By Susan Pagani
Searching for Wooden Watermelons is a classic coming-of-age-in-a-small-town story; young Jude Farnie is the proverbial rose wilting on the vine of tiny Beaumont, Texas. She dreams of a glamorous life writing sitcoms in Hollywood, but leaving Beaumont means abandoning sick family members, and a sweet but dull boyfriend of 10 years. Watermelons is also a classic chick-flick, centering more on relationships and Jude's internal should-I-stay-or-should-I-go-now conflict than high action.
Indie audiences don't seem to mind; Watermelons won the Audience Favorite Award at both the Method Fest (Burbank, California) and the Wine Country Film Festival (Sonoma, California), and the Ruth Lanfield Award for women of courage, conviction, and compassion at the Fargo Film Festival (Fargo, North Dakota). And it has been picked up by Vanguard Cinema, which means it will soon be available at Blockbuster - a notable victory since mainstream video retailers are loath to carry independent films with no A-list actors, no sex, no guns, and no horror.
It's hard to know how to react to Watermelons. On the one hand, it has the "Hey kids, let's make an Indie!" feel of a film written, produced, directed, and acted almost entirely by amateurs - talented amateurs, but amateurs nonetheless. On the other hand, it's so spectacularly earnest, so darn scrappy and charming, that you kind of have to love it in spite of itself.
Watermelons is based, not very loosely, on the real-life adventures of Wendy English, its writer, director, and leading lady. So, while the film is about Jude struggling to get through her fear and do something with her dreams, the actual screening of the film is a kind of real-life epilogue: Wendy English took a bold leap at life, and here is the happy outcome.
Wendy English: It was written to inspire other people to put aside their fear. Everyone has dreams, and if you don't take chances ... well, I don't think it's ever too late, but regret for the things we never tried is really inconsolable.
Susan Pagani: Are all the characters based on people from your life?
WE: Yeah, it's sort of dangerous to be involved in any kind of relationship with a writer; everything makes it to the page. Of course, everything in the film is exaggerated, but it is sort of based on a conglomeration of people in my hometown. I was raised by my mother and grandmother; my father died when I was young. The best friend is based on my best friend, Chad Safar, and he played Riley in the film.
WE: I left it ambiguous in the movie because I don't know if he stays in Texas because he is afraid, or because leaving is my dream and not his.
SP: How did you prepare yourself for your own acting debut?
WE: We were going to bring an actress from LA - we didn't have any money, we paid in food, and reel. Only one actress really did it for us. When she got a paid gig, I thought, shoot, I might as well do it. Secretly I wanted to do it, but I was embarrassed. You know, everyone wants to act. That's the hardest thing; having to see myself up there. I see every flaw.
SP: How has it felt to put the work out in the world and deal with people's reactions?
WE: It's really difficult. Not everything has been positive. But I think people are kind of gentle in a way because it is very raw. The DVD has a documentary that really shows the heartache it takes to make a film. People are almost going to root for us as people, as much for the film. It's not always the smartest and most talented that make it, it's the boldest - the people who put it out there and take a chance.
SP: You funded the film yourself with the director, Bryan Goldsworthy. Four years and $40,000 - that's a pretty incredible partnership. Similar vision? Strong friendship?
WE: Well, four months into the project we started dating - and that's a good thing because we had no life outside of the film for four years. We work really well together, maybe because we have the opposite abilities, my strengths are his weaknesses and vice versa. And to be able to share every single joy or frustration with someone is really amazing. •
By Susan Pagani