I started working on my first feature film Fully Loaded in 2007. It was like climbing a mountain four times as high as it says in the damn guidebook. It was like changing churches. It was like having a relationship with a gorilla who keeps waking you from a dead sleep. I had been making theatre my whole life. I gave birth virtually without drugs to two kids. But making a movie terrified me. As it turns out, many fears (bears, poisonous snakes, feature films) are reasonable, healthy fears. Directing my first feature was far more twisted and tangled than I ever imagined and it required a stamina that spanned years.
In the early stages, I of course had a lot of questions; Practical questions, questions that I was trying to answer by making this movie. The first and most basic: creatively, what is so different about directing a film and directing a play? I’m now proposing the subversive idea that making a movie is simply a different form of theatre. Like an artist who works in charcoal getting really into silk-screening. Like theatre, filmmaking is an ensemble endeavor. My husband, Filmmaker Adam McKay says a movie set is like a mini city: I add- everything we know about stage acting applies. You want actors to get into that blessed and spontaneous groove. Sure in movies you can sneak and roll camera, capturing spontaneous moments. But you still have to help the actors to talk to each other, make each other laugh, drop their shtick, help them realize what is at stake at each moment, just like in theatre. Then in the edit room you’ve gotta put it together and transform it–same as making a play. A piece of footage does not resist or say fuck you, but neither does it surprise you like a live actor can. In the edit room, the surprise comes in how you put the pieces together. In making a play the surprises came from letting go of what was in my head, and opening up to what the actor brought.
Another question had bugged me for a long time: why can’t we get beyond that one kind of feminine beauty in American movies? We have all been screwed with by the fact that everyday women in American films look like models. Paula Killen and Lisa Orkin carry Fully Loaded brilliantly on their shoulders. Their real life rapport is funny and poignant. What was extra satisfying about putting Paula and Lisa on screen was that they don’t look like most women we see in movie theatres. Paula’s beauty is a throwback to the 40’s. She is luminous, with extra curves. Lisa has been described as a combination of Anne Hathaway…and Woody Allen. They are both beautiful but not in the usual girl-next-door or sex kitten/15 pounds underweight way.
Next question: How to command actor’s attention, or gain their trust when you are a first time film director? Tim Robbins advised, “Don’t be afraid to say ‘what do you think?’ ” My husband said, “This is not your movie.” And yet as a woman, I sure as hell had to walk in and have enough confidence to gain the trust of everyone around me. Working with a group of real bikers (plus Mark Boone Jr.) in one of the first scenes we shot I literally had to curse to get them to trust me. By the end of the scene Boone was saying to me “Hey, you’re alright.” I walked the line between baldly admitting I was winging it, and whistling the role of the steely director. Actors in general are dying to trust. If you can work collaboratively and not wield power or freak out through the roof, actors will feel safe and do brilliant things.
A first feature kicks you and throws you brutally in over your head in a way that almost can’t be described. Creatively it left me with more questions than I started with, but what a gift. It made me smarter and more capable. And hallelujah, it left me with many ideas for more films.