If you had the chance to really find out ALL of your spouse or partner’s secret thoughts or actions, would you do it? That’s the dilemma facing Emmy-award winning actress Carrie Preston and three others who spend an unusual Halloween night together in “Vino Veritas.” Director Sarah Knight’s exploration of the inhibitions and frustrations of these two couples in this new release is now available on VOD and iTunes.
Preston plays Claire, the sheltered and under-achieving wife of her physician husband Ridley (Bernard White) who finds one of her few delights in life at the community’s annual Halloween costume party. When Claire and Bernard arrive at the home of friends Lauren and Phil (actors Heather Raffo and Brian Hutchison), she is fully attired in her Queen Elizabeth I dress. But the couples never make it to the party, instead deciding to sample a Peruvian wine brewed from the skins of blue dart tree frogs. If ever there was a time when the term “truth serum” applies to alcohol, it was cinematically evident on this film.
“The story was originally from a play done at the Purple Rose Theater in Michigan,” Preston told me during an interview from her home in New York. “It’s the theater Jeff Daniels started, and a wonderful regional theater. Sarah’s mother saw it first and just loved it, and kept encouraging Sarah to take a look at it and consider it as a film.”
Knight, whose previous work was mostly on documentaries, worked with David MacGregor, the screenwriter and playwright of the story, to develop her narrative feature debut.
“We filmed right here in my hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska,” she said during our interview. “We got a lot of great things by doing that, including being well fed because my parents did the cooking and handled craft services. That made the heat and long hours (the film was made in July in a home without air conditioning, and in just 12 days of shooting) a bit more palatable. And the cast was great, real troopers. Carrie’s dress weighed 30 pounds and she had to wear it throughout the film.”
For Preston, best known for her roles in The Good Wife (for which she won the Emmy) and True Blood, she found the role of Claire to be “a great acting exercise, playing a person who has this shell that she wears when she’s out in the world. In the course of the film, that shell gets broken, and you get to see all the wishes and the vulnerable and the funny and exciting contents within her. The real self comes out. It was fun and ultimately a poignant journey with this character, and I was able to get on board with that.”
Raffo is best known as the writer and solo performer of the Off Broadway hit, 9 Parts of Desire, which details the lives of nine Iraqi women. Her character, Lauren, was the one Knight was most drawn towards.
“Much like me, she is an incredibly forthright person who expects those around her to follow suit,” Knight said in the film’s press notes. “This is a story in which, thanks to the effects of a tribal concoction, the characters are stripped of the carefully composed social masks they have diligently fashioned for themselves. The superficial veneer of what passes for civilization is peeled away, layer by layer, to reveal not just personal quirks and secrets, but the primal core that drives so much of our behavior as human beings. Whether the subject is children, faith, sex, death, or the drives and desires that are hardwired into our DNA, this is, finally, a film about what it means to be human.”
As the blue dart tree frog wine takes effect, secrets are revealed, though to lighten the mood a bit, Lauren asks each character to tell what their last meal on Earth would be. So I posed that question to Preston and Knight.
“A Thanksgiving dinner,” Preston said, “Southern style. Turkey, squash casserole, green beans with salt pork and biscuits. That delicious comfort food that congers up all my memories of Thanksgiving, which is my favorite holiday.”
For Knight, the final feast would simply be “fried chicken livers, which is a Nebraska delicacy. I’m here with the parents now and I’ve been eating a lot of them recently.”
The next obvious question was this: Put into a situation like these four characters in “Vino Veritas,” would either of them risk opening up their souls by drinking the wine?
“I don’t know—maybe,” replied Preston, who is married to actor Michael Emerson (Person of Interest). “We’re both pretty comfortable with each other, and we’ve been together for almost 20 years. But I also think that one thing that’s great about long term relationships is that there’s still mystery. There’s still things about Michael that I don’t know and I love and relish finding those things out as we talk. Part of me wouldn’t want to mess that up—to get it all at once.”
“I don’t have much of a filter anyway,” Knight said with a laugh. “I don’t think there’d be much difference—me being on truth serum. I’m always interested in what people think, but I don’t necessarily want to know what they think about me. That’d be my only hesitation.”
“I’m very proud of this film,” Preston said. “I think it’s such an interesting study of marriage and relationships and telling the truth.”
“I’ve had the chance to tour with the film a bit at festivals,” Knight said. “I do think it resonates, but every audience is so different. There are certain lines that get laughs, and others that get a silent reaction. It’s sort of a Rorschach test for the audiences, to see what they get and what they don’t. There’s a lot to relate to there, and I hope it inspires conversations between couples and friends.”
By Tom Haraldsen