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'Zoe's' Look Puts First-Time Director on the Road to Hollywood

Movies: Critically snubbed, fashion photographer Deborah Attoinese's debut film finds champions of its distinctive visual flair.

November 03, 2001|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been a long road to Hollywood for "Zoe," fashion photographer and first-time director Deborah Attoinese's feature about an abused girl's arduous journey in search of the meaning of life. Nearly a decade in the making, the film was greeted coolly by critics when it debuted last winter at the Palm Springs Film Festival.

Film festival programmers, it turns out, have been far more accepting--and so have foreign distributors. "Zoe's" long-awaited Hollywood premiere on Sunday at AFI Fest gives Attoinese a chance to bask in what's looking more and more like a happy ending for her project.

"They say it's soft and not edgy enough. That nothing happens," Attoinese said one recent morning, referring to what some critics didn't like about the film. The youthful-looking director, shaking strands of straight, dark-blond hair out of her intense brown eyes, was eagerly digging into bacon and eggs on the patio of a Toluca Lake coffee shop. "An awful lot happens, but buildings don't explode and cars don't get wrecked. I call it an anti-action movie."

"Zoe" stars Vanessa Zima ("Ulee's Gold") as a 13-year-old who leaves her unhappy Detroit home and takes to the road for New Mexico, the land of her Indian ancestors. She encounters Cecilia, a proper British psychologist (Jenny Seagrove of "Local Hero") who is also on her way to New Mexico, to scatter her mother's ashes near a house where the mother once lived near her Indian lover. The plot develops as the two daughters struggle free of their emotional maternal entanglements and form new bonds of their choosing.

The movie has yet to win any awards, but organizers at a string of film festivals have embraced "Zoe."

"I'm attuned to directorial debuts," said Kelly Clement, programming chief of the Taos, N.M., Talking Picture Festival. Last spring he plucked "Zoe" from 1,300 entries to fill a schedule of 30 features.

"When they work they soar, and when they don't they fall flat on their face. This one soars."

Echoing programmers at eight other festivals where the film beat similar odds to get screen time, Clement said Attoinese brings a distinctive photographic flair that intertwines and illuminates the female relationships.

"I'm glad she depended so much on visual language to convey emotion," agreed Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who saw "Zoe" last January at its Palm Springs premiere. "Young directors tend to start out so much relying on the literary form."

Indeed, Attoinese, a New York native who chose not to go to college, said for her, film school was Ally & Gargano Inc., the New York agency where she started in TV commercial production. She later worked as a photographer of women's and children's fashion for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, W, Details and other magazines, in both editorial and advertising.

Influenced by the fabled Sarah Moon's dreamlike fashion photographs, Attoinese said she strove to compose images that resonated as movie stills, directing models as if they were actresses.

"Early on, when a model would come up to me and say, 'Wow! That felt really good, I felt that I went somewhere,' then I knew that we really captured something," Attoinese said. Her method, she said, translates well to film sets.

"Whenever there was a complicated scene, she'd give me a pep talk," said Zima, who turned 13 while shooting "Zoe." "And it was amazing, suddenly I was like there. I could just do anything as that character. Yes, she had some real good advice."

Attoinese said "Zoe" took shape from her own memories of running away from home at 16.

"For me the character is about that line before you cross into puberty," Attoinese said. "It's a magical time. I was drawn to write about that, the confusion about longing to grow up and [being] frightened to grow up."

Once she embarked on the film, the typical delays of an indie production became numbing routine. There were financing problems--"Nobody would give me a million dollars," Attoinese said. There were multiple script revisions. A Los Angeles journalist, Amy Dawes, came aboard as a co-writer. Casting became a problem as Jena Malone, originally attached to play Zoe, aged out of the role. Vanessa's older sister Madeline Zima (of TV's "The Nanny") even read for the part.

Eventually Carole Curb Nemoy came in as producer. Curb Entertainment marketing director Aaron Rogers said foreign buyers applaud the movie and have snapped up distribution rights in Western Europe, in portions of South America and throughout Asia. A deal for domestic distribution is being finalized, he said.

Bringing "Zoe" to life gave Attoinese an idea for her next project, a documentary she's titled "Hell in Search of Heaven," which is about what filmmakers go through to bring their projects to the screen.

*

"Zoe" screens at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Vogue Theatre, 6675 Hollywood Blvd., and at 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.

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