The Perfect Family written by Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Reily and directed by Anne Renton and produced by Cora Olson and Jen Dubin hits theatres and VOD today. It tells the story of Eileen Cleary played by Kathleen Turner, a very religious Catholic woman whose life falls apart when she gets nominated for Catholic Woman of the Year. She walk the walk of the church and is desperately struggling with the fact that both her children are not “perfect” in the church’s eyes — her daughter played by Emily Deschanel is a lesbian having a baby and getting married to her partner, and her son played by Jason Ritter is getting divorced and seeing an older woman.
She spends the movie struggling with hiding these secrets (among many others) from the church but she also realizes that she will lose her family and the things that are most important to her if she does not figure out how to combine her beliefs with the realities of the world around her.
Director Anne Renton answered some questions by email about the film.
Women and Hollywood: This film touches on many contemporary issues like gay marriage yet at times the character of Eileen seems like she has been left in a past that does not exist anymore. Was that a challenge with the character?
Anne Renton: Eileen Cleary’s world is very real to her, though her dated beliefs and ways of being in the world are definitely not in line with her modern family. Eileen’s periphery is somewhat frozen and she has not particularly grown with society and the times. So, for her home and her world, we really went for a dated look with a small town, slow feel. It was important to set up the character in a way to help us to understand how she maneuvers in the world. The challenge was to make sure the realism of the situation was being portrayed and not the comedy or “joke” in scenes. Kathleen and I were totally on the same page with the material and she embodied Eileen in a very authentic way, giving humanity to the character the audience sees.
WaH: My favorite line is when Kathleen Turner’s character Eileen says “I don’t have to think I am a catholic” – what does that line say about Catholicism today?
AR: Well, neither that line nor the movie makes an overall comment on Catholicism in my opinion. Rather, our focus was on telling a relatable story about a family. Although Catholicism is the backdrop for the film, it could really be any organized religion where people may be expected to agree with and live by rules and ideas presented by individuals who are in the position/s of power within that organization. Catholicism was presented in the original script, and worked because it is so widely known and recognized. In the moment when Kathleen Turner’s character delivers the line, we see she is a woman who truly believes this statement. Just prior to that moment, Eileen’s daughter pushed her to try to find her own authentic voice. It was evident she became frustrated as she does not really know what she feels. So what gets blurted out is a line that audience often find quite amusing, while at the same time it is Eileen’s absolute truth in that moment.
WaH: One of the most important story lines of the film is a mother/daughter story where these two characters struggle to see each other and to figure out how to love each other even though they are so apart of many issues. What does this film teach us about tolerance?
AR: Yes, this relationship in the film explores how a mother and daughter with totally different views and belief systems in life have to navigate difficult terrain. I think what this film shows is how important it is to really speak one’s truth in relationships. There is so much love underlying all the differences in this family (as you have said), and ultimately that is what is most important and what allows them to make the choice to show up for each other.
WaH: How were you able to get such an amazing cast led by Kathleen Turner for your debut feature?
AR: I feel so blessed by the incredible cast! Our casting director, Ronnie Yeskel, got the script to Kathleen Turner’s agent. Kathleen showed interest in the lead role of Eileen Cleary, and was willing to have a phone meeting with me to discuss things. There were certain elements she felt still needed further development in order for her to agree to the project, so we ended the call with some excellent notes from her for us to work with. Then we immediately went into another rewrite. During the rewrite process we found out Kathleen was going to be in LA, and she agreed to have an in person meeting with me. Remember, this was before the rewrite was done, so it was wonderful Kathleen was so open to chatting with me. She and I discussed the script and how our team was integrating her notes. And we also chatted about directing etc. At that point she told me she would be willing to say yes if the rewrite was strong enough. It took 2 months of diligent work until we felt ready to send her the new rewrite. She luckily really liked the work we did and said yes to us if the project would work around her schedule of upcoming theater performances.
Once Kathleen was on board we focused on the roles of her characters children. Our producers worked with Jason Ritter in the past and we all agreed he would be a great choice for Eileen’s son. Jason happened to be available and enjoyed the script, so came on board. At the same time we were interested in Emily Deschanel for Eileen’s daughter. My producers swiftly got the script to her manager. Emily read the script and liked it. We then had an in-person meeting in which Emily and I discussed the project and her character at length. Luckily we were shooting during her hiatus from BONES so as the timing worked for her. She was also very interested to work with Kathleen, which was another contributing factor to her agreeing to the project. It turns out too, Emily and Jason are childhood friends, so the idea of playing brother and sister was also exciting to her.
Ronnie Yeskel and I did intensive casting sessions for the other roles. It was so fortunate for us that Ronnie had such long-term relationships with many agents and managers and had such an affinity for the project. With Kathleen Turner cast in the lead as well as having a solid, likeable script, many very talented and experienced actors showed up to audition.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
AR: There were many challenges in making this film! I think the biggest one was being on an indie budget and having to shoot in 19 days. There was only time to shoot what was on the page and sometimes barely time for that!! I definitely think having experienced actors made this possible.
WaH: There was a lot of women power on this film from the writers Paula Goldberg and Claire V. Reily to the producers Cora Olson and Jen Dubin. What was it like to work with so many women on this project? Do you think you got a shot at your directing debut because the writers and producers were also women?
AR: It was wonderful to work with so many women on the project. I actually optioned the script initially and brought on writer Paula Goldberg. We worked together with a wonderful script consultant Ruth Atkinson. Paula was amazing and worked tirelessly on many rewrites. Cora Olsen and Jennifer Dubin from Present Pictures produced the film. Connie Cummings executive produced the film with her company Certainty Films. I was looking to team up with hands-on creative producers who had the experience working on this level of independent film. Cora and Jen are extremely talented producers and were definitely very involved creatively from the moment they came on board the project from script rewrites right through editing and all aspects of post production. They are now overseeing the distribution team we are working with. I feel so fortunate to have worked with such a committed team of women.
WaH: What is your advice for other directors?
AR: My advice for aspiring directors would be to make your film! It is important to get the script right first though as any problems in the script phase will only be magnified when shooting and editing. I was fortunate enough a few years ago to be mentored by an A-list director. His biggest piece of advice was so very simple: “Collaborate with a writer and make your film”. This was the best advice ever as that is exactly what I proceeded to do. So that is what I would pass on. Whether a short or a feature, just get out and do it. You can read books and study of course. But until you actually get out there and do it, it is all theory. You will make mistakes along the way. Learn from them and constantly refine yourself as a filmmaker and a better human being.
WaH: What are you working on next?
AR: I am in the process of optioning a book I am interested and I am in talks with a writer about a project he is working on that I am very excited about. I also just found out last week I was accepted into the Disney ABC/DGA directing program, which is a program to shadow and be mentored by veteran directors in television with the goal of ultimately directing in that medium. It is a diversity program and women are still a minority in television directing.