First-time feature writer-director Jenée LaMarque was on track to be a screenwriter and actor. She got an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, and had even co-written the 2007 short HAPPY DEATHDAY, which she also stars in. But after trying her hand at directing her self-penned short SPOONFUL, which got into the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, she felt directing might be one of her true callings.
As a result, we now have THE PRETTY ONE, about a set of twins (both played by Zoe Kazan), who grew up close but have drifted apart (literally) as they've entered adult hood. One moved away from home and never came back, while the other was more of a wallflower who stayed home with their single dad, with whom she works. When the more outgoing sister returns home and promptly dies, the other changes her looks and assumes the identity of the other, heading back to her presumably more interesting life.
The set up may seem like a dark comedy, but it's actually a bittersweet tale of loss, opening up one's life to possibilities, family and finding the ways these two women were actually much more similar than either of them thought. Kazan is remarkable in essentially three roles, including a hybrid of the two, which is essentially who she's playing for most of the film. The film is making its way slowly to theaters across the country; seek it out if lands near you. But for now, please enjoy my talk with THE PRETTY ONE's writer-director Jenée LaMarque…
Jenée LaMarque: Hey, Steve.
Capone: Hi Jenée. How are you?
JL: I’m good. How are you?
Capone: Very good. You had your short SPOONFUL in Sundance a couple of years ago. I always think that people underestimate the importance of just getting a few shorts under your belt on the road to becoming a filmmaker. Can you talk about the experience of getting that short made and how that influenced what came after?
JL: Yeah, I’d written THE PRETTY ONE before I made SPOONFUL, and we were starting to put it together. My background is in acting and screenwriting, so I hadn’t done basically any directing at that point, and I obviously needed to get some experience under my belt so that I could then make this feature. So I decided to make SPOONFUL, and it has some thematic similarities to THE PRETTY ONE; it deals with sisters and with loss, and it’s funny in a strange way. So having that experience of being on set and seeing that I could indeed do this job, and that I really enjoyed it, and that I found it thrilling and all the things that I dreamt it would be and all of the challenges and joys of it, it was all very important for my confidence as a director going into the feature. And the fact that the first thing I ever directed got into Sundance, that was like very life affirming for me.
Capone: It had to be a good shot in the arm.
JL: It was a good sign. I was like, "I can do this and other people believe in what I’m doing and they’re getting behind me," and that felt really great. So it was really important in terms of feeling confidence when I approached the when we began making THE PRETTY ONE.
Capone: I remember the script for THE PRETTY ONE was actually on the black list before SPOONFUL came out. So how did you take it from that status and get it to Zoe and Jake [Johnson] and get the film made?
JL: That’s a good question. Steven Berger, one of our producers, was one of my classmates and long-time collaborators from AFI, and Robin Schorr from Schorr Pictures, she came on to the project and really helped get some momentum going behind it. Because of her experience, she helped us get a really great casting director, and then we were so fortunate for the film to be mentioned on the black list because it gave us this credibility and even more momentum. I think I found out about the black list and that we had gotten into Sundance a week apart So I felt like we had like some really great things happening all at once. Momentum helped to snowball it into getting this really great casts attached. So things coalesced to make that happen, and that really helped us. We were really fortunate that those things gave other people faith in us.
Capone: The story is essentially two character studies about two fairly different women, but we have to get all of our information from just one of them. Part of getting to know Audrey is that we're learning about her through the reactions of other people to Laurel not acting like her properly. You’re almost filling in the negative space. Did you have to ask yourself, how do we get to know two people when one of them is dead almost from the beginning?
JL: Yeah, that was definitely a challenge and something that Zoe and I collaborated and talked about a lot, "Who is Audrey?" And obviously she is labeled in some ways as "the pretty one," but we find out that she does not have everything figured out in the way that Laurel thinks. From the beginning, she’s flawed, and her darkness and her sadness and her challenges in life have been pushed down, and she has this façade that allows her to protect herself from those things. Whereas Laurel wears her heart much more on her sleeve and is not able to pretend as well.
I wanted to explore this idea of the people I know in my life that are very obsessed with outwardly being perceived as beautiful or perfect. When I’ve gotten to know those people, I’ve found a very dark underside to that--a desperate need that no one should discover, the darkness underneath. So I felt like that was who that character was, and that’s what Laurel had to discover about her sister as she went along--no, just because she was labeled this way or appeared this way does not mean that that was like who she actually was. People are more complex than that. But you’re right, the idea of negative space and the emptiness around her is very important in the movie.
Capone: Other than the lookalike factor, was it important that these women be twins as opposed to just siblings?
JL: Yeah, I think one of the things that Zoe and I did was look at these videos by this woman named Candice Breitz. She took identical twins and interviewed them wearing the same clothing in the same location, but separately and asked them the same questions and then she split-screen spliced them together. They’re identical and yet because of who they are, they look very different, yet the external world has placed all these labels upon them, and it’s really influenced how they feel about themselves. I find that really interesting. I think where identity is formed is the meeting place of how you feel about yourself and how others perceive you.
As a woman, in some ways, it's very externalized. With these identical twins, they are identical because it’s the same actress playing the parts, but because one is presenting herself in this overtly, conventionally beautiful way and the other one isn't, they're labeled in this way, which is like absurd, because they're clearly identical. I’m really interested in that aspect of female identity. Twins are a good, interesting vehicle to explore what it means to be a sibling and a woman, and how you form your own identity when other people are trying to put you in a box or tell you who you are.
Capone: The divide between the two in terms of makeup and hair, but also self esteem and the connection they have to their roots. But I feel like there’s a statement here about the way both men and women judge women. Can you talk a little bit about that?
JL: Yeah, I think that they affect each other. If you feel like you are not pretty, people can tell by the way you hold your body or your posture. You can read that. Hopefully, I’m not creating like any hierarchy about how women should be. It’s more about the really interesting ways in which people talk about you and the way you’re perceived and how it can almost take over and take control of how you see yourself. What I've found as I have gotten older in my life is that what’s a lot more important than that is being able to assess what I think about myself and what I want to be and how I want to present myself and dress myself and prepare myself in a way that makes me feel good or is appealing to me and what I like and living that kind of a life, rather than living to serve what other people want me to do or feeling bad because I’m not doing what other people want me to do.
Capone: I had read somewhere that before shooting, Zoe asked you to talk her through every page of the script. Why did you say yes to that, and what did you get out of that experience?
JL: Well I think we both got something out of that. When you’re on the same page with your collaborator, only good can come of that I think. She was like, “Let’s get together, and we can read the script, and you can explain everything to me like I’m a six year old.” [laughs] And I was like, “Okay, great.” Because that way, she knew from the beginning of our collaboration what the intention was, what the tone was, if this line was supposed to be funny or not, so that we were very clear. With every word in the script, we were clear with one another about what we were trying to accomplish, and I felt like that was so helpful so that we had shorthand when we were working together on set, because we'd already had so much time and communication about what we were trying to achieve together.
Capone: Zoe is a very gifted writer, and Jake Johnson is this great improvisation guy. Did the script change at all once the casting process fell into place? Was there a little room for improv or otherwise changing things up?
JL: The script itself didn't change very much, but on set and within certain perameters, there was improvisation. Particularly, there were certain scenes where I really wanted them to improvise, and then there were certain scenes where they stayed more on book. For example, in the pool scene where they are riffing off one another and creating in the moment like this dynamic and these characters, Mr. and Mrs. Brown, some of the lines they are saying are in the script, and then they’re adding on to that and riffing off of it and making it their own, which I think was important in a scene like that where they are getting to know each other and creating something together to make it feel as if it’s in the moment. When you hire wonderful actors, they bring so much to the part, and for me, it’s more about listening to their ideas and making the film better by collaborating and adding to what I created.
Capone: Some of the most interesting female directors right now are working in this mid- to low-budget realm, people like Lynn Shelton, Lisa Cholodenko, and even Brit Marling--the list could go on and on. How does that sit with you? Are you aspiring to do bigger-budget things, or is this a comfortable place for the kind of stories you're trying to tell?
JL: I will hopefully be able to do both in my lifetime. One of the great things about the way we work, because we were a completely independent film, is that we have control over the final product, the producers and I. So it was great to be able to work like that. I had two producers--Robin Schorr and Steven Berger--and myself, and we were the bosses. In some ways, it simplified the process and gave us a lot of latitude, and we all saw eye to eye. So it was a nice collaboration.
That being said, I want people to see my films and I would love to work with a studio and have a larger release and for people to really go to the theater and support my film. I would love that. I want to do both. I like working on smaller films; my only experience is working on smaller films. I would love to do it again, because I felt like even though we didn’t have a lot of money, we did accomplish what we set out to accomplish, and maintained our vision on it, so I really enjoyed it. But yeah, I want people to see more films made by women, and I want to be a part of that.
Capone: Jenée, thank you so much. I really did enjoy the film, and I look forward to seeing what you do next.