Understanding Actors: Interview with Director Jen McGowan of Kelly & Cal

Actress-turned-director Jen McGowan premiered her feature debut, Kelly & Cal, at South by Southwest this March.

The film, about the unusual friendship between a struggling new mom and her wheelchair-bound young neighbor, stars the ever-luminous Juliette Lewis and a dynamic, confident Jonny Weston (Chasing Mavericks). It won this year’s Gamechanger Award at SXSW (previously known as the Chicken & Egg Pictures Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award), in part for being a heavily female-driven project, written by Amy Lowe Starbin and produced by Adi Ezroni and Mandy Tagger Brockey.

With the palpable chemistry between her leads forming the backbone of Kelly & Cal‘s sweet, poignant story, we asked McGowan how her previous life in front of the camera informs her current gig behind it.

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Where did you originally pick up the skills you now employ working with actors?

Jen McGowan (JM): I started my career at NYU, training as an actor at the Atlantic Theater. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was probably the best training I could have had for being a director. It taught me script analysis and character, and mostly drilled in to me the importance of moments. Moments are what I am obsessed with!

Jonny Weston and Juliette Lewis in Kelly & Cal

Jonny Weston and Juliette Lewis in Kelly & Cal

MM: What prompted the switch to directing, then?

JM: When I finished NYU I did the actor thing – day job, auditions, getting cast here and there – but it really wasn’t enough for me. I found the life of being an actor very unrewarding. I wanted more control over what I was creating. So I found my way into directing accidentally. I was trying to solve the problem of not having good work so I decided to create it for myself. When I did that, I discovered that I enjoyed directing much more than acting. It was like Goldilocks: Everything about it just felt so natural to me. So I instantly made the jump. I applied to and got in to the MFA directing program at USC, and haven’t looked back since.

MM: What understanding of the actor’s mind do you possess?

JM: The acting experience gave me insight into what my actors are going through, how it feels to be so exposed, what they need to do a great job. And each actor is different. Some need information, inspiration, encouragement, confrontation; some just need space. Above all, I want to make sure that my actors know they have my undivided attention, and that I will do everything in my power to make sure that the end film includes their best possible performance.

In order to achieve that, I try to first make the absolute best decision while casting. That is paramount. During prep and while shooting, it’s important to be attentive and honest with my actors, to be as clear or as obtuse as is useful, and let them know that I am committed and on their side. I don’t subscribe to the belief that a director needs to torture their actors. Not yet, at least! I really believe the best way is to collaborate with the actors as the pros that they are.

Actors needs directors and directors need actors. When that relationship works, it’s amazing for everyone involved.

McGowan, whose previous work includes the short films “She Never", ”Confessions Of A Late Bloomer" and “Touch.”

McGowan, whose previous work includes the short films “She Never,” ”Confessions Of A Late Bloomer” and “Touch.”

MM: What do you aim to achieve while in the moment with an actor?

JM: Sometimes shooting can be stressful and I try very hard to create a bubble for my actors. I want them to feel that when they’re on set with me, the only thing they have to worry about is what’s happening in front of them, right at that precise moment. I really try to protect them while they are working.

I believe very much that if I give actors my truth, they will give me theirs in their performances. So I never, ever lie to an actor. If the take sucked, I do not tell them it was amazing. I don’t make any one feel bad. There’s no point in that. But an actor can smell a lie from a mile away and if they do, you lose them.

MM: Many actors find the thought of transitioning to acting pretty daunting. What advice do you have for others in that situation?

JM: For other actors who are thinking of making the transition, I would say just go for it! And don’t worry that you are not as technically adept as other filmmakers; just fill in your team with people who are. And you will learn that stuff as you go. The tools are out there. Get the best DP you can and work with them in a collaborative way. Get on set and learn the language and what everyone’s jobs are. Get practice being comfortable in the chaos. Watch great movies. Then watch them again on mute. Go to film festivals. Get involved with your local film groups. Just jump in and start experimenting. If you make something that sucks, don’t worry about it, try again, make something else. Do that enough times and eventually you will make something great. Or at least interesting. I promise. MM

Kelly & Cal opened in theaters September 5, 2014, and Los Angeles theaters September 19, 2014.

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