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September 23, 2010

If we could read every text message, Twitter feed, or message on Facebook from our kids, we might be able to partially uncover the “secret life of the American teenager.” But would we know the real fears, uncertainties, and unpredictable emotions behind all the shorthand?  I know my children and some of their friends are on my Facebook friends list, but I can’t translate much of their abbreviated language and scattered emotions behind their messages.

I do, however, know that Marlee, my 15-year old daughter, is very creative like her parents, writes and sings songs, plays acoustic guitar, is a good photographer, and likes acting, especially for films and TV. She enjoyed her acting class last year and wanted to try out for any available parts for teens. Even though Detroit is supposed to be the “next Hollywood,” the pickings after her 15th birthday in February seemed very slim for teens, except music video crowd shots or being an extra. Still, that didn’t stop Marlee and her mom from searching the Internet, and uncovering an independent movie in search of a promising high school actress. The writer-director, Mike Sneed ( was a musician and song writer who had been writing scripts and music for independent films. The title for his new film, Butterfly Kisses, was promising and Marlee asked us to sign her up to audition for the role of Nikki.

We couldn’t foresee Michigan weather in February but Marlee really wanted to try out and we didn’t want to disappoint her. So my wife, Judy, and I gave ourselves lots of time to reach the Canton audition but snow mixed with freezing rain started falling and we had to get off I-275. I didn’t want an accident on the way to the audition, so we turned on the GPS, tried Haggerty and slid our way past signs covered with snow, while having a tense driving argument as my blood pressure rose.  If we actually made it there, I thought, it better be worth the treacherous drive. But we finally reached the Canton Civic Center, a half hour late, and Mike, the director with long white hair, thanked us for coming and said that many of the other kids cancelled their auditions.

Mike warned us the movie was very personal and “heavy” and possibly too intense for parents but when Marlee read the try-out scenes, she really wanted the role and thought it was “perfect” for her. I hoped that meant she was drawn to sad and serious subjects just like her father and not that she was so similar to the lead character. Judy and I thought, however, we’d rather Marlee act the role than live it and hopefully, that would be it. The audition was about two hours long and Marlee felt she gave a strong, emotional reading and Mike admitted she brought tears to his eyes. On the way home, Marlee received on her Blackberry phone a “time capsule” written to herself five years earlier, telling future 15-year-old Marlee to hold on to her dreams. We could only think, was this meant to be?

Marlee was called back for a second audition in early March when I was out of town for a business meeting. Judy was afraid to drive back to Canton, worried about another helping of ice, and asked my father to join her. Maybe he could be the good luck charm who would help Marlee get the role. Again, Marlee seemed to perform well and became one of two finalists. But the month of March was a painful one for Marlee’s mom as Judy’s father, Max, went from Henry Ford Hospital to Danto Health Care Center to Beaumont Hospital to Fox Run and back to Henry Ford Hospital, becoming more ill by the week, while we waited for word from Mike about Marlee. He knew she was inexperienced but it seemed that he had a strong gut feeling that her intense passion was right for the role.

Marlee was absolutely thrilled when she found out that she got the part. Her parents, siblings, grandmothers, and grandfathers, Papa Milt and Zadeh Max, were excited as well. Zadeh Max was still conscious and happy when he heard the news, although he would never see the movie as he died during the last week of March.

The next few months of readings at Oakland University and filming, mostly at the sprawling Stonegate Farm (flanked by buildings filled with tractors and historical collections,) went fast. When we learned that the place we were filming had the same name as our home street, we again felt that this was “meant to be.” Judy and I drove Marlee wherever she needed to go, watched some scenes as they were filmed, had a cameo ourselves, enjoyed some laughs and food with the cast and crew over a few months, and waited anxiously for the final product.

A few months later, our family and a couple of Marlee’s friends, joined 30 others in a small darkened room in the middle of Southfield in September for a viewing, unsure what to expect. Mike Sneed, the musician, writer, and director, booked the room to show his newest movies, The Mesmer, influenced by a Edgar Allen Poe story, and Butterfly Kisses, a simple, touching story about a family heartbroken by miscommunication and the secret sadness that many children carry which parents often fail to notice.

I was nervous, not knowing what to expect from a movie shot on a real “shoestring” budget. No union members, no salaries, no marketing budget, everything shot in Michigan by Michigan actors, most working other jobs, hoping to make acting their full time careers. What was great was that these were people giving up their time and their creativity to realistically tell a good story as well as they could.  It seemed to me that this was the true essence of filmmaking. Who needs computer imagery or fancy special effects or hundreds of crew members when you’re just trying to tell a thoughtful, heartfelt story about ordinary people?

Butterfly Kisses is, according to Mike, “a tragic story of a girl coming of age in a family and world that has lost the ability to communicate.” It features the relationship between a teenage girl and her parents and the disconnections between all three. The relationship between Nikki’s father and mother is scarred although the love between the mother/daughter and the father/daughter seem real and honest. The dialogue is simple, moving, and often tense, filled with regrets about this lost family, often lost to each other. The title comes from a scene in which Nikki and her dad reminisce about butterfly kisses they once shared before bedtime, contrasted with the underlying sadness of a teenage girl, now more like a broken butterfly. The haunting music written by Mike himself helps join the scenes together and sets the plaintive tone.

What struck me hardest was my uncomfortable similarity with Nikki’s father, Jake. I related strongly to him because I also have a hard time talking with my kids, often fumbling around for the right words or more often, staying silent. Like Nikki’s father, I often get caught up in television shows and have difficulty having a good, honest conversation, especially with my youngest. The raw strength of the movie is its power to bring out such an inconvenient truth.

It was often hard keeping my eyes dry, especially sitting next to my mother-in-law, only a few months after the loss of her husband, and my parents, unable to forget the loss of their son and my brother, Kenny, at age 13, even though it had been 28 years since the car accident. Watching a daughter and granddaughter in a tragic film is hard enough but amidst a backdrop of real loss, it’s even harder. When my father asked Mike what was the inspiration behind the film, Mike admitted that his brother died tragically, “probably suicide,” and his family was, like Nikki’s, dysfunctional and broken.

I may be prejudiced but I thought the performances by Robert Maples, Anne Klauke, and Marlee were first rate, believable, often understated, and emotionally powerful. It was obvious that Mike Sneed was pleased with the movie and very proud of all the actors. He could barely speak when he thanked all the actors and crew for giving up their time and efforts to help create his film.

When will others be able to see the movie? Probably not for awhile. Mike is sending it to film festivals and admits its length, 47 minutes, is too long for a short movie and too short for a feature film, so he may cut and submit again or lengthen and submit as a feature length movie. As is, the film may be used to help parents discuss dealing with their troubled teenagers, possibly shown in schools, or for social workers and psychologists working with troubled families. I think there is a future for Butterfly Kisses although I’m not exactly sure how it will evolve.

One of my favorite books was John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which I read before I had kids, but one I still remember for its intense atmosphere of loss and the heartbreaking frailness of families. “In increments both measurable and not,” John Irving wrote in Until I Find You, “our childhood is stolen from us — not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.” We grow old too quickly, our children grow up too fast, and we forget too many of the small moments, which adds up to the same loss. Now, after sharing a 25th anniversary with Judy, our youngest child is now 15, soon to get her driver’s license, and acting in a movie.

Judy used to share butterfly kisses with Marlee when she was young and I remember sitting by Marlee’s bedside, helping her finally fall asleep when ominous fears kept her awake. Now, what I have besides memory is pride, seeing my daughter excel in a movie. I also remember the old popular song by Bob Carlisle and Randy Thomas with the same title as the movie and can hear the lyrics that haunt every parent:

Oh with all that I’ve done wrong, I must of done something right/ To deserve a hug every morning, and butterfly kisses at night…. She asks me what I’m thinking, and I said I’m not sure. I just feel like I’m losing my baby girl, and she leaned over… I know I gotta let her go, but I’ll always remember…Every hug in the morning, and butterfly kisses.

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  1. Kathy Crawford permalink

    Arnie, thank you so very much for that poignant account of past history and current pride in your family, and for expressing how happy you are for your youngest, Marlee. She did an outstanding job in “Butterfly Kisses”, and I am so happy to know you all and to have been a part of this wonderful movie. Your thoughtfulness and eloquence has moved me, and again, I thank you for your effort. It’s been a pleasure.

  2. aggman permalink

    Thank you.

  3. anne klauke permalink

    Thank you Arnie for sharing your personal walk through the process of making this film. I agree, as a parent, it is a very difficult and uncomfortable subject and commend you and Judy for giving such huge support to Marlee and all of us to bring a very important message of awareness to the surface. I believe that we were all deeply affected in this process. I too am very grateful to know all of you and to have been involved in telling this very moving story. Thank you.

  4. it sounds like a look inside the minds of your teen-Ager and parents. If we only knew or know to understand our feelings and our children,it would be wonderful. What a chancel! It would bring parents and our children closer together. I am not sure that this could or will happen. I hope so.

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