Filmmaker Gretchen Zufall, a Baton Rouge native who now operates in Brooklyn, New York, seeks to capture the vibrant whimsy of New Orleans in her first feature film, The Charmed Life of Fig Dauphine.
The movie follows child fortune-teller Fig Dauphine and her teenage sidekick on a series of escapades through the Crescent City, all in an effort to solve the mystery surrounding Fig’s long-lost father. This is also Zufall’s first screenplay to be set in her home state of Louisiana, and much of the cast hails from south Louisiana, too. The film has already won awards at several festivals, and it will screen locally at the Manship Theatre this fall. (Get your tickets to the Oct. 8 showing here.)
225 sat down with Zufall to talk about how she captures what she calls a “lyrical sense of place,” the resplendent creative inspiration of New Orleans and more. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
It’s about a 10-year-old fortune teller trying to solve the mystery of her own life. She lives with her mother and two tenants, whom her mother pays to take care of her. Her mother is more interested in her own life with her girlfriend, and Fig is left on her own to wonder who her father is. It’s kind of a buddy film, because there’s Fig, and the teenage tenant is kind of like her sidekick.
As a fortune teller, Fig can see the future of others, but she wants to solve the mystery of her own absent father, and she can’t see anything about her own life. So there’s a little bit of magical realism in this, and Fig has been taught that her father was an egret (yes, the bird), so she’s surprised to find out that he’s a real human being.
I’ve wanted to make a film in New Orleans since I was a little child, and I’ve always wanted to capture the magic that I remembered from the city. I would go to New Orleans, and I would sneak out at night with my childhood friend to ride streetcars. I remembered the charms of the fortune tellers that I visited in the French Quarter, and the idea of a young girl fortune teller came to mind. I’ve written a lot of screenplays, and they always take place in New York, but I knew that I was ready to make a feature film on my own, and I wanted it to be in New Orleans. I wanted to capture the anything-can-happen-and-probably-will spirit that I remembered growing up, because I think New Orleans is kind of a fun, crazy place. To me, New Orleans is dangerous and funny and surreal and homey.
My hope was to represent the beautiful range of genders, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations of New Orleans. So, when I wrote the script, as well as during the casting, I kept all of this in mind, and I was thinking about the type of characters that might be in New Orleans.
I cast 22 out of the 24 actors from the New Orleans, Baton Rouge and south Louisiana area. I wanted the characters to seem as real and authentic as possible; I didn’t want fake Southern accents. I also felt that it was important to give local actors the opportunity.
That Alice in Wonderland sense of adventure, sense of whimsy. I also hope I’ve depicted a lyrical sense of place, because I think everyone, not only throughout this country but throughout the world, thinks New Orleans is special. Special visually, but also in its acceptance of all different kinds of people. I also want people to be caught a little off guard with emotions. It’s mostly a comedy, but there’s some serious moments. The film is also about mothers and daughters trying to be perfect and failing. I try to make the endings of everything I write very meaningful, so this one is about how family doesn’t have to mean “related.” A group of people can come together and make a family.
I really like period films, just the visual sensations of the landscape and the colors. New Orleans is so vibrant, and I also love the swamps and the whole countryside of Louisiana, so that’s partly what draws me there. But also, I just feel this need to be closer to home right now, because I feel really far away from it. Both of my parents have passed away fairly recently, so I feel like I need to keep some kind of connection with down there.
I’ve written three feature screenplays on my phone, because I am on the subway more than I’d like to be. This is the third script I wrote on my phone (and I’m writing a fourth one now). It’s really easy to just think of a scene or lines of dialogue while you’re traveling and write them down. I’m also often standing on the subway, and I can be on my phone writing standing. I can hold onto the bar of the subway and still be writing on my phone.
It is a tale of the friendship of two young women who go from New Orleans to spend a weekend in Cajun Country to get away from all their money problems—and all their other problems. This film is unique; it’s a comedy, but it’s not a typical comedy. And it’s not about sex. These women might like men or not, but they don’t need a man, and at no point does the film allude to them focusing on this sort of fulfillment, which I think is really rare in films, especially comedies. I think a lot of movies about young women are just about them trying to get a boyfriend. I think the film in this way is about women’s empowerment.