Virgin’s Mother Earth

Sophia, three years old, a moppet sprouting wavy dark brown hair, tall as my leg, naked, and tired of her eel avocado hand roll, whines to her mother. “Booty. I want booty.”

“Booty later,” says Deborah Kampmeier, auteur and Sophia’s mother (in no particular order). But despite her mother’s assuring, empathic tone, the child insists. And while I don’t suppose she’s demanding a bag of the puffed-rice-and-corn snack Pirate’s Booty or to play a Destiny’s Child album, I only half-expect a breast-feeding while I’m sitting at the dining room table drinking sake and chewing on yellowtail sushi. But then Kampmeier, thirty-nine, lives to prove those other-half expectations, funneling motherhood, spirituality, social politics, dreams, and secrets into deeply personal art. And at the moment, dispensing another homemade treat for her slowly weaning daughter.

“I knew if I was a filmmaker and a mother, I’d be a terrific mother,” Kampmeier says. “If I were just a mother, I’d be a horrible mother.”

Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride, Forest Gump), Kampmeier’s two-time executive producer, most prominent star, and most indispensable supporter, fundraiser, and cinematic soulmate, gushes in her dignified, thoughtful manner. “Deborah is sort of—I’m going into Shirley MacLaine-land here—‘Truth’ in what she displays and how she writes,” she says.

This was evident to me as well from our first meeting over tea in a downtown Manhattan café to discuss her first feature film as writer/director, appropriately named Virgin, due to be released in the fall. Five foot eleven, with straight blonde hair falling below her shoulders and soft, knowing blue eyes, Kampmeier reveals three dimples on each cheek with every easy smile. And there are many. Having earned Independent Spirit Award nominations this year for best feature made for less than $500,000 and for Elisabeth Moss (Girl, Interrupted) for best female lead, she has finally broken into that new, rarefied world of potential heartbreak and triumph.

It’s an accomplishment toward which she suffered through some backseat-like fumbling fits and starts. In the spring of 2002, financing fell through for the fourth straight year on the production of a film called Hounddog that she wrote and planned to direct, now set to begin shooting at the end of October. She recalls telling Wright Penn, “Fuck it. I’m going to make my first feature or die.”

So she turned to another script of hers that could be filmed more quickly and cheaply on digital video, eventually raising $65,000 in five weeks — mostly from friends and friends of friends. She moved the film’s setting from the South to “small town America” to accommodate shooting on location in towns near her home in Piermont, New York, about twenty miles north of New York City on the west side of the Hudson River.

Wright Penn agreed to lend her name to the film as executive producer for whatever clout it might help generate, accepted the role of the protagonist’s mother, and with the one week she had available, flew to New York and stayed at a Holiday Inn in the town of Orangeburg.

Fifteen-month-old Sophia became a calming influence on what might otherwise have been a hectic set. “There was something about having the child on set that made it very human,” Kampmeier says. “The set was the most sane I’d ever been on—everybody just chilled.”

She prepped the crew to understand that the baby was in many ways the director, and she would take priority above anything else. Occasionally an additional take would need to be sacrificed to stem a crying fit. And with time and money limited, there was no going back. In assembling a crew, her first choice for cinematographer wouldn’t agree to the arrangement before Kampmeier found Ben Wolf to shoot the film.

Wolf and Kampmeier collaborated to make the most of what they had, using the handheld DV camera to move through scenes and capture the internal chaos of the characters, sometimes lighting scenes with a flashlight. “It could feel raw and immediate,” Kampmeier says. “It was important to me in dealing with something mystical and magical that it was anchored in a real place.”

Moss describes her director as quiet, calm and “sort of like this Mother Earth creature.” Moss says she wasn’t quiet all the time, “but she had an instinct when she had to say something and when not to. She knew when you were OK and didn’t need anything and could just let you go.”

Kampmeier explains her on-set demeanor as like a meditation. “I’m listening to the actors, to the set, to the life that’s there in addition to the set, to myself,” she says. “Inspiration whispers, and you need to be quiet to listen.”

Filming wrapped in September 2002, and after ten weeks of editing, Virgin opened at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2003 and continued on the festival circuit, garnering wide praise, some awards, and other nominations which Kampmeier keeps pinned to the wall near her computer.

The film tells the story of a teenage girl named Jessie chaffing against the confines of her small-town religious upbringing through drinking and shoplifting while coveting the love of her godly-minded, squeaky-clean younger sister, fragile mother, and an uninterested boy.

In the woods behind a school party, a drunk Jessie accepts a quaalude, promptly passes out, and is raped. She has a dream later that night in which she believes that God tells her she is carrying the next Christ child. Jessie is indeed pregnant, though in the old-fashioned sperm-and-egg sense, and is ostracized by her family and town while her conviction and burgeoning spirituality set her on a path of self-discovery.

This might all sound farfetched and designed for shock value, but in Kampmeier’s hands, the supernatural remains purely natural (Jessie is deluded, after all), and the film’s tone is completely sympathetic. In fact, it’s partly autobiographical.

Born in 1964 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kampmeier was raised in Alabama and then in a small town outside of Atlanta, Georgia, where she rebelled against her Episcopalian upbringing and the teachings of Baptist churches in which she often played the cello. “Religion was pervasive in the South,” she says. “It made me very angry and alone.”

When she was eight or nine years old, she tells me, “I was obsessed with the terror that God was going to ask me to carry the next Christ child. I came from a patriarchal society. I didn’t want to be a vessel — didn’t want to be the mother of a great man. I wanted myself to do great things.” This line, as irrational and odd as it is, strikes a kind of feminist truth and appears almost verbatim in the film’s script as spoken by Jessie.

Kampmeier’s relationship with her younger sister, Jennifer, an AIDS researcher and mother of two daughters, forms another deep parallel with the film’s Jessie and her deeply religious sister. But despite all of her shameless exposure as we talked, some topics are off-limits. “Writing is a very mysterious process,” she says. “I’m very private about where my work comes from. I need to protect my psyche so it tells the truth next time. My secrets are my fuel.”

But the film’s focus is on Jessie, her faith, and the divinity in everyone. “We are all Christ,” Kampmeier says. “With the potential to be an enlightened and spiritual being.” Kampmeier doesn’t necessarily conform to conventional beliefs in Christ, confident that he was a real person, but she also recalls getting in trouble in confirmation class for insisting that the Second Coming “is in each of us.”

It’s not a literal lesson, but one that works in the film so that Jessie gains something more valuable from her experience than any literal truth. She learns that even in the darkest moments, there is grace, as illustrated by Jane Siberry’s soaring, wistful song “O Shenandoah * Sail Away” that plays over a rape scene. “I wanted the most awesomely beautiful music,” Kampmeier says. “I wanted it to be heartbreaking, to show that even in the worst moment, the divine is there.”

Intent to tell women’s stories that rarely make it on screen, Kampmeier founded Full Moon Films with her friend Raye Dowell, whom she met after moving from Atlanta to New York in the early ’80s to attend the National Shakespeare Conservatory. Admiring the work of filmmakers like Jane Campion, Kimberly Peirce, Lisa Cholodenko, Julie Taymor, Nancy Savoca, Kasi Lemmons, and Allison Anders, Kampmeier recognizes the need for women to have more opportunities to fail before they succeed.

“Women use power differently,” she says. “They have a capacity to improvise—to see, to hear, to be in touch with their intuition. And Hollywood studios aren’t the way to go. Independent voices are what make our society strong; masses always make us smaller.”

Kampmeier lives with Sophia and a cat named Ruwah (for the Hebrew word for “spirit”) in the basement of a converted old silk mill with a brick courtyard and Spark Hill Creek flowing beneath picture windows. While Leonard Cohen plays on a small stereo in the background, the conversation covers ground profoundly personal, universal, simply interesting, and frivolous.

She tells the story of how as part of a workshop at acting school called “Risk,” she was instructed to set an impossible goal, and so she decided to act in Wim Wenders’ next film in six weeks. While making a video fan letter and editing it in a room next to Martin Scorsese, she realized that she had her own story to tell. She shot 16mm film all over New York, flew to Berlin, bribed Wenders’ secretary, left long, teary phone messages for Peter Falk, and never got in the film or even received a reply. But she knew she was a filmmaker.

“Go after what you want as hard as you can, and you’ll get led to where you need to be,” she says. “It was a gift to be on the wrong path for so long.”

A week later, she admits, “Our interview has been an incredible stimulus for me to think and analyze the film and wrestle with articulating these deep impulses in an intellectual form.” Her experience making the film had been more emotional and intuitive. Like her writing, inspired by how “dreams weave aspects of your life together into a crystalized gem of truth.”

All of this talk of intuition and dreams and higher truths and spirituality can be like digesting cinder blocks for a nonbeliever, but when the conversation shifts to the recently deceased Ray Charles, I can finally see the light. When Kampmeier was four or five years old, her parents took her to Underground Atlanta. “It was this funky hippy land in the late ’60s,” she says. “Ray Charles was playing, and I was stunned by it. His beauty — it was like he radiated the divine. There is something more to this world, and Ray touched it.” Amen.

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