You can take the girl out of Hollywood, but you can't always take Hollywood out of the girl. Marlyn Mason's independent films testify to that.
In the 1960s, Mason starred opposite Elvis Presley in "The Trouble With Girls" and co-starred with Robert Goulet in the television musicals "Brigadoon" and "Carousel." When she left Hollywood in the early 1990s, she landed in Southern Oregon.
Living in a small Medford house surrounded by a jaw-dropping garden she's created over the past 20 years, Mason has been writing and starring in her own independent films based on stories that resonate for her.
"I'm not in Hollywood," the 73-year-old actor, writer and producer says. "I write for myself."
Getting an independent film made is a daunting challenge, but that's not stopping Mason. For her last film, "The Right Regrets," a drama about a mysterious, long-distance love affair, she talked legendary director Ralph Senensky into coming out of retirement after more than 20 years to direct.
When it came time to cast the picture, she rounded up veteran actors Maxwell Caulfield ("Modern Family") and Jack Stauffer ("All My Children"), both of whom she knew would turn in professional performances.
When production money ran short, Mason turned to Indiegogo, an Internet-based crowdfunding site. When she had little luck there, she went to Kickstarter to raise money for principal and secondary photography, post-production costs, the manufacture of DVD and BluRay copies and entry fees at festivals.
She also spent some of her own money on the project.
It's all paying off — in accolades, if not Hollywood-style riches.
"The Right Regrets" premiered at the Rhode Island International Film Festival last year. It was named best short feature at the Iowa Independent Film Festival, then was named best short and best in show in April at the Tupelo (Miss.) Film Festival.
Mason is planning to enter it in other festivals, and a private showing for friends is on tap. She submitted it to the Ashland Independent Film Festival, but it wasn't accepted.
"We were surprised," she says.
"The Right Regrets" is the story of a poignant, long-distance romance between Lily McHenry (Mason), a twice-divorced American woman of a certain age, and a charismatic Englishman and dealer in rare books named Charles Wickham (Caulfield). A chance meeting sets off sparks for both people, and Charles visits Lily's home in Monterey, Calif. A romance blossoms, but when Lily wants to visit Charles at his home in Vancouver, B.C., he becomes evasive.
If the mysterious Charles is not married, or gay, what is he? In the throes of the budding affair, Lily and her friend Vera devise a plan that sends Lily on an adventure to uncover Charles's secret — and possibly make a discovery about herself.
"The Right Regrets" is the third film Mason has made since 2008. The first was a short, "Model Rules," in which an aging artist's model has reached a point where she realizes she's no longer noticed as a woman.
"I wondered how this felt," Mason says. "I had such fun I had to make another film."
Her next project was "The Bag," a film about suicides among elderly people, inspired in part by her father's struggle with Parkinson's Disease.
"I always have people come up to me after they see it and say their kids need to see the film, because they're not listening to them," she says.
"Model Rules" and "The Bag" were both directed by filmmaker Ray Nomoto Robison, of Medford.
"He's a very insightful director," Mason says. "Whatever I wrote created images in his mind. He has an eye for the visual and an ear for music."
Mason's latest script is a feature-length thriller involving a marine biologist and invasive species.
"It's also about how humans are invasive with each other," she says.
Her production manager says the picture would be a major project with a projected budget of about $4 million. Even as the economic downturn fades in the rear-view mirror, local governments and communities are less generous to filmmaking companies than before, Mason says. Permits and goods and services are more costly than ever, and a screen credit doesn't seem to be as persuasive a perk as it once was to local businesses.
As a young actress, Marlyn Mason was seldom pigeon-holed. A leading-lady type with a vivacious smile, she played both "good girl" and "bad girl" roles ranging from the frankly sensual to the offbeat and freewheeling.
She had countless TV roles ranging from the lightweight ("My Three Sons," "Father Knows Best," Gomer Pyle") to the dramatic ("Burke's Law," "Bonanza," "Run for Your Life").
Mason and Senensky go way back. As a young girl in 1954, she met him when they were both involved in the Players Ring Theatre in Hollywood. Senensky, now 91, studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and worked as a stage director before directing for television in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, working on such programs as "The Fugitive," "Star Trek," "The Waltons," "The Bill Cosby Show," "Mission: Impossible" and many others.
A couple years ago, Mason sent Senensky a copy of the screenplay she'd written for "The Right Regrets." A couple of rewrites followed involving actor Michael York.
Eventually Mason asked Senensky whether he would come out of retirement to direct. He consented, on the condition that the film be shot on California's Monterey Peninsula, where he lives. For a discussion of the old Monterey house that served as one of the main sets in the picture, see senensky.com/lilys-house/. Senensky wanted 10 days of shooting but did it in nine.
In the end, Mason was able to do what she loves: tell a story. This one is about a spark in the heart that never seems to go out.
"A look, a word, a gesture can fan that little piece of heat," Mason says, "into a hot and boiling thing that we call love."
She worries that many young filmmakers are not paying enough attention to stories.
"The movies used to be made by moviemakers," she says. "Today it's mostly corporate. All they care about are the numbers."
Mason's latest project is a horror picture ("I'm the horror," she says with a laugh) in which her character owns a small town and runs the hotel. The picture will be shot in Mitchell, with interiors shot in Bend. Brad Douglas, who's known for "Big" (2009) and "The Settling" (2014), will direct.
Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.