A short film shot around Missoula takes an artful look at dementia, forgiveness and independence.
“The Duchess of Suchness,” was written and directed by Andrew Rizzo, a digital filmmaking graduate student at the University of Montana.
The script was partly inspired by the longtime Missoula actor’s desire to get away from the typical young white male protagonist. He wanted to “engage with characters who are outside of the bell curve we normally are used to seeing,” he said.
For his lead actress, he turned to his friend Pepper Wilson, a fixture on the Hip Strip, where she’s lived above Bernice’s Bakery for years. She has also volunteered extensively for years, including ushering at the Missoula Symphony, the Missoula Community Theatre and on the UM campus.
The two became close after meeting about eight years ago.
“We were friends, confidantes. We shared a lot about our lives together, there was a trust that was built,” Rizzo said.
It was sealed when she came along to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert in 2012. (Of her time there, she said “you can’t improve on perfection.”) Her willingness to jump into the converted school bus dubbed the “Ghetto Gypsy” convinced Rizzo she had the “vibrancy” to pull something off on camera, despite her lack of acting experience.
The film, which uses dialogue sparingly, is about a woman named Rita (Wilson), who lives by herself and goes about an isolated daily routine. Her few social interactions are with Clyde (Jeff Medley), a mustachioed Meals on Wheels deliveryman who’s concerned that it may be time for Rita to move into assisted living.
While she’s fiercely holding onto her independence, the signs of dementia are flashing about – she leaves her keys in the door, and spends her nights calling for a “Brian” from her past who never calls back.
Rita’s someone “who’s had the good and the bad happen to her,” Rizzo said.
In Wilson’s view, the film is about one particular woman’s choice in life. “It’s food for thought for women – even men – of a certain age.”
It’s Rizzo’s story, she said, and “if I’m familiar with it, that was a plus.”
While only 20 minutes long, “Duchess” is imbued with sadness and a good amount of tension as Rita is forced to make hard choices.
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To finance the film, Rizzo created a Facebook page and “microfunded” it instead of using Kickstarter. It involved a lot of favors as well. For instance, a friend volunteered his kitchen and living room to sub in as Rita’s apartment, and they brought in furniture to create the right look. (Keep your eyes on her clock).
Products like the Meals on Wheels logo on the cartons of Rita’s food and Clyde’s jacket were specially made by a Los Angeles film product design company.
Rizzo said they wanted the film to appear that it could take place any time in the recent past, to reflect “the timeless nature of the world the woman has been in.”
The shots are carefully framed, partially inspired by a photograph Rizzo found of his grandmother. It was a “well-balanced,” old-fashioned photograph heavy on symmetry.
It reminded Rizzo of how organized his grandmother was with her routines.
Shots of Rita’s routine, such as her nightly ritual playing an organ while looking at a photo of Brian, are repeated.
That repetition plays into the cinematography by Eric Ristau. Rizzo collaborated with Ristau and his brother, Damon Ristau, on “The Best Bar in America,” a feature film screened in Missoula last year.
Wilson said a short winter shoot working with a small crew of young filmmakers was “quite a thrill.” While she worked backstage on theater back in New Jersey for years, she’d never stepped in front of a camera.
She got quite comfortable with it, though.
After they shot 10 takes of a particular scene, she said she didn’t want to do another.
Rizzo replied, “Only two days, and already you’re a diva,” she said.
“The Duchess of Suchness,” will screen at 9 p.m. Friday, July 25, Roxy Theatre, 718 S. Higgins Ave. Donations will be accepted to help the filmmakers submit the movie to festivals.
“The Duchess of Suchness” starring Pepper Wilson and Jeff Medley. Written and directed by Andrew Rizzo. 25 min. Director of photography was Eric Ristau.