The Pretty One: An interview with writer-director Jenée LaMarque

Writer-director Jenée LaMarque’s heartfelt, clever feature debut, The Pretty One, tells the story of Laurel, a shy, sensitive young woman who has always remained in the long shadow of her confident twin sister, Audrey—that is, until an accident suddenly presents her with the chance to see what being ‘the pretty one’ is really like.

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With a powerhouse performance by lead actress Zoe Kazan (who pulls more than double duty, playing at different stages: Audrey, Laurel, Laurel’s idea of who Audrey is, and Laurel coming into her own), and a strong supporting cast of Jake Johnson,  John Carroll Lynch, and Ron Livingston, the film is a funny, wistful paean to the joys and pains of sisterhood. We interviewed Los Angeles-based LaMarque for our Winter 2014 issue (she appears in the article “The F-Word,” alongside directors Shana Betz and Francesca Gregorini), but the conversation yielded more riches than we had space for there. So here it is in full: covering such topics as the casting process, Candice Breitz’s photography, the way comedy should bloom organically, femininity’s spectrum over generations, and the dubious laurel that is ‘female filmmaker.’ Oh, and a glowing appraisal of Lindsay Lohan’s finest acting work (Couldn’t leave that out, could we?).

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Could you tell us a little about your background, in film and in life?

Jenée LaMarque (JL): Growing up, I was an actor. I did local theater. I grew up in Claremont, and I went to Stanford for college.

MM: Did you act in college?

JL: I did. I wasn’t a theater major but I acted a lot. My degree was in creative writing with an emphasis on poetry. Then I moved out to LA and I tried to have an acting career and I was just miserable and hated it. It wasn’t the way that I enjoyed being creative before that—it was just a grind for me.

MM: Were you trying to act in film as opposed to the stage?

JL: Yeah. And then my mother got sick, so I stopped, to be with her more and help the family out. During that time, I started doing some screenwriting and decided, “Whoa, I actually really like this. I think I’m going to do that.”

MM: Had you ever written screenplays before?

JL: No, no, nothing! I hadn’t even read a screenplay until I was probably 25 years old. It was a form of creativity where I could use my background in writing and in acting. I could use those both together and I could do it on my own time.

MM: Were you writing roles for yourself?

JL: No, from the beginning I was like, “That’s not what I want. I don’t want to act in the things that I am writing; I just need to write because I like writing.” So I started taking UCLA extension classes. I took probably six courses there and went to AFI for an MFA in screenwriting. And I discovered that I also wanted to direct. It was there that I wrote The Pretty One and developed it and met a lot of the key people that ended up being collaborators on the film. One of the producers, our DP, our production designer on the film—we were all in the same class at AFI.

MM: A lot of people debate the practicality of film school these days. I feel like if there’s one benefit, it’s that you get put into this very intense, collaborative working environment.

JL: This network of people that have the same education and background as you. You want similar things. Having a safe place to just do really horrible work [laughs] before you go out in the world. Then when I graduated, I directed a short that I had written. That short—It was called Spoonful—went to Sundance in 2012. It was very exciting for me that the first sort of short I ever directed went to Sundance. I was like, “Wow! This is a dream come true.”

MM: Do you think of yourself as primarily a screenwriter as opposed to a director?

JL: For now I do, because I have a strong background as an actor. That is my stronger set of skills—the writing and working with actors. And then in terms of all of the technical aspects of filmmaking, I am so new. But directors work differently. Some are very technical and some leave it all up to the DP.

MM: You have to find people that complement your skills. Although I thought that the cinematography in The Pretty One was very self-assured.

JL: I am always very opinionated about how I want things to look and the type of framing that I like. And my DP, Polly Morgan, and I saw eye-to-eye in terms of what we wanted it to look like. I just trusted her because we just both knew what we wanted.

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MM: Can you talk about your cinematic inspirations?

JL: I felt very strongly that I wanted to be part of a community or group of female filmmakers, because people like Jane Campion, Miranda July, Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko—their films are my favorite. I connect to them in a deeper way than I do with any other. Their characters are so interesting and complex and deep and funny, at the same time. Like how women really are. So I was like hugely inspired by them.

Polly, my DP, and I really love Jane Campion’s first film, Sweetie. A lot of our framing that we chose in The Pretty One is inspired by that film. And another movie that I really love is Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely and Amazing. I think it’s so funny and I felt validated when I saw it; it is hilarious to me.

MM: One of the things people say is that female filmmakers make films for other women. Do you think that’s true?

JL: I think that that is true, in a sense. But I’d like to think that just because a woman is the protagonist in the film doesn’t mean that it only appeals to women. It’s funny, because I am really proud to be a ‘female filmmaker,’ in the quotes. But at the same time, I am a ‘female filmmaker’ whereas a man is a ‘filmmaker.’ I feel like it ghettoizes us. When I am on set, I am not thinking to myself, “I am a female director. What would a woman do in this situation?” No, I just think, “I am at work.”

MM: I agree, it’s difficult. You have to overtly champion women filmmakers but at the same time, it prolongs a stereotype.

JL: Well, unfortunately, you do. I think people making a conscious effort to champion female filmmakers is an important thing. To shine more publicity on their projects because we need it.

MM: In an ideal world there wouldn’t be categorizationa Netflix category: “Women’s filmmaking.” Anyway, the performances in The Pretty One are amazing, one of the movie’s major strengths. You said that you got a lot of your collaborators involved when you were at AFI. Did you get the actors involved too? You have some big names for a first feature.

JL: They came later, a few months after I graduated. At the end of AFI I sent my script to Schorr Pictures and they came on as executive producers, getting us a great casting director, Mary Vernieu. Through her we got amazing meetings with so many wonderful actors. The script had been on the Blacklist in 2011, so it had a lot of buzz and exposure from that. With Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston and John Carroll Lynch it was just an offer; they didn’t audition.

But I wanted the lead to audition, because there is so much to that role that needed to be checked off. We spent six months casting that part—everything hung around her. I met with 20 girls and we had a bunch of casting sessions, then another 40 came in and read. It took a long time. Zoe happened to be in town that week, and she came in for that session. And immediately I was just laughing hysterically. We just looked at each other and we were like, “That’s her.” She is very connected to her physicality and how her body is telling a story. She is really present and engaged as a performer. I love working with her, she’s so smart and funny and just a great collaborator.

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MM: Did you do a lot of workshopping and research to build the relationships—between the twins and with everyone else?

JL: We workshopped with the directing guru Joan Scheckel, who helped create a plan for rehearsals and drawing the contrast between the two sisters. We had a week of all-day rehearsals where we did exploratory work and improvisations around those relationship and characters. We had a body double. How do you make a connection between two people that aren’t actually on the same screen? I wanted to build that sort of connection between the body double and Zoe, so that it could be there, even while crossing the line.

MM: That must be tricky—the imaginary acting relationship. Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap.

JL: She’s amazing in that, by the way! She’s 10 years old and she has a British accent. Zoe was actually really inspired by her performance. But there was a lot of calculation involved—math!— in terms of eye-line and performing one side of the scene and having to match what you did in the last scene. So much continuity. It messes with your head. But she did it, we survived!

MM: Convincingly! You guys did it.

JL: Absolutely. Not without effort.

MM: I wanted to talk to you about the themes and story—with Laurel growing up and leaving and trying to figure out who she is away from her family. I liked the scene where Audrey is asking Laurel to move out and come stay with her. I’ve had friends like that too who stayed at home most of their lives, so that felt very familiar.

JL: Totally! I think it’s, in some ways, a female issue to feel responsible for your family and for taking care of others. Until recently, women’s responsibilities were in the home. There is this generation of women—mine and the generation before me—that have to make this decision: to be in the home or to be out in the world. Both are valid choices. That is very much a part of this film. Laurel’s moving generationally past what all of the women before her did.

That’s something my friends and myself all went through—figuring out who you are and learning how to listen to yourself and your own voice. Particularly when you have come from a place where you were in service of others. Learning to serve yourself and listen to your needs and your wants is an exciting time.

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MM: And how to be alone, as opposed to a part of a collective. Laurel is a half of a pair of twins—the tightest collective. I really liked the friendship between Audrey and her friend, Claudia, who admires Audrey and envies her at the same time. Everyone has that experience with their friends—where you love them but also resent them, to a point. There is a competition that exists at the same time as affection.

JL: Sibling relationships are complicated. It’s not as if you just love them unconditionally and you never have any issues with them. In this instance, there’s the outside world, too; Laurel has internalized the outside world’s opinion of them. One of them is the ‘good’ one, the ‘better’ one, the ‘pretty’ one, the ‘feminine’ one, the ‘sexy’ one, and the other one is the ‘quiet’ one, the ‘introverted’ one: the beta twin.

Zoe and I looked at a photography project with identical twins by Candice Breitz. They are styled the same way in the same location and asked the same questions, and it’s edited as a split-screen. What you naturally do is look for the differences, trying to identify which one’s which. Because they are so similar, you want to be able to understand how they are different, and people get unusually vocal about their judgments of these twins. And you start to internalize that as a twin, I imagine. You identify yourself as the ‘whatever’ one. There is this weird mirror image of you and you are judging yourself against it.

And I think everyone, not just twins, deals with that in their life—in relation to family, in relation to society. Where do you fit on the spectrum of femininity? I have a girlfriend who hasn’t cut her hair in five years and never wears any makeup, ever. Then I have a girlfriend who self-tans every week and blows out her hair and wears full makeup. Women make choices in regard to where they are going to fit in terms of being a woman. People expect that of you.

MM: Did you have any concern about bringing together comedy and tragedy in the same moment?

JL: There were so many drafts before I felt like it was as good as it was going to get in terms of balance. For some people the tone totally works, and for other people it’s uneven; funnier here and darker there. It works for me. I wanted my characters to be real and let things just become funny. Comedy should come out of character and serve the scene and be integral to a character’s point of view. My experience in dealing with death and tragedy is that it’s not like you’re sad and crying 100 percent of the time. One minute you’re crying and the next you’re making jokes with your friends at the funeral and you’re laughing at how ridiculous you look in the mirror with mascara running down your face. That’s life.

MM: How was the process of editing?

JL: I learned most in the editing room. When you’re shooting the first scenes when you’re establishing relationships and character, you need to over-cover them, because those scenes are packed densely with all the information the film needs to work. More takes and more set-ups that you think!

MM: You must have felt the difference between shorts and features!

JL: Making a short is like a sprint and making a feature, a marathon. It doesn’t ever stop—but it’s wonderful. MM

The Pretty One opens Friday, February 7, 2014 courtesy of Dada Films. An abridged version of this interview appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2014 issue, currently on stands. Behind-the-scenes photographs by Erica Parise.

 

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