Medford film director Chelsea Spear, outfitted in a plain cotton dress and a red-knitted cape, talked. Amateur actress and Medford High School sophomore Antonia Pugliese — black sweater over her shoulders, hair pulled back in vestal sweetness, long blue dress à la Little House on the Prairie — mostly fiddled with a string. Camera assistant Jess Schumann kept her arms folded and mostly kept quiet.
The filmmaking trio was at the Diesel Café on a recent Saturday to discuss The Ballad of Burd Janet, Spear’s black-and-white, silent retelling of Tam Lin, a Scottish folktale about a young woman who rescues her love interest from fairies. The Tam Lin story, also the subject of a Fairport Convention song, is traditionally told in much darker detail than most of the stories in Grimm’s Fairy Tales: in some versions, the Tam Lin characters wrestle with issues like premarital sex, human sacrifice, and abortion. The Ballad of Burd Janet doesn’t broach the carnal — after all, Spear’s lead performer, Pugliese, is still in her teens — but it does delve into the world of séances. Spear’s Tam Lin is Tom Lane (Ian Cardoni), a bespectacled boy living in the 1920s who is a ward of his spirit-medium aunt, Fay Stinson (played by Boston Globe reporter Emily Sweeney). And Janet is a working-class girl who rescues him by exposing his finger-wave-wigged aunt’s paranormality as a scam.
Spear has loved the Tam Lin tale since childhood. As an adult, it appeals to her feminist ideals: “It’s one of the few stories where the girl gets to rescue the guy.” In her version, the real protagonist is the heroine — hence the adjusted title — but it’s also a story about feminism and social class. “When I started to write this, Sex and the City was a big deal,” recalls Spear. “I started thinking about those characters as parallel to Clara Bow and the flappers, where it’s great that they’re out and doing a lot of that stuff, but there was also a sense of privilege with that.... There was that contrast between this very frivolous upper-class feminist, quote-unquote girl-power quote-unquote movement, and then there were a lot of women who were still working really terrible jobs and getting treated poorly. And what about their stories?”
Spear grew up in Medford, back when it was strictly a working-class enclave known largely for “big hair, Spandex, and KISS-108,” so she understands the injuries of class. After working in the field of nonprofit arts administration for a while, Spear now earns a living as a dog walker (“It’s nice to be working for some creature that appreciates you”). Since her filmmaking ambitions were awoken about eight years ago, after she saw Hal Hartley’s Trust (“It really moved me, and I wanted to be able to talk back to it”), she has made three short films: "Alphabet" (2002), a silent Super-8 piece about a 12-year-old girl playing the French horn and solving a math problem; "The Hidden" (2003), a five-minute progression about The Odyssey’s Calypso reset in World War II, which Spear now admits was “not particularly good”; and "The Unhappy Medium" (2004), an organ-scored four-minute precursor to The Ballad of Burd Janet, shot two summers ago in Medford.
A couple of years ago, Spear posted the last of those short films online and asked for donations to help her finance The Ballad of Burd Janet. She’s since raised $5000. Since October, she’s been shooting one or two weekends a month and hopes to screen a final version next year.
In front of the camera, Pugliese is, as it turns out, the ideal young woman to play Janet. An honor-roll student, Pugliese is a member of the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers, a historical-dance troupe that gets hired by places like Old Sturbridge Village and the Museum of Fine Arts to perform mid-19th-century-through-ragtime-era routines. “I was born into all sorts of historical things,” she says, then explains that her parents are also active in the dance troupe. “I was doing contra dances [since] when I could [first] walk.”
Spear met her Janet after Pugliese responded to an e-mail from her Medford High drama-club teacher saying that a local filmmaker was looking for an actress. “She sent me these cute photos of herself in the flapper dress,” remembers Spear, who subjected the young actress to a screen test. “I said, ‘I think I found her.’ ”
Schumann, who’s been quiet during our talk at the Diesel, finally speaks, commenting on why she’s so supportive of Spear’s film. “Lots of chicks in the crew. And a woman hero. I have nothing else to say.”
See The Unhappy Medium online at archive.org/details/unhappymedium .