Family — love them, hate them, or the complicated in-between, they are rarely easy. In the semi-autobiographical Latino-Jewish comedy Sleeping with the Fishes, Lexie Fish (Gina Rodriguez, now starring on TV’s Jane the Virgin) returns to her hometown for a funeral and finds the rest of her family unchanged from when she last left, especially her fault-finding mother (Priscilla Lopez), who critiques Lexie’s makeup, weight, and dress sense.
It doesn’t help that the recent death of Lexie’s unfaithful husband has left her broke and reduced to a dead-end job dancing in human-sized food costumes at a burger joint. Listless and unsatisfied, she relies on medication and self-help audiobooks to push her through her days. Understandably, staying with her family for any longer than necessary is the last thing Lexie wants — but staying with them might offer the chance for relationships old and new to flourish.
With sparkling humor and delightful performances, Sleeping with the Fishes navigates the complicated terrain of familial relationships with impressive deftness and a sense of optimism.
Women and Hollywood interviewed writer-director Nicole Fisher Gomez about the autobiographical nature of the film and her struggle to find her voice in a closed-minded industry.
W&H: Where did the inspiration for this film come from?
NGF: The inspiration came from my
family and my inner struggle to figure out who I was and where I fit in. When I began writing Sleeping with the Fishes,
I was at a point in my life where I needed to find some substantial meaning. I
was a struggling actress who found
herself lost in a business that needed to identify who I was. Being myself
never seemed to be enough; it was seemingly more important to others to define
who or what I was. Was I Latina? Was I Caucasian? Filipino? It was so
overwhelming and frustrating to identify myself in a town that couldn’t see
past my mixed background.
That, combined with the mother-daughter relationship, just melded into this one theme that was based mainly on expectations,
self-image, and the need to appease everyone, except myself. I wrote Fishes in
hopes of getting a chance to have my voice heard — and to hopefully open doors
to those who have walked in my shoes.
W&H: This is your directorial debut. How did you become interested in
NGF: It’s two-fold. One was simply budget-related. We didn’t have the funds to hire a director, so it just made sense to
jump on board and direct a story that was loosely based on my life. It was also
a chance for me to challenge myself. Having been on many sets and stages, I
knew which directors gave me the most as an actress, and I wanted to parlay
those experiences into directing. It was an amazing experience that I hope to
have the opportunity to do again soon.
W&H: You come from comedy, particularly stand-up. Talk about the transition
NGF: The transition was completely
different, yet just as scary. Working as a stand-up comic for years, a lot of
where and when I performed was based on luck and circumstance. But filmmaking, especially when it’s your “baby” you’re making, allows you more control. There
was so much to learn, so many ups and downs, but having a strong team behind me
certainly helped. I knew what my vision was, I knew who I wanted in front of
the camera, but I had no clue what a shot list was or even that I needed to
storyboard what was once just a dream. There was a steep learning curve, but I
discovered that I was more comfortable behind the scenes as opposed to in front
of the cameras.
Writing stand-up is a completely
different animal from screenwriting. Stand-up is so specific to beats — the set
up, the punch and the joke. Screenwriting is like building a tower from the
ground up. The concept or idea being the base, the body of the story that builds
floor-by-floor, until eventually you’ve reached the top. Most times you find
that even after all that work, you must start from the beginning in order to
make the structure sound.
W&H: I loved seeing Ugly Betty actress Ana Ortiz’s character be both a professional woman and
geek out over her love of comics. That’s such a different type of female film
character. Talk about creating Ortiz’s character.
NGF: Ana’s character is loosely based
on my sister — lawyer by day, fan girl by night. My sister is a huge comic-book fan and
collector. It’s what makes her unique and interesting. Seeing as the story is
loosely based on my family, I figured Ana’s character would be one that most people
have heard about, maybe even seen at Comic-Con, but one that has never been on
the big screen. It was interesting directing Ana and dissecting “Kayla Fish” so
that she didn’t come across as a caricature, that of a geeky fan girl, but just
a woman who was a true kid at heart, one whose love for animation and comics just
made her that much more fun, quirky, and likeable.
W&H: How did the directing experience contrast to writing? Do you prefer one
over the other?
NGF: I love both. Writing is very
therapeutic for me. I enjoy the process of discovering my characters as they
grow in my mind and develop behind my words. As strenuous as the rewriting
process can be, it’s also the most rewarding for me. Every time I think I’m
finished with a script, whether it’s a screenplay or a sitcom, I step away for
a bit just to rediscover something new, something that I believe makes the
story that much stronger.
I enjoy the opportunity to put new voices and unique
stories together in hopes that it will expand people’s minds beyond what they
think they know about others. Of course, making them laugh is always an added
plus. Heart and humor — those are the two components I always try to
incorporate in my scripts.
Directing, on the other hand, gave
me the chance to see my vision come to life. I love working with actors! There’s
nothing more creative and fun to me than working with people who have put their
hearts and livelihood into exposing themselves with no fear. I had an amazing cast that was nothing short
of professional and who kept true to the story while having a blast on set.
W&H: What were some of the biggest challenges in making this film?
NGF: Money and time, of course! Let’s
just say, I got a crash-course education in 19 days.
W&H: What advice would you give for aspiring female filmmakers?
NGF: The same advice I’d give to any
filmmaker, male or female. I still can’t wrap my head around the “male versus
female” Hollywood rat race. If you’re good, you’re good, and people
will eventually take notice.
Listen. Watch. Learn. Study other filmmakers
you’d like to emulate and even those you might not like. Watch as many films as
possible! Read. Always be in the know — read the trades, read scripts — and if at
all possible, try and get your butt on a set. There’s nothing like watching, observing and
asking questions. Be prepared and be open-minded. Don’t let being a woman be an
excuse. Let it be your drive.