Class Divisions Drive ‘The Maid’s Room’

“The Maid’s Room” engages a topical and inflammatory subject — immigration
Michael Walker, writer and director of “The Maid’s Room”

    Three minutes into Michael Walker’s film “The Maid’s Room,” Drina, a young, undocumented immigrant from Colombia, arrives in the Hamptons for a summer job as a maid for a wealthy white couple with a teenage son. The Lobster Grille Inn and Main Street in Southampton make fleeting appearances before Drina and her boyfriend arrive at an imposingly gated property. “It’s Drina. The maid. Remember?” she says nervously to the speakerphone. The gates open, and the drive leads to the Crawfords’ sprawling home. The gulf between Drina’s world and that of her employers is so dramatic, one suspects the story won’t end happily.

    “The Maid’s Room” was filmed in Bellport in 18 days in June 2012, but was a long time in the making. “I began working on the script more than 10 years ago,” said Mr. Walker, who wrote and directed the film. “Over those years, the script became much more layered. What started as a conventional ghost story evolved into a more subtle exploration of guilt and suspense, and power versus truth.” Financed by a private investor, the film cost $700,000.

    Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Walker grew up in Miami. After graduating from the department of film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and studying at the Stella Adler Conservatory for Acting in Los Angeles, he settled in Bellport, where he lived for 12 years before moving last year to New York City. His first feature film was “Chasing Sleep,” a psychological thriller starring Jeff Daniels that won the Jury Grand Prize at the Sweden Fantastic Film Festival in 2001. His second film, “Price Check,” a comedy headlined by Parker Posey, debuted at Sundance in 2012.

    “The Maid’s Room” engages a topical and inflammatory subject — immigration. While Mr. Walker acknowledges that anti-immigrant sentiment is a national issue, he wanted to treat it by focusing on a single family. Why the Hamptons? “Talking about class in America is really difficult,” he said. “To talk about class you have to go a little bit to extremes. That’s one of the reasons I picked the Hamptons. It is a beautiful and unique place, where the higher levels of wealth and power could be looked at in a realistic setting. There was a contrast between the beauty of their surroundings and the horror of the film that I thought was important.”

    Mr. Walker avoids the broad brush. There are no luxury shops, no Ferraris, no glitterati. Indeed, by confining the action almost entirely to the Crawford home, the film establishes that it is not strictly a “Hamptons” story, but a study of class divisions that could take place anywhere. The parents, played by Bill Camp and Annabella Sciorra, are rendered with dimensionality, even as their actions toward Drina, portrayed by Paula Garces, turn malevolent. Their son Brandon, who is preparing to start Princeton after the summer — thanks to his father’s wealth and influence — seems at first a typically shallow, spoiled rich boy, but his character, too, develops in unexpected ways.

    Asked about the social consciousness of the film, Mr. Walker said, “It’s hard to find a balance between hitting people over the head with an issue and skirting it altogether. So you shoot a lot more footage than you need. Then, in the editing room, you realize you already made this or that point, and you cut it.”

    Casting presented challenges. “I was worried we wouldn’t be able to find a maid, but Paula was fantastic. It was especially hard to cast Mr. Crawford. The script went to some ‘name’ actors, but none of them wanted to play a bad guy. Bill Camp created a complex character out of someone who could have been two-dimensional.”

    Mr. Walker’s interest in film began early. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor. And I always wrote things. Directing is hard to do all the time because you don’t get many opportunities. But you can write anywhere.” As a result, his years in Bellport were devoted mostly to writing, but as his children got older — they are now 8 and 13 — and he wanted to do more directing, the move to New York City became necessary.

    Asked if he would consider an offer to make a big-budget film with A-list actors, Mr. Walker said, “I’m not ‘proudly’ independent. I would do a big film in part because it would enable me to make other, more personal, films.” Mr. Walker is less than enthusiastic about the current state of independent film. “The term ‘independent film’ has come to mean a certain type of film, which is now expected to be star-driven. This definition is limiting because it excludes a lot of other films, such as low-budget genre films, that are also independent but don’t fit the industry’s current definition of the term.”

    Mr. Walker’s next film, produced, like “The Maid’s Room,” by Dolly Hall, is “The Revolution of Jenny Speck,” a thriller about a young woman hired as the teen editor of a women’s magazine, only to discover that the magazine is part of a global conspiracy of thought control.

    “The Maid’s Room” will screen Saturday at 8 p.m. at the East Hampton Cinema, and Monday, 5:45 p.m., at the Southampton Cinema.

Paula Garces, left, who plays Drina, and Annabella Sciorra, her employer, Mrs. Crawford, in a scene from “The Maid’s Room”