Diamond in the rough: Dina Ciraulo directs an actor in her debut feature, "Opal," which is about a self-taught naturalist. (Photo courtesy filmmaker)

Dina Ciraulo's 'Opal'

Michael Fox August 11, 2009

Dina Ciraulo’s debut feature reconsiders the curious case of nature writer Opal Whiteley, who burst to prominence—and controversy—in the 1920s. Setting a narrative in an earlier time, of course, complicates matters from a budget and logistics standpoint. "It’s one of those things that everyone tells you not to do," Ciraulo admits, with a wry chuckle. "I was just so motivated by the story that I didn’t feel inhibited by the notion of doing a period piece. I was thinking of doing something on Super 8, I wanted to do something really low-budget—kind of like a punk rock period piece—and I was inspired by the work of Guy Maddin. I didn’t think about all the ways that a period film could be difficult, because I wasn’t trying to do a Merchant-Ivory, every-last-detail-in-its-place type of film. I wanted to suggest period without having to exhaustively recreate it."

protagonist is a self-taught naturalist who grew up in a logging camp in the Pacific Northwest during World War I. In 1920, Whiteley serialized her childhood* journal in the Atlantic Monthly and published it in book form as The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart. The veracity of the diary was subsequently called into question, and Whiteley remained an ambiguous and debated figure up to her death in 1992, and since.

"The character has this Thoreau-John Muir facility," Ciraulo says. "Nature for her is a spiritual force. My lens is it’s creative and destructive. The character is very optimistic, but when I look back through her life I see it as a tragedy." In other words, Opal is not a Pollyannish ode to the get-back-to-nature movement. "I feel like the film has a lot of contemporary resonances in terms of seeing the regenerative power of nature," the filmmaker explains. "Nature goes through cycles of destruction and growth and change. The film doesn’t have this glassy vision of nature. It’s a force that can’t really be controlled. It’s not this benign thing that makes everybody feel better."

For a year and a half beginning in July, 2006, Ciraulo shot on an irregular schedule around the Bay Area, with visits to Bolinas, Felton, the Marin Headlands and Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, as well as San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. Shooting on Super 16, it was her favorite part of Opal.

"I’m a production person,"she declares. "I like production, I like being on set, I like shooting. I would have been happy to shoot double the amount of footage we shot. Postproduction is a different process and a difficult process. Production is all about possibilities, and editing is dealing with the reality of what you have."

Although Ciraulo shot coverage, complete with reaction shots, her rhythm hearkens to an earlier era. "I would be a terrible editor, because I just love to watch shots play out," she says. Describing her film’s rich, textured visuals, she suggests, "Even if you hate everything else that’s going on, you’ll at least have something beautiful to watch."

There’s some self-deprecation in Ciraulo’s remark, as well as an artist’s acknowledgment that she’s pleased with the idiosyncratic aesthetic she chose. In her eyes, it’s an evocation of an earlier time, but to some viewers it will play like an experimental narrative.

"I just know what I like," Ciraulo says, without a whiff of arrogance. "I make the kind of films that I would want to see. I don’t know how to make a film other than the kinds of films that interest me. I don’t know if audiences have shrunk for that kind of film, but there is an audience for them, and I’m one of them. "She adds. "Here’s the good news to my mind: I’m not spending $7 million of someone else’s money to fulfill my dream. I’m making a very, very low-budget film and there’s not a lot of risk for anybody, except maybe my credit cards."

Ciraulo is aiming to lock picture by the end of the summer and finish up the sound design in the fall. "Like 4,500 other people, we’re going to apply to Sundance in September," she says. "I would like a nice festival release. I have my list of top 10 festivals, but there are so many that I just want to get it out on the circuit and, if it’s possible, have a life there."

has a certain profile already, largely because Ciraulo presented the project at No Borders in New York and the Producer’s Network at Cannes, and partly thanks to Whiteley’s name recognition. The film also met with approval from several funders, winning the Eric A. Takulan Memorial Fellowship from the Djerassi Resident Artists Program as well as an Individual Artist Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to support the postproduction.

Mostly, Ciraulo wants to take what she’s learned and apply it to the next project. She’s working on a new script, which she describes as "a nice diversion." After three years of production and post on Opal, she says with a laugh, she measures success in terms of finishing.

"When you work on a film, you stray from your original vision for budgetary reasons, but also for life reasons. I’m making the film I set out to make, but I wouldn’t make that film today, for example. You’re not in the same place two years later going through production that you were when you started." She adds, with more of her extraordinary candidness, "I’m done with this particular story. I’m ready to move on. It doesn’t make for good PR, frankly. I’m going to have to promote the film for a year after I’m finished, and it doesn’t make for good PR to say, ‘I’m over it.’ When I want to be moved by the material, I go back to the original story."

The trailer for Opal is at www.opalthemovie.com.

Notes from the Underground
John Lasseter and the Disney/Pixar directors (that’s how the announcement reads) will be feted at the Venice Film Festival in September with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement ... Plan on breaking out the fedora and trench coat earlier than usual. Noir rules the Bay at the Castro (the best of British noir Sept. 11-16), Roxie (two weeks of rare Columbia noir, a sequel to the hit program of a few months back, Sept. 17-30), and the Pacific Film Archive ("Tea and Larceny: Classic British Crime Films," Sept. 2-Oct. 31)…..Geralyn Pezanoski’s Mine, winner of the Best Doc prize at SXSW, will screen in S.F. DocFest in October and air next year on PBS’ "Independent Lens" series. Jim Granato’s D tour also made the IL cut, with a Nov. 10 airdate.

*Editor’s note: This sentence was corrected after the first comment on this story was posted.

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