“Once upon a time.”
That’s how Carlos Rosales hopes any book ever written about his life will begin. Rosales is a self-described dreamer, an independent filmmaker, a weaver of stories. One of his latest is “La Madame.” The film short — just under one hour — opens in 1876 in Transylvania, where two sisters, Draguta and Dumitra, live in a secluded castle shrouded by mist. Their family has survived centuries as descendants of vampires, and the villagers nearby are restless. In this place of secrets, one sister has given birth to a baby girl, Antanasia. So begins Rosales’ story that follows the family into the 1900s, to the American South.
The film that began casting in 2013 and is shot in Columbus, Florence, Alabama, and New Orleans is expected to be ready for a public screening in September. In reality, the fantastical tale, Rosales’ fourth film, has roots tracing back to Tampico, Mexico, and a small boy who grew up poor.
After his parents parted when Rosales was only 5, life was filled with challenges.
“My mama was trying to give me the best she could,” he said. “She used to share with me stories at bedtime, ‘once upon a time.’ She was trying to create for me a life that was not existing … “
As a child, Rosales may not have recognized the storytelling seeds that had been planted. But as he grew older, he remembers how occasional outings to a local movie theater where a friend of his father’s worked were a treat. How, when he was only 10 or 11, his imagination was captured by two movies in particular — “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 film with Jimmy Stewart, and “The Horse Soldiers,” a 1959 Civil War-era docudrama with John Wayne.
“When I first came to Columbus, I really loved the city,” Rosales said of his first visit more than three decades ago. “It kind of reminded me of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.'”
Although he spoke little English, Rosales soon settled in Columbus and over time channeled his creativity into learning all he could about photography. It eventually led to making independent films.
“I became a dreamer in many ways,” said the owner of CS Digital Productions LLC, Rosales’ multimedia production business.
Making “La Madame”
Rosales, as director and producer, enlisted the help of his two sons to create a world that reaches from remote Romania to a Southern landscape, from angry villagers to genteel parlors. Son Roberto Rosales, 40, handles shooting, editing and special effects and sound. Christopher Rosales, 30, helped develop the script.
Abby Hathorn portrays the grown-up Antanasia in this tale of other-worldly beings, romance and drama.
“I was so excited, but nervous, too,” said the first-time actress who grew up in Louisville and currently lives in Johnson City, Tennessee. “As we got more done, I became more confident with not only my abilities but the overall process.”
Hathorn’s most challenging task was learning how to “get in character.”
“You can watch movies all day long and say ‘I could be an actress,’ but when the time comes and you have that script in your hand and have to really portray what the director wants, you can’t just memorize lines and say them,” she said. “You have to understand your character on a level beyond what’s written on the lines.”
Towanda Williams of Columbus plays the role of Nana.
“She’s the housekeeper for the family in Transylvania,” explained Williams. “She knows the whole story, the background, and actually raised Antanasia; she the secret-keeper.”
Like the rest of the cast, Williams had no prior acting experience.
“Carlos would sit down with us and say, ‘This is what I need you to do.'” she said. Seeing the big picture form was illuminating for the assistant director of Career Services at Mississippi University for Women.
“The small part you play may be shot at different times, but when it’s all put together, it’s really amazing — it makes you look at movies a little differently.”
Painted Lady, Alabama woods
Jennifer Miller’s Victorian bed and breakfast, The Painted Lady, was a primary Columbus film location. Miller herself is in a scene, shot on the MUW campus, wearing authentic 1890s attire from her personal collection.
“It was all very exciting,” Miller said. “Sometimes we would have guests who would like to watch the filming. It was so interesting to see the characters come to life in my house.”
Patricia (Trish) Shepherd of Columbus portrays a central character — one of the sisters, and Antanasia’s aunt. In an online video she said, “The house is awesome, the perfect place for this … the coloring, the furnishings, they’re just immaculate for the Victorian era.”
For “Romanian” scenes, the film uses members of Zholdak Kozaky, a living history re-enactment group based in Florence. With fiery torches and pitchforks, they create a pivotal segment, shot in an Alabama forest near Wildwood Park. Some of the Florence re-enactors are shooting scenes in Columbus, too. Rosales sees it as something of a cultural exchange.
“If we don’t make it to Hollywood, it doesn’t matter,” he began. “What is important is to draw attention to Columbus and what it has to offer. We are proud of this production and everyone that is involved.”
For the director, working in Florence has sparked yet another story idea he’d like to pursue, one about Helen Keller, whose birthplace is in nearby Tuscumbia, Alabama. Learning about the deaf and blind author, activist and lecturer greatly inspired him.
“She was persistent … and I am persistent,” he smiled.
Carlos Rosales is a dreamer. “But it’s not just my dream,” he told all those assembled for “La Madame” one day during shooting. “We’re going together to dream.”
Editor’s note: For more about the film and announcements about its local screening, visit csdigitalproductions.com or follow at facebook.com/lamadamemovie.