Though it was shot last summer, primarily at a farmhouse in rural Stanton, Tennessee, the road to the local indie feature The Romance of Loneliness began half a decade earlier, in Paris — France, not Tennessee.
Filmmakers Matteo Servente — an Italian — and Sarah Ledbetter — a native Memphian — met at a New York Film Academy workshop in Paris a decade ago. Servente had studied film history in college, and Ledbetter, a dancer, had gotten the filmmaking bug at home working with documentarian Joann Self — a former high school classmate at St. Mary's School — on Self's film The WLOK Story.
Servente and Ledbetter's partnership extended from Paris to another hands-on film program in Australia and back to Europe, where they collaborated on the short film Dammi il La. When the short found unexpected favor in film festivals — and more so in the U.S. than in Europe — Servente and Ledbetter decided to continue their partnership but this time in Ledbetter's Memphis home and with a feature project.
"The more we thought about things, the ideas we came up with had to do with this region," says Servente, with Ledbetter adding, "We thought we needed to make an American film and to try our hand at a feature."
The initial idea that would become The Romance of Loneliness concerned a road trip and a personal transformation but focused on a male protagonist and his mother, says Ledbetter, who penned the film's screenplay and co-directed with Servente, who, roughly speaking, focused on the film's visuals while Ledbetter focused on the script and actors.
But, partly inspired by the work of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, whose femme-centered feature Volver came out soon after Servente and Ledbetter began working together, Ledbetter evolved her story into a film about women.
"We decided to get all into Southern women and what their lives are like," Ledbetter says.
The finished product seems to take place over roughly 24 hours, as the restless, uncertain Amanda (Amy LaVere) leaves her boyfriend Richard (Kentucker Audley) with the notion of heading west. But she is instead persuaded to pick up her grandmother Mina (Lynn Cohen) to attend the rural wedding of cousin Cristina (Rebekah Brandes) to another woman.
The film is populated by familiar faces from the local film and music scenes, starting with LaVere but also including actor/filmmakers Audley and G.B. Shannon in small roles and musicians such as Deering & Down, Star & Micey, and Luke White (Snowglobe, Coach & Four).
But, with the help and urging of local indie producers Nick Case and Ryan Watt, of Paper Moon Films, Servente and Ledbetter also hired a casting director to add some experienced, non-local performers to the mix. Anna Margaret Hollyman (who plays Amanda's sister, Margot) and Brandes each has a dozen or so titles on her filmography and each brings a strong on-screen presence. But the real coup here is the septuagenarian Cohen, who plays the grandmother of these three women. You probably won't recognize Cohen's name, but her face will be familiar: She was Magda, Cynthia Nixon's housekeeper, on Sex & the City. She was Golda Meir in Steven Spielberg's Munich, and next year she will have a featured role in Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a veteran winner of the Games.
Cohen grounds the film with a warm but matter-of-fact charisma and offers perhaps the film's key bit of dialogue early on with some stern advice for Amanda: "You do not need to find yourself. You need to be yourself — whatever you may be."
"Lynn has some Southern roots. She spent a good part of her growing up in Kentucky," Ledbetter says. "And I think the script resonated with her. We were blessed in that sense."
But, like innumerable filmmakers before them, Servente and Ledbetter found their first feature challenging.
They spent three years honing the script and raising money and then spent a year in editing and post-production. In between, actual shooting was done in a tightly budgeted two-and-a-half-week rush that presented some unexpected problems.
"We really didn't know what we were in for. It was so much bigger than we thought it would be," Servente admits. "From the script to the final product, it is a different film. We got to a point in the editing where we realized that the story as we first thought about it wasn't working." Servente credits the film's editors (Eileen Meyer and Jenny Myers) with helping them through the process.
Ledbetter says that the production lost a key actor during the shoot and didn't have time to recast a role that deeply impacted Amanda's character arc or much time to change the script, which led to having to reshape the film in the editing.
"[We were] green about how much money matters on a day-to-day basis," Ledbetter says. "We did not realize what a balls-to-the-wall rush everything would be. We care so much about nuance and doing a scene right, but it became about getting one scene right or getting 10 scenes shot that have to get shot. It was a miracle of collaboration to come out with a film."
What emerges is a film that has engaging performers and an alluring setting but with a central story that is perhaps a bit elusive.
"To some extent, Amanda has accepted that she's part of a community that cares for her and that she's not going to get anywhere by just acting out and divorcing herself from that," Ledbetter says of her protagonist's journey. "But that's never going to be the complete picture. There's still a minor key at the end. That openness, to me, is lifelike."
The Romance of Loneliness ready for its rollout — which includes a week-long run at Studio on the Square following a premiere at the Paradiso — Servente and Ledbetter will look ahead to new projects while promoting this first feature. Servente, who says he's settled in Memphis for the moment, is planning on shooting a short film in the next month or so and will then start working on his first script. Ledbetter plans to work on some short dance film, but hopes to collaborate with Servente again after exploring their own paths for a while.
"We occasionally brainstorm," she says. "After a little breathing space, we'll discuss it."
For now, the duo has the satisfaction of having completed their first filmmaking marathon — even if the final product didn't quite meet their initial expectations.
"This was, in many ways, below everybody's ideal," Ledbetter acknowledges. "When they looked at the script and our past work, everybody was so excited. And by the end, we all had everything drawn out of us. But it's real. It's an actual film that exists."
The Romance of Loneliness
Studio on the Square
Opens Friday, September 14th