I first met the actress Karen Black in 2001 when I stopped by her house to try and persuade her to star in my film FIRECRACKER. She knew I was coming, so she let me in. I was instantly hooked on watching her body movements and facial expressions. There was something about her entire being that reminded me of a wild cat… like a panther or a jaguar.
She seemed to float on the air, feet never touching the ground. I would later remember this and encourage the Oscar-winning sound designer Paul N. J. Ottosson to remove Karen Black’s foley from one of her characters in FIRECRACKER so she would appear to subconsciously float, otherworldly through the film.
Karen eventually agreed to star in FIRECRACKER and we went about making the film. She was an incredible trooper on set. One of my favorite scenes is when her character Sandra leans out of her gypsy wagon to talk to the young boy. During filming, when it was time to reverse the camera and get the kid’s shot, it was nearly 5 AM and we’d been filming since long before sunset. Several people on the crew were worried about getting Karen back to her room so she could sleep but she stood firm, and refused to go. She wanted to stay and be there to act with the kid who was being filmed. She was a total pro.
In the years after FIRECRACKER came out, Karen and I remained good friends and I’d look her up every time I was in Los Angeles. We always daydreamed of another project and when we would be able to work together again.
In 2008, Karen was being honored at the Macon Film Festival and they were to show my film FIRECRACKER, so I was flown in to present it with her. It was such a lovely town, we decided to make a movie there. Screenwriter Frankie Krainz had just finished his ode to film noir women in prison movies, and Karen said, “I’ve always wanted to be in a women’s prison movie and no one’s ever asked me to be in one. Isn’t that peculiar?” So we decided to make STUCK! together.
At first I’d thought of casting John Waters’ muse Mink Stole as the part of the Next Door Neighbor Lady, and Karen as the bible-beating shooter on death row for gunning down an entire fleet of tax collectors. Karen really wanted the part I had in mind for Mink, and eventually I convinced Mink to take the part I’d originally had in mind for Karen. It ended up being a great switch, and both women were perfect in their roles.
One of my favorite moments during the filming of STUCK! came when we were shooting a scene near the end of the film, where Karen’s character is riddled with guilt. In that room, on the set, we turned to each other after a take and looked around. It was just the three of us. Karen, me, and my sound guy. I made the comment about how amazing this was, this experience. How intimate and real and honest. She smiled and said, “THIS is filmmaking.”
I am so very lucky to have been able to work with her and to be her friend.
Last week Karen Black passed away after a long battle with ampullary cancer, a rare form similar to pancreatic cancer.
The days leading up to her death were filled with lovely texts and email exchanges. One night, I sent her this text:
“I had a cry for you today. In your honor. I was sitting in my editing room, which is the same room you loved, on the second floor, with the North facing windows. And I smiled. And felt your love and support. And I hope you can feel mine for you. You are a treasure. After work I like to go outside in my yard and look up at trees, see the leaves and the branches. All those shapes and lines. You once taught me its important to do that after sitting at a computer. You also have taught me the gift of collaboration. I shall never forget those incredible moments creating with you. I love you with all my heart. Now. Next. And then some. Cheers, my dear. To YOU!”
She replied with kisses and was eager to hear about what I was working on next. It was such a blessing to have had the chance to say farewell to her personally. And it was so lovely to just keep on going.
Please, everyone. Take a moment and watch this clip of Karen’s most memorable films.
Our film FIRECRACKER is now streaming on demand.
Dear Karen: Know that you are loved and will be missed. Thank you for being one of my collaborators, one of my cohorts and my friend.