A Couple of Queen Bees: The Continuing Saga of Rosemary Sexton and Mary House
"Violet", the first feature film of writer and director Rosemary House, produced by Mary Sexton, is the first project by these women of their new production company, Dark Flowers Productions. House, president of Dark Flowers, said she caught the film-making bug in 1990 after casually enrolling in a NIFCO class taught by Ken Pittman. House said she began planning Violet in 1994 on the set of "Anchor Zone", a Ken Pittman film, over a bottle of wine with Mary Sexton and Brenda O'Brien. The film is based on a true story about O'Brien's grandmom. It seems Pittman was the water for some bloomings indeed.
Nevertheless, House and Sexton were creative spirits long before taking to the silver screen, or meeting Pittman. Before getting stung by the film bug, House studied arts at Memorial, journalism at Carlton and literary criticism at the University of Toronto.
"Myself and a girlfriend just enrolled in a NIFCO course for fun, and I got the bug like you wouldn't believe. I started working with Ken, learning everything I could." Mary Sexton, of the notorious and prolific Sexton clan (Marty Sexton, best art design, "Clothesline Patch", Atlantic Film Festival 2000; Tommy Sexton, CODCO; etc.), was formally trained as a computer technologist, but more important, played "leap frog" as a child in the living room with her nine siblings.
"'Frog,' that was one game we played as kids. We'd jump around the furniture trying not to land in the water, 'cause the crocodiles were there. If someone fell, one of us picked the other up." And although Sexton has no formal training in film or art, the Globe and Mail's David MacFarlane recently wrote: "Mary Sexton...if Newfoundland were America, would be the most powerful woman in the entertainment world and...would have difficulty fitting Barbara Walters into her busy schedule," (American reference not withstanding.)
Whatever their backgrounds, it seems both House and Sexton have made their mark in a Dark Flowers Production with a deep, dazzling brush of violet.
"Violet", starring Mary Walsh and an equally impressive ensemble cast, was produced by Mary Sexton and written and directed by Rosemary House. It is the story of a widow and a mother, Violet, her kin, their relationships, and everyone's charming and ensuing descent into the existential tailspin that is life, or death, or if you'd like, Violet's 55th birthday. The neurosis, scheming, laughter and, ultimately, love, that accompanies this spiraling ascent, is blended beautifully by the well cultivated characters and their actors.
Arguably, the film "Violet" could have been named after another character, "Carlos," the film's main protagonist. Named after his deceased father "Charles" by his mother and aficionado (Violet), this prodigal gay son in bright, multilingual, compassionate and funny, perhaps your average Newfoundlander, and beautifully played by Andrew Younghusband.
Berni Stapleton is equally brilliant as the villainess, Violet's cousin "Lynda," who strives at every means towards Violet's end, and, you guessed it, inheritance. Stapleton's take on Lynday is clever and hilarious, at times bearing a dramatic and lascivious resemblance to Joan Crawford in "The Women".
And Mary Walsh pulls through, effortlessly, as a dramatic actor, juggling the nuances of a dark comedy and Violet, the character. For example, when Violet, "takes to her bed," she gets dressed to die. Her daughter "Ramona" (Susan Kent) discovers her other despondently styling her hair, and hoots, "You look like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane!"
Meanwhile, the background is set beautifully by musical scores arranged by Paul Steffler, stringing the film with everything from opera to banjo to Amore. And cinematographer Ivan Gekoff also maintains an eloquent mood and time continuum through lighting and the passing of the seasons.
Indeed, no one was asleep on this set, unless you count "Uncle Ed" (Brian Hennessey)--but that, of course, was part of the porch scene.
So what's it like, I wondered, to be two of the most powerful women in the Newfoundland film business? Well, it seems House and Sexton didn't actually meet on a film set but, rather, at St. John's YMCA daycare, in the late 1980's.
"My girls are all grown up, so it gets easier all the time. And my husband has always been incredibly supportive," says House. "A woman in the film business might have to work harder for respect on some levels, but it's really not something I've had problems with, I just go ahead and do my thing."
Sexton was equally down to earth.
"I've often wondered what it would be like to have a 'Remington Steele' up front", says Sexton. "Women are often the ones behind the scenes, working very hard and not getting recognition. But women really have come to the forefront in the past ten years."
Anyway, somewhere in the middle of my interview with Sexton and my ferocious chomping of chocolate M and M's, an apple rolled across the desk.
"Bingo Robbers," I thought. For those of you under a rock, the Newfoundland baby that took the Atlantic Rim Festival by storm--although I didn't actually say that.
I asked Sexton what she thought of the film.
"Absolutely thrilled," she says, smiling buoyantly.
"We all work together here."
Indeed! Both House and Sexton have their plates full with projects outside the realm of Dark Flowers.
For example, House is currently writing a documentary "Salvation", for the Newfoundland Film Board, about the compassion and charity within The Salvation Army. Sexton, among other things, is busy working with writer and director Roger Maunder on his first feature film, "Receiver's Creed".
Coming attractions for Dark Flowers?
"Atlantic Blues", a Dark Flowers work in progress, will be a major feature film written and (possibly) directed by Rosemary House and produced by Mary Sexton. It is the story of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger. It carries the weight of a ten million-dollar box office extravaganza, and I predict, will float like a butterfly.