The Indie Godmother

While covering the 2003 St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, where one of my films was showing, Joe Williams, film critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote an article in which he referred to me as the “godmother of the St. Louis filmmaking community.” I was flattered but also a bit embarrassed. I have no idea how he came up with it, but the name stuck. More and more people began calling me “the godmother,” and I felt slightly uncomfortable bearing the title without really knowing what it meant. I certainly didn’t start my career in film as any kind of godmother.

In 1989, after serving 20 years as medical missionaries in West Africa, my physician husband, John, and I returned to the United States. John decided to go back to Africa a year later to trace the course of the Niger River—an adventure he had always dreamed of. I decided to remain in the States to earn our living and to reconstruct my American life.

To familiarize myself with the Niger River history while John was away, I read the diaries of 18th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park’s expeditions to the river, and as soon as I finished, I knew that I had to retell his story. I quickly realized that film would probably be the best medium for his dramatic tale, so I decided to become a screenwriter. It made sense at the time. After five months of intensive research and seven months of writing (often while working as the night shift nurse at a local hospital), I had an epic story condensed into a 120-page script. But I knew that a script was not enough and that I would need to learn the business of film as well. I ordered Hollywood Reporter and Variety and began to chart the language and conventions of film industry subculture—much as I had learned the culture of West Africa. Thus armed, I naively set out to conquer the film world.

Several key events happened right around that time. 1) I heard John Singleton speak at a local St. Louis university, and he emphasized that volunteerism played a critical role in his success. 2) I attended my first film festival in St. Louis and became an immediate fan of independent and foreign film. 3) Joliba, my screenplay about Mungo Park, placed first in a contest and was selected for the 1994 Independent Feature Film Market. Those ten days in New York City slammed me into the thick of the indie film industry, and I took to it like a duck to water. And 4), I gained two mentors—John Grissmer, a New York writer-director who later became an investor in my company, ALLfilm, Inc., and Gesine Thompson, a Los Angeles writer-director whose phone calls energized me time and time again.

Taking John Singleton’s advice, I volunteered to help the St. Louis Film Commission during preproduction for the 1996 Bill Murray film, Larger than Life. When MGM asked me to be the health officer for the set, I saw it as a terrific opportunity to learn film production from the inside out. The set nurse often has little to do, so I became fast friends with the publicist, talked to all the crew, learned about everyone’s job, and was getting paid for my education. Most importantly, though, I learned set protocol.

After several more gigs as a set nurse, I volunteered to produce an independent feature film, Amateur Hour (1996), I learned two major lessons from this experience: that age and responsibility are an asset, and if you invest your own money in a project, be prepared to lose it. In spite of disappointment, I kept a steady course in pursuit of my film career.

I continued to market Joliba, which included sending the screenplay to the agent of actress Alex Kingston (of “ER” fame), who then called and said Alex wanted to meet me. I flew to London over a long weekend, and met her at a Soho restaurant. She was the exact image I had of Mungo Park’s wife, Allie. We had a delightful meal together and, by dinner’s end, Alex was attached to the project. On another occasion, I attended a production conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, during which I visited places where Mungo Park lived and worked, and then stopped in London on the way back to meet Dick Pope, Mike Leigh’s award-winning cinematographer. Dick, very familiar with Africa himself, said he would like to shoot Joliba “even if I’m in a wheelchair.” Now all I needed was the director and a Mungo.

Along the way, I have collaborated with writer/director Tom McDonough on several script and film projects. We reworked a script from a Milwaukee writer into Anna Petrovic, You Rock! with Michelle Phillips attached as the rock-band singing mom. Tom and I worked hard on developing it, even attending the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, but in the end we weren’t able to get the project going. After losing the option, we decided to write our own scripts. Tom wrote the charming romantic comedy, For Love or Money (1999). Together we wrote a low-budget drama, The Lady Next Door (1999) and the short film, America’s Favorite Pastime (2001), which Tom directed and I produced. I was especially proud of obtaining permission from Sony Music and Bruce Springsteen to use “Glory Days” for our closing credits. America’s Favorite Pastime played in several film festivals across the United States.

I have also been the volunteer curator of the New Filmmakers Forum for the St. Louis International Film Festival for the past seven years. I spend many hours watching submitted films to choose five competition features, cultivate personal relationships with the selected filmmakers before they arrive in St. Louis, and support them and their films in every way I can. For the 1999 New Filmmakers Forum, I chose a delightful, hybrid-documentary, Bret Stern’s Road to Park City. After the festival I became the producer’s rep for the film. It was chosen as the opening night film for Slamdance 2000. We were able to get a small distribution deal and opened theatrically in New York City. It is now available at specialty video rental stores. I still enjoy watching this classic story about filmmaking, which should be in every film school library alongside Living in Oblivion (1995).

Twice I was selected for the Sundance Producer’s Conference, where I made some lifelong friends including percussionist extraordinaire Will Calhoun, who was attending the Composer’s Conference at the same time. Will composed the music for the two short documentary films I produced with director/editor Pat Scallet (The Niger River Trek, 2003 and Fundamental Fairness, 2004). The latter was produced in an effort to gain clemency for Bill Hanes, a man convicted of murder in a bizarre case. Fundamental Fairness won two first place awards at its first two film festivals (Lake Arrowhead Festival of Film, and the St. Louis International Film Festival).

I have been a judge for the Cinemaspoke Screenplay Competition sponsored by Cinema St. Louis, for which I concentrate on critiquing format, an area that is often weak, and one I feel especially confident about. I also represent scripts and finished films to distributors I know. With my help, St. Louis documentarian Doug Whyte made a deal with Seventh Art Releasing for his film, Pushing up Daisies (to be released this year). Attending Sundance yearly (this was my ninth year) helps me keep my industry relationships up-to-date.

Today, my script about Mungo Park has a new title, River of Sorrow. Nicholas Muccini, an experienced Los Angeles producer, is now my co-writer and co-producer on the project, and my old friend Will Calhoun has agreed to compose the music. Nick and I are currently developing a family holiday drama, Lives of the Saints. Screenwriter, and St. Louis native, Brian Hohlfeld, (He Said, She Said; Pooh’s Heffalump Movie) will direct. Actor James LeGros is tapped to play the lead role. The film will shoot in St. Louis next Christmas season.

So does any or all of this rightfully earn me the title “godmother of St. Louis film?” I don’t know. Maybe it’s less complicated than accomplishments and pedigree—maybe it’s simply because I am a woman filmmaker of a certain age. Either way, I feel comfortable with the title now, because to me, it’s about respect for the experiences I’ve had and am willing to share with others. I glory in championing talented St. Louis filmmakers, and value the fact that people trust me to read their scripts and give them advice about their projects. I like being a godmother—a nurturer, a comforter, and an encourager.

About :

Roberta Lautenschlager was born and raised in the St. Louis, Missouri area. She spent 20 years with her husband providing health care in rural West Africa and then became a screenwriter and filmmaker after she was a grandmother.