Tiffany Tenille is a phenomenal woman. She is an actress (as displayed in Numa Perrier’s “Jezebel”), writer and an emerging filmmaker. We were so honored to host the Chicago premiere of her first film, “Albion Rose,” at our film festival this past spring. She was awarded the Cinema Femme 2023 Phenomenal Person Award, because really, she is phenomenal. I should know, because I chose her for this award! She is the fifth recipient of the award, following Veronica Miles (August 2020), Katrine Weber (February 2021), Anna Fredrikke Bjerke (April 2021), and Mazdey Snob (April/May 2022). I’ve been trekking through this piece slowly over the past couple months because it has been my fuel for my other work with Cinema Femme. Tiffany is the embodiment of our collective spirit, and her passion for film and her work is infectious. She is one to watch. This interview is structured differently than my past interviews. I sat with our interview for a bit and wrote my recent reflections of our conversation.
Following our 2023 festival (April 28 – May 4), Tiffany recently premiered her short “Albion Rose” at MoMA as part of the The Future of Film is Female series, and will be screening her short again as part of the series in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque on July 23rd, 2023. Get your tickets here.
“Tiffany Tenille is an actress, writer, and filmmaker who finds beauty in seemingly idyllic worlds with an undercurrent of darkness. Her work often reflects the redemptive coming-of-age journey of young women on the cusp of mental collapse, explored in her latest project, ‘Albion Rose'”–Excerpt from Tiffany Tenille’s bio shared on tiffanytenille.com
This past weekend, I was walking through downtown Oak Park, and I couldn’t help recalling my conversation with Tiffany, who grew up in the suburb near the West Side of Chicago. “I love seemingly idyllic worlds,” she told me. “I’m obsessed with worlds where beauty lies on the surface, and is seen as perfection. There are no scratches, there is just perfection. I like finding the darkness, and the ugliness, beneath these surfaces. I’m always fascinated by that because I was raised in Oak Park. It seems like perfection, like a doll house. Everything is so well put together.”
As I walked around Oak Park, I saw the manicured lawns, and the gorgeous Victorian vintage homes all perfectly placed in relation to one another. I couldn’t help thinking of films like “American Beauty,” “The Truman Show,” “Pleasantville,” and even last year’s “Don’t Worry Darling,” directed by Olivia Wilde, that evoked 1975’s very underrated “The Stepford Wives,” starring Katherine Ross. And we cannot forget the series “Twin Peaks” to boot. Tiffany’s work has tapped into all of that, but through a fairy tale lens. She continued about her home town, “The lawns are perfect with perfect houses, and everyone is so beautiful. There is darkness within that, and you can see the dark and ugly if you go behind closed doors, if you go deeper. I had a very, very dark childhood. But the beauty was my savior, and my escape. This is why I like to tell fairy tales.”
You see this in “Albion Rose” with two sisters living in this fantasy world, these adult women wearing white petticoats, drinking tea, and playing with dolls. But we see this fantasy start to chip away, and then emerges some horror elements. I mentioned to Tiffany that as much as the Disney films can seem enchanting, they don’t feel real, at all. I had recently watched Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” (1989) with my husband Matt, and Ursula is scary, but in a cartoonish way, and in the end the girl, gets the prince. There are also some upbeat songs that weave through the film like, “Kiss the Girl,” and “Part of Your World,” which are pretty amazing. But in the fairy tales that Tiffany explores, the darkness bubbling underneath is almost more comforting to me, because that reflects tones of our reality.
Tiffany shared with me that fairy tales started out for adults. “I did a deep dive into fairy tales because of my fascination with it. If I’m not mistaken, it started out as storytelling for adults with the Grimm Brothers.” I did a little digging myself after our conversation and learned that the Grimm Brothers started the oral tradition of telling these fairy tales on their travels, and Hans Christian Anderson wrote the stories on paper, many of which have now have been adapted into Disney films.
We talked about some of the films that reflect the darkness, the ones I shared earlier in the piece. And I shared with her that when I was a teenager, I connected deeply with “American Beauty” and Thora Birch’s character Jane. Although my childhood was different then her’s, I understood that “shit can go down behind closed doors.” Tiffany said, “Yes, behind the smiles, and the perfect idyllic worlds, I feel that’s where so much humanity lies. It’s about searching deeper within the beauty. I love beauty. We do want the fantasy. ‘Albion Rose’ explores the duality of fantasy, the healing versus the destructive. What about the darkness? What happens when it takes over you, and you cannot leave? And then you’re pulled back into reality? I’m obsessed with these ideas, and that is why I’ve studied fairy tales so deeply.”
I wanted to dig deeper into the inspiration for the making of “Albion Rose,” because after seeing the short and getting to know Tiffany, you can see so many fascinating layers. She shared, “Originally, I was working with the idea of calling the short, ‘Baby Tiffy.’ It scared me though, because it was so personal and vulnerable.”
Tiffany talked about being connected with your inner-child. She shared, “I’m in touch with my inner-child. We have conversations. We have a relationship. I acknowledge her now. I spent such a long time running away from my personal story. During the pandemic, I really tried to let that go. I was having this big identity crisis. The pandemic for me, and for many others, forced us to face our truth. I’m pretty coated with fantasy, right? It really started with me wanting to come to terms with my truth, and owning that and owning Baby Tiffy.”
That was when Tiffany started to dive deep into her own story. She started to uncover a lot of childhood memories, and that is what she wanted to lock into with “Albion Rose.” Instead of starting with a short, Tiffany felt driven to make “Albion Rose” a feature. “Albion Rose” was becoming her own fairy tale. Before she embarked on it, she had a great onset experience working with filmmaker Numa Perrier on her debut feature, “Jezebel.” She said, “I felt empowered by Numa and felt compelled to jump into a feature-length film.” But then she explained, “I decided that I would make a short version of the film that was like a prequel of the feature-length script. So in essence, I reverse engineered it.”
“The mythological tale of Britain explains that Albion was a son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea and that he would eventually form the island nation, many years before it was actually formed in real life. Blake would take inspiration from a variety of sources for his work, including his own poetry and also many items of mythology from other cultures and nations. Many of the figures related to the tales of Albion would also appear within his work in other examples, such as drawings and watercolours. He regularly re-visited particular themes and liked to tackle them in alternative mediums as his career progressed, and new ideas occurred to him on a regular basis.”–Excerpt from https://www.thehistoryofart.org/william-blake/albion-rose/
The title of the film was curious to me. I talked to Tiffany about why she chose “Albion Rose” as her title. She shared, “I love when things happen like that because I felt like the name chose me.” The title first came up as the title of a song that she was not particularly a fan of, but it sounded interesting. And after further investigation, she discovered its connection to the work of poet and painter William Blake. It all seemed so kismet, meant to be. Tiffany said, “it just felt so ‘iconic.'”
Like the title of the film, Tiffany likes to think of the people that she works with as “iconic.” This shifted our conversation to the filmmaking community. She shared that she was longing for community as a filmmaker for a long time. When she went to LA, she did not find this. “I really wanted it, but it felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there yet, not yet. I just felt so overlooked and invisible. Everyone was on their own journey, and I still had to establish myself.”
“I actually found community through Cinema Femme,” she continued. “I really mean that. The people are so supportive. This was my second film festival attending as a filmmaker, and I felt welcome. People were genuinely excited to meet me. I fell in love with these film sisters.” Annarosa Mudd, the producer of “The Mark” who attended the Cinema Femme Short Film Fest, donated to Tiffany’s campaign for “Albion Rose,” early on. And now they were able to meet face to face. They also shared a mutual connection through Numa Perrier.
“I feel like with Annarosa, I’ve found a soul mate. For her to support me way back when and to have that beautiful moment together at the festival, really signifies what community means to me. In order to build community, you have to show up. To be real with you, I was allocating a lot of my funds for the film, and I did not have a budget for travel, but it was important to me that I showed up. When I left that festival, I felt like I could do anything, just from how I felt from the support of the community around me.”
That is how I also felt after the festival. It’s an unbelievable feeling and is what makes me know Cinema Femme is important to the emerging filmmaker community. Tiffany reminisced, “Everyone was so high. I met some of the programmers, and they were just so kind to me. Just to be wrapped up in love, and to be surrounded by these boss babes was unbelievable. I had felt so lonely in this industry for so long. I don’t like it when it all has to be about competition. That’s why I appreciate so much that you saw that I am a community builder.”
We talked about the importance of inclusivity on set, and how there is room for everyone. It was important to Tiffany to bring newcomers into the film community, like Numa Perrier did for her by casting her in the title role of “Jezebel.” She said, “Numa gave me my first shot as an actor. I didn’t have any credits or names that I had worked with. And she gave me my shot. So I want to give people their shot, that extra push, because it’s so important.”
I, of course, agreed with her, and then we got on the topic of “phenomenal” people. I shared with Tiffany that I coined the award after Chaz Ebert at an in-person film event, where she had called me a “phenomenal woman,” in recognition of my work with Cinema Femme. That introduction changed things for me, and I felt seen, which is so important in this industry. We then talked about Isabell Bernard, who costarred in Tiffany’s film “Albion Rose” and had been her mentor ever since her teen years.
“When I was 14, she took me under her wing,” Tiffany shared. “Isabell took me to my first plays in Chicago. We went to every musical, and to so many things that have become my inspiration, like fashion. I love fashion, film, and I’m obsessed with theater, all of it. And this all mainly comes from her.” We also talked about her sister, who Tiffany considers an artist as an on stage singer. “She was the first person I saw on stage.”
Tiffany and I did this interview over zoom, and she gave me a peek at the faces of inspiration on her walls. I could see the faces of Dorothy Dandridge, Issa Rae, Eartha Kitt, and Audrey Hepburn. “I’m still building my film school. That’s what I call it because I didn’t go to film school. I’m learning about the filmmakers that came before me, like Maya Deren. You can actually watch her film “Meshes of the Afternoon” (1943) on YouTube.”
I did watch her film after our interview, and upon reflection, I see how Tiffany was inspired by this filmmaker, who really used the things around her–shadows, props, and production design–to tell an intricately layered psychological thriller. And there is a white flower in it that is very symbolic, like the title “Albion Rose.” As Tiffany would dub it, “iconic.”
We concluded the conversation talking about her upcoming projects, and upcoming events for “Albion Rose.” The short has been a part of a series that The Future of Film is Female organization has been programming, and it’s amazing to see where these events have been taking Tiffany, as she just screened the film at MoMA on June 30. “I feel like I’m supposed to be a filmmaker now. I’m here. I belong. I’ve gone through the imposter syndrome, and now I’m really excited to go full fledged into filmmaking. I want to bring audiences joy, and all types of feelings.”
Her next film is now in production, and she shot most of it in Chicago. The film is a short and is titled “A Woman’s Body.” Tiffany describes the film as a “timeless love story,” and much like “Albion Rose,” it’s a fairy tale. “I’m really excited about the subject matter. It’s about women’s sexual and reproductive health. I’ve entered my script into writing competitions, and the feedback that I’ve received is that, ‘this is a very important story.’ I’ve become much more present in my work. I know I have an important story to tell.” I couldn’t agree with Tiffany more. I’m excited to follow her on this journey!