Just a little over a year ago, “The Keeping Hours” quietly premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, playing a theater at the Arclight Culver City that didn’t quite fill up on a Thursday night, though you wouldn’t know it from the roar of the crowd inside. The theater felt full with the laughter of children, an unusual sound given that they were seated (somewhat) for a Blumhouse production, with a logo soon appearing to remind the audience of past horror hits like “Paranormal Activity” and “Insidious.”
The film’s director Karen Moncrieff had, in fact, made a spooky supernatural thriller, but the kind that was bound to leave far more lasting scars on the adults in the audience than the kids, despite the fact it concerns a dead child, and although she’d make sure that loss was deeply felt, it was a feeling of family that pervaded the room, as the crew on hand, including Jason Blum himself, clearly took pride in the film.
“One thing cinema does is to say, ‘What if…” said a beaming Moncrieff in introducing “The Keeping Hours,” referring to the tantalizing hypothetical at its center, positing how a set of estranged parents (Lee Pace and Carrie Coon) would react if their son were to reenter their life following the heartbreak of losing him six years earlier — and all that was said between them that can’t be taken back. However, this question took on a different meaning for me at the end of the third film of Moncrieff’s that I thoroughly enjoyed as I looked around the half-full auditorium, wondering what would happen if the director had ever received the promotional and distribution support that measured up to the films she’s made — strong dramas centered around complicated female leads, the kind that tend to surprise when you actually watch them after reading uninspired plot descriptions and photoshopped key art likely authored by marketing departments predisposed not to take the films seriously in the first place.
Although this fate has befallen filmmakers of both genders for generations, it has been particularly cruel to women and although much of the emphasis on empowering women behind the camera has been focused on creating the opportunities to get them there in the first place, Moncrieff’s career has inadvertently offered a case study for the need of greater support once the films have been made, delivering one skillful and compelling film after another that has been failed by a system where a lack of imagination – and likely a diversity of perspective behind the scenes – has contributed to a disconnect between the films the writer/director has made and the way they’ve been sold. Sadly this streak continues as “The Keeping Hours” snuck onto DVD and digital (including Netflix) in recent months following its lone screening at LAFF and another at the Aspen Film Festival a few months later, not even enjoying the benefit of possibly being discovered on the shelves of Blockbuster as Moncrieff’s previous films had, Instead, it would be dropped into the ether akin to dropping an eight-year-old into the middle of the Pacific Ocean and being told to swim to shore.
This isn’t the way things should’ve gone for Moncrieff, who had as promising a start to her directing career as any budding auteur could hope for when her debut “Blue Car” accepted into Sundance in 2002. At 39, she arrived in Park City slightly older than most first-time filmmakers at the festival, though if anyone could tell by the film, it was only in how unusually rich “Blue Car” is for a first feature. Depicting a young woman struggling to find her place after her parents’ divorce, “Blue Car” feels like the work of someone who’s finally found their calling, with Moncrieff becoming a director following a frustrating career as an actress. She had come out to Los Angeles after attending Northwestern, which she was able to afford using money she earned from beauty pageants — she was crowned Miss Illinois in 1986 — but learned first-hand how few interesting roles there were for women as she was cast in one soap opera after another.
Certainly, Moncrieff had never been offered a part as juicy as the one she gave to Agnes Bruckner as Meg, a high schooler who has grown resentful of her mother (Margaret Colin) since her father left abruptly and unhappy about taking care of her equally unsettled younger sister when she feels no one is looking after her. That changes when a missed bus leads to getting a lift home from her AP English teacher (David Straithairn), who encourages her to enter a poetry contest based on the talent she’s shown for writing in class. As the only person she feels to take her seriously, she confides deeply personal details to him about what she’s feeling, ostensibly to make her poetry more vivid, but not realizing that he’s gradually building a trust with her that he’ll use to exploit later. Moncrieff is careful throughout not to portray the teacher as a monster, denying him that presence in the film, instead taking a far more interesting route by giving Meg greater agency in her own story and exploring her misplaced loyalties as a teen, whether it’s still giving the benefit of the doubt to her absent father when her mother works hard to keep a roof over her head or readily accepting things that go against her self-interest to prove she’s an adult.
In retrospect, it’s outrageous to think that “Blue Car” ended up at Miramax, but ever fond of provocative films, Harvey Weinstein ponied up $1.5 million for the unflinching drama when it became the buzz of the festival, only to let that momentum wheeze out over the year-and-a-half that followed. Release dates came and went and when the film did finally arrive in theaters, it was accompanied by little in the way of promotion than a generic poster featuring the floating head of the then-unknown Bruckner. Then again, that surely was preferable to the direction the Home Entertainment division took, lopping off Bruckner’s head entirely (or more likely, using someone else’s body) for the DVD box cover, a knock-off of “American Beauty”’s poster featuring a rose and a woman’s bare midriff to correspond with a New York Times’ rave for the film, but is wildly offensive in relation to what the film’s actually about. (“A Sensitive Sexual Duet!” brays Us Weekly on the back.) Making back only a third of its Sundance purchase price in theaters, “Blue Car” was seen as a disappointment (though surely recouping its money back after a healthy run on cable), a tag worn only by Moncrieff in the years to follow rather than any number of people at Miramax who failed to understand what the film was about or were willfully ignorant of it.
Although “Blue Car” may not have reached a larger audience, at least it made its way to some of the right people in Hollywood. Moncrieff was enlisted to write a number of scripts, though a series of for-hire jobs felt creatively stifling and led her to write “The Dead Girl,” inspired by own experience of serving on a murder trial in which the victim grew more human and emotionally tactile to her over the course of the proceedings. Like “Blue Car,” she’s less interested in the crime that would be the plot of any other film than the connection shared by a collection of women who have ties to a recently deceased prostitute, yet have a deeper bond in how they’ve been shaped by a generational cycle of abuse and neglect, visiting the shy caretaker who discovers the corpse (Toni Collette), a morgue attendant (Rose Byrne), a neglected wife (Mary Beth Hurt), and the prostitute’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and her girlfriend (Kerry Washington) who have all been made to feel devalued and continually compromise themselves in various ways as a form of protection when the rest of the world shows no quarter. (As she would tell Filmmaker Magazine’s Howard Feinstein, “‘The Dead Girl’ is the story of a violent attack on a woman, but I am not interested in adding more images of a man killing a woman to what is a very, very long history of such images.”)
Now seeing the late Brittany Murphy in the film’s titular role is particularly eerie and even if the film weren’t so effective in turning cultural attitudes and judgment into real obstacles for the women to overcome, Moncrieff’s amplification of their stories on the big screen seems like a victory in itself, offering dignity if not easy answers for their plight. As an actor’s showcase and ensemble drama made immediately in the wake of “Crash,” the director assembled a ridiculously deep bench for the film — Josh Brolin doesn’t even make it above the title – but this proved to be a double-edged sword. If a lack of internal corporate excitement determined the fate of “Blue Car,” it could be argued that too much excitement did in “The Dead Girl” when it touched down in the fall of 2006 as a producer seeing Oscar bait and a distributor eager to make a name for itself placed their own interests ahead of what was best for the movie.
You wouldn’t know now from the polished final product that Moncrieff had turned around “The Dead Girl” in about six months, commencing production in April 2006, but that there’s a good chance you don’t know about “The Dead Girl” at all is owed to the fact that it didn’t have much of a runway, with producers Tom Rosenberg and Gary Lucchesi of Lakeshore Entertainment pulling the film from its initial distributor to get the film into the Oscar race. While the intentions might’ve been good, they turned to the nascent First Look Studios, which had a unique connection to “The Dead Girl” since the film had been developed at Glass Key where First Look’s new CEO Henry Winterstern had been an executive, and incentive to give the film their all, eager to establish themselves as a competitor to specialty labels with far deeper pockets such as Fox Searchlight and Lionsgate after a recent merger with Capital Entertainment.
Yet in First Look’s rush to be seen as credible, “The Dead Girl” was hastily thrust into awards season, booked into a November premiere at AFI Fest, rarely the place to launch a contender without the benefit of a full-fledged studio behind it, and crossed their fingers the film would make an immediate splash. While critics were kind, the handful of reviews that could come out of the films two screenings at the Arclight Hollywood had little time to percolate before a platform release on New Year’s Eve, leaving the film to twist in the wind at a time when ad rates double and journalists’ attention spans shrink to all but the most prominent awards hopefuls. The film eventually scored three Spirit Award nominations — for Best Feature, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress for Hurt, but barely left Los Angeles, grossing just $19,000, curtailing a wider run before it started, and could once again be used as evidence of failure when awards chasing resulted in a film that regular audiences were never actually encouraged to see directly.
One can only assume this left Moncrieff without the might to mount another production, but she persisted, pulling together the 2013 drama “The Trials of Cate McCall,” starring Kate Beckinsale as a lawyer trying to reestablish herself after getting sober. One senses the film’s debut in the States on Lifetime wasn’t necessarily a reflection of its quality after being sold internationally to various theatrical markets, and that Moncrieff and her producing partner Eric Karten heard more than once the dreaded words “difficult to market,” seemingly coded language to avoid dealing with dynamic female stories except in the most obvious ways that’s only a step removed from “difficult to work with” as a simple descriptor used in the industry to prevent the professional ascension of women. Now, Moncrieff had made three solid films, but none of them were financial successes through no fault of her own, in effect perpetuating the myth that there was no audience for her films when the public wasn’t ever given a chance to see them in the first place.
In some ways having this track record made Moncrieff an ideal director to work for Blumhouse, having both experience and credibility to attract a strong cast, but not enough success to price her out of the company’s notoriously low-budget productions. (Contrary to popular belief, Blumhouse has worked with female filmmakers, making one of his first productions as he began to branch out from the “Paranormal Activity” series, the Catherine Hardwicke thriller “Plush” and more recently Veena Sud’s “The Lie,” though part of hedging the big bets he’s made has been working with industry veterans willing to take a pay cut to do something different than what they’re known for, a talent pool that’s largely male to begin with.) On paper, Blumhouse was also the ideal partner to make “The Keeping Hours,” a drama largely contained to a single setting with genre elements that could be made for a reasonable sum.
Moncrieff had come across the script for “The Keeping Hours” through her jogging buddy Rebecca Sonnenshine, a screenwriter who had been inspired by producer John Miranda’s time volunteering at a bereavement group, where he’d hear time and again women talking about how the death of a child would precipitate a divorce and came up with the killer hook of “what if the child were to come back?” It’s the kind of elevator pitch that you could see being easily translated to a trailer, defying the previous marketing impediment that had flustered those working on Moncrieff’s previous films, but in signing up with Blumhouse, “The Keeping Hours” would encounter another – if the film wasn’t seen by the powers that be as having mass-market potential, it could be simply slipped onto streaming services that could recoup its production cost without any further marketing spend at all.
That’s exactly what happened, even after the film had successful test screenings leading up to an Audience Award at the L.A. Film Fest, and while the director made the movie she set out to make, it somehow seems like a step backwards. Now, female filmmakers not only have to contend to get the job in the first place, but fight a system in which old ways of marginalizing films that dynamically portray the female experience have shifted from the front end of the production process to the back where a lack of support can leave a film that’s as solid as “The Keeping Hours” to fulfil its destiny as a ghost story in every which way, lurking in the reservoirs of Netflix and iTunes, only discoverable to those who actually know to go looking for it. It’s why earlier this year, it made sense for one of the best films at Sundance, Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale,” to resist a costly theatrical run to take a deal with HBO, where it wasn’t just the size of the audience that could sample the film, but equally if not more importantly, the apparatus that could promote it, capitalizing on the habit of seeing Laura Dern on the channel in “Enlightened” and “Big Little Lies” to cultivate appointment viewing.
Still, even if attention is approaching the value of money as a currency, the two remain intertwined and while Moncrieff has weathered an industry that has undergone radical upheaval, from a time when producers had a responsibility to put their best foot forward when it came to distribution to protect their investment, aggressively seeking out a theatrical run as the primary path towards raising a profile that could benefit a film through its home video release and beyond, to actively trying to avoid a theatrical run to get their money out as quickly as possible, collapsing distribution windows to evade further cost — and by extension, usually reducing any given film’s cultural footprint, the new Hollywood hasn’t appeared to have been any kinder to her than the old one. It is here where I mention my own complicity in upholding this system since I failed to write about “The Keeping Hours” when it premiered at the L.A. Film Festival, assuming that my time was better spent writing about films that didn’t have some form of distribution locked in, but as Moncrieff’s career has shown, that hardly is a final step in securing a film’s future. I can’t help but think if repertory houses are still around in a few decades, some enterprising programmers will rediscover her work as a few are currently doing in showing the work of Joan Micklin Silver, Martha Coolidge and Susan Seidelman films now, but by then it will be too late. Moncrieff’s legacy may be visible in all the other filmmakers who come after her, perhaps with a little less of a struggle to get their films seen by audiences, but her work deserves to be seen in its own right, something that’s up to everybody else to help achieve.