In this week’s Staff Pick Premiere, forgotten folk singer Lena Black discovers her fifty-year-old song “Charlotte” has been remade into a hit pop song. Set in the aftermath of the release, filmmaker Zach Dorn explores how the legacy of the song impacts Lena, her daughter Diane, and her 11-year-old grandson, Eli.

In a letter to the pop star, Lena writes: “There is something far worse than being forgetten, and that is to be misunderstood.” This central theme is embedded throughout the film as the song’s newfound success reveals old wounds. Weaving a collage of isolated conversations – Lena’s letter, Diane’s phone call, and Eli’s cassette recording – Dorn paints a poignant portrait of a family starting to hear each other through the music. 

When asked about his unique structure for the film, Dorn shared: “I loved the conceit of exploring these relationships without ever seeing the family interact with one another. By delivering the story through isolated monologues, I wanted it to feel like the characters were each creating their own cover of the same song. There are these generational, geographical, and emotional gaps, but, hopefully, something at the core of their anxieties ends up converging into the same melody.”

The melody may sound familiar for audiences that have felt their families drift apart, but “Charlotte” is unlike any other family drama we’ve shared on the Vimeo. Using hand-made puppets and stop-motion animation, Dorn draws us into their lives, memories, and imaginations for a deeply emotional experience. 

Ahead of the release, we reached out to Dorn to hear more about his inspiration, process, and style. Read on to hear more about “Charlotte.” 

On the film’s inspiration: 

In 2019, I was making a puppet show about the world’s largest sponge and the TV show Gilmore Girls. One day, while picking up some miniature supplies in the faux flower aisle of a Michael’s craft store, Carly Rae Jepsen’s cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” came on the loudspeaker. The cover is incredibly upbeat a great bubbly pop song, which is odd because the original song is rather mournful and complicated. It was an uncanny feeling, because I loved this Carly Rae cover so much. For me, the pop song version, despite being more artificial, still possessed all the emotional complexities of Joni Mitchell’s original. I felt conflicted and embarrassed by this idea, but kept imagining Carly Rae Jepsen and Joni Mitchell’s versions of “Both Sides Now” in conversation. This conversation eventually became the script for “Charlotte.”

On writing the script: 

I imagined the original version of “Charlotte” as a radio play, sort of a Joe Frank voyeuristic drama, set inside footage of miniature landscapes without any puppets. I wrote from the perspectives of eight characters who all had a personal or professional relationship that revolved around the song “Charlotte.” After spending time getting to know these characters, Diane and Eli felt the most interesting, and so I kept them around along with Lena and the pop star T.Y.M. Once I figured this out, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make their stories intersect.” 

On the music collaboration:

When I wrote “Charlotte,” I always had musician Jenna Caravello in mind. While I was writing the script, I sent her fictional Rolling Stone interviews with Lena Black and some of faux-diary entries. From this material, Jenna wrote the folk song. 

I sent Jenna’s song to Zhenya Golikova, who I met online. In 2020, Zhenya covered these voice memo melodies I wrote for a girlfriend, goofy and pathetic songs about marshmallows and cats and missing someone who lives in another country, and then Zhenya transformed my songs into incredible ballads. Her work has this early Magnetic Fields vibe, like it’s composed underwater by horny sea monkeys.. I sent her Jenna’s song and she had the pop version a week later.”

On the talk-show segment: 

So many female folk musicians from the 1960s and 70s were deeply under-appreciated. Artist like Vashti Bunyan, Karen Dalton, Linda Perrhacs, and The Roches were overlooked or marginalized into categories like “freak folk,” and never taken as seriously as their male counterparts. I think there’s this an interesting contradiction, where folk music is associated with progressive ideals, while still bogged in a certain type of quiet misogyny. 

With these artists in mind, I kept imagining Lena at this strange moment in her career, where to maintain relevancy, she’d have to participate in a 1970s Laurel Canyon lifestyle, party with the right people, do the right drugs – a world made and conducted by men. And I just don’t think she’d be up for it. Maybe because she was a mom, or maybe she saw through It all. I’m not sure. But I was motivated by her grief – spread over a lifetime mourning a career. What happens to her anger? How does the grief play out with her daughter? Thinking about these questions, I tried to write Lena’s interaction with Sam as the prologue to her relationship with her daughter.” 

On developing his unique visual style: 

“In my early 20s, I trained as a puppeteer, but I was never any good at it. I  am missing an eighth of my brain and I swear its led to a real lack of spatial awareness. Building or manipulating anything in three dimensions was out of the question. Luckily, I fell into Toy Theater, a type of two-dimensional puppetry once popular in late 19th century England. I started building tiny dioramas out of matte board and acrylics, these sort of makeshift pop-up books, and I manipulated live-projecting digital cameras inside of them as I narrated stories about my landlord or dead dog. 

I obsess over the details of stuff, whether it’s the bar code on a Doritos bag, or the shape of a McDonald’s Happy Meal box. Maybe because of the missing brain, I can’t cut straight lines or shape anything too realistically – so, I have this style, a sort of mashup of something falling apart and obsessive. 

For the puppets, I worked with stop-motion animators Oliver Levine and Lily Windsor to maintain a slightly grotesque and textural quality that fit the film’s hand-painted world. Since I made the film during the lockdown, we worked long distance, Lily from Chicago, mailing tiny boxes of llamas, and Oliver leaving head sculpts at my front door in Burbank.”

On what’s next: 

“Currently, I am independently working on a short documentary about the CGI Livia Soprano from the third season of The Sopranos, as well as this genetic mutation called BRCA2. I grew up with an Italian American family filled with a bunch of eccentric traditions and personalities, but by my late 20s, the BRCA2 derailed these familial connections through the premature deaths of family members. 

In 2020, I watched The Sopranos for the first time. Each episode felt like I was suddenly in conversation with my family again. Now, I am making a film about this experience where I recreate home videos in stop-motion and analyze Livia Soprano’s posthumous performance in relation to my personal experiences with grief.”

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