When local filmmaker Arlene Lagos talks about stock female characters, it's possible that somewhere Lisbeth Salander is looking away uncomfortably while Stieg Larsson tosses and turns in his grave.
"I wanted to bring to television strong, empowered, and sometimes flawed female characters that were real," Lagos says. "Not female ninjas or women with guns. Not the stereotypical victim, hooker, or cold-hearted bitch. Real everyday women that others could identify with."
The presence of a true, powerful woman like Norma Rae is a rare thing today in this world of quirky-perky gal pals, vapid vixens, and sadiddy spys. Lagos' mission is, at the very least, admirable. She is currently filming the pilot for Butterflies Wake, a proposed TV series set in the Lowcountry in various locations throughout Charleston. The plot revolves around a secret society of determined women who have simply had enough of the failures of the government and the blind eyes of the justice system. The leader, Camille (a.k.a. Mama), is a slight yet strong woman in her early fifties who was first introduced to the group by Priscilla. Priscilla found Camille 30 years ago bleeding to death outside Priscilla's front door, a victim of an abusive husband. While the group started out decades ago in the Holy City, Charleston is not the only place where they exist. What began as a neighborhood watch has turned into a movement. Currently, Lagos has to do more filming and some pick-up shots before the pilot goes into post-production.
No stranger to the entertainment industry, Lagos has a resumé that could almost be described as that of a renaissance woman. She was a personal assistant to Paul Haggis (who wrote and directed Crash) and wrote and starred in an off-Broadway play. She's done stand up, stage directing, voice work, and modeling. She attended NYU for dance and theater and has taught dance in every city she's ever lived in. But over the years, Lagos found herself dancing less and writing more.
Once she moved to Charleston three years ago, she worked on Cold Soldiers by City Paper contributor Nick Smith and Eight Graves by Gus Smythe. Currently, she is the assistant producer at South of Broadway, where she recently had two sold-out shows for Power Play, the teen drama she directed. Then there are the acting classes she teaches to children, the rock musical, Teen Angel, that she's writing and directing, and her vice president seat with the Charleston chapter of the Southeastern Filmmakers.
Patricia Garvin, who plays Camille, didn't skimp on the praise for Lagos and the project. "I always look forward to the shoots," she says. "Arlene is very helpful getting us to understand the scene and our characters without denying us the freedom to be the character."
For the cast and crew of Butterflies Wake, the road to get even this far has been a bumpy ride. They had to change locations at the last minute twice but hit pay dirt with locations like Embassy Suites, Hot Wheels, Meeting Street Inn, South of Broadway, and Stag Erin Pub.
One particular scene was memorable for both cast and crew, as Director of Photography John Barnhardt recounts. "Fight scenes are always challenging on the independent level. We shot [one] night in a hotel and we kept the hotel clientele up all night," he says. "It was like a frat party up there. When you're shooting this fast and this independent ... you've really got to rely on the skills you've had before. I've shot enough to know what not to do from mistakes I've made earlier."
With that in mind, Lagos voices her appreciation for the good fortune she's received. "If anything, I think we have been blessed. People have been very generous in helping us out." She counts her blessings when she thinks about her cast and crew. "We get through all the hard stuff as a team, and there's no ego."
Like Lagos herself, the casting process was unique as well. She knew which local actors she wanted before she even started writing. "I'd say 90 percent of the parts were written specifically for the person playing the role. I feel like our cast is very diverse and well rounded," she says.
One crew member who has been especially invaluable to Lagos throughout the whole Butterflies Wake experience has been Barnhardt. For Lagos, he has had the biggest impact on the director and her experience with this film. Citing his knowledge of cinematography coupled with a natural teaching ability, Lagos has seen the benefits of working with him. "Both the cast and crew linger on every word he says because he knows what he's talking about ... plus a lot of my crew are Trident Tech students," she says. "I would say I learn something new every day from him, and the more we work together, the closer I get to where I want to be as a writer and director."
Lagos enlisted the help of Kickstarter (kickstarter.com) to raise $2,000 dollars for expenses. She now has the money to submit the film to festivals as and to attend the National Association of Television Program Executives in January, where she will pitch Butterflies Wake as a pilot.
Somewhere, Norma Rae is smiling.