A new hobby of mine when I’m frequenting the local pubs is to ask the patron next to me to tell a good story. Often times they look at me and shrug with distaste or discontent and say, “I don’t know any good stories…” That really irks me. How can someone who lives a life full of stories everyday, regardless of how menial, not know one single semi-entertaining story? It really blows my mind away that we as communicating beings can’t muster up or even concoct something that will remotely regale another human being.
When talking to Millie Stanisic, one of the Producers of “Winter of Frozen Dreams”, starring Thora Birch and Keith Carradine, she gave me hope that there are people out there who still care about telling good stories. Millie and Milka Stanisic run Em & Me Productions, a New York City based film production company. When they were choosing this project they could have sold out and done something that had car explosions or a masked man killing young scantily dressed women. Instead, they chose to look for a story that captivated them and showcased the many different facets and introspects of human beings.
“Winter of Frozen Dreams”, based on the real life story of Barbra Hoffman, a bio-chemistry student turned prostitute, turned murderer. The john-murdering Hoffman never stated or commented on why she actually committed those murders. So it was up to the Stanisic sisters and their team to fill in those blanks for the audience. In story telling ‘the why’ is a very important element in the overall success of the story. It drives the character, and when the characters’ motives are ambiguous, the story often falls short. Stanisic’s production team didn’t seem to have any problems with diving into Hoffman’s murderous psyche and flushing out the characters internal reasoning for committing the murders. A brave, but a well deserved outcome for the overall story of the film.
Roy Koriakin: How did you find this story? What attracted you to it?
Millie Stanisic: Our lawyer brought the project to us. At the time we were looking for a certain kind of picture in a specific budget range. “Satan’s Playground”, our first film was kind of our learning project. We weren’t really horror people. So this film was our next step in the progression of story telling. We looked at a bunch of projects and scripts and had to make a tough decision on which story we wanted to be vested in. We read a lot of good scripts, but they didn’t seem to gel with the total goal that we were trying to achieve in this next project.
I’ve always had the uncanny ability raise money from investors. In this case, I had to raise money for a project that doesn’t exist yet. So I had to sell the idea. Ideas do matter. In saying that, I wanted to sell an idea that we liked. Whatever idea we chose we wanted to put our all in. That was important to us. This story was just as good as the others. And it fit our criteria. So we decided to give it a go, and we went with it.
RK: What attracted you to the story?
MS: The complexity of Barbra Hoffman’s personality was what attracted us to the story. Nobody knew who she really was. This was someone who could have been a professional in the medical research field. She was very intelligent and had the whole town at her beckoning call, but she chose instead to be a prostitute and a murder.
The story had gotten a lot of media attention. She was a smart woman and this wasn’t your average John story. So, the challenge was trying to figure out what her state of mind was, because no one really knew. Who was Barbra Hoffman and what were her relationships and motives at the time? She never has spoken to anyone about the case, so no one really knows. As two female film producers, my sister & I didn’t want to make a typical tits & ass hooker film.
A certain amount of ambiguity is involved in the story. You don’t know what her motive is throughout. We wanted people to walk out of the theater and wonder if she really did it. The story is meant to be a bit grey, moody and at times slow paced. You’re meant to sit with the characters and sometimes you feel uncomfortable watching events unfold.
RK: The original story was from a book. Tell me about the writing process of converting it for film.
MS: First we acquired the book and screenplay rights. Right off the bat, we felt that the original screenplay lacked Barbra Hoffman’s essence and motivation. We knew we needed to get information or at least a sense of who she was as a person. The main challenge was the fine-line between trying to stay true the facts of the criminal case; yet still tell an intriguing story cinematically. We chose to stay true to the story. The film is based on facts, but it’s not completely factual. We felt that we had a responsibility to stay true to the story. It’s often a double edge sword as a filmmaker. Tell a good story, or stay true to the authenticity of the facts.
RK: As a fellow filmmaker I feel like behind every film, there is a story. It could be about how you got the money, an actor, or something that happened with the crew or the shoot. There’s always a story behind the story. What’s the story behind this film?
MS: The way this film came about wasn’t exactly what we had in mind originally. We were supposed to shoot a film in summer in Texas, not in the freezing cold in upstate NY. This film is about a tragic event, and it came about out of tragedy.
It started with our first executive producer, Jeffrey Kirsch who we had met at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003 when we launched our production company. My sister, Jeffery and I instantly became friends. Next thing you know, he’s saying, “Let’s do a movie together”. I’ve always said if you’re going to do something creative like make a film, you better do it with people you like and people you trust. This is one of the main reasons why my sister and I went into the film business together. But this was equally as true for Jeffrey. So we got the ball rolling and started looking for a project. After we found the script, the project was well on its way.
The Christmas holidays came around. For the first time in I don’t know how long my family organized a holiday together in Miami. We quickly remembered why it had been 16 years since the last family vacation, but that’s a whole different story… As it happened, Jeffrey was also in Miami visiting his parents who lived in Florida during the long months of the Canadian winter. We talked about making the film together and started mapping out our future business partnership. It really was a wonderful time with Jeff.
Family time, friendship and fun was soon eclipsed by tragedy. It was 2004, the year of the Tsunami, some good friends of ours lived in Thailand so they news was especially devastating. My sister was slated to go over there and shoot some footage for a documentary. After the holidays, my sister & I returned to New York and Jeffrey returned to Toronto. The day after my birthday my sister left for a 3 week trip to Thailand and I got an early morning phone call that same day from a friend in Toronto saying that Jeff had been killed in a head on collision with a Mack Truck. While driving on a highway north of the city he hit a patch of black ice and died instantly.
It was a level of shock and grief that was very hard to deal with. We were close friends and business partners. Two things you don’t have to deal with at once too often.
Now I had to make a decision. My sister was on an airplane for twenty hours to go to a place that was going to resemble a living hell. Do I tell her that our good friend and primary investor had died or do I conceal it from her. I opted for the latter. I wanted to protect her from this while she was there. She was going to see and experience enough terrible things while in Thailand, why should she have to worry about what was going on in New York as well. So I hid the truth from her for three weeks. One of my mother’s favorite sayings is “darling it never rains, it pours”. Well that was definitely the case here: losing a friend in a tragic accident, losing a business partner, having the future of the film & our business hanging in the balance. Needless to say it was a very difficult time.
So if you were to ask what’s the cost to make a movie, I would say you have to look at two factors, the financial cost and the human / emotional cost. We paid a very steep price for this one.
RK: Tell us about the actors. How did you go about getting your cast?
MS: Amy Adams was originally attached to play the role of Barbara Hoffman, but as we soon learned “attached” is not the same thing as “signed”. To make a long story short, the casting fell apart at the last moment. Amy Adams pulled out because there was a scheduling conflict with the Disney film “Enchanted”. The timing of that decision was terrible for our project, because it came in the third week of December and it basically meant that we were going into the Christmas holidays with no female lead for the film.
I’ve always said that good can come out of bad. In saying that, Thora Birch ended up starring in the film. A friend of ours had worked with her on an indie film and spoke very highly of her. She was perfect for the part; she gave a great performance as the icy, beautiful and manipulative Barbara Hoffman.
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Good things do come out of bad. Even though the filmmakers went through many trials and tribulations to make this film, when all was said and done, they made a solid film that they could be very proud of. The name of the game in this industry is perseverance, my friends.