the Mortals. It's a very experimental narrative about love. The whole film is less of a story about love and more of an experience of love, if that makes sense. I took these observations I was making on relationships, and the dynamics involved with them, and wrote a somewhat microscopic examination into the life and death of a relationship, and all of the puzzles that exist within it. The title, Enchanting the Mortals, is actually taken from an old Greek love letter between two women. The term "enchanting the mortals" was used in the poem to explain how enigmatic love is and how we as humans try our best to grab a hold of it, formulate it, and turn it into something we can embrace. Somewhere in the poem the writer explains, "It's just enchanting the mortals." With films like Seeking Dolly Parton or Enchanting the Mortals, love and its transformative qualities are something I like to address and explore. I don't know if that answered your question.
LF: It definitely did. Clearly that was where Josh was coming from in the movie. I was just curious if that was your belief system too.
MW: It's hard to let go. I try not to mention things like this because it draws attention to it, but, in this case, I will. There's a scene towards the end of the film where the three of them have a confrontation before this big moment. I filmed it in a tunnel because to me the tunnel was very much like a physical manifestation of a birth canal. That's how I was thinking about it in my head. I see this long tunnel that they are in. They are right at the end of it. The idea there for me visually was that they are about to go from one side to the other. It's a moment of letting go and transformation that takes place in their lives.
It's really painful at times when you're going through breakups, and trying to understand. Especially if you have two people and one person feels different than the other. Where once you were so symbiotic, you had to be with each other, and then maybe one drifts away. Sometimes you carry those things with you and they take a while to understand or digest. I've had that happen to me where it's years later and I want to talk to that person and say, "What happened? Did you really love me? Was I imagining it?" That's what that sequence was about, what part of it was about. That's life.
LF: In the film, one of your themes was about courage, and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. You certainly put your characters in plenty of very awkward situations; situations that most people would run away from. Do you think that your characters are braver than most people or was there a part of you trying to inspire the audience to be more courageous?
MW: If I'm creating characters I feel like I've got to make them reasonably brave. In other words, it's important to give them elements that are a little braver than the norm. But if I can't do it as a real person, so that people watching can identify with it, and show the frailty, show the effort that it takes to do that brave act, I'm probably not writing a very realistic character.
Here's a good example, the character of John is played by Raffaello Degruttola in the film. Raff is a dear friend of mine. Raff said, "Hey Mike, I want to play a character that's gay in this film." I said, "All right." He said, "I've never done it. I'm from this Italian family and they're all macho, so it will be a real challenge." I said, "Okay, let's do it." I wrote this character for him and as we approached shooting he started getting more and more nervous. He was feeling really vulnerable. He said, “Hey, I wonder what my Dad will think and what my family will think." But he wanted to press forward.
Then he said, "Well, maybe I'm more conflicted." I said, "Raff, this is going to be such a good experiment for you because you're just going to have to brave it up and take this character on." He went into it saying, "I'll do it, but this is great, because it's really making me think, and let go, and be vulnerable." Towards the end of the shoot, there's a sequence in the story where everybody meets for dinner. John decides he's going to take a guy with him, a date. For the first time, he is in public with a man and he tries to face up to the thing that's he's been struggling with.
The actor who played his date was Jean Franco, who is gay in real life. Raff through the course of the day was talking with him, hanging out with him and hearing his life story. Raff really embraced his character at that point. It took for him to have this experience of meeting somebody and having an intimate intellectual conversation with them about being gay. He's got gay friends but they probably just don't talk about it. It was fun to watch him become brave to play his own brave character in the story.
LF: He embodied the conflict in his character too.
MW: Raff was struggling with it and we just tried to manifest it into the part. In fact, if you had any idea of the process of making this movie you'd probably be surprised it ever got made. I raised all the money personally to shoot it from friends and other financiers. We did the movie for next to nothing. We shot the whole film in eight days.
The last 20 minutes of the film I rewrote while we were shooting. We had an entirely different ending, with entirely different characters. The scene where John helps bring Josh back into the story, that all came about while we were shooting. We probably had four days left of filming and we created that part of the story out of necessity. It wasn't like we were wishy-washy about our story. We were literally losing actors. I thought, “I'm going to lose this actor; I've got to replace the scene. If I replace this scene, it's going to change this scene.” I'd be up all night rewriting the script as we went. I think in the end it ended up better than what we had originally planned.
LF: So there was kind of a domino effect.
MW: There was. Sometimes if you're shooting and you're doing changes a lot on set, you don't realize until a little later how it affected other things. Then you have to go back and fix it. For the most part, we got really lucky because the big changes we made ended up not being to the detriment of the film.
LF: You said that you had worked with a lot of these actors on other projects. Do you think knowing the team enabled you to shoot it so quickly?
MW: Yes, 100%, except for Anya. Anya and I had only worked on one project together that I had shot about 6 months before. She was only on it for 1/2 a day. She came in for one scene, so I barely knew her. For her, I felt like she was being one of the bravest of all. Basically I said to her, "Hey Anya we're going to go shoot this movie in seven or eight days up in San Francisco. We're all going to stay in the same house and you're going to be living with your lead actor. It's going to be a tiny crew. Here's the script." She didn't know me, but Kacey, Raff, and Alex, who plays the brother, were all on board. They knew I'd been around the block long enough. Even though it was very experimental doing this film, you have to take risks to have rewards. They all got that. My grandmother is in the film too, she just had to go with it.
LF: The grandmother in the movie is your actual grandmother?
MW: That's my actual grandmother, yes. She did another movie once before, but this time she couldn't remember lines very well so I would feed them to her off camera. There is a scene in the film where she is talking to her grandson, John. It's pivotal for the character. I sat Raff down and said, "Start talking to her about this. Tell her what you're struggling with blah, blah, blah and she'll get into it with you." My grandmother is 93, so she's not always grasping what's happening. She realized we were filming, but she didn't quite get the context of it. She had this conversation with him, and she was really having this conversation with him. She wasn't really sure if he was really struggling, and he was really gay. What she said to him, and how she reacts to him in that scene was all very real.
LF: One thing that always impresses me about independent filmmakers is you have to accomplish so much with such limited resources. Clearly, your film was no exception. You wrote, directed and co-starred in the film. You were wearing a lot of hats all at the same time.
MW: It gets a little exhausting, but it’s a necessity. Granted I wanted to play Josh because I knew there was something I could bring to the character that was real to me. I thought, "Why try to stick somebody else into this part? I'll be there shooting it so what the hell? I don't have to pay for extra food or anything." There is something I'm learning as I do these smaller films. I work on a lot more studio films and TV shows. They are much more regimented. There is a lot more money and more time, but for the actors and technicians, we lose some of our connectedness to the art form that attracted us to it in the first place.
When I do these smaller films, when I pull together just a little money to make it and I film it in a short amount of time, there is a certain freedom to it. When I'm running the show, I like people to really be creative, to be flexible and try things. For instance, most of the time I shoot what's scripted first. Once I a get a couple pages I'm happy with I'll say, "Go ahead, improv it. Let's try it again. Just talk and let's see what happens." I think it was Hitchcock who said that if you don't have barriers you can't find creativity. I find that's true. When I've got to shoot this whole movie for X amount of dollars. We've got eight days to shoot it. We've got literally a dozen people working on it, rather than a crew of 40. How are we going to do this? We do it by the seat of our pants. We didn't have script supervisors. We didn't have costumers. In fact, somewhere online there's a video of us as we’re pulling up to shoot a scene in the Rose Garden. We literally open the back of a van and pull our clothes out of a pile to get our wardrobe. That's the way it went. In fact, Kacey didn't even have any clothes when she arrived. She'd come from England and LA, and she didn't really have anything that fit her character. All the clothes she's wearing in the movie are mine. She pulled them out of my suitcase. She just took my pants. She just took my shirt. She said, "I'll feel more like this character if I'm wearing boy clothes."
LF: Oh, that's funny. So, the next screening of your film is going to be September 22nd at the Reeling Film Festival in Chicago. After that when and how are you going to release it to the public?
MW: It looks like it's going to be the 25th of September. You can rent it online. We're probably going to have one public screening up in the Bay Area right after the Reeling Film Festival as well. I want to screen it there where we filmed it. We'll probably bring the whole cast up there for that.
LF: Excellent, well looking forward to it. Is there anything else that you want to talk about before we wrap up?
MW: No, that's great. It's given me great joy to be able to talk to you about the film. I pull these things together and I shoot them. Most of the time it's like I said, we are working with these actors, technicians, writers and producers that just really want to try and do more interesting stuff. Essentially everybody is working and we're not getting paid. It's rewarding for me to be able to let them see some of the fruits of their labor. It is satisfying for me because I've been struggling in this business for a long time too. I feel very grateful that I've got these opportunities to do what I set out to do when I was a little kid, and to be able to include my family in these things. I just want to say I appreciate you because anytime someone takes the time to talk about the film it means a lot. Thanks for that.
LF: Sure, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Best of luck with your film.
MW: Well, thank you very much.