When Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans in 2005, Helen Krieger and Joseph Meissner had been living there four years, three of them together. Like many people, they fled the city and bunked with family for a while — with Meissner’s in Houston, Krieger’s in Wisconsin.Recovering and contemplating their lives after the storm, they decided to change things up a bit. Pursue new adventures. Learn new skills. “My philosophy was: Let’s do things that in the normal course of our lives we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do,” Meissner said. “So we went into a sensory deprivation chamber for the first time. ... And we went to a wilderness survival camp. Another thing we did, I went and got certified in lifting Russian kettle bells.”
Oh, and one more thing: They made a movie. Flood Streets, it’s called, and it’s based on a collection of stories Krieger set in New Orleans (In the Land of What Now). Written and produced by Krieger, directed by Meissner (who also stars), the film will premiere at 7 p.m. Monday at Houston’s 44th Annual WorldFest, with a question-and-answer session to follow with the filmmakers. It’s also been selected for the 2011 Boston International Film Festival, where it’s set to screen April 23.
“We didn’t know what we had to come back to. We thought, here we may have an opportunity to start totally over from scratch — do whatever we want with our lives and just start from the beginning,” said Meissner, a Houston native and graduate of Bellaire High School. He should focus more on his acting career, they decided. She should focus more on her writing. In making their own film, they could do both.
So they sold their house, moved into Meissner’s martial-arts school and used the money to finance the movie. They bought a pair of Panasonic digital cameras and shot each scene from two angles, assuring that good moments wouldn’t be lost to a first-time director. “I don’t know all that much about lenses and lights and f-stops and things like that, so I really wanted to capture lightning in a bottle in terms of performances,” he said.
An ensemble piece with intersecting story lines, homegrown music and a gently oddball vibe, Flood Streets follows an assortment of characters scrabbling through the post-Katrina landscape: Matt (Meissner) and Liz (Melissa Hall), a writer and artist renovating their home; Georgia (Asia Rainey), a single mom with a risqué second life and a gloriously singing daughter (Rachel Dupard); and Madeline (alt-folk-rocker Becky Stark), a real estate agent who visits abandoned homes and bumps into Ruby (Ursaline Bryant), a dying squatter who shares her stash of pot.
Much of the plot is based on Krieger’s own experiences in New Orleans, both pre- and post-Katrina. She toured many “crazy houses” during a brief gig in real estate, but the parallels don’t end there. “Lots of the characters are based on me,” she said. “Even Matt is a version of Helen. And Matt’s girlfriend is a version of Helen.” In one of the movie’s funniest bits, Matt has his teeth fixed (or not) by a chesty dental student who leans over his face until her cleavage just about straddles his nose. That happened, in real life, to Krieger. (You might recognize the cranky supervising dentist, This Is Spinal Tap’s Harry Shearer.)
Flood Streets is dotted with incidental wit and wry observations of life in the Big Easy, which isn’t always. “No matter how bad a thing happens to people in New Orleans, they have a sense of humor about it,” Krieger said. “About six weeks after the storm, everyone came out. There was still the National Guard on the streets with their automatic rifles and Humvees, and these throngs of people and costumes came by.” The message was loud and clear: “‘Now we’re going to have fun.’”
That unsinkable spirit comes through in the movie’s soundtrack, which runs all the way from klezmer (Panorama Jazz Band) and eclectic Russian (Debauche) to modern gospel (Dupard), alternative Irish-Cajun-punk (the Zydepunks), airy indie folk (Stark) and — finally, inevitably — the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
“New Orleans has this really diverse music scene, but nationally, what gets all the attention is traditional jazz,” Meissner said. “I really feel strongly that culture is a living and evolving thing, and if it ever stops evolving and gets put into a museum, it dies.” In his view, the film’s musical gumbo reflects the collaborative nature of young people who move to the city and mix it up with native art forms.
That vibrancy first drew Meissner and Krieger there 10 years ago, and it’s what they aimed to capture in Flood Streets. Their hopes for the movie include more festivals and, down the line, a distributor. If they don’t land one, they’ll distribute the film themselves. In the meantime, they’re planning their next project, which Kreiger described as “a kind of edgy sex-and-drugs comedy” based on a novel she wrote after a yearlong stint in journalism.
And yes, they said, they work together just fine as a couple.
“It can get pretty thick sometimes,” Krieger said. “You need space ... but I think it’s just a matter of finding that balance.”