Beauty Mark is the full-length feature film debut from writer-director-actor Harris Doran. It tells the story, based on true events, of Angie (Auden Thornton), a single mother living hand-to-mouth in a poverty-stricken area of Louisville, KY. She’s struggling to take care of her young son (sweet little Jameson Fowler) and her mother (Catherine Curtin), who’s an addict and completely unreliable caregiver for the young child. Angie is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and, at 24, when she’s in desperate need and ready to sue her abuser (Jeff Kober), she’s one year past the statute of limitations. Finding herself face to face with the perpetrator once again, Angie must find a way to seize the upper hand from the man who stole her innocence.
Doran wrote Beauty Mark in 2014 and filmed it in 2016, for “the cost of a short.” It debuted on the festival circuit in 2017, during which it was nominated for an award at nearly every event. Doran was shortlisted for the Independent Spirit Someone To Watch Award.
I met Doran in person through a few Rise and Resist meetings I attended (he’s a committed activist against Trump and other stains on society), and we became Facebook friends. In addition to Doran, a native New Yorker who trained at the Juilliard School, I interviewed Auden Thornton; Lindsay Moreman, Beauty Mark‘s art director; and Penny Edmiston, one of the film’s producers and my colleague in the commercial film industry for many years. ‘
Betsyann Faiella: Harris, was the female empowerment element of Beauty Mark clear to you when you wrote the script?
Harris Doran: Yes. The story, from inception, was about a woman overcoming extreme circumstances. Those circumstances were the impetus for her to step outside her comfort zone to overcome her personal demons. She had to become the person who could save her son.
BF: What was your inspiration for the script and why did you feel compelled to tell the story?
HD: The film was inspired by true events that happened to one of the film’s producers. When I heard her story, it was at the end of 2014, way before the #MeToo movement got the visibility it has now. I thought it was a vital topic that we have to be speaking about. The film deals with the intersectionality of sexual abuse, cycles of abuse in families, systemic poverty, racism — things that are woven together in our society, and I wanted to tell a story in that intersection.
BF: Are you surprised by the reaction to the film?
Statutes of limitations only protect the abuser.
HD: I’m grateful that the film has received the reaction it has. Most specifically, that it has given many people who’ve seen the film a reason to speak to their loved ones about their own abuse. I’ve heard many stories of long-held secrets which were revealed after a film’s screening. Abuse happens in the shadows, and I’m proud that this film has shed light for many people. Speaking out is the first step to healing ourselves and healing our society. While I hear mostly about the power of the film’s message and that it sticks with people for days after seeing the film, I also often hear how amazing the performances are.
BF: Your budget was minuscule. How do you take care of actors who are playing such harrowing, emotionally invested roles when your amenities allocation must have been zero?
HD: Having been an actor myself for most of my life, I’m very sensitive to the needs of actors. We had crew members assigned to the actors to check in on them as much or as little as the actors wanted. If someone needed private space, we would provide that for them. We made sure they had good housing and good food and were treated with respect. It was a very collaborative artistic process, so the actors felt ownership over their own artistic journeys.
BF: What’s the most significant lesson you learned about the subject matter?
HD: How widespread an epidemic it is. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they’re 18. That is an extraordinarily large number of people, and it’s extraordinary that our society is unwilling to confront or talk about it because so many people have been abused or have been the abuser. It’s a vicious cycle. So I’ve become convinced the first thing we need to do is decide to speak about it, even if we’re uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not a good enough reason to relinquish protecting our children. The #MeToo movement is powerful and important, and our society has taken huge steps in bringing those abuses to light. Now it is necessary to look underneath the #MeToo abuses and see that what lies there is the epidemic of child sexual abuse. And it must be confronted.
Statute of limitations laws are antiquated and absolutely should be changed. I’m working on this in my home state of New York, which, just like Kentucky, requires a victim to report within five years of the incident or within five years of turning 18. Most survivors don’t have the state of mind to confront it until they’re much older, so legal help is impossible. The only person that protects is the abuser. The New York State Child Victims Act would change this, but it’s being blocked by the Republican majority in the State Senate, who refuse to let it even come to the floor for a vote.
Auden Thornton won a Special Jury Prize for Breakout Performance in the Los Angeles (LA) Film Festival. She was not a highly experienced film actress when she was cast.
BF: Auden, why did you want to play Angie?
Auden Thornton: For a lot of reasons. Number one being that I loved the script. It’s rare for me to get to read a script and be as moved as I was, love it as much as I did. Another reason, not separate from the first, was that I cared about the story very much, its message and my character’s journey. I wanted to be a part of shining a light on something that many people don’t like to talk about or don’t even know is a problem.
BF: What is the most difficult aspect of playing a role like this — a character whose struggle and hardships are relentless?
AT: Living in the world and energy for a month and a half that Angie had to live in for years. On top of that, in the script, Angie is knocked down over and over again. Almost no one is helping her, ever. What kept me lifted and strong during it was connecting back to her love of her son and her immense need to fight and win because of that.
BF: How long did you have to prep before you began shooting?
AT: It’s funny, I got the role a year before we started shooting but we didn’t know if it would go for sure, so it was put aside, a hope at the back of my mind for a year. I had one month to prepare once it was a definite go.
BF: Do you have any tricks to remain present to the role and yet take care of your emotional health?
When you do something new, you learn that you can do it!
AT: All of the prep work I did before we started shooting, alone and with Doran, got me to a state where I didn’t have to think through much once we were on set, I just had to click in. Which was good, because on set there was no time to second guess or change minds or wonder. Just time to go. I meditated each morning to try and “get out of my own way” and set a higher intention. I spent quiet moments when I could, and, luckily, I loved everyone on set, so there were many moments of fun and play and adventure. I felt very safe and taken care of on set, and for such a hard story, shooting it was a great experience.
BF: Name a significant thing that you learned by doing Beauty Mark?
AT: I suppose every time you do something new or for the first time you learn that you can do it! Which is a great feeling. I’d never been the lead in a film before and I was so terrified that I wouldn’t do the story justice that a month before shooting I told Doran in all seriousness that I thought he might’ve made a mistake. I wasn’t sure if I was the right person for the role. Luckily, he stayed calm and steady and said something like, “Oh really? I think you are.” Whether or not it felt like it to him, Doran took a big chance on me and gave me a great gift by allowing me to play Angie. I’ll be forever grateful for that. I also learned how to drive a stick-shift for the role. Most of the practicing was done in between takes and when we were actually rolling, which was scary and fun!
BF: What did you learn about the subject matter that you didn’t know before?
AT: In many states, survivors have until age 24 to come forward. In New York state, legislators have been trying to change it to age 50 for years, but haven’t been successful. This kind of statute of limitations favors and protects the perpetrators. It doesn’t take into account any of the psychological damage that happens when child sexual abuse occurs. Children and adult survivors often bury the trauma for years, black it out mentally or are too afraid to speak. The healing process isn’t linear or on an arbitrary time frame. And a survivor should be able to speak out or seek reparations whenever they’re ready. I greatly hope our country will see changes to these statutes in the near future.
Lindsay Moreman knows about sexual harassment from a very personal place, having cut her teeth as one of few women in sports marketing years back.
BF: Lindsay, what was your brief like from the director?
Lindsay Moreman: Harris explained the characters more than anything and we reacted to that. He had woven a powerful story, and everything was compelled by the script. We shot the film in 12 days in sweltering heat, in the neighborhood in Louisville where Muhammad Ali grew up.
BF: The budget was $0 but the sets look great. How did you do it?
LM: We [Moreman and Lauren Argo, the Production Designer] went “method” in the art direction. We became involved in the neighborhood where we were shooting; we gathered props and set dressing from the streets and locals and threw it in our truck. We flipped a house from a white box to the main set and back to waive the location fee. We had art production assistants volunteer to learn how to make candy glass for a key scene for credit. We were always Goodwill hunting and Dollar Store trolling for materials like peel-and-stick wood grain vinyl for the kitchen set transformation. The whole thing cost $30 in materials. We painted Ruth Ann’s [Angie’s mom’s] room the deep red as a nod to her happier past. We made the props from found objects as we went along. The budget was more like $1,500 for sets and props. Which is really like zero! We thrifted for everything. You just have to constantly think like MacGyver; “MacGyver” is a verb in the Art Department.
BF: What was your strategy in getting the characters’ surroundings right?
LM: Understanding that they had a lot of layers to their characters and nuances which we represented in their spaces. It was ironic that all the houses surrounding us looked like what we ended up creating. When the actors came to rehearse for the first time we knew we’d nailed it. They felt it. We saw the performances daily and I knew it was special from the first day.
BF: Why did you feel compelled to work on this, despite knowing you’d have no money?
LM: I spent part of my career in NYC working as a commercial prop and fashion stylist, so I had really honed my skills on delivering any kind of art direction quickly. I was used to long hours. That really helped me when I switched to feature films three years ago. Beauty Mark was the first feature film where I was given the opportunity to have the art director credit. They believed in me and gave me chance to prove I could make the switch. That’s one of the reasons I was compelled to do it, and the option for points on the back end as a motivator. What if it ended up being a really good film?
BF: Did you learn any lessons about life and work?
LM: That is the lesson: If you commit to anything do your best. You will never be disappointed. Give good people a chance. When this tiny film got into the narrative competition in the LA Film Festival, I felt the team had already won. And then Thornton did win for the team. Then Beauty Mark won six more awards out on the festival circuit as an “indie hit” and it premiered in NYC a year later to a sold-out crowd. It hit a top chart on iTunes the first week of its release.
So I’m proud I did my best with the challenging circumstances. It shows you who you are. And having an amazing DP/camera operator, Karina Silva, who shot the whole film on her shoulder, made our sets look even more amazing.
BF: How did the subject affect you personally?
LM: I can recall all the constant sexual harassment on a daily basis in the early 1990s as a young producer at a powerful sports marketing agency, and later at two major networks. I felt the helplessness that Angie feels in a different way, and yet there was no doubt that if I’d spoken up, I’d have lost my coveted job. I left at the top of the game and it actually was a gift because, intuitively, I knew I was more creative. The rest is history!
Penny Edmiston produced the documentary Unstoppable: Bethany Hamilton, which premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and Stacy Peralta’s documentary, Bones Brigade. Her 2012 documentary, Unfit: Ward v. Ward, is about a lesbian mother who lost her child to her ex-husband, a convicted killer.
BF: What was the biggest challenge in your role as a producer when planning this film?
Penny Edmiston: Raising the money without a “star” cast. I had plenty of offers to write us a check if we cast a star. But then we never would have discovered Auden Thornton, who is a powerhouse of an actress. Her performance of Angie is tricky, she had to keep the audience caring and rooting for her even while you watched her make bad choices on her journey.
BF: Did you envision Beauty Mark as a female empowerment film as well as an important story about keeping silent?
PE: We always wanted to make it a film about female empowerment, and realizing life is messy and we don’t always deal with our pain in rational or linear steps; this is the authentic truth. The choices Angie makes aren’t the best but she is doing her best with what she has to work with, and she does get there. It was this journey of getting her power back that fascinated me about the story. When we started the film there was no #MeToo movement. That came a year later. We just set out to tell a really good, entertaining story that has a very important message to deliver and I believe we succeeded
BF: As a woman, what feelings did the film evoke for you? What is one feeling you wouldn’t like to feel again?
PE: The film evoked many emotions in me that I appreciate, but being taken advantage of by a man is a feeling that would be nice to never have to feel again.
BF: What was it like watching those performances play out on the monitor?
PE: Ha! I never looked into a monitor, because we didn’t even have the money for me to be there on set! We hired a local line producer. But Doran worked with the actors beforehand and had them prepared before they ever got there. We knew the acting would be good and you need everyone to be prepared if you’re going to shoot a movie in 14 days with only time for a few takes of each scene
BF: Did you make any commitments to yourself as a result of producing Beauty Mark?
PE: I want to make more movies like Beauty Mark, which will be a real challenge in Hollywood.