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Badpuss: A Popumentary

BadPuss: A Popumentary undresses female stardom to reveal a hypersexualized culture of young, misguided girls. A story that in many ways parallels today’s Hollywood headlines, the film is about BadPuss, an all-girl band whose rise thrusts them into a hedonistic, raucous culture, and eventually a painful fall from fame.

The film reflects pop stardom through the lens of a funhouse mirror. Lara Reares, the creator of BadPuss, has high hopes of bringing the band back together for a comeback tour, but this is not as easy as she’d thought. Years have passed, resentments have festered and dark secrets have come to light. Documenting the revival of this threesome is a desperate reporter willing to follow around bandmates Lara, Kassie, and Ro just two days before the great comeback tour, “Body Shots and Hot Regrets,” kicks off.

The film is a ride of cosmic proportions sans the protective gear, depicting the media’s image of lascivious spoiled pop stars. It propels itself into whimsical stardust then dives deep down into hell fire through the unfortunate and often hilarious calamities of three tragically beautiful women trying to survive in the chaos and debauchery of contemporary pop culture. It’s not a tale of caution, but rather a “grand fantastical tragedy,” says writer/director, Emily Wiest. “If there is a message, it’s a byproduct of the struggle.”

Wiest weaves a strong, dark humor into the depiction of a fallen all-female pop band. Their tragedy is our humor, much like what Whoopi Goldberg did in her Surfer Girl stand-up. Wiest takes serious subject matter and presents it in a way that is at once hilarious and sexy–until the harsh reality of partying to abandon, fornicating recklessly and resorting to violence renders you speechless. The laughter continues even as you realize the deeper, more meaningful story beneath the plot.

Britney Spears in a state of panic shaving her head had everyone glued to the news. Miley Cyrus swinging from a wrecking ball naked and suggesting lewd sex on this year’s MTV Music Awards got lots of attention and sold millions of albums. We laugh at their tragedy or we rally behind them blindly. But really, what is funny about a young girl in a state of panic who makes erratic decisions because she is desperately trying to find her own voice, or breathe, or break out?

The daughter of Oscar-winning actor Dianne Wiest, Emily grew up surrounded by raconteurs. I asked her at what point in her life she knew she wanted to act, write and direct. “I’m a storyteller,” she said. “The first book I ever wrote was called “Long Knowits,” and I was three. Sadly it has yet to be published. I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller and I’m still refining what that means. I grew up backstage in old theaters. If you spend a summer crouched in the dark listening to Oedipus and Salome over and over, and you hear those heightened moments, you know the extremes of the ups and the downs—she’s dancing, he’s gouged his eyes out again—it’s bound to have a bit of an impact, it becomes a part of you.”

Actress Sydney Lemmon’s grandfather is Jack Lemmon. Asia Ashford, another Popumentary star, is the spawn of music royalty Ashford and Simpson. The third actress, Hannah Sorenson comes from the plains of North Dakota and her mother is an artist. “I think the biggest gift we all share is that our parents understand the need we have to create. It frees you up, that kind of support.”

The cast raised the money themselves on ; no parent pulled favors, wrote scripts, or even acted in the film. Together they raised an impressive $28,000 — $3,000 more than their goal — from 190 backers. The “BadPuss” website features some great video of the team asking for donations, and also features set design video and an interview with Jon Barber Gutwillig of Disco Biscuits, the man behind the music.

I interviewed Wiest, Lemmon and Sorenson while crammed in the kitchen of their photographer friend’s apartment as they got their hair and makeup done for the day’s shoot. Janis Joplin was blasting out of the front room so that Wiest could get into character. Lemmon stretched cat-like on the floor drinking coffee while Sorenson transformed from the girl next door into a magnificent, sparkly, bubble gum pop starlet. The love they have for one another was evident as they reminisced about their summer of filming and first impressions of meeting one another. Each spoke about the struggles of being so new in this business. Their biggest concern seemed to be the lack of work on their resumes and making money — just like any struggling actor from coast to coast.

Wiest and her co-stars Lemmon and Sorenson all talked about the importance of collaboration. Wiest attributes much of the success of the film to her production team and their belief in the project. If she started to get doubtful or conflict arose, it was the team that kept her focused.

Producer Karli McGuiness had this to say about production:
“As a filmmaker friend of ours warned us, ‘A lot of pre-production is putting out fires.’ To that we say, we are fearless fire fighters! We are fearless due, in large part, to the support we have from experienced professionals in the industry who have made themselves an irreplaceable part of this process.”

Wiest adds, “The fearless firefighter is Karli McGuiness, and she lived up to it on a daily basis.”

So how does one go about getting the right ensemble together?
“BadPuss is awesome because people just kind of fell into the project. It started with close friends and then spread as the project grew. Carrie Keagan signed on through VH1 with Keith Koslov, another of our producers.

Our designer Claire Deliso was a college friend from our undergraduate studies in theatre. She’s an absolute powerhouse. We had this fine artist raised in the French countryside designing massive sets and costumes for a rock band, it was like this perfectly unexpected culmination of perspectives. She made us romantic and sexy without losing the humor. My favorite quote from her (imagined with the slightest French accent): ‘Nipples! We must have more nipples!’”

Each scene is driven by a hard beat mastered by Jon Barber Gutwillig, who also acted in the film and can be heard on the website.

“Yes, the part of DJ BarberShreds was written for him,” says Wiest. “He really got it and loved it and just started composing tunes. He’s a master, because it’s a story that looks back over the careers of a group of musicians so you kind of witness the death of the instrument throughout their musical trajectory…He just transitioned through each phase without batting an eye, writing these hit songs with lyrics meant to fit into the mocku-popumentary genre…from the hardcore rock ballad “Chain Me to Your Twin Bed College Boy,” through the gangster “I Ain’t Yo BadPuss,” and onto the upbeat club mix “Ketamine Santa.”

Sydney Lemmon and Hannah Sorenson provided their own vocals, Leah Elizabeth provided mine. The other contributing musicians include Steve Molitz, The Infinite Wizard (Robin Hood) David C. Butler, Clay Parnell of Brother’s Past, Robert Sahm, Zane “Nominee” Urquhart, Brandon S. Meyer, and Cara Salimando of Novelette.”

Wiest is destined to be a 21st Century writer and star and she is not alone. Each actor in the film does a brilliant job conveying the emotions of a girlie pop star who has begun to lose her shine and is desperately trying to make a comeback . The tension and conflict between Lara, Ro and Kassie make for great drama and dark humor, but the point is that these lost starlets could benefit from the real-life direction and focus of their creator, Ms. Wiest.

Hannah Sorenson is a pleasure to watch. Her character Kassie is a “walking heart with legs,” says Sorenson. From her big wide-eyed expressions, her tantalizing naiveté and sexy costumes, you cannot take your eyes off her. A great departure from the actress herself, who unlike her character is a grounded woman, a Yale graduate who prides herself on intellect and doesn’t rely on her good looks to get by. About playing Kassie she says: “She’s a sexualized child in this world – which I think was a pleasure to play because it asks some really important questions about our pop culture, media and how women are represented. You know, why is something so child-like and pure and loving and young so sexualized? And what happens to these people? There is something very distorted about this.”

The film also puts a mirror to the face of the fanatically frenzied young girls who believe these women are demi-gods, destined to be their best friends forever. They cry to them over the Internet, make YouTube videos pledging their devotion to their icons, but when the idol falls, the fanatic falls too.

Sydney Lemmon, who plays Ro in the film (whose character seems a bit hostile on the idea of a resurrection of the band), talked about how she came to play Ro. “I was on the road doing a national tour of Romeo and Juliet and Animal Farm and I was in Tennessee when Karli, the producer on the film and also a long-time friend, just wrote to me. The subject line was “Bad Puss” and I thought ‘Oh this is a viral spam…’ but then I read more and thought, ‘okay, tongue and cheek, that’s a good sign, aware of itself, good, mocumentary,’ it was really interesting.”

As Emily and I wind up our day of shooting for the magazine with photographer Jason Homa, who also does all the exquisite stills for the film, she stresses the pleasure of seeing something you envisioned come to life; to see the sets come to life, the characters take their first breath and to have people read your story and get it. Wiest said, “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Before leaving I want to know what Wiest would say to that lonely, frightened girl, wrapped up in the media glitter and pop idolatry crying her eyes out on YouTube or just writing her pain in her closet. “To her I say, ‘Go outside.’ Live a little. Live the life that BadPuss can’t because they’re so damn busy being that.”

By “that” Ms. Wiest means the young girl drowning in the pop world of eye candy, sex and illusions.

We need to set higher standards for our young girls today; give them access to a more confident, intelligent and independent role model who thinks for herself and doesn’t rely on her sexuality for validation.

photos by Jason Homa Photography

About the author:
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Dena Ferreira is a writer, actor and activist in New York. Intriguing renaissance gal: Former Wilhelmina model and recent Hunter College graduate. Dena Ferreira is the mother of two brilliant young girls, a birth doula and an intern at the Center for Fiction in New York City.


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