The roots of director Jodie Markell's feature film debut, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, go back more than 30 years to when she was a Memphis high school student.
The movie marks the debut of a previously unfilmed original screenplay by Tennessee Williams, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof whom Markell first fell for as a teenager. Williams himself lived in Memphis for a brief time as a young man.
"When I was growing up in Memphis, I played Laura in The Glass Menagerie at [Memphis University School], and I was immediately hooked on Tennessee Williams," Markell says. "By the time I was 17, I was into everything he wrote."
Now based in New York, Markell was born and raised in Memphis, graduating from Lausanne Collegiate School before studying theater and interpretation at Northwestern University in Chicago and acting in New York City. A veteran stage and screen actress, Markell won an Obie award for a lead performance in the play Machinal, has appeared in films by Woody Allen (Hollywood Ending), Todd Haynes (Safe), and Jim Jarmusch (the Memphis-filmed Mystery Train), and has recently had recurring roles in the television series Law & Order and Big Love.
Markell made her foray into film directing a decade ago with the short film Why I Live at the P.O., which she adapted from a Eudora Welty short story, but she got the directing bug much earlier when she staged an all-female version of 12 Angry Men at Lausanne. The school didn't have a theater at the time, so Markell convinced the school's headmaster to let her convert the gym, moving bleachers to form a theater-in-the-round.
The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, set in the 1920s and following the plight of a brash, unhappy Memphis heiress, Fisher Willow, has been a gestating project for Markell since she was first shown the obscure screenplay by an acting teacher.
"I read it when I was 21, and I was not savvy in the business in any way," Markell says. "So I just carried it in my heart through the years. And then in my 30s, I was working with Brad Michael Gilbert, the producer, and he really responded to the screenplay when I showed it to him. At that time it was hard to get any rights out of the Williams estate, but it was definitely in my treasure chest of things I wanted to do."
After a change with the Williams estate, Markell and Gilbert made another bid for the rights. Impressed by Why I Live at the P.O., the estate finally gave the duo the go-ahead and eventually Markell helmed a 28-day shoot in Louisiana, a tight turnaround for a period film.
"There's so much you have to take into account," Markell says about re-creating 1920s Memphis on time and on budget. "All the designers — the art director, the production designer, the costume designer — we all had limited resources, but everyone did an incredible job. No one let the idea of it being an indie film lower their expectations."
Markell cast Bryce Dallas Howard in the lead after seeing her in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village.
"Bryce was my first choice always," Markell says. "I saw her and thought she was so grounded and earthy and present. For this project, I knew I needed actors who had theatrical training and background because of the language and poetic structure."
Surrounding Howard in the cast are Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) as her beau for hire, a governor's grandson whose family has fallen on hard times, and a couple of grand dames: Ellen Burstyn as an elderly neighbor who shares Fisher's sense of displacement and restlessness and Ann-Margret as an aunt trying to keep her in line.
"We were so happy to have [Ann-Margret] in the film because she did an incredible Blanche Dubois in a television version of A Streetcar Named Desire," Markell says. "She was one of the best Blanches."
Fisher is a product of privilege — the daughter of a wealthy but controversial plantation owner — but she recoils at how that wealth has been built and maintained and feels trapped by the social constraints of Memphis society after spending time in Europe.
During the opening credits, Fisher drives through her family's land, abandoned slave quarters bracketing the dirt road as much as the stately trees. The sequence was shot on a plantation site north of New Orleans.
"We were location scouting and we turned the corner one day, and I saw these slave quarters and I felt like I'd found the beginning of my movie," Markell says. "It feels like they just picked up and left. Like it was yesterday. The energy ... you feel the toil of the people who lived there. You feel the hardness of their lives. It's so moving. And I thought, Fisher should have to drive through this, the thing that haunts her but knows is part of her family."
Markell saw in The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond, which completes its long journey to the screen with a theatrical release this week, a chance to give voice to a Williams heroine most of the world has never met.
"I felt a real connection with Fisher Willow," Markell says. "As a teenager growing up in Memphis, I felt a little bit out of place. [Fisher] has that feeling of being an outsider. And I also think that Williams speaks to anyone who feels a little too sensitive, too romantic, too sensuous. Especially the women he wrote about. He felt that they had to fight to be heard in a society that did not prize women for being smart or adventurous. All those things made me want to make the film."