Concussion was one of my favorite movies at Sundance this year. It was truly a revelation. Robin Weigert who we have seen for so many years as a supporting character in shows like Deadwood, takes the leaad as a suburban lesbian mom who whose life has become rote. After getting hit in the head with a baseball many things are awakened in her and she embarks on the unliekly path of becoming a high class lesbian prostitute. It's a facinating look at marriage, at connections, and at expectations of what we expect our lives to be.
First time writer/director Stacie Passon hits this one out of the park. It has been picked up by Radius/TWC and will also be playing in Berlin next month.
I was able to sit down with the team from the film the day after their premiere. They were exhausted and elated. It made for a very lively conversation.
Women and Hollywood: Tell me a little bit about where this story came from.
Stacie Passon: Basically, I got binged in the head with a baseball. My son hit me and there was this sort of gush of blood on my temple and I just felt not right after that. There was a ton of blood and I remember just going to the hospital, feeling very hazy, kind of getting up, moving around, feeling hurt, you know? And the kids — yelling at the kids and being just not a very nice person at that point. And I was very hazy and to make a long story short, I got a little "broigus." I got a little cranky, ornery.
WaH: Is that Yiddish?
Rose Troche: First time I ever heard that one.
WaH: That’s a Yiddishism I never heard.
SP: There was no dealing with me for a while and I sat down and I wrote. I think it just got to me the whole motherhood thing and wife and supporting my wife and it just came out.
WaH: Okay. You were a stay-at-home mom at that time?
SP: Yeah. We moved to the suburbs about three years ago and I had been sort of used to having intermittent clients. I said I'm going to fix up the house for a while. And I became isolated, very, very isolated and I think that's where Abby's story begins.
WaH: So you wrote this and then what happened? How did Rose get the script?
SP: I reached out to Rose. We hadn't talked to Rose for a long time.
RT: A gigantic fight. We should make up a whole back story, a gigantic fight we had.
SP: We just fell out of touch.
RT: She had kids.
SP: Kids, and we fell out of touch and she was doing The L Word and in those years I really didn't want to bug you. I was sort of like I'm sure so many people are glomming on to her. She was an old friend, but friends grow apart. But I felt like I needed to reach out to her when I wrote this because I needed her help in casting. And not because it was The L Word but because Rose is an amazing casting person. She has flawless taste in actors. If you look at all of her films you see discovery after discovery after discovery and when she makes those casting decisions they are so dead on. And I really respect who she casts in her films. Safety of Objects, Bedrooms & Hallways, all through those films you can just see emerging actors. I would just bring her ideas and she would give me just her take. And she looked at me, she said you want notes? And I said of course I want notes.
SP: And then we started talking and I remember just kind of asking for more and more and more and more and more.
RT: It was so nice to see Stacie again. I think we have to support each other as women filmmakers and as women in general and I think it's great and I think Stacie's going to get asked to do a lot of that now and I just believe in that. I read a lot of people's scripts and I'll give them notes and then that'll be that. And then there's on occasion times when I want to try — like with Pariah, I was trying to hook up Nekisa Cooper and Dee Rees with a producer because I wasn't producing at that time and gave them script notes on Pariah. I got a little bit further with them because I love the short so much. And when this came around, I think there was just something about it that I was just like oh, this is different than all of this pile of stuff that I read. You know. And so it just — when I gave Stacie the notes — it was also like a reunion.
SP: There was a real connection.
RT: That was a big part of that. We started working on the script and she came back and said how about this. I forget how many rounds of script. It doesn't matter.
WaH: Before you became producer or were you already?
RT: Before. At a certain point she said, do you want to be involved? I said as long as I bring stuff to it, I don't want to take an executive producer credit.
WaH: It's not about ego for you.
RT: I'm not that big of a deal. You have to bring value.
SP: My first theory was just was Rose would "present the film" but at some point she became so inextricably linked as a collaborator that she couldn't be anything but lead producer. She did everything from soup to nuts and she is such a tireless creative and she was very much a creative producer on this project.
RT: Let me just make one thing clear, though. I never hovered over Stacie with her creative vision of the film. We worked closely in post. I remember being there on the first day and you were so like it's the first day, and I just felt like I went and stood next to you…She was just radiating this is my film and I just like understood, without even saying something out loud.
SP: I would say it in a different way.
RT: I was like I've got a lot of scheduling to do.
SP: I would actually say it in a different way. I would say that Rose is an auteur and I think that maybe the vibe that you were getting off of me was actually help me. It wasn't “go away.” And I think that your instinct was to let me direct because that's what you wanted.
RT: She outlined the entire film. There was a tremendous amount of prep work that went into this and we were having this funny discussion last night, and not to take away anything from David, but these are all Stacie's ideas prior. It's not like the cinematographer came in and did the vision of the film. They certainly collaborated but — there were real moments and she knew she wanted the back lit stuff. I want the light. I'm only going to shoot from here. I think it's a fine line when a writer/director produces for a writer/director.
SP: I think it would have been far less of a compelling film if Rose hadn't been involved with post and there's a reason why. Rose has some tendency of layering not ideas but imagery. She's a really interesting visual director. I let it sort of play out. And what Rose brought to that process is a sort of simplicity. She aught me about the ideas behind sound for instance. We spent five or six weeks doing sound and she kept on telling Anthony and I to bring in more environments.
WaH: Do you think people are going to think of this as a lesbian film?
RT: Yes, of course. I remember when Go Fish came out and B. Ruby Rich was like it's new queer cinema. I feel like with Stacie's film it marks a moment. When Go Fish came out they coined like new queer cinema and it felt like a turning point. I think that it quite possibly is going to be a moment where things shift and change again.
WaH: Talk about the change from Go Fish to now.
RT: I was talking to Stacie in the car and I was like it's so archaic the idea of boxing us in in saying this is a lesbian movie. There's so many people who are positively responding to the film because it is a marriage.
SP: I think that the fact that it's a same sex couple actually makes it a better vehicle for talking about marriage than it would if it was a man and a woman partly because there are so many stories told and you can switch the genders either way. You can have it be a husband who's a workaholic and his wife cheats. Women need to be found attractive and adored or else they have to find it elsewhere. That would be the story told about that. If it was a woman married to a man who trolled around or had affairs, the story would also be put into a category that all men have a mid-life crisis and they have to sleep with the secretary for a while and then if the woman can survive it he comes back. These stories don't allow you then to see the humanity in both roles. In other words, what the man goes through and what the woman goes through in that scenario is human. And the movie refuses to indict the one who cheats and it also doesn't indict the partner who is unable to deliver sexually. Instead they're both looked at as these are part of the human dilemma. I've heard male viewers who have really responded to the film, straight male viewers, because they're finally given a surrogate in the form of Abby and they don't feel judged.
Robin Weigert enters the room and the conversation.
Robin Weigert: We as women are always watching movies and if you want to be cool you have to identify with the man in the movie. I remember having a women's studies class and they show that Lily Tomlin-John Travolta movie. I forget what it’s called. And she had objectified him and there were all these articles about how it had inverted desire, how it had inverted the gaze. I think this is a film where a man associates with women.
RT: That was true of Zero Dark Thirty the surrogate in that movie was completely the woman and —
WaH: I think it's a new place where we're looking at female roles very differently and you see what happens when a female delivers a female protagonist versus where a male delivers a female protagonist.
SP: Not necessarily. I think of Paul Mazursky, how well he draws women.
RT: I think there are men who draw women very well.
WaH: There are men who draw women very well, but it's also about empowering women's vision in a way that hasn't been done before.
SP: Yeah. I think this it has to do with allowing a lot of voices into the conversation, I really do. I think that's what it comes down to and I think voices develop and we're all better for it when that happens.
WaH: In This Is 40, Judd Apatow put his kids in the movie and your kids are in your film. Why?
SP: The difference between me and Judd Apatow —
RT: Is about a billion dollars, for starters.
SP: I talked to my wife and my mother and Rose about whether my children should be the children in the movie. And what it really came down to was I didn't want any stage mothers on my set. I knew how my children reacted in certain situations. I could understand their psychology. We had a very, very short shoot. I have a shorthand with my children. And they're fucking cute.
WaH: Really cute.
SP: Robin had an ease with Marin (her daughter). She was able to really connect with her. They still have a connection.
RW: Marin was a huge help. Because I don't have my own children. She was like a great acting coach in what it is to be a mother. She would leap into my arms almost from the very beginning. But she would also gift me with like calling me mommy a lot of the time and with her arms flung around my neck she would say, “This is what it feel the like to have a child,” and you would go oh god.
SP: You never told me that.
RW: I think I may have at one point but she's such a natural in front of the camera. I think you may have an actress on your hands. She loved it too.
WaH: I’m glad you’re here Robin, because I feel I've seen you in so many things and it was just amazing to watch you as the lead, so talk about that.
RW: That's new for me, yeah. There's a certain comfort in being in supporting roles because it's not all on you. I am incredibly grateful for having been given this opportunity. I'm incredibly grateful to these two women. And for the trust involved in that as well because I hadn't done it before. And also the willingness to see me in a very different light. I played a stripper before but I don't think I've had a single sex scene in a film before and suddenly there were a plethora. It was all very, very different territory and what was being asked of me was also a much more graded and nuanced kind of approach to acting itself. I had to trust that a camera was going to see things that I imagine might be invisible and when I look at what came through I was like yes, it's true what they say.
I am used to sort of delivering a character in a more extroverted way and she recedes a lot, especially at the beginning when she's sort of stunned from her head injury. And I really appreciated it because it's given me a different sort of toolbox going forward.
WaH: What did you learn most about yourself from doing this?
RW: Some things I have to work on. My level of fear sometimes was so great that I would get just swamped in the feeling. But I was tested and I think whenever you're tested you learn and hopefully you learn a good lesson. I was definitely very tested just in term of the fatigue in the kind of schedule we were on and the challenges of many of the scenes and I can be gratified to know that I survived the test.
WaH: What are your expectations at out of Sundance, Stacie and Rose? What are the goals? I mean sell the movie, but anything other than that?
RT: The goals — it's really finding distributor who's going to care for this film. I think it's really a powerful film and really important that it is treated correctly in the marketplace.
WaH: It has a lot of layers.
RT: I imagine that for the film. That’s really kind of amazing and for that I wish the biggest audience I possibly can upon it.
SP: The key is how to get the 50-year-old straight couples to go see this. That's one — then it'll cross.
RT: Robin's nude in bed.
RW: We tried to do our job and the beautiful thing about marketing and distribution is that there are some really brilliant people out there and they'll do their job and we'll try our best to support them but we've done our job.
WaH: What advice do you have for other women first-time directors?
SP: Seek your mentors and Yodas, and always talk to people. Always seek advice. Always reach out. Ask for help. Don't guard yourself in a way that will be counterproductive. And embrace all aspects of being a woman and don't be apologetic for feeling a certain way at a given time. And you know what? Like yes and it really works a lot of the time. You know? Yes is really good. We sort of need to mentor each other. Rose is never going to have any shortage of women coming to her wanting to make films and I realize the gift that I've been given. Maybe paying it forward is important. I watched a women in film panel– I won't name the panel that I watched, but it was a pretty prestigious. I got so fucking pissed off. I'm not going to tell you who was on it but you would be surprised. Let's just put it that way, they couldn't be bothered.
WaH: It's also about the women's movement…
SP: We have a 20/40 book club in Montclair. We call it the 20/40 and we have a bunch of 20-year-olds that come and a bunch of my contemporaries and we read Diary of a Mad Housewife and stuff because my friend Liz MacIntosh didn't know who like Camille Paglia. And I was like we have some work to do.
RT: I was going to say is that so wrong?
SP: They all grew up and they didn't know a time when abortion was illegal. We talked like this for a year and a half. She was like, don't be a feminist.
RT: That's a quotable quote.
WaH: What about Hollywood?
SP: You do have to be macaroni and cheese and not the broccoli.
RW: But you put the broccoli in there.
SP: So your kids don't taste it.
RT: It's there for you to eat and it's good for you and you should eat it. I'm saying the broccoli should be on the plate but perhaps the broccoli isn't the main course.
SP: Shouldn't get stuck in your throat that you choke on it.
RT: Maybe the broccoli needs cheese on top of it sometimes.