Prescott-based writer Mikki Russ shared with 5enses how she came to her newest venture: “Out to Lunch,” an upcoming film featuring another local, performer and 1970s singing sensation Toni Tennille.
By Mikki Russ
When I decided to do this film, I hadn’t decided to do this film.
Let me backup. My friend Mike introduced me to Toni Tennille. THE Toni Tennille from Captain and Tennille! Mike meets for coffee about once a week with his friend group, and I tagged along. I am decidedly not a morning person.
“This is my friend Mikki,” Mike said to Toni. “She’s a playwright.”
Now he wasn’t wrong. I had written a few short plays for various reasons, in a handful of settings. But he wasn’t exactly right either. I had no large, glitzy production under my belt. I had written a short play that was featured in the Female Playwrights Festival, as a semi-finalist, two years prior. I had been a featured playwright for the Protest Plays Project with a three-month residency. I was proud of those things for sure, but still…
There it hung. “My friend Mikki … the playwright.”
Toni radiates sunshine. It just embraces you. She pulled out a chair and sidled up next to me. “Nice to meet you. You know what you should write? A play for a woman my age to star in.” She said as she smiled sweetly at me.
“I can do that.” I nodded dumbly, holding my coffee. Shook.
And, I did. I had a short script ready for her two weeks later. I clutched it into Mike’s hands, “Give this to Toni. I hope she likes it.”
I wrote the script after overhearing a young woman talking to her friends at dinner. She was complaining about feminists to three men and talking about her job and school schedule. Her job. Her school schedule. I was flabbergasted. How did she reckon she got the right to educate herself and also be gainfully employed? Rights that fell out of Humanity’s Feel-Good Pinata onto her lap?
I cornered a friend of mine a tad older than myself. “Hey, Katie. What was it like for a woman in the 50s?”
“Well, I worked at the post office. They told me that I was being passed over for a promotion because a man wanted it, and he was the head of a household, so he needed it more.” I sucked air in through my teeth and made that hissing sound of being stung. “And I couldn’t buy a house because I didn’t have a husband.” That led to a lot of silent nodding. The nod that shows you’re processing things with burning coal in your chest. I took that burning coal and set it on my keyboard.
Mike came to me several days later. “Toni really liked it. She wants to know what you’re going to do with it?”
My mouth went dry. “That is what I was going to do with it. I did the thing I said I was going to do.”
Mike fidgeted with his paperwork. “But…seriously, what are you gonna do with it?”
I was in a tidal wave of panic. I emailed the script immediately to my mentor.
The correspondence looked exactly like this: “Girl. I need you to read this and say words. I wrote this for Toni Tennille and now she wants to know what I am going to do with this. Please advise.”
Click “Attachment.” Click “Send.” Commence pacing the floor.
Tiffany didn’t take long to reply. “I love it. You need to make this a short film.”
Yeah, I could put that on my list of aspirations right under, ‘Get That Skateboarding Trick Down’ and ‘Rebuild A Transmission.’
“I don’t know how to make movies!”
“A few years ago you didn’t think you could write plays either,” she said.
I had, in fact, written professionally before. In an old incarnation of myself, I wrote, executed and performed original pieces for broadcast, using an on-air name. So not all was foreign, but it was looming.
I said a little prayer. “Hey, God, haha, funny thing about today, but I can’t make a movie all by myself, so you’re gonna have to, you know, do God stuff.”
That night He threw someone in my path that I only knew in passing, from church no less. She was eating out where I was. Deb Gallegos had a whole film production company, “Make A Scene Productions” that I didn’t know about. We discussed my project, and she agreed to help.
“It’s a little…provocative, Deb. Let me send you the script before you agree to consult.”
“Bah. We don’t have to have the same politics. Us chicas gotta stick together,” she told me. I loved this collaboration.
I ran into a producer I knew from the theater at a party. “Hey, John… if I wanted to make a short film, who would be the guy with the camera and the editing skills?”
“Robert Zinni,” he declared.
“Good to know.”
We clicked immediately, Mr. Zinni and I, clacking on his laptop and sipping coffee at Wild Iris in Prescott. Robert had been making independent shorts for a few years. His thing is puppetry and stop motion animation. He sent me his short “Otto and Buchanan.” Smooth production work. I finally breathed a sigh of relief. It was happening.
The short film I made is called “Out To Lunch.” It stars Toni Tennille, Julie Cargill and Trisha Tracy. I wanted to explore this idea that feminism is somehow a dirty word. And it’s 20-freaking-19. Who littered on the word feminism? Pick up your trash people! You have daughters, and wives…and probably a mother!
The film is set at El Gato Azul, and it centers around three women coming to terms with today’s standards of feminism, and the wild, crazy, idea that we girls should all have each other’s six.
Oh, and there’s the whole Triple X scene.
Am I being funny? Maybe. I hope to see you at a film festival soon.
Follow Mikki Russ on ig @blackduchessproductions