Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Track Down "Rid of Me" Before It Vanishes


Playing in Theaters

Track Down "Rid of Me" Before It Vanishes
 (from brinkzine.com 8/3/11)
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One of the films I anticipated most at the recent Tribeca Film Festival was Rid of Me, a black comedy by James Westby. The Oregonian writer-director had made two of the quirkiest low-budget films of the last few years, Film Geek and The Auteur, which played at Tribeca a couple of years back, and I was curious about his new film that was being promoted as "Mean Girls for adults." While his earlier films were overt celebrations of the cinema--like Tarantino, Westby worked in a video store and saw almost every film ever made--his new work pays homage to films he loves yet ends up being an original. Westby has a kinship with unsocial misfits and in Rid of Me he introduces his first heroine, mousy Meris (Katie O'Grady, the film's producer and Westby's girlfriend). She's happily married to Mitch (John Keyser) but when they return to his hometown in Oregon, she is made to feel like an outcast by Mitch's socially-connected old gang. Too meek to put up a strong protest, she watches helplessly as Mitch leaves her for his old flame and the marriage crumbles. On her own now and with no self-worth, she takes a job in a candy store and enters the town's punk scene. After hitting rock bottom, she starts to find her way. The movie was a crowd favorite at the festival and I was among those captivated by Meris and her battle to regain her dignity. I was also intrigued by Westby's tenderness toward her despite subjecting her to the devastating embarrassments that threaten all people without social skills. I also loved O'Grady's brave, all-out performance. In fact when I first saw her after the film, I couldn't believe that Meris had been played by such a vivacious actress. After the screening, Australian critic Mark Juddery and I met Westby and O'Grady for a quick dinner and conducted this free-wheeling interview.
Danny Peary: What's it like being at the 10th anniversary of the festival?
Katie O'Grady: It's an experience we will never forget. I know the festival will grow into an even more exciting opportunity for filmmakers but for the 10th year it felt like summer camp where we got to be with a group of people that genuinely love film. The festival has figured out that perfect balance of celebrating the art of filmmaking, the business of helping set up films for the marketplace, and having a great time! I think people often associate the festival with Robert DeNiro but for us it was this wonderful collective of inspiring volunteers and staff that made sure every detail of the festival was taken care of. We could not be more honored to be part of the celebration of film.
DP: Are you seeing films?
KO: We are. I saw The Bully Project.
DP: I know you're doing a film about bullying yourselves. Is it also a documentary?
James Westby: That's Katie's baby. She hired me to sort of write it. It is very loosely scripted. She's friends with this bully expert and his interview is so amazing and it formed the spine for what was originally shot as a narrative piece. We're just going to combine the two elements.
KO: It's definitely different from The Bully Project in that it's going to be more of a helpful tool for parents, for churches, for classrooms, on how to help. It gives really practical advice about how to get out of a situation and how parents can help their kids when the schools won't. It'll be following a narrative that we shot with some teens in Portland, Oregon, for two days. They did a beautiful job and I feel like we got some amazing stuff.
JW: It'll be a shorter film.
KO: More about cyber-bullying and hopefully more of an educational, family piece.
DP: Obviously, that film is coming from the same people who just made Rid Of Me. I think Rid of Me could have been extremely painful if you went all the way to the serious dark side. Is it coming from the same place for you guys?
JW: Somewhat, I think, because the character in Rid of Me is in her own way bullied. But I had written that years ago, and we developed it as a feature film and themes arose that were implicit in the script. But the idea of bullying, for me, just came to light when it started being in the news, and Katie decided to make a film that actually spoke to teenagers.
KO: Which I think partly happened because I was remembering what it felt like to be an outsider. Nobody should feel that way.
JW: Until I now, I didn't really associate the two films at all. Or not too much. The narrative film that weve already starting shooting is totally different from Rid of Me. And this third film were doing is like a screwball comedy from the 1940s.
DP: But the follow-up is that you have affinity for, a love for, characters who have trouble in social situations. Those are like kids who are bullied.
KO: The social anxiety part is something James deals with specifically in his own life.
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So I think that definitely informs his writing sometimes, as the person who's outside looking in. And I think that maybe that isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Film Geek was another tale of a total outsider never really fitting in.
DP: It's somewhat autobiographical, right?
JW: In that I worked in retail environments for so long. Specifically video stores. It was one of those pictures where you exorcize your film-geek demons.
KO: Rid of Me is also autobiographical.
JW: That's true, that's very true.
Mark Juddery: Thats interesting, it did remind me of another film from Australia, Muriel's Wedding--have you ever seen that?
KO: Oh, I love Muriel's Wedding.
JW: I've never seen that, and I love Toni Collette, I've seen all of her other movies.
MJ: Muriel's Wedding doesn't have that much in common with Rid of Me, but it is about an young woman that doesn't fit in. And the other intriguing thing is that it was written and directed by a guy, P.J. Hogan. Rid of Me seems to me like a women's film, too, but it was written and directed by you. So what does that say about women's films? Is there less of a difference between the genders than you might think?
JW: I feel comfortable with this movie because it was made completely on my own terms, and it's something that I wrote quite a while ago, about seven years. Since I wrote it, I made films with male protagonists. As far as the inception, that's about it, but then Katie became a part of it. We shot Rid of Me about a year and a half ago, and Katie was cast in the part and the films that I've started writing since then--there've been two that are almost done--are what you'd call women's pictures as well.
DP: From your point of view, does James have a feminine sensibility?
KO: From my point of view, he's about 60% female.
JW: Not biologically!
KO: He's got a very, very incredible way of voicing things that I have felt from a female perspective but haven't been able to put words to myself. It's great for me as an actress to get to work with those words. Because then I just have to fill in the blanks in-between, and I'm able to create a whole life, a full character. When I first read the script, I remember thinking, "How does he know? How does he know?" I don't think he really knows how he knows!
JW: Well, I grew up pretty close to my mother and my sister, and I was married twice before. I dont know if that means anything. And I have two daughters. And all my pets are female.
KO: But you also don't really see gender the way most people do. When James looks at somebody, he doesn't see black/white or female/male. He just sees a person. I don't think he sets out to write from a female perspective. He just sets out to write from his own perspective, and it just happens to be female. And I think that's the difference between how he writes and how other directors write.
JW: But again, during the production of this film, I was surrounded by these actresses in the scene in the candy store where Meris works and that feminine stuff happening around me got absorbed, and I was inspired me to continue writing in the direction. That part of me is coming out a lot more now, since making this film. I was comfortable being with the actresses, who become really good friends--especially the ones in the candy store.
DP: When you write females being mean as opposed to men being mean, where's the difference?
JW: I'm sure it's informed by my past relationships. I know it is. With movies, there's always a movie part, and then there's a reality part. A lot of the choices I make have a lot to do with my freakish obsession with films in general, and movies that have been made in the past, and movies that are being made now that I really love and watch over and over. But I dont know, as far as the writing goes, if there's any difference in writing a male or female being mean. Originally, the idea was just to make Meris's husband's old best friends evil white people. In the early shots, I always kept her as separated from everybody else as possible. I think that was probably the only Filmmaking 101 thing that I articulated in my head. I would have everybody in these wide shots and her in a single shot and to constantly cut back and forth. That was pretty consistent.
DP: You mentioned at the screening that they were meant to be like Stepford Wives people, or monsters.
MJ: That first half of the film was quite incredible, I thought.
JW: Some people almost walk out during the first half, but the second half they love.
MJ: I don't know what your stage directions were in the script, but there's not much there to suggest that they're being horrible yet.
KO: It's underplayed.
DP: But Meris recognizes the subtle venom Mitch's friends direct toward her.
KO: I think one of the reasons that people giggle uncomfortably is that they relate to what she experiences. She's been traveling for days, worried about meeting her husband's friends, wanting to impress them and suddenly they are there without any time for her to prepare. Girls in silk, and gorgeous--we could have just ended the scene. From a womans perspective, that would have been enough.
MJ: The movie's very first scene is quite interesting, because Meris does something quite hideous.
KO: How does this quiet sweet housewife go from cooking Eggs Benedict to doing something that I've never even heard of a woman doing to another woman?
JW: It was based on a story I heard.
KO: You're kidding!
JW: I heard about it from a friend I worked with at the video store.
KO: That sounds like a friend of a friend of a friend, I don't know if it's true.
JW: It's fun to start with something like that, and then to have to earn trust from the audience for the protagonist or at the very least to earn respect for her. It's so funny to watch the movie with an audience. You guys were at the last screening, which was very somber compared to the other two, which were at night. When Meris throws the ashtray at the woman's head, there was a lot of applause and cheering. By then they are fully on her side. It was weird to have reached that point. Meris's pathetic attempt at karaoke might have helped her earn cheers.
MJ: Katie, you basically play three characters in this movie, the way I see it, because Meris evolves. But you said you don't think she's anything at all like you at any of those stages?
KO: What I meant was that she doesn't look like me and she doesn't present herself like I do. But I certainly felt the way she feels during a period of my life. I was definitely experiencing the wrong way. That's what I think is happening to Meris.
DP: Where are Meris and Mitch when they are happy at the beginning?
JW: Orange County.
DP: But Orange County is more conservative than Portland.
JW: That's just autobiographical stuff. I lived in Irvine for a time, and the dynamic of my going back and forth between Los Angeles and Portland, making that drive, informed the story. We definitely came up with a back story for Meris. She was probably raised by her grandmother, because her parents are never mentioned. Fun things like that. Katie's like Gena Rowlands in that she takes a part and makes it her own. .
DP: Katie, talk a little bit about knowing your character. I'd think you'd play scenes without stopping every time to explain to James why Meris does what she does.
KO: We never had to do that. From the minute that we started working on this project, we were in sync.
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We were in sync on the character, and made the exact same choices. Once he had idea, I'd be like, "That's exactly what I was thinking." Or vice versa. There was definitely a wonderful chemistry between us, and a reason for that, I think, was because I based my character on him. He was my really good, best friend at the time. We've become boyfriend and girlfriend since working on the film together for so long. But to me it was really clear that Meris is a person I know. I was definitely able to make the role mine. She goes through what I go through, because you cant completely remove yourself from this person.. The process of doing research and all that was almost unnecessary in this situation, because I just knew her.
JW: That was one of the virtues of my deciding to shoot the movie myself. I started out using actual film, but HD and hi-res format video has basically allowed me to become the filmmaker that I want to be. I tried out all sorts of things, that wouldn't have been nearly as effective with film--it wouldnt have been the movie that it is now.
DP: Katie, at the Q&A after our screening, you said that you never knew if James was doing a close-up or a long shot. Would you ever think, "Boy, I hope he's doing a close-up right now?"
KO: No. It was a really cool thing for me as an actor, with Meris, because I totally was gone. Just gone. Disappeared. There was no thought. James didnt exist. I didnt even memorize my lines, I just knew them. I don't know what happened, it was just a really cool, wonderful experience.
DP: Organic, as they say.
KO: Yeah. And also because I produced it, I worked on every small tiny thrilling aspect, short of the writing, I did everything. Until we brought in a sound person, it was really just the two of us doing all the work, and I just understood every location, everything. I was involved in it all.
DP: At the end of filming each day, did you revert to yourself? Was it easy to go back and forth?
KO: Oh, yeah. I'm not like Daniel Day Lewis or Christian Bale. I admire them, but I really dont work that way at all. It would literally be producing in-between takes--"you need to get these wine bottles back over here, and the curtains are showing"--and James would say 'Action!' and I was Meris again. It was so much work because it was, again, just the two of us. I'd produce for five days and then I'd have Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday shoots. And I would have to get there hours before everybody to prepare the location, and stay hours after to clean the location, so I was mopping floors at 4 a.m. in homes that we borrowed. But it didn't matter. I just felt so strongly about this character. It was the first time I'd ever really felt that something needed to be said. I just didnt want to leave the earth as an actor and not have said something that I really felt in my heart, which this character says. Meris has the personality of so many people out there.
MJ: What's your acting training?
KO: I haven't been acting that long, actually. I was in broadcast communications for a while. And so I actually did a little but of what you guys do. I would go interview people at junkets for movies; I'd watch the movies, and sit down and talk with the talent on camera. But at one point I was talking to Jennifer Lopez, after watching her movie Maid in Manhattan, and I remember thinking, "Oh my god, she's doing what I want to be doing. I could be doing that. Why am I asking her about her stupid engagement ring from Ben Affleck? I dont care." So I quit. I studied with an acting coach, Laurel Smith, who trained with Sanford Meisner in New York. So I just got lucky. That was seven years ago, and I started working. I'm mixed-method, for sure. Meisner is listening and answering, but method is certainly something I add to it. A hodge-podge mixture.
DP: And improv?
KO: Uh, huh. Part of it is just understanding your character so well that you keep going. And when you're working with James, he doesn't call cut. You have a long time because he just keeps going.
JW: That's actually one of the drawbacks of working with HD. Just the fact that getting an image is now the cheapest thing for the low-budget independent filmmaker.
MJ: How did you fund this film?
JW: Katie raised all the money. Just privately.
DP: Did you show people his old films? How did you get people to contribute?
KO: It was I think mostly though my work. And he has the great reputation for doing interesting films. At the time, he wasnt going to give me the part. I didn't look like Meris was supposed to look..
DP: What's the pivotal thing about her?
KO: I definitely was going through something at the time that I felt was in some way unjust and unfair, and I felt that I wasn't being seen for who I am. And neither is Meris. But the fault was my own, and the fault is her own. She isn't seeing herself clearly either. And if you don't see yourself clearly and get a hold of it, nobody else will have a clue of what to do with you. So it meant a lot to me, it changed my whole life, the film did.
JW: It is weird, or odd, or telling or something,
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that Meris was kind of a combination of myself and my two ex-wives, reinterpreted by Katie, who is now my girlfriend--I don't know what any of that means.
MJ: It seems like a tragedy for Mitch. I felt sorry for him, because he obviously tried to leave his group before but now he's back and has been manipulated by his friends and now is as much of a jerk as them.
KO: At the beginning to the middle of his arc, he's trying to help her along. But he gradually shifts to the other side.
JW: What you said about Mitch's tragedy. I see it all the time--people get married and they really don't want to get married. They were kind of a pseudo-happy couple at the beginning, but I kind of based that on the idea of two people who wake up and...
KO: This is what you do: let's get married.
JW: Because I myself did that exactly same thing.
DP: So are you saying Mitch married her just to get married, or are you saying Meris married Mitch because he was good at the time?
JW: He's away from his friends in California, he has a good-looking secretary...
KO: Who worships him.
JW: It's really easy to fall into those traps of quick security.
DP: You don't think he saw something in her?
JW: I do, absolutely. It actually comes out more in the film than in the script; we have that brief, expository moment in the film, that opening when they're in the hotel room, talking. That's intercut with them getting on the road and showing up at that house. I think you get some intimations of real tenderness there. I kind of picture their past life being nice and sweet for what it is.
MJ: Until his final couple of scenes, you see that he still cares for her. Until the end when he just loses it.
KO: His new wife isn't going to allow that.
MJ: I know she's only in two scenes, but how did you get Theresa Russell to play the mother of Meris's rival?
KO: James wouldn't say it, but she loves his work. We called her agent and said, "Here's what were doing. Here's the part, it's not that big, she deserves better, but..."
JW: "Here's the budget, it's not that big."
KO: "But we want you to come to Portland. And we'll bring you and your boyfriend to Portland and you can have a nice weekend."'
MJ: You already knew that she liked his work?
KO: When I talked to her agent, yeah. And they had heard from the lead singer of Everclear, from his agent, and they were on board. They were like, let's do it. From there it was just the matter of a small negotiation process, and she loved it. We actually have stayed friends--we had dinner at her place.
MJ: She plays evil women quite a lot.
KO: She's so good at it. I love Black Widow.
JW: She has no problem talking to you for hours about her ex-husband, Nicolas Roeg. That was fun.
KO: Tell your funny story about Theresa on set
JW: Every time I would move the camera to a new setup, she'd ask me if I was going to change lenses. And I only had the one lens. So I was like, "Not just yet." I had to lie to her. "Soon." We had no lights anywhere. Remember Roeg started out a cinematographer.
KO: She didnt give us a bad time about it at all. She was lovely. I couldn't believe how young she looks. She must do Pilates or something.
JW: Strangely, talking to her about Roeg's films and the films theyd done together influenced me to not be scared about using the zoom lens. Kubrick and Richard Lester and Roeg and all those great filmmakers from the '60s and '70s embraced the zoom. Something about talking to her about the way those films were shot started influencing me as an amateur cinematographer. I'm glad that we talked or I might not be here right now.
MJ: On the subject of influences, Katie, who are yours as an actor?
KO: There are so many. Jessica Lange, Katharine Hepburn, Shelley Duvall. There's a real truth to those women--especially Jessica Lange. Oh, god, she's just got the guts in her. And she's pretty, but she can play parts where that doesnt matter. All goes away.
DP: When watching your movie, I was thinking of the women played by Duvall and Sissy Spacek in Altman's Three Women.
KO: I can see that. We love that movie!
MJ: None of the actresses you mention really strike me as chameleons, but you do, just from this one film. Just seeing you now, and also seeing the three faces of Meris.
KO: Sissy Spacek is another one I've always watched and admired. She can play whoever she wants. And Cate Blanchett is a huge influence, especially in I'm Not There. She crosses over and becomes whoever she wants. And Johnny Depp. I dont feel like I have as much freedom as Johnny Depp, at this point in my career. I think he just fucks with people, just to see if he can get away with it. I'm not there yet.
JW: But all those actors make really good choices, too.
DP: In the film, you look a little like Sally Hawkins.
KO: Oh, thank you! I have a lot of influences, definitely. It's so hard to pick if theyre male or female. I grew up watching Sally Field. Daniel Craig, I love his work. He's great. Like James was telling you,
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our next film is a screwball comedy and I've studied Katharine Hepburn forever. My hair is platinum blonde.
JW: And it's a formal, exact movie. It's five twenty-minute takes, pretty much. It looks like a Douglas Sirk or a Vincente Minnelli but I would say dialogue-wise, it's like His Girl Friday and My Man Godfrey. Actually, the DVD of that was a really big influence on the idea. Because behind the scenes, on that Criterion disk, William Powell and Carol Lombard curse at each other in the outtakes. The idea of seeing these icons, in these outtakes, making that film--seeing how they really talk to each other--influenced me..
KO: On Rosemary's Baby was an influence on us.
JW: That's one of my favorite films ever. The best director.
DP: Where are the similarities?
KO: The tone. The absurd characters.
JW: Going over the top with the characters.
KO: And her feeling like, something's not right here, and everyone saying, "Yes it is, everything's fine. It's you, you're going crazy." And that awesome innocence that Mia Farrow has--yet she tries to start taking charge of what's happening.
JW: And by the time Meris throws that ashtray at the woman's head, there's a lot of dreaminess implicit in the film, as in Polanski. There are all sorts of little fantasy elements where she spaces out and imagines things, like she's having a successful dinner party.
DP: The idea of breaking up with somebody, then you keep running into them with their new person--that was in Film Geek, too. Is that based on anything?
JW: Well, it's a small town, it's pretty inevitable that will happen in these little tiny places. I'm from little towns and you see everybody all the time. Also, in the way of a good play, you have to get these people together to create conflict. So a lot of it, in the writing, is mathematical, even.
DP: Is the record store owner who likes Meris also based on you?
JW: No, he's actually based on the guy who plays him.
KO: That's just him, he's not an actor. That's his favorite record shop, too.
JW: He was our director of sound.
KO: He'd never acted a day in his life.
DP: He's obviously a better match for Meris than Mitch, so it's good they meet. Also, in regard to her future, Meris says she wants to open a restaurant, but you never bring it up again.
KO: I believe she goes on to do something like that. I believe she does. We fought about that a little bit. I said, "Can we just show her cooking in a restaurant over the credits?" And he's like, "No! No Hollywood ending!"

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