NEW YORK — When Jennifer Elster was working as a fashion stylist in the Nineties for publications such as The Face and Rolling Stone, she spent much of the time before a photo shoot developing complex plots and subplots for an elaborate cast of characters.
“I was stuffing everything I could into an image because I wanted the people to talk and move,” says Elster, who had wanted to be a writer since her days at New York University. “My stories always had too much story behind them.”
So Elster, 30, began crafting a screenplay during a long-term styling gig for Shirley Manson, the lead singer of the band Garbage. “Particles of Truth” is an emotionally raw film about two days in the life of a troubled painter named Lilli Black. It opens Friday at the Village East Cinema.
The movie, which began as two short films, was made on a tiny budget: $160,000, all from private investors. After delaying preproduction because of 9/11, Elster and her crew shot for five weeks in Williamsburg, Harlem and TriBeCa in the summer of 2002.
Though some 200 women (including Amanda Peet) auditioned to play Lilli, Elster, an Ally Sheedy look-alike, ultimately cast herself in the role. “While I was meeting with actors, I would do the lines with them and then all of a sudden I knew the lines,” explains Elster, who had no previous acting experience. “And then it just became a thing of, ‘I think I’m going to do this,’ and that was two weeks before we started shooting.” Gale Harold, from “Queer as Folk” is the male lead.
As Elster found out, juggling acting, producing and directing put a “disgusting amount of pressure” on her, but it’s something she thrives on. “It’s like playing chicken with yourself,” she says. “I would be kissing Gale and then I’d have to tell the crew, ‘The boom is too low, and I don’t think the light is good on my eyes here. I have raccoon eyes and he looks good!’”
Though no longer a stylist, Elster mined her stash (“12 racks and huge garment bags of clothing — things that throughout the years nobody wanted”) to outfit most of the cast. A suit from a David Bowie shoot turns up on one of the actors and three blazers from a Garbage video appear in a dream sequence.
Now developing a slew of projects with her production company, 75 Films, Elster seems comfortable playing the role of prolific, pensive auteur: “I’m interested in what people say and who they really are,” she says. “People can really surprise themselves.”
— Jamie Rosen