Decoding Annie Parker: Veteran DP Steven Bernstein Takes the Helm

 Decoding Annie Parker marks the feature film directing debut of long-time indie cinematographer Steven Bernstein, ASC, who has over 40 cinematography credits, beginning with Conspiracy in 1989.

Decoding Annie Parker takes audiences on an intimate journey based on the real life experiences of two women, who live in parallel worlds. Bernstein was attracted to the story because he was looking to direct a film about something important, explaining:

I asked agents to send me scripts. One of the scripts was about Annie Parker. The script was written by Dr. Michael Moss, a physician who believed it is important for her story to be told. Annie was 13 years old when breast cancer claimed her mother’s life. Her older sister later lost a battle with ovarian cancer. Annie subsequently survived three breast cancer operations.

decoding annie parker

Bernstein contacted Dr. Moss and Annie Parker. After a heartfelt discussion, they gladly accepted his offer to rewrite the script. Bernstein was assisted in that endeavor by his son Adam.

The second woman is Mary-Clare King, a geneticist who spent years searching for a reliable early clue that women will be afflicted with breast cancer. In 1992, she discovered that women with the BRCA1 gene in their DNA are likely to develop breast cancer. King subsequently discovered that the BRCA2 gene in DNA signals ovarian cancer is likely to occur.

To Bernstein, Decoding Annie Parker is a story about faith, hope, and survival during challenging times. It took Bernstein five years to raise the funds needed to produce the film:

Everyone involved believed in the story. Their heartfelt support enabled us to produce Decoding Annie Parker in 35 mm anamorphic format with a $2 million budget. When we added up the numbers, we found that two perf 35 MM film was affordable. We used the 2.4:1 aspect to visually augment the drama. We used empty spaces to show alienation and sadness. I also wanted a dynamic frame that I could move things across.

The team that he assembled shared his enthusiasm. For example, he credits casting director Venus Kanani with recruiting Helen Hunt and Samantha Morton to portray Mary-Clare King and Annie Parker. Finding the perfect cinematographer was equally as important to Bernstein. Pondering the selection process, Bernstein reflects:

I interviewed four or five cinematographers. Each of them had a different vision. My best work has always been inspired by a director, who gave me a rough outline and shared their vision. Then, they would step back and let me make the biggest possible creative contributions that I could. I wanted that type of collaboration with a cinematographer, so I turned to Ted Hayash, who was a gaffer and camera operator on many films I shot during the past 15 years.

decoding annie parker

Decoding Annie Parker was produced in Whittier, California in a former youth detention center, which had fallen into disrepair. The state government allowed them to use it free of charge. All the interior scenes were filmed in one building, and exterior footage was shot on the grounds around it.

Because Decoding Annie Parker begins during the 1960s and concludes early in the 1990s, Bernstein and his production designer Rob Howeth agreed “that it was essential for audiences to intuitively recognize a visual grammar for each period rather than using sub-titles.”

Bernstein continues, “That’s a visceral experience for them. The costumes, use of colors, composition and everything else they see on the screen tells them what time period we are in. We started with very desaturated colors, kind of a goldish green, and gradually created richer tones as the story progressed.”

They covered the action with a single Panavision Gold camera with spherical lenses and recorded images on a range of Fuji color negative films. About the production process, Bernstein comments:

I have learned over the years that it doesn’t matter if actors follow the script word by word. I told them to trust their instincts. I wasn’t concerned about precision. Every day, we would find ways to make intuitive changes in blocking, performances, composition and lighting that enhances the story. An actor would land in a spot we hadn’t anticipated. We knew that on the second take we could make it magical.

DeLuxe laboratory processed the negative and provided DVD dailies. Bernstein and Hayash began each day by spending around 30 minutes watching dailies together and discussing whether the images were right for the mood and time period.

Bernstein explored new territory in the initial release of Decoding Annie Parker by partnering with applicable non-profit organizations. On the nature of these partnerships, Bernstein explains:

I describe it as an altruistic window. I reached out to six charities. We are splitting revenues for screenings with them. It began on April 2 with a sold-out screening at the Directors Guild of America theater in Manhattan in collaboration with the American Cancer Society. We went on to Toronto, Dallas, and other cities. Annie Parker has been traveling to the charity screenings and participating in press interviews in different cities. The charities want to schedule screenings in about 50 cities. It looks like we’ll raise a couple of million dollars for them while getting a lot of positive press.

A general cinema release of Decoding Annie Parker is expected this fall. Bernstein hopes that it will educate and inspire women and their physicians to use the DNA research done by King to ensure early treatment.

There may be a formidable barrier, however. The front page of the April 26-May 2 edition of the Guardian Weekly newspaper featured an in-depth story about a U.S. corporation named Myriad Genetics that is patenting the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. If successful, Myriad Genetics plans on charging a fee as high as $4,000 to conduct a test to determine whether or not a woman’s DNA indicates that she is likely to be afflicted with breast or ovarian cancer.

The journalist, who wrote the story, predicts that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately determine whether it is legal for a corporation to patent BRCA1, BRCA2 or any other genes. So stay tuned — this could inspire Bernstein to produce Decoding Annie Parker: Part 2.

UPDATE — on June 12th, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that genes cannot be patented. In response to the news, Director Steven Bernstein commented, “Decoding Annie Parker is about many things, faith, hope, irony, humor and what sustains us in crisis. It is also about the BRCA gene. This is a huge and momentous day, not just for women, but for all of us. We are proud to have played a very small part in this very big drama.” 

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