Irene (Rachel McKeon) is only slightly more of a mess than the places she inhabits in Colin Healey’s scurrilously funny debut “Homemakers,” a punk singer whose primal screeching is alienating to her bandmates onstage and off. An unlikely candidate for domestic goddess, she’s forced to at least try when a vote is being taken to kick her out of the Austin-based band, which includes her ex-girlfriend (Molly Carlisle), and learns she’s inherited her grandfather’s fixer-upper in Pittsburgh. Soon enough, she’s patching up floors with a cousin (Jack Culbertson) and arranging filets of frozen burrito in a bid to lead a simpler life, though her penchant for unpredictable and often contradicting urges always seem to shine through.
Naturally, this allows McKeon to make quite a first impression and by extension, Healey, who rides this force of nature into a propulsive first feature that’s as eager to thumb its nose at convention as Irene is at first. Akin to setting loose a bull in a China shop that’s already been destroyed, the film milks the most it can from all its opportunities for big moments of physical comedy, yet sneaks underneath a surprisingly affecting consideration of the desire of this generation of twentysomethings to get back to less complicated times. Shortly before the film makes its New York debut at the Northside Film Festival, but after it took home an Audience Award from its premiere at the Independent Film Festival of Boston, Healey and McKeon spoke about the construction of the dangerous comedy, how their own time spent living in Pittsburgh into the film and literally bringing down a house.
Colin Healey: The root of it was knowing that there were abandoned houses out there in Pittsburgh, what stories they held, and what had happened in this city to all of these families that lived in these abandoned houses. Also, I hung out at a bar a lot and the guy who owned it had this abandoned house, and we cut a very sweet deal where the art department stayed on afterwards and cut it. Once we had a deal, we had a house, and we pulled the trigger.
Was it inspired at all by a move of your own to the city?
Rachel McKeon: I feel like Irene definitely is a version of you…
CH: She’s a little bit a version of me with my grandmother’s name and some characteristics of various people that I love and think about a lot. But Rachel and I both used to live in New York, and then ended up moving separately to Pittsburgh and we had the experience that Irene did…
RM: Yeah, we both fell in love with Pittsburgh. I feel like the movie began as, maybe, more of a love letter to Pittsburgh than it ended up being, but hopefully it’s still in there, that we both felt so passionately about this amazing city.
Is it true the two of you actually walked around the city so that you could try out the character on locals?
CH: Yeah, we used to go to the park and film her literally walking. Then we’d take it inside and watch the footage and say, “That’s Irene. That’s definitely not Irene.”
RM: Yeah, even with ADR [vocal dubbing], we still talk about whether or not something is Irene. We really worked so hard on making Irene a person who has limits, and who would do this and wouldn’t do this. We’d work through take and take and take and take and try to get back to Irene because it was such a moment in time when were creating her.
Rachel, what appealed to you about the character?
RM: At the beginning, I didn’t think I was right for it. I knew it was an amazing role, but I assumed that I was right for Kicky, her ex-girlfriend. Then Colin just kept being like, “No, you’re right for Irene.” Of course, once I was cast, I just immediately fell for it. I was so overwhelmingly excited about the transformation that I would have to do to embody her. At the same time, I felt like Irene harbored a lot of impulses that I have, but that I don’t let out as a person. There are a lot of her performance scenes [where] her charisma, her bravery and her boldness, and her funniness that she allows herself to have, are all things that I think I secretly have in me and have always wanted to let it out. This movie gave me the opportunity to make all of those things into one person, so she just really leapt off the page when I read the script. I immediately could feel how ballsy she was.
RM: Irene is much braver than I am. She is somebody who wears what she wants and she’s in this dirty old house and it doesn’t bother her. She eats fried chicken and stores her takeout containers everywhere. I’m, generally, pretty clean these days, so realizing how she is comfortable with it was something I needed to conquer. This is how she lives. That was something that I knew and I said this to Colin afterwards, “I felt like I learned a lot from playing Irene, in my own life.” That I have a lot to learn from her, in terms of the way that she just goes and does what she wants to do. She operates with a certain lack of fear. You realize what her fears are deep down, but I realized what the possibilities are of being a person like that. I was like, “Oh my God, you can be like this all the time if you want to be.”
Of course, there’s a fearlessness to this performance, right from the Buster Keaton-esque opening scene where Irene’s ramshackle shed collapses on top of her. Was it fun to create those big opportunities for physical comedy?
CH: Oh yeah, it doesn’t get more fun than that. It’s nice you brought up Buster Keaton, actually, because one of my favorite things I think we managed to pull off is that Irene is trying to remain so fearless, but there is something going on in there, and she is scared sometimes. She does have this great stone face going on during all the scenes where things are smashing around her and I really love that about the final film. But the shack [at the beginning of the film] is fantastic, though. That was so fun to bring down. A lot of that stuff had to be one take, so it was really exciting.
Another funny thing I had to ask about was the drawings that appear on Irene’s wall of cats and dogs in sexually provocative positions. Did you draw them yourselves? They looked professional.
CH: That’s a Brooklyn artist named Izzy Galindo. He’s one of my dearest friends in the universe. I think Rachel did a couple…
RM: I did a couple, but none that rivaled Izzy’s. Izzy came in to visit because they were all friends, but his task was to create the wall. It was so amazing to suddenly walk into that bathroom and see what has happened.
CH: Seth Clark, the production designer, was like, “We need dirty pictures on the wall, I know exactly who to call.”
I know on a small shoot like this, sometimes you end up living where you work. Was that the case here?
CH: We weren’t living in the house, but we had the production across the alleyway from the house, and once in awhile I’d have a meeting in there late with our producer Dave [Schachter], and I would walk outside and I would notice that the shooting house was still unlocked and that there was maybe a light on. I’d go in and would walk around, because we were a little worried about people taking things in the middle of the night. All the bathtubs actually got stolen. One night I went in there and I found our production designer, Seth Clark sleeping in Irene’s bed. All tucked in, there might’ve been a beer in his hand. And I covered up the bed and turned off the light. He never woke up to even know I was there. [laughs]
RM: Colin and I were both local, so that was weirdly a nice thing about the film was that I would drive my car five minutes to work to the house and then I’d go home to my own shitty duplex that I was living in and eat there.
CH: We live in New York now. Some folks live in L.A. There were some folks from Austin, but most people who worked on the movie aren’t still in Pittsburgh, in terms of crew. It was really tight knit.
Beyond the comedy, this film seems to tap into a particular discontent amongst this generation that has manifested itself into going back to the domestic ideals of a more stable time such as the 1950s. Was that actually something you had in mind with this story?
CH: I don’t think that I was trying to suggest that our generation should go back to [those] domestic ideals, but maybe that people who are attracted to aspects of domesticity that are good should be allowed to explore those. We’ve been too rough on it.
RM: Right, because what happens is there’s a structure in place such as domesticity and the idea of the housewife in Irene’s case as she finds all of her grandmother’s old stuff, and this idea that you have to throw it away, that you can’t repurpose it for your own modern life, with all the things that we know now and I think that’s something that this film really struggles with is to be a modern young woman, do you have to completely abandon all the things that were valued in previous times?
CH: At the end of the movie, she hasn’t turned into Betty Draper, but she’s co-opted domesticity for herself.
“Homemakers” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play as part of the Northside Film Festival in Brooklyn on June 16th at 7:15 pm at the Nitehawk Cinema and June 17th at IndieScreen at 9:30 pm.