In Production: An Austin Love Letter to L.A.
Anna Margaret Hollyman on taking her vows as Sister Aimee
When it comes to her new film, Sister Aimee, it's a somewhat relaxing time for Austin actress and filmmaker Anna Margaret Hollyman. Having wrapped shooting earlier this summer, now it's in editing, with the aim of being ready for next spring's festival season. But she's still deeply involved in the true-crime religious mystery she set in motion.
This period mystery may be a California story, but Austin's filmmaking fingerprints are all over this crime scene. Aside from Hollyman and producer Bettina Barrow, the cast includes a coterie of recognizable ATX talents, including Lee Eddy (Mustang Island), Macon Blair (Blue Ruin), Nathan Zellner (Damsel), Blake DeLong (Thank You a Lot), and comedian John Merriman. Plus, three of the four weeks of shooting took place on location in Austin. "We got really generous support from Austin," said Barrow.
Hollyman got to know California-based writer/director duo Samantha Buck and Marie Schlingmann when she worked on their Dallas-set short, "The Mink Catcher." The trio bonded as former New Yorkers living in L.A. That's when Hollyman told them about a friend who lived in a former Pentecostal church on Sunset Boulevard, which was founded by an off-shoot of the Foursquare Church, which led to her telling them about Foursquare's founder: the remarkable and fascinating Sister Aimee McPherson. Hollyman said, "It was very traditional for the male evangelical leaders to be all fire and brimstone, you're going to hell if you don't repent. She would say, 'Let's not talk about hell. That's no fun. Let's talk about heaven.'"
McPherson's religious vision changed the map of L.A. – literally. When she built the Angelus Temple, which Hollyman called "America's first megachurch," in the then-underdeveloped Echo Park, construction soon followed with housing for the congregants that would fill the 5,300-capacity church three times a day. During the Great Depression, McPherson fed and clothed more needy people than the Los Angeles welfare system. And she understood the power of spectacle, holding massive events with incredible sets – a little dash of Hollywood in her East L.A. sermons. Hollyman described her as "America's first media star. She harnessed the radio, she harnessed the news reel. She wasn't a Hollywood starlet. She was a single mother with two children, and she packed up her kids, left her second husband, took her mom, and they drove across the country in a Model A. They did tent revivals, and built an empire."
But what fascinated Hollyman was a bizarre incident in 1926. McPherson disappeared while out for a swim off Santa Monica, and everyone presumed she drowned. But five weeks later she suddenly appeared 600 miles away on the Mexican side of the border in Arizona with a wild story about being kidnapped. "She maintained this story until her dying day," Hollyman said. "She ended up taking it, making it a live one-woman show, and touring around the world."
Hollyman told Buck and Schlingmann that story in 2016: By January 2017, the duo delivered the first draft of the script. Fitting the craziness of the story, Hollyman called it "a dark, screwball comedy that turns into a Western that turns into a musical." Plus, she said, "I just unintentionally manipulated them into writing me a lead part."
That's around when Barrow came aboard as producer, and Hollyman saw that as the turning point for getting the movie made. She said, "Bettina pulled the production in less than a year."
"As did Anna Margaret, as did Sam and Marie [and producers David Hartstein and Katherine Harper]," said Barrow, refusing to take the all the credit. "The way we raised the money was insane. It was, 'Hi, it's nice to meet you. Can I have $50,000? 10? Five? OK, just give me a thousand dollars.' It was very grassroots."