Seeing My Family at the Movies

The Apology writer-director Alison Star Locke on the huge impact Running on Empty and Gas Food Lodging had on her growing up.

As I celebrate the momentous occasion of the release of The Apology, my first feature as a writer-director, I find myself in a reflective mood. The film is a Christmas psychological thriller about a mother who’s been searching for her missing daughter for decades and now faces some complicated answers. It came from my fascination with true crime stories but became a metaphor for my relationship with my daughter, who has autism, and advocating for her to an obsessive degree. The relationship between parents and children has always been one of my chief themes as a writer and stems from my relationship with my mother.

I moved around a lot as a kid – dozens of times. My mom had a hard time. The world is not kind to single moms with an independent spirit. As a Texan baby boomer, she was supposed to work until she got married, after which she would quit and stay home with her kids. But that didn’t mix well with her passion for feminism and liberal activism. Add all that to her self-admitted bad taste in men and there we were, getting really good at packing. There has always been so much love and support between my mother, brother and I but I’ve still always felt that to make a film too directly about my family could mean losing them. I think most writers fear that. Hell, just writing this scares the shit out of me.

A young Alison Star Locke, her brother and her mother, sporting her Christine Lahti curls. (Photo courtesy Alison Star Locke.)

If you want to be an artist of any kind, at some point you’re gonna have to see someone making art who you identify with. It’s as necessary a tool as the proverbial pen, camera or paintbrush. I didn’t know writers and filmmakers growing up, but I went to the movies a lot. And there, I started to see versions of myself and my family on the screen and that made me realize it was possible that my particular perspective and life experience could be worth making a movie about.

The families in Gas Food Lodging (1992) and Running on Empty (1988) felt like my family. I recognized them. I felt seen by them. And I’ve carried them with me. Great films burrow into and become a part of you, and then your relationship with them evolves as time passes. You get older and start to understand the movie from each character’s perspective, instead of just your “entry character.” Now that I’m a parent, I empathize with the parents in those movies as much as I do the children. And now that I’m a filmmaker myself, I really appreciate what it must have taken to make such layered and compassionate works like these.

For every movie lover, there are some movies that are just your movies. You didn’t make them. You probably don’t even personally know anyone who worked on them. But you’d defend them with swords and you feel a profound urge to spread the word about them. Gas Food Lodging and Running on Empty are these movies for me, as they stole my heart and made me feel less alone in all the complicated feelings I was feeling. Crucially, they also showed me that what I care about as a storyteller was worthwhile, that someone who lived a life like mine had something to say.

Martha Plimpton, River Phoenix, Christine Lahti and Jonas Abry in the birthday party scene in Running on Empty.

In Gas Food Lodging, a single mom and her two daughters live in a trailer and are not the butt of a joke. It’s just their reality. The daughter is known for being a “good girl” who’s always at the movies. In Running on Empty, the family have quirky birthday traditions, progressive political activism and homespun creativity. And they move around. A lot. Some moves have more warning than others.

Both families scrape by, but they’re looking for more meaning. Past mistakes loom over them both, rage and regret mixed with big personalities and passions. There’s always a lot of love – but not easy love, more the kind coated in screaming or heavy silences, complicated by the real world bearing down on them. Not every detail of these families was like mine, but they were close enough for me to deeply relate to them.

It seems like Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty was always in my life. I can’t remember the first time I saw it, but I remember the way it made me feel, the way it still makes me feel. I felt the weight of what Danny Pope (River Phoenix) experienced, feeling the pull of your family and the push toward your future, and the ways in which you know your relationship with your family will suffer if you fully thrust yourself toward that future.

Fairuza Balk in Gas Food Lodging.

In the film, Danny’s parents, Annie and Arthur Pope (Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch) protested the Vietnam War by bombing a napalm plant they thought was empty, accidentally blinding a janitor. The idea that people often do destructive things out of a misguided mission to better things has become another thematic obsession with me. After the bombing, they go underground, moving constantly and relying on other activists to help them stay safe and undetected. Despite living in fear and all the required moving around, the Pope family still engages in community works and social justice activism, both of which were also a constant presence in my childhood. In the film, Danny is a high school senior and a pianist who’s so talented, his teacher thinks he could go to Juilliard, much as my teacher and mother thought I could go to USC film school (which I did!). But to go to college means leaving his family, and since they have to stay hidden, he’ll never see them again, at least not unless they’re behind bars. What an impossible choice. Even though my mother and brother were so encouraging of me going to college, I think we all knew that it was going to change our connection. The film’s screenwriter, Naomi Foner, once said, “The love story between parent and child is the only one that successfully ends in separation. If you do it right, they leave.” But it certainly wasn’t that simple for Danny, nor was it for me. My mom, brother and I had depended on each other so much to make it through. What would we be if I left?

Becoming an adult often means losing the strongest version of the bond with your family. You’ll get out into the world and start to see them as the complicated human beings they are. You’ll get busy with your own goals and dreams. You won’t celebrate each birthday all together with your own “Happy Birthday Sam” cake, or whatever your weird tradition is. There’s a very real mourning we all go through with that. And it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen the film, the bike scene and then “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor kicking in again at the end has me sobbing.

Come to think of it, the freedom to cry at the movies has probably led me to feel like crying in general is a rebellious necessity. I cry when I’m writing. I cry on set. I cry in the edit. And if I’m not crying, if I’m not feeling that bike scene feeling, I know we need to reach down further until we get there. Not that I’m looking to rip your heart out (OK, maybe sometimes), but I’m sure as hell looking to rip mine out and show it to you. It’s my duty as an artist to do that, to try to be brave and honest and awkward, so you’ll feel a little less alone for needing to be that, too.

Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk and Brooke Adams in Gas Food Lodging.

When I was in high school, my mom bought a video camera for me, putting it on the family credit card. She took me and my sibling to an all-night horror movie marathon at the local rep cinema. She tore articles out of the paper about the latest “indie movies, Alison!” “This movie looks good. It’s a movie about Texas called Lone Star. Apparently, this John Sayles has made a lot of good, independent movies.” She was in constant search for the mythic “good, independent movie” to take me to, a wonderful gift, except for the accidental awkwardness of, say, watching Larry Clark’s Kids at the movies with your mom.

I think she’s always bristled a bit about the idea of me talking about my childhood in my work. Like most muses, I think she fears judgment, from me or the audience. She grew up in a culture of “Let’s not talk about it,” and has been fighting those impulses ever since. But she’s always been genuinely excited for me, that I have a voice and that I use it. I’m 45 and I’ve only just now made my first feature. Even through all the rejection, family challenges and even plain inertia, she never once said anything near the usual “You should save yourself the heartbreak and let it go” that so many artists hear, as they get older and nobody wants to read their writing, let alone make a movie with them. I guess this piece has become a love letter about my mother and my family, as most things do.

So that leads me to the gorgeous, messy love between the mother and daughters in Gas Food Lodging, which writer-director Allison Anders adapted from Richard Peck’s book Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt. Shade (Fairuza Balk) lives in a dusty road stop of a town, still sharing a room with her sister, Trudi (Ione Skye), who’d be glamorous if she weren’t so traumatized and rageful, and getting giant Slice sodas with ice all the way up to the top from their mom, Nora (Brooke Adams), at the shitty diner where she’s a waitress. This is a family who love each other and yearn for connection, but struggle to get along, both with each other and the men in their lives. Like my mom, Nora has lousy taste in men and she knows it. This family is more outwardly volatile than my own was, but there’s a huge resonance in the film’s details of living with very little, of boredom, of boys like Javier (Jacob Vargas), who look and feel so much like the sensitive boys that I loved, or at least really liked, growing up. Trudi, Nora and Shade always talk about money, how much something costs, how you need your own job, how they don’t have any money, no matter what they do. James Brolin’s performance as the girls’ dad with his generic name, John Evans, felt so much like my own dad, who lived far away but whose love was palpable the few times I saw him growing up, even though it was obvious he wasn’t capable of being a real dad to me.

Alison Star Locke at the New Beverly screening of Gas Food Lodging. (Photo courtesy Alison Star Locke.)

When Shade asks her dad for money, it isn’t like in most movies. She doesn’t need the money for something “important.” She wants something pretty. She just wants a little romance, a little beauty in her life. She’s striving for it, like I was. For the longest time, I only got it at the movies, but like Shade, that started to change. And it was shocking to find that real love felt like really exciting friendship, not the intimidating, shadowy stuff of other films. That scene where Shade and Javier lie in the grass as she explains her astonishment at actually finding someone who makes her feel comfortable with herself still knocks the wind out of me in the best way.

At the time, I hadn’t seen many movies where class was so subtly integrated but so vital to the story, as it is in both Running on Empty and Gas Food Lodging. They put a spotlight on the details of how you pull off life: grocery shopping, the difficulty of signing up for a new school and how to practice your art when your family struggles to afford the tools (piano, camera, movie tickets).

The day we finished the final sound mix on The Apology, I went to see Gas Food Lodging at the New Beverly Cinema, with Allison Anders doing a Q&A. I couldn’t believe the timing, that my movie could play right after I finished my actual movie. It felt very fairy godmother, y’all.

Sitting there, watching one of my heroes talk about her filmmaking experiences, I felt such pure gratitude that an old friend, producer Stacy Jorgensen, had given me the opportunity to make my own film, and that I had been supported and encouraged by so many, especially my creative producer, the peerless Kim Sherman, who helped me not just do the daily grind of filmmaking but also fight to have my voice fully in the film. She encouraged me to infuse The Apology with the details from what she lovingly called “the bookshelves in your brain.” She pushed me to keep being specific and strange with my work, not just with our film but also with whatever else I write.

Alison Star Locke during the filming of The Apology. (Photo courtesy Alison Star Locke.)

So it was important to me that we felt the details of my main character Darlene’s home, that we felt the weight of the family and her past with them, in much the same way you feel those layers with the work of Naomi Foner and Sidney Lumet and Allison Anders and their collaborators. Taking their example of what I know about their processes, it was important to me to talk through these layers with my actors, Anna Gunn, Linus Roache and Janeane Garofalo, the way Anders and Lumet might have. And if you haven’t read Lumet’s classic book, Making Movies, there’s some more fun homework for you. His discussion about long rehearsals during prep may feel like an antiquated relic lost to budget constraints, but the principles he discusses are still so helpful and humane.

I’ve started to hear from people who’ve seen The Apology that they’ve felt seen and represented, that it was cathartic to them in various ways. And I immediately flashed back to “my movies” and as cheesy as it sounds, it filled my heart to brimming. So I’m starting to see how this cycle of art that comes from a sincere, loving place can beget more and more of that kind of work. I do still plan to make work that’s a bit more head-on about my family, but perhaps I needed to be more metaphorical to start. Or maybe the metaphors are the more honest work. I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know if I ever do. And may I be so lucky as to have one of my movies become someone else’s “my movie” one day, so they can see themselves in it.

Alison Star Locke moved a lot as a kid with her single mother, growing up mainly in San Antonio and Oakland. She earned a B.F.A. in Filmic Writing from USC, where she won the Jack Nicholson Screenwriting Award. She began her writing career as a story producer for reality TV and has written, directed and produced numerous shorts. Her favorite, Shhhhhhh…, was laureled-up by the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Denver Film Festival. Her script The Projectionist won second place at Slamdance in the Horror/Thriller category. Her scripts have placed in numerous contests, including the BloodList, Nicholls, Screamfest, Women in Horror Film Festival, Scriptapalooza and Fright Night. After staying home to advocate and care for her daughter, Bethany, who was diagnosed with autism, she returned to work this year to make The Apology, her first feature as a writer-director, starring Anna Gunn, Linus Roache and Janeane Garofalo. She lives with her husband and daughter in the Los Angeles area.