Sundance 2009 Interview: Director, Coley Sohn

Coley SohnColey Sohn is a first time director who just had her first short film, Boutonniere, premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The film has a few newcomers as well as Heroes‘ Zachary Quinto, Reno 911’s Wendi McLendon-Covey, and Desperate Housewive‘s Pat Crawford Brown. It is about an overbearing mother who makes her homeschooled daughter, Bethany, go to a prom that she would rather not go to. It is really about her finding an escape from her claustrophobic world. Coley is currently working on getting the feature film of this made that will be titled, Sassy Pants.

Kelsey: I hear you have an interesting story about how you got the budget for Boutonniere regarding your previous career in real estate. Can you share that with us?

Coley: Yeah, sure I used to flip houses back when the market was better here in LA with my girlfriend who actually wrote the song in the end credits. So we were trying to figure out where we were going to shoot Boutonniere and I was looking on Craigslist for houses to rent. Then it just dawned on me we could buy something, and I clearly wanted something pretty ratty, then flip it and hopefully pay for the whole project. It worked out really well, so we did that.

Kelsey: Are you looking for other means for the budget in the feature?

Coley: Yeah we would have to flip a whole block to make that happen otherwise. And it’s such a bad market. We did this last summer/fall and that was still pretty risky a time, but we just got this great house for a really good deal and it all worked out. Everyone tells me with the feature don’t use your money, let someone else pay for it. So that’s the hope. In fact, I wrote the feature version of Boutonniere that was based on the characters and the gay dad. It’s really fun. We’re working on that now. Hopefully we’ll get other money and we won’t have to flip a whole neighborhood.

Kelsey: Was it your intention from the beginning to make Boutonniere in to a full featured film?

Coley: No, it actually wasn’t at all. I’ve never directed before, but I’ve written and I used to act. I love the characters and when I sat down to write it, I wrote it with the joke at the end in mind. I used to have a sketch about a home school prom so I thought I would make that in to a short. Then these really in depth characters came out way more than in my sketch where they were just kind of 2 dimensional, you know SNL kind of sketch people. I really liked the characters, but I kind of thought it wouldn’t go any further. I started after we shot it and did all of the post and started submitting it to festivals. I was working on another idea and I just kept on thinking about these characters. Then I banged out the beats and I think it really worked. It’s a coming of age story for Bethany, the girl, and how she gets out and it’s really fun.

Kelsey: What can we expect from the feature of Boutonniere?

Coley: It’s the same tone, it’s dark and quirky. There’s a definite edge to it. They’re the same characters, but everyone has some growth, mom included. Bethany is home schooled, but that’s not the joke. It’s about how she gets out and breaks free and learns to make her own decisions and live her own life. It’s kind of a character study about their relationship. I think it’s like a darker, edgier Juno if I may be so bold, or a less edgy Welcome to the Dollhouse. It’s a little lighter and less dark. I really like it though, I kind of like it better than the short.

Kelsey: The film centers on a young girl who can’t move out and go to college soon enough. I think this is something many can relate to. Did this come from personal experience?

Coley: I was not home schooled, but I did have a controlling mom as did a lot of my friends. Not to get political, but I think there’s this whole unstated cultural war that the red state has against the liberals. It’s really one sided where change or anything different is bad and it’s all about conforming and everyone being the same. I tried to express this in the short and it gets a lot more fleshed out in the feature, but the mom clearly married the wrong man; he’s gay. She’s so hurt by that and she feels the need to protect her kids from the world and not let them do anything. My mom was just boys controlling, not underhanded. I just wanted to explore that more. To me this is the epitome of that culture war. This mom who thinks she can store her kids away. In her eyes, they are never going to get hurt, but she is completely crippling them. First Bethany goes up to her dad’s trailer that he decorated with décor and he has this young boyfriend who is almost Bethany’s age whose like a bar-back. Actually that character, the boyfriend, becomes one of the first friend’s Bethany has had. It’s just a neat growth for her to find her voice and what she wants, but in a humorous way.

Kelsey: The main character is very plain, but she also seems to be very interested in fashion. Did you intend this to be used as an escape from her home life?

Coley: Oh you’re good Kelsey, you’re good! I don’t want to give the feature away, but that’s exactly it. I make up a fashion school in the feature called, FATI (Fashion art and technology institute). It doesn’t come up until the second act, but that becomes a goal of hers. Earlier on she ends up working in a retail store, in my head right now it’s like a Forever 21, but we might have to change that. There are the skanky girl’s that work there that she tries to measure up to. She has definite fashion aspirations. The feature script is called, Sassy Pants.

Kelsey: The film has a pretty interesting cast including Heroes’ Zachary Quinto and Reno 911’s Wendi McLendon-Covey who both play very different character than those they are most well known for. How did you go about casting the film?

Coley: Well Zach is actually a good friend of mine. When I first wrote it, I wrote the shopkeeper as a woman with braces who was really insecure. Ryan, my producer who you met, it was his idea when he learned that Zach and I were friends, he said oh you should put him in this. It was really the only spot to put him in. Zach was really good about it and let us put him in horrible braces and clothes. It was so much fun. Then with Wendi we just completely scored. I had this great casting director, Tammy Billick, who casts a lot of TV shows and she’s just a real pro. I got her through a friend and she read the script for the short. Wendi’s agent submitted to the casting break down that was sent out and it was just amazing. She’s got this great work ethic. She’s one of those actors that doesn’t think anything is going to happen if you are sitting around at home. She just likes to do whatever she can. We were so fortunate to get her. Then the grandma, Pat Crawford Brown from Desperate Housewives, I actually wrote it with her in mind. I was just imagining her as the grandma and Tammy, the casting direct went to her agent and it was an easy 4 hour shoot for her and she did it.

Kelsey: You were on an episode of Desperate Housewives as well. Did that play a role in casting her in Boutonniere?

Coley: Yeah I had a small two appearances role as a nurse. I didn’t meet Pat there, I met her during the writer’s strike that was going on here. I went and picketed a few times and I have a friend that pickets in the same area as her and I met Pat one day while carrying signs and getting cars to honk.

Kelsey: Are you planning on keeping the same cast for the feature?

Coley: If it was up to me definitely, but everyone says it becomes a matter of box office and what investors want. It becomes a matter of making the movie and finding people who can foot the bill. If we got Lisa Kudrow to play the mom than oh my god, of course. If I could flip a few houses and do it on my own again than yeah, I would love these people.

Kelsey: How did you get involved with HP and their Market Splash program?

Coley: It was excellent, I don’t know how that happened. I think one of the shorts PR guys, Dillan, from Sundance, selected it or told them a few films to look at, but somehow I got this email from him saying Boutonniere was chosen from them. They were just amazing. They were calling me and telling me what the budget was going to be and I totally misunderstood and thought I had to spend that. Then when they said, no that’s what you get to spend, I was so pleasantly surprised. So they did posters and business cards. I had already done the jump drive that we brought to Sundance, these really cool bracelets that we put the feature script and the short film on. They were really cute, they were pink and looked like those rubber bracelets, but it’s a 2 gig jump drive. We handed out these Boutonnieres that had a ribbon on them that said Boutonniere. So all over Park City you saw people with these cheesy pink carnations on.

Kelsey: As someone who was an actress first what made you want to write and direct your own films?

Coley: I have written for a long time and I do a lot of improve, which lends itself well to writing. I don’t think I had the confidence before to direct. Two years ago, I wrote and starred in a short film that a friend of mine directed and we went to some cool festivals like South by Southwest and Aspen Comedy Festival, but it was kind of weird to see her do different things with the material than I had imagined. She was the director though and that was her prerogative. I actually think the house flipping was really good for me because it showed me that I could run a project and go in with a clear vision of what I wanted. There was always a ton of problems to work through and conflict where I had to stick to my guns. I had to choose my battles and sometimes someone would have a better idea and I would go with that. So I think it was a great lesson in working with other people and collaborating on a big timely, expensive project. So after that I was like wow, I can work with electricians and plumbers and DP’s and editors. It was great training in a sense.

Kelsey: Do you plan on pursuing directing in the future?

Coley: Definitely, acting has been great for me and I have been doing it since I was a kid. It didn’t come easy for me though, let’s put it that way. The directing thing hasn’t come easy but I feel like I am already gaining a lot more ground with it and more successes than I have had with the acting. When I was writing, I would really want to act, but I just so took to the directing; to be able to write something and then to bring it to life was so gratifying that I didn’t miss acting at all. Some of my friends said I should have put myself in it, but I don’t think I have that urge anymore. For me, it’s so great to bring something in to a reality that I’m not going to be pursuing the acting anymore. I just really want to be able to write my own stories and direct them.

Kelsey: As a survivor of breast cancer how has the struggle and triumph you went through changed your outlook on life and taking a chance on this film?

Coley: Wow, you do your homework. Yeah, a friend of mine had brain surgery last year and it immediately changed her perspective on things. I think all and all it did give me a life’s too short attitude and that definitely helped with my drive and wanting to do something. Also, part of that is I had written the short to apply for this prestigious women’s directors work shop. I had an interview, but I didn’t get in. It’s a really small program, they select like 8 people a year. I was so bummed when I didn’t get it, but friends encouraged me to make it anyway. I think things like the breast cancer did help with that, it’s like okay, why not? I’ve also found that the more things I do on my own, the better things happens for me. I do think that we wouldn’t have gotten the cast that we did if it was through this program and Ryan was such a great producer and we had a great casting director. I’m not sure it would have been the same if it was through a film school. I think it really worked out for the best that we did it on our own.

Kelsey: Your future production company, Boobs and Brains, was named after you being a breast cancer survivor and your executive producer, Andrea Stern’s surviving brain surgery. Will the type of films you make in the future reflect upon where the name came from or is it simply related to your work after defeating these challenges?

Coley: We’re really open to any topic. “Boobs and Brains” is really tongue and cheek. I can just imagine answering the phone, “Boobs and Brains”. I actually have a screenplay that I wrote during my breast cancer, but I like darker, more cynical stuff and it feel more like a movie of the week. In fact, I haven’t even looked back at in for years, it always makes me cringe. I would certainly be open to it, but I don’t think I’m the type of filmmaker that would focus on just one thing. I’m gay and I had an interview with someone from GLAAD at Sundance and they asked if I felt it was my duty to be a voice for gay cinema and I don’t at all. I love when there are gay characters, but it’s still real life. I have friends who are great gay filmmakers that everything is about being gay and that is great, we need that. I don’t like things shoved down your throat, whether it is a breast cancer story or a coming out story. I prefer slice of life, quirky films.

Kelsey: The father is openly gay in the feature, but that doesn’t seem to be all that defines him. Does this relate to you as a filmmaker as well?

Coley: I think it does. There will always be gay characters around. Again, it’s people who happen to be gay. In this movie, it’s huge that he’s gay for the mother and daughter. It affects people, which I think is true to life especially in that environment. The boyfriend and him are not the most favorable characters. I just like to make it real. They’re a huge really fun part of the feature. I don’t think it would be the same without them. I think they kind of balance things out. Everyone’s kind of an ugly character except for Bethany, actually when I think about it.

Kelsey: It seems realistic too having all of these different people coincide in this world giving us a lot of different things that defines this environment.

Coley: Yeah and it’s a huge dichotomy when she goes to the dad, from the mom who is so suppressed, telling her pink is her favorite color when it’s not. Then she goes to the dad who happens to have a drinking problem and he’s really self-loathing. His boyfriend and him have a strange dynamic. It’s so different from the world she just came from, but I think it’s a cool thing that she gets dropped in to. Then of course, Mom sucks her back in, but she gets out in the long run. That’s the silver lining.

Kelsey: What’s the relationship like between the dad and his boyfriend?

Coley: It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The dad definitely hates himself. Wherever he lived with his family before, I’m sure it’s not a very gay friendly place. I’m sure it took a lot for him to come out. His ex-wife obviously despises him and he despises himself. He works in the financing department in a car dealership and he comes back every night to his barback boyfriend who makes fruity blender drinks, that kind of alcoholic. He goes in to tyrates like nobody loves me and accuses the boyfriend of cheating on him. In fact, there might be something going on there. He thinks that everyone, including his kids, love him because he buys them stuff, which he does. It’s like he pushes the boyfriend away, but there’s this bizarre co-dependency. There’s a love there, even if it isn’t clear cut. It’s a complex relationship, just like any is. There’s not a good guy and a bad guy, no one is blameless. I think it’s real, but a put a little fun spin on it.

Kelsey Zukowski is a horror actress/ writer and internationally published alternative model who gravitates towards dark, complex material full of thematic exploration.

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