Jennifer Wesfeldt was kind enough to answer some questions (by email) about her new film, Friends with Kids which opened yesterday.
Women and Hollywood: You were hesitant to step behind the camera for this film and I am wondering what you thought of the experience and what lessons you learned about yourself from directing.
Jennifer Westfeldt: Even though I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen it, I was ultimately grateful for the challenge and the steep learning curve on this. I had been very involved as a producer with the creative decisions on my first two films but was so grateful then to just be an actor during the actual shoot and leave it in the director’s capable hands. On this one, it was truly a 24/7 experience — I would get home from the shooting day, then get on several calls, watch the dailies, check the weather obsessively for the next day (we were shooting in the worst winter in NYC in the last 40 years!), prepare for the next day’s shoot and try to get two hours of sleep.
The part that I felt most comfortable with going in was just working with actors and trying to make them feel comfortable and safe so they could find the performance. That part felt organic to me. Everything else I had to learn — and I was extremely lucky to have a partner and collaborator in my amazing DP Will Rexer, who was endlessly patient and generous with me in pre-production, and helped me translate my ideas to something a crew would understand. I guess the part I didn’t fully anticipate was the deep camaraderie I felt with the crew – in some ways that was the most exhilarating part of the experience. As an actor on sets, I’ve always clocked how hard the crew works, how much longer their days are, how much lesser their glory is — and the fact that their commitment to the work and project is unwavering, no matter the budget. This was especially true on our film, given the budget constraints, the cruel winter and the x factor of toddlers and babies on set everyday. I was humbled and genuinely moved by the lengths this crew would go to on our modest and often grueling indie shoot.
One particular example that comes to mind – we were shooting a scene with Jon and Kristen in a day of constant freezing rain, and everyone was wet and miserable and all of us on the crew were out there freezing and holding plastic tarps to cover the camera to try to catch a moment of Kristen looking wistfully out this brownstone window. I kept apologizing to everyone on the set for the terrible conditions and our gaffer, this bighearted Irish gem of a guy named Jimmy McCullagh, kept coming over to me with a big grin on his face and red cheeks saying “We’re doing great Jen, we’re doing great!” I guess what I learned about myself is I’m a bit of a socialist; I want everyone on the set to get equal treatment and credit.
WaH: You’ve acted in pieces that you have written and pieces others have written – what is the difference for you?
JW: As an actor, I’ve always been interested in making sure I can perform the role and the lines in the way the writer intended. Both on stage and on film, I’ve never been past saying “is that how you heard it in your head or am I missing it? You can give me a line reading, I won’t be offended!” At the same time, performing lines I wrote, when there has generally been multiple readings and feedback from many trusted people, I didn’t have the same question to pose about how it sounded in the writer’s head. That said, on my first two films, and on this one as well, when someone would suggest a different idea or version or even line reading, it was always a welcome surprise to realize “Oh I always thought it worked this way, but it actually works better that way.” I think film is collaboration, and I always want to hear everyone’s input.
WaH: What was the hardest part of the shoot?
JW: On a shoot like this, there was a new crisis every day. One day it was that we had planned a wide shot that was supposed to take place in early October and there was 24 inches of snow on the ground! One day key members of our crew were snowed in, stuck in New Jersey and Long Island, unable to get to work; one day our camera lenses were frozen solid — and we had to defrost them with blow dryers for an hour before we could shoot. One day the two sweet young actors who played Joe at 2 1/2 had meltdowns and asked their mothers, sobbing, why they couldn’t just go home — that might have been the darkest day, as I felt like perhaps I was scarring a young innocent child for the rest of his life!!!
The day that I was the most worried about was shooting the big Vermont dinner scene in which Adam and Jon square off. The scene was 12 pages long and we had one day to shoot it. We had three cameras that day and we kept playing the scene as if we were doing an interminable run of a one-act play. We would change the camera angles each take but at least one angle would always be on Jon or Adam, as they were the center of the clash. Ironically, that day we were on time and on budget. It was our last day of shooting. So the hardest thing is never what you think it’s going to be.
WaH: I have read that you and your partner Jon Hamm started a production company and this was your first film out of the company. What types of films are you looking to make in the future?
JW: We don’t have a particular mission or directive vis a vis the slate of our company, other than to work on material that resonates with us in some way. We formed the company in an effort to lay the groundwork and infrastructure in having more of a say in our creative futures. We would like to make films that are attempting to say something, make people think in some way or at least stir up debate.
WaH: You tell stories about women that always don’t fit into the societal box, that challenge conventional norms. Where do you get your inspiration?
JW: In some ways I’m oddly traditional, I’ve been a serial monogamist since I was 12. I’ve always tried to work hard and get good grades and be a good person, but I feel like I’ve also always had a strange defiance of authority or the status quo, I’ve never understood why things always have to be just one way when I’ve seen so many people in my life struggle tremendously to fit into those boxes or to live up to those expectations or pressures put upon them by whatever society’s concept of ‘normal’ is. I get frustrated by rules and regulations. I’m frustrated by things that are exclusive to one particular life choice. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me up nights. I think that, in all three of my films, I’ve been trying to explore these different milestones, and the idea that there are a lot of valid ways to live your life and make decisions to find happiness on your own terms. I think it’s different for everyone and I hope to make some tiny contribution to stirring up debate on these issues. The fact that a number of people have come up to me over the last decade and said to me that the scene in Kissing Jessica Stein with me and Tovah Feldshuh on the porch helped them come out to their parents remains the highlight of my artistic career — probably never to be topped. That’s as good as it gets for me.
WaH: Only 14% of films are written by women and 5% are directed by women. Why do you think this is such a struggle?
JW: I wasn’t aware the statistics were quite that bad, but I do think we are at a bright moment in time where the tide is shifting. I look around and see the tremendous and inspiring successes of Tina Fey with “30 Rock,” Kristen and Annie with Bridesmaids, Julie Delpy, Miranda July, Lena Dunham — and now more and more women following suit. We just had a Sundance where five films featured actresses writing for themselves, and all the projects sold. And this year’s Sundance also saw the director Ava Duvernay win — marking the first time a black female director has ever won. So things are changing – and it’s exciting. We have all heard the endless lament about how there aren’t enough roles for women or enough stories that appeal to women, but we are the only ones who can change that — and I’m encouraged that we are doing it, slowly but surely. I think women should support each other’s work, encourage each other’s work, help develop each other’s voices and I think, ultimately, when we can stop having the conversation about ‘women filmmakers’, and just talk about ‘filmmakers’, then we’ll know we’ve really gotten somewhere.
WaH: What advice would you have for other writers and directors that you wish someone had told you.
JW: I think the best advice is to go out and make something. Even if it’s flawed. Even if you don’t quite have the money. Just make it. Don’t make just anything, make something you believe in, and have worked hard on — but make something. Don’t just talk about making something. See what it’s really like. Don’t be so precious or fearful about it that you never get anything out there at all. Don’t be too afraid of failure to learn what you need to learn.
That’s not to say you should spend other people’s money until you’ve done everything possible on your end to make sure it’s ready — you have to leave no stone unturned. But, whether it’s a short film, an indie film on a micro-budget, a webisode, a music video — just make it. The saddest and strangest part of Hollywood to me is the fact that millions of dollars are spent on developing works that never get made. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t understand it. I think we all learn by doing rather than thinking about doing.
WaH: What’s next on your plate?
JW: I am busy returning to a project that I pitched and sold over a year ago before Friends With Kids was greenlit. It’s a pilot that I’m attached to co-star in with Alan Ball Executive Producing that I will team up with another writer on, based on the idea and treatment and outline I sold a year ago. I’m excited to dive into a new world and set of characters that really interest me.