Jen McGowan is a filmmaker whose name you need to remember. She studied film and acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she received her BFA. While there, she also trained at the Atlantic Theater Company with such luminaries as David Mamet, William H. Macy, and Sam Shepard. Her true calling was behind the camera, though, and she began making short films. She applied to USC and, armed with a well-regarded short entitled She Never, was admitted into their MFA program. McGowan received a grant from The Caucus Foundation for her thesis film, Confessions of a Late Bloomer, plus a Women in Film scholarship. That short was extremely well-regarded, going on to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival and the Cannes Short Film Corner. It went on to play at more than 60 festivals worldwide. Another short, Touch, won at the Oscar-qualifying Florida Film Festival and was eventually purchased by PBS and NBC Universal, among others.
McGowan has now directed her debut feature-length film, Kelly & Cal. It is the story of a former punk rocker turned suburban housewife (Juliette Lewis) who forms an unexpected, but meaningful, friendship with a wheelchair-bound teenager (Jonny Weston). Cybill Shepherd, Josh Hopkins, and Margaret Colin co-star in the movie, which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. McGowan also won the Gamechanger Emergent Woman Director Award there. (The previous winner was Lena Dunham for Tiny Furniture.) Kelly & Cal is being released by IFC Films in theaters and on VOD on September 5.
McGowan was kind enough to talk to Film Racket about her exciting new project and her career in general.
Film Racket: Kelly & Cal is your first feature after directing several shorts. What were some of the biggest challenges in going from shorts to a full-length film? Did your style of storytelling change?
Jen McGowan: In going from shorts to features I didn’t really feel it was such a big leap because Kelly & Cal is not a very complicated film. But there were some things unique to features that were definitely new to me. For example, casting bigger talent and the process of that, working with a crew that I didn’t know because we shot in New York, going through distribution. I was very lucky in that a friend of mine from USC had just done his first feature so when I got stuck I would give him a call.
Juliette Lewis was an unexpected, but brilliant, choice to play Kelly. How did she come aboard the project?
That’s great to hear. Thank you. We had her in mind from the start when Amy [Lowe Starbin], the writer, was writing the script. She was always my ideal Kelly but in the sense of “I doubt we’ll ever get her but she would be my dream casting.” She came to us the old fashioned way. We cast with Rich Delia at Barden-Schnee. We went out to her with an offer and the script, and she responded to the material and my treatment of it. I think it was something that she was looking for and the timing was right. We were incredibly lucky. I give her a great deal of credit for taking a risk on me, a first time feature director. Many actors are way too fearful to do that.
One of the things that’s most impressive is that the movie feels so true to life. Even the funny scenes felt completely real, and not like the actors were going for the joke. How, as a director, do you set that tone? Are there secrets to capturing that authentic feel?
This is such a hard question because it’s kind of like “how do you breathe?” I think about this a lot and I think it really boils down to being open and supportive of your actors and speaking up when something doesn’t ring true to you. First you must cast well. That is imperative. As you can’t make a great film out of a bad script, it’s very hard to piece together a good performance from a bad actor. So once I’ve done that I just communicate what I have in mind and answer questions. Then, on set, I give them my complete and undivided attention and tell them my honest responses. That’s pretty much it. I have great respect for actors. All I want is for them to do the best they can. And I hope they feel that.
The film makes very poignant use of Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night” in one scene. It’s a great marriage of content and song. How was that song chosen, and were any others considered?
Oh, that song is so important. It just had the perfect feel of hope, nostalgia, innocence and energy. I believe it was actually first suggested by one of my producers. And then I know it became the bane of her existence because once I fixated on it, I could not find anything better. It was a very hard song to get. It was not a cheap decision for a film of this size, so I’m so glad it was possible. I am super thankful that between my music supervisor, Tiffany Anders, and my producers, Mandy Tagger-Brockey and Adi Ezroni, they made it happen. But that’s very much what making a film is about — knowing where to put the money. If you make one set of priorities, you end up with one kind of movie and other choices create an entirely different one.
Kelly & Cal has several strong female characters, most notably Kelly herself, and it deals with some themes that don’t get addressed often in movies, including postpartum depression. What do you think needs to happen in order to get more female-centric stories onscreen?
There is no one simple answer to this. It’s complicated and we humans are not very good at holding multiple thoughts in our heads at the same time. We prefer to have one clear answer and there just isn’t. We need women to keep making great films. We need people in hiring positions to seek them out and hire these women. Agents need to represent and push female clients. We need publicity and press on the films that are good, and we need to support the women who could use a little bit of help getting there. And those of us that are comfortable speaking out need to do so. I feel very strongly that the gender of a protagonist doesn’t matter so much as the universally accessible themes and the quality of the film. If anyone says men do not relate to women leads, they’re simply wrong. Just because someone says something doesn’t make it true. If male directors and men’s stories were such a sure thing, every movie in Hollywood would be a hit. Clearly that is not the case. So for me it’s not about “Why don’t we have parity?” so much as it is “Why are we missing this huge opportunity?”
You won the Gamechanger Emergent Woman Director Award at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. Could you talk about what winning that award means to you as both a woman and as a filmmaker in general?
Awards are important only because they give recognition and shine a light on work that could be otherwise overlooked. For me winning that award means greater exposure and opportunity to make movies. The very fact that you’re asking me about it means it achieved its purpose. It’s wonderful that Gamechanger exists and I really hope they have great success.
What comes next? Are you working on another project?
I’m preparing a film called Millie to the Moon, written by Lynn Hamilton and being produced by Alexandra Johnes and Jen Sall at Very Special Projects. I’m also pitching on open director assignments around town. I have worked my whole life to direct and that is what I’m laser focused on. I want to direct everything — big studio pictures, little indies, television.