‘Permanent’ director Colette Burson depicts 1980s South

Colette Burson made a name for herself as one of the creators and producers of the HBO series Hung. The show received high praise and as showrunner she put diversity forth as a priority. In the third season, six of 10 episodes were directed by women (ranking if the number one cable show for hiring female directors). Since then, she’s worked on the series Retired and directed Jane Lynch in the film Little Black Boot. But she’s returning to her roots for her new feature film Permanent.

Based on her childhood, growing up in the Deep South in 1982, the film tells the story Aurelie, a new-in-town pre-teen entering school with a terrible permanent, bullies and parents struggling with their new life. The film stars Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Mike Green and newcomer Kira Mclean in a coming of age comedy for the whole family.

Lesley Coffin: What motivated your move from TV to film for this project?

Colette Burson: I think I wrote this kind of as a creative rebellion. I actually wrote before I did a lot of my TV work, but I rewrote after I did that. I wanted the opportunity to take on a long form, even though there are a lot of pros to working in TV, especially now. With TV, you have the opportunity to live with characters for a long time, which you can’t do in movies. But Permanent was one film that I never thought of as a TV series, it was something I really wanted to make in feature form?

Lesley Coffin: How much really stemmed from your own childhood?

Colette Burson: A fair amount. I don’t call this film true or fact-based, but a lot of it is based on my childhood. I grew up in a small town in the mountains of Virginia, I did get a permanent that ended up being disastrous, I had a family hurtling through space trying to figure themselves out at the time. I think of the movie as a southern family searching for their identity through the metaphor of hair. Also I realized when I got that permanent that there was a racist undercurrent I hadn’t been aware of before.

Lesley Coffin: One of the big things you touch on in the film is this child suddenly understanding her family’s economic and social class. That’s rarely addressed in films, especially films for families, but it seems so relevant now with the tax reform and political conversations on everyone’s mind. Why did you feel that theme needed to be woven into this film?

Colette Burson: I think you picked up on something I was writing into, that I do think is rare about the film. I think one of the great things about the United States, as opposed to say France, is you can cross class. I went to New York University, and I came from a small town in the Virginia Mountain. There was my close friend Kate, raised next door to Bob Dylan, and Wendy raised on the Upper East Side. There was a real mingling of the classes, and I think that’s one of country’s great strengths. And I’m deeply concerned that we are cutting off those ladders that allow the classes to mingle and that would be a huge loss. But with that said, we aren’t a classless society. And I do think that in the south and small towns, there is a high awareness of class. And I think it was true in 1982 and it’s true now. I think there’s a certain mockery of the lower classes, and I think in a twisted way, it led to a lot of people voting for Trump. And sometimes I think that my characters would have voted for Trump 30 years later. I think that a lot of times Northerners and people on the coasts alienate those people in the middle of the country and in the south. I live on the coasts now and include myself among them, but I made a movie which I hope appeals to everyone including the lower and middle classes.

Lesley Coffin: When you were developing the project and talking with the casts, did you discuss ways to avoid the stereotypes of the south?

Colette Burson: I think there’s only been one level of southern comedy that’s really been allowed in the mainstream media. We have things like Joe Dirt and Steel Magnolias. We have the gentle, mocking of our femininity, and the good ole boy redneck. And I see my film having a tone that’s very rare, I wanted to show true southerners, without irony. And I think that lack of irony has made people uncomfortable with the film at times. As an artist I wanted to reflect that part of the country, and I know that it isn’t about a lack of sophistication, but a true connection to people who operate very differently from how we on the coast operate. I think that’s why the media has so much difficulty understanding why people voted for Trump. I think a lot of people in the north and the coastal regions barely believe they exist. They do exist, and I wanted to make a comedy about them, but they are so rarely represented.

Lesley Coffin: You set the film in the 1980s, but unlike the trends we have now, you don’t use a lot of pop culture references.

Colette Burson: Growing up in the south at that time was very hermetically sealed existence. You had the top 40 on the weekends, but you weren’t getting a lot of pop culture of the moment. I think that’s why such tremendous characters flourished. They weren’t so plugged into pop culture. And that’s another area where the film is very different, it’s not trying to be cool. We aren’t using the songs and experiences which represented the early ‘80s, because those weren’t the references I had. The early 80s in the Deep South and mountain areas might as well been 1977 to 1979. I’m highly aware that the Farrah Fawcett look hit in 78, but it didn’t get to my small town until the 80s. The south was still wearing that hair in ‘86, even though New York had been over it in ‘82, maybe even ‘81. In that period, information trickled down differently.

Lesley Coffin: How did you find Kira Mclean?

Colette Burson: We did a nationwide search with a casting director. We went through a lot of tapes and agencies. But what made her stand out was, she’s a highly intelligent actress. A lot of times with young actors, it’s kind of what you see is what you get. They only know how to play things one way, and it’s very difficult to note them. And when you do note them a second time, they forget the first note. I actually passed over Kira in my first casting session with her, but my casting director Erica pulled her back in when I couldn’t find anyone. And I finally did a Skype audition with her, I gave her a note, and she completely changed. And then I gave her another note, and she used both notes. And I compared her to another girl we were considering. But when I gave the same notes, she could only do one at a time and would forget the first note. And I knew we were going to be shooting very quickly over 18 days, so I needed a young actress that could keep up. And she certainly did, she’s quite the trooper.

© Lesley Coffin (12/20/17) FF2 Media

Read FF2 Media’s review of Permanent HERE.

Top & Bottom Photos: Patricia Arquette and Kira McLean in Permanent (2017)

Middle Photo: Patricia Arquette and Rainn Wilson in Permanent (2017)

Photo Credit: Magnolia Pictures

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