Madeleine Olnek takes one ice cube in her coffee. “It’s so good, it’s life changing.” She
explains: “The drink should still be hot and have this little pool of cold. It
should be a big ice cube. If they just have those tiny ice cubes that are like
thirds then ask for another.” If that doesn’t convince you that we already have
the lesbian Woody Allen, then go see “The Foxy Merkins,” playing during Newfest
at the Walter Reade Theater tonight at 7 pm.
Olnek’s second feature is a follow up to the Sundance hit “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks
Same,” now streaming on Netflix, which earned her the title of sole auteur of
the “Neurotica” genre. “The Foxy Merkins” is a raucous buddy comedy about
lesbian hustlers, a riff on iconic hustler films like “Midnight Cowboy” and “My
Own Private Idaho.” I recently sat down with Olnek to discuss downtown theatre,
nudie movies, and the growing problem of prostitution in the lesbian community.
You started in the theatre, how did your theatrical
background influence your filmmaking?
It’s at the core of it, I think. It influenced it both in my
approach to directing actors and my relationship to actors, putting them at the
center of the movies. And it also influenced it in that how I ultimately made
theatre is how I make film. In the East Village, all you needed was a title.
And then you could write the play to match in time for the run of the show. As
long as you were around and putting in time as part of the community, you could
book runs and shows. You could book a show that didn’t exist… I could be wrong,
but I feel like the east village is still the same, in that you can book
something that doesn’t exist–if you have a track record.
Can you set the scene a little bit?
It was the late 80s, I had just [graduated] NYU, where I
trained as an actor, and I could have gone either way at that moment, and I
made the fateful choice to go East. I could have tried to stay in more
commercial environments that I had access to. But I was very interested in the
urgency of downtown theater… There was an assumption of intelligence on the
part of the audiences where you could assume they knew as much as you did and
then you could all go to the next level together. So that was very appealing to
me and it was also very subversive and counter cultural… But the main thing
that appealed to me was how offbeat the humor was.
And it wasn’t until I saw the movie “Stranger Than Paradise”
(Jim Jarmusch)…that I was like, “Oh my god, a movie can be like downtown
theatre. I’d never seen that on the screen before, where that sensibility was
up onscreen. And that was the first time I thought ‘I would like to do movies
if they could be like this.’”
So you were originally a playwright?
Actor turned playwright turned director?
Playwriting and directing at the same time. That was the
best bet. No one was going to work harder than me, and I also had a real
interest in directing. And that’s not the norm in theater… You were expected
to give it away. There was an assumption that a playwright couldn’t direct
their own work, whereas in film that’s quite normal, the auteur thing.
Why do you think that is?
People are stupid? I don’t know… Maybe plays typically used
to be set in one location, so there wasn’t that much a playwright could bring
to it directorially, whereas my plays are set in a million different locations
and have very short scenes, just like films. Maybe…because they didn’t have
enough skills to shape it within the one location, like the colors and shades
they have to use…when its mostly two ladies talking by the kitchen sink. That’s
a good question. I think I sufficiently made up an answer.
Do you feel like you got pegged as a downtown theatre
director trying to make movies?
It’s not a bad pegging, because it’s different. It does seem
to me that in film people have respect for people that come from theatre… In
some ways as a writer, doing downtown theatre there was nothing to hide behind,
it’s so bare bones that you had to create something that was really compelling
or the audience wasn’t going to turn up…and that was a really rigorous training
ground for independent film. And there does seem to be, in the industry in
general, even in the commercial part of it, respect for people coming from
playwriting backgrounds. They’re seen as “real writers,” whatever that means.
I’ll tell you one kind of rap I’ve gotten one or two times
that has really annoyed me: When people see women who don’t look like…models,
and they assume I’m just casting my friends. Like they don’t think they’re
actors… Especially people who look gay identified or whatever, that to me is
amazing. Whatever. That’s just one review, but I’m still mad about it!
But often, indie films seem to be getting more commercial
and even the casting is more commercial… But what annoys me more are the films
that just seem like TV without the box… Whereas, if you’re going to make an
indie film, it’s your chance to really make something different than the big
commercial movies that have to follow certain rules… Independent film loses
something by just being a cookie cutter experience.
So, the formula is tragedy plus time equals comedy, but
in this case it’s almost tragedy plus absurdity.
Part of what we’re looking at is what behavior is expected
of women, how the world is socialized, how we’re the ones, gay or straight,
taught to repress our sexuality and be the responsible people. And thinking
about this world, if it existed, what would freedom from emotional connections
with sex look like? What would this world look like? It is so ridiculous…
The thing they say about the lesbian world is that we have a
different standard of beauty…and people look at that and say, “oh it’s ugly,
it’s ugly, it’s ugly.” So there’s something funny about Lisa’s character, and
her friend who says to her in the movie, “those women…are so embarrassed to be
seen with you, but they want you, and they’re gonna pay extra for you to sneak
around with them.” That’s very funny.
And you’re addressing it too, which I think is great.
You’re putting it out there. And the nude scene is so amazing, and how you lead
up to it.
I also like that we see her naked and we don’t see the…movie
star looking woman naked. Usually when people go to movie theaters, it’s almost
like what entices them is “we get to see conventionally glamorous looking women
naked.” So that was part of the thought in that too, I didn’t want us to see
the other woman naked.
You share writing credit with Lisa Haas and Jackie
Monahan, the two leads. What was that process like?
I had this idea for years of doing a female hustler film,
and I thought, “I’ll shoot it while we’re on the festival circuit.” It can feel
so uncreative being on the festival circuit, because you’re just promoting
something that already exists… But that was a totally unrealistic idea… At one
point we thought this was just going to be a silly art project, it’s such a
niche of an idea, it’s almost a niche of a niche.
We did like six months of screenings in progress with like
totally crazy attendees, people I didn’t know…I call them randoms. Work in
progress screenings, I would have them in my apartment… Not that its’
filmmaking by committee, but to understand what people were getting out of it…
You have to keep sifting through feedback and considering it in the context of
your vision. Or you’re just like a studio movie where they’re like “this is
scoring high” and then they give you more of that. So those screenings were so
important and so meaningful and we tried so many different cuts of the film.
So there wasn’t a script?
There wasn’t a script per se, but there was a ton of
writing. Like, many trees died in the making of this film. We wrote so much. I
mean we wrote more than people with regular scripts write. And that’s how we
came up with a lot of ideas.
Do you think you have a comedy formula?
Comedy is the juxtaposition of opposites. That is the
textbook definition of comedy. And if you think about anything that’s humorous
to you it can fall into that equation. But it’s not formulaic. When I think of a
formula sometimes that can mean something that’s simplified, but it definitely falls
under that definition. Like any single thing you can think of in the world that
you’ve ever laughed at, somehow it falls under the juxtaposition of opposites.
Do you know who’s credited with saying that?
I think Daniel Webster. But it’s in the dictionary.
“The Foxy Merkins” is playing this Friday at The Walter
Reade Theater as part of Newfest. You can get tickets online
or at the door.