Kira McLean in "Permanent"

Interview: Colette Burson on Changing Things Up with “Permanent”

Upon reaching a personal and professional crossroads after parting with her longtime partner in life and work, Colette Burson was inspired to go back to her roots for a project that she would write and direct herself. In the case of “Permanent,” this quite literally meant her hair.

“This one was a very personal one for me because it had a lot of autobiographical elements and yet it was such fun and so funny to write,” says Burson, who co-created such savage social satires for TV as “The Riches” and “Hung” following her 1999 feature debut “Coming Soon.” “In terms of my journey as a creative person, it was a nice transformative project for me.”

Burson probably wasn’t thinking anything good would ever come from the time she wanted nothing more than to change up about her Dorothy Hamill do at the age of 12, only to end up at a beauty school outside her native Abingdon, Virginia once her parents relented and go through the shock of seeing her frizz out in every direction. Yet “Permanent” finds amidst its young protagonist’s wild curls an ideal place for Burson’s devilishly loopy sense of humor that she’s grown in the years since, using her own experience as the jumping off point for Aurelle Dixon (Kira McLean) as she moves to a new town, with her unfortunate hair situation exacerbating her unease about jumping into middle school. Although her parents Jeanne (Patricia Arquette) and Jim (Rainn Wilson) put up a brave face, they too struggle with feelings of inadequacy, with Jeanne concerned she’s no longer attractive to her husband while working full-time as Jim pursues becoming a doctor, fearing that he might be revealed with wearing a toupee during the school-mandated swimming lessons he takes as part of pursuing his degree.

Hovering over the entire proceedings is how the Dixons’ anxieties are amplified by the fact they do not come from money, and not only is “Permanent” refreshing in how it is able to tuck in a shrewd consideration of class into a comedy that’s so light on its feet at every turn, but that it has such affection for all its characters, some of whom may be trapped in their way of thinking, but makes it so you can appreciate where they’re coming from, both philosophically and socioeconomically. Then again, this isn’t uncommon in Burson’s work, previously following a family of con artists who finagle their way into high society in “The Riches” or observing the rude awakening for a gym teacher in “Hung” who watches the privilege he has as a white, middle-aged man ebb away in tough economic times to the point he becomes a prostitute, using absurdist humor to highlight how people are shaped by the world they live in and mining the tension in adjusting to it without complete compromise for big laughs.

First and foremost, however, “Permanent” is a lot of fun, with Burson clearly enjoying getting creative with Southern colloquialisms and eliciting winning performances from McLean, Arquette, Wilson and Nena Daniels, who steal scenes as the lone African-American student at Aurelle’s school that begrudgingly takes pity on her fellow outcast. Shortly before the film hits theaters, the writer/director was gracious enough to talk about reconnecting with both her youth and her singular voice with “Permanent,” as well as filming in Virginia and working on the film’s wonderfully mischievous score.

Kira McLean in "Permanent"I’ve heard you say you weren’t too concerned with exposition when writing this, so it came to you more in scenes. What was the process of figuring this out?

I often say that one of the greatest honors of my life is that I am actually a professional writer and a successful writer, and it never ceases to fascinate me [that] it’s such a journey. There are so many ways to write. You can write from an outline. You can write from a book. You can write from instinct. But many times, when we are professional writers, we are hemmed in by the dictates of the buyer or the dictates of our outline, so when I began writing this one, which I actually began while living in Mexico 13 years ago, I decided I was going to write a scene I thought was interesting, followed by another scene that I thought was interesting.

It felt like a creative rebellion because I had been earning my living through being a writer for about eight years at that point, but lately, I’ve been doing new writing in the same way in terms of generating new projects, just writing what I’m fascinated in and not really caring about much of anything else. That is radical for a writer to do, or at least on an interior revolution level.

When you start writing this 13 years ago and then come back to it when I understand you have a daughter about the same age as the character in the film, did it give you a different perspective on things over the years?

It made it feel very sweet. It had meaning for me that I wrote this based on a permanent I got when I was about 12, and then I made it when my daughter was 12 turning 13. She actually appears as an extra 22 times [in the film], but nobody really knows it. It’d be a great drinking game. For example when [the parents] are playing badminton, she’s the girl riding behind in a bicycle. when the bus comes around the corner, [or when we needed a] a girl with a side ponytail that she hates, she’s mortified they let them talk her into wearing it, but that’s her. So she’s all over the movie, if you know where to find her. And she got really sick of being an extra, I was like, “Too bad, saved me a hundred bucks! You’ve got to be an extra!” [laughs]

Because there’s a place that’s from the South that resides in my self-conscious, the movie seemed to come from the deep Southern part of me – and I’m a very bicoastal person. I’ve lived in New York or LA for 25 years – but [shooting] in Richmond reminded me of my hometown because it was 104 degrees with full-on humidity and because my own daughter was there and she was best friends with the girl playing some version of myself, the whole thing did feel like a wondrous, cathartic, emotional dream sometimes.

Patricia Arquette and Rainn Wilson in "Permanent"Since I’m guessing you’re bringing in some Angelenos and New Yorkers to work on the crew for this film, was there a Southern boot camp to get them immersed in Virginia culture?

When you’re making a low-budget movie, you don’t really get to bring in a lot of crew. I essentially made this for a million dollars with a union crew, which is $700,000 with a non-union crew in 18 days, and I cast an unusually large number of local actors, I used an unusually large number of local crew. And I hired all women for all but one of my department heads, so it was a very female, very committed, very rocking crew and what I wanted people to understand was the South and even though Richmond is a big city, the people there understood how everybody’s connected to that river there and it’s a city that lives with the old and the new intermingled in a way that I don’t know any other city that does. It’s really rich in terms of locations. You turn a corner and it’s 1892. You turn another corner and it’s 1923.

I was lucky in that I had a strong production design department and, although the clothes are a little harder to come by – my costume designer did have to modify the clothes because you can’t really you know, find costumes for your low budget movie at Goodwill from 1982 – in terms of props – the random Thermos, the random metal duck, the random macrame piece, that stuff is all over Richmond and it’s easy to find if you just had professionals, which I had. So it wasn’t hard to put together because people understood the general Southern vibe I was going for.

Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?

Scooterboard hockey was crazy [and] I had to shoot all of my pool stuff in like a day-and-a-half. But here’s the thing — when you’re making a movie for that small amount of money, every day is a deep challenge to make your day, so you really have to go into it like a general, figuring out what you can lose, how you’re going to do it, what you can combine, and what you’re going to sacrifice because usually you have to sacrifice something.

Was the experience of putting this together much different than your first film “Coming Soon”?

The theme of being an insider or an outsider runs in my work. When I first got to New York, I was completely and utterly stunned with how different the adolescence of my peers was to my own. I grew up like [you see in] “Permanent,” under the dome. When I first got to the University of Virginia, my roommate told me I was the first person she ever met without irony, but I just came from the land. [laughs] People were straightforward and Southern oddball in their way. So “Coming Soon” was really about the adolescence of three girls in New York looking for an orgasm, [which] was just me wide-eyed about what that world would be, and then ”The Riches” is very much about outsiders and “Hung” is an insider who’s become an outsider, and “Permanent” is outsiders. So this feeling of being set apart or alienated or hermetically sealed off, or not – or being in the center as an insider – these are themes that interest me.

Nena Daniels and Kira McLean in "Permanent"I have noticed there’s almost always a character, usually African-American – whether it was Chunky K (Davenia McFadden), who poses as a maid after being Minnie Driver’s cellmate in prison, in “The Riches” or Lennie James’ character Charlie in “Hung” and Lydia here in “Permanent,” played winningly by Nena Daniels, would seem to apply – that’s able to say what the other characters can’t. Is that a character that you find yourself needing or someone who comes about organically as you’re writing?

That’s an interesting point. That was certainly the case with Chunky K in “The Riches.” She was saying what no one else would say. When you talk about being an outsider, growing up in one of these towns in the ‘80s, much less the ‘70s, the ‘60s, even now, the demographic divide is so intense. What I portray on the bus [in “Permanent”] was absolutely the case on my bus. There’s 20 white kids and one black kid, so I don’t think there was a lot to lose in speaking your mind because you’re already a pariah or treated differently. Now, of course, there were examples of the minority being more popular than the rest, but that was not always the case. I do think a certain level of racism lurked beneath the surface and I’m not really just addressing my hometown. I don’t think the one I’m inspired by was particularly racist, but it runs throughout all the South and it’s there and it’s very subtle until it’s not. In a way, I think we’re seeing some of that across the country with Trump, so the racism comes out.

The Craig Wedren/Joe Wong score plays such a crucial role in setting the tone and the rhythm for the film. Because you had worked with Craig before, did you have an idea of what you wanted beforehand?

Since I worked with Craig on “Hung,” I knew it would be good because I knew Craig was amazing, but he didn’t even necessarily had the time to do it for me, so he chose to collaborate with Joe Wong, a composer he was interested creatively who had a completely different sound. The two of them together then began to create something for me that seems to have a life all its own that I never expected. The score, particularly after I see the movie when I haven’t seen it for a while, I’m just stunned at what a complex, beautiful thing they created. They used a whole panoply of instruments —  a xylophone, all sorts of weirdo African and Southern [instruments] and oddball things they were blowing into and making sounds out of and then combined them with animal sounds because I had this theme of the animals and the whale sounds.

So they created this tapestry for me that I initially [worried], “Oh, is it going to be too much? Is that going to be ridiculous to have a bunch of roars and whale clicks?” But they did it with such a level of sophistication that it came to be one of my favorite things. For example, the first frame of the film when [the studio logos for] Magnolia Films and 2929 [come up], there’s a whale sound and it’s like “Ooooh oooh oooh.” There’s something kind of creepy about it, but then it’s just like you’re about to go down the rabbit hole. There’s an element of mystery. You’re about to switch worlds and you’re not just in a comedy and that’s 100 percent them. They upped my game for sure.

“Permanent” opens on December 15th in limited release, including the Monica Film Center in Los Angeles, the Sunshine Cinema 5 in New York and the Criterion Cinemas at Movieland in Richmond, Virginia. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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