Austinist Interviews: Video Artist Michele O’Marah


Note: This interview was originally published on Since that site no longer exists, I’m reposting it here for posterity.

If art holds a mirror to society, what happens when you hold a mirror to that mirror?

In 1983, Martha Coolidge’s cult hit Valley Girl brought suburban L.A. slang (and Nicholas Cage) to mainstream America. 20 years later, L.A. video artist Michele O’Marah recreated Valley Girl with a cast of non-actors and sets made of construction paper; both as a loving paean to the original, and as a densely layered piece of cultural critique.

O’Marah’s DIY reshoot isn’t simple hipster irony – the spirit of the original film is alive and well in every frame of video. But the piece itself (which was originally meant as a gallery piece and not a traditional film) is just as challenging and engaging as it is entertaining. It even took home the Festival Choice Award at this year’s New York Underground Film Festival.

In advance of an extremely rare theatrical screening of her remake at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, Austinist had a chance to chat with O’Marah about girl-power, copyright, and Hollywood’s obsession with tits.

First of all, why did you choose Valley Girl?

Most of the work that I make is sort of self-referential, and Valley Girl was basically my favorite movie as a teenager. I loved it, and I guess that’s why.

I don’t really consider myself a filmmaker – I’m trying to talk about what’s in that stories and what the stories mean and how Hollywood constructs stories. So I tend to choose projects that I think are interesting, and they tend to be very much about me.

And it’s a really good story! It’s a teenage love story, which is always a really great topic, and it’s a story about personal integrity, which I think is really interesting. It’s a smart movie, and I guess that’s why I did it.

One of the things that occurred to me while watching your version is that it seems to be very much about aesthetic. Valley Girl is almost like an after-school special in its “it’s what’s inside that counts” message, but what you’ve done is play with the aesthetic – the outside – and it actually does sort of change the content.

Yeah, I think it does. What I’m trying to do is to point out that these are really idealized versions of these things. Valley Girl is about this guy who gets his heart broken, and does all this stuff to win the girl back, and in the end it’s happily ever after. And to me, that seems really extraordinary – things don’t really happen that way. But at the same time, as a teenager it’s the story that you really want to believe in. It has a fairy tale quality to it that everyone likes, but at the same time it has a message that’s like, “but be yourself!” You want to embrace the themes, but at the same time you know it’s a lie. It’s idealized to the point where if people actually acted that way, things wouldn’t work out.

In my construction of it, I tried to expose all the seams. It’s completely unbelievable; everything is one-dimensional and people are just standing in front of walls when they’re supposed to be in a store, and everyone’s the wrong age. There are all kinds of things along the way that show you that it’s a construction. But at the same time, I know you want to believe it.

Pretty much everybody in the project is a friend of mine. They’re all artists and musicians, but none of them are actors except for the two lead roles. Julie and Stacey are actually real actors, and in real life they’re friends too. I really wanted to have an actress play Julie, because she’s in almost every scene, and I felt like if she was as bad as everybody else is, it would be really tedious to watch. It would be much more of a mockery, and that not what I wanted.

How long did it take you to shoot?

A long time. I didn’t pay anybody at all, and it was a really big thing to get people to commit and schedule things. But I was lucky because I had so many people in LA who were willing to help and who were really excited about the project. There was a kind of feeling during the first two months that “we’re really going for it!” and people pushed themselves to do it, which was really amazing.

We did three-quarters of it in about two and a half months, and then Casey who has the lead role actually got a real acting job. So we had to stop production for her to be in this play. And when we took that break I thought, “We’ll just resume when everyone gets back”. But at that point I was like completely pushing it to the limit in terms of my finances and everything. I lost my apartment and I was sleeping in my friend’s living room. It was a crazy situation.

And it turned out that when Casey was done in two months, we weren’t able to resume with the previous intensity and just finish it. It was like a huge meltdown where everyone had to go back to their regular schedules in life. So the last quarter of it took me a year to film.

That’s a sort of weird irony, because I guess that the original Valley Girl only took like three weeks to shoot.

Yeah! What was kind of amazing is that right before my opening, there was the LA Film Festival, and it was at the Director’s Guild of America, and at the time the president of the DGA was Martha Coolidge. And as a sort of thank you to her, they screened Valley Girl, and they had all these original cast members come to the screening and they talked about the filming and all of that. And it was so surreal because I’d just spent three years remaking this project, and then I was looking at all these original cast members, and they were talking about filming the original, and there were so many things we had in common. It was a really low-budget film and all that, and I was like, “oh my god, that’s just like my project!”

Did you actually talk to Martha about it?

No. And at the time I was really paranoid about it because my project is totally illegal, and I just figured I’d show it in the gallery and a few small places and nobody’s really going to know about it, so nobody will care. But so many people had brought up copyright infringement to me that I got really nervous about it.

The woman at the time who I showed my videos with, she had had a show right before mine where she’d been using this even more obscure material than mine, but it just so happened that a relative of the original maker had come to the gallery and saw what she’d done and was really incensed by it and was threatening all these legal actions. And her work was completely tributory! So I was really, really nervous. And I sort of sat there with an invitation in my bag for two hours thinking, “Should I give it to her?” And now I always regret that I didn’t.

One of the cool things about your piece is that you even recreated the music.

Yeah – I have to really credit my friend Dave Jones who’s a longtime friend of mine and a really great musician. Along with this woman Kelly Martin and my friend Frank, who were my entire crew on Valley Girl. They play music together, and Dave really did all the music – he arranged all the songs, and he picked all the musicians to play on them. They’ve done the music for all my projects, basically.

It’s sort of sad though because I guess that recreating the music opens up a whole new bag of copyright concerns. But watching your piece you think, “how could anyone ever be upset that their work was repurposed in this way?”

Who knows? People are so wacky – but I don’t imagine that any of the creative people would ever be territorial about it. The movie itself is owned by like some massive media conglomerate though, and it wouldn’t really go on the merits or integrity of what was done with it, all they care about is that something was done and they didn’t make any money from it. They look at it purely as “this is our property”, and that’s pretty much all they care about.

That’s one of the reasons that I find this project really interesting – we’re in a place right now where all these copyright issues are coming to a boil. There’s really no such thing as a vibrant public domain any more – culture is pretty much entirely owned by someone.

Yeah – that’s completely true. And I can’t stand that because we are essentially a media culture. Like with Valley Girl, I was like “this is my favorite movie, and I identify with it because of its girl-positive integrity”. And then after I made it a million people were like, “no, it’s MY favorite movie!” It’s part of the culture, and it’s something that everyone has this sort of collective association to. That’s what media is. They put stuff out there that becomes part of people’s identity, but then they say, “oh no, but we own it”. And I don’t think they do – everybody owns it to some extent.

I guess I was wondering if that was one of the intentions of the project.

I don’t think it was a conscious part of it – I didn’t set out to buck copyright law. But I do believe in that message. I don’t think I’d ever stop using appropriated materials, because I just feel like it’s the right thing to do – that’s what has to be talked about. It’s definitely part of the piece, but I don’t think it was on the list, consciously anyway.

Was the piece supposed to be fun? I mean, you clearly love the original Valley Girl – was your intention to make something fun, or something very serious?

I made it as a serious piece of artwork to be viewed in a gallery and talked about. It’s not like, “oh here’s my cute girl-power movie”. To me these are serious issues – how a teenage girl thinks about herself, and how she thinks about men and how they should treat her.

I thought that Martha’s approach to Valley Girl was really great, and I think that she was really responsible for making it what it was. The original intention of the project was much more bubble-headed; it was supposed to be about this goofy dumb girl, and Martha really infused it with a lot of girl-power messages and ideas. And I thought that was really awesome.

When she got the script, she really saw a potential to make a positive movie for a female audience – but the backers of the movie, in the climate of all those 80s teen movies, were like, “all we care about is that you give us three tit shots. If you give us that, you can do whatever you want.”

The best story she told was about when they were shooting the scene with E.G. Daily where she’s taken advantage of by Tommy at the party, and when she says “does this mean we’re going together?” and he’s like, “no, you’re a slut”. And E.G. was very uncomfortable with that because she shows her breasts and everything – so Martha was having this pow-wow with her in the bathroom and she was saying, “this is a really important scene, and the reason it’s important is because this actually happens to a lot of girls. This is a really realistic thing, and there are going to be a lot of girls who identify with this scene and know that they’re not sluts and that these guys are assholes”. And as she was saying this, a production assistant came in with a priority note form the producers that said, just remember, more tits.

I agree with Martha Coolidge, and that’s why I wanted to make Valley Girl. I’m not saying I’m just specifically deconstructing Valley Girl and what it’s saying, but I think it stands for a lot of movies of its generation, and I’m trying to say that a lot of these things are fairly tales. And to me, it is important how teenagers think of themselves and how they think of relationships and the expectations that get built. And that applies in a broad sense to the way Hollywood tells fairy tales and builds false expectations.

There is a lot of artwork from the late 80s and early 90s that involved deconstruction and postmodernism, and that’s around the time when I went to art school. I was a photography major and I liked Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince – all that stuff had to do with appropriating imagery and talking about it. So I think of it as a sort of standard art practice. In some ways, it almost seems old-fashioned.

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