Artistic Tour-de-Force Debra Haden Talks Filmmaking Survival

competition production May 04, 2022
Equal parts regal pixie pinup, quirky coquette, and elegant bibliothecary, artistic maven Debra Haden is a dizzying multi-hyphenate. The actress, model, designer, animator, musician, producer, and ventriloquist (!) truly embodies each of her talents and curates her various portfolios on several platforms. It's only fitting that she be Mars Roberge's (our Make Your Feature Competition winner) energetic counterpart, creative comrade, and life-partner, on top of inhabiting the role of Bianca Jagger in his winning film Stars. A few things are certain. Haden may be the pinnacle of all things "feminine" in presentation (as witnessed by the photography of Heidi Calvert in the title image), but her special brand of whimsy and eccentricity elevate her above being anyone's muse. She's the thinking man's enchantress, unapologetically accomplishing her visions with dexterity and grace. 
Haden has been channeling her B.S. in Clothing and Textiles / Apparel Design into millinery, lingerie, dresses, and costumes, creating couture collections (that she models herself) fit for the Met Ball. Under the moniker "Skunk In The Roses," her music is a fanciful blend of vintage Parisian, Vaudevillian, and Burlesque-adjacent sensibilities executed electronically. Sonically capricious, her songs (and music videos that accompany them) are anywhere from cartoonish and campy to futuristic and avant-garde. No matter the medium, her art is designed to inspire and delight, but a closer look reveals a hidden signature of dark humor and sophistication that give away Haden's sincerity. 
We asked Haden to provide her lens on the making of Stars and the inner workings of Mars, as well as detail her own process and journey producing and starring in the film. Her appreciation for both are abundant, her ambition and work ethic pronounced, and she candidly shares her poignant perspective of how the pandemic has affected her as an artist and even just a human being trying to "be" in this world. The effect is humbling, and quite honestly might be exactly what you didn't know you needed to read today. Meet Debra Haden Roberge. 

WMM: What is it about Mars and/or his projects that compel you to continually collaborate with him? Was there something particularly special/personal about Stars for you? 

DH: Mars always has a unique voice. He writes about real life people or situations he has experienced but from his own strange lens. He can also fit into any scene and gets along with a variety of people. I feel like being around him actually helps me expand outward from my own strange inner lands with fashion, art and music. Nothing I could come up with would be too weird for him. In fact, he would encourage it. He is also of his word and will finish it. Many people's works never make it or die in post. With Mars I know any extra blood, sweat or tears will not just be in vain. I will get to see a completed movie out of it.

I feel like Mars did this film envisioning me in a part with a more complex female perspective. Doron Braunshtein wrote six very unique characters in the play and I think Mars felt like I could stretch and really do something with the character Bianca. Bianca has several environmental and mental shifts and I felt she had to adapt to each one. In real life, working in various environments as an underling and other times a boss figure I learned how to flip on a dime to survive each environment. Sweet, nice and helpful, and then a cursing sailor in the back room who can fire ten people one by one in layoffs and pretend like I didn't spend the night before unable to sleep with a burning belly trying to find a way to make that firing seem like a weird life pep talk. I only had to verbally level someone once because she didn't want to go nicely. After that, everyone was scared of 20-something year old 5'2' 98lb me. That was so odd to me I could barely wrap my head around it. But, I couldn't keep up that ruse forever and really started to hate it. But also learned that you can paint yourself a giant with your energy. 

I have also had to fit into pretentious environments, and I hate to say it but they all have a certain persona they put on. All of them. The way they talk, the things they talk about. This was a way to finally put all of my life-long observations of humans into play. Mars had never seen THAT tough side of me. I hate it and don't find it useful in most life situations, but when I stormed the room coming for Sophia Lamar (who played Juliette) I could feel his and everyone else's jaw drop that I normally interact with sweetly, and I thought to myself "Still got it." I could tell Sophia could take it after we shot the first scene of the day. I could tell she was all about making it real. I was the kid who cried whenever people would "put on airs" in front of me. I could spot a phony and really hated it. Later I learned that's how adults survive. So I became a good little mimic. I hope to get the chance to play more characters like this. It isn't often I get to hit so many points of my own human observation all in one film. That to me made it unique. Also working with Rah Digga and the other cast - I mean wow, the more I brought it the more they did too.
WMM: What were the specific challenges around costuming on this film? Once shooting began, what were the particular challenges you faced and how did you overcome/resolve them?
DH: Costuming for this film was a bit easier as far as making or buying actual clothes. So basic. I was supposed to look undercover homeless. My coat was wrinkled from the suitcase and I left it that way. I also had the makeup artist put fake dirt on it. I made sure to choose items I already owned and were worn in that would also make me look bigger. Such as a baggier drop waist, sweatshirts, puffy coats and layers all add thickness. I was supposed to be able to take down another character so I couldn't look like a tiny waif. Usually I try to drop that last five pounds for other roles but for this it wasn't necessary. I could have taken the emaciated route of homeless, but for Bianca that didn't make sense to me. I had to come up with ways to be trickier with my actual size. It isn't like she was going to be wearing high heels! I used the environmental challenges to be even more rugged. Lean into the cold and tired. 
WMM: How did you balance your roles as associate producer, artistic contributor, and lead actress on the film?
DH: I feel like all of these things sort of just end up bleeding into one another on an indie film. As one of the co-producers I do whatever is necessary to get the job completed. If coffee needs to be made I make it. If we are out of something I order it. If I need a costume I make it. We need a poster, I make it. I am never too good to do a certain job. On an independent micro-budget you either pitch in or please just step aside. We make it look fun. Aspects of it will just never be fun. On any set I have ever worked on if you don't have a trailer you will never be comfortable. Never.

Mars always has to play "dad". If it weren't for him everything would just go off the rails. A movie would never be made. I get the easier job of playing "mom".  And on this one I just wasn't physically able to do that as much. I have been working out more again trying to get that old version of me to return. I am not sure which form I will emerge as at this point. I have also been meditating for the last year. I can't tell you how much that actually helps me make clear headed decisions. That was a noticeable improvement. When other people were melting down I was able to stay more grounded. By day six or seven though, none of this is for the weak. That's for sure.

I also won't take credit from Mars on this one. I felt like because of COVID he did even more jobs than normal. We just didn't have as many hands on board as normal thanks to the pandemic. I felt like everyone was feeling it too, but not expressing it verbally. It just showed in physical ways. We kept trying not to sweat that part. Less people on set meant less likely to get COVID but that also made it even more stressful. We always try to take on more burdens so other people don't have to. They miss that part because we don't talk about it but he and I know. We give each other knowing looks. We know. I am the one who knows how hard he worked. 
WMM: As someone intimately privy to Mars' process, what can you tell us about him that we don't already know?
DH: There is a reason for every single thing he does. He is either reacting from experience or gut instincts. He just has a sixth sense. He also has prophetic dreams. Anytime someone talks him out of his instincts things tend to go awry. He can be stubborn but I have also watched that same stubbornness save him grief time and time again. I try to act as a translator for people that don't understand how to talk to him, or how much work he has actually done to get from A-B. He gets to the point where he just can't even explain it to people. He has done too much work to hand-hold someone through every step so they can see the picture. You just have to trust that something turned out a certain way because that was the option he had. It doesn't mean he always likes it. It is how the deck stacked. You work with your hand or you fold and walk away. I have yet to see him ever walk away. Defeat is just not in his vocabulary. I feel like Mars sees no point in latency. If something is being held up there better be a payoff for it. Otherwise, it is just someone wasting his time. You get on the Mars train when it is ready to leave the station or you get left on the loading platform. Some people like sitting on the platform watching the train leave, commenting on how it runs or what they would do on the train. Those people generally just like to hear themselves talk about daydreams. Mars is the extreme opposite.      
WMM: How was this role different and unique from most other roles you play, audition for, and/or gravitate towards?

DH: I am usually cast as pretty or cute characters. This was very unique for me to actually try to make myself look bad or even tired! Bianca is gritty and dirty at times. I feel like she was just so layered, and goes through so many stages of life. She is also, in all honesty, one of those people who tries to help and makes things worse. Not exactly everyone's heroine, though she tries! I feel like she is sort of hanging on by a thread just as much as the homeless women she is trying to help. I actually would gravitate to this character at this stage in my life. Being the hot, cute, or pretty one always hits the same notes. The attention is fun but it is always the same from the same types of people. At this point I can play that in my sleep. Unfortunately,  you can also age out of that, which is lame but it is the truth. You better get your chops up because eventually the world isn't going to make a 60 year old an ingenue. But, it is also lame because then they just make you into the "mom". The more character, and the weirder the better, is what I want in my future. This was a nice stretch and now I just want more. If I can't find those parts after this I will just write them for myself. I have some ideas.   
WMM: How did you prepare for this role and what were the most demanding aspects of playing this character?
DH: Bianca is sort of grumpy and depressed for most of the movie. What a perfect role to play after a pandemic! The part itself was much more demanding. As I stated in an earlier question, I had to tap into some inner-resources that I really don't like to return to. Unfortunately, for a woman to be a "boss" figure, one instinct is to puff up and be masculine. As much as people hate it, they do respond to it. It's like grumpy dad just got home so shape up! Either that or you can use passive aggression. I have seen both styles of manager. I hate them both. Bianca just didn't seem that snide or manipulative in the dialogue so I shot her more straight like trying to be one of the male cops she learns from.

I was wiped out from the pandemic I guess too. More than I realized. I couldn't even lift my arms up over my head. I couldn't even explain why. I did try to work out during the pandemic. I did practice some punches too but just couldn't find the groove I was looking for. The night after one of my scenes I had a dream about Nate Diaz! A day late! And I figured out my perfect rhythm. He was standing there in an exaggerated way and explained the punch. I was mad at myself for not going to look at videos of him in the first place! I love watching MMA. Somewhere in my memory banks I recalled him in my dream.

It was sort of like swimming, with everyone trying to teach me how to do it and they can't fully explain it because aspects become instincts. So some of my physical limitations were dumbfounding to me, but if I was tired it was actually perfect for this part. Bianca is a tired and annoyed person who sort of starts to be on edge. She also isn't naturally tough or throwing punches in the beginning. Any awkwardness was actually an asset in this case. I was actually thankful for that. I don't think I could have kept up with pretty, pretty princess looks for the duration of this shoot. On other films I woke up an hour early to do my own hair and make-up and we shot even longer hours. I also stayed up each night making coffee and putting it in a carafe. I did not sleep much. Who was I before this pandemic? A machine I guess. An absolute machine.

WMM: What have you learned from working on this project and what would you do differently?
DH: Meditation and physical exercise are BOTH of great importance. It all sort of went the way it always does. It was actually easier in some ways. It just didn't feel that way because of COVID fears and fatigue. I would have stepped in on a couple areas to help Mars and producer Kenneth Shaw. There were certain things I usually did on the other films and I feel like we were feeling the hurt from me not taking the reins on those things right away. I did step in later but I regret not having the exact same energy and wit to catch a few things sooner. 
WMM: What do you hope the audience takes away from the story and the characters? What aspirations do you have for the film? 
DH: I hope the audience sees the bigger message intertwined in the film. That wealth doesn't solve everything. I hope it lent a new perspective into the lives of these women, and proved that a group of women can be just as out there and complex as a male cast, without being just an annoying cliche. We are obviously going for the bigger festivals and I hope they can see the uniqueness of this film. I personally haven't seen a film shot or characterized in this manner. The cast and crew worked so hard. The women were excellent to act with. It would be nice to have them and Mars' work properly recognized somehow.   


Written by Sapna Gandhi

Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.


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