Interview: Susanna Fogel and Abby Elliott Talk LIFE PARTNERS at TFF 2014
Female friendships are some of a gal’s most formative influences and can be among the most intimate relationships of her life. (No, not ‘intimate’ like that per se…just ‘close,’ ‘comfortable,’ and ‘personal.’) At the same time, lady friendships can also be some of life’s most passive-aggressive, judgmental, and heartbreaking relationships. Women. We’re complicated. And as films like Life Partners—a profound for-women-by-women female-friendship dramedy—prove, more often than not, it takes a woman to truly understand how women affect each other, in good ways and bad.
Lesbian Sasha (Leighton Meester) and straight Paige (Gillian Jacobs) are codependent-but-platonic, longtime BFFs, who’ve stood by each other through thick and thin. Nothing and no one has come between them…until Paige meets Tim (Adam Brody), whose presence shakes the girls’ relationship to its very core. Can Sasha and Paige find a new normal? Or is their relationship superfluous now that Paige has Tim?
Originally written as a one-act play centered around Paige’s DOMA-related promise not to marry until Sasha could too, the film focuses primarily on Paige and Sasha’s friendship, and the duo’s emotional journey into their late-20s. Life Partners—the feature film debut of director Susanna Fogel, written by Fogel and writing partner Joni Lefkowitz—also features Gabourey Sidibe, Beth Dover, Abby Elliott, Greer Grammer, Mark Feuerstein, and Kate McKinnon.
Two days after Life Partners‘ world premiere at TFF 2014, I had the pleasure of chatting with Fogel and Elliott about female film friendships, character development, and (as the press notes put it) “questionable facial hair”…
What made you want to make movies about female friendship?
Susanna Fogel: My writing partner, Joni [Lefkowitz], and I have always been interested in the nuances of female friendships, and we haven’t really found that there are enough movies that have shown us a realistic depiction of what it’s like—how emotional and passive aggressive that female friendships can be. So we’ve always tried to incorporate an element of that into the relationship stories that we tell with women—and with men…. [W]e love exploring that side of it, and also just the closeness that women have with each other—the love affair that you essentially have, platonically, with your best friend and how that can evolve and change. [I]t’s always been part of our plan as writers to explore that, and this is the first time that we’ve got[ten] to make a movie that really focuses on that exclusively.
Sex and the City did the Charlotte/soulmate thing in 2001—“[M]aybe we could be each others soulmates? And then we could let men be just these great nice guys to have fun with?” (#4.1 – “The Agony and the Ex-tacy”)—so why do you think it’s taken so long to get to the big screen?
SF: I think it’s strictly because on the studio film side of things, those movies just don’t have the same commercial Hollywood sheen to them that a romantic comedy does. So a story that’s essentially a platonic romantic comedy about two friends, just doesn’t seem as overtly commercial as a movie with Hugh Grant falling in love with whoever—there’s no that person. So, I think that those movies just naturally drift a little bit more to the indie space. Nicole Holofcener has made a few wonderful indie movies, and they do have commercial appeal because I think people are really starved for movies that speak to their experiences and movies that resonate with the friendships that we all have. But at the same time I don’t think that there’s a natural fit, or hasn’t really been a natural fit, in the big studio movie world for movies about that. I think TV has been a little bit more innovative in showing those friendships earlier, but now there is something liberating about how easy it is to make indie movies at different budgets, and I think that that hopefully will open the door for more stories like this to be told at different scopes.
Like the three films that were at Sundance in 2012: For A Good Time, Call…, Bachelorette, and That’s What She Said.
Abby Elliott: Yeah, they’re all female friendships. They were great.
Life Partners is loosely based on Susanna’s friendship with Joni at the time when Joni met her wife-to-be. What made you decide to make the ‘other woman’ a man in this story?
SF: [W]hile we do draw from personal experiences and our relationships, [Joni and I] try to create characters and worlds that are not exactly biographies of each other—or autobiographies—so that we can create characters that feel fully formed, instead of just being avatars of us and our exact experiences. In this particular case, there are aspects of both characters that are each of us…. There are aspects of Sasha (Meester) that are much more like me, even though she’s a lesbian, and then there are aspects of Joni [too]…. I think we try to just create two characters that feel like people that we know/identify with, and didn’t really think about that aspect of it. I think part of what we try to do is just create characters whatever the sexualities are, because in our friendship and in our world it’s an incidental part—as much as it does define people, it also isn’t talked about as the only defining trait.
………So, it’s funny you should ask ‘cause it’s not something that we ever really thought about in that way. But we do think a lot about the fact that Joni came out later in life (in her 20s) and went through a period of dating—having relationships that most people go through in high school, which were dating the wrong person, dating the person you really attracted who’s kind of an idiot, and all the things that we all make mistakes with earlier on—and because she was in the closet during that adolescence, she didn’t have those dates with men or women then. So she sort of got that out of her system a few years later. So we do talk about how the ability to be ready for an adult relationship sometimes is at cross-purposes with exploring all the things that you’re finally getting a chance to explore. So for us it made sense [that] the straight girl was more ready for an adult relationship in that way, because she wasn’t still working out this other side of herself and her identity.
Does it perhaps also make the film’s primary romance one that most audiences can relate to without having to think about it too hard, so that they can focus on the friendship and emotional aspects there?
SF: [I]f that’s the byproduct of it, great. But…I think for us it’s important that people just see this movie as a movie about two friends. [W]hile we want it to be thought-provoking in terms of the sexualities of the friends, we liked the idea of showing the community of single women that Leighton’s character is a part of, because it’s such a rich—comedically and otherwise—world that Joni was and is a part of. I think now that she’s married, it’s different from when she was single and she had a crew of lesbian best friends, and they went to the same five bars, and they did all the same things, and they had all the same conversations…
AE: Dated the same people…
SF: …and the comedy that we wanted to mine from that. We didn’t want to take that world too seriously, and we felt like there would be a richer set of avenues to go down if she were single and struggling through that and dating people like Vanessa.
Is the ‘Vanessa’ character (Abby Elliott) based on someone real?
AE: When [Susanna and Joni] wrote it, there was someone in mind, and I definitely know this person who is so lost that she takes on this world of being like a free spirit and, “I do all these things. I’m an artist.” But she lives at home and she has no direction. … I think [she]’s definitely relatable. She fancies herself a free spirit, but in a really superficial way. It’s like she wrote down a list of what it means to be a free spirit, and was like, “Okay, I have to do that.” She just has no idea. She’s really lost, and I relate to that.
She’s not all bad though…
AE: Yeah, I thought the way that [Susanna and Joni] built her character, there was an arc, and I really like that—and it came across on screen, too. When I was watching it for the first time, I was like, “Oh, that scene. They could have a potential relationship.” You don’t know yet that [Vanessa] is really bragging about playing drums in the band, and all of the way that she brags about that stuff, you don’t realize that she’s really…
SF: Really narcissistic.
AE: I really liked that [Vanessa] was unlikeable. I mean, I liked playing that character ‘cause it’s fun, but I just wanted her to be more insecure and I wanted to play it like, what would someone who really wants to prove herself, how would they act? Someone who wants to have something to prove, but really just doesn’t have anything.
I loved Greer Grammer’s character ‘Mia’. How did you settle on Grammer for that role?
SF: [It’s] the funniest thing…: Men relate to that relationship more than to any other relationship [in the film]. I think probably because…the ‘dating down’ thing is something that they relate to. Dating this really sweet, super hot, adoring girl who’s just kind of not challenging you in the ways you need to be challenged, and dating other women, and all that. [W]e liked the idea that this was just a lesbian version of that theme. And we just wanted somebody who was so lovable and means no harm at all, but is ultimately not going to ever push you in the ways you need to be pushed. And at a time that Sasha (Meester) [is] losing the person in her life who does challenge her a little bit…and is feeling judged and a little bit left behind, she goes for the person who’s going to validate and reinforce all of her bad habits. So, we just wanted the most adorable, lovable, but still authentic and not broad, bad depiction of that, and we loved [Grammer]. Our casting director showed us Awkward and [other] tapes and we were like, “This girl is so adorable, and so authentic, and so sincere.”
AE: Yeah, she’s so cute.
SF: We wanted her to be lovable. We didn’t want to make a joke out of her, even though…she is one of the broader characters and she’s sort of on that line…. One thing my editor (Kiran Pallegadda) and I really tried to do was pick the performances with both Vanessa (Elliott) and Mia (Grammer) that made them seem viable, at least, for a while. So that we didn’t judge or dismiss Sasha’s optimism, or write her off, or judge her for thinking that that could go somewhere.
I’ve read that the editing process was an interesting time for you, because the overturning of DOMA led to changes in the film’s narrative. Was there anything you wish you’d been able to keep, but sacrificed to keep the film with the times?
SF: We had the benefit of getting a re-shoot day after [the DOMA decision]. [T]he beginning where [Paige (Jacobs) and Sasha (Meester) are] having a sleep-over [that] sort of sells this super close, relationship-y friendship [was] the product of that re-shoot day. We sat down after the DOMA thing, and realiz[ed] that the emotional friendship arc was sort of the heart of the movie, and kind of always ha[d] been—even without the politics, it was the most compelling material we had. We realized that in place of the [original] ‘I love you so much, I promise I’ll never get married’ [theme,] we needed some ‘declaration of love’ scene…even if it wasn’t as explicit as that. [F]or that, we decided to take a day with [Meester and Jacobs] and craft an opening of the movie that would say that without saying it. I think we actually did get to have our cake and eat it too in that way, in that we had that bonus day, which I know a lot of movies don’t have the benefit of. So I don’t have any regrets, but I think it’s because I got that day.
There are a lot of friendship faux pas committed by a number of characters. Do you think that the audience is going to side with one person over another? Do you want them to?
SF: Our hope is that people recognize both…main characters, as characters that they relate to or characters that they know in their lives, and can love and empathize with both of them. We’ve had people identifying more closely with one or the other based on their own set of issues, whatever those are. But…our attitude is, if people are identifying with both, if we hear from enough people that love either, we’ve succeeded in that we’ve created something that’s not tipped too far in one direction. We didn’t want to vilify the characters to the point where we were commenting on, “Well, lesbians are this way…”. We wanted to just keep it, hopefully, layered enough where people could just make that decision for themselves.
AE: I love both [main] characters.
SF: It worked for Abby.
I also loved them both—which is why I ended up seeing Adam Brody as the villain, in a way.
Brody’s facial hair…who came up with that?
SF: [T]he facial hair has gotten a lot of attention. Adam’s brother had, vaguely, the look and style of the character [Adam] played. So when I first met with him, he was really excited to play [this] character because I think…a lot of what he’s done is a little bit more in that hipster, intellectual space, which is more naturally who he is, to a degree. But at the same time…he was excited to play a character who’s just a little bit more earnest, not trying to be [a] super-edgy, guy. And that comes with slightly less ironic attire and…
AE: His t-shirts.
SF: …the t-shirts, and the facial hair and all of that. So it was an embellishment, obviously. But I think he was just excited to play a man without irony, for once. And as part of that, we wanted to just embrace what that meant—between the glasses and the t-shirts and…
AE: The Adidas flip-flops.
SF: …the sport sandals and the added facial hair. We just wanted to give him the freedom to inhabit a role that was different, whatever that meant to him. But yes, I mean…that’s [a] question [for Paige (Jacobs) in the film]: Do you date a person with that facial hair?
He reminded me of those 30-somethings who hit on 16-year-old girls in the bars that they shouldn’t be in.
SF: Well, maybe in the sequel that will happen. I need to work. [laughs]
Speaking of sequels and futures, what’s next?
AE: I have a movie coming out in August, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I play April O’Neil’s roommate, Taylor. And I’m excited about it.
And you, Susanna, have new series Chasing Life on ABC Family?
SF: I do. It’s premiering June 10th—right after Pretty Little Liars.
Great time slot.
SF: [Joni and I are] really excited about that. It’s funny how these things work because with both the movie and [Chasing Life], you start gestating the idea or you get hired to write the pilot years before you get the fruition of a premiere or a show on the air. So it finally feels like things are happening, but we’ve been slowly working on these projects for years. [W]e’re excited about it and looking to see what we’re gonna do next, whether that’s an indie thing or I’d love to direct someone else’s script and just really expand that part of my career too.
Spotlight..•..93 min...•..Comedy, Friendship, Romance
World Premiere: April 18, 2014
DIRECTOR: .Susanna Fogel
WRITERS: .Joni Lefkowitz & Susanna Fogel
Leighton Meester, Gillian Jacobs, Adam Brody,
Gabourey Sidibe, Beth Dover, Abby Elliott, Greer Grammer, Mark Feuerstein, Kate McKinnon
LIFE PARTNERS – TFF 2014
SYNOPSIS: At 29, the most long-term relationship Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) have ever been in is with each other, using their co-dependent friendship as an excuse not to venture out into the dating world alone. But when Paige meets nerdy Tim (Adam Brody) and starts to get serious for the first time, the nature of their friendship begins to shift. Fearing she’s being cast aside, Sasha tries to keep their relationship the same, but does growing up also mean growing apart?
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TFF 2014 coverage!
Featured Image: © 2014 Red Crown Productions | Video Source: Entertainment Weekly
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