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A touch of “Psycho” in Northeast Wisconsin

Two Rivers filmmaker and actress, Melonie Gartner, opens up about filming in Wisconsin and her Hitchcockian veins

By Freddy Moyano

Photo taken during a film shoot for Gartner’s movie, Breathing Underwater. She hopes her film will help create awareness for domestic abuse

Born in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam, filmmaker and actress, Melonie Gartner spent much of her youth in the Chicago area. 

“Wisconsinites don’t know how lucky they are to live around such beautiful beaches and lakes,” Gartner said.  “Certainly, we have beaches in Chicago, but they are not as clean and quiet as here. I can have peace and quiet to film without hassles.”

Gartner moved to Wisconsin temporarily in 1998, but didn’t settle in the Northeast Wisconsin until 2008. The people she encountered along her filmmaking path, Gartner said, are another part of the reason why she lives in Manitowoc to this day.

“If they know you are making a movie, they are intrigued and want to help out,” Gartner said in reference to Wisconsinites. 

Gartner’s debut filmmaking project, a short film called Two Rivers, came to life in 2014. 

“Two Rivers is a part of the lives of Dirke and Emma (a character she also played in the film), a love story with a twist – the east twin river and west twin river also represent Dirke and Emma,” Gartner said. “These two characters are like two bodies of water that collide.” 

In 2007, while temporarily living in Seattle, Gartner came up with a concept for a low-budget Hitchcockian thriller. 

It’s hard to miss the Hitchcockian influence in all of her films.

“I like to incorporate the Dutch angle,” Gartner said, referring to the filmmaking method to create an off putting feeling in a film scene. Gartner said she is also very fond of the angles Hitchcock uses, especially the bird’s eye view and extreme close-ups. 

Gartner uses his film Psycho as an example. She said the Master of Suspense would often use a rear projection style throughout the film, a technique Gartner applied to her short film Breathing Underwater ( 2021).

Before getting behind the lens as a filmmaker, Gartner was part of a local theater group. 

“I was fortunate to meet and work with many wonderful actors,” Gartner said. 

This influenced her casting process, working with many of the same actors.

“When I felt ready to make films, I knew who to cast as I was already acquainted with many of the actors’ skills and personalities,” said Gartner. 

Gartner also said her origins as an actress predate her filmmaking process. She was introduced to Hollywood films at an early age, she said. Some of her favorite actresses are Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. On the male side, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon she said were some of her top choices. Several of these actors and actresses appeared in Hitchcock films. 

Gartner emphasized the importance of working closely with her crew and obtaining their feedback. 

“I have worked with different editors who have helped me edit my films,” Gartner said. “It’s a different crew each time because it all depends on who is available to help. I write my own scripts and ask the folks involved with the projects or filmmaking friends for their feedback. They are my focus group. I believe that a fresh pair of eyes is very useful as you can be ‘too’ close to your project.” 

And while she is familiar with the phrase “write what you know,” she said she takes her own path and typically steers away from that.

“My projects are not based on my own experiences, but loosely on my mom’s account of her relationship with my dad,” Gartner said. “However, what really prompted me to write the story about Dirke and Emma was a news segment on TV. It included real footage of a husband abusing his wife while their son was filming the abuse.” 

Gartner said she hopes the messages in her films create awareness for domestic abuse. This page-turning concept of trying to break away from one’s past is explored in her film Breathing Underwater.

Filmmaker Melonie Gartner grew up in the Chicago area but moved to Northeast Wisconsin in 1998 and has been making films here ever since.

The immediate future looks busy for Gartner, who is working on the Breathing Underwater sequel. This fourth installment of the Dirk and Emma series begins filming in 2023. The working title is Swept Under. 

“It will keep me busy for the next two years,” Gartner said.

When asked what the future holds ten years from now, Gartner said she can see herself producing more films and even traveling to other countries for her filmmaking. 

“There is a big film market in Asia I’d like to explore.” Gartner said.

While none of her projects are on any stream-on-demand services, Breathing Underwater will screen online at the Door County Short Film Festival (next week) and at the Film Girl Film Festival in Milwaukee (March, also online).  All three films of the Emma and Dirke saga will screen in front of a live audience at the Portage Center for the Arts in April.

Freddy Moyano is a film critic as well as an award-winning filmmaker and actor. He was raised in Madrid, Spain and moved to Wisconsin in 2002. He has called Green Bay home ever since.

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