When asked how she first met and became friends with Andrea Grano, Tara Karsian lovingly recalled how they first met when she was directing a play and Grano came in to replace an actress on the production.
“I thought she was a real bitch,” said Karsian, undaunted by the fact Grano is sitting next to her during this lunch interview and perhaps still taking revenge by denying Grano’s repeated attempts to retrieve the ketchup bottle just to the right of her for pleasure.
Yet it’s clear after spending more than five minutes in their company, Karsian and Grano have a relationship more on par with the title of the movie they’ve made together with director Andrew Putschoegl – “BFFs,” a comedy which sees the two play besties, Kat and Sam, in need of a vacation who see an opportunity in an all expenses’ paid trip to a couples’ retreat, only they have to pose as lovers on the outs to take advantage of it. Although it’s fun to see the duo give as good as they get in therapy sessions neither one desires, the scheme has the unintended consequence — and benefit to the film — of opening them up to unexpected possibilities.
It’s an ideal showcase for Karsian and Grano, a pair who insist they never designed “BFFs” to be one, despite the fact their clearly complementary yet completely opposite personalities make them a perfect comic duo. (It’s telling during lunch that Grano is more likely to eat fries with a fork while Karsian would be inclined to use her hands.) Yet as the film’s co-screenwriters, the two are generous with the ensemble of actors they assembled as their fellow couples in paradise, recruiting familiar faces such as Larisa Oleynik, Richard Moll and Jenny O’Hara to fill the film with funny moments.
After premiering this past winter at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, “BFFs” continues to garner steam on the festival circuit, premiering this week at AGLIFF, the renowned gay and lesbian film festival in Austin, Texas, and shortly before Karsian and Grano headed out to the Lone Star State, they spoke about how they parlayed their friendship into an actual script, landed their palatial central location for a song as well as a strong cast, and discovering how their film can play for a variety of different audiences.
Andrea Grano: You know what we realized? Before [people would] actually be uncomfortable sometimes because they think we’re actually fighting, which to us was funny. We’d be bantering and then [Tara’s] just like, “Oh, shut the fuck up.” I’ll go, “You shut the fuck up.” We think it”s great, but you look over and the person you’re having dinner who’s like…[makes a mortified facial expression].
Tara Karsian: Now, it’s very funny that everybody talks about the fact that, “Oh, well, you guys have the most amazing chemistry, you always have.” We’re like, “What?”
Andrea Grano: Why didn’t you say something five years ago?
Tara Karsian: Exactly! We could have made this movie five years ago when Andrea was much younger. [laughs] It’s so funny because that’s how our friendship has always been from the get go.
Is it easy to translate that kind of natural rapport to a screenplay?
Andrea Grano: It was easy for us because we almost didn’t know better. We just ended up with a funny idea and we thought that would be a funny short, let’s do a short together. We have ideas every other day and we never do anything about it, so we sat down to write it and realized it needed to be a feature. Then I go, “Well, what would you say?” She’d go, “This, well what would you say?” “This.” Then we’d write it, and then we’d run through it and go, “Oh, that’s funny,” and move on. We had no idea that that was probably too simple of a way to write a script.
At the end, we changed it up for the other characters to hopefully give everybody their own voice. Then we sent it out. We had no idea what we wrote was funny or crappy because things didn’t always translate. Like this banter [between us in person] on film could have been a nightmare.
Tara Karsian: We said to the director, “[Andrea and I] can really go with each other and nobody’s going to get their feelings hurt, but you have to be very careful of that on film because that could be off-putting to an audience.”
Andrea Grano: It has to be love. It can’t be bitchy. If anything, we toned it down a little bit for the film because we wanted to make sure in the film people aren’t like, “Oh, they’re awful to each other.” It’s all about response. One of [Tara’s] first lines of the film is, “Oh shut the fuck up” to me. I’m completely unfazed by it and I think that tells you everything you need to know about our friendship.
Tara Karsian: Anybody who knows us knows, “Oh, that’s just them.” There’s no rancor behind anything, though in one of the Q&As [someone] said, “Are you guys similar to your characters?” I said, “No, they’re actually much nicer to each other than we are.” It’s true.
How did the story come about?
Andrea Grano: We’d done one goofy improv video for a friend’s birthday and it went beautifully, we all had fun doing it. Then years go by. I was looking for a script to produce and be in and I was reading everyone else’s scripts and some were great but they just weren’t right, or some were right but they weren’t great. [Tara] and I were joking and I said, “We should go to couples’ therapy” and she immediately [shook her head] and said, “No.” We said, “Oh my gosh, that would be a funny idea for a short film.” We decided it would be even funnier if these women go to therapy and it’s so good, they actually start believing in it. When the story poured out of us, we realized we had a gift for writing as partners, which is not always easy.
Andrea just mentioned spreading the wealth to other characters. Were you actually conscious of how these couples at this compound would balance each other out in terms of the issues they were dealing with?
Andrea Grano: We took really basic prototypes, then we filled it with detail once we saw who would be best suited [for the roles]. We knew we wanted another gay couple there because that would have put pressure on [our characters who were] faking it. We also knew we wanted a couple that was about to not make it because that would also put pressure [on all the characters] to stay. Those two things we knew we wanted. We all know those couples who are like, “Oh, we’re going away on our 18th retreat.” They’re just in love with therapy, it’s what they do, so we wanted that couple there. Other than that, the rest was just making sure it was balanced.
There were two things that were important to us. One, that we didn’t come across as some vanity project where we’re in every moment and the [other characters] don’t have a voice. Two, all roads have to lead to Rome — [all the other characters] had to affect these two characters to make sense or else they’re just pointless. In one of our first [test] screenings, [on the questionnaires], it was “get back to Kat and Sam” because we would veer off and truly, they’re the heart of the film. Everything about every couple is only as funny as its effect on these two women, so it was about learning that balance of getting back to the lead characters without it feeling it was all about us, though really, it is all about us. We didn’t want it to feel that way but it is.
Tara Karsian: We really didn’t. The director was like, “People want to get back to [Kat and Sam’s] story.” We were like, “Do we have to?” We loved watching the other characters, but that’s us loving what the actors were doing.
As actors first, was it interesting to see how your words would be interpreted by other actors?
Andrea Grano: The audition process was eye opening. We wanted a few waka-waka moments in the film and we wrote the chicken scene, thinking that was one of them. Every actor came in and filled it out so much that it was almost more touching than funny. You realized as a writer, sometimes what they’re going to be bringing in is even better than what you’re imagining, which is nice.
Tara Karsian: You have to let it go. At a certain point, I’m like, “Oh, it’s in the actors’ hands” and what’s fascinating was literally the night before we started shooting, we had this moment where we were thinking, “Oh my God, we have to act now!” because we’re like “Dude, you know they’re going to be ready.” And we hadn’t memorized the lines yet.
Andrea Grano: We had done an early table read where you’re listening and seeing what works and what doesn’t, and at the end of it, I called her and said, “Were we just as bad as I think we were?” We were so bad in the table read, I was panicking.
Tara Karsian: If they based it on the table read, not only should we not have done the movie, we should have left acting.
Andrea Grano: We should have quit the business. But I just realized because we wrote this as actors, maybe our writing focused more on tone and relationships and dialogue than other writers. Other writers write for the director and we wrote for the actors a little bit. We were lucky that our director got it, stayed out of the way of that thing and just made the rest of it work. And maybe that’s why we attracted such amazing actors to the project. For a low budget project, you don’t always get people to come out and audition.
Did you actually ever visit one of those retreats to get an idea for what happens there, like the trust exercises?
Tara Karsian: We did talk about going to one of those weekends. They’re ridiculously expensive though. What was it, like $4,000 for the weekend? You said our friendship wasn’t worth that much.
Andrea Grano: I did. [laughs]
I’ve heard you were actually able to get the compound you used for the film on the cheap, however, through some sleuthing Andrea did.
Tara Karsian: Genius!
Andrea Grano: [patronizingly] Thanks Tara. [laughs] When we were interviewing line producers, almost across the board, they said, “Don’t even think you’re going to get a location for the whole [production]. We thought, “Let’s write a script with one location so we can shoot it for cheap,” but we didn’t think that maybe writing a beautiful, tropical location was stupid. We were told by everybody that what you’re going to have to do is steal exteriors of a park and find someone’s house and dress it up. But we thought that sounds so lame.
Then I just went to Home Away and I think what we did right is I was just very honest. I said, “Listen, we’re doing a film, it’s our first” and when you’re doing your first film, there’s a naiveté that helps you because you’re not thinking what won’t work because you don’t know. I emailed maybe 15 places and about 10 got back and said, “Yes.” We went with the one we did because of the panoramic view and the crew could stay there if they wanted to, because it was a hard drive.
It must have been intense anyway making your first movie, but when it’s in one location, does that make it even more stressful?
Tara Karsian: It was incredible. I wish I could tell you there was drama or anything like that, but we knew what we didn’t want. We wanted to make sure our cast and our crew were really taken care of. You work on a lot of stuff where you’re like, “Well, if I ever did it, I would never do that.”
Andrea Grano: They don’t provide even a chair to sit in. You’re standing for eight hours, then the camera’s on and you’re supposed to look fresh. Such little things that if you’ve never acted, it sounds diva-y, but it’s a weird job. It’s do nothing, then have all this energy for five minutes, and then do nothing, so you understand what is important. Water and a chair. It’s really simple stuff.
Tara Karsian: Also, any actor would get this. Make sure that your crew and your cast are well fed. We had beautifully catered food and…
Andrea Grano: How did we afford that?
Tara Karsian: I don’t know what you did to afford that. [laughs] We also were very strict on a no asshole zone because one person can ruin a set. When you’re working on low budget with a 15-day shoot, one person can derail everything. So we were so blessed and you constantly heard laughter. It was incredible and we would get so emotional sometimes driving there and just seeing all of these people…it was like a really good 15-day camp.
Andrea Grano: The first night we went up, it was just Tara and I, Andy [Huebscher, the director of photography], and Andrew [Putschoegl], and we sat around outside, reading the script a little bit, and I remember that we had a three-ton truck, [and we’re sitting there] with this ginormo truck and this location, and it was angelic. And I thought, how did we do this? The truck made it so real that it was parked out there. Like I remember my wedding, I will remember this night for the rest of my life, that feeling of, “Holy shit, we’re about to start.” At one point, we were out on a balcony and I swear this shooting star flew overhead. I go, “Tara! Oh my God, there’s – ” She goes, “Where, where?” She looked around and she goes, “Oh, I missed it,” and as soon as she turned back around another one went, and I was like, “This set is blessed.”
Since making it, this film has gone down an interesting road in terms of playing both the mainstream festival circuit and the gay festival circuit. Have you gotten different reactions?
Tara Karsian: We premiered at Santa Barbara International Film Festival and for a very long time, we were only playing mainstream festivals. A woman had come to Santa Barbara and said, “I’m one of the programmers for Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival,” and they later accepted the film and [ultimately made us] a spotlight film. We were terrified because we had no concept of whether it would work. I kept saying, “They’re going to think it’s ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’, then they’re going to ‘BFFs, and the audience will turn on us and come after us.” They were one of the best audiences we’ve ever had.
Andrea Grano: But back up — going into Santa Barbara, it was the first time it’s playing anywhere, so we had no idea people were going to like it, love it, or hate it. We were hoping for love, but like would have been okay and we had a 8 a.m. showing,
Tara Karsian: We were the first movie shown at the festival.
Andrea Grano: But we had three screenings whereas a lot of films only had two, so we thought maybe they gave us that as a gimme, but apparently they did that on purpose because they have such a strong breakfast crowd and they will then tout your film all over town if they like it.
Tara Karsian: It’s called The Breakfast Club.
Andrea Grano: We were kicked out of our first screening because there was no seats and we were freaking the fuck out. All [Tara’s] girlfriends drove all the way up for this screening at six in the morning and they were like, “It was insane. People couldn’t stop laughing.”
Tara Karsian: And it was all gray hairs. We walked in and we were like, “Oh great” because I just didn’t think this one was going to reach an older crowd. That stopped us.
Andrea Grano: We sold out [all the screenings] because of them. They talked the film up so much – it was truly amazing. Going from that experience, we’re like, okay, our audience are mostly women but certainly men over 30. A lot of the husbands came up to us and said, “She dragged me here but let me tell you, I loved your movie.” We were really gratified. Then we go from there to the gay festival circuit, and we’re like, “What if this is where we’re a dud?” I don’t know if people are laughing at different things, and if that’s a mainstream or gay thing, but I think this appeals to certain things that aren’t gay or straight.
Tara Karsian: It talks about friendship.
Andrea Grano: It’s friendship and love in this way that we’ve all gone, “Yeah, what does matter in love and what are we attracted to?” You always have that friend that’s like, “Why do I always date assholes?” Because you like assholes for some reason — you need to figure that out. There are all these things that come up and more than gay/straight, I love that men liked our movie because it would have been very easy for this to be a chick flick.
Tara Karsian: It’s been wonderful being able to ride that fence. We’ve been shocked at the response. I would love to get eventually to a place where we don’t have to differentiate festivals, where it’s just about the movies, but we’re having a great time. It’s been a incredible ride.