“A nuanced view of the city and its people, Flood Streets shows the changing landscape of New Orleans as it has never been seen before, dispelling the stereotypes about this tragic, defiant, joyful city.” — LaFilm.net
“Flood Streets is dotted with incidental wit and wry observations of life in the Big Easy, which isn’t always.” — Amy Biancolli/The Houston Chronicle
“A unique story of hope and despair, of determination and crazy-ass creativity, told bravely and told well.” — Harry Shearer
These are just three of the many positive comments I found while researching Helen Kriegers production of Flood Streets, her first film production. Helen and her husband Joseph Meissner, who directed and acts in the film, moved to New Orleans in 2001 and quickly fell into the eclectic, artsy community life in Bywater. They evacuated for Hurricane Katrina and were displaced, like so many New Orleanians, for six weeks of an enforced exile. The screenplay for Flood Streets is based on Helen’s book of short stories, In the Land of What Now, a fictionalized account of her experiences in post federal flood New Orleans.
Flood Streets‘ awards include:
Best Picture winner at the 2011 Action on Film Festival
Gold Remi winner at the 44th Annual WorldFest-Houston
Best Director, runner-up, at the White Sands Int’l Film Festival
Best Director, nominee, Action on Film Festival
I recently spoke with Helen about Flood Streets, life in New Orleans and the crafts of writing and film-making.
Helen, I understand Flood Streets is based on your book, In the Land of What Now, and is your first film production. What made you decide to produce a film with no previous film making experience and how do you think that impacted your film?
Although I had made a couple short films before Flood Streets, they were on a much smaller scale and were done basically as practice for this movie. Flood Streets was my first feature.
When my husband, Joseph, and I were evacuated for the storm, we didn’t know what we could come back to from our former lives. We didn’t know if the city was going to come back, so it was really like an early midlife crisis for both of us. For six weeks we sat at my parent’s house up in Wisconsin and started thinking about our lives and what we most wanted to do.
I realized I’d neglected my writing, and Joseph really wanted to get back into acting. We decided to put the two of these interests together to write a movie Joseph could act in. That’s really how I made the leap from fiction to film – it made so much sense for us to work together like that.
Once I got into script writing, I really enjoyed it, because one of my favorite things to write is dialogue. Also, I enjoyed the increased collaboration and input you get writing a screenplay. Everyone from the actor to the caterer has read your script so you get a wide variety of opinions and input. It’s really exciting. Having said that, I love writing short stories, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Short stories are where I really connect with myself creatively and where I feel free to develop ideas.
Producing a movie for my first time could have been a disaster except that I had so much support from the community. I was mentored by two veteran New Orleans filmmakers, Glen Pitre and Michelle Benoit. They’ve been helping me with this project for the past three years. They helped me with the script, with getting everything ready to shoot, with editing, and now with publicity and the festival circuit. They’re really an amazing resource.
I also took a lot of classes at the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC). I joke with people that NOVAC was my film school.
What was the first concrete step for you in learning how to produce a film?
I read a lot of books and took a lot of classes for the years preceding our shoot. I took a Film Accounting class at NOVAC that helped me put everything into perspective. The accountant is the one responsible for paying everyone else, so you get a good long view on what it takes to make a production happen. That was amazing experience.
I also had many meetings with Glen and Michelle where I just furiously scribbled down notes as they went over my budget and explained what I needed and how it would work. Then we were really fortunate to get an experienced indie line producer to work with us, Miceal Og O’Donnel. Once we had pulled our key team together, he helped us get everyone moving in the right direction.
We didn’t always know what we were doing, but we were fortunate enough to have a lot of people around us who did!
I read that Katrina and life post-K was a big influence on your decision to persue writing and film-making full-time. Do you think your life would have taken this turn if you hadn’t experienced the storm and life after?
That’s a great question. I think about that sometimes, and I just don’t know. I think eventually I would have gotten to this path because it’s something I’m so interested in, and it really suits me. But it may have taken a lot longer for me to get here.
Like I said, Katrina was an early midlife crisis, so without Katrina and that six-week hurrication of stress and soul searching, maybe my midlife crisis would still be some years away.
Oct 16 is the New Orleans premier of Flood Streets. How does it feel to be presenting your film about life in post-K New Orleans in New Orleans?
I’m so excited, because I’ve been working on this film for years, and so many people in the city have helped me and have been waiting to see it. We didn’t have a huge budget, but we wanted to create the best film we could, so we took our time editing, almost 15 months.
This spring we had our world premiere in Houston and that started a tour of film festivals across the country. We’ve had such great response, but audiences don’t get the inside jokes that New Orleanians will get. Also, the film shows a part of the city that often gets lost in post-Katrina films or documentaries – our sense of humor. When I tell people this is a film about Post Katrina New Orleans, I always have to add, “But it’s not a downer.” We wanted to show what there is that still draws us to this city and that draws all the people who have moved here since the storm.
It’s now over six years after the storm and I’m wondering if, when you talk about the subject of your film, you encounter any lingering “Katrina fatigue” or do people now get that it was the levees, not the storm, that really devastated New Orleans.
We get some Katrina fatigue when we first tell people about the movie because they think they’ve seen it before, and that it’s going to be one of those very depressing stories about flood victims. But our story isn’t necessarily about Katrina and none of our characters consider themselves victims.
Flood Streets takes place 15 months after the storm, and we use that surreal backdrop in the movie a lot, but essentially the movie is about the characters and their struggles. These struggles are definitely heightened and changed in unexpected ways because of the storm, but ultimately I wanted to show how life goes on, no matter how surreal the backdrop. By picking up this story well after the initial shock of the storm has passed, we get to show that weird stage after a disaster when you realize you’re still essentially the same person with the same problems to deal with. Only now you can’t get mailed delivered to your house…
In terms of the people being educated about what devastated New Orleans… I don’t think that’s happened yet. There’s still this narrative out there that New Orleans is all below sea level, and it was only a matter of time. Very few people know about the complicated system of human decisions that resulted in the federal flooding of New Orleans. People like Harry Shearer have been doing a great job educating people. His documentary about the levees, “The Big Uneasy,” has been touring the country educating people, so I’m hoping people start to understand.
Do you think locals will be more critical of the film than outsiders?
Definitely, because it’s their story that we’re telling, but I’m pretty confident they’re going to enjoy it. One of the reasons we wanted to do an ensemble storyline with multiple characters is because we wanted to hint at the diversity of stories in the city. There is no one post Katrina story and no one way of reacting to the storm, so I hope locals will see themselves or people they know in the characters we’ve chosen.
I understand you show a diversity of the musical talent we have here in Nola instead of relying only on Jazz or Brass Bands as is seen in many film and TV productions. Was that a deliberate decision? How did you choose which genres and/or musicians to include?
That was a very deliberate decision. We love traditional New Orleans music, but we’re even more interested in how traditions continue to evolve with each new generation who takes them on. This is what makes New Orleans such an exciting place for musicians and artists to live. We didn’t want to portray a museum to jazz or funk; we wanted to shed light on the contradictions and collaborations at the edge of our ever-evolving culture.
We also wanted to put more of the musical focus on youth culture because this is where changes are often happening. When young musicians couldn’t get into mainline brass bands they formed their own. Influenced by hip hop as well as jazz, a new generation of second-lining was born. When indie rocker Clint Maedgen joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he brought a new voice to the most traditional band in New Orleans. The Zydepunks blend traditional and new to create a heart-pounding new style. The Panorama Jazz Band takes influences from jazz, klezmer and brass bands to pull together their unique sound.
This was the New Orleans music we really wanted to share, and audiences across the country are really excited to hear it. After screenings, people always comment on the music and say how surprised they are by the diversity of music in the city, so I guess we’re doing our job!
All but two of the actors and all of the crew were New Orleanians. Why do you think that was important for the telling of your story?
It was important to us to use locals on the cast and crew as much as possible. First, it’s just part of our mission as local filmmakers to showcase the talent we have here in the city.
Also, for the kind of story we were telling it was so important to have those authentic voices. This isn’t a crime story or an action adventure with lots of graphic effects. We’re telling a character based story about a very particular time and place, so it was so important for us to make sure we were getting that voice right, and it was nice to know we could rely on our actors.
Almost all our actors had been through the storm or the evacuation, and they felt we were giving an accurate portrayal of the city. Based on the script they trusted us to tell this complicated, nuanced story, and we in turn trusted them to tell us whenever something didn’t ring true. They brought costumes, props, they really went out of their way to help us do this right. And because they were from New Orleans they got that subversive sense of humor we have, even in disasters. They didn’t feel like they had to walk on eggshells about the material, because it was their story too.
I read in the press kit that your neighborhood rallied around you and the film became a real community effort. Tell us a little bit about that.
We filmed most of the movie in Bywater, in about 48 different locations, and almost all of them were donated by neighbors who wanted to see us make this film. Coffee shops, corner stores, shotgun apartments, warehouses, flooded houses in various stages of repair… people opened up all these spaces to us despite our meager budget.
In one case we were shooting a scene where a band places on the street. The band was Debauche, a young, local band that plays very energetic Russian music, and we needed to shoot this in front of a Bywater house. We knocked on doors up and down the street and let people know what was going to be going on, then when we got to the house we were going to be shooting in front of, we knocked and tentatively told the owner, “We’ve got this band, and we wanted to know if it’s okay if they play in front of your house…” It was an older guy, so we didn’t know how it would go over. “Who’s the band?” he said. I told him it was Debauche, and I figured he was too old, but he immediately started clapping his hands. It turned out he was a big fan! He told us to do whatever we needed to, to come into his house if we had to. He ended up dancing in his living room the whole time they were playing!
We also had so much luck getting background people in our film. As soon as a musician would start playing, people would come out of their homes or stop on their bikes and dance. A lot of people made it into the movie that way!
Are you working on any other projects you’d like to share with us?
Why yes, thank you! I’m working on the scripts for two projects right now.
The first is another feature film, this one set in the heart of an impoverished New Orleans neighborhood. A group of punk, DIY activists stage elaborate puppet shows and dangerous tall bike jousts in their communal-living warehouse, but when a pregnant friend arrives with nowhere else to go, it’s their chance to remake their social experiment into a true community. We’re excited to work with some of the amazing artists in New Orleans for this project.
The second is something totally different for me. I’m working on episodic writing, an original musical comedy series I’m creating for web or cable. Molly is a sex-starved, struggling writer who can’t get the attention of her indie rocker boyfriend, so she takes a job exploring New Orleans amorous underbelly. I’ve been describing it as “Sex in the City” meets “Flight of the Conchords”. It deals with journalism, art and sexual politics while featuring original music and a beautifully choreographed tribal bellydance sequence in each episode. I’ve gotten together with a composer, lyricist and choreographer, so I’m really excited to get working on this.
Where do you see yourself as an artist in five years? What are your goals?
The more I write, the more I realize I love writing, so my future plans all have to do with finding more ways to do that. I’m very interested in writing for TV or cable because story is really king in these mediums, and so the writers get a lot of control over their sets. From casting to choosing props and working with the directors, the writers are typically the head producers in charge of their series. Having had experience producing shorts and now a feature, I feel like this could be a good fit for me.
With episodic writing, you get more time to tell a story than you do in a 90-minute feature film. With shows like “The Wire” and “Mad Men,” TV writing has risen to the next level. By following multiple characters’ storylines throughout the season, episodic writing has become a modern version of a sweeping, 19th century novel. It’s become a place where some of the best writers go to tell their stories, and with original web content starting to get some serious viewership, it’s easier to get into this highly competitive field.
Plus, how fun would it be to put together a writers room where one of the most solitary tasks, coming up with storylines and characters, can become a group effort? I could definitely do that for the rest of my life.
But like I said before, I’ll never stop writing short stories and other kinds of fiction. It’s where I feel free to really play with an idea no matter how ridiculous. Short fiction was my first genre as a writer, and I think I’ll never truly get over my love for it.
The New Orleans premiere of Flood Streets will be during the New Orleans Film Festival on Sunday, October 16 at 4:45 at Pyrtania Theatre. The trailer can be viewed below and up to the minute information can be found on their FaceBook page.