(Editor's note: This story was updated July 17 to add quotes from Lee Meriwether, star of "Remember To Breathe.")
SAN DIEGO -- “Remember To Breathe,” a 26-minute short film by writer/director Marc Saltarelli, brings together two Hollywood actresses who have never worked together despite long and stellar careers in television and the movies.
Lee Meriwether, who is about to celebrate 60 years in show biz, stars as Alice Martin, a former musical headliner who now lives alone and forgotten in a house hidden away just below the famous Hollywood sign. Susan Blakely plays Alice’s past love, Kathleen, who passed away many years ago and is a ghost of a memory to Alice.
As Alice searches for meaning in her golden years, she begins mentoring an aspiring singer (Leigh Ann Larkin). Past memories become entwined with the present as Alice comes to realize that what she thought was lost is only dormant, awaiting a new spark.
Saltarelli, Meriwether and Blakely will be in San Diego this weekend for the local premiere of “Remember To Breathe,” which is paired with the full-length feature, “Petunia.” Ash Christian, director of “Petunia,” is also coming to America’s Finest City for the FilmOut San Diego 15th anniversary celebration event starting at 7:30 pm Saturday at Birch North Park Theatre. A Q&A session will follow. Tickets are $10 HERE or at the box office.
Another reunion for Blakely and Saltarelli
“Remember To Breathe” reunites Saltarelli and Blakely, who have previously worked together in “To Comfort You” (2009) and “Pride” (2011).
Blakely is emphatic about the qualities that Saltarelli brings to the set as a director.
“I think from the first day I started to work with Marc I felt very comfortable and at ease with him,” Blakely said. “I saw immediately that while he is incredibly patient and calm. He would always let me know if I was off in any way. For every actor we need that sort of trust to bring out our best.”
Blakely broke into show biz in 1972, playing a debutante in “Savages.” Since then, she has made numerous movies and TV shows, starring opposite a bevy of talent. But “Remember To Breathe” connected her for the first time to Meriwether, and Blakely is grateful.
“I had never worked with Lee before but it was one of those wonderful acting experiences where it was so easy for me to imagine having been in love with this remarkable woman,” Blakely said, referring to her character as Kathleen.
“Lee is one of the most gracious, generous, down-to-earth women I have known. On top of that she's an incredibly talented actress,” she said.
Blakely explained why she was attracted to the role of Kathleen, and how she personalized the character.
“Well, obviously, the first and most important thing that attracted me to the project was to work with the director and now my good friend, Marc Saltarelli, again,” Blakely said.
“Aside from that what I really loved about the role of Kathleen was that she was both a fantasy to Alice and at that same time her conscience. I think that Alice had been the love of Kathleen's life but that she knew that staying with her would be the ruin of her (because of Alice's addiction, of course). That seems to me to be a very deep sorrow that I have not seen portrayed enough.”
Lee Meriwether talks about her experiences
Meriwether succinctly explains why she could relate so well with her lesbian character of Alice.
“The need for friendship. The desire for performing. The longing for love. All these are part and parcel of Alice and of me,” she said.
Meriwether said she modeled Alice through the guidance of her director, Saltarelli.
"I was so fortunate to have Marc as a director for he had a definite woman in mind and I just followed his lead. He is brilliant and caring and extremely easy to work with. Also he gathered together a wonderful group of performers and staff and crew so it was such a caring and inventive shoot," she said.
While Meriwether enjoyed working with Blakely and Saltarelli in “Remember To Breathe,” the glamorous actress said her favorite role was also one that most audiences remember.
“Catwoman in the Batman movie with Adam West. Such fun to play her and so lucky to have worked with Burgess (Penguin) Caesar (Joker) and Frank (Riddler). Learned a great deal from them especially their work ethic!” Meriwether said, referring to Burgess Meredith, Caesar Romero and Frank Gorshin.
How the lesbian characters were cast
Saltarelli talked about the casting process for Kathleen and Alice.
In one of the last re-writes of the scripts, the character of Kathleen, Alice’s deceased lover, moved from being a photograph to a ghost who appears to Alice and serves as her conscience. Kathleen makes the audience care for Alice since Kathleen obviously cares so deeply for her,” he said.
“Susan Blakely has appeared in three of our films and has become a close friend. She was always the perfect choice for Kathleen since she appears so angelic without even trying.
“Casting Alice was more difficult. Not only did she need to have talent, both acting and musical, but we needed a ‘star’ to make it truly work. Also, they couldn’t have any reservations about playing a lesbian and we’ve discovered that could be an issue even in 2013.
“When Lee Meriwether read the script, she immediately responded and was excited to take on the role. Lee, best known for playing Catwoman and Barnaby Jones’ daughter-in-law on the long-running 1970s series, also has played most of the great musical theater roles including Mame, Dolly and Mama Rose. We knew that we had found our Alice.
“Naturally with talent like Lee and Susie, no audition is necessary. Lee and Susie had never met before our first costume fitting. As soon as Lee walked in the door, Susan yelled out ‘My long lost, lush, lesbian lover has returned to me.’ They both hugged and became fast friends. In fact, they were excited about the idea of playing lesbian characters. It was quite refreshing and a relief to know that we would have no problem with that issue,” he said.
Characters are based on real-life people
Saltarelli said the poignant and touching script is based on two real-life people.
“I’ve been working with Park Walkup (executive producer) and Tom O’Leary (screenwriter) for the past five years and we’ve produced five short films in that period. Tom and I have been involved with Project Angel Food, the meal delivery service in LA for years, and many of our projects deal with experiences we gained through that organization,” he said.
“Our producer on this project, Stephen Gatta, also volunteered for PAF and he introduced me to one of his clients who essentially became the character of Alice. She was a former musical headliner now living alone and forgotten. I’d visit her and she would play audio cassettes of her live performances for me. I watched her close her eyes and become transported out of the mendacity of her current life back to her heyday on stage. I knew this was a story I wanted to tell. I wasn’t sure if it should be a documentary or a narrative. As it happened, Tom had written a story about a male actor who was also a PAF client. We merged the two stories together and it worked like a charm.”
The biggest challenges for the filmmakers
Casting was not the biggest challenge in the making of this short film.
“The biggest challenge with this film was the music. With a micro-budget movie like this, we didn’t have the luxury of buying rights for any song we liked. So, we were limited to public domain pieces,” Saltarelli said.
“My composer/arranger Bill Newlin did a wonderful job with creating a fresh arrangement for the pieces we use and he recorded our three vocalists in his home studio and created all of the orchestrations.
“We were also so fortunate to find LeighAnn Lakin to play the role of Robyn. Her credits include the Broadway productions of ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘Gypsy.’ Soon she will play the lead in the new Barry Manilow-written musical ‘Harmony.’ When she belted out her version of ‘You Made Me Love Me,’ it sent chills through my spine.
“Costumes and production design were also major considerations, and Bri Renae (production designer) and Kimberly Freed (costume designer) created Alice’s world with limited resources. Also, my longtime cinematographer Carl Bartels worked miracles with his photography within our restricted shooting schedule. We shot the whole movie in three days.”
Why this short film is so important
Saltarelli explained what he hopes audiences will take away from the movie.
“So many people live extraordinary lives when they’re young and then as they age, tend to fade away to living solitary, forgotten, and empty lives,” he said. “I hope the audience will take away that it’s never too late to bask in the spotlight of living your dreams — and never give up on being the person you were born to be.”
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.