I was in post-production on the first season of my web series Clever Girl when my producing partner Myra Zimmerman-Grubbs brought my attention to a short play written by Sheila Mudd Baker when she was in college. Sheila had played a role in the series that I had written specifically for her, because I had seen her in acting classes for years, and was always enamored of her energy, creativity and range. She put her whole body into a scene. She could sound like anybody, and by that I don't imply mimicry but subtle adjustments she'd make to her speech or her voice, the way she would accelerate or tone herself down. I was so excited to finally work with her, but sometime during production, she had begun to share the news of her diagnosis with Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Unfortunately, it made sense. During shooting, several of us were noticing a significant decline in her signature ebullience. Her character, Shirley Woltz, is a much older and feebler woman than Sheila, walks with a cane and lugs an oxygen tank around like an industrial emergency inhaler. So Sheila was supposed to sound ailing and move like an invalid. However, we began to realize that something was genuinely wrong. Myra gave me Sheila's play because she felt strongly about producing a project that could bring us together with a lot of peers in the Cincinnati independent production circuit for one common cause: To work with Sheila before her declining health could prevent us from ever again getting the chance to.
Adapting the comedic piece, The Ladies Next Door, for the screen with Myra and Kip Bennett producing allowed for a cream-of-the-crop gathering on a set that was far and away the most organized, coordinated and dedicated of any with me at the helm. Victoria McDevitt, who played Sheila's daughter in Clever Girl, devoted time from a busy docket to serve as my assistant director. Jason Ervin and Cheyenne Wright, our hair, makeup and effects team, went for broke turning Sheila and Cate into octogenarians. Esteemed veteran actor Bob Elkins allowed us to film his butt in slow motion. Michelle Dobrozsi supplied delicious, top-notch craft service banquets. Blue Ash Film Group came and took pictures while we worked.
There were so many disparate people involved and yet few degrees of separation. Sheila's granddaughter is played by Millie Browner, who was cast by Kip, who has taught her piano for many years. Amy Goodwin, who plays a brief role, turned out to be a former swing-dancing partner of my brother's. On our last shooting day, Victoria's college dance instructor showed up on set with Bobby Schaefer, the dog trainer, who just happened to know her. It truly felt like everybody with a capital E was coming aboard to work with Sheila, support her, and sometimes just watch her work. She had rapidly declined by this time, but her spirits were high, her focus was strong and despite how difficult it was for her to speak, she never gave up.
Because Sheila's speech was rapidly deteriorating during pre-production, rehearsals were becoming exceedingly difficult. As you can see in the film, it is a tremendous effort for her to form words. The script, almost purely dialogue-driven except for a few fleeting montages, was relying on a carefully spun rapport between two lifelong friends with dynamic differences that made their chemistry pop. And there was just no way we were going to achieve that, and Sheila knew it. Three days before shooting, I rewrote the script to have her character, Marbeth, re-tooled as a stroke victim, and for Georgie (Cate White) to have most of the lines. This meant that Cate, making her debut for the camera, had to learn roughly 15 pages of dialogue in three days.
Before Sheila Mudd Baker recommended Cate for the role of Georgie, I had yet to become aware of her picking back up with acting. I was close friends with her son Sam since he and I were 7, and I had only known a little bit about her history as an actress, and much more about her work as a UC professor. Right now, she is Director of the Basic French Language Program and Associate Professor of French Film, Modern Literature and Conversation. But as it turned out, she had been performing on stage around town for years already. Still, however, since her return, she had yet to perform for the camera, and The Ladies Next Door was to be her first ever speaking role in a film.
The effect that we ultimately went for, rehearsing at Sheila's apartment for three days and immediately shooting thereafter, was a shared history between Marbeth and Georgie that goes beyond Marbeth's struggle with speech. And then there was that very special occurrence, my favorite moment in the film, when Sheila was overcome with exhaustion, and her line trails off, incomplete. But Cate comes to the rescue, finishing her thought for her. And so the scene went on. It was such a perfect distillation of what we were all doing there. These two actresses were doing what makes performances sing: They were paying attention to each other, and making each other look good. They were looking out for each other, and that was the sentiment the project brought out of us all.
When Myra initially approached Sheila and asked her if she had a dream project, she did not expect her to pitch a comedy. The Ladies Next Door, indeed, is very light-hearted, with its tongue firmly in cheek. It didn't take long for Myra and me to understand that this was inevitable. When facing hardship and tragedy, the healthiest attitude and arguably the first instinct is to find humor.
Yes, it's about a stroke victim living with her old friend. Their husbands are gone, they're on a fixed income, they rarely get out. But their histrionics together turn a grandkid's expensive birthday request into a means for them to liberate their frustrations and seize upon the pleasures they deserve, and that age never stopped them from having.
The Ladies Next Door - official trailer
Sheila has included many signs of hope on her quest for good health, and has a body of work as an actress which is beyond reproach. She, as well as the rest of us, her peers, have something light-hearted and joyful to remember her by, something we all came together and made at a time that was tough for her but can still be reflected on fondly.
Written by Joe Zappa, screenwriter/director of The Ladies Next Door.
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