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Take Five: Clayton HS grad shows the power of 24 hours in QFest's 'My Best Day'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2012 - When Erin Greenwell graduated from Clayton High School in 1990, she knew she wanted to be a writer. But she had no idea she’d eventually write and direct a Sundance Festival film, get a rave “Variety” review or meet Robert Redford.

Greenwell’s “My Best Day,” which will debut locally during the fifth annual QFest of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) films, is a “witty, wacky, multi-character comedy,” according to “Variety.”

WatchErin Greenwalk explain why "My Best Day" has something for everyone, from serious stockbrokers to lesbians seeking affirmation.

It’s one of 14 features and seven short subjects in the April 22-26 Qfest lineup. Also premiering locally is another Sundance 2012 offering, “Love Free or Die,” a look at openly gay Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson.

Besides “My Best Day,” films with St. Louis connections include “Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together,” featuring St. Louis native Jax Jackson and “Jan’s Coming Out,” which includes interview segments with Meredith Baxter and local couple Jane Ibur and Sondra Seiler.

“My Best Day” takes place in a small town over one day -- the Fourth of July. Unhappily working on the holiday, refrigerator repair dispatcher Karen (Rachel Style, who's appeared in "Mad Men" and "Ugly Betty") happens to answer a call from the father she hasn't seen in years. With janitor friend Meagan at her side, she arrives at his trailer home to find a gambling-addicted half-sister, a bullied half-brother and a closeted step-dad.

Mirroring real life, Greenwell often mixes LGBT characters in with straight ones to tell what she calls an “American story.” Greenwell, who also teaches university classes and works as a film picture editor, spoke with the Beacon about making films, making it all work as a filmmaker and her biggest celebrity encounter.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Beacon: When you were growing up in St. Louis County, could you imagine yourself doing what you do now?

Erin Greenwell: I definitely knew I was going to go into the arts, but I thought I was going to be a writer. Then I went to NYU to study screenwriting, and it was around the time people started shooting video instead of just film. That’s how I got lured into trying to produce and direct my own stuff because it was more proactive.

A big awakening a lot of screenwriters get when they get out of screenwriters school is when they hear, “Be prepared to hear ‘no.’” But a lot of times it’s like, “Be prepared to get no answer at all” or even “Be prepared not even to be able to submit your stuff.” It was less about being rejected and more about that I just wanted something to happen.

You seem to be doing well. How do you make a living?

Greenwell: The best thing I ever learned was there is always going to be compromise and you just figure out where to make that compromise. The compromise is that I have to work two jobs or sometimes three jobs.

It’s not that uncommon. For a lot of my friends, it’s the same thing: Get up at 5, write a script, go to the first job, go to the second job, get home, edit, wake up.

If we were a tribal system, someone would be the medicine person, someone else, the tribal leader, the hunter, the farmer and so on. And if someone stood up and said, “I want to tell stories,” they’d say, “Well, you better be good because we’re kind of tired.” And if the person said, “I want to tell my own story,” they’d say, “Well, then it really better be good.”

When I feel down, and I feel like, “Oh, I have to work so hard,” [I tell myself] it’s really kind of a precious commodity to tell stories; it’s a privilege, so you have to work hard at the privilege.

Characters facing and working through their demons is a common theme in your work. Can you elaborate?

Greenwell: A lot of times I like Hollywood movies and I like big blockbuster movies, but I also sometimes like directing and writing movies where the conflicts are a lot simpler, but still big to the characters’ lives. For me it’s more relatable where someone is going through something more everyday.

For the average person, including myself, the biggest problems are love and money, usually, and that’s why I like making movies with naturalistic plots because 80 percent of us aren't necessarily political leaders but if you do what you’re supposed to do as an individual every day, you can contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

How was it to meet Robert Redford at Sundance?

Greenwell: Meeting Robert Redford was very exciting. I grew up knowing him from “The Sting" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” In my mother’s and father’s generation, he was obviously like Brad Pitt so he was a god to me by default.

Are you looking forward to being back in St. Louis when you who attend the April 26 showing of “My Best Day?”

Greenwell: Yes. I haven’t been back since 1994. The festival is at the Tivoli, which was the art house theater where I saw art house movies and the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as a teenager. The Loop holds so many memories.

Plus, I made Chris Clark, who’s the head of the festival, promise to get me some Imo’s pizza. I’m totally excited.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.