Joseph Meissner wasn’t born in New Orleans – he’s actually a Houston native, and a Class of ’89 grad of Bellaire High School – but he got there as fast as he could.
Indeed, he’d already been living in The Big Easy for four years -- along with his wife and artistic collaborator, Wisconsin-born Helen Krieger -- when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.
By that time, both Meissner and Krieger had established such strong ties to the Crescent City that they couldn’t be dissuaded by random acts of Gods – or long delays in urban recovery and renewal – from returning to live in their adopted hometown.
Krieger, an author, eventually drew on her experiences and observations in post-Katrina while writing a short-story collection (In the Land of What Now) that she later adapted into a screenplay.
The couple wound up selling their house to finance the project, which Meissner describes as a “performance-driven” ensemble dramedy that charts the interconnections and misadventures of “creative malcontents struggling to find love, money and marijuana in the surreal streets of post-flood New Orleans” 15 months after Katrina’s landfall.
Among the central characters: Matt (Meissner), an underemployed writer who’s becoming increasingly less patient with what he sees as the laissez-faire attitude of Liz (Melissa Hall), his live-in girlfriend; Madeline (indie rocker Becky Stark), a sweet-natured singer-songwriter who’s trying to make ends meet as a real estate agent; Ruby (Ursaline Bryant), a cancer-stricken eccentric who’s living as a squatter in a ramshackle house Madeline’s assigned to sell; Georgia (Asia Rainey), a single mom who gets her kicks with an on-line dating service; and Dischordia (Alma Maleckar), who takes a typically New Orleans-style approach to staging a consciousness-raising protest – she organizes a “second line” street parade, complete with marching jazz band.
In Flood Streets, Matt’s parents indicate they may remain permanently resettled in Houston after fleeing New Orleans in 2005. This past weekend, Meissner returned to Houston to promote the Monday premiere of his movie. But he insists that he’s just visiting.
CultureMap: Your film offers a very affectionate and sympathetic view of post-Katrina New Orleans and the people determined to survive and thrive there. But Flood Streets also gives us a New Orleans largely populated by aimless procrastinators and pot-smokers, some of whom seriously consider indulging in welfare fraud. Hell's bells, man! Aren’t you kinds-sorta confirming some people’s worst suspicions about The Big Easy?
Joseph Meissner: [Laughs] Possibly. But this is the particular subculture that we’re dealing with. Similar to the people that we know there. I see what you’re saying there, and I agree to some extent. But we’re also looking at the phenomenon of young, idealistic people moving there to make a difference. We have characters like Dischordia – who’s perhaps somewhat misguided, and has kind of a black and white view of right and wrong. There’s kind of an imperfect execution of her goals, but she’s the one who pulls off the second line, and brings everyone together.
And you have the character of Sandra, who decides to move there from New York. That’s something we’re seeing happening a lot now, post-Katrina – idealistic young people who want to be somewhere where they matter, and where they can make some kind of positive contribution.
CM: While growing up in New Orleans, I often heard it heard it described as a great party town, but a place where many talented people were too easily distracted. They had a hard time getting their act together – and were more than a little suspicious and skeptical of folks who did get their act together.
JM: Yes, there’s still an element of that. There’s also the element, as my wife says, that everyone in New Orleans has to have a hustle these days. Since the ‘60s and ‘70s, when big businesses started leaving, there really aren’t jobs in New Orleans. There’s only hustles. And everyone’s kind of got to get their own hustle on – go out there and make their own thing. And whether it’s artists selling in Jackson Square, or making Mardi Gras masks, people opening up little commercial kitchens and selling pizza once a week – everyone goes out there and makes their own thing. And that’s something that I enjoy and appreciate about [the city].
CM: Of course, as far back as the 1970s, I heard it said that New Orleans had only two industries – the port, and tourism. Unfortunately, decades later, it doesn’t seem like things have changed very much.
JM: No. In fact, the port has probably declined significantly since that time. So now it’s tourism, the convention center, the service industry – and now, within the last six or seven years, the movie industry.
CM: And now you and your wife are part of that industry. Is filmmaking something you’re always wanted to try?
JM: It’s something that’s really always appealed to me. My passion always has been acting. But, you know, the life or a working actor is probably the greatest life in the world. But the life of an out-of-work actor is probably the most wretched and miserable – and that is the situation most actors find themselves in. You have absolutely no power over the direction of your career. If you’re not consistently working, then you have no decision power. You have no choice of the projects that you take. You just take it or leave it if something comes along. And it’s really demoralizing not to have any creative control your artistic work. And so that was the impetus for me [to become a filmmaker]. I wanted to get myself out there in the kind of projects that I want to be acting in – well-written, character-driven independent films. Films filled with ambiguity. Artistic films, as opposed to exploitative or strictly commercial films.
CM: Who would you say are your greatest influences as a filmmaker?
JM: Robert Altman, definitely. I love Altman. If I listed my all-time favorite films in the world, they wouldn’t necessarily be ones that influenced this film. But Short Cuts definitely was the model for this film at the very beginning. That was our initial conception – Short Cuts in Post-Katrina New Orleans. But as we started writing the script and working through it, Nashville really became more of an inspiration. Because it was about a musical city. And it was about musicians. And it culminated in a concert where all of the stories coalesced. We looked at that more and more as the model as we were crafting the screenplay.
Of course, we also thought a lot about Hannah and Her Sisters. Because the first person I think of when I think of a writer-actor is Woody Allen. And that, too, is an anthology film with multiple storylines intersecting.
CM: You and your wife aren’t New Orleans natives, but you’ve lived there for more than ten years – through good times and bad. How would you describe the enduring appeal of the city?
JM: It’s a place – probably more than any other city in the United States – where you can live daily saturating in its history. It in no way tries to deny its history. And in some ways, it’s sort of like Cuba, in that because of economic realities, there’s been no economic impetus to change, to tear down the old and build new. And so the history just persists, and it suffuses everything there. It has such a unique culture, really unlike any other American city. It has its own folkways. That’s what drew me to it.
Ironically, I’m not a huge fan of the food. I feel like such a traitor for saying that. I’m kind of a health nut. So I don’t do deep-fried. And I can’t eat things covered in a heavy butter-cream sauce every day. And I’m not a huge fan of traditional New Orleans jazz. Actually, I’m not a huge fan of Louis Armstrong. Again, I feel like such a huge traitor for saying that. But nonetheless, I love New Orleans, and I love the culture. And the people of New Orleans.
CM: Do you see yourself remaining a regional filmmaker, and telling more stories about New Orleans?
JM: Yes. As I say, I love New Orleans, and I see so much going on there. See, I graduated from college in ’93, at a time when there was so much turmoil going on inside the former Soviet Union. And as a young man, perhaps naïve, I had this theory that under dire conditions, people were somehow more fully human when forced to improvise and be resourceful. They were more fully alive. At the time, I wanted to travel. And I loved Russian literature. So I wanted to go and live in Russia, and play music on the streets for a living, and experience that period of great turmoil and hardship. I never made it to Russia. But that situation found me years later, living in New Orleans. I just think it’s such a dynamic place right now.
The next feature project that we have on our minds, that we’re currently writing, is called New City as its working title. And it delves more fully into the world of Discordia. A bunch of young punk kids living in an old warehouse in Mid City, trying to live off the grid, trying to be urban homesteaders and create a sort of utopic community. By creating a society that is more just and equitable and environmentally sustainable, they hope that sort of reverberates out into the city, and changes the way we live in cities. But as a lover of ambiguity, and a believer that our unconscious motivations are always different from our conscious ones – I want to show how they’re sort of falling short of their ideals, and making the same mistakes that people in all societies and cultures make in terms of cliquishness and judgmentalism and internal strife and division and hypocrisy.
Joseph Meissner and Helen Krieger will introduce the 7 p.m. Monday premiere of Flood Streets at the AMC Studio 30, and will conduct a Q&A after the WorldFest/Houston screening.