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Independent's Day

Who says you need megabucks to get a feature film made? Award-winning 'Manny & Lo' winged it in five weeks on a micro-budget, thanks to the help of the Sundance Filmmakers Lab.

August 04, 1996|Anne Bergman | Anne Bergman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

To hear Lisa Krueger and Mary Kay Place tell it, the entire production of "Manny & Lo"--a micro-budget, independent feature film written and directed by Krueger and starring Place--was a perpetual lovefest.

"We just instantly clicked," says Place, sitting next to Krueger on a couch at the Bel Age Hotel in Los Angeles, where the two are conducting a series of press interviews. Together, they're irrepressible, leaping into each other's sentences, while relating the process of getting "Manny & Lo" made with a palpable joy.

The film--released by Sony Pictures Classics in L.A. on Friday--tells the story of two sisters, Manny and Lo (short for Amanda and Laurel), aged 11 and 16, recently orphaned and on the run from the system that wants to separate them and put them into foster care. Determined to keep moving so they "won't get nailed," the girls camp out in vacant suburban model homes, subsisting on shoplifted Twinkies and Cheerios.

When Lo's pregnancy--which she's denied until her belly is ready to pop--forces them to settle down in a cabin tucked into the countryside, the two begin to research what they'll need when the baby comes.

Enter Place as Elaine, a clerk in a local baby store, with her titian-colored hair neatly piled on top of her head, her body crisply wrapped in a starched nurse's uniform. Elaine, as she'd be the first to say, has never been wrong when it comes to infants.

Lo decides to kidnap baby expert Elaine, forcing a hunting rifle into her back and locking her feet together with a bicycle chain. Once in custody, the girls figure, Elaine will help them. But once captured, Elaine turns out to be not quite how the girls imagined, and an intense triangular relationship develops between the three characters.

*

More fantastic than the arc of the film's story, however, is how swiftly the 36-year-old Krueger--an untried filmmaker--had her vision realized from screenplay to completed film.

Krueger had submitted the script, her first feature, to the Utah-based Sundance Filmmakers Lab and was accepted into the directors lab in June 1994. A little over a year later, Krueger was on location shooting her film with a complete cast and crew.

Formed to encourage alternative filmmaking, Sundance offers fledgling filmmakers a chance to collaborate with working film professionals--including actors, directors and screenwriters--to develop their projects. As a Sundance fellow, Krueger was invited to rehearse, shoot on video and edit scenes from "Manny & Lo" over the course of four weeks. It was John Lyons, serving as the casting director for the Sundance lab, who suggested that Krueger have Place play Elaine at the lab.

"My jaw dropped," Krueger recalls. "I couldn't believe he'd uttered those words. I said, 'If Mary Kay Place will do this, that will be an absolute dream come true.' "

For her part, Place had been moved by the script and was anxious to try it out. A writer-director herself (with writer credits including TV's "MASH" and director credits including "Dream On" and "Friends"), Place says she'd written a history of Elaine even before she came to the lab.

The women didn't meet beforehand, but before the lab began, Krueger hosted a reading at her house, and within minutes Krueger knew Place was Elaine. "I said, 'This is a real actor I'm listening to and hearing,' " Krueger says. "It's a totally different thing than reading it yourself in your head. It's suddenly like it had some kind of weight in reality."

Once the lab ended, Krueger and Place returned to their respective homes, each with different impressions of what would happen next.

"My instinct was that this film was going to be made come hell or high water," Place remembers. "I knew after we'd worked on it at the lab that Lisa was going to be making this film the next year." What Place wasn't so sure about was her own involvement. "I wanted to do it, but I didn't know if I was going to be invited to do it," she recalls.

"I assumed she knew," says Krueger, almost apologetically. "I was telling everybody that she was attached to the project! In fact, I was telling prospective producers that there were two givens: My brother [Tom Krueger] was going to be the cinematographer and Mary Kay Place was Elaine."

Krueger, who had met with various producers beginning in November of 1994, finally hooked up with producing team Dean Silver and Marten Hecht, who were enthusiastic about the project. Silver's producing credits include "Spanking the Monkey" and "Flirting With Disaster," while Hecht's include "Wigstock: The Movie."

With Silver and Hecht willing to make a commitment, Krueger decided to see how serious they really were. Knowing that the part of Lo--a fiercely independent and troubled young woman--would be the toughest to cast, Krueger said to her producers: "I know we just met, and I know we just decided to make this movie together, but we have to start looking for that girl now."

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