Monday, November 30, 2015

Indie Star Jennifer Prediger on "Applesauce" and "Apartment Troubles"

Applesauce playing in Festivals
Apartment Troubles playing On Demand

Indie Star Jennifer Prediger on Applesauce and Apartment Troubles

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 6/20/15)

Indie Star Jennifer Prediger About “Applesauce” and “Apartment Troubles”

Jennifer Prediger
Jennifer Prediger
By Danny Peary
Recently, I had a great time chatting with one of my favorite indie actresses, Jennifer Prediger. If you are a fan of independent cinema but don’t recognize her name you may know her as that pretty, very funny, risk-taking actress in glasses in the films of Joe Swanberg, Alex Karpofsky, Karl Jacob, and, most frequently, Onur Tukel.  A girl in glasses who probably gets a whole lot of passes.  She wears her trademark spectacles in her movies and when she’s not on camera, including when we talked about her movies and career at Cosi in New York City.
jenniferpApplesauceposter
I’d say her career is in a good place, with the film that she codirected and costarred in with Jess Wexler, Apartment Troubles, playing on VOD, and Tukel’smacabre comedy Applesauce, in which she is one of the leads, making a splash at the recent Tribeca Film Festival.  You may have also spotted her of late in Tukel’s Abby Singer/Songwriter, and Uncle Kent 2.  With  numerous projects in the works, including at least one she is writing herself, perhaps Jennifer Prediger’s name will soon be as familiar as her image.  I was thankful, however, that no autograph-seekers interrupted the following  conversation.
Jennifer Prediger and Jess Wexler, the directors and stars of Apartment Troubles.
Jennifer Prediger and Jess Wexler, the directors and stars of Apartment Troubles.
Danny Peary: In your new film Apartment Troubles, your character Olivia and Jess Wexler’s character Nicole go back and forth between New York City and L.A.  Is that like you?
Jennifer Prediger: I just don’t know where I want to be right now. I love being in New York and writing, but I work for a company based in L.A., StarStream Entertainment, that really wants me to be there. I was able to become a filmmaker in the New York indie scene, so I’d love to keep a foot here and not be all L.A. all the time.  I like L.A. but something about the fault lines must affect my sanity because I always get a little anxious there. So I guess my goal is to be bi-coastal.
DP: Where do you fit in?  Do people in both places know you?
JP: I think they pretend to know me. I thought I knew everyone, but there are so many people making films now that it’s hard to keep up.  Every time I go to a festival, I learn about new people and new cliques. I know a lot of the New York filmmakers, but there are still tons here I don’t know. Occasionally someone will say, “I really appreciate your work, I haven’t met you but I know who you are,” and I’m thinking, “What are you talking about?  That’s weird!”  It is cool because it means I’m acting in films that people are actually seeing, even though many of the movies I’ve been in are hard to find. It does feel like such a small world and we all kind of know each other.
DP: Have ever been recognized on the street?
JP: I was once recognized by a girl in a coffee shop because of Richard’s Wedding.  But how many people have seen Richard’s Wedding?  That girl was a real independent film nerd.  I get recognized sometimes at film festivals. People will meet me and say, “You look familiar!” Maybe I’m just a ubiquitous-looking person, or maybe  they saw Red Flag and they can’t put it together.
DP: I started recognizing you as the indie actress who wears glasses.
JP: I have an astigmatism, and also I don’t like to put things on my eyeballs, so I wear glasses. People ask me all the time, “Are those real prescription glasses?”  Yes, they are. Most people can not picture me without my glasses, and it can really freak them out when they’re not on. I can go to a party not wearing glasses and all my film friends won’t talk to me, because they don’t know it’s me. I wouldn’t think the glasses make me seem that different. I think I should probably mix it up a little bit more and keep people on their toes. I’ve been in only one movie without them, Pollywogs.  My friend Karl Jacob [an actor inApplesauce] directed and he insisted that I not wear glasses. I feel like in every movie situation I’ve been in, there’s one moment where it’s glasses, or no glasses? And then they say, “Okay, wear the glasses.”  I wonder if they’ve become sort of my trademark.
DP: I read that when growing up you were in the science and technology program at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Is that where you are from?
JP: I’m from College Park, but Greenbelt is right next to it.
DP: Tell me a little bit about your curious background, during which you had an education unlike that of any other filmmakers. Was there any indication that you were going to go into acting?  Did you write from the beginning?
JP: I always wrote.  I was constantly writing poetry as a kid and filled up tons of notebooks.  I also knew I wanted to act, but I didn’t know how to do that. I was like nine years old, and it wasn’t the kind of thing I could tell my parents and have them do anything about it. I got to be in some school plays. I played a tooth in a dental hygiene play in the third grade. It was a wonderful play, but I don’t think Neil Simon wrote it. I did play the titular character. I also got to play Snow White in a play, I had some really ancillary roles in high school musicals.  But I went to a science high school, which was the best public school in our system, so I had to focus on that.  Even though I wanted to focus on theater.  Acting is just one of those compulsions, when you feel you can’t do anything else. As they say.If you can do something else, do it, because this is a crazy road to take.
DP: You didn’t take it right away.
JP: I didn’t know what the road was, and I didn’t feel justified in taking it. My parents were both bureaucrats–my mom worked for a congressman, my dad worked for the county as a tax assessor–so I think my compulsion to be a creative person didn’t make a whole lot of sense to them. They are conservative fiscally, and it was just not something that they knew or understood, and they wanted me to have a viable living.  So while I went down the strange beautiful path I did try to stay within the lines so that they would be supportive of what I was doing.
DP: Were you always looking to escape, though?
JP: Probably. Going to the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor was one of the greatest escapes from inside the Beltway.  It was this other, beautiful world, and it taught me so much about nature and spirituality and myself.  I found like people there, other vegetarians and do-gooders who wanted to fight for environmental causes. So that place was a real homecoming for me. I spent three years there.
DP: In getting your BA from the College of the Atlantic, what was your major?
JP: There’s only one major there called Human Ecology. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure kind of thing, and I often describe it as a holistic approach to understanding people and their interactions with the environment. So you can be a biologist or a marine researcher or a poet.  It allowed for a wonderful, sprawling way of being. I’d come from such a scientific, structured high school, so to be able to be part of something that was so unstructured was really great for me. I got to do a lot of creative writing, and to study psychology, and be in some plays.
DP: Were you seeking out chances to act?
JP: I was a little bit, although I never felt fully justified doing it, I felt like I needed to be invited.  I did get to play a deer, the king’s stag, and I got shot and lay dead on the stage with this huge deer mask on, for hours, and that was great. And also I was Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a college production, the Bar Harbor Players, and a dear friend of mine produced and directed.
DP: So did your dear friend say, hey, you’re pretty good?
JP: Yes, she did. She really encouraged me and she still does.  Molly grew up in New York City and lives here now.  She grew up acting, so she was the person I could look at and say, “Okay, here’s what I need to do to be just like Molly.”
DP: My guess is that you didn’t meet many film people at College of the Atlantic.
JP: There was one guy who was making films, I think he made one feature and stopped.
DP: You got your BA from the College of Atlantic in Human Ecology and an MA from the California School of Professional Psychology, which may be the most unlikely path to being a movie actor and filmmaker anyone has taken.
JP: Yeah, it’s been a road less traveled, paving my own way.
DP: How did you end up in California?
JP:  I was dating the only person I knew who was interested in movies, and he got into the American Film Institute, so when I was about 21, I took off for L.A., too.  My parents didn’t want me to move to L.A. so I went against their wishes and we didn’t speak to each other for a while. I moved to Los Feliz and hung out with all these filmmaking students.
DP: And your boyfriend?
JP: That lasted maybe a year, a flash in the pan. I wish him the best, good riddance.
DP: So when you arrived in California, were you thinking you wanted another degree?
JP: I wanted to make movies and be an actor but I didn’t know how to get there.  So I started doing improv at The Groundlings.
DP: Why did you think of trying improv? Were you recognizing something in yourself?
JP: I probably was. I always did public speaking things but I don’t really know where I got the nerve to do what I was doing. Pee-Wee Herman had always been an icon to me, so knowing he had studied at The Groundlings, as did so many actors that I loved on SNL and MadTV, I was like, “What the hell is this, I gotta do it.” I loved it but didn’t do it for that long. I think I took just four classes there. But I got excited by improv and then I was doing it at the Improv Olympic on Hollywood Boulevard, and everywhere else.  Then I did stand-up comedy, more than I would do in New York.
DP: What was your stand-up routine like?
JP: I did a lot of material about my family, much to their chagrin. I showed them tapes of it.
DP: Do you talk about your childhood or your current relationship to them?
JP: Some of both, growing up with divorced parents.  I’m actually writing a feature about that very subject, and it’s interesting tapping into that because it’s real painful stuff for me.  But there’s something very funny about it, too, so I’m walking that line.
DP: Was your stand-up monologue true comedy or exaggeration?
JP: Again, a little of both. But the greatest comedy does come from the truth.
DP: Did you admire other female standup comedians?
JP: Growing up I really admired Rita Rudner.  I love Sarah Silverman.  She’s always been my spirit animal.  It wasn’t standup, but I loved the women on The Golden Girls.
DP: In L.A., you made inroads with improv and stand-up, so why did you go back to school?
JP: I didn’t feel like I could justify doing comedy for a living. I thought, “I’ll become a psychologist,” so I got a master’s degree in organizational and systems psychology, with the idea of working with companies or non-profits. Then I moved back to D.C. and did a fellowship, which led me to work in the USDA Motion Picture Service office. That’s the US Department of Agriculture [which has been producing movies for over 100 years].
DP: When you moved back to the East Coast, did you feel you were giving up an opportunity to be in movies?
JP: No, because I didn’t know how to infiltrate Los Angeles. I did some voiceover work for The Man Show on Comedy Central, but I didn’t have an agent and I kept getting in these predicaments that, as a young woman, were a little unsavory and very demeaning in a certain way. There were these auditions like you’ve read about, where it’s some weird casting couch thing and they want you to be wear a bikini and high heels.   didn’t know how to protect myself in a world that was a little predatory.
DP: It’s amazing you got auditions without an agent.
JP: Yeah. They were terrible auditions for awful things. Well, one of them wasThe Extreme Gong Show, and this is literally what I heard in my head: “Your story is not happening LA, so go back to D.C.”  So I went back home to my roots.
DP: And you became an environmental journalist?
JP: I worked for two environmental websites. Sprig.com was run by the Washington Post Company.  For grist.org, I played this environmental advice columnist on a web video series called Ask Umbra.
DP: And was that a serious thing?
JP: Partly.  It was advice like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.  It was silly and meant to be entertaining, but it also was about real issues and what people should do.  Tthere’s an archive of my work that I wrote and directed and put myself in as Umbra, five or six years ago.
DP: Did you feel there was a progression going on with your career?
JP: For sure. Because within a couple of months after I started working in television at the Department of Agriculture, they had me producing in Africa, Hawaii, and Alaska, and it was amazing adventure, I got very comfortable behind the camera, telling stories and writing scripts and interviewing people. Then I got offered an unpaid internship at The Onion  in New York City, and I decided I should take a shot and come up here. Because it’s hard to find a way “into” this city when you’re not physically in it. So I came up to New York on a wing and a prayer.  I worked at The Onion and then at nerve.com for a while, which is where I met Lena Dunham and Joe Swanberg. Meeting those two and hanging out with and interviewing them–and working with them some–was a real game changer for me.
DP: What was Lena Dunham doing then?
JP: She was still in college.  She produced her first web series, Tight Shots, at nerve.com, and technically I was a producer of it though I didn’t do much.  I did act in one episode, which was fun. It was really cool to watch Lena cut her teeth, and my God, to see where she’s gone, from zero to sixty, makes me really want to watch it again.
DP: What about Joe Swanberg?
JP: I kept bumping into Joe over the course of a few years, at Sundance and just walking down the street in Williamsburg.   Then out of the blue. he emailed me, asking, “Do you feel, spiritually and psychologically, that you are ready and comfortable enough to make a movie with me?”  I was like, “I think so, but let me think about it.” Because Joe’s movies are a bit risqu√©, and I had to really think about if I wanted to participate in that way.  He sent me his film Alexander the Great to try to convince me to do Uncle Kent. And I loved it.
DP: There’s some nudity with your future directing and acting partner, Jess Wexler, in that movie.  Did he tell you there’d be nudity in Uncle Kent, too?
JP: A flash.  He did mention it, and I just said to him that as long as the nudity was in service of the character and wasn’t gratuitous, then I was okay with it.  But really it had to make sense with the story and what was going on with the characters. I think it’s important for actors not to judge those things, because if we do, we’re not doing our job. Our job is to imitate life–and people get naked!
DP: Your character is introduced as being “beautiful.”
JP: I remember seeing that in the trailer.  I’m not a stereotypically beautiful person, so it was nice to hear things like that. Because you don’t necessarily think them about yourself.  I think we all have a certain beauty that we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge.
DP: So you’re the female lead in one of Joe Swanberg’s rapidly-made, microbudget mumblecore movies.  Were you comfortable from the start?
JP: Totally comfortable. I really enjoyed being around and acting with Kent Osborne, who came up with the story with Joe.  I felt like we had a really nice rapport. I feel that once I have a role in a movie, it’s so easy to play the part. It’s different auditioning, because you’re worrying, “Oh, God, will I get this part?”  But once I get a part and know I’m in a movie, I just dive into it, as I did when playing Kate in Uncle Kent.
DP: Of course, you can’t really compare other movies to Joe Swanberg’s movies.
JP: That’s true, because his are very conversational and naturalistic. Joe has a really wonderful way of teasing out conversation and interesting details from his actors. He sets up everything so that something comes out about the characters or the story that guides his scenes. What the actors say may be slightly inspired by a true story or is just completely improvised.
DP: Did he tell you that he wanted the scene you’d be doing to be about this or that and ask you to get a particular point across?
JP: Yes, he would often say, this is what needs to happen in this scene–she needs to reject him over whatever.  There would be an action that needed to happen, and we could get there however we wanted to, which felt natural, easy, and conversational. What was so inspiring about working with Joe is that he didn’t suffer. He just made it happen. I think there’s so much hemming and hawing that people do, should I do this, should I do that?oh God, it’s so hard to write this script, blah blah blah. He’s just like, “Here’s an outline, here’s a camera, here’s a tripod, and here’s a microphone. Just set it all up, press record, and go.” He never did more than three takes.  And then he would edit every single night. So by four in the morning, he’d have part of the movie cut already.  And when we were done filming in six days, he already had a 62- or 63-minute cut of the movie, which we watched before we all went home. It was an incredible way to work—he was quick, he got stuff done. And that made me realize that I shouldn’t treat things so preciously all the time.  I definitely wanted to make my first feature in a different way, and I did want it to be a scripted film, but it was great to watch him make it happen the way he did. We made that movie for $4,000, and it got into Sundance, so it was a pretty great return on investment.
DP: Were you interviewed at Sundance for Uncle Kent?
JP: Yes, and what’s interesting is that I’d gone to Sundance as an interviewer when I was working for the Washington Post Company. I interviewed Tom Hanks and a bunch of awesome people, and I decided then and there that I didn’t want to come back to Sundance unless I could be on the other side of the carpet, having made a movie. So three years later I got to be at Sundance again, on the other side of the carpet. It was just one of those awesome moments, where I’m thinking, “Dreams can come true and you can really do what you set your mind to do.”
DP: After Uncle Kent, both you and Onur Tukel, your director of and costar inRichard’s Wedding and later Applesauce, were in Alex Karpovsky’s Red Flag.
JP: Onur, Alex, and I all met at Sundance in 2011.  Alex had seen me in Uncle Kent and a week later called me and Onur and said, “Hey, would you guys want to make a movie?” He felt like there would be a good synergy, which there was. So two weeks after that we were on this crazy road trip from Birmingham, Alabama, to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
DP: Talk about working with Alex Karpovsky.
JP:  Alex is a wonderful human being and a genius, and it was so delightful to be around him. He has such a sharp mind, and can be very engaging and charming.  And Alex was very democratic about how we worked; every day he was like, “What do you think we should do?” He had a 32-page outline for the movie, but still there was a lot of room for us to figure out where we were going to shoot and what was going to happen in scenes.
DP: So you felt part of the process?
JP: Very much. We were all simultaneously producing, recording sound, writing, doing location scouts. So it was great. National Lampoon’s Filmmaking Road Trip. That group of people was so much fun to be around. We fought like family, and it was terrific. It sure is nice working with smart people. because you are interested in how they perceive the world, and that really helps. And it’s fun to have adventures like that. They’re few and far between. I always say that on my deathbed, when my life flashes before my eyes, there’s going to be a nice little chunk of making Red Flag, being in Louisiana, lying down next to the Mississippi River, and seeing beads get thrown into Alex’s face during the Mardi Gras parade.  That was such a special time. And it was filmmaking at its best for me. The only street theater I’ve done was when acting in Red Flag with Alex Karpovsky, when we were literally at a Mardi Gras parade having beads thrown at us and performing scenes in the midst of the parade. That’s something I always want to do, when there’s a captive audience. Especially when I was an environmental journalist and writing about sustainable seafood or whatever the topic of the week was, I would be learning so much that I knew everyone around me didn’t know and I’d want to get up on the subway or on airplanes and start talking to people. My last name is Prediger, which means Preacher in German, so I think I have a soapbox tendency.  I have never done it except in character in that movie.
DP: After Red Flag, you were in a few films, including Pollywogs and Life of Crime by Daniel Schechter, with whom you began a relationship.
JP: Alex and I were on the road doing Red Flag and Alex kept taking calls from this guy Dan Schechter, and they were talking about the next movie Alex was going to do. And apparently, Alex suggested me to play the female lead that Sophia Takal ended up playing.  She had been in Dan’s movie Supporting Characters with Alex.  That role was a representation of an ex-girlfriend of Dan’s, so I’m really glad that I didn’t play that role.  That would have been weird. I’m barely in Life of Crime, just for a split second, but I helped make that movie as an associate producer.
DP: I’m not sure if it was before or after acting with you in Red Flag that Onur asked you to be in his own film, Richard’s Wedding.
JP: Actually, Alex Karpovsky was supposed to play the role that I played, Alex, and he couldn’t do it, and it was really cool getting to play a part that was written for a guy. Obviously some things were adjusted, but I really liked that my character and Onur’s character were a man and a woman who are good,platonic friends. The first twenty minutes or so are just me and Onur walking down the street, which some people really like, and some people are like, “Come on!” But it’s fun for me to watch because I know that 99% of that scene is exactly the way it was scripted. We did little flourishes, but Onur had done such a good job of writing conversation that when we said the lines back and forth to each other, it sounded like real friends talking unscripted.
DP: The trailer contains a hilarious moment when you two are on a street corner and he puts his hand on the top of your head in a super annoying way and holds you at arm’s length so you can’t get away or reach him with your flailing arms.
JP:  It’s so disrespectful, and yet so funny.  And actually a little painful for me. It’s fun to do that kind of inappropriate physical comedy.  I don’t remember if that bit is part of the walking scene, but I do remember that Onur and I encountered a group of kids during the walking scene and they improvised with us.  After they said something to us, we asked, “Hey, can you say that again?”  We backed it up, shot it, and they were great.  It’s pretty exciting that can happen anywhere you are in New York.  All these happy accidents are waiting to happen.
DP: Your next film with Onur was Applesauce, a black comedy that may have been my favorite narrative at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
JP: It was sold out at every screening, and it was really cute how people responded to Onur.  They would see him in the theater, and be like, “Oh, my god, it’s him!” It was fun to see my friend get exulted in that way.
DP: I know you saw the review where an online critic or blogger gave the film only a 7.5 rating but wrote that it proved “the theory that…anything involving Jennifer Prediger…will result in nothing less than an enjoyable time.”
JP: Yes, that was great to read!  People seemed to really enjoy the movie. I was getting texts from people who were saying, “This is the best thing I’ve seen at the festival,” and “This is great!”  So many nice compliments, I felt really uplifted by it all.
DP: Did you ever ask Onur what the title, Applesauce, means?
JP: Sure, but I didn’t get a satisfactory answer. But I like the title, and the letter A gets the movie higher up on the on-demand list. Onur was asked to explain the title at every Q&A at the festival. And I guess we learned that the word applesauce was a swear word in the 1920s, and if something bad happened people would say, “Applesauce!” Onur also likes non-sequitur titles, like Duck Soup and Animal Crackers. It just leaves an absurd, poetic impression.
DP: Did you know he was writing a movie about two couples falling apart after everyone reveals their darkest secrets?
JP: I did know about it.  He said, “I’m writing a role for you,” and I was very flattered, but thinking, “I’ll believe that when I see it!”  But Onur is true to his word–for the most part–and he wrote it and I read it and I was just delighted.
DP: Do you think he writes for you, or writes parts that you could play?
JP: Hmm.  A good question that I don’t know the answer to.  I think he would say that he wrote this for me, but I don’t know.
DP: Did you read the script while he was writing, or did you wait?
JP: He gave me a draft and then another draft. He may have sent me three drafts before I got a chance to read it, all within a couple of days.  He  just tirelessly cranks out material.
DP: He seems to have a bit of a stock company, which includes you.
JP: He has a loyalty to his actors and wants them in what he’s making. Only certain types of actors can work with him because he’s a bit of a wild card and you never know what he’s going to do.  He’s very funny, but he can be a megalomaniac, and so I think his actors have to know what they’re getting into when he casts them.  I mean that in the best way.  Onur’s a jewel. He’s one of my best friends in the world, and I think our friendship comes through in our work together, which I really love. We have a shorthand with each other. I know him and I know his process, I’ve seen him evolve as we’ve made three feature films together now, among other little projects, and it’s fun to see how he’s growing as an artist and as a human being.
DP: Working on Applesauce, was it hard or fun most of the time?
JP: Both.  It was really stressful when we were shooting in my apartment for three or four days.  Onur was staying there while we shot and it was kind of chaotic.  I would make him breakfast, and then everybody else would show up, so it was nonstop filming and that got a little intense and a little crazy. They commandeered the apartment of a neighbor who had gone out of town, and Onur sort of went a little crazy with the apartment and it was kind of a disaster, I was totally mortified that the neighbors offered it and Onur was given an inch and took a mile. It was humiliating, but kind of funny after the fact. We made amends, it’s all good now.
DP:  Onur plays the lead character, Ron, with Trieste Kelly Dunn is his wife Nickki.  And you and Max Casella play their married best friends, Kate and Les. Talk about the first scene in the restaurant, when the four main characters are all friendly and there’s a lot of really good, natural dialogue.
JP: I don’t remember how many times we shot that scene.  What was great was that we were in this nice Italian restaurant that served us wonderful food.  Our two cinematographers were shooting at all times, and they were really incredible at capturing what’s going on in a verit√© sort of way.  They were shooting from both sides, simultaneously, so Onur didn’t need them to shoot quite as many times. We’d get through a big chunk of the scene and then they’d focus on just little parts of it, and do close-ups, and Onur later synched it up.  When there was speech, that was probably the most complex part of that scene.
DP: Everyone is in rhythm and it really seems like the four of you were friends.
JP: We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse anything really, so the first few takes we did served as the rehearsal, and then hopefully we hit our stride. We all had a lot of comfort around each other, so I think we got to where we needed to be early. People think we were improvising, because it sounds so natural.
DP: Applesauce is set up so we believe we are watching two really strong marriages, each with people you’d like for friends, and there is great camaraderie between everyone.  And then Ron, inspired by a radio host’s challenge, reveals to the other three the greatest secret from his past–I won’t say what it is!–and right away you see that nothing was as strong as it appeared.  And by the time they all reveal their secrets, there is no hope that things will be remain the same between any of them.
JP: It is amazing how the fabric of people’s lives can unravel over something so small–“the width of a finger!”–and happens in an instant.
DP: Were there surprises for you when reading the script, as Onur caused havoc among these four people?
JP: I was delighted by the twists and turns in the relationships, and what they all do to get back at each other. People get hurt, and then defensive, then hurt and defensive, and it becomes a house of cards. Everything comes tumbling down. I think Onur is working out a lot of his fears in his movies.
DP: Here’s something Onur has said: “I’m 42 years old now and my biggest fears right now are commitment and marriage, so I thought I would make a film about these things.”  Oddly, that wasn’t him talking about Applesauce but last year’s horror movie…
JP:  Summer of Blood.  I think it’s interesting that he has evolved from Summer of Blood, because in that movie he was really fearful of commitment, and then in Applesauce his character has a wife. It was very interesting for me as his friend to watch him take on that role, even if it was just fictionally.  I think he may be opening himself up to the possibility of commitment because I heard him say at a Q&A at the Tribeca Film Festival that the next stage in life is to get married and have children. I think he oscillates between thinking that he wants that and that he could never do it. I have a feeling we’re going to tame him.  That’s why I’d like to make with him a family kind of movie. You’d see further his evolution as an artist and a person.  I should say that I’d also like to make with Onur a War of the Roses or our own version of Force Majeure.
DP: Could you tell you were making a good movie when you were doing it?
JP: It felt good, I felt proud of what we were doing. There were some things that I wish were in the movie that didn’t make the cut.  For instance, the four of us have a fight at the kitchen table, where Karen actually hits Nickki with a napkin.  That was inspired by a bit on Your Shows of Shows, where one character hits the other with a napkin—”you brute!”  So there are things that I wish were in the movie that we had a lot of fun doing, but less is more sometimes.
DP: How was it reading the script and seeing what happens to Karen from the beginning to the end of the movie?
JP: When I first read the script I didn’t know who I’d be playing, Nickki or Karen.  I was excited because there was the possibility I’d have the opportunity to die in a movie for the first time!
DP: Are Karen and Nickki interchangeable?  Because, and I won’t give anything away, they get exchanged basically.
JP: Yeah, they get exchanged, and then you see one of them in the same places–the kitchen, the bed–where you had seen the other one earlier in the movie.  A new person, same life. It’s heart-breaking actually to think about that. Even though the movie’s very funny, the reality of that is very sad.
DP: You ended up playing Kate, Les’s wife.  Did you choose the name?
JP: I’ve always said that I never met a Kate I didn’t like, and that’s why I’m named Kate in Uncle Kent, but this time it was a coincidence!
DP: The language throughout the movie is funny and really raunchy. I burst out laughing at the line Karen delivers snippily to Nickki just when everyone thinks she’s forgiven her for her dalliance with Les: “You’re so beautiful–I can see why Les wanted to put his dick in your mouth.”
JP: Onur is great with the one-liners, the jokes. That was a line he wrote that was very fun to deliver deadpan. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m actually just staring at Trieste the entire scene from a foot away. I didn’t take my eyes off her. I think it was making her uncomfortable, which was kind of fun, but I had never been so laser-focused on another person.
DP: When the disguised Karen does some damage on the street with some paint, you’re not wearing glasses, right?
JP: That’s true. I had taken them off under the burqa.  That made it a little hard for me to see while I was walking down the streets of Brooklyn in a black burqa while carrying a bucket of paint. Gosh, that was a really questionable thing to be doing, People were looking at me, I felt like I was going to cause some kind of religious uprising.
DP: Was the camera in sight?
JP: Yeah, but I could feel people staring me down, like, “What is she doing?”
DP: Was that your decision not to wear the glasses?
JP: It was hard to put the hijab on while wearing the glasses. Also, I knew I was going to be running, so I didn’t want to stomp on my glasses.
DP: It’s jarring you’re not wearing them because in Apartment Troubles, you’re even wearing your glasses when you’re underwater in the Pacific Ocean!
JP: Yeah, we actually taped my glasses to my face, and put string around the back of my head so I wouldn’t lose those. We just thought it would be really funny for me to be underwater and getting hit by waves and have the glasses totally stay on.
DP: How do you know Jess Wexler, your partner-in-crime in front of and behind the cameras in Apartment Troubles? Through Joe Swanberg?
JP: Indirectly, yes, because I really enjoyed her in his Alexander the Last. But we hadn’t met. Maybe five years ago, I saw her walking down the street when we both lived in Caroll Gardens. I was like, “Oh my god, there’s Jess, I should say hello.”  But I realized she didn’t know me at all.  I was thinking, “She’ll be your friend in the future, it’s okay, you don’t have to say hi to her now.” I had this weird moment where I felt like she was going to be my friend but I didn’t want to freak her out by running up to her, although she would have been totally nice.  She and I did meet years later, So Jess was coming to New York City because she needed a place to stay while she was shooting The Good Wife, and I was going to work on Dan Schechter’s movie in Connecticut, so she came and sublet my apartment.   I was illegally subletting it from another filmmaker who had gone out of town. So she lived there for two months, and then I came back and we overlapped for a month.
DP: Were you instant friends?
JP: Pretty much, yeah. and within the first week we decided that we wanted to make something together, and after knowing each other for only about two months we starting writing Trouble Dolls.  I should say that is what the movie was called before our distributor changed the name. That is what we called it for two years as we were making it.  So it will always be Trouble Dolls to me. It was sort of inspired by the apartment, because we had gotten an eviction notice on the door.  There were a lot of issues with the apartment, it was a very bohemian, dilapidated, wonderful, inspiring place. The stove was going to blow up at one point and the bathroom was held together by duct tape.
DP: So you and Jess wrote these two women characters, Olivia and Nicole, who aren’t much alike but live together and are, maybe by default, best friends.  I know they aren’t interchangeable.
JP: That’s funny. We wanted them to be sort of like the odd couple.  We were really interested in buddy comedies and stories where the two people are closely intertwined but are very different and are not the best influences on each other. So Jess’s character is the narcissist and my character is the needy worshipful one.  People always say that we have great chemistry.  I don’t exactly know what that means, but it’s wonderful to hear that.
DP: From watching the movie it seems like you completely trust each other.
JP: We get a kick out of each other.  I know it helps when you enjoy the people you’re working with. But you hear great stories of people who hated each other and made these incredible, iconic characters.
DP: I know it must be rare for two actors in a movie to also be the codirectors.  Maybe it’s a first.  How did you co-direct when you were both in front of the camera?
JP: It was a bit of a free-for-all, but we tried to create a method so we could do what we each needed to do. Because I needed to be in director mode, and then I needed to go into actor mode. When you’re in a scene, especially if you’re in a very emotional scene of some kind, you really need to put the director side away, so we would usually do blocking before the scene and make sure we liked the shots.  We’d go through what was going to happen, and then descend into our characters. One thing we would also do with each other, which was really cool, was directing each other through acting. So if I knew I wanted Jess to give a certain kind of emotional response, I would act in a way trying to evoke that response. I think she did the same thing. So we could really push each other. It’s actually a great tool for a director to be physically able to evoke emotion or response. DP: I would think the hardest part would be that you liked each other so maybe deferred to each other rather than cause waves.
JP: We’re both very opinionated, and nine times out of ten we had the same opinion about things, which was great.  But that one time out of ten was often difficult, because we had very different ideas of what needed to happen. Luckily, we weren’t indecisive; that was never our problem.  We were almost too decisive on that one time out of ten, and then we’d have to figure it out.
DP: Did you work better as the shooting went on?
JP: It came and went. I feel that we had our most tense moments during post-production. I forget who said it but every day it’s like hand-to-hand combat in there. It  really does feel that way when you’re fighting for your vision and want to use whatever was shot but realizing how much isn’t there that you wish was there–and wishing you could do it all over again and then trying to hold true to the big picture. It’s really brutal. You’re like leaning forward the whole time, ready to pounce because you have to fight to express your opinion before a decision is made. For me, it was very important that I got to edit the underwater sequence, because I felt no one understood it the way I did. Other things I saw people do infuriated me, so it came down to me being like, “I need to do this, everyone back away.”
DP: Did you ever say let’s agree so we don’t kill each other?
JP: Oh sure, that’s probably the only reason we’re still alive. It worked out in the end. We had three different people who were editing with us, and our main editor Arturo Sosa really acted as a diplomat between the two of us and listened to what we were each thinking. It was a difficult job, like being the father of twins, and he really had to try to get both of our needs met.
DP: So finally your movie was made, the directorial debut for both you and Jess.
JP: This is cool: When Apartment Troubles came out on the 27th of March, we were in L.A., and the movie opened at the Los Feliz Street Cinema.  I got out of the car, and there were these huge signs on this beautiful art deco purple theater that had out faces and the name of the movie.  And I looked out across the street, and I could see the apartment I moved to when I was 21.  So I had one of those bawling moments. The Uber driver could tell that I was so excited that I got so emotional. It was funny. It was a full-circle moment.  Making a movie is what I set out to do.
DP: Tell me the movie you’re writing.
JP:, I’m calling it a geriatric Parent Trap.  It’s just about trapping your parents and forcing them to go through some of the things you think didn’t go right the first time and trying to make it come out better on the other side. My parents have been divorced since I was one, and they feuded bitterly. And I’m still working through those issues, in a hopefully healing, comedic way. That’s what the world needs!

Thomas, RJ, and Olivia Are "Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl"

Playing in Theaters

Thomas, RJ, and Olivia Are "Me, Earl, and The Dying Girl"

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 6/11/15)

Thomas, RJ, and Olivia Are “Me, Earl and The Dying Girl”

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By Danny Peary
Me, Earl and the Dying Girl fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  And if this charming adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ best-selling YA novel, does play here, it might be the rare instance when teens in town dare visit the local cinema.  Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story),boasting a terrific cast of young, rising stars and veteran actors, and featuring a smart, witty, moving, and offbeat screenplay by Andrews, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at 2015 Sundance Film Festival.  According to its press notes, it tells the story of Greg (Thomas Mann), “a high school senior who is trying to blend in anonymously, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield of teenage life.  He even describes his constant companion Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, as more of a ‘co-worker’ than a best friend.  But when Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists he spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke)–a girl in his class [with hidden artistic talents] who has just been diagnosed with cancer–he slowly discovers how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be.”  This movie is getting a lot of attention and prior to its New York debut this Friday, Mann (Welcome to Me and the upcoming The Stanford Prison Experiment), Cyler (a winning debut performance), and the Cooke (the British star of horror and sci-fi films Ouija, The Quiet Ones, and The Signal),appeared on the Today Show on Wednesday.  Two days before I spoke to them at the Crosby Hotel in SoHO.  From three separate roundtables, here are my questions and their responses.
Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann
THOMAS MANN
Danny Peary: The movie is about high school kids dealing with adult situations.  Could this film have been about college kids instead?
Thomas Mann: I think it could have been placed in college, yeah.  It could be about any young person who hasn’t really experienced his first emotional trauma yet.  Because you’re constantly ‘coming of age’ at different points in your life.  I haven’t seen a character like Greg on-screen before, regardless of his age.  He doesn’t see that this is a beautiful, poignant time in his life because he is thinking only that it is awkward, uncomfortable, and confusing.  It’s funny and endearing watching him try to be sensitive to Rachel’s situation.  It’s just so honest. I still feel like a teenager sometimes so I could definitely relate to him.
DP: I can see why Rachel accepts Greg into her life after her diagnosis, but what does he see in her?
TM: I think just acceptance.  I think he genuinely feels like she appreciates him.  She laughs at his jokes, and I think when you’re a teenager, all you really need is someone to understand you. And he had never shared as much of himself with anyone before. When you open up to someone, as Greg does with Rachel, and it doesn’t go poorly, you feel much safer around them.  They feel safe with each other which is why they can confide in each other.
DP: Greg has some denial about Rachel’s cancer being terminal. Do you think he pictures a future with her?
TM: I think he does.  That’s the thing, you don’t know.  It’s not that they don’t love each other, and you can see that maybe in five years they would become a great love story, but right now it’s just this great friendship.  That’s
all it needs to be for now. That’s all that they both need from each other. Two artists discovering each other’s art.
RJ Cyler
RJ Cyler
RJ CYLER
Danny Peary: What’s Earl’s role in the movie?
RJ Cyler: Earl is like the moral compass of this movie. He’s the one who tells it how it is. You don’t see Earl throughout the whole movie, but when he’s on-screen what he says is true and to the point. He doesn’t say what doesn’t need to be said, there’s nothing extra. And he’s the voice of the audience, saying what the audience thinks.  He’s like the middle man between the audience and the screen.
DP: Was that explained to you or was that something you figured out yourself?
RJC: It was something that came up through the script, really, reading it and talking to Jesse and Alfonso about the vision that they had for Earl and the entire project. I was like, “Oh, okay, now I get it. It took me two hours but I get it now!”  It was a bit of a challenge to have to calm down and be the voice of reason through the whole thing.
DP: What’s Earl’s life when we don’t see him in the movie?
RJC: When he’s not around Greg, Earl’s trying to find out who he is, while at the same time watching out for his brother and mom.  He had to grow up at a young age, so he’s an adult figure in almost every situation. That’s not like me.  I’m not always the adult in every situation, I’m very childish, as you can tell by this orange shirt.
DP: Does Earl think he has a future as filmmaker, maybe with Greg?
RJ: He doesn’t want to do film in the future.  He loves making films with Greg, but that’s not his life choice. He’s just like, “I’m backing up my friend in this, it’s fun, it’s what we do together.” But I think Earl wants to go to college and then have a family and an American-Dream type of life.
DP: I hope you didn’t have to do twenty-five takes for those scenes when Greg’s father gives you exotic food to eat.
RJC: “Take 75!” I had to do a lot of takes because Alfonso is very thorough.  He’d give me a break and put some spread on a cracker for us. It wasn’t bad when they were for long shots, but he loves close-ups.  The pate brick was big when we started, and it was tiny when we were done. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go my hotel and I’m going to change tongues. I’ll be back.”
DP: The growth of Greg’s character is a theme of the movie.  But does Earl also grow during the movie?
RJC: Yeah, Earl’s character throughout the movie is hard and he doesn’t really show his emotions. The movie shows the progression to where he has had enough, and at the confrontation scene at the end, when Greg gets into a fight in the cafeteria, that’s his tipping point. His cup is full and that one last drop tips it over. Earl’s growth throughout the movie is internal, it’s about stuff he has to start softening up to.  He has to learn how to just be in the moment and let go and show how he feels.
DP: Greg says at the beginning that Earl is not a friend but a “co-worker.” Will Greg ever admit that Earl is a friend?
RJC: I feel like he will, he just has to grow up a little bit. Greg’s relationship with Rachel, and the lessons that she teaches him throughout the movie will help him appreciate the people around him.  That includes his parents, who he takes for granted. “My mom thinks I’m a nerd, my dad is weird.” I feel he’ll get over those kind of things through his relationship.
DP: You’re pretty tall so do you play basketball?
RJ: I play in my neighborhood but I’m always picked last.   But now I don’t have to make even one shot because I’m in a movie!
Olivia Cooke.
Olivia Cooke.
OLIVIA COOKE
Danny Peary: In the press notes you say that you wrote the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, that you wanted to play Rachel, but it doesn’t say what you put in that letter.
Olivia Cooke: I really can’t remember other than it was just blind panic, desperation. Please, please, please!  I think I tried to explain what I could bring to the role as an actress, and what I could bring to the movie. It’s always weird writing those letters, because often I’m quite self-deprecating, and it’s like writing a personal essay in which you build yourself up and are confident and say only what you’re good at.  I’m quite aware of  my strong points but also my weak points, and writing those letters is just basically bullshitting, saying, “I can do this, I can do that!”
DP: Was it about playing the girl or playing a good part?
OC: Both.
DP: When playing the dying girl, did you think about her future at all?
OC: Yeah.  With Rachel, you have to think about the backstory and where she wants to be, after graduating from school and after chemotherapy and the cancer. I thought about that a lot. Alfonso and I spoke about how she would go to college and pursue art, probably somewhere not far away from Pittsburgh, probably somewhere in New York, That seemed more like her style than this smallish town.  We always felt that Rachel had matured beyond high school a long time ago, and she was kind of waiting it out and doing things just to get by.  She’s graduated in her head, before we meet her.
DP: Did it make you really sad, thinking that she has cancer and probably won’t have a future?
OC: Well, we don’t know that yet in the movie.  But yeah, of course it made me sad.
DP: Greg seems to tell Rachel everything during the months of their friendship, but does she hold back stuff from him?
OC: Yeah, definitely. I don’t want to say what because I think it’s nice that she has a bit of mystery.
DP: Then why does she hold back stuff from him?
OC: Because Greg needs to learn to listen. I think he’s starting to realize that by the end of the film. That was a big thing. You can see it with the way the camera moves. Everything’s so chaotic and the camera really captures his neuroses, and then everything becomes quiet and more still, and that really reflects his consciousness and his mind expanding and him learning how to listen and how to share and be selfless. I think he will learn more and more about Rachel as the years go on, but for now, that’s enough.

Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack All Say "I Believe in Unicorns"

Playing in Theaters

Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack All Say "I Believe in Unicorns"

(from Sag Harbor Express Online 5/29/15)

Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack All Say: “I Believe in Unicorns”

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By Danny Peary
I Believe in Unicorns fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  After a year of winning awards, receiving rave reviews, and gathering a huge Facebook following, Leah Meyerhoff’s semiautobiographical debut feature opens theatrically at the IFC Center in NYC and on VOD today, Friday, May 29, with a national release to follow.
Serling and Davina.
Serling and Davina.
For its week run at the IFC Center, Meyerhoff, who founded the collective Film Fatales to unify and promote women filmmakers, has assembled a number of post-screening panels with a remarkable array of talent, including herself, her movie’s stars Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack and crew members, and many exceptional filmmakers. At the end of this posting is a schedule that will help you pick the evening you want to go. The premise of Meyerhoff’s movie is familiar: a pretty, innocent sixteen year old California girl, Davina (Dyer), who lives with her invalid mother and dreams of escape and fantasizes about unicorns, meets and runs off with an older “bad boy,” Sterling (Vack).  Everything else in Meyerhoff’s impressionistic road movie is unconventional, as the writer-director shuttles Davina back and forth between reality and fantasy.  As one critic has said, “Meyerhoff rewrites the modern love story.”  Perhaps teenagers will embrace I Believe in Unicorns as they did the popular young-love movies, The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars.  On Tuesday I did the following interview with Meyerhoff, Dyer, and Vack about their unusual movie.
Leah Meyerhoff, Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack.
Leah Meyerhoff, Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack.
Danny Peary: Talk about the title–is believing in unicorns a good thing, a dangerous thing, a girl thing?
Leah Meyeroff: All of the above. For me, the unicorns in this film are a really wonderful coming-of-age symbol.  A unicorn  is a childlike, innocent creature and also a majestic, phallic adult creature–and it symbolizes Davina’s transition from girl to woman.  Also, her believing in unicorns is her looking for an escape.  She navigates the complexities of her reality through a fantasy world and looks for a way out.  Her belief in unicorns is representative of that.
DP: Growing up, all girls…
LM:…love unicorns.  I did.
DP: Natalia, did you love unicorns when growing up?
Natalia Dyer: Oh, sure. I remember having a plethora of unicorn toys of my own.  When I was very young I’m sure I wasn’t thinking so very deeply about the symbolism of unicorns, but to me they were certainly about escape and creativity–so I’m sure I created a world that played to the more innocent side of the unicorn symbol.  That innocence was always there.
DP: Leah, do you define I Believe in Unicorns as a “rite of passage” movie?
LM: I wouldn’t say it is exactly what it is, but as I said, it’s a coming-of-age story and I don’t know if there is a difference in this case.
DP:  A rite of passage can take place when a person is fifty or any age, but what Davina experiences  in the movie is related to her becoming sixteen.
LM: Davina turns sixteen–and in that sense it is a coming-of-age story, but it is also an intense love story about these two characters who fall madly in love and want to be with each other but then realize they are wrong for each other in a variety of ways.  People in love figuring out that they shouldn’t be together is a rite of passage at any age.  This film is about that first love and those moments of a young girl being so infatuated with someone that she’ll go to any lengths for him.  In that sense the movie is about the lengths a sixteen-year-old will go to feel loved.  But of course that can be true of people of other ages as well.
DP: Peter, Sterling has a backstory about growing up in a home with a brutal father, but while playing him did you think of him primarily as a symbolic character—the embodiment of the unicorn Davina fantasizes about–and as such maybe should be mysterious and have no backstory?
Peter Vack: Leah gave him a backstory in her script.  So while part of my job was to flesh out details about Sterling for myself, the character arrived with a history.  As an actor I can say that having that knowledge of his past made my character more fun to play and also easier to play.  Also Leah provided me with other details that were fun to think about.  Approaching the role, I didn’t think of Sterling as being symbolic because it’s not possible to play a symbol, but when I now watch the film as an audience member I do recognize a symbolic quality to him.
DP: In regard to the movie’s “a girl’s sexual-awakening” theme, we are reminded that only a virgin can tame a unicorn.
LM: Yes, that’s the mythology.  Sterling starts out as a unicorn but I think he becomes more of a dragon.
DP: Leah, when writing the script did you decide to give Sterling a backstory to make him a better, more-rounded part for an actor to play?
LM: Yes. I thought it was important that it comes across that Davina isn’t 100% good and Sterling isn’t 100% bad, and his backstory contributes to that.   I think Sterling and Davina are good people who are maybe wrong for each other.  The film is a very subjective story told from the viewpoint of a teenage girl.  We don’t know that much more about Sterling than Davina knows and are experiencing him in real time from her perspective.  As an audience member you might look at his backstory and say, “Oh, this is why he’s behaving this way, this is why he’s volatile, this is where he is coming from.”  But the experience of watching the film is her journey and therefore I really hope people will stick withher and see it through her eyes.
DP: Has that been the reaction so far?
LM: I’ve been traveling with this film on the festival circuit for the past year and it’s interesting that there has often been a difference in response to it according to gender.  Women view the film primarily through Davina’s perspective but some men view it through Sterling’s perspective, which I didn’t expect because I think it’s clearly Davina’s story.  But people do identify with Peter’s character and having that backstory there is helpful to them in understanding why is he behaving in a certain way.
DP: Do you think those male viewers are identifying with Sterling or identifying with a girl falling in love with his kind of character?
LM: Maybe it is the latter and they identify with the girl falling in love with this character.  Sterling is charismatic and sexy so it’s understandable a teenage girl would fall for someone like him.
PV: I had some guys come up to me after screenings who had a problem with Sterling.  I think they identified with Davina and felt very protective of her.
LM: A lot of people do. The movie has hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook and we get messages from young girls who say, “Thank you for making this movie with this character Davina!”  It’s very rewarding.  We’ve traveled with the film for a while now and we’ve seen that especially older people who have children of their own are very protective of Davina and want to make sure she is okay.  Younger viewers are often so in the moment that they don’t see it with that remove.  It’s: “Of course she’s going off with this guy, I’m fine with it.”  Then at the end they say, “Well maybe that wasn’t the right path.”  So it’s been an interesting diversity of reactions.
DP: Early in the movie, I was thinking that you felt it was almost your mission as a filmmaker to rescue Davina and make sure everything turns out well for her, because she is a nice girl and deserves good things in life.
LM: I feel very protective of that character, too.
DP: It’s interesting that, as you said, Davina isn’t a perfect girl, as we may wrongly assume at the beginning when we see her taking care of her invalid mother.  She is sweet but to be with Sterling, she ditches school and leaves behind her mother, although she does call home eventually.
PV: It’s interesting to me that Sterling and Davina aren’t 100% sure why they do what they do.  I tried to bring this idea to the work I did. Sterling and to a large extent Davina act impulsively, without necessarily knowing why. and there was something very liberating about playing that.  And the way the film is pieced together it is very relatable and speaks to a lot of people, because sometimes in life we all make these bold, life-changing decisions that do fall into that “rite of passage” category–without necessarily knowing why we are making them.  And it’s striking to see that in this film.
LM: There is an immediate, organic quality to the actions of the two people who are both in over their heads.  They’re not even sure what journey they’re on.  The idea is that the audience is with them for that journey, experiencing this collage of material that is coming at them in all different ways.  There is a timeless quality where you’re not quite sure how long they’ve been on the road or where they are and what exactly is happening.  It’s overwhelming to them, which is what young-love experiences are often like.   Only when you’re older can you look back on them with clarity.
DP: Natalia, if Sterling asked Davina to rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde did or drive to a state where she could marry at sixteen, do you think she would do that impulsively?
ND: I think you can see it a little in the film that Davina has a conflict of morality in regard to Sterling’s lifestyle and how he operates. There is some moral negotiation going on inside her, but it is just that time in her life when she isn’t sure of who she is and what she wants and what she should be doing.  I think the climax of the film is about Davina figuring out where she stands and what she wants.
LM: In many ways as a filmmaker I was going against some of those tropes that you see in films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands.  There’s this expectation when seeing two teenagers on the run that it’s going to lead to their robbing banks and a kind of heightened drama, which isn’t true to the reality of the majority teenagers today.  I think what sets this film apart is that it avoids some of the familiar Hollywood tropes.  There is enough drama inherent in their dynamic and in their being in over their heads and overwhelmed and in love that we don’t need those sorts of plot points that we so often have.  This film almost works against audience expectations.
DP: Do you think Davina feels guilt this whole time?
ND: Yeah, it would be silly to say that she doesn’t feel guilt.  This is all very new to her.  I agree that you do make those rash, impulsive decisions from some place deep down that you don’t always know.  But she does care about her mother and she does have a moral, internal compass that procures a little guilt.
LM: Especially by the end of the film after she’s grown in a lot of ways.
DP: Leah mentioned that these young lovers might not be good for each other in the long run.  Does the film enter the realm of l’amour fou, where the romance is so intense that if the couple stayed together for more than a brief time they’d go up in flames?
PV: Freud said it was like a “psychotic stage.”  There is an element of that in this film I think.
ND: Me, too.
LM: It’s like an addiction almost.
DP: They might be good for each other, but only briefly.  Leah, were you feeling that?
LM: That’s absolutely where I was coming from.  I think that’s very true to thosefirst experiences.  This film has connected quite strongly with the younger female audience who can identify with Davina falling so much in love and going on a journey. Although their conscience would say, “Hey, I don’t know if this is the right decision,” they’d tell themselves, “I’m just going to impulsively go for it and see what happens.”  That’s how you often get into messy situations in life.  You know, all love is messy but particularly those first loves.
DP: In Splendor in the Grass, Natalie Wood falls madly in love with the handsome Warren Beatty, the coolest guy in her high school.  She doesn’t end up with him and has a breakdown.  Years later, she sees him again and he’s a nothing.
LM: That’s part of the process.
DP: Peter, does Davina see more in Sterling than there is and in time would she see him as a disappointment?
PV: Probably she would. That’s a prediction I would make for what will happen in Part 6 of the I Believe in Unicorn series.
ND: Yes, in a sequel.
DP: Leah, I read that you took Natalia to meet your mom, Toni Meyerhoff at the house you grew up in so she would better know your background when you grew up with a mother who has MS. And I read that Natalia also told you stories about herself at the time.  And that surprised me because I would have thought she would have told those stories to you when she was auditioning for the part.
LM: We collaborated on her character from the beginning and I told her early, early on about my experiences as a child and about my mom.  And Natalia talked about her experiences being a junior in high school at the time, but right before we started shooting we went to the house and met my mom, who plays Natalia’s mom in the movie, and she went into my bedroom, which would be Davina’s room. That allowed her to live in that environment for awhile, and it was a really immersive experience in terms of preparing herself for the role.
ND: It was very beneficial for me.  It was really informative and Leah was very open about where my character came from.  So there was a combination of being in that environment and bringing my own experiences that helped me find Davina.
LM: You can talk academically about how the mother character is disabled and this is what Davina’s childhood home life is like but it’s different to actually be there.  I loved that we had that opportunity before we started shooting.
DP: So, Natalia, was it a burden, intimidating, or a nice challenge to play a character based in many ways on the young Leah?
ND: It was a challenge for sure, and maybe there was some intimidation at first, but Leah’s openness and how attentive we both were to he character made it much easier and fun.
DP: A lot of times female writer-directors want their actresses to know more about their characters than they do themselves.  Did you want Natalia to eventually know more than you about Davina, even though Davina was based on you?
LM: I think all directors often want their actors to bring their own interpretations of their characters.  With both Natalia and Peter, we collaborated in advance so we knew who their characters were before shooting.  Natalia said who she thought Davina was and Peter said who he thought Sterling was, and it was a collaboration.
DP: Peter, I read that you were surprised by how “traditional” the auditions were for a movie that broke all kinds of grounds.
PV: Yeah.  That’s the kind of leap you make when you audition for any project. An audition is a very strange thing that very much exists outside of the film, especially for a film like this.  It’s like eating a burger they make in a laboratory and then you’re allowed to eat a great steak.  Natalia and I didn’t audition together but I think a smart filmmaker knows if there will be chemistry to the screen.  There is a lot of insecurity out there when a filmmaker will say, “Oh we must see these people together.”  No, if you have two good actors that you trust, you know they will have good chemistry.   I liked that we didn’t have a lot of auditions and we rehearsed just the right amount.
LM:  There was amazing chemistry as soon as Peter and Natalia were together. so there was no question they were right for the parts.  We didn’t rehearse too much, but we did talk a lot and we Skyped alot and we hung out a lot.
PV: Why this movie was fun to make and why it works as well as it does is because Leah created this environment where Natalia and I and the other actors and the crew were vibrating on the frequency of her film.   And Leah made sure everything ran smoothly on the set.  Like with the scenes with physical violence, she made sure they were choreographed as if they were dances, because then she could fill it with all the danger she wanted.  You want to know what you’re doing physically so you don’t have to worry about hurting each other for real.
LM: We blocked the physical scenes, but in terms of performance we tried to keep it as fresh as possible and get what we wanted on the first take. I’m not saying the film was improvised because it’s not mumblecore in that respect, but it was fresh.  We shot as much as we could in chronological order and really went on this road trip and this journey as a team.  The three of us were kind of in our own little bubble, let’s live it as we create it. The process of making the film was quite intimate and organic.
PV: It did feel very intimate.   It was fun to do: closed sets, small crew. We didn’t have people just standing around.
DP: Natalia, one of the most unusual things about the love-making scenes is how aggressive the innocent female is.  Davina is with this older, more experienced boy, yet she doesn’t wait for him to take the lead.  She isn’t shy but initiates the kissing and even gets on top, really going after him.  Was that important for you?
ND: I think it was important. It felt right and real for me then.  To play passivity didn’t seem right.
DP:  The 1971 film Walkabout is also about a teenage girl experiencing her sexual awakening, only it’s not in California but in the Australian outback.  Years after making the film, the actress Jenny Agutter told me that because she had been the same age as the girl she played what emotions and confusion she felt about herself revealed themselves naturally in the character.  So the actress and character blended into one another. Did you really identify with Davina because she was your age and felt the same things you did?
ND: I don’t know.  But I will say that certainly that age is when everyone starts to kind of explore and figure out their personalities and that aspect of their lives. That felt the way to go.  I was sixteen at the time and the boy stuff, the family stuff, and Davina figuring out who she is and what she wants to do and what she wants to be was all very fresh and real to me.
DP: Leah, talk about your use of water in this movie and your short Twtich,which has much in common with the feature.  Natalia bathes, showers, swims in a pool.  I don’t think going for a sexual connotation, but does the water signify purification or rebirth?
LM:  The film begins in water and ends in water.  People see rebirth metaphors in it, but for me water is a safe space.  When I was little kid I saw Legend [1985],which has a unicorn in it.  It was one of Tom Cruise’s earliest movies–he was older but looked about fifteen and it’s so great–and there’s a scene where he dives into a river and the surface of the river freezes over and he’s stuck underneath the surface.  So when I would take baths I’d pretend I was underneath a surface of the frozen water and I’d hold my breath.  So there is something from that experience in the opening scene of Davina under the water in the bathtub.  She’s retreating into this interior space because when you’re under the water and everything is muffled around you, you go into your mind and find all these memories there.  It’s a way for Davina to access her creative side.
DP: Her emerging for the water and breathing is like a rebirth, and I think that’s a key part of your movie.
LM: It is. There’s a rebirth and it’s a rite of passage. For me, the water also ties into her mother’s disability.  This also that comes from my experience.  I have very vivid memories of swimming with my mom as a little girl, and she’d be wearing flotation devices.  Those were the only times that she could feel weightless and I connected to her and empathized with her then.  Here was this woman who had been unable to use her legs or walk for decades and being in the water allowed her some time when she could be free from the heaviness of her body.  I drew from that. Another ritual I did as a kid was pretend I couldn’t use my legs and I would sink down to the floor of the swimming pool.
DP: At the end of Twitch, the girl, who also has a mother with MS, restricts her legs with what looks like plastic wrap and jumps into the pool and sinks to the bottom.
LM: I was empathizing.  She wants to find out what it would be like to not to be able to use her legs.  At the last moment she kicks free and swims toward the surface.
DP: Natalia, were you told what to think while you were under water in the bathtub?  And were you to think in character?
ND: We filmed many different things in the water and there were different feelings I had doing many of them.  But I’m not sure if Leah ever told me to think of anything specific.
LM: It was long ago and I don’t remember either, except for the last time when Davina is under water in the bathtub  I asked Natalia to think of everything that had happened to Davina and then come up for air.
DP: Why did you choose the name Davina for the girl?  I thought no one had that name and you made it up, but I found a few Davinas on Google.
LM: Davina was my best friend in college so I named the character after her!  She was a little freaked out when I told her  I did that.  And she’s coming to the premiere and Natalia and Peter are going to meet her!  I also like that it’s an unusual name. Davina, divine, there’s an innocence there.
DP: Leah has said she made this film in part because there weren’t any truthful films about authentic teenagers when she was a teenager.  Are there other films like this today?
ND: I don’t think I’ve come across a movie like this before, especially not in my teenage years.  I wasn’t exposed to anything like this and think I would have liked that.
PV: If I were still Sterling’s age and watching this movie, I would die a thousand deaths because I’d be so in love with Davina and want so badly to be Sterling.  I like that it is a relationship movie that doesn’t deal with irony. Other films are ironic and cynical.  It’s such a common complaint so maybe we shouldn’t bother to complain anymore but one of the things I find refreshing about this movie is that it’s an epic, beautiful love story that is straightforward and earnest in a good way.  I like seeing movies like this.
DP: Leah, in this movie, you have a real world and a fantasy world, but what makes it risky for you as a filmmaker is that your real world has fantasy elements in it, too.  There is in fact stop-motion animation in both Davina’s fantasy and real worlds.
LM:  It is risky. I haven’t seen many other films that take that approach.  It’s hard to navigate a film that deals with both fantasy and reality and find a balance.  The way we tackled it was by making a very porous border between what’s real and not real. That speaks to they way people are in their minds.  Right now I can be focused on the reality of what’s right in front of me but I might drift off into a daydream and then fantasize about something.  There is a fluidity between the worlds that we found when making the film, especially in the editing process.
DP: Peter, were you thinking in your scenes that it was partly fantasy or were you thinking it was definitely reality?
PV: I was thinking it was definitely reality.
DP: Of course it was Davina, who when Sterling wasn’t there, had vines growing out of her mouth.
ND: Yeah, we did, filming-wise, set aside some of the more fantastical sequences for when Sterling wasn’t present.  But for the bulk of the movie we were very much in the present..
PV: I don’t know if I thought this consciously, but now I definitely think that if we had indicated anything about the fantasy during our scenes together, in our performances, it wouldn’t have worked.  It was Leah’s job to include the fantasy elements, and we had to stay grounded.
ND: We had to stay real.
I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS WEEK Q+A SCHEDULE WITH TALENT:
Fri May 29th 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “The Making of I Believe in Unicorns”
Panel: Leah Meyerhoff (writer/director) and the Unicorns cast and crew
Sat May 30th 3:10pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Editing for Performance”
Panel: Michael Taylor (editor, Unicorns), Natalia Dyer (actress, Unicorns), Peter Vack (actor, Unicorns)
Sat May 30th 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Coming of Age”
Panel: Mary Harron (director, American Psycho), Eliza Hittman (director, It Felt Like Love), Caryn Waechter (director, The Sisterhood of Night), Natalia Dyer (actress, Unicorns)
Sun May 31st 3:10pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “DIY Techniques”
Panel: Ryan Koo (founder, No Film School), Aly Migliori (assoc producer,Unicorns), Joe Stillwater (sound, Unicorns)
Sun May 31st 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Independent Visions”
Adam Leon (director, Gimme the Loot), Deborah Kampmeier (director,Hounddog), Laurie Collyer (director, Sherrybaby), Rob Meyer (director, A Birder’s Guide to Everything)
Mon June 1st 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Stop-Motion Animation”
Panel: Signe Baumane (director, Rocks in my Pockets), Leah Shore (director,Hallway), David Bell (director, The Sacred Engine)
Tues June 2nd 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “Personal Narratives”
Panel: Jonathan Caouette (director, Tarnation), Reed Morano (director,Meadowland), Ryan Piers Williams (director, X/Y), Kim Levin (director, Runoff), Petra Costa (director, Elena)
Wed June 3rd 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “The Casting Process”
Panel: Nicole Kassell (director, The Woodsman), Laurie Weltz (director, Scout), Sara Colangelo (director, Little Accidents), Anja Marquardt (director, She’s Lost Control)
Thurs June 4th 8:20pm Screening/ Q and A To follow: “The Female Gaze”
Panel: Bette Gordon (director, Variety), Alison Bagnall (director, Funny Bunny), Enid Zentelis (director, Evergreen), Gail Segal (professor, NYU), Terry Lawler (executive, NYWIFT)