Video and performance artist Shannon Plumb makes her feature film debut with Towheads

Search the Internet for the name Shannon Plumb and you’ll discover a trove of intense and provocative images, including one where she is emerging naked from a cracked egg, feathers at her neck, googly-eyed, her head askew. The eye behind the camera was the fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti, who discovered his muse when this transplant from upstate New York was hired to deliver lunch to one of his photo shoots. “He and his buddies were all looking me up and down,” Plumb recalls, “and he said, ‘Dude! Can we take your Polaroid?’ We started collaborating on art pictures. It was not exactly modeling, but it was – a weird time, but so exciting too.”

The soft-spoken woman with a blond pageboy who answers the door of her Brooklyn brownstone early one morning seems nothing like the feral nude in the Sorrenti pictures. Snow is falling onto her picturesque Clinton Hill block as she ushers me into the stately parlor of the home that she shares with her husband, the red-hot film director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, A Place Beyond the Pines), and their two sons, Walker and Cody. It was her transition into motherhood that inspired Plumb’s own debut feature film, Towheads, which premiered March 27, 2013 at the New Directors/New Films series in New York.

Shannon Plumb and Derek Cianfrance

Shannon Plumb with her husband, filmmaker Derek Cianfrance.

The movie draws on the style she developed as an experimental filmmaker, inspired by her work with Sorrenti, in which she used a Super 8 camera to create short art films of which she was both the author and the star. In Towheads, which she directed, she assumes the leading role of Penelope, a young mother who feels increasingly trapped by the responsibilities of raising a family. She cast Cianfrance as her clueless and barely helpful husband, and their own towheaded sons as the cinematic couple’s sons. “Becoming a mother is such a rite of passage,” Plumb says. “Getting stuck in a house can feel a little crazy. And yet apart from Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, I can’t think of any other film that explores a woman’s domestic life in depth. Maybe Mr. Mom, but that was about a guy.”

"Becoming a mother is such a rite of passage. Getting stuck in a house can feel a little crazy."

Plumb — whose almost comically expressive face and penchant for physical comedy have earned her comparisons to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton — plays the highs and lows of parenthood for laughs. Searching for an antidote to the tedium of domestic life, Penelope portrays a series of increasingly wacky alter egos, finding release and salvation through performance.

Much of the action in Towheads was filmed in her own home, a three-floor townhouse that the family has rented for the last four years. The 19th century brownstone (lovingly restored by their landlords) has such exquisite period details as marble mantles, carved woodwork and decorative plaster ceilings. Plumb admires the home’s beauty, but admits that she and her husband “are not house people.” The loosely controlled clutter depicted onscreen — toys on the carpet, children’s artwork taped to the living room wall — is authentic to their home life. “Everything was here,” she says. “We did not need to move a thing.”

Shannon Plumb Derek Cianfrance's home

Left: Derek in the downstairs living space. Right: Clown paining in Shannon’s top floor studio.

Shannon Plumb Derek Cianfrance's home

The family kitchen.

Shannon Plumb Derek Cianfrance's home

Shannon’s studio with mannequin leg.

Shannon Plumb Derek Cianfrance's home

Charlie Chaplin posters in Shannon’s studio.

Shannon Plumb Derek Cianfrance's home

A horse lamp with family photos on a mantle in Shannon and Derek’s bedroom.

She hadn’t planned to shoot the movie at home — nor at first to cast her own family in the central roles. Those decisions had a practical basis. To keep her home life as normal as possible for her children, she made the unorthodox decision to shoot the movie around their schedule, shooing the film crew out the door after four hours of work each day. “That turned it a six-month shoot, which is unheard of,” she says. “Since we couldn’t afford to rent a house for the production for six months, we shot it here. I couldn’t hire child actors for that amount of time so I had to use my kids. And then I said, ‘Derek, can you be the guy? The kids feel comfortable with you.’”

Not everything about the film is true-to-life. Cianfrance, she admits, is a far better husband than the one he portrays onscreen. “That part of the movie is totally embellished,” she says. “I really pushed the stereotype of the man in the film. It took courage for Derek to do it. He said, ‘People are going to think this is me.’ But then he said, ‘I’ll just do it.’ He is so supportive of me and my work.”

She was hesitant to mention the shoot to her landlords, who moved into the home’s ground-floor apartment halfway through filming. Plumb tried to hush the crew, but in a pivotal consciousness-raising scene in the movie, the script calls for Penelope to smash a broom in her kitchen. After a few takes, the landlord knocked on her door. “He asked me, ‘What is going on here?’” she says. “I had to tell him we were making a movie. And he said, ‘OK. But can you wait to break the broom until my conference call is over? It was fine in the end. But it was tricky.”

If Towheads succeeds on the level of slapstick, Plumb is also finding herself in the unexpected role as a feminist role model of sorts for new mothers. The film has appeared at several film festivals around the world, including Rotterdam, and after every screening, she is invariably approached by young women who want to tell her how much they relate to her character. “It’s such a huge transformation for a woman, you know?” she says. “I’m still trying to come up with a formula of how to work and take care of my kids.” With her first feature film poised for its New York debut, it seems she is well on her way.