By Chuck Reece
Katherine Dieckmann might spend most of her life in New York City, but you’d best not make the mistake of speaking ill of the South’s people in her apartment.
“I can't stand it when people are patronizing about Southerners,” she says. “It's really a pet peeve of mine. I really can't bear it.”
Bless her heart. The good way. With the film business rarely turning out realistic movies about the modern South, we need directors like Dieckmann on our side. She might be a born-and-bred New Yorker, but she’s loved people down here for years.
“In high school, I ran away to the South with my boyfriend at the time and went to the Blue Ridge Mountains,” she says. “I’ve just always loved the South. I shot my first film in the mountains outside of Asheville, [N.C.].” Her work in the South as a filmmaker began with shooting music videos for R.E.M. in the early 1990s, and her debut as a feature-film director, “A Good Baby,” in 2000, was shot in North Carolina.
Dieckmann’s latest visit to the South is a quiet but deeply affecting movie called “Strange Weather,” starring the wonderful Georgia-born Holly Hunter as a Mississippi woman named Darcy Baylor. The Darcy character is, in Dieckmann’s words, “a mother who thinks she's suddenly figured out the truth about why her son killed himself.”
Dieckmann has seen her own friends suffer through the tragic loss of a child. “I'm a mother, but my children are 20 and 15 and I've never undergone it. I watched a couple people I know go through it. I was very struck by the way they processed their grief or didn't process their grief. I felt like I had never seen a story that dealt with grief over time and how it works and how it affects people. But if you make a movie that's just about that as a subject, it gets kind of drippy and maybe a little bit boring. I came up with a story to wrap that story around, which was about a mother who thinks she's found the answer to why that happened. She goes off on a kind of quest with her best friend to confront this person. That's the journey.”
Hunter’s performance gets under your skin. She presents Darcy as a sturdy spirit, but one deeply shaken by her years of grief. Undergirding that performance is a haunting score by Sharon Van Etten, the gifted New Jersey singer/songwriter who spent several years living in Tennessee.
“Holly was super, super interested in digging into how she was going to play it and how she was going to build it,” Dieckmann says. “She worked very hard on that. I think it's a beautiful performance, an amazing performance. It was a real gift to me, that performance.”
Of course, the very realism of the story — a woman in her 50s scrapping for what’s right — made the movie hard for Dieckmann to bring to life. Hollywood doesn’t treat women filmmakers and actors well after age 50. I asked Dieckmann if the nature of her story made it difficult to find financing.
“Oh, yeah,” she told me. “Seventy people turned it down. I'm totally serious. They loved the script, they loved Holly. But this is literally the single hardest category of movie to get made, a drama with a woman over 50 at the center of it. That is the hardest kind of movie to finance.” But Dieckmann persisted for almost three years, continually trimming the budget until she found investors willing to step in.
If, as Dieckmann says, Hunter’s performance was a gift to her, Dieckmann’s persistence is a gift to Southerners. There are plenty of us hungry for honest films about regular folks in our region. In “Strange Weather,” we get just that — a story of a modest person with modest means, fighting to find meaning inside the greatest possible loss.