Seriously Red – a dream to become the world’s greatest Dolly Parton impersonator
In Seriously Red, Real estate agent Red (Krew Boylan) loses her job then decides to pursue her dream of becoming the world’s greatest Dolly Parton impersonator.
After her act attracts the attentions of an amorous Elvis impersonator (Rose Byrne) and a powerful booking agent (Bobby Cannavale), Red is catapulted into the top tier of copycat acts, becoming the onstage and romantic partner of the top Kenny Rogers impersonator.
When Red’s life as an imitator starts to feel false, she discovers true happiness comes when you’re being the best version of yourself in this quirky Australian comedy.
Available from Gravitas Ventures
“Pour yourself a cup of ambition.” – Dolly Parton
My objective for Seriously Red was to create a fantastical cinematic language to bring Krew Boylan’s irreverent comedic and sometimes absurdist script to life. The film is a love letter to Dolly Parton. Dolly’s a woman I admire because she is unapologetically herself.
Central to the film is Red (Krew Boylan) a character who doesn’t fit in or follow the crowd. I wanted the audience to feel Red bursting out of the frame of her domestic world as she sets her passion alight by reaching for success, whilst also yearning for social acceptance. Red finds this through her love and impersonation of Dolly Parton.
The use of text highlights Dolly’s famous quotes as a guiding beacon for Red’s journey. At times playful, ironic, or poignant – Red has a lot to learn from Dolly (indeed we all do!). Music provides a strong narrative thread for the film. The licensed tracks were always scripted. They are the backbone to fueling the drama and offering so many wonderful performance moments for our characters.
The onstage chemistry between Kenny (Daniel Webber) and Dolly (Krew Boylan) is ignited by their performative charisma. Working with Cezary Skubiszewski (our composer), we sought to balance these memorable scenes with a refined score. Together we created a theme for Red, instrumentally eccentric, to underpin her emotional arc and inspired by the country & western genre.
Whilst it’s easy to be distracted by the physical comedy of Red, she is incredibly sensitive and full of contradictions and complexities. I think many people will recognize a little bit of themselves in her, especially her identity struggles and discomfort in her own skin.
The use of costumes evolves as Red’s impersonation of Dolly Parton takes Centre stage. In collaboration with production designer Penny Southgate, Director of Photography Toby Oliver, and Costume Designer Tim Chappel we devised the colour palette for the film to be Almodovar-like, selecting only six main colours, keeping it vibrant, modern and cohesive between the story worlds of the film.
Red as Dolly is wigs, make-up and artifice, overcompensating for how she really feels internally. Working creatively with Costume Designer Tim Chappel and Make-up & Hair Designer Cassie Hanlon we built a wardrobe of looks for Dolly that continued to expand. Dolly’s hair grew in height and
volume, her make up piled on and her costumes ever more elaborate. Even her breasts become more exaggerated within her looks when she signs up for new DD’s and embraces 24/7 Dolly.
We needed to serve the idea that Red’s ultimate epiphany (her final performance) can only be about laying herself completely bare. That she has no other choice than to confront what lies beneath… And whilst Dolly says ‘there is nothing real about me but my heart’ she is very certain of her own identity, unlike Red, who has to learn what it is that SHE needs. When Red discovers the Copy Club she finds a community that embraces her – but she does see through the veil of celebrity. The Copy Club is more than just smoke and mirrors, it is also a place which subverts sexuality, Cisgender and identity norms. Many of the Copy Club Artists are part of a professional circuit and it was fascinating and eye-opening to learn more about their world and their lives by including them in the film.
Red’s orbit is surrounded by so many fascinating faces and these characters spring to life through the chameleon transformations of Rose Byrne (Elvis), Celeste Barber (Teeth) and Bobby Cannavale (Wilson). Her mother Viv (Jean Kittson) embodies ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’ and her ride or die childhood friend Francis (Thomas Campbell) loves Red just the way she is. There are many illusions and disillusions that Seriously Red unpacks, but at its beating heart is a warm and joyful journey of maturation set to an iconic soundtrack. I hope the audience leaves with a smile of their face and a twinkle in their eyes. We all need to dream big but not at the expense of losing the ones we love and cherish …and ultimately by not losing our own internal compass. It was a wonderfully fun creative journey making this film. I do hope the celebration and universal messages embedded in its DNA will touch others as they did all of us who were a part of bringing this unique story to screen.
GENESIS OF THE FILM
“Being a star just means that you just find your own special place, and that you shine where you are.” ― Dolly Parton
Seriously Red (SR) is an original screenplay by first time screenwriter, actress and Dollhouse co-founder Krew Boylan. The project is deeply personal to Boylan, an exploration of creative questions with an excess of sequins and panache. The story, birthed from a longing desire to achieve serious career success, Boylan affectionately calls her “first-born with a very long labour”, noting that during the script’s development she had three children, lived across two continents, and changed her hair colour 13 times.
It was in 2009 – working between theatre productions with now business partner, BAFTA award-winning director Shannon Murphy at Belvoir Street Theatre (Summerfolk & Gorky & Bliss) that Boylan notes the foundations of SR were laid. Boylan had experienced modest bursts of success on both stage and screen, she had multiple stage writing credits under her belt and even produced independent theatre. By many standards her star was on the rise though she still felt she was always “treading water” between acting jobs. Actors often describe this feeling as an existential doom that sets in after a gig, the fear of only being as good as your last job.
Boylan’s solution was to write a screenplay. Through becoming the creator, she could regain a sense of control over her destiny. She was enthusiastically endorsed by Murphy. Writing proved to be empowering for Boylan and when the play closed, she started to examine her own career more closely alongside that of her muse Dolly Parton. Parton has remained her north star in this story of script to screen.
Dolly Parton’s trajectory has always been Boylan’s benchmark. Why? Dolly is an underdog, a country music lyricist, from poverty she has evolved into a major music ICON. Dolly is a staunch feminist, an entrepreneur, an entertainer even an accomplished actor. Dolly leads, not follows. Dolly is in control of the jokes; NEVER taking herself too seriously. She is a philanthropist and possibly a Saint (in some cultures & circles they say!). The one thing everyone can agree on is that Dolly unifies us. There is no doubt we’ll be talking about her for many decades to come. Right now, a little Dolly certainly takes away from the darkness of the world.
Boylan’s alter-ego emerged in the form of Raylene Delaney aka. Red – nicknamed after Boylan’s eccentric red-headed school friend. Impersonation became the vehicle. Red would become Dolly. In fact, that is what actors do naturally, they are mimics, and they embody their roles. Boylan’s lead character had to have a goal to be as successful as Dolly Parton by being Dolly Parton. Red would ultimately need to question her identity through emerging from the shadows of Dolly’s. Red would shine a mirror on the very real contemporary dilemma of what we show the world vs who we really are. This very meta idea, even more ironic in the daily frenzy of a social media imprint. That aside, Boylan sought to write a screenplay “about finding joy in misadventure, creating a playful world of copied identities, and filling it with great music”.
During the process, Boylan leaned into Parton’s wisdom: “you’ll never do a whole lot unless you are brave enough to try” – a quote she stuck to her computer as a daily reminder of her intentions and Dolly’s advice later found its way to the screen as well. If Red wanted to be Dolly, then Boylan envisaged many others may imagine the same path– a rich territory to delve into. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery they say (even Dolly herself!). Indeed, there was a legitimate worldwide circuit of tribute artists, serendipitously many resided in the Northern Rivers region the filmmakers later discovered. These performers do not underestimate their roles as Cannavale discovered “Elton John did not break out of character once on set, he was so committed, I was blown away”. This tribute world is reflected in the Copy Club.
Rose Byrne read the first draft of SR in 2013. She was on the Staten Island Ferry in New York City with windswept best friend Boylan when the surprising casting idea (of Elvis ) was first pitched to her. Byrne says: “Boylan always subverts any idea whether it be casting / character / script and I was beyond delighted”. She was immediately engaged, and the opportunity of transformation then evolved into Byrne stepping into the role of Executive Producer.
Byrne led the charge of introducing the script to Dolly Parton and her management team. Without the blessing and support of Parton, the film could not progress. The music was written into the script, as was Dolly’s likeness, so her support was a huge aspect of the storytelling. Licensing artists of Dolly Parton’s calibre is often
prohibitive for independent films. In true visionary style, Dolly Parton has always retained control of her catalogue, so it was Dolly (and her team) who would ultimately determine if the idea and accessibility to music would be supported.
At six months pregnant, with her first child Rocco, Byrne travelled to Nashville to meet Danny Nozell, Dolly’s long-time business partner, manager, and gatekeeper. Nozell had been at the forefront of the Nashville Music scene for many decades representing both group and solo artists. Byrne carried a hard copy of the second draft of Seriously Red along with her and pitched the project. Surprisingly, within a week, feedback from team Dolly filtered through. Dolly had embraced the project with HUGE enthusiasm. She was humbled and willing to do whatever it took to facilitate the project to proceed, along with the blessing of Kenny Rogers’ team. Inspired by Boylan’s story, Dolly also wrote original music that now sits in her archive. This was a huge win for an independent film in such early development stage. Nozell holds an Executive Producer credit on the film and has backed the project from the very beginning.
Boylan’s burgeoning creative energy was contagious. She shared the earliest drafts of the scripts with her inner circle of industry friends and colleagues. This included Bobby Cannavale, Shannon Murphy, Gracie Otto, and Jessica Carrera. Through this, she unknowingly opened a wonderful pandora’s box of possibility and collaborators ultimately leading to the formation of her production company Dollhouse Pictures.
Across this period, navigating career evolutions and stage/screen gender bias was the very real backdrop for Boylan and her friends, and inspired the germination of Dollhouse. Collectively Dollhouse Pictures could make an impact, whilst its founders could still sustain stand-alone work as required. The company impetus would be to nurture the female voice and audience, and take risks, true to the name and inspired by Dolly herself. When Carrera read the script, she was inspired by its originality and charm: “it had such comedic irreverence and truth, it became more than a film, it became a business because of what it represented to us all”. Otto says she was “immediately drawn to the story because I loved the character of Red so much and it felt like such an iconic original screenplay”. This was the kind of material Otto was seeking alongside the team “Our company ethos is to make projects with women about women and this was the perfect fit”.
Cannavale’s role in the film was not initially on the page, but he “loved everything about the script” and he was a great sounding board for Boylan and shared the same wise mentorship as the character. Cannavale had previously commented: “if it was Neil Diamond, I can do Neil Diamond” so touchingly Boylan rewrote the role of Wilson for him after a deep dive into the life and music of Mr Diamond.
Whilst the script received much endorsement, there was strong vocal encouragement for Boylan to step aside from the leading role. Her Dollhouse partners were steadfast in supporting the original vision. Believing in potential is a huge driving focus for the film. Boylan prepared for the role getting “Dolly Fit” during a long development.
Boylan’s preparation boot camp included singing lessons, dialect lessons and accents. Boylan wore corsets, weighted padded bras, and tested out a sliding scale of wigs to see what her small frame could weather. Alongside the physical transformation she went down the rabbit hole of Dolly Parton research culminating in a trip to Dollywood following a B roll shoot at Tamworth Country Music Festival. Boylan researched the on-stage chemistry and relationship of Dolly and Kenny Rogers, which was a fantasy element to the story. Dolly & Rogers were never officially together in history’s books, yet their fan base certainly supported the idea. The casting of ‘Kenny’ needed to have the allure of a romantic hero to live up to this myth when it came to making the film
Otto boarded the project later in development. She had amassed an impressive list of TV credits and feature documentary work, but this was to be her first narrative feature and the timing felt right. When approaching the work ahead of pre-production Otto says her priority was to understand the visual storytelling: “it had to have the grounds of being reality as well as bringing the more fantastical elements to life and was exciting to also have a musical element to it”. Cinematographer Toby Oliver became Otto’s cinematic ally in developing the technical elements that make the film visually shine, and loved the process: “everybody had their heart in this project, and I think it shows on screen” . The film resonated with Otto on her own journey because “we all go through stages of life where we aren’t sure what we are doing or what we want to be so being real is all we can be, and most importantly learning to love ourselves”. Boylan agrees noting that “being ‘real’ is way more wildly vivid, stunning, and powerful than being a copy”.
Cannavale’s attachment in 2018, and his schedule, sent the film from dormancy to pre-production. His project, Nine Perfect Strangers, shoot shifted from the US to NSW, Australia in 2020, peak pandemic and Byrne and the family travelled with him out to Australia. Whilst planning commenced for a Sydney shoot, the pivot to the Northern Rivers was an instinctive one for the filmmakers. It was the only safe region for filming in NSW with its ‘safe bubble’. Film production hit an historic peak during this time with many offshore and local productions turning to the region. Concurrently, in the USA, Dolly Parton was instrumental in funding the Covid -19 vaccine, turning her iconic hit Jolene into a “Vaccine” ditty because Dolly is a saint, no less!
Navigating the ebbs and flows of the Covid pandemic, the film was completed in early 2022 and ready for a world premiere at SXSW, Austin Texas. When Parton saw the film, she “absolutely loved it”, commenting to her international fan base that she was honoured her music was included, adding she “hopes everyone enjoys the movie – I know I did “. When the team met Parton at the festival it was a celebratory and momentous full circle. Parton, acknowledging the long road of the filmmakers, added “you girls did it!”.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.