Filmmaker's new short film leaves audience laughing

by Noma Faingold

Maybe filmmaker Gretchen Olivero's taste in film, which leans toward the dark side, was initially shaped by repeated viewings of "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II," while growing up in Chowchilla, a small town "dead center in California," she says.

While the rural setting, most known for having not one, but two state correctional facilities for women, was perhaps not an ideal community for cultivating artistic dreams, Olivero managed to do so anyway. From an early age, she wanted to be an actress and a painter. A nurturing force was her father, Richard Olivero, a cartoonist "not as a career, but as a passion," she said.

Her father, who worked at PG&E;, would make Halloween costumes for her and her two siblings out of paper mache. Every night, he drew different cartoon characters on her paper lunch bags.

"The kids at school would want to look," she says. "Our household was unusual. I was lucky to have all that creative energy around."

She was also exposed to an eclectic mix of films while growing up, from "400 Blows" and "Harold and Maude" to "Rosemary's Baby" and "A Clockwork Orange," all among her all-time favorites.

A funny thing happened to the aspiring surrealist artist and photographer on her way to earning what she refers to as a "practical" art history degree at San Francisco State University. Olivero saw David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" and it made her want to be a filmmaker.

What inspired her about the signature Lynch film, who was also an artist before he became a filmmaker, was that he combined the beautiful and idyllic with the depraved and disturbing - through theme, imagery and character.

"Movies can be grotesque, but that can be amazing," she says. "My favorite films are when you walk away and you've got to try to figure it out. That's what "Blue Velvet" is actually about: There's something under the surface on the gritty side of town."

Olivero, who has written, directed and produced two short films, "The Disgruntled Worker" and more recently "The Sublet," seems to be on her way in developing her own cinematic vision, which, so far, could be described as dark comedy to the extreme.

"The Sublet," which had several screenings at the prestigious DC Shorts Film Festival in September, involves a sweet older woman who inadvertently kills a few visitors one afternoon by offering tea and cookies mistakenly made with rat poison.

"There's a Mr. Magoo quality about the main character (played by Sheilah Morrison). She drops her cookie on the ground and doesn't eat it. She was unscathed. I find humor in that. Moments like that really worked."

Audiences at the DC Shorts Film Festival thought so, too.

"The responses were wonderful. It's a comedy and people laughed," she says. "If they didn't, I wouldn't be doing my job right."

Olivero, who lives in the Richmond near the beach with her husband of five years, Eric Larson, is busy working on her next project, another short titled, "Radio Gamers," while she's in between "day" jobs. She's finished the script about two people, a man and a woman, who are dealing with the death of a co-worker. The "dramady" centers on how the two characters celebrate the life of the character (Max) who died.

"They learn a little about Max and find out he was more interesting than they had first perceived," says Olivero. "They tap into his other world (music) and it opens up their own lives."

She's hoping to raise money this fall and begin shooting at the beginning of next year. Her goal is to have it ready to submit to the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and/or The South by Southwest Festival of 2012. Like "The Sublet," there may be a part for her in "Radio Gamers." Because she's an actress and has been in a few locally produced films, she will only reveal her age as "somewhere between 25 and 35."

Olivero admits that writing, directing, producing (or co-producing with her husband) and acting in a film can be overwhelming.

"The director side of the brain is very controlling. The director has to cut things the writer spent so much time developing and creating," she says. "Meanwhile, the acting side of the brain is very impulsive and in-the-moment. It's very challenging, but it's never monotonous."