Mary Agnes Donoghue’s credits are star-studded: They include “Beaches,” starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey; “White Oleander,” starring Michelle Pfieffer and Renee Zellweger; “Deceived,” starring Goldie Hawn; and “Veronica Guerrin” starring Cate Blanchett. Donoghue also wrote and directed “Paradise,” starring then-married couple Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. But that was 25 years ago.
Now she’s back in the director’s chair with “Jenny’s Wedding,” a comedic drama about gay marriage, which she also wrote and produced. The feature tells the story of Jenny Farrell (Katherine Heigl), who proposes to her girlfriend (Alexis Bledel) and then has to explain to her conservative parents why she is marrying her “roommate.”
In addition to the leading ladies, Katherine Heigl and Alexis Bledel, the film boasts performances from Tom Wilkinson (as Jenny’s dad), Linda Emond (as Jenny’s mom) and Grace Gummer (as her sister). The film was shot on location in Cleveland in October 2013. But in order to raise funds for post-production (and specifically music licensing), the filmmakers launched an Indiegogo with hopes of raising $150,000 (they raised nearly $100,000). “Jenny’s Wedding” had its world premiere at the Outfest Los Angeles Film Festival on July 10, 2015. IFC Films is releasing the film on VOD and in select theaters on July 31, 2015.
Indiewire recently chatted with Donoghue about her Hollywood career, sexism in Hollywood, working with Katherine Heigl and more.
It really strikes me that Hollywood is not making films for grown-ups these days.
I think part of it is that so much of it is ruled by marketing. This is my sort of educated guess. I think it’s difficult to keep movies in theaters because everyone just looks at weekend grosses. “Beaches” took two to three weeks to take off and turn into a hit. I think that that climate has changed. Nobody allows a movie to run or word-of-mouth to build up. So many smaller movies have turned into huge hits because the theaters kept them in for longer. I think if you don’t have those weekend grosses, they [theaters] just want to put in the tentpole movies. This whole independent world is complicated, too. It took us forever to get this movie in it. I think it’ll be a hit, actually. I really do.
What drew you to the subject matter of the film?
The piece is totally fictional, but it’s something that happened in my family and I was struck by my older sister, who is very conventional. It’s not that [the parents in the film] are conservative. They’re conventional. They’re people who live in a world where they’re really happy with the way things work and they don’t want to be conspicuous. They don’t want to make up the rules, they want to follow them. It’s difficult for them to come to terms with it….I think now [after the Supreme Court uphold the legality of gay marriage] everybody thinks, “Oh, this is all solved.” But it’s not. It’s really not. You can pass all the laws in the world, but you do have to win hearts and minds.
Obviously, you couldn’t have anticipated how timely the film would be, just in terms of the recent Supreme Court news. What do you make of that?
It was just amazing. It was just extraordinary that this came out just when it did. Oddly enough, i think people shied away from [the subject matter], to be honest. They didn’t want to go near it because it seemed too controversial. I think, just in terms of marketing, finances, they wondered, “How many people will come see this movie?” Now, I think many people are coming.
In a funny sort of way for me, there are no villains in it. I didn’t write it this way. I always am drawn to the character and emotional content, and I’m always moved by courage. That’s what this movie is about. I think it’s like a road map for a lot of people who are confused — particularly for the parents that are confused. They can look at it and think, “Wait a minute. I don’t have to waste my time doing all this other stuff. I can just go there.”
How long did it take you to make the film?
The actual making of the movie took us 18 days. It doesn’t look like it. I must say, we pulled off a miracle in Cleveland. Everybody put their hearts and souls into this. The actors were like company players. There were no stars, nobody doing anything, but doing everything they could to make this movie work. Katherine [Heigl] was a dream. I don’t know if she’s still getting all of that cruel stuff from the press, which is totally undeserved. It was a joy to work with her.
I do feel like that’s been written about a lot.
All the stuff they wrote about her behavior on this movie were all lies. Why that happens, I do not know. In every bad thing I read, there were a few things that were completely untrue.
How did you attract this amazing cast? Obviously, you have a track record working with well-known stars. Did you reach out to these actors in particular?
I really did. What was fantastic is, and I think it is true that eighty to ninety percent of directing is getting the right cast. It’s possible to get the wrong person to play a role that they’re not right for, no matter how brilliant they are. But everybody was just perfect. I always thought of Tom [Wilkinson] for it. He’s brilliant in it. He’s just wonderful. He’s really something. He’s so true. But everybody was perfect in it. My only fear that Alexis [Bledel] was too beautiful [laughs].
I wanted something more balanced in the whole thing for the partner. You have these two really beautiful girls, but they went to make themselves look as ordinary as they could. You don’t get that feeling when you watch the movie that you’re looking at these two. They look very pretty, but they look like the prettiest girls on the block rather than these drop-dead movie girls. They were more than happy to tone the makeup down, the hair, the whole thing. They were wonderful.
I know that the last film that you directed was now almost 25 years ago. Why did it take so long?
That’s really a difficult one to answer. I did not want to become a director for hire. I wanted to do my own thing. I should have gone in the independent world, but I didn’t. I continued dealing with the studios and the kind of movies I wanted to make were slowly being phased out. I wasted a lot of time, but I didn’t waste it because I was writing plays and I had a pretty fabulous life, so I didn’t want to compromise it, to be perfectly honest. I have no regrets. I’m so happy with the next thing I directed, to be perfectly honest.
What do you think in terms of women directors in the industry and now the ACLU is investigating possible unfair labor practices in Hollywood? Do you think that has played a role?
I really think it’s great that somebody is going after this. It is true, it’s ridiculous in this day and age. I think it’s even worse for cinematographers, to be perfectly honest. The number of women doing that job…There is an atmosphere on set that is very much the boys’ club. It just exists. In taking on this movie, I was really lucky. It’s difficult. I have this theory about it. I don’t think it’s so much people resisting women. It sounds weird, but I think men in those circumstances are more comfortable interacting with men than with women. It’s very strange, but I think they feel more at ease. There’s a comfort level, and I don’t even think they’re aware of it.
I would think that in some ways the business has changed so much since you started out, and in other ways, such as this one, it hasn’t changed that much.
It’s still a boys’ club. It really is. Breaking through that isn’t easy. I have an advantage because if you write, then people want your script and if you tough it out, you could end up directing it.
What advice would you have to women directors starting out?
Stick to your guns. That’s it. Just don’t give up. Stick to your guns. Keep fighting for what you want, and really fight for it. You have to. Anything that’s happened in my career, I’ve had to really fight for. Just hope that you meet people along the way that get how good you are and stick with those people. You really have to fight.
Can you believe that all these years later that “Beaches” is still such a cult favorite? Did you anticipate that it would continue to be so beloved after all these years?
No, it’s strange. It does appeal profoundly to teenage girls. It did at the time when it first came out, along with everybody else, it appealed to them. It’s still happening. I meet all these young girls who see it and they just get together and they buy it and play it over and over and over again. I am surprised that it lasted so long, but I think it really captures the nature of friendship. I think it’s so important, especially when you’re a teenager. It does get that. It’s that you love that you share with a best friend and then it accumulates history over time. You can’t replace that. That’s a profound relationship.
What are you proudest of as far as “Jenny’s Wedding”?
I’m so lucky to have those great actors, that’s for sure. The finished movie, just looking at it. I think it’s true that it’s not sentimental. There’s nothing soggy in that movie, ever. I think it’s true to who people are, how they feel and I think it will make people more tolerant on both sides of the coin. A lot of gay people have seen it and they’ve said that they understood their parents for the first time after seeing it. I was so moved by that, that they were no longer villains to them, that they understood for the first time what their parents had gone through. That’s what I like about it– it’s honest. And it’s not boring.
IFC Films is releasing “Jenny’s Wedding” on VOD and in select theaters on July 31, 2015.