MGM musicals in the forties made it look so easy: all you needed to “put on a show” were Mickey and Judy, an old barn and some blankets, and enough small-town neighbors willing to pitch in and help. Today in 21st-century Hollywood it’s a little more difficult. For one thing, they charge for the barns and blanket rentals and the small-town neighbors willing to pitch in and help earn union wages.
It takes money, honey, not to mention time and dedication to your craft. Lots of people come to Los Angeles looking for stardom, or at least a steady paycheck and a chance at residuals. But once in a while someone comes along who is destined to add something to the collective consciousness—something like a television series. All you need are actors and actresses, producers and directors, and crew members—along with the aforementioned money, time and dedication—to come together and create something important and unforgettable.
Enter, from stage left, Marlo Bernier, carrying with her the makings for a new TV series called Myrna.
Once upon a time there was an actor named Mark Bernier, who found success as a consistently working actor on stage and screen. And then, as Bernier has previously joked, “My career just wasn’t tough enough, so I woke up one morning and decided to change my sex.” Bernier’s personal story is a little more complicated than that, of course, but it all boils down to the fact that Mark became Marlo, and the work dried up.
Making the transitions from male to female, from actor to actress, and from onscreen-performer to writer, director and producer, Marlo has had to grow in many unexpected directions. “I made a decision at the beginning of my transition to step out from in front of the lens because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it anymore,” she admitted. “Not because I wasn’t capable of doing it technically, but I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is the reason I’m directing and writing now.’”
Stepping behind the camera, she and longtime producing partner Jennifer Fontaine worked on a couple of film shorts and a feature (which Marlo directed) before the idea for Myrna started to take shape. Transitioning from male to female requires far more than hormones and / or surgery; it involves a shift in attitudes, acceptance and self-acceptance, and a coming-to-terms with your place in a sometimes harsh world.
And that’s when Myrna entered the picture. Making the transition from Mark to Marlo laid the foundation for this groundbreaking new television pilot, a dramedy based “with some theatrical license” on Bernier’s own life and experiences. As she explains, “Myrna is a show about an actor who, after a modicum of success both in front of the camera and on the stage finally comes face to face with their true identity and makes the life-altering decision to transition from male to female.
“I can’t speak for the community, I can’t speak for fifty people. I can speak for me,” Marlo takes pains to emphasize. “I always hope that my work will help society or help people understand, or at least make people be compassionate. That’s all I ever ask. If you can’t fully get it, could you please attempt compassion? I know transsexualism is not easily understood. It’s not easy for me, either.”
THE EVOLUTION OF A SCRIPT
The subject of gender identity has been on everyone’s collective mind lately, what with the discussions surrounding Jared Leto’s performance and awards wins for Dallas Buyers Club last year, the speculation about Bruce Jenner, not to mention the success of the TV show Transparent and its own Golden Globe wins. But it’s a tough subject to discuss without it becoming prurient exploitation.
“I’ve known Marlo for almost ten years,” explained Ted Campbell, who co-wrote and directed the pilot. “I first met her when she was Mark. So I’ve been around during the years of transition. We’ve worked on many projects together over the years—I AD’d her feature, she AD’d my short, we read each other’s scripts, gave notes, etc. During these years, she’d tell me stories about her day. And the more I heard, I kept saying we’ve got to write this stuff down! There was the expected. But there were also these little moments where people could be amazing.”
In real life Marlo has a therapist, one who has been with her throughout her transition. “She’d ask me every once in awhile, ‘Well, what kind of woman do you hope to become, or do you envision for yourself?’ And at first I just couldn’t answer the question because…I don’t think any of us, regardless of where we come from or what our philosophy is or whatever, have answers for everything. I think it takes time and we grow with it. But it finally dawned on me what my answer was: ‘What kind of a woman will you become?’ And I said to her finally, ‘The same kind I was as a man: kind. That’s what I hope to be, just kind.’”
And that realization also helps to define the character of Myrna Michaels, who finds the transition from male to female sometimes pales in comparison to the transitions from addict to sobriety, from emotional basket-case to fully-rounded human being, from child to responsible adult.
The script changed dramatically over its four years in development. Whole scenes were dropped, characters added, language toned down or bumped up. ”A very early version of the script had a more sitcom-style tone,” Ted Campbell explained. “More jokes, less ‘moments.’” And we weren’t totally comfortable with that. It wasn’t a natural fit for the things we like. So we went for more drama, allowing the comedy to come from the characters’ relationships and the moments in-between I really wanted to present the character of Myrna as a person struggling with things that we all struggle with. I didn’t want to make it about a transgender character, but about a character who is many things: friend, ex-lover, actor, addict…One of those ’things’ just happens to be that she’s trans.”
The character Myrna likewise has evolved and the changes in the script fleshed out her emotional range. It’s hard to capture a character’s history in a single episode, and while the temptation is there to make every scene into some kind of “message” it’s usually death to a script. The scenes have to develop organically and the writers have to trust the viewing audience will pick up any life lessons, even if it’s on a subliminal level.
A scene between Myrna pleading for reconciliation with her ex was written and added almost at the last minute. Julie Carmen was cast as Steffi, who fell in love, once upon a time, with a man named Michael. Steffi faces a strange sort of widowhood, where Michael ceases to exist as he once had and has now been reincarnated into a woman named Myrna, and both must figure out how to move forward toward separate futures very different from the one they initially planned together.
“I love you,” Myrna tells Steffi. “I always have. I always will.”
“Michael, you gave that up,” responds Steffi. “You gave up ‘us’ so you could be ‘you.’”
It’s one of the major themes running through the series: the things one has to let go of, not always willingly, in order to move forward. A transition of any kind affects the lives of everyone involved–spouses and soul mates and friends and family members, and it’s not easy on any of them.
On top of life itself, Myrna is an actress. She faces reinventing herself in an already-established career. Hollywood is built upon brand-consciousness and the continuity of that brand; even a sitcom star who decides mid-career they want to tackle the stage often faces ridicule for being a “mere” TV star aspiring to Broadway stardom where the “real” actors work. It’s similar to what Lisa Kudrow’s character has to face on The Comeback, in dealing with age-conscious Hollywood.
Letting go of the past means also letting go of preconceived notions. Myrna Michaels is desperate for work in the entertainment industry, but when reality television comes calling (through her longtime manager, played by Paul McKinney), she balks. She wants work, but only on her terms.
“I’m not tabloid, Lewis!” she tells her manager.
“We’re all tabloid, sooner or later,” he informs her.
And therein lies the storyline for the series: finding yourself through whatever means necessary, even those unexpected, unthought-of means. Myrna can dismiss Reality Television as the enemy threatening to exploit her, but will she choose to exploit it first, in order to revive and reinvent her career? Will allowing that exposure help Myrna open up her mind and also help reality TV raise the bar and educate the masses?
This series is not really about a woman who used to be a man coming to terms with who she is in a cis-gender world. It is not really about an actress coming to terms with who she is in a show business that is more interested in the Kardashians than the films of John Cassavetes. It is about a human being who is pushing aside preconceived notions, chips on the shoulder, and the occasional personal demon to become the person she is best suited to be.
I’ve seen the Show Bible and there’s enough material for a full series running several years. The issues touched upon in the story arc are genuinely interesting and unexpected. It’s a well thought-out and unique series that is made for success.
THE COST OF SUCCESS
As for the fundraising, the production needed every penny they could get. Costs for producing a pilot include the actors, director of photography, lighting, sound, wardrobe, hair, and make-up. And then there are the post-production services such as editing, sound design, sound editing, music and score, music supervision, dialogue editing, color correction, titles and graphics, and all the rest.
An earlier fundraising effort two years prior fell short of the projected goal, but sometimes things work out for the better. A second attempt using the brand-spanking-new fundraising platform Fanbacked.com successfully raised the necessary amount in ten days flat, although predictably it was still a tight budget.
Out of a projected $25,000 goal, the fundraising effort raised a total of $34,699 (or 138% of the goal amount). Once the money was raised, then came the responsibility of not spending it too quickly. There was always the worry that production costs would exceed the estimated necessary amounts.
By mid-July, most of the locations were secured and the shooting schedule was locked down as well. “I’d rather be giving birth to Rosemary’s Baby,” Marlo joked, then wondered aloud, “How the f— am I ever going to get time to rehearse?!”
Myrna Executive Producer Jennifer Fontaine would later admit, ”You always know going into physical production what your problem areas will be. In addition to Executive Producing, I also Coordinated and Line Produced the show, so I knew the budget very intimately from very early on. With our limited finances, we had to make certain choices, literally stealing from Peter to pay Paul. Paying our cast and crew was number one. Locations and set design were number two. Luckily, we were very creative with social media and locking down donations for the costly items like delicious set food.”
THE INSIDE NOISE
A number of writers and bloggers helped get the word out about the fundraising efforts. Along with a profile of Marlo I had for West Hollywood Wives, other articles were written by Debra Pasquella, Rebecca Norris, and others.
One bright and sunny afternoon I popped in as Marlo and Jennifer Fontaine were being interviewed by Chrissy Carpenter and Barry Papick on The Inside Noise Show, a podcast taped live in the upstairs lounge at Mixology101 at The Grove. The group bantered back and forth as they discussed the fundraising efforts and what the show was all about. After the podcast, Marlo and Jennifer and I went downstairs and I took the opportunity to ask Fontaine about her feelings about the pilot.
“Myrna is everyone, anyone, who has ever woken up one morning and looked in the mirror and said, ’Who am I?’ realizing that you’re living for other people, not living for yourself,” she explains. “You need to make a change. And that’s why this story is so important, because Myrna has that strength within her to say, ‘I don’t care what other people think anymore. I’ve lived my life for everyone else, and now it’s time for me to be who I truly am.”
What does it take to become who you really are? That answer can range from ending relationships and getting rid of the negative people in your life to quitting drugs to getting a nose job to changing your gender. Everybody has something they are dealing with, and this just happens to be what Myrna Michaels is dealing with.
QUIET ON THE SET!
It’s the first day of filming, Tuesday, August 26, 2014, at The Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena. The company already shot a scene involving a crowd of extras and set up for the next scene before breaking for lunch. When I arrived around noon, Marlo was standing in a small group outside the church, chatting away, holding a lit cigarette between two artfully extended fingers. She was dressed in a coral dress with pleated skirt, her blonde hair pulled back.
She made introductions to the others on break before we headed inside. As we entered the high-ceilinged chamber being used as a combination make-up trailer, mess hall and green room, Marlo gently tossed her pack of Camel 99′s on the long table. When we had lunch at a Silverlake cafe nine months earlier she’d lamented her struggle to break the habit but this wasn’t the week to worry about quitting smoking.
Candis Cayne sat nearby in a chair going over her lines while having her make-up retouched by Mary-Kate Gales. Assorted members of the cast and crew hunkered down at the long table eating lunch, ordered from Buca di Beppo. People magazine and Us Weekly make being on set look so glamorous and easy. As a TV star, Marlo should have been the first to enjoy the spectacle, but when you’re a TV star that’s also wearing the multiple hats of producer, writer, wrangler, gofer, and just about every other duty short of nursemaid and governess, you don’t have time to enjoy the floor show.
Executive Producer Jennifer Fontaine hovered in the background while scanning the room to see what needed to be done. Fontaine, her hair cropped in a pixie cut, looks as glamorous as a 21st-century answer to Audrey Hepburn, but she’s too busy cleaning up, wiping down tables and making sure the cast and crew got enough to eat to bask in the limelight.
After lunch it was time to head into the vast, cavernous sanctuary of the church, populated by lights and reflectors and other assorted electrical equipment. Everyone made sure not to trip over wires, of which there was no shortage. It was hot and dark. I wondered how the D. P. was able to even photograph the scene. Director of Photography Sam B. Kim hovered over the Arri Alexa camera and from a distance I watched the monitor. The shot looked dark to me, but I was assured that post-production would bump up the light and sound.
For many of the cast and crew members this is kind of like Old Home Week. Most, like Marlo, Jennifer Fontaine and Ted Campbell, have worked together on one or more projects. “I knew John Mattingly, who is the First A.D.,” said Stephanie Fugleberg, the Second Assistant Director for the pilot. “And he called and said, ‘Stephanie, will you be my second A.D.?’ And I said ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Tuesday, you’re on.’”
Toi Whitaker, who worked on Art Direction, acknowledged, “It’s good working with people you have a respect for and have worked with before, or enjoy them as people. That’s hard to come by in this industry.” Plus, there’s the added benefit of knowing someone’s true abilities, not to mention their temperament. In the old studio system, directors like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock had their band of regulars working on each of their projects. When you know each other well you can use a kind of shorthand to communicate what’s needed to get a particular shot without taking additional time to explain it.
Despite any time-saving efforts on the part of the cast and crew, the motto on any set is, “Hurry up and wait,” but it doesn’t come from mere idleness. Just after the clapboard was clapped and the take was announced, “Scene 22, take 3,” a light blew. The already dim church became murkier, and there was a scramble to find a replacement bulb, while the actors had to cool their heels, remaining in the pew while waiting it out. Finally the light was back on, and everyone was ready to shoot take 4.
The church scene called for Myrna to meet up with her friend and mentor, Holland Hollis, played by Candis Cayne, who made a splash a few years ago playing Carmelita on ABC’s prime time drama Dirty Sexy Money (the role made her the first transgender actress to play a recurring transgender role on network television).
“My agent called me and said there’s a pilot and they would love you to do it,” explained Candis. “I thought, it’ll be fun. I liked the script. It was funny. My character, Holland, was fun and yet deep. It looked like a cool thing. She transitioned a little early on and she had her party years, and now she’s responsible, a teacher, and a mentor to Myrna. Of course she still has her issues and stuff like that…and it’d be a fun character to unravel.”
She continues, “If it’s good writing, it tells a story that appeals to everyone in a certain way. If it’s written well and acted well, people can identify with that character. When I did Dirty Sexy Money, my character, along with Billy Baldwin, was a popular storyline on the show because it was a real relationship.”
I wanted to talk to director Ted Campbell when he had some down time, but he never did. ”We lost an actor a week out,” Ted Campbell admitted when I caught up with him much later, “and recast in the eleventh hour. We got behind a few days and had to rethink the shot list. But I knew the most important thing we had to get were the performances. The cool shot or beauty shot could get cut. I really wanted to have more coverage, but when you’re a low budget show with very little time, attempting to perfect a single shot can be more time consuming than coverage.”
Although the Myrna camp were scheduled to be done by 7 P.M. the shooting followed by takedowns lasted another hour and a half. Cameras and equipment had be be carefully packed up and the crew made a sweep around the church, going from room to room making sure everything was in pristine condition, just as it had been at the start of the day.
WHAT MYRNA FACES
It’s Day Five in shooting the pilot. Casting director Marci Liroff was one of three real-life casting veterans playing the role of a casting director put in the rather uncomfortable situation of declining to audition Myrna, for whatever reason, whether due to the character’s own discomfort, the presumed discomfort of her clients, or whatever reason. I asked Liroff (also an Executive Producer on the pilot) for her own take on the hurdles the character Myrna faces as a semi-name actor-turned-newbie-actress, and the ways in which she may be viewed by the industry from now on.
“Marlo and Jennifer came to me a few years ago with this idea which wasn’t as ‘formed’ as it was this time around,” she explained. “I loved the concept and wanted to work with them so when it came around again, I jumped at the chance. The synchronicity was perfect.
“Personally, I had a hard time playing this role as written. I would never do what she did – refuse someone an audition. I would let her read, work with her, and give her a shot. I have respect for all actors. Yet, it was very well written in that it showed us how things are in the marketplace for someone like Myrna. What I believe my character was saying is that even though she wanted to put her through to the next step, she knew that there was simply no way her producers and filmmaking team would go for it.”
IT’S A WRAP
The wrap party was held Wednesday, January 14, 2015 at Oil Can Harry’s in Studio City. Marlo was dressed in a red sleeveless top, black skirt and “killer” (her words) heels. Jennifer Fontaine was dressed in a flowing cream colored top with slacks and heels. The sixty or so guests were made up of cast, crew and fans of Myrna. Instead of the usual dancing, a slideshow of set stills taken by photographer Kerem Hanci throughout the filming was projected before and after a special screening of the finished pilot.
This was the first time most of the cast and crew had seen the finished product and everyone agreed it looked “network-ready.” Despite the darkness of the church sanctuary, post-production had indeed brought out all the color and light. The finished pilot features a nifty jazz score originally composed by Regi Davis (and scored by Emir Isilay). Davis also plays a casting assistant in one of the scenes. Almost every time I talk to Marlo, I rave about that theme song.
“I’m very proud of what we accomplished,” admits Ted Campbell. “As a writer you’re trying to create a story, with a through-line, a beginning, middle and an end. As a director, you’re trying to capture moments. And all that time, we’re asking ourselves, ‘Do we have a show?’ It was later in the edit, cutting two shots together… I remember cutting a reaction shot to reaction shot between Marlo and Jen… and alone in the edit bay I’m cheering them on… ’cause we got it! A moment. And it’s those ‘moments’ that add up to a show. I remember texting Marlo and Jen from the edit bay, ‘We got a show!’”
Jennifer Fontaine agrees. “No matter how creative you are, if you’ve been through post-production before, you know it’s not going to be pretty and we had some challenges. I think what matters most is how you overcome those challenges and I was confident going in with the team that we had, that whatever we encountered would be surmountable. And I am so proud of every frame of the finished product. Proud of our team, proud of our message and proud of the courage of everyone who came together to tell this story of Myrna.”
At this writing, the pilot is being shopped around to the networks. If you want to see what the buzz is about, you can view the entire pilot episode for yourself for a limited time on this link and when you click on the screen where it says “Watch on Vimeo.” The link will be active until midnight on Thursday March 5th 2015. Share it with your friends and help spread the word. This is what the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) age is all about!
Stay tuned for more updates on Myrna and on Marlo Bernier.