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Wendy Jo Carlton: 'Free' and the mystery of love
by Jorjet Harper
2009-09-16

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Independent feature Hannah Free, filmed in Chicago in November 2008, held its gala worldwide premiere in San Francisco on the evening Pride Day 2009, to an enthusiastic, sold-out crowd.

Hannah Free is about a lifelong lesbian love, based on the popular play by Claudia Allen. Rosie O'Donnell was on hand to introduce the film and, after the screening, the film's star, Sharon Gless, answered questions from the audience. She was joined onstage by screenwriter Allen, executive producer Tracy Baim, other principal cast members, and Hannah Free's director, Wendy Jo Carlton. Recently Carlton spoke with WCT about the making of the film.

Jorjet Harper: How did you get involved in the Hannah Free film project?

Wendy Jo Carlton: I've been an independent filmmaker for about 20 years, and have written and directed many shorts in different genres—narrative, comedy, documentary—that have screened in festivals on television and I also have a couple screenplays under my belt. I came to direct Hannah Free because I had worked with Tracy Baim, the executive producer, on a couple other projects, the Chicago Gay Games DVD, and recently the living library that is the Chicago Gay History Project. ( www.chicagogayhistory.com ) . In the course of interviewing hundreds of LGBT folks in the area, I met the playwright Claudia Allen and then the three of us, Tracy, Claudia, and I, decided to make a lesbian feature film in Chicago, adapting Hannah Free, one of Claudia's popular plays.

JORJET HARPER: As the director, what was the experience of making Hannah Free like for you?

WENDY JO CARLTON: Directing Hannah Free was a bit like going to a carnival at night. It's exciting and and then overwhelming, and at first you have the impulse to go on all the rides and play all the games. But then you realize you have to be home by midnight and you don't have enough money anyway. So it becomes clear what really matters to you are the water rides, the dart games, the bumper cars and the corn dogs. Later on you forget about the tummy ache or the argument over who gets to drive on the way back, and instead you remember how colorful it was, how great the warm air felt on your bare skin, and how good it was to be on another adventure with your friends.

JORJET HARPER: What is the movie's central theme, in your view?

WENDY JO CARLTON: For me, Hannah Free is about the power and the mystery of love. And ultimately it's a triumph of the human spirit. Hannah herself is a sexy, real woman who also represents all the beautiful, brave queer women and men who've insisted on living their truth and loving who they are and whomever they want for as long as there have been human beings.

JORJET HARPER: What was it like to be directing a power actor like Sharon Gless?

WENDY JO CARLTON: I was intimidated, of course. The first time I called her, before she got to Chicago, I told her I was nervous because she has worked for so many years with many directors. I had a crib sheet on my desk with notes for me to remember while talking to her because I didn't want to sound too eager and of course I had business to discuss. But after she said hello, I introduced myself and blurted out that I was nervous. And Sharon said, "I don't want you to be nervous, but I tell you what, I'm pretty nervous too." Sharon was gracious and generous, on set and off.

JORJET HARPER: What, if any, difficulties did you encounter during filming?

WENDY JO CARLTON: This was an independent, low-budget film, and we had very little time from start to finish, which meant little room for mistakes regarding the cohesion and emotional arc of the story. There was a lot of pressure, and I knew I had to trust my instincts. I made a lot of creative decisions—whether it be casting, wardrobe, locations, camera movement or soundtrack—by trusting my gut, which was informed by my experience as a filmmaker for many years but also by close study of Claudia's great story.

JORJET HARPER: While you were directing, did you have some guiding principle or some goal as to how you wanted the film to be perceived?

WENDY JO CARLTON: It was important to me to portray Hannah and Rachel not just as young lovers but as older lovers as well, two women who share a deep emotional connection but also a passionate physical and sexual connection. And not to just imply that, but to show their attraction visually, cinematically. Most mainstream feature films don't show older couples sharing physical affection and sexual attraction for one another. Whether they are straight or queer, we just don't see many older characters in bed together or see older people kissing and being sensual together onscreen. I think it's sexy and fun and life-affirming.

JORJET HARPER: Why do you think the relationship between these two women is so memorable?

WENDY JO CARLTON: Most long-term romantic relationships, regardless of orientation, wax and wane in the lust department. What's great about Hannah and Rachel is that theirs is the kind of great love affair that has sustained its passion and lust over decades, the kind of fantastic, enduring attraction and love that is celebrated and pined for in straight films all the time.

JORJET HARPER: If there is a political message embedded in the film, what do you think it is?

WENDY JO CARLTON: In addition to the story being about the letting go of someone we love, which we all experience at some point in life, I think the film really helps put a human face on the issue of equal rights and human rights for every U.S. citizen. The Proposition 8 that passed in California is unjust and wrong. It makes me very sad and upset that we live in a culture where people are allowed to vote on who should remain second-class citizens. If we allow majority votes on civil and basic human rights, women and Blacks still wouldn't have the right to vote.

JORJET HARPER: And what impact do you think the film will have, out in the world?

WENDY JO CARLTON: I hope the film continues to serve as a cultural force that can influence people, queer or straight, young or old, to do the right thing when the time comes, whether that means putting someone else's needs before your own or refusing to go along with the dehumanizing of others, especially others who are different from you.

I think this film is very entertaining, sensual, and provocative as a story of a great love affair. It's universal and will engage viewers regardless of sexual orientation. Hannah is a dynamic, sexy, flawed, passionate human being and who can't relate to that? And Sharon Gless and the rest of the cast are such a pleasure to watch in every scene.

JORJET HARPER: Now that the film has premiered, do you have any further thoughts about its creation?

WENDY JO CARLTON: It was incredibly rewarding to work with such a great cast. The cast was the largest I've worked with in my career thus far, and they are all so talented and professional. So it pushed me as a director to not only have to decide what each scene meant to me at its core, but to also articulate that interpretation very clearly to the actors. I think being a good director also means listening to actors and working with them to create consistent emotional threads for their characters throughout the film.


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