Member Post: Making a Female-Driven Thriller, and Other Tricks You Didn't Learn in Film School

I graduated from the MFA Writing program in spring 2010. In about two months, I’ll be shooting my first feature film, Natalie, a microbudget murder mystery with a lesbian protagonist. We have a female writer-director (me), two female leads, and a team of four female producers, including fellow SCA grad Padmini Narumanchi, who produced Hank and Asha, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.

As a writer-director, my personal mission is pretty simple: I want to make smart genre films (action, thriller, sci-fi) starring women.

I believe it is totally possible for films like these to be commercially successful. I know tons of women—and men—who would love to see more smart, brave, resourceful, kickass women on screen, driving the action instead of sitting around as eye candy, accessories, or passive victims to be rescued. I know women who love action, thrillers, sci-fi and horror—I’m one of them.

Unfortunately, this is not the prevailing logic in Hollywood, which means that if you’re making a movie like mine, you are probably on your own, at least until you can prove a film like this can be successful.

Natalie is mystery/thriller about an ordinary woman, Kate, investigating the death of her ex-girlfriend, Natalie. It follows a fairly standard noir formula, but with a couple of important twists. First, most of the gender roles are reversed—the detective is female, and the character who occupies what would normally be the femme fatale role is Natalie’s male friend Lester. I didn’t invent this idea—a film I love, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, follows a very similar pattern.

The second twist is that Natalie, the murder victim, has a role to play in solving the crime. Although she’s dead in the first scene of the movie, she leaves behind clues that help lead Kate and Lester to her killer. So instead of a detective acting on behalf of a victim who has no agency (because they’re dead), the victim is a participant in solving her own murder from beyond the grave. This makes Natalie a blend of a detective story and a revenge story, a partnership between the living and the dead to seek justice.

This film is really the culmination of everything I’ve done to continue my film education since graduating from USC. While I developed a lot as a writer at USC, I didn’t learn many of the skills today’s independent, microbudget filmmaker needs. I didn’t know how to direct my own work or talk to actors in ways that would be helpful to them. I knew very little about physical production, post, marketing, distribution or fundraising. As an indie filmmaker today, you need to know something about all of these things.

When I moved back to New York City in 2011, I was lucky to find Ela Thier’s Independent Film School, a workshop program that specializes in training independent filmmakers. This really became my second film school (much cheaper than the first.) I’ve been in Ela’s year-long writing-directing lab for two years now, and it’s through her classes that I learned how to direct (and found out I love it!), learned how to be my own producer, and become a still better (and much faster and more confident) writer.

I’ve met other filmmakers and started working on projects with them. Last summer I wrote and directed a short film, One Night, and in the past year I’ve produced and/or AD’d two other shorts and two web series shoots.

I’ve also met amazing actors, particularly women, who are fearless and smart and fantastically talented, and are always getting cast as the cheerleader or the girlfriend or the sex object. These women are dying for substantive, challenging roles to sink their acting teeth into, and that alone convinces me that I could go on writing rich, complex roles for women for the rest of my career. All three of the leads in Natalie (Caitlin Mehner, Nabil Viñas and Noelle P. Wilson) were actors in the lab, and through their networks and my own I was able to cast most of the other roles in the film.

We’re currently raising funds to shoot Natalie starting July 27 in New York City. We’re off to a good start, but we have a long way to go to make this film a reality. If you can contribute today, together we can be a small part of making more space for films of all kinds made for, by and about women.

Laura Durkay is an independent writer, director, producer and script consultant living in New York City. To learn more about Natalie, visit the film’s website or Facebook page.


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