“I’ve always been one of those people who fantasize about living in the past,” says Boston screenwriter and director Pamela Corkey. “It’s probably naive imagining it was better, or more magical, or that there were more possibilities.” She continues, “Reality in the present is so ‘un-magical’.”
Thus, it was natural for Corkey to reach into the past in creating her first feature, EASY LISTENING, slated for its Boston premiere on March 15 at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline as part of the “Director’s Cut” series. Already the film has been screened in 15 national and international film festivals and was released on video in January, reversing distribution protocol in its search for an audience.
EASY LISTENING stems from Corkey’s deep passion for “easy listening” music, brought to popular attention in the 1960s by Burt Bachrach among others. As a 16 year-old, she became smitten by Bachrach’s light, tempoed style and got hooked on the mellifluous swooning of 101 Strings. She hounded vintage record stores and started a collection. As she tells it over coffee on a wintry afternoon in a Jamaica Plain café, she was intrigued by the album art also, especially the photographs on the backs showing the orchestra, “101 old white guys and one lady in a long dress playing a harp.” She remembers asking herself: “Who are these guys and what did they train for? How did they end up in this orchestra? Are they jazz musicians? Are they classical musicians? How do they feel about doing this stuff?”
As it turned out, the stuff became her obsession. But it would have to wait until her talents and her skills matured and inspiration came knocking.
As a precocious, intellectual fifteen year-old, Corkey entered college early at Simon’s Rock College of Bard. Later, at Boston University’s School of Fine Arts she enrolled in music composition studies. Her peers, though, had studied and trained since childhood, and she sensed she was marching to a different beat. During sophomore year with the help of an unwitting, rookie adjunct instructor, she signed into a film production class where she found a comfort zone, and she thrived. In her downtime Corkey voraciously consumed five to eight movies a day. “I looked forward to movies more than music. I dreaded practice. I had a growing sense that I was not good enough to be a composer.”
So instead, she became a stealth budding filmmaker. “BU’s administration didn’t figure it out until I was in advanced film production,” she says with a puckish glimmer in her turquoise green eyes. Her first short, BEEF JERKY, won best comedy award at the New England Super 8 Film Festival. She struck an accord with university officials after her teachers in the film department sensed her “incredibly passionate” intent, and she was able to transfer credits to the College of Communication. She made three 16mm shorts, and she completed a bachelor’s degree in film.
After graduation, Corkey headed to Los Angeles to study in the Director’s Program at the American Film Institute. She finished three additional shorts and two features, earning a master’s degree in directing and screenwriting. Afterward, she worked briefly for Fox’s AMAZING SPIDERMAN and CARMEN SANDIEGO.
But the luster of life-in-the-fast-lane soon tarnished. Tinsel town was wearing her down, “killing me,” she quietly admits.
Back in Boston with her young son in tow, Corkey entered the film scene here. She joined four filmmakers and formed a production company, Firefly Films where she worked for a year-and-a-half. “I didn’t enjoy corporate work. I’m a creative filmmaker not a documentary filmmaker with skills for grant writing. I’m not a producer-director. I’m a writer-director. I’m up in the clouds when it comes to the nitty-gritty details of running a business.” Later, Corkey joined the adjunct faculty at Emerson College teaching film production and had a stint as Visiting Artist in screenwriting. While she taught at Emerson, she revisited EASY LISTENING, a script she had written and shopped in Hollywood without any luck.
EASY LISTENING is a poignant valentine to the gentle, decibel-friendly musical style that swooned into its own niche during the sixties as the Beatles were sweeping the airwaves, Motown was silkily dominating Top 40, and heavy metal was gestating in would-be rockers’ basements and garages. Easy listening had more in common with the quiescent Eisenhower years than with the Age of Aquarius. But it found an audience of steady listeners. Says Corkey, “I wanted to capture the time before the loss of innocence, before the cultural deflowering.”
EASY LISTENING traces the angst-ridden life of Burt (David Ian), a graceless trumpeter, whose middle-aged paunch and emerging bald spot keep him enclosed like a wallflower at a fun party. He plays in a 101 Strings-style orchestra side-by-side white-haired old men (and one lady-harpist in a long dress) among whom he spreads stories about his fantasized jazz gigs. Add a shrewish ex-wife (also the daughter of the conductor who holds sway over his future) to his liabilities, and you think the Furies are piling on. When Linda (Traci Crouch), a comely, young flutist with the perkiness of Doris Day and a rosy, Pollyanna disposition lands in the orchestra, Burt’s stock rises. She flirts, he succumbs, and with the help of her treacly kindness-and some Alice B. Toklas brownies-he finds his groove.
“Both are deluded to some degree,” Corkey says of her characters. “Nobody would look at Burt as having wisdom or self-awareness. He functions on a basic level of self-understanding. He’s capable of tricking himself to whatever serves as the path of least resistance.
“Linda is so full of herself and is self-delusional as well. She’s decided that whatever she thinks is right and whatever she likes is good. In a way, that’s great: she’s happy, he’s miserable.
“I tried to portray these characters as both false and superficial on a certain level. But nonetheless the one who chose to have positive delusions was happy, and the one who has negative delusions is miserable. Because neither of them are hip in the end and that is celebrated, that is celebrating innocence over cynicism.”
Corkey’s approach to her characters is akin to the humble zeal of Holden Caulfield to save the children of the world. She sets up circumstances and lets them choose, saddled by their emotional baggage, then comes in for the rescue. Says Corkey, “I love these people in their delusions, and I want to save them. In the end, I give them happiness.”
Corkey won over Paul Tritter, EASY LISTENING’s producer, at their first meeting. “She pitched me the concept,” Tritter says, joining the interview. “She put on some easy listening records, and we listened for a couple of hours. I was pretty much hooked then. I loved the music and the way she described her goal of the film as homage to a period of time and a style of music that she loved.
“I went home and made a mixed tape of the music. I brought it back with me the next time we met, and it was obvious we would do it. The script was great.”
Before production finally was greenlighted, Corkey and Tritter sparred over the key element in tight-budgeted indie filmmaking-what film size to use. Corkey insisted the film be shot in 35mm and was ready to hold on the project if she didn’t get her way. For cost reasons, Tritter leaned toward Super 16mm. To resolve their differences, Corkey rented every Super 16mm film-on-video she could find and played them for him. “This is why we’re shooting on 35mm, and that’s that,” she told him.
Tritter recalls, “We figured out a way to do it.”
The film was shot in 35mm Kodak stock to simulate the saturated, shadowed texture and feel Corkey was trying to evoke. So going to the wall for film size was worth it, they both agree.
Brookline and Providence, Rhode Island provided the cityscapes for EASY LISTENING, which was shot over 24 days. “The Providence Film Commission and Mayor Buddy Cianci wanted to be our friends forever,” Corkey says. “We were shooting at the same time as the Farrelly brothers. We got everything they got: cops, blocked off streets, and great location deals.”
Post-production lasted about a year with editing sessions whenever she could grab time in her demanding schedule which included full-time teaching duties, home-schooling of her older son, and mothering of her baby, Oscar. Her Avid-editing console sat next to Oscar’s high chair in the kitchen. “Sometimes I would just stand in the middle of the room and cry because I didn’t know what to do next, whether to help somebody with something, or change the baby’s diaper, or feed someone, or put them to bed, or read and grade scripts, or work on the film.”
Once the film was completed, Corkey turned it over to Tritter for marketing.
To indie filmmakers Corkey shares this advice. “Keep your head down. Keep your eye on your goals. Don’t look around because the competition is terrifying, the schmoozing is soul-suckingly evil, and chances of success are really slim if you measure them.
“So it’s best to keep your focus on your work. Don’t stop and just plow.”
Pamela Corkey should know. She’s been there and mined the territory.