"We understand any movie about lesbian hookers to be universal, whether or not you've actually seen one," says director Madeleine Olnek. She's temporarily fled her NYC home for L.A., one of three artists culled from hundreds to be nominated for the Independent Spirit Awards' Someone to Watch honor. Next she's on to Sundance to show her second feature, The Foxy Merkins, a uniquely Olnek-ian creation: odd, poignant, both profane and strangely innocent, and above all, shockingly funny. Olnek, long a cult figure in downtown Manhattan for her brilliant, idiosyncratic comic plays, shifted to film some years ago and promptly netted a William Goldman Screenwriting Fellowship and the Adrienne Shelly Award for Best Female Director at Columbia University. Her absurdist gem Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same premiered at Sundance in 2011; Merkins, a comic bonanza of mind games, sexual stereotypes and unexpected love, was chosen for both Sundance's NEXT WEEKEND festival in L.A. and the big show in Utah January 2014. Olnek shared some of her philosophies and experiences by phone.
Are you a different person in Los Angeles?
Oh my God. I finally understand the film business: it's so nice here, the trees are so nice and the weather's so nice and people's houses are so nice... I read this book called Screenwriting for Fun and Profit -- except FOR FUN AND was crossed out -- by those guys who did Reno 911!, and they talk about how you think in Hollywood executives are trying to actually find a great movie to make. And they're like, "Wrong! All executives are trying to do is not get fired." In the context of how pretty it is here --if you live in a nice house, of course you would want to not lose it -- filmmaking be damned. If you're an executive working on a movie, it might not be to your advantage to make that movie better. It might be to your advantage, if you made a mistake, to cover it up rather than to address it. You might be fired.
How do you propose we rectify this situation?
I think the best filmmakers live in ugly New York. There's not going to be the same loss.
Because we have so little. When you were a girl did you imagine you would grow up to be a filmmaker championing the sexual liberation of the female?
[deadpan] Yes, of course I did. ... We had a Super 8 camera I played around with, but I didn't have a sense of myself -- I actually did make my little brother and his friends act in movies. They didn't know what was happening to them; at a certain point they would just run off from wherever I was. But I always loved loved loved film comedy; it's always been comedy that's drawn me toward pursuing what's now become filmmaking. First I wanted to be an actor so badly. Then I was trained as an actor and I learned about writing and directing, so I became a writer and director making plays ... sort of evolving trying to figure out what was the medium through which I was supposed to tell a story.
Are you surprised to find yourself doing film?
The idea of film was always intimidating to me, because it seemed so expensive... As much as I loved going to movies it wasn't something I would even let myself consider, because I didn't know how I could have access to that. It wasn't until technology changed that I thought, "Oh, you can just make movies the way people make downtown theater."
Did you anticipate doing your very specific improvisational kind of filmmaking, where you collaborate with actors on your story and they improvise the script?
Actually, the only time I worked that way was when I was in college, when I did comedy shows. We did some improv scenes -- I came up with this idea for an audition skit: I was a director and I was just supposed to sit there while other people came in and did their audition. ... I actually worked with Molly Shannon, who in the course of doing the skit over and over came up with that character she did on Saturday Night Live; that's where she first developed it. That was the only time I really worked that way. When I went into doing traditional playwriting I had all the actors say [the script] word for word. It didn't make sense to improvise on stage, because you couldn't edit it. And an actor isn't necessarily thinking about through-line as they're free-associating. It wasn't until -- it's going to sound silly, but I spent a year writing this script for a short film and there was this line in it, it was my favorite line, it was the actor's favorite line, and when it came time to shoot the scene that line was in -- I wasn't directing this movie -- there was no time... And I felt like, Oh my God, scripts don't matter! [laughs] It's only a part of it. In playwriting, the playwright is king and the writing is the center of all of it. In screenwriting it all has to do with how it works and where's the physical space you're in and continuity -- all these other elements where what becomes more important is that you have it believable from moment to moment. That's what incredible about improv: a camera literally captures what's happening. So if you do a scene where you tell someone to say something and the other person doesn't know what it's going to be, you really capture their surprise.
Film really is a director's and editor's medium.
My identity was as a playwright for many years, so it's weird, as a writer, to go into film and just give all that up. You have to be focused on what's the best thing for the project. I assemble so many actresses and actors who are so smart and they're so funny, that for me not to use their contributions because of some kind of ego thing would be strange. And I think people are speaking more frankly about how films are made -- recently Scorsese and his editor were talking about how much improvisation there were in all of his famous movies. And no one would think about that; they wouldn't put the words Scorsese and improvisation together. But when you think about it, those scripts are so good -- I'm sorry, that's not one person sitting alone writing that.
Improv has a vital energy, like live theater, because it's so spontaneous. Do you find improv adds a charge?
Oh, totally. But I think where a lot of directors go wrong is you can't really shape improv in the editing room. What gives improv its shape is how you direct the actors to pursue their objectives during a scene.
Do you consciously pursue any particular themes? I see your work as consistently searching for connection and love while finding the comedy in heartache.
Because it's such a long process to make a film, you have to make a film that contains things you care about. [Otherwise] you can't get to the end; it's just too hard to do it. I think all writers and directors have their obsessions -- I don't think they're consciously focused on them, but something is expressed from their worldview, their obsessions or concerns, things that are important to them, the things they value -- all of those things come out from story to story. Often in film you can see it even when they're not the writer of the script; you can still see their opinion or worldview emerging from the different stories they tell. For me I know that I'm often put in "a box shaped like a coffin," to quote our First Lady of the mayor. Because I tell stories about women, I'm seen as having this agenda -- where I'm just talking about what I know. These are the experiences I have, and it wouldn't occur to me that I couldn't tell these stories. Whereas other people sort of preemptively stop themselves from telling these stories. I was talking to my friend [playwright/actor] Deb [Margolin] about how few female buddy movies there are. Women are very invested in friendship, and women have experiences and we're as adventurous as the next person. But we rarely see these stories on screen. When we were on the festival circuit for Codependent, it felt like a road movie. And when I was in Seattle with [Merkins star] Jackie [Monahan], we went to this lesbian bar, and there were only two other women there -- and they ended up stealing my jacket, and it had my iPhone and my wallet. And we actually ran through the streets of Seattle, and we actually caught up with them at this other bar! They were so stupid -- they told us where they were going to! First I was like, "Wow, out of New York City the lesbians are so friendly!" but Jackie was like, "They're on drugs."
A perfect setup for a caper film... Was there one particular inspiration for Foxy Merkins?
I had this idea years ago, which was making a movie that was sort of a parody of an homage to classic male hustler films, told with a female cast. Because when you see those movies, if you're a woman, you identify with the main character. Why wouldn't you? You're an individual, you're adventurous, you have the same fantasies -- I'm not saying sexual fantasies, but the fantasy of being a loner, being an outlier, on the edge; that's how you feel. Then when a bunch of things happened right after Sundance [with Codependent] I thought, I should make that movie now, because that's a movie we could all work on.
If you were running a studio, we'd have a whole department for female road movies and buddy comedies.
Look at how Bridesmaids did financially -- if that was any other kind of film, there would have been a million knockoff female buddy films by the next year. I mean, Thelma and Louise was considered this totally vanguard movie, it blew people away -- but it ends with the double suicide of the main characters! [laughs]
We've been asked, and [Merkins star] Lisa [Haas] been asked, "What obligation did you have, playing a female prostitute?" Our first obligation is to comedy.
There are so few comedy geniuses around. Melissa McCarthy can say these foul things and it doesn't remotely affect how much we love her.
Melissa McCarthy has this guilelessness. She is not a malevolent person. So even when she's saying angry things there's a kind of a comic and cartoonish spirit that is, at its heart, warm.
Lisa Haas has the same guileless innocence. Or Tina Fey, who's somehow both warm and tart. It's remarkable the impact she's had on popular culture.
I love in Tina Fey's book where she talks about how it's not your job to address sexism -- the only instance in which you should address sexism is if someone is literally standing in your way between you and a job. If someone is going to stop you from getting a job, then, yes, you have to address their attitude. But otherwise you have to save everything you have for your work. Because your work is going to take everything and more. And you can't take on the idea of trying to -- I mean, sexism has existed forever and will exist long after we're gone. Our job as comedians is to just serve comedy and make the comedy as funny as you can. I feel like, what better example of someone who figured out how to negotiate the world than Tina Fey, you know? In comedy.
That she was able to be intelligent and political and funny and she wasn't clobbered for it but in fact embraced created a whole sea change: it allowed people to acknowledge that women could be all those things. It was obvious women were, but she somehow made it acceptable and somehow safe. Maybe because she just spent all her time concentrating on the work. Have you been surprised at any of the reactions to your movie?
With the Next Weekend festival, we were unprepared for how well it went. People came back for the second screening that were at the first one. We were amazed.
It's a testament to the hunger there is out there for those stories. It must be both gratifying and hard to be pioneering -- I would guess you get people's visceral responses, with their psychological issues sort of laid on the table, because they don't have other forums for experiencing these kinds of things. They're not used to seeing these stories on film.
It's pretty easy to spot when someone has an agenda in reacting. But, honestly, an agenda can't carry you through making a film -- unless you're a documentary filmmaker. Narrative is just too humanistic of a craft. The process is just about people and moments and the truth and stuff like that... [If] there's a hunger for my work -- if that's true, I would say that we just don't get to see very smart quirky women on screen a lot. And women who may be unconventional-looking, perhaps. One of the things that bothers me the most in criticism is when people describe the people I work with as not being actors. They're all trained actors ... they're on stage every week downtown. I almost feel like if I worked with Kathy Bates and Linda Hunt, if they weren't famous, people would assume they were my friends. They wouldn't even see them. There's just this idea that an actress has to look a certain way and be, you know, three pounds -- and I have real-looking people in my films who are brilliant comedians, improvisers -- and the intelligence level is just so high, it's very refreshing. People get to see the kind of people who they themselves would choose to spend time with. When you go out for coffee, do you want to go out with someone who's really smart and compelling, or do you want to go out with someone who's two pounds? [laughs] Where people really want to come see these movies really has to do with: this is what life is like for us, we're surrounded by intelligent people -- how come we so rarely get to see that on screen?
Thus the success of Girls. Back in the '70s, Hollywood went from casting Robert Redford types to Dustin Hoffman types, but we continue to glamorize and misrepresent what women are supposed to look like. Would Hollywood and television do well to recognize there are vast audiences who would respond to more female-centered films like yours?
There's a hunger for comedy that is shared. It transcends gender, for sure. And people who are working in comedy, who love it, who see it as a practice, they all feel the same way about the very very funny shows. Obviously I'm not Larry David, but when I see that show or I see other stuff that's very funny, I'm drawn to them, and I do think that it's something that goes beyond --I mean, I know guys love our movies who love comedy. If you're sort of humorless or you take yourself very seriously, no, you're not going to like my movies. Because part of what I'm presenting is sort of -- that way Aristotle talks about how the comedian presents the world as ridiculous.
I knew you'd end up quoting Aristotle. Do you have any overriding emotion as you anticipate your movie's debut at Sundance in Utah?
I feel like you're talking as if I'm giving away the daughter I never had at her bat mitzvah.
Hopefully she'll get lots of checks from relatives and strangers. How much money do you need to raise to actually make a movie and how do you raise it?
The costs sort of snowball... We're running a Kickstarter campaign right now, and we came up with the weirdest prizes we could think of -- some of them, actually, it's not clear how we're going to deliver them or create them, like the Merkins coaster... But all these people I know have come out of the woodwork with donations, and other filmmakers have made donations, even filmmakers going to Sundance with their own films, which is really so moving to me.
It's the artist believing in the process and the talent. In this strange way we can all make happen the films that we want to see rather than being forced to just endure the things Hollywood churns out.
The idea of making the movies you want to see -- that's exactly this new wave of accessible technology plus accessible fundraising.
The artist's life is not filled with encouragement, so we have to appreciate those moments.
The whole idea is that comedy is about trying to create joy for people. We're trying to get the joy, that's the big picture for us. There's a lot that goes on at Sundance; it's so stressful for a director... [but] we're so lucky that we got to make a movie and be recognized basically by the greatest film festival in the world. It's unbelievable -- when in my first year of film school I couldn't even shoot a scene that would cut together, where someone would say something and then you'd have the other shot of the person saying something back -- it didn't even look like they were in the same room. That I'm now in Sundance is just unbelievable to me.
(Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan; Haas undercover with Susan Ziegler: Photos by Anna Stypko)