INTERVIEW WITH MARTA RENZI (September 2006)
The following is the edited text of a conversation I had with Ms. Marta Renzi, the creator and director of Porch Stories, and co-producer Ms. Marta Miller (no relation), a professional dancer who appears in the film and has worked extensively with Renzi. The conversation took place on September 20, 2006, at the ’62 Center on the Williams College campus.
Manning: Did you see the location before you had the idea?
Renzi: Yes, the location was the idea.
Manning: How did you discover the location?
Renzi: My sister and my mother and I were looking for Neville’s Donuts (Eagle Street, North Adams, no longer open). We drove by it and it was closed, so we looped left and came down that hairpin turn.
Manning: Hall Street?
Renzi: Yes. It was October 2004. You could already see the foliage. It was a gorgeous day, and we came around the corner and went down the hill. I said, “Let’s do that again!” So we looped around a couple of more times, and I scoped it out. And then in August 2005, I started knocking on doors with my father, Ralph Renzi (local newspaper columnist) at my side, in case it helped to have a local connection. And then in November, we did the film.
Manning: What did you see that first day when you made the turn down North Holden Street?
Renzi: The hill and the repetition of the three houses, the ones you like to call the Triplets. And the fact that if you’re on the first floor of the highest one, you’re on the level of the second floor of the next one down. That gave me the idea of simultaneous stories going on. My first idea was that I would do some live thing where the people in the houses would be the performers, and the audience would walk from house to house watching each of the porch duets, and maybe even go inside and have coffee and donuts. We didn’t do that, but it still would be fun, even to go to any neighborhood and do these little live dances where the audience stands outside the house, then goes in, and then goes to the next house.
Manning: When you started thinking about what you were going to do, did you make a lot of return visits to the location? Or did you just keep it in your memory and work from that?
Renzi: Both. It’s funny, but when I finally asked permission of Michael (Chapman) and Rebecca (DeWitt), who renovated the two top houses and live in the one at the top, they said, “You know, we saw that car driving up and down the road a lot in the last few months.” I was sneaking around there a lot, wondering if I had the nerve. Then I went with my father and knocked on doors, and the first person I met was Doris Sewell, who renovated, and now lives in the green house, and she was very chatty and very nice, and told me who owned them and a little bit about the history. And then Marta (Miller) and I came back and met Michael and Rebecca without a camera; and then two weeks later, we came back with a camera, and I took pictures for Robin (Doty), my camera person. About a month later, I brought Robin, and we walked the whole area. A week later, we came back and shot the film. So it was a lot of visits and a lot of soaking up the geography of the street.
Manning: Did you think that the street was so steep that you might have difficulty shooting it?
Renzi: Yes. We had contracted with Countryside Landscaping to let us use their bucket truck. But finally, with only one camera person and just two days of shooting, all the nonsense of operating the bucket truck would mean we would only get about half of what we wanted to accomplish done. This was a low-budget, quick production affair.
Manning: I think you probably benefited from that, because it was more of an impulsive thing. You could have gotten too analytical.
Renzi: Yea. I don’t do well when I get analytical. I just freeze up.
Manning: How did you wind up getting Evelyn Gallese in the film?
Renzi: She plays bridge with my mother. I knew that she’s a longtime North Adams resident and connected to Mass MoCA (Gallese danced in the Mass MoCA production called The Dream Life of Bricks). I knew she wasn’t shy. I knew I wanted some gray-haired people in this.
Manning: When you use local people who are basically amateurs, how do you take the self-consciousness out of them?
Renzi: Partly by not asking them to do something out of their comfort zone. I think it helps to mix them with trained dancers who aren’t pretentious about it. If you’re a social dancer, and you have a really good partner, you look twice as good. In a film, I can edit out any self-conscious moments.
Miller: Marta is always finding the art inside the natural. Even in those houses, she saw instinctively what was beautiful about them. She saw the boys riding bicycles down the street. They were just neighborhood kids, but she could see the dancing in that. Whenever Marta works with dancers or non-dancers, she seems to have an instinctive sensibility about how to find what’s beautiful that’s already there.
Renzi: That’s part of what it is. When I say that I don’t ask them to do anything out of their comfort zone, there’s a lot of “show me what you are and what you do,” and that will wind up being in the story.
Manning: What did you see on that street that you wanted to show to everyone else?
Renzi: The intimacy of the houses, and the panorama of the place. The fact that this little community is atop a town creates its
own special world. It’s a nest of some kind. It’s not just any three houses and any twenty people. It’s a home that’s positioned in a place of great beauty, even though the houses are rambled down and the kids are always wandering through.
Miller: When Marta first began to diagram the various story lines, part of what was great was the just slightly off kilter about the levels of each of the houses. It creates this metaphor for how all of our stories are each a little different, but can weave a tapestry.
Manning: What did you want people to get from the story?
Renzi: The interconnectedness. That each of the stories is separate, but they pass by all of the other stories, and then at the end, everybody celebrates life and celebrates the older woman (Gallese). It’s not a complicated plot; no murder, no sex.
Miller: It’s about community, something people really yearn for.
Manning: Did you see Evelyn Gallese’s character as sort of the matriarch or grandmother of the community?
Renzi: Yea. I don’t think anybody really knows this, but we imagined that those two little girls in the film live in her building, maybe with her and having no apparent mother around. We had some nice shots of Evelyn in the beginning of the day looking like a really old lady wrapped in a quilt and sitting in a rocking chair on her porch. Unfortunately, we also had me as the mailperson. We had shot me separately, and I looked like too much of a dancer. The original plan was that I would introduce the houses by delivering the mail to all of them, so I wound up interfering in Evelyn’s shot and we couldn’t use it.
Manning: The first time I saw those houses, which was not long after I started coming to North Adams about ten years ago, I was walking up the street, and I looked up at the houses and the retaining wall, and I imagined that the houses would come tumbling down on me at any moment. Then I saw it as some kind of theme park or playscape, thinking that it would be fun if people pay five dollars to run up and down the stairs and play on the porches, and after an hour, time runs out, and they have to leave. Do you look at the houses and the street like a child might look at them?
Renzi: I don’t know if I can answer that. I do know that I feel that the retaining wall is a thing of great beauty and majesty. Maybe that’s what was nice about not having a bucket truck, because walking along the retaining wall and shooting there gave you a pedestrian-eye view. That wall seems much taller when you stand up there than when you walk by it on the street.
Manning: What was different, besides the hill, about shooting in this location as opposed to the other locations you’ve used in your
Renzi: We had to stop traffic. All the other outdoor places I’ve shot in didn’t require us to stop traffic. So we had to hire security officers.
Miller: While they were there, somebody came driving by and they stopped him and said, “Hey you. Your license is suspended. What are you doing here?” There was a garage sale across from the houses, and the dancers would go down and buy things. Some of the kids who were on the bicycles were supposed to be helping at the garage sale.
Renzi: There was a kid who was willing to participate in the film but didn’t have a bike, and there was another kid who was selling his bike, but his mother wouldn’t let him participate. We bought the bike.
Miller: While we were making this film about community, we were entrenched in the community, right on the street.
Renzi: This is maybe not so different, but in my first movie (Little Wild Heart), we got to include a traffic cop pushing a baby stroller with his daughter in it. In Porch Stories, there were two kids, Hailey and Tyrone, who lived in the neighborhood. They were just out taking a walk, and we asked them, “Would you take a few minutes and keep walking in and out of the shot?”
Manning: I thought that the shots of the boys on the bikes allowed you to have an excuse to show the whole street.
Renzi: Yea. You know, it’s the kids who really keep a neighborhood alive. They’re out before breakfast, after breakfast, before lunch, after lunch, and these kids were out all the time. There were other kids watching those kids, and you had to occasionally move them out of the shot. Those boys would have been out there all day, even if we hadn’t asked them to be there.
Manning: Isn’t that different in the typical suburb now where the kids are inside watching television or playing with their computers? The street doesn’t act anymore as a public space that’s an extension of the front yard.
Renzi: Near my house in the suburbs, there’s a skateboarding group, but the kids are a little bit older. There’s a group that uses one kid’s driveway to skateboard in. So it’s still going on a little despite computers and all. It’s certainly part of my growing up in Williamstown (Mass). One of the sweetest sounds to me is the noise of kids playing in the street.
Manning: Do you think that your local dancers and actors gained a different understanding of who they are and where they live by participating in the film?
Renzi: In a way, now that they’ve seen the finished film, they probably have a different sense, because it’s more of a coherent statement than when you’re just doing one little scene or getting your costume on while another scene is being shot.
Miller: My guess is that probably on the days of the shooting, they felt excited that the film was taking place in their neighborhood, but that’s all. When they see the film, it might change their view.
Manning: Did making the film change your view? Did you see more there after you made the film? Did you change your mind about some things?
Renzi: I saw all the things I didn’t or couldn’t include. We didn’t shoot enough from the vantage point of the houses. When I first looked, I noticed that you could see the bridge and the overpass and the steeples from the porches. I wish we could have done more from the point of view of the houses.
Miller: Those of us who were madly changing costumes on the third floor of the blue house got a beautiful view from the front window, and you could peek down and see what was going on. And you could lean over and look down from the porches at the other houses.
Manning: Do you think that the first folks who lived in those houses looked out those windows and appreciated the view, or was it just a place to live and they didn’t think about it?
Renzi: I often wonder if people who aren’t artists, who don’t get to play and reflect like I do, take the time to look and
reflect. I think they do.
Miller: There’s been many dances in which Marta has included non-dancers, and years later, in some random chance meeting, they’ll bump into her and say, “That time, when I was in that dance, was so meaningful for me. It made me see the world in a different way.”
Renzi: I think what Joe (Manning) is talking about are the original people who were living in those houses. Did they have a cup of coffee and just look out and say, “What a lucky person I am to have this beautiful view?”
Miller: I think the world is always divided into people who see with open eyes and an open attitude, and people who don’t.
Manning: There’s a house in North Adams that’s often called the Cancro Block. It’s a big blue house with eight apartments up on Furnace Street. You can see it from almost everywhere in the city. It’s been a great part of my imagination for a long time. When I wrote Disappearing Into North Adams, I wanted to interview someone who grew up in that house. And so I finally found somebody, and it turned out that she was absolutely delighted with having grown up there. She loved the view and the sound of the trains coming through. She talked out how it was an Italian neighborhood and people made wine and grew fruits and vegetables. And she loved the idea that I also loved the house and wanted to write about it.
Renzi: That is sort of the same reaction that Doris had, and she was a newcomer to the neighborhood.
Manning: In your press release about the movie, you said, “Porch Stories challenges the viewer to see what’s right in front of us.”
Renzi: It’s usually the simplest things that we forget to look at, the ones I like to call attention to. It’s not the sparkling new mansion or the dancer who can kick her leg the highest, but the house with some life and history and the dancer with some character that I am interested in showing.
Manning: Do you think that if this film is widely seen in North Adams, it will get lots of curious residents to drive or walk up North Holden Street to see the location for themselves?
Renzi: I think people have already done that. Some people who saw the film at Images said things like, “Oh, I was just by there,” or “I want to go up there. Where is it?”
Manning: I was interested in knowing why you chose the Dion (DiMucci) recording of “Built For Comfort” near the end of the film.
Renzi: I wanted the women to feel and look sexy and comfortable – not like stripper sexy – like normal, healthy women sexy. I like the “Built For Comfort” idea as a metaphor for “I’m not here to show off; I’m here to be myself.” I have to tell you that I called Dion to ask permission to use it. He’s a friend of a friend. He was a complete angel. He said I could use his performance for free, but that he didn’t own the song. And he joked, “What are you doing picking a Willie Dixon song when you could have picked one of my songs?” And then he started playing music for me on the phone. He had some kind of keyboard or synthesizer, and he turned it on and started a track going, and then he added another track, and then started singing.
Manning: What do you plan to do with the film now?
Renzi: I’m entering it into some little film festivals. It’s already been accepted into the Moondance International Film Festival in Hollywood. But, you know, Porch Stories is an odd little film. Only those of us who love North Adams, or who love me, or who like looking at what is right in front of them will really get it. It doesn’t have a big plot. It’s just a sweet little short movie.