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Described by one writer as a cross between a 60s earth mother and a Hell's Angels biker chick, indie filmmaker Allison Anders weathered a rough childhood and young adult life that not only encouraged an escapist penchant for making up characters but also an insider's sympathy for the strong but put-upon women who have peopled her films. Abandoned by her father at age five, sexually abused by a number of different men while growing up and gang-raped at the age of 12, she eventually retreated into a fantasy relationship with "dead Paul" (McCartney), a flight of fancy which helped get her admitted to a mental hospital at 15. Anders, who had written prior to being institutionalized, rediscovered her voice with the help of a poet she met "inside" and learned "to make people who aren't there really stand up and talk." At 17, she dropped out of high school in Los Angeles and ventured back to the rural Kentucky of her birth, moving soon afterwards to London to live with the man who would father her first child.
Upon her return to the USA, Anders finally began to pick up the pieces of her life. Despite not having a high school diploma, she attended junior college and later the UCLA film school, managing to stick to her dreams when a second daughter came along. Enchanted with Wim Wenders' films, the welfare mother so deluged the filmmaker with correspondence that he gave her a job as a production assistant on "Paris, Texas" (1984). Afterwards, with fellow UCLA colleagues Dean Lent (who also worked as a production assistant on "Paris, Texas") and then-lover Kurt Voss, Anders made her feature co-writing and co-directing debut with the cult hit "Border Radio" (1988), a black-and-white 16mm study of the L.A. punk scene, revealing the "artistic" sensibilities of the trio who expressed their difficulties getting the film made in its final credit - "Many Curses on: Those Who Tried To Thwart Us." Anders reteamed with Lent (this time as cinematographer) for her first solo effort, "Gas Food Lodging" (1992), drawing from her own personal life to tell the compelling, multilevel story of a single mother (Brooke Adams) and her two teenage daughters (Fairuza Balk and Ione Skye).
Set in the milieu of a southwestern hardscrabble life, "Gas Food and Lodging" was tour de force filmmaking, its tone of poignant hope amidst disappointment starkly convincing. Like Anders' 1994 follow-up, "Mi Vida Loca/My Crazy Life," which depicted girl gangs in the Echo Park neighborhood of L.A. where she lived, it showcased her ability to capture on camera a genuineness that made audiences feel they were watching real people, not actors. In "Mi Vida Loca," they actually were watching real Latina gang members sprinkled in with the actors (some of whom were Spanish soap opera stars). Anders had won their trust over time ("At first . . . they thought I was a cop") by approaching them without judgment, and in addition to appearing in the film, they worked closely with the director, advising her on script changes and characterizations and serving as consultants on costumes, language, music and location. The strength of both films lies in the emotionally rich portrayals of women battling the odds (i.e., dead-end jobs, vanishing men) to bond with one another, but "Mi Vida Loca," in its attempt to develop too many characters, provided a too frequently shifting point-of-view that worked to undermine the picture's power.
Despite the unwieldy episodic structure, Anders had successfully captured the frustrations, social rituals and violence affecting her "Girlz 'N the Hood." She also got to work out some of her own frustrations by killing-off former love-who-broke-her-heart John Taylor (guitarist of Duran Duran) in the guise of the fictional character El Duran (Taylor, who had actually remained friends with the director, survived to provide the music for "Mi Vida Loca" and headline 1999's "Sugar Town"). When one of her extras/consultants died of a drug overdose shortly after filming wrapped, Anders began caring for the woman's young son (eventually adopting him) and dedicated the film to the deceased, establishing a scholarship fund in her name through a community service group in Echo Park, to which she donated the proceeds from the movie's Los Angeles premiere. Anders next directed the "Strange Brew" episode of the omnibus "Four Rooms" (1995), which starred Madonna as a lesbian witch and Alicia Witt as her love-slave. The embarrassing compilation wasted the talents of all involved (including the directors of the other segments--Quentin Tarantino, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez), with the sole point of interest being "Which one is the worst?"
"Grace of My Heart" (1996), a project teaming her with Martin Scorsese (executive producer) and his then-girlfriend Illeana Douglas (as a Carole King-like songwriter-singer), was Anders' first attempt at a period piece. Set against the backdrop of the pop music world centered around NYC's Brill Building during the 50s and 60s, it featured some pleasant sound-alike songs from the period, plus one showstopper, "God Give Me Strength," which inaugurated the collaboration between Elvis Costello and pop veteran Burt Bacharach. Anders may have compromised this fabulous idea by again trying to cover too much, but the predictable structure of scene-song-scene-song also exacerbated the film's superficiality. Fortunately, the score and a wonderful performance by John Turturro as a Jewish record company owner helped save what must be considered Anders-lite compared to her previous work. "Sugar Time" then reunited her with ex-beaux Voss (as co-director and co-writer) and Taylor making his feature debut in the art-imitating-life role of a rock musician suffering through a mid-life crisis. An amusing, polished look at L.A.'s rock'n'roll subculture, it did not, however, mark a return to the hard-hitting substance of either "Gas Food Lodging" or "Mi Vida Loca."
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Was gang-raped at age 12 (date approximate)
Was placed in a mental hospital in Los Angeles at age 15 because of suicidal feelings and a retreat into a fantasy world; depression exacerbated by, among other things, the widely circulated rumors of the death of her favorite Beatle, Paul McCartney
Family settled in Los Angeles when Anders was 15; stepfather at one point pulled a gun on her (date approximate)
Dropped out of high school at age 17; headed back to Kentucky by bus to live with other relatives (date approximate)
Worked as a barmaid in London until she got pregnant; when lover did not want her to have baby, moved back to Los Angeles alone and supported herself and child with welfare and with work as a waitress
Moved to London at age 18 to live with an English-born philosophy student she had met on the Greyhound she took to move back to Kentucky (date approximate)
First feature film credit, as a production assistant on Wim Wenders' film, "Paris, Texas"
Moved to the Echo Park section of Los Angeles shortly after graduating from UCLA; supported herself and her daughters for a time with money from a screenwriting grant she had received
Feature film directorial and screenwriting debut, "Border Radio" (b&w, 16mm), co-directed and co-written with fellow UCLA film students Kurt Voss and Dean Lent
First solo directorial effort, "Gas Food Lodging", for which she also wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Richard Peck; Lent served as director of photography
Won praise for "Mi Vida Loca/My Crazy Life", her authentic picture about Latina gang members; shot film only a month after the Los Angeles riots of 1992
Actor Hugh Grant backed out of Anders' "Paul Is Dead" project a scant month before shooting was to start, and funding disappeared with him
Signed two-year deal with Miramax Films to write, produce and direct features
Awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant ($255,000)
Helmed and scripted the "Strange Brew" segment of "Four Rooms"
Wrote and directed "Grace of My Heart", about a female singer struggling to make it in the music business in the 1950s and 1960s; executive produced by Martin Scorsese
Executive produced "Lover Girl", on which Lent was director of photography
Reteamed with Voss to co-write and co-direct the comedy-drama "Sugar Town", about a group of aging musicians; premiered at the Sundance Film Festival
With Voss, co-wrote "Things Behind the Sun", a drama about a young female rock musician coping with a rape; also directed; premiered at Sundance Film Festival; sold to Showtime; inspired by events from Anders' own life