There are some stories that could only happen in L.A., and Queen Mimi is one of them.
To briefly sum up the forthcoming documentary's backstory: Mimi used to be your average SoCal housewife and mother, but then she parted ways with her husband and ended up spending a few decades living on the streets and in a laundromat in Santa Monica. But Mimi's spirit and charm weren't crushed. The 90-year-old befriended celebrities such as Zach Galifianakis and Renée Zellweger, who brought her to movie premieres and helped set her up in a furnished apartment.
It's the kind of tale you wouldn't believe in a based-on-a-true-story movie. But Queen Mimi is as real as it gets.
When director Yaniv Rokah first met Mimi, he was a struggling actor filming the friendly neighborhood homeless lady on his iPhone. About 10 phones and borrowed cameras and a successful Kickstarter later, Rokah realized that the project he'd been working on for years was ready to become a full-length film.
"I wasn't really sure what I was making because I wasn't a filmmaker," Rokah says. "It just kind of grew and grew and grew."
For anyone who's stopped into Santa Monica's Caffe Luxxe or the nearby laundromat over the last few decades, Mimi's presence was unmissable. With everyone from actors and artists to Hollywood execs waiting either for their laundry to dry or for their coffee to be brewed, no one held their head higher than Mimi, although just about everyone she encountered was presumably in a much better financial situation than she was. Still, she smiled, becoming a welcome diversion for people who'd have otherwise been too busy or wrapped up in their own hectic lives to pay attention to a homeless woman.
"I always take everything in stride," Mimi says. "I try to keep happy every day. I don't allow myself to become depressed. I just can't tolerate it."
"What attracted me to her was her resilience," Rokah says. "In a city where everyone walks the same walk and talks the same talk, Mimi is the queen of Montana Avenue. I wanted to capture her magic."
But although she was friendly to everyone, Mimi wasn't initially interested in sharing her story. Rokah spent five years filming Mimi, but she wouldn't give him much to work with outside the present for the first portion of it.
"She has many Mimi-isms," Rokah says. "One of them is, 'Yesterday's gone, leave it there.' But if you want to make a film, you have to talk about what happened and how you got to where you are now. It took a long time for her to trust me and for our friendship to build."
For that matter, Mimi initially didn't even like the finished product. According to Rokah, the then-88-year-old star told him he'd need to cut big chunks out of the film, as she felt she revealed too much. There'd be times when she'd forget the camera was there and open up about her earlier life, but the L.A. native wasn't comfortable hearing it all in the documentary at first. One thing Mimi was never shy to discuss were the years she spent doomed to live out her days as a suburban housewife.
"I lived in the Valley for 29 years of hell," Mimi says. "It was hot, and I was my husband's slave there. He didn't like to help in the house and he didn't like to help in the yard. I took care of a half-acre of land all by myself."
Of course, neither Rokah nor Mimi ever thought this documentary would become the full-fledged and critically acclaimed film that it has (it won best documentary at the Manhattan and St. Tropez film festivals). Rokah believed it would be a short film before Galifianakis agreed to be a part of it, and Mimi spent the early months of filming introducing Rokah to people as her "photographer." In the end, both the director and the star are happy with the film that's resulted.
"I thought he'd take some pictures and it wouldn't be anything, but it's really developed," Mimi says. "I think it has a good message. That's what's important."
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So what's the message, the secret that can take you from living in a laundromat to bumping elbows with A-list actors at premieres for films like The Hangover Part III and World War Z? According to Mimi, it's a simple rule that people often forget.
"Think up," Mimi says. "No matter what, you go on."
Oh, and even Mimi knew the movie adaptation World War Z, which Rokah also acted in, was pretty bad.
Queen Mimi premieres May 13 at the Laemmle Monica Film Center.