A ‘Beautiful’ homecoming at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House
The first time Naomi McDougall Jones performed on stage was at age 4, at the Wheeler Opera House, as a “monster of the deep” in an Aspen Country Day School production of “Sail Away.”
On Saturday, Jones returns to the Wheeler, on screen, playing what might also be described as a deep sort of monster in the film “Imagine I’m Beautiful.” An Aspen native, Jones wrote and co-produced the independent film and also stars in it.
Jones’ hometown screening follows a successful run on the film-festival circuit this spring. “Imagine I’m Beautiful” premiered in March at the RxSM film festival in Austin, Texas, where Jones’ performance won the Best Actress Award. She also picked up a best-performance trophy at the Arizona International Film Festival, where the movie was named best dramatic feature. At the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival, her script won the Best Independently Produced Screenplay Award. Last week it sold out two screenings at the New York International Film Festival, where it had a red-carpet-style Manhattan premiere at the Crosby Hotel and has been nominated for six awards, including for best U.S. narrative film, best original screenplay and best actress.
Also last week, “Imagine I’m Beautiful” grabbed the brass ring for indie film — it got picked up for distribution, through Candy Factory Productions, meaning it will likely soon be released in theaters and video-on-demand services.
But over coffee this week at Victoria’s in Aspen, Jones said showing the film in her hometown’s iconic venue was what she envisioned as the mark of success during the ups and downs of three years of the film’s creation in New York.
“Through the years of making it, the thing that I hung on to as an ultimate goal was seeing it at the Wheeler, which obviously is not the most important thing in the grand scheme — there are other venues that career-wise or whatever are more important — but I couldn’t really picture what that would look like,” she said. “Seeing it at the Wheeler has always been the thing I’ve hung on to.”
A psychological drama, the film showcases Jones’ depth and range as an actor in a complex role.
The film opens with Lana (Jones) looking at a room for rent in a Brooklyn apartment. A classic innocent in the city, Lana tells the owner, Kate (Katie Morrison), that she’s just arrived from Utah, before quickly accepting the apartment and handing her an envelope of cash.
“Are you a serial killer?” Kate asks snidely.
She’s not. But there’s clearly something off about Lana (“This may be the best day of my whole life,” she says at a picnic, creeping out her new friends). Then again, as the film subtly suggests, everybody is a little off, and most 20-somethings are at least a little crazy. While Lana acts strangely as she seeks acceptance, connection and friendship, Kate acts out more outlandishly at first — binge-drinking, blasting industrial music, self-mutilating — while looking for the same things.
Without spoiling anything, I can say that from there the film, through a series of twists, does delineate between 20-something angst and mental illness. Jones’ and Morrison’s talents are most evident as the film explores the gray areas between, offering a far more subtle take on unstable women than thrillers like “Single White Female” and “Fatal Attraction.”
So far, Jones, 27, said audience responses have been divided between hating her troubled character and empathizing with her.
“It feels like a Rorschach test,” she said. “The way people react tends to be very personal. It hits people in a tender place.”
Growing up in the Roaring Fork Valley, Jones was a student with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and a regular in productions by Aspen Country Day School, Aspen Theater in the Park (now Theatre Aspen), Theatre Masters, Aspen Community Theatre and “anyone who would let me on stage.”
“Aspen Community Theatre was an amazing thing for me as a child who didn’t really get along with kids her own age,” she said. “Acting in those shows and the adults in the cast being so kind and generous and warm for me as a kid, it made me equate theater with family and acceptance. That was a place I didn’t feel like such a weirdo.”
As a senior at Aspen High School in 2005, she won Theater Masters’ Aspiring Playwright Competition for the short post-9/11 drama “Walking Wounded.” She went on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan and has since been writing and performing in New York theater while also landing roles in film and television. She’s also kept a hand in the local scene as an artistic associate at Theater Masters.
“Imagine I’m Beautiful” was born out of desperation as Jones and producer Caitlin Gold grew frustrated with the film industry.
“We got tired of the stories that were being told, and we got tired of being in films that never got finished,” Jones said. “We said, ‘We’re just going to do it because we have the stamina, we’re going to finish it, and we’re going to tell the story that we want to tell.’ It’s the kind of enthusiasm that can only come from total naivete.”
Jones finished the first draft of the script — the first of 52 — in February 2011, and she and Gold began meeting with potential investors. The next two years were an often-frightening introduction to the world of independent film financing.
In spring 2012, they ran a successful $10,000 Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, with substantial backing from Aspen-area donors. Jones followed that with an event at the Wheeler, which sought to both highlight local arts organizations and to draw investors to the film, then titled “Under Her Skin.”
“It was very successful as an event and very unsuccessful as a fundraiser,” Jones said with a laugh.
As months went by and efforts to fund the film faltered, Jones and Gold decided to set it for an 18-day shoot in the spring of 2013 and got director Meredith Edwards on board, planning to move forward no matter what.
“It was terrifying because we had to sign contracts we couldn’t afford to pay,” Jones said.
They launched a second crowd-funding campaign and then wooed additional investors to meet their modest $80,000 budget just days before shooting began in April 2013. The Theater Masters board also invested to help fund post-production costs.
With “Imagine I’m Beautiful” now readying for distribution, Jones is starting the process over again with her next project. Titled “Bite Me,” it’s a romantic comedy about people who pretend they’re vampires. But will the festival success of “Imagine I’m Beautiful” make getting another film to the screen easier?
“I hope so,” “Jones said. “You make an award-winning film for a very small amount of money and get a distribution deal, and you’re very likely to recoup your investors’ money, so you’d think investors would look at the next one and say, ‘OK.’ But I don’t know yet.”
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