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‘Kelly & Cal’ Director Jen McGowan on Finding the Perfect Riot Grrrl and the Biggest Challenge for Indie Filmmakers

'Kelly & Cal' Director Jen McGowan on Finding the Perfect Riot Grrrl and the Biggest Challenge for Indie Filmmakers

Delighted at being told sex is back in
the cards during her post-natal check-up, new mom Kelly (Juliette Lewis) hurries home to husband
Josh (Josh Hopkins) — but Josh doesn’t seem so keen on the idea. So while he stays slumped in
front of the TV, Kelly storms upstairs to masturbate with a copy of Rolling
Stone with George Clooney on the cover.

In its knockout opening scenes, Jen McGowan’s Kelly
& Cal 
(opening September 5) announces itself as a film that wants to
tackle all kinds of preconceptions about motherhood, female sexuality, and the
kind of identity that’s supposed to go along with being a stay-at-home mom.
Kelly used to be in a
riot grrrl band. Now, however, she has a house in the suburbs, a husband in
advertising, and a new baby son who won’t stop crying. And then there’s hubby’s
strait-laced family to contend with — enter
Cybill Shepherd doing her best disapproving mother-in-law. 

Depressed and
drifting apart from her husband, she becomes intrigued by next-door neighbor
Cal (Jonny Weston) — an abrasive seventeen-year old recently confined to a
wheelchair after a spinal injury, and nursing a broken heart to boot. Her
unconventional friendship with Cal offers Kelly a chance to recapture something
of her badass teenage self, but when their flirtatious banter develops into
something more, it threatens to destroy the healing power of their relationship.

Women and Hollywood spoke with McGowan about
casting the perfect riot grrrl in Lewis, winning the SXSW Gamechanger Award, and the biggest challenge for indie filmmakers.

Women and Hollywood: How did you get involved with the film?

Jen McGowan: I participated in an alumni program at USC
called USC First Team, which was designed to foster feature films amongst
alumni. Through that I met the writer, Amy Lowe Starbin, who had sixty pages of Kelly
& Cal
 written. I really connected with her and her voice, and I loved
the idea and what she had so far for the script, so we teamed up to get it
made. Over the course of a year, she wrote and I developed. Once it was ready, I
then took the next year to hunt for producers.

WaH: What first attracted you to the script?

JM: The first thing was Amy herself. We just
clicked. The next was the unique voice and perspective of the script. The
characters were specific, complex, and interesting. I saw that I could bring
something to the project, that I could make a great film out of it. As a director
who does not like to write, I am always looking for scripts that I can
contribute to through directing. I don’t want to do the same thing that the
writer is doing; I want to add an angle or highlight a theme. In Kelly
& Cal
 I saw that my angle was identity and aging. It’s essentially
a coming-of-age story for a woman in her late thirties. That was interesting to

WaH: Did you have Juliette Lewis in mind for
the part of Kelly from the beginning? She’s great in the role, and her background as a singer really brings something to her portrayal of the character.

JM: We had Juliette in mind while we were
developing. As a matter of fact, I looked over some of my earlier treatments
recently from four years ago, and she was front and center. But I thought she
was a dream. She was sort of our wish. But thank god we got her, because she’s
really one of a kind. There is no “Juliette Lewis type.” For me, when you’re
casting known talent, you’re not just casting their performances. You’re
casting the public’s relationship with them, their public images to a degree. You
can sway from that of course, but you have to be mindful that that is an
element of casting. And in this case her public image synchronized perfectly
with our fictional character.

WaH: You were an actress yourself before you
became a director, and you’ve talked before about making the transition to
directing because you were frustrated with the kind of parts you were being
offered as an actress. Do you think typecasting and a lack of diversity in
terms of roles is something women in the industry have to grapple with a whole
lot more than men?

JM: This is true, but it’s also important to
note that I made that transition very early, just a couple years out of NYU, so
aside from the roles not being very good, the material wasn’t very good either. It’s
not like I was winning Oscars and then decided to make the jump. Basicall,y I am
not an actor. My essence is just not that. I can’t just be responsible for
myself. I need to have the whole picture in my hands. Once I found directing, it
was an instant and complete fit. It came with ease. 

As for typecasting and diversity, here’s the
thing. Our stories reflect who we are. And films are only two hours, so they are
condensed, distilled versions of our realities. Sexism, racism, homophobia
exist in this world just as it does in our industry and in our stories. I
believe very much that the solution to this is increased diversity in all areas
of our industry. We need to see many different types of women, types of people
of color, types of genders. 

For example, we need Spike Lee and Tyler
Perry and Steve McQueen so that no one image of ‘‘black’’ is
told. Because that’s the point, isn’t it? The point of telling good stories, and
having good relationships, is treating each person as an individual. And we
can’t do that if every woman in film is a certain type or every Asian in film
is a certain character. It’s just bad storytelling. It’s bad business
too, but I think we’re in the middle of really discovering that now. The
audience is diverse. We need to catch up. 

WaH: What’s your favorite part of the
creative process as a director?

JM: I love it all. That’s how I knew instantly
when I made the jump into directing that it was right for me. Everything fit. I
love developing the script, casting, coming up with the shots and design,
location scouting, shooting, post. 

WaH: What was the biggest challenge you faced
in making the film?

JM: Every film offers its own challenges. This being my first feature, the simple act of getting it made was big
enough. It required the writer, the talent, the producers, and the investors all
to put their trust in me at some point. I’m grateful for them all taking that
leap with me. I don’t take that lightly.

WaH: What kind of impact did winning the SXSW
Gamechanger Award have?

JM: It was very important in that it’s helping
us get attention for the film. That is the hardest thing about indie films like
this — rising above the noise. We don’t have an advertising budget, so it’s
pretty much purely word of mouth and whatever press we can all hustle up. That
is something that is great about this blog; there are lots of great women
filmmakers and you feature them here. We don’t just need stories and platforms; we need exposure, too.

WaH: Do you have any advice for aspiring women

JM: Find something you love and commit. Commit
100%. Put your head down, and work as hard as you can. Make it as best you can, and
that’s all you can really do. It doesn’t sound like much, but lots of people
don’t do the work. And it’s not men or women. Lots of people like to be the
director, but don’t like to do a lot of the work that is sometimes quite

WaH: What’s next for you?

JM: I’ve got a great film called Millie to
the Moon
 that I’m doing with producers Jen Sall and Alexandra Johnes, who did The Square at Very Special Projects. It’s a lovely story
written by another USC alum, Lynn Hamilton, about a young woman becoming
inspired by space travel, and I’m really excited about it. On top of that, I’ve
been pitching on open-director assignments around town, and that’s been great. For
the record, I sometimes hear people say women don’t want to direct studio
films, but I do. I want to direct big films, little films, TV. I want to do it all.

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