Portions of the film's profits will benefit Habitat for Humanity.
By MILAN PAURICH
Existing in an alternate galaxy far removed from the bank-breaking excess and sexy superstars of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," the ingratiating "Manna from Heaven" hearkens back to a more innocent, less jaded era of American independent cinema.
A family affair in every respect -- it was co-produced by the Burton sisters; Maria, Gabrielle C., Jennifer, Ursula and Charity; co-directed by Gabrielle C. and Maria; written by their mom, Gabrielle B.; and features several additional Burtons, including dad Roger, in speaking roles -- this homespun, PG-rated comedy has been kicking around the regional film festival circuit since premiering at Austin's South by Southwest fest in March 2001.
Opening on a city-by-city basis where it has evolved into a grassroots, word-of-mouth phenomenon, "Heaven" finally makes it into the Youngstown area this weekend. During a recent telephone chat, Gabrielle C. discussed the ups and down of making a truly independent film in today's corporate-driven cinema culture.
Q. Where did the inspiration for Five Sisters Productions come from?
A. My sisters and I had all been working in different areas of the arts when Maria found a script that became our first project (1996's "Just Friends"). It was such a fun, enriching experience that we all thought it would be great to continue making movies together. Women come up to me all the time and say, "I can't cross the street with my sister; how did you ever make a movie together?" (laughs)
Q. What's the single most difficult thing about making a film today?
A. The hardest part is "pitching" to studios which are mostly run by twentysomething types. They kept telling us that "Manna from Heaven" wasn't "dark and edgy" enough, and that it didn't fit into their marketing plans. One studio head actually told us, "It's too bad that you and your sisters aren't Irish because then it would be a slam-dunk." It was around that time that we decided to make it on our own.
Q. How did you convince Oscar-winning actresses Cloris Leachman, Louise Fletcher, and Shirley Jones to make a little movie in Buffalo?
A. A lot of it was simply persistence. Getting their agents to actually give them the script was the toughest part. (laughs) But everyone really responded to the material and the characters which were so different from the kind of roles they were usually cast in. Shelley (Duvall) had seen our previous film (1999's "Temps") and told us that she wanted to be involved in whatever we were doing next.
Q. You're donating a portion of the film's profits to charity, right?
A. When we decided to release it ourselves, we thought it was important to do something that reaches beyond the movie. Films can sometimes affect people's lives, and that's what we're trying to do. We picked "Habitat for Humanity" because it's a nationally-based organization.
Q. Why did you opt for such an unusual marketing approach?
A. We got our feet wet in a small Midwestern town (Branson, Mo.) and played for six weeks. After that, it pretty much took on a life of it's own, and we've been in perpetual release since the summer of 2002. Because opening weekend ticket sales really effect a movie's future, we'd stand in the lobby passing out flyers. At one time, we were in 33 theaters simultaneously which was a massive undertaking. Even getting posters up was hard (laughs). But when you're a little movie without millions of ad dollars, it takes that kind of attention and hard work.
Q. How have audiences responded?
A. It's been incredible. Like a Rorschach Test, everyone responds to the characters in different ways. I think it appeals to audiences because it's about people coming together and finding hope. Philosophy classes have even come to see the movie together, using it as a jumping off point to discuss ethics, morality and social responsibility.
Q. Where does the movie's emphasis on Catholicism come from?
A. My sisters and I were baptized Catholic, so it's part of our background. Mother likes to joke that the characters are all based on relatives of ours (laughs). The film walks a fine line with the faith issue, though, and we were careful to leave it open to interpretation. Just like you didn't have to be Greek to "get" "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," our movie deals with very strong cultural traditions and values that audiences can relate to in their own way.
Q. You're currently living in Columbus?
A. My husband teaches at Ohio State University, so I do a lot of work through e-mails, faxes, and the phone. I've been on the road a lot these past couple of years, so it's nice to be able to just stay home and work on a script. We shot a short film recently that Ursula wrote called "The Happiest Day of His Life," which is a satire on weddings in which the gender roles are reversed. We'll be taking it to festivals this fall, and maybe expanding it into a feature.
X"Manna from Heaven" opens exclusively Friday at Austintown Movies. Gabrielle C. Burton will be at the theater June 12 to introduce the film and field audience questions after each performance. For additional information and showtimes, call (330) 779-0792.