Q & A with Jen McGowan, Director of KELLY & CAL

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A little bit about Jen

I studied acting at NYU for undergrad at the Atlantic Theater Company. Once I graduated I worked in commercial production in NY for my day job while I auditioned and did plays. I started out as a receptionist and worked my way up to PA, coordinator, PM and then producer. While I was still a receptionist I didn’t enjoy the acting work I was getting so I decided to make a short film. That was when I caught the bug. When I made that film I realized I enjoyed directing far more than acting. At least the real world versions of each of those jobs. So I applied to USC and was there 2002-2005. My thesis film, Confessions of a Late Bloomer, premiered at Tribeca. I then did a couple spec commercials and another short film called Touch. Touch did incredibly well and was the film that got Kelly & Cal green lit.

When did you know that you wanted to be in the film & television business?

I sort of stumbled into it. After NYU I still didn’t really know anything about film or the industry. I thought I was going to work in theater. But out of necessity I needed a job and I thought working at a commercial production company would allow me to work and learn more about other aspects of the business. That led me to feel confident enough to make a short film, which sparked my career. So I don’t think I knew until I was 24 or 25.

What was your "big break"?

 I haven’t had it yet. I’m just beginning. It’s important that people understand how long this whole process can take. I really encourage people to structure their lives so they can be happy being in this for the long haul. If they hit early, great. But it doesn’t happen like that for most people.

Tell us about Kelly & Cal. How did that come about?

Kelly & Cal began at a USC alumni program called USC First Team. It was a wonderful program created by three alumni - Kam Miller, Barbara Stepansky and Henry Lowenfels. Its goal was to foster feature film production amongst alumni. For Amy (Lowe Starbin), the writer, and I it worked! Me met there and developed the script during that program. From there I took it around to producers. The whole process from meeting one another to opening on screen took about four years. People tell me that’s very fast but I’m impatient so it felt like ages.

Why this script?

What’s important to me when looking for material is three things - authenticity, relevance and can I do a good job with it. This script had all of those things. And I liked Amy a lot. I knew we could work well together.

How did you get the film financed?

First of all, I had the rights to the script. This is important for a first-time director. USC frequently pushes the writer/director angle and I understand why but I don’t entirely agree with that. The reason they do so, that I agree with, is you are far more likely to get something going as a first-time writer than director. But if you own the script you can do both. But I know there are much better writers in the world than I and I didn’t want to take the time to write, so I achieved the same goal but differently. While I didn’t write the script, I was attached to it so it was essentially the same.

 My producers found me out of the blue online. They were looking for up-and-coming directors and they saw my name again and again because the short film Touch played tons of festivals. They reached out to me through Lunafest. It so happened that at that same time I was trying to find producers for Kelly & Cal. They are experienced producers who have equity contacts from previous films and they reached out to their contacts to finance this film. We kept the budget incredibly low, just about $1M, and they were able to raise that amount.

Writer Amy Lowe Starbin (SCA), director Jen McGowan (SCA) and Oscar-nominated actress Juliette Lewis, star of "Kelly & Cal"

Writer Amy Lowe Starbin (SCA), director Jen McGowan (SCA) and Oscar-nominated actress Juliette Lewis, star of "Kelly & Cal"

I worked with a wonderful casting director, Rich Delia, who was at Barden Schnee. And with him and my producers we did traditional casting. For Juliette and some other roles, that meant making offers and waiting for them to read the script and respond. Which they did. And for other roles we held auditions. Jonny (Weston) was cast through auditions and Juliette very kindly came in and did a chemistry read with him.

What were some of the challenges of making your first feature?

Money. Money is always a challenge in this business. I’ve never made so little money as when making this film. Because I was working in NY I had to work with all new crew. That was hard. I only had two crew members that I knew from prior films on the whole shoot. Also there were some things that are unique to the longer feature format that I just didn’t know - such as how many days do you need to shoot. Fortunately I had a friend from USC who just did his first feature and I called him a few times when I had questions about things like that.

Any lessons you learned the hard way?

When hiring new crew, speak to the last three films they worked for -- not who they suggest for recommends. The last three. And ask multiple departments. For scripty, ask the director and the editor. For the 1st AD ask the director and the producer. For vanities see if you can ask talent and the 1st AD. Same goes with distribution. If you have multiple offers make sure you talk to a handful of filmmakers who have recently been distributed by that company. Just because a company was great a few years ago doesn’t mean they still are.

What is the most memorable thing that happened while making Kelly & Cal?

Oh, I don’t know. The whole thing was pretty memorable. It will always be my first. No other film will replace that. That’s very special.

Tell us a little about your training as an actor. How did that prepare you for being a director? Do you think all directors should step into an actor’s shoes?

Every director is a product of their experiences. For me studying as an actor was key. But I would never tell another director what to do. As I would never take advice from another director. The whole point of directing is it’s singular. You must do things your own way. Period.

For me, what I learned at Atlantic in terms of script analysis, performance and work ethic, though I’ve always been a very hard worker, were invaluable. I understand what an actor is going through and that is very helpful.

Do you have any signature directorial techniques? What’s your style as a director?

My strengths are casting and performances and tone. I do both comedy and drama. But my process is always the same. I have always very much believed in prep. For me, pre-production is where everything gets done. That allows me to work the way I like to work on set, which is to focus in on the actors. Performance is the only thing that has to be done on set. Everything else can be planned out. But the performances are being created live. So I think it’s very important to make proper space for them.

Jen McGowan with Kelly & Cal director of photography Philip Lott (SCA alum)

Jen McGowan with Kelly & Cal director of photography Philip Lott (SCA alum)

Tell us about the challenge of directing such experienced actresses as Juliette Lewis, who’s worked with directors like Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese, and Cybill Shepherd, who’s been directed by Woody Allen and Peter Bogdanovich? How do you get over the intimidation factor?

I don’t intimidate easily. So that wasn’t really a factor for me, I don’t think. I was excited. I cast people that I respect a great deal and was thrilled at the opportunity to collaborate with them. Also, I was very lucky with my actors. Never at any point did I feel that anyone was doing anything other than giving their all to our collaboration. Each in their own way but I certainly never felt intimidated. All of these actors had seen my previous work though so even though every actor on set had far longer resumes than I, I think there was a mutual respect. At least that’s how it felt to me.

But I think part of this is I’ve never sold anyone on anything that I didn’t feel certain I could do. So I’ve never really felt out of my league. This is not to say I haven’t stretched myself. I frequently say yes to things I may not be able to do right at this moment but am sure I can figure out by the time I have to do it. But I’ve never tried to sell anyone on anything I wasn’t comfortable with. I think that confidence come across and is reassuring to people.

What part of your job as a director makes you say to yourself, “This is why I’m doing what I’m doing?”

All of it. That’s why I moved from acting to directing. I love all of it. From reading scripts to meeting talent to designing shots to editing to promoting. I love all of it. And I love the business, too. I think that’s important that you find a way to enjoy the business. Too many people suffer through it and I don’t want to be around those people. No one does.

 What was it like watching this film with its first audience?

It was horrible. In the past, I’ve always really enjoyed watching my shorts with an audience but this time so much was at stake. I had watched it many times with test audiences but the first screening at SXSW was really not fun for me. It was a great screening and everyone loved it but I heard every shift, every cough, every movement in the audience and by the end I’d convinced myself it was a failure. Then, we cut the credits too short to give more time for the Q&A and the audience was still so into the film no one asked any questions. For me that was the nail in the coffin. So I got really grumpy and probably did the worst Q&A of my life. Then, my producer came up to me with tears streaming down her face. She could hardly talk. I was like, “great.” But it turned out they were good tears. Our Variety review posted and it was amazing. All our major important reviews were.

After that experience I didn’t watch the film again with an audience until the London Film Festival this month. Because by then all of the pressure was off. And I could relax and see the film with the audience. Never before had I experienced a screening where the response mattered. And it mattered big time. That was a first.

Tell us about winning the SXSW Gamechanger Award earlier this year.

 It was great. It was very important for our press. It was very helpful for me in terms of contacts and exposure. I’m very grateful for that award. And proud of it.

Jonny Weston (Cal), Juliette Lewis (Kelly) and director Jen McGowan at the 2014 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas

Jonny Weston (Cal), Juliette Lewis (Kelly) and director Jen McGowan at the 2014 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas

How has your USC education played a role in your career?

 I really learned the most just making movies over and over again. And watching others do the same. It’s very important. You will likely never get to make movies at such a pace ever again. The way our business is now, you make a movie, if you’re lucky, every couple of years and if it does poorly you go straight to director jail. Especially if you’re a woman. At USC I got the most concrete opportunities out of everything extra I did. The extra classes. The internship. The working on other people’s films during holiday. The student industry group that I volunteered with. Everyone does the basics. But the extra is where the gold is.

What has prepared you best for your career?

Personality-wise I am a very hard worker. I am extremely focused and ridiculously persistent. I’m passionate when I get into something and I think that makes people comfortable. I’ve never had any reservations about asking for what I want. Training-wise again I really think it was the repetition of making films at USC and the script analysis and performance at NYU/Atlantic.

 What are the most important qualities you look for in hiring people? What do you avoid?

I want to work with people who love what they do. I’m not looking for people to help me do my job. I know how to do that. I want to collaborate with people who are excited and in love with their work as much as I am about directing. And sadly it’s hard to find that.

How do you find good creative collaborators?

I keep the people I like with me and try to carry them with me from project to project. It’s important, though, as my films get bigger that my key collaborators grow in their fields as well or it’s hard to bring them along. This is especially true of your first feature. You think “awesome, I’m going to hire all the people I love working with.” And then the producer says, “What have they done other than with you?” Or the actor gets approval of the DP. It becomes very hard to raise people up, they have to be climbing the ladder at the same rate so they don’t make anyone feel like they’re taking a risk by hiring them. As a crewmember, a director, whatever, you always want to be someone that is going to make people’s lives easier. You need to be a solution for someone. Not a favor and certainly not a detriment.

What advice would you give to women who want to direct feature films?

Not just for women but for anyone. Find material you love and commit. Be absolutely persistent. Live below your means, whatever those means are, so you can make creative choices about your career. Work hard. Do the best you can and then do more. Then let it go and move on. Understand that this is a lifestyle. For you and whoever you live with. And definitely don’t make any big lifestyle changes until whatever great opportunity you took has been consistent for over a year. Nothing stays constant in this business.

Jonny Weston and Juliette Lewis in Kelly & Cal

Jonny Weston and Juliette Lewis in Kelly & Cal

How can we get more women making movies? And why is that important?

It is important because all diversity is important. Our world is diverse. Our audience is diverse. Our storytellers and stories should be diverse. End of story. Women particularly are 51% of the population and 4% of studio films in the last five years. That’s pathetic. And I don’t know about you but my work is at least better than 50% of what’s out there so some of those old white dudes need to step aside.

There are many solutions and everyone needs to play a part. We need to support the few women filmmakers who are out there by going to see their films. Did you see Kelly & Cal? If not, I have very little time for women who do not watch films by women and then complain about their own lack of opportunities. If films by women who go before you don’t make money, you will not get money for your movie. This is something the black filmmaking community does very well. Their movies make money because their audiences turn out and show up.

We need journalists to promote the films that are out there. We need producers and execs to use a bit more effort looking for filmmakers rather than just getting the same lists from the same agents who rep women at ridiculously small rates. There’s a wonderful resource created by USC grad, Destri Martino, called The Director List, which lists over 800 women directors who have directed a feature film or TV show. We need women to keep making great work in all storytelling forms. We need great organizations like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media to keep doing solid research so we have accurate numbers. And we need unions, like the DGA, to properly step up in a manner that is consequential and not just merely good PR.

One of the reasons I love this business is because there are so many incredibly smart, talented and hard working people here. You cannot tell me we are incapable of solving this. It is not due to lack of ability it is due to lack of will.

Now that Kelly & Cal is out, what’s next for you?

It’s a very exciting time. As I always do, I have many projects at different stages going on. Millie to the Moon is a lovely script written by fellow USC grad, Lynn Hamilton, and that project is currently being packaged at Very Special Projects. Little Girl Lost is at very early stages. It’s a thriller that Amy Lowe Starbin, who wrote Kelly & Cal, is writing. I’m also pitching on much bigger projects, features up to $20M, and TV, and that is really cool. At this exact moment I’ve just been offered another film that I love that would shoot in the spring in New York again. I’m hoping that deal gets closed in the next couple weeks.

I’m always reading and talking to people about what’s out there. I’m just super excited. I want to do big Hollywood movies. And I’ve got a great manager and lawyer who are working with me to make that happen. It’s a nice feeling to finally feel the wind at my back.

As you acknowledge, working in this industry is a challenge. Do you ever say to yourself, why am I doing this? I’m going to chuck it all and go live in a yurt in Mongolia?

I’m not a big fan of camping, so no. And honestly I’ve never done anything else so I don’t really have any other skills. I have no idea what else I would do. If I did give up directing I would probably still work in the industry somehow because it’s what I know. But no, I love what I do and I’ve been very fortunate so far to actually get to do it. No plans to leave.

Got any movie recommendations for us? What little-known gems out there should we give a shot?

Some of my favorite movies that might not be so well known are The Ice Storm, Welcome to the Dollhouse, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Control, In This World, Being There.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I really hope your readers will check out Kelly & Cal. We’re on cable on demand, iTunes, Amazon, XBox, PlayStation and Google. But only for a couple more weeks. If you see the film and you like it, please tell someone else to see it. We’re on twitter @KellyandCal and I’m @IAmJenMcG .