The first thing you notice in Katharine Emmer’s “Life in Color” is the light, the effervescent glow that permeates the upper crust Los Angeles homes Mary (played by Emmer) finds herself working in, bouncing off the clean white walls without ever seeming to shine directly on her. A nanny not by choice, she carries shadows under her eyes at all times, making it understandable that when a party clown (Josh McDermitt) hands her a joint by the side of the house during a birthday party for one of her clients, she readily accepts since even in the California sun, it’s the only way she actually will get lit.
Things don’t end well for Mary as a result, at least not at first in “Life in Color,” which revolves around the relationship that grows out of that chance encounter between Mary and the clown, whose actual name is Homer and like her is doing the job on the side while pursuing a proper career as a comedian. But prospects are considerably brighter for Emmer, who turns a story of professional defeat into one of triumph, both on screen and off. Having really served as a nanny to pay the bills while pursuing an acting career, Emmer hatched a plan to create a vehicle for herself and friends and acting classmates McDermitt and Adam Lustick, who plays a successful sitcom writer for whom Homer housesits in the film.
While Emmer taps into the pain of professional struggle, she elevates it into the sublime and the slightly, delightfully absurd, creating an adventure for Mary and Homer that takes them into the desert heat of Palm Springs and the even higher temperature on the stage of a standup comedy competition Homer enters to repay Mary for the income he cost her. Still, “Life in Color” manages to be light on its feet, demonstrating a spirit of generosity not only bestowed by its writer/director on her cast but tucked into the very fabric of the film as the characters will often put their personal striving aside to do the right thing for someone else when the opportunity arises. Funny, warm and more than a little wise, it’s one of the major finds at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and in the midst of a busy schedule, Emmer made the time to talk about her directorial debut, how nannying helped build her budget and making a comedy both specific to its location and ultimately universal.
How did this come about?
I was extremely impatient. I wasn’t getting acting work and that’s my first love, so I wanted to create work for myself and for people I believed in. I met Josh in an acting class and he had been on a sitcom and was only really going out only for comedy. When I would watch him acting in the class, he was so compelling doing drama, but he wasn’t getting any professionals gigs doing that, so I wanted to write him a part that could play to this beautiful strength he had that no one had really seen.
In terms of Adam, he’s one of the funniest people I know and that is very much his cadence in real life. The only difference is that he is not a true antagonist in life, so I thought how interesting it would be to make one of the sweetest people I know truly narcissistic, ill-intentioned and ill-willed [because] it’s not someone who is easy to hate but they’re engaging and compelling, so it’s somebody that you are actually drawn to, then it’s not so archetypal and cheesy.
Coming from acting, did you feel comfortable directing?
There was trepidation at first because I hadn’t gone to film school, so part of me felt like, “Do I know what I’m doing?” I feel like I know acting, so I approached it from just wanting to get the best performances as possible to tell the story versus trying to be overly ambitious. We have an amazing DP John Honoré, who really helped me with the look of it and he operated the camera as well because we were so bare bones. I just focused on the acting, which I felt confident in and through that, that was my directing style.
You actually have a sense for how scenes should build, which not all first-time writer/directors do. For instance, there’s a running gag in one scene where Adam’s character can’t remember your character’s name and it’s a minor point, but it makes the scene more interesting than just pushing the narrative forward. Did that come naturally?
I wrote it very quickly because again, I don’t have patience and I just wanted to get it done, but then I did spend a little less than six months fine-tuning it. I sent it out to a handful of people to get feedback and I reconstructed it with that. I never thought for a second I had the answer, so I was really open [to thinking] maybe someone else has a better idea and then just going through with a fine tooth comb. But it was also knowing when you get to shooting, you have a story there, and you should stay true to that, but then also have moments of letting the actors do what they’re good at. Most of [“Life in Color”] was scripted, but there are a handful of moments where I let Adam just rip because I know he’s funny and he’s good. When I could, I would bring that into the film. Then in editing, it’s like a second pass at making sure you have payoffs and making sure everything is where it’s supposed to be.
Was there a lot of performance work you did before hand or did you guys just know each other so well, you hit the ground running?
We had one day of rehearsal for maybe four hours. No one’s schedule could match up. I was nannying [for a day job]. We all were working other outlets until we started shooting and just had to trust that we would be focused on the day of shooting and work off of each other’s energy. We had known each other, so that did lend itself to it.
You’ve said you raised some of the budget through your work as a nanny. Did you actually do it right through shooting?
I wasn’t nannying [during] the 24 days we were shooting, but all through pre-production, I was nannying and then when we wrapped, I went back to it just to pay for what I needed to pay for because I had never done this before. We raised $5,000 on IndieGoGo, but no one knew who we were, so it was hard.
Was there something about the process that surprised you from this particular perspective?
The thing that comes to mind is that music rights take a long time. No one ever talks about that, so I didn’t know that I needed to allow more than a month to secure music rights and I had very specific songs that I said I must have, so that was a surprise. Then the ride of emotions – you’re running on no sleep, you’re very stressed out and then there can be some great, funny thing that happens and then it’s so rewarding at the end.
I thought this perfectly captured Los Angeles, though it was interesting that you never mentioned the city by name. Was that a conscious decision?
It was very intentional. I didn’t want it to be the clichéd Hollywood. I wanted it to be every community. Unfortunately, we couldn’t avoid the palm trees, so we just embraced it. I come from Minneapolis, but I went to school in New York and then I moved to Los Angeles. No matter what city you live in or small town, people are going through what the film addresses. I didn’t want to show Rodeo Drive or the Hollywood Hills or whatever is iconic to LA, but I couldn’t afford to shoot elsewhere. I had to shoot in the homes that I had been a nanny at, so I got my locations for free.
You must be a whole lot better at it than your character is in the film. You were telling them you were making a movie and then they said come on in?
I don’t think they were that excited about it. [laughs] Yes, I persuaded them, but it didn’t take that much. They were very generous. The few families I’ve worked with in LA have been incredibly supportive and most of them are, whether they’re in the industry or not, familiar with the artists’ plight. I think they all just wanted to be supportive of it and they read the script and liked it. Paying for locations, if you’re wanting to do this and you don’t have money, that can knock you out, so you can save a lot of money in shooting in places for free.
There is this amazing one-second clip when you’re driving back from the desert and there’s a billboard that says you’re in hot water. It surely wasn’t created for the film, so was it serendipitous when you saw it?
Serendipitous, yes. I debated [including it] because I had someone take a look at the rough cut and [they] mentioned you already have a short montage going to Palm Springs and returning and they’re redundant, so you don’t need both. But it was important to me to keep it because all three characters are in different places when they go than when they come back. Also I loved that shot, so maybe we’re the only two that notice that, but I love that billboard and I’m keeping it in.
What was the premiere like?
It’s very out of body. You’re going, going going so much and I love eight hours of sleep and taking care of myself and vitamins. I’m not getting eight hours, but it’s the most amazing thing and I’m trying to hang on to every second and be grateful in every moment because what a fantastic energy this place brings.