"It's such a great story," Karen Moncrieff admitted when asked how she broke into the film business as the writer/director of the independent film Blue Car. In 1992 the stunning Moncrieff, a former Miss Illinois, was enjoying a front-burner storyline in the center of a love triangle on the NBC soap opera Santa Barbara. But the writing was soon on the wall: Moncrieff's character lost her man and, subsequently, her mind. "In soap opera land, once your character starts going crazy, you're not long for that world," said Moncrieff, laughing. She had previously played similar roles on the daytime dramas Bold and the Beautiful and Days of Our Lives, and was beginning to recognize the limitations of the soap opera world. "I was starting to feel frustrated with the kinds of parts I was getting—or not getting," Moncrieff recalled. "I wanted to be a part of making the kinds of films I want to see but never had the opportunities."
So she decided to create her own opportunities. As a child, she had always been interested in writing. "I was the tiny kid with the purple marker and my dad's yellow legal pad running around and writing little stories about spiders," she said. "But I had gotten kind of away from it during college. So I decided I would make a return to it." She signed up for classes at UCLA Extension and AFI Extension and loved them so much that she realized she needed to also explore directing. "If you write something that you care about and want to protect, the next logical step is to try to direct it yourself," Moncrieff reasoned. Although she had spent years on sets, Moncrieff knew nothing about the technical side of filmmaking. "I wanted to learn about lenses and cinematography and film editing, so I went to school."
From 1995 to 1997 Moncrieff studied at Los Angeles City College, where she made short films and began writing the script that would become Blue Car, a bittersweet coming-of-age tale centering on Meg, a high school student who embarks on a complex relationship with her poetry teacher. Moncrieff cannot speak highly enough of her experience at LACC. "First of all it's cheap as hell," noted Moncrieff. "And it's an amazing way to get your hands on a camera and start learning about filmmaking. Plus the teachers are really great. A lot of the work that gets done there is really innovative and interesting and not a carbon copy of everything else."
After Moncrieff graduated, her script won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting, giving her $25,000 and helping her concentrate solely on her writing for the next year. She then sent the script to Peer J. Oppenheimer, a producer she had met while appearing in a little-seen children's film Waking Up Horton. "When I was on the set I struck up a conversation with Peer and told him I was working on a script, and he very kindly said to send it to him," Moncrieff recalled. Much to her surprise, Oppenheimer fell in love with the story and was eager to purchase it. "He asked all the questions about if I would sell it, but I insisted on directing. I said I was prepared to finance the whole thing on my credit cards if I had to." Recognizing her determination, Oppenheimer chose to join forces with Moncrieff to get the movie made.
The film was shot "guerilla style," according to Moncrieff, in just 20 days. It starred the unknown Agnes Bruckner as Meg and David Strathairn as her teacher, Mr. Auster. "Agnes was just a gift," raved Moncrieff about the 16-year-old who delivers a performance well beyond her years as the unsettled but gifted poet. And Moncrieff can't say enough about Strathairn, for whom she had specifically written the part of Auster. "I could tell the moment I shook his hand that it was going to be a really great collaboration. You know how you feel a certain energy from someone and you can tell it's going to be somebody you want to spend a part of your life with? And I'm trying more and more to surround myself with people like that."
Blue Car premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 to audience and critical raves and was quickly acquired by Miramax. Moncrieff was singled out by Entertainment Weekly in last year's "It List" of people to watch. The film was originally scheduled to be released in November 2002, at the same time another film about a troubled youth who uses rhymes to escape his dreary life was taking the box office by storm. While Blue Car is a far cry from Eminem's 8 Mile, Moncrieff understood the reasoning behind holding the film's release until 2003. "I would rather they push it back and show that they are paying attention to the competition and the climate for a movie like this than just say, 'We scheduled it, so let's release it,' and have it die a quick death."
Miramax apparently believes in the film and in Moncrieff; it has signed her to a first-look deal and already greenlit her next film, Rose, her adaptation of the Martin Cruz Smith novel. "It features the best part I've ever seen in a movie for a woman," Moncrieff stated with considerable excitement. She has also formed her own production company, Pit Bull Productions, to work on what she dubbed her "indie passion projects." Blue Car is set to hit theatres on Apr. 25, although she claimed she would try to avoid reading the reviews. "It's hard because I fight the instinct in myself to please people all the time," she mused. "And I'm sure that's part of why I became an actress—because I wanted that applause. And I probably left because I didn't need it as much. You want to make a difference and you want to move people. But I would have written and directed Blue Car even if nobody had thought it was a good idea." BSW