Indie filmmaker sees vast potential in home state, hometown

by Jordan Green

Marcy McKenzie, a young woman with piercing brown eyes and a hyper-aware New York bearing that belies her Gate City roots, cradles a cup of tea with both hands on a balmy afternoon at the Green Bean coffeehouse and revels in the fact that she has absolutely no obligations for the next few weeks.

A New York-based film location manager and 1998 Greensboro Day School graduate, McKenzie finished work on a film the day before Thanksgiving. She’s in town to visit her parents in Irving Park for two weeks, and will return to the city for 10 days to clean her apartment and then come home again for Christmas. There’s nothing she has to do in the meantime, she says, except catch up with Matthew Arbuckle, a Greensboro Economic Development Partnership employee and fellow member of the Class of ’98, and other friends like him.

It will be a well-deserved period of rest. In independent filmmaking ‘— McKenzie’s line of work ‘— shooting typically takes 25 to 35 days, and with relatively miniscule budgets, the adage ‘time is money’ could not be more applicable. There have been days when she rose at 2 a.m. at locations miles from nowhere in the Arizona desert or in the Catskills in upstate New York and she didn’t quit until midnight. She’d find a lull in the production schedule during the day and sneak a catnap.

‘“For those five weeks it’s an intense adrenaline rush,’” she says. ‘“You physically need a week off.’”

On Dec. 2, Transamerica, a film McKenzie shot in the summer of 2004, opened in New York and Los Angeles. After receiving a best actress award for Felicity Huffman (who also stars in ‘“Desperate Housewives’”) at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, the film was quickly picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Co. Thus it averted the fate of many independents produced outside of the studio system that wither on the vine without distribution. If it does well in major markets like New York and Los Angeles there’s a chance it could show up in theaters in North Carolina’s three major urban centers.

This is a moment to savor for a 25-year-old Greensboro export who’s attained a professional perch in a sometimes unforgiving industry.

‘“It’s probably the most difficult film I’ve ever worked on,’” McKenzie says. ‘“It was blood and tears. I cried every day for the first week. We don’t sleep for weeks at a time. When your wake up call is two in the morning and you know you’re not getting home until midnight, you have to love it. It’s not for everyone, and if you can’t do it you go home the next day. I’m going to keep doing it as long as I love it.’”

The film, a family story about a pre-operative transsexual named Bree (played by Huffman) and a young male hustler named Toby (played by Fionnula Flanagan) on a road trip across the United States, was mostly shot in two parts of the country. The first half was shot in New York City, the Catskills and the South Jersey shoreline, and the second half in the remote desert near Prescott, Ariz.

McKenzie found herself working on location during shooting on the East Coast and simultaneously planning ahead for shooting in Arizona, a job she says should have realistically been split between two film location managers. It made for a stressful project, but there was also a kind of crazy logic to the production schedule.

‘“The director wanted to shoot this as sequentially as he could,’” McKenzie says. ‘“As the two actors got to know each other onscreen that came out in the story, too. You know, the car breaks down. What road trip could be flawless?’”

Scouting locations ahead of filming particularly proved to be an adventure.

‘“I had never been to Phoenix before and they handed me a map and a rental car, and they said, ‘Go find these locations,”” she recalls. ‘“I’m exploring parts of the country most people have never been to before.’”

A contact at a local economic development partnership helped her find a lake for a swimming scene near Prescott that involves a hitchhiker picked up by the pair. For another scene, she had to find a place with an expansive horizon and a stunning sunset.

‘“Bree has all but become a woman,’” McKenzie says. ‘“The two of them stop alongside the road and she still has her [male] private parts. Toby sees her, and he gets it all of a sudden. The director wants the sun to drop right over the road and have a certain tree on the side. If it turns out that, oh, it dropped over here instead, something like that could take three days to work out.’”

Toby learns that Bree is his father. A born-again Christian, Bree has done everything but the final nip-and-tuck operation. Her therapist in Los Angeles has told her she needs to face up to her past, specifically a son who was the product of a careless sexual encounter. Toby is incarcerated in New York, and when she picks him up from the dention center he believes she is some kind of Christian do-gooder. She persuades him to ride back to Los Angeles with her but for much of the trip can’t bring herself to tell him she is his father.

McKenzie knows audiences in her Bible Belt hometown might not cotton to the exploration of sexual themes in Transamerica if they get a chance to see the movie.

‘“It’s very taboo; it’s not something we talk about at the dinner table,’” she says. ‘“Maybe we should. But move away from the subject of transsexuality, and [the movie is] a very good picture of wholesome humanity. These are two people at a very difficult period of their lives and they help each other.’”

McKenzie speaks in a flood of well-chosen words, her hand chopping against her teacup occasionally in the demonstrative body language of a woman trained to get things done. She’s a persuasive speaker whose cadences betray the stamp of New York, a vortex of power and connection in overlapping industries of finance, fashion, film and media where one generally gets only one chance to pitch.

‘“I have a really big problem with prejudice,’” she says. ‘“People are different, and why can’t we accept that? We brought six or seven transsexuals from New York down to the Jersey shore. I had a conversation with a woman, and never would have known she wasn’t born that way. They were born one way and they weren’t living the life they wanted and now they are. They’re very happy with their lives now. They’re not freaks.’”

She quotes Huffman to sum up the dilemma faced by people who find themselves at odds with their biological gender: ‘“Felicity said, ‘They have to choose between being alienated from society for the rest of their lives or being alienated from themselves for the rest of their lives.””

McKenzie was attracted to Transamerica partly because of the film’s challenging material. She says when she found out that actor William H. Macy, Huffman’s husband, was the executive producer she felt confident it would be a solid prospect. Indeed, the film has garnered more than modest media attention since Huffman won the best actress award from the Tribeca Film Festival. Huffman’s Emmy for her acting role in ‘“Desperate Housewives’” in September hasn’t hurt either.

And despite her qualms with the way production was managed, shooting on Transamerica, like other independent films, had an intimate feel that exemplified what McKenzie loves about her chosen profession.

‘“Felicity Huffman was like, ‘Come back to my room, we’ll take shots,”” McKenzie says. ‘“Felicity Huffman was a real person. She’s fun. She wanted to party with us. When you go out to Hollywood it’s not like that. You stay in your department. But we would be in these small towns where there’s not a lot to do. They become your family. That helps you through the blood and tears. You sit around and watch the sunrise together.’”

A little more than three years after showing up in New York without a job McKenzie has her name on a string of solid films.

‘“I’ve done three that are guaranteed to be in theaters,’” she says. ‘“Maybe the other five might be as well. Call it luck, but that’s success to me. It’s all about timing. I just happened to get offered the jobs that became successful. That doesn’t mean I’m the best location manager, but I’ve gotten to work on the best movies. So maybe sometime I will be the best. Seeing your name roll on the credits is kind of your stamp of approval.’”

Still, she feels the tug of her hometown. That might create a dilemma in that New York is the place where she launched her career, but the consolation is that she views North Carolina as the third most important filmmaking locale in the United States.

‘“There’s something nice and gentle about the South,’” she says. ‘“I’m not a big fan of the rat race, but it’s a sacrifice I make to do what I like.’”

If she moved back to North Carolina, she reckons she’d be working only part- time in her chosen profession. But that could change. She reels off a list of things the state has going for it.

‘“The whole state of North Carolina is ideal for filmmaking,’” she says. ‘“You have every possible scenario, every possible geographic location: mountains, oceans, big cities and small towns.’”

And she, like many others, has taken note of the turnaround in Greensboro.

‘“I can’t tell you the number of people who swore they’d never come back when they were in high school, and now they love it,’” she says. ‘“Five years ago we’d never be sitting down here. Downtown was nothing. My friends are realizing this is their home, and Greensboro is a pretty damn good town.’”

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