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Austin Chronicle Sister Act

By Marie Black

Making a name for themselves as one of the few sister teams producing films today are Julia and Gretchen Dyer. The release of their film Late Bloomers, which was shot completely in the Dallas area, marks the culmination of two years of work that started in early 1994 when Gretchen sculpted the screenplay "with Julia basically standing right there behind me." The two have been working in tandem ever since, sharing the peaks and valleys of independent filmmaking and learning about themselves in the process. Late Bloomers is the story of Carly and Dinah, two women working together in a middle American high school, who to everyone's surprise, including their own, fall in love. Enter a few small problems: Carly has a family, not to mention a husband, and both women have the entire faculty, student body, and PTA of Eleanor B. Roosevelt ("because there are not any high schools named after women," says Julia) playing host to their love affair. Unfortunately for Carly and Dinah, these are not the world's most gracious hosts either. They do everything from drawing long-tongued figures in chalk in Dinah's math class, to pelting Carly with a projectile Oreo. The women persevere, though, grow more deeply in their commitment to one another, plan their same-sex wedding, and even find the time for a game or two of basketball. In fact, the film gives dimensions to the game of basketball heretofore not thought of.

Like the main characters in their film, the Dyer sisters have also had to persevere. Notwithstanding that the array of cities hosting the first run of the film is auspicious (Austin, Dallas, and Houston on June 27, New York and Los Angeles on July 18, and San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago later this summer or early fall) and that the film has garnered critical acceptance at many prestigious festivals (the 1996 Sundance and SXSW Film Festivals being two), the process of getting the film to "a cinema near you" has been an arduous one. "An exercise in persistence," is what Julia calls it, with the film taking well over a year after post-production to be picked up for distribution. A full year of making the rounds at distribution houses, of accepting and rejecting offers, and of just flat out "meeting our share of jerks." Not to mention sweating whether or not they would be picked up. "[The amount of time it took] was not abnormal, but it if had been much longer, we might not have been picked up," says Gretchen. Their effort finally paid off: In December 1996, they signed with Strand, a distributor responsible for bringing such films as Stonewall and Wild Reeds to theatres.

Connie Nelson and Dee Hennigan discover love and basketball in Late Bloomers

The upside of their perseverance is that it allowed the Dyers to "sharpen our instincts," as Julia calls it, to hone in on what makes them tick. What exactly is that? Telling real stories about real characters, particularly women, and not falling prey to "some illusive Hollywood ideal of characters," says Gretchen Dyer. They are both dedicated to bringing what Gretchen calls "indigenous American films" to fruition, "those stories and styles other than the typical Hollywood stories. Stories about ordinary people." They are also committed to staying outside of the "Hollywood machine that breeds a homogenized taste for film." To that end, they have committed to working in Texas -- with Texas crews and actors -- on all their upcoming projects.

The Chronicle spoke with the Dyer sisters at home in Dallas about the film and new projects.

Austin Chronicle: What are your backgrounds?

Gretchen Dyer: French Literature from Boston University, which I have really put to use [laughs]. But Julia's actually qualified to make films.

Julia Dyer: Yes, I have an RTF degree from UT Austin. I also taught a film class at UT last fall.

AC: There aren't too many sister teams making films today. What was it like working together?

JD: It was great. We've always planned on working together. Gretchen helped me with my first film back in 1985, so we had always planned to continue that.

AC: Has it caused a lot of stress in the relationship?

GD: Nah, we've always had the kind of relationship where we fight easily and make up easily. If I could pick a person to work with, it would be Julia.

AC: Was there any crossover between the roles you performed in the making of the film?

GD: We both basically do everything. I mean, I wrote it, but Julia was in the background the whole time.

JD: The same with the direction: I directed it, but Gretchen was on the set every day giving direction, too.

AC: Your brother Stephen co-produced the film with you. How did that go?

JD: Really well. Stephen had no previous experience in film production, but he really took to it and has since gone on to produce another film.

Filmmakers Gretchen and Julia Dyer

AC: Let's talk about the film.

GD: The largest single inspiration for the film was a film called The Snapper directed by Stephen Frears. It's about a small community of ordinary people and how they reacted to a scandal in the town.

JD: Also, it's an acknowledgment that women, of any age, aren't beyond sex and romance, that it's never too late to follow your heart.

AC: Yes, the issue of mother vs. sexual being is addressed in the film.

GD: Yes, the idea that a mother should put her children before herself is something that Carly has to deal with. The film is saying, hey it's sometimes better for a mother to follow her heart: better for herself and for her children.

AC: Who are you influences?

JD: A lot of European women filmmakers too obscure and too numerous to mention. And Robert Altman because there are no "good" or "bad" characters in his films, just people.

AC: There's a line in the movie that sticks: "I fell in love and the person I fell in love with just happened to be a woman." It has a sort Michael-Stipe-pan-sexuality feel. Were you trying to assert that people are basically bisexual?

GD: No, not intentionally. I was just trying to blur the often very rigid lines that exist in peoples' minds when they think of homosexuality and heterosexuality.

AC: What are some common things you are hearing about the film?

JD: A lot of folks are saying, hey, thanks for telling "my story." Also, we're getting a lot of gratitude from women thanking us for showing real women with real women bodies and faces, which is quite a bit different from what a lot of distributors that we talked with said to us: They wanted a more Hollywood version of these characters.

AC: It was interesting that you chose to have Carly and Dinah get married at the end of the film. Why?

GD: It seemed like a fitting ending: These ladies triumphed over so much hardship that a wedding seemed a great way to celebrate that. Also, I liked playing with the suburban idea of marriage. Here are these two women about to get married to one another playing basketball in the driveway wearing their wedding dresses.

AC: What are your thoughts on the whole "lesbian chic" trend vocalized in films such as Chasing Amy?

GD: It's mentioned in our film too. I think it's great, not so much for the trendiness of it, but because what's considered trendy today will be considered as acceptable by the mainstream tomorrow.

AC: What's up with all the math used in the film? Were one of you a math teacher or something?

GD: No, I just thought that it went with the character: Math teachers are such nerds sometimes. They love to talk about math.

AC: Why did you pick Dallas to shoot in? What was it like?

GD: Dallas was really a perfect setting for us because the film is about a heartland, middle-America type of community, which Dallas provided. Also, we have strong connections to the Dallas film community. I think it's much easier to make a film here because people are much less jaded than they are in L.A. and more willing to grow the industry.

AC: Any downsides to shooting in Dallas?

GD: Only that we were outside of the loop in terms of the type of business connections out in L.A.

AC: How's the business side been to deal with, i.e. working with distributors, playing the game, etc.?

JD: The process has been arduous and persistence has been key. You really need to learn to sharpen your instincts. We've certainly come across our share of jerks and liars. That's why we went with our distributor, Strand, because they were very straightforward, no bullshit with us.

AC: You've mentioned the process as kind of daunting?

GD: Yes, it has been. And every filmmaker we've talked with, even the ones who've gotten big deals with the likes of Miramax or Fine Line have mentioned a disillusionment process, "une illusion perdu." It's been the same for us.

AC: Your investor base was pretty diverse. Who did it consist of?

JD: All types: conservatives, gay/lesbians, friends, those who liked it for its political statement, etc. Most of the folks who invested in it just really loved the story.

AC: Are you working on any new projects?

JD: Yes, many, each at various stages. We have two in the production-fundraising stage and one in the scripting stage.

AC: Are you staying in the gay genre?

GD: No, not exclusively. But all of the projects have strong, authentic women characters who are making their own choices.

Late Bloomers opens on Friday, June 27 at the Dobie Theatre.

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