Filmmaker weathers storms, heads to Cannes

Sometimes just 12 minutes — if it’s a really special 12 minutes — can be enough to change a life. That was certainly the case for New Orleans filmmaker Amanda Pennington.

Twelve minutes is the length of the first film she ever wrote or directed. Born of a passion to get out and “just shoot something,” this little film, titled “Lillian,” has transformed Pennington from a young actress with big dreams into a real life movie director with a Cannes Film Festival under her belt.

“The film was inspired by this poem that I just love by Edna St. Vincent Millay called ‘What Lips My Lips Have Kissed,’ ” Pennington said. “I could just picture this older woman remembering back through the loves in her life, and I just started writing.”

A period film set in 1940, “Lillian” begins with an older woman (played by Tony nominee Kathleen Chalfant) sitting on a bench remembering her youth and the lost love of her life, a woman named Frances.

Narrated over the film are the haunting words of Millay’s poem, the final line of which is, “I cannot say what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more.”

The story of how Pennington made the film, however, could have itself made a good movie — one with a happier ending.

The setting: New York City and New Orleans.

The plot: A young actress chasing her dream of breaking into film decides to write a script. With the help of some great friends and a lot of determination, she manages to make that script into a movie, serving as not only writer, but producer, actor and director.

Then the news comes, and it’s better than any rookie filmmaker could hope for. She’s done it. Pennington’s film has been chosen as one of 300 American short films to be accepted at the famed Cannes Film Festival.

Cut to the final scene: Pennington parading down the red carpet at Cannes, radiant with joy, waving enthusiastically to photographers while dressed in a long elegant gown.

All of this is true; on the strength of her first film, Pennington attended the festival at Cannes in May.

But as with any happy ending, the real story lies in all the bumps along the way.

For one, the day before they were supposed to start shooting, Hurricane Irene hit New York.

After a short delay, Pennington and a handful of industry friends completed two days of shooting.

However, with the film only half done, funding ran out and personal issues forced Pennington home to Houston.

“I was devastated, but I knew, no matter what, I had to finish the film,” Pennington said. “I owed that to everyone.”

Eventually her fortunes changed and she was offered a job as a yoga teacher in New Orleans.

“I was able to raise the money to continue the film and fly everyone down here,” Pennington said.

Then, two weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin, Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans.

Again, undaunted, Pennington was eventually assured there would be power and their location was OK. It looked like “Lillian” was finally going to have its ending.

“We finished shooting at the Southdown Plantation in Houma,” Pennington said. “We had complete run of the house for two days. It was incredible.”

The film wrapped and was sent back to New York, where another of Pennington’s friends would begin work on post production.

Then, you guessed it: Another hurricane hit.

While Hurricane Sandy stormed the Eastern seaboard, the final edits and touches were made to “Lillian.”

Meanwhile, Pennington had enrolled as an undergraduate at Tulane, studying to get her bachelor’s degree in humanities.

In fact, even in the midst of hobnobbing with industry elites at Cannes, she returned to her rented apartment to finish work for her online summer school classes.

Though Pennington got her happy ending, she’s far from letting the credits roll. Her plans include becoming a college graduate and writing and directing another short film — this one about terrorism in Algeria.

She’s also anxiously awaiting yet another acceptance, this one into the New Orleans film festival this fall.

“Now that would be really incredible,” Pennington says.