Stanley Brooks has logged 30 years in show business and is an award-winning producer of film and television. Among the movies he has produced are “Prayers for Bobby” and “The Capture of the Green River Killer” as well as several other projects that were adapted from the novels of Ann Rule and Patricia Cornwell. Now after all these years, he makes his directorial debut with “Perfect Sisters,” a crime drama based on a true story. It stars Abigail Breslin and Georgie Henley as Sandra and Beth, two sisters who share a strong bond and watch helplessly as their alcoholic mother (Mira Sorvino) keeps falling off the wagon to where she continually gets involved with the wrong men. After her latest boyfriend proves to be an abusive lout of a human being, the two sisters decide that the time has come to end their mother’s life.
I got to sit in on a roundtable interview with Brooks when he stopped by the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for the “Perfect Sisters” press day. We were all curious as to why this crazy true story finally prompted him to step behind the camera in a whole other way, and of how he went about making this movie. It turned out that he was originally going to bring this story to television, but the material cried out for a different treatment.
“We kept doing drafts of the script and there is just something that’s not very television about the story with the teen alcohol, teen drug use and the language,” Brooks said. “Kids don’t talk to themselves like in the Andy Hardy movies anymore so I needed the profanity. In one of the rare times in my career as a producer, I asked for the script back. And so when I decided I wanted to be a director, this was the one that kind of nagged at me and that I knew was dark enough that we could make a really interesting movie about. Nobody in it is heroic and everybody in it, probably other than her boyfriend, who is a total villain, is a victim in some way. So that made it interesting to me to find that gray area so that all of the characters have moments of being sympathetic, and all the characters have moments of being perpetrators of violence.”
It also turns out that this particular true story was one that was going to come up short in the research department. As a result, everyone involved in the making of this movie had to bring their own imaginations to the story.
“This was the rare true story where we had no access to anybody that was in the story,” Brooks said. “Usually when you do a true story, when I did ‘Capture the Green River Killer’ for instance, we had the real sheriff on board. But here, because of Canadian Shield laws, we didn’t even know the girls’ names. We didn’t know where they were. So I made all the teenagers in the acting troupe go home and write an essay about their character, about where was their character for the year that led up to this and where did they think they were now. What was their favorite music, their favorite food, and we end up using a lot of that in the movie.”
“I remember Zoë (Belkin) wrote that (her character of) Ashley is anorexic and doesn’t eat and has body issues, and if you go to the cafeteria scene that goes all the way around, she chooses Jell-O and the entire meal cuts it out but never eats any,” Brooks continued. “That was a great piece of business for that scene for me and for all of them, and it was informed by her doing that homework on the character that wasn’t in the script.”
The biggest star of “Perfect Sisters” is indeed Mira Sorvino, best known for her Oscar winning performance in “Mighty Aphrodite.” Since that role, her career has gone all over the place from memorable roles in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” and “Mimic” to forgettable ones in “Sweet Nothing” and “Between Strangers.” With this movie, Sorvino gets to take on the kind of role she has never played before. Brooks explained how he was lucky enough to get an Oscar winner in his first directorial effort, and of the research she ended up doing to convincingly play an alcoholic.
“Obviously we were blessed,” Brooks said of casting Sorvino. “For a movie this small to get an Academy Award winner is unusual. I’m friends with James Russo and he has done three pictures for me and we were very close. We’ve stayed really close friends, and so he was one of the first people that I cast. I was going to pull all the favors in first and he said, “Who’s playing Linda?” And I said, ‘We don’t know yet.’ And he goes, ‘Well I’m really good friends with Mira Sorvino and she would be an interesting choice and she’s never played an alcoholic and that might be a challenge for her.’ So he gave the script to her so that I didn’t have to go to an agent, and then she called and she was really on the fence. Little did I know that she was actually pregnant at the time, so we shot the entire movie and I never knew she was pregnant until she got home which I’ve believed informed her character in an enormous way.”
“She did a lot of homework on her character,” Brooks continued. “She went and actually, because she had never played an alcoholic before and there weren’t alcoholics in her family, found a bar in I think Calabasas or Thousand Oaks which had housewives that drank. She went at happy hour and drank with them. They didn’t know who she was. They came over to her table, they drank together and talked about what it was like, and there was one woman that came every single night after she put her kids to bed and drank herself to where she said, ‘I can never leave my husband. I’m miserable, but this is how I get through it.’ So she had a lot of preparation for that, and when she came and she said, ‘Look, the story sort of takes place in any town USA or Canada, so I would kind of like her to have a Midwest accent. How do you feel about that?’ I go, ‘That’s fine. I’m not going to ask anyone else to do it, but if that’s where you see this character being from, then that’s what you got to do.'”
But despite the fact that there were a lot of things about the two real life sisters that the cast and crew were forbidden to explore and know more about, Brooks maintains that the movie was based on fact more than imagination.
“The only information we had to fill in was character stuff. Everything else was factual. In fact, as I’m sure you know, the insurance company is the one that dictates whether you get ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events.’ They looked at the book and they looked at the script and said “based on a true story.” Almost nothing in the movie is made up. We took everything from the trial transcripts, we took everything from the interviews that they did, and Bob Mitchell had really researched his book but we didn’t know their names. Bob Mitchell actually, in his book ‘Class Project,’ named them Sandra and Beth so we just stuck with that. With something this dark, it was easier to fall back on the truth than to try and create something. The kid wore a wire and took her for a drive and got her to confess, and all of those things were really what happened. So it made it easier for us in figuring out. We just didn’t know what they look like. We knew one was blonde and one was Goth, and that was the extent of it.”
Of course, no director is without any trouble on any movie they do, and that’s regardless of whether or not this is the first or second movie they have directed. When Brooks described the challenges that greeted him during the making of “Perfect Sisters,” they sounded quite humorous in retrospect.
“So the teamsters come to me the day before that scene and say, ‘You know the scene we’re shooting this afternoon where Zoe actually drives up in the Mustang convertible and they all jump in?’ I go, ‘Yeah?’ They go, ‘Small problem, Zoe doesn’t know how to drive a car.’ I said, ‘What? She’s 18.’ They say, ‘Yes, she lives in Toronto and has never had a car and never driven a car.’ I go, ‘Okay then, well let’s get her out to a car and teach her.’ So that’s why she doesn’t drive very far after they all get in the car, and actually if you pay close attention she’s actually holding that wheel really hard. I thought okay, if I get through this I will have gotten through the biggest challenge of the show. And then the next morning the teamsters come to me and say, ‘Remember how we told you Zoe couldn’t drive a car? Small problem, Georgie doesn’t know how to ride a bike.’ I go, ‘Okay that’s really funny.’ And they replied, ‘No we’re serious, Georgie doesn’t know how to ride a bike,'” Brooks said.
“Perfect Sisters” actually joins a chorus of movies which deal with kids murdering others, bragging to their friends about it, and yet no one is quick to call the police upon getting word of the dirty deed. Among those movies are Larry Clark’s “Bully” which was also based on a true story about a group of kids who get together and kill the town bully, and there’s also “River’s Edge” which is about a group of high school friends who discover that among them is one who murdered his girlfriend. I ended up asking Brooks why movies like this keep getting made, and he pointed out the one movie that influenced him the most on this project.
“I think bad kids doing bad things goes back to Cain and Abel, and I think that’s a story we tell over and over and over and over,” Brooks said. “I watched ‘River’s Edge’ which I liked a lot, but I watched ‘Heavenly Creatures’ multiple times. In fact, there’s a little homage to Peter Jackson. When we were shooting the scene where she’s calling 911 and fakes hysteria, we realized after she had done the first take that there was no address. We sort of both looked at each other and went, ‘Wait a minute, you couldn’t call 911 and not tell them where you are.’ Somehow we had missed it in the script all the times that we had done the rewrites. I said, ‘We’ve got to give you an address… Okay you live at 109 Jackson.’ So that was my little moment of tipping my head to Peter Jackson whose movie inspired me for this one in which I think is one of the best teen murder movies ever made.”
Where Brooks’ career will go from here is anyone’s guess, but now that he has made his directorial debut with “Perfect Sisters,” it will be interesting to see the direction that it takes. Clearly this was a very important story for him to tell, and as long as he finds stories that are as equally important to give attention to, he will be in good shape.
Georgie Henley Goes Against Type in ‘Perfect Sisters’
Based on a True Story and Worth Watching
Melanie Lynskey Visits New Beverly Cinema for ‘Heavenly Creatures’