Interview: Andrew Semans on Creating Hysterics Funny and Not in “Nancy, Please”

The co-writer/director of one of the finest first features in recent memories talks about misguided obsessions, the complementary nature of horror and comedy, and "Little Dorrit"...Read More

Within seconds of our interview, Andrew Semans said something that the lead of his first feature wouldn’t.

“I’m sorry.”

Semans needn’t have apologized, but in making a debut as wildly funny and deeply deranged as “Nancy, Please,” he created a monster in yours truly as single-minded as Paul (Will Rogers), a Yale Ph.D candidate whose writer’s block when it comes to his thesis paper on Charles Dickens leads him to fixate on his former roommate Nancy (Eleonore Hendricks), who he believes is holding onto his annotated copy of “Little Dorrit” and isn’t returning his calls. Despite Paul’s considerable book smarts, his personal skills need some work and as he regresses into childish behavior in pursuit of “Little Dorrit,” he risks everything that’s meaningful to him including a girlfriend who’ll quote “Ladyhawke” for him and his academic standing.

On the other hand, Semans sacrifices nothing in making a film that’s as sharply witty as it is psychologically affecting, which makes it all the more a real event this week as the film finally makes its way to the reRun Theater in New York and out to audiences everywhere via VOD just over a year after its premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Shortly before the rollout, Semans took the time to talk about the film’s genesis, how “Little Dorrit” became Paul’s object of obsession and why he looks at the film as a time capsule.

How did you start on this feature?

I had made some short films and I was interested in making a feature. I was looking for something that I could make at a low budget and I was having a hard time coming up with an idea that I was satisfied with. I had written a large part of another script, but it didn’t feel like it was working and, in desperation, I thought, what is the simplest conflict that I can come up with? And, along with my co-writer, Will Heinrich, we arrived at this: One person has something that someone else wants, and they won’t give it back. And we thought, okay, well, that’s a very, very simple conflict. Where can we go from there? So then we just started filling in the blanks. Who are the people? What is the thing? We just built the script up from there, surrounding this incredibly simple conflict with characters and the sort of milieu that we knew from our own lives. It started as a kind of dry exercise, but it became personal over time as we filled it with characters and themes that we recognized very closely from our own experience.

Were you actually an Ivy Leaguer? The film seems to capture that milieu just right.

No, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school and I was a never a graduate student. My co-writer did go to an Ivy League school, but never went to graduate school. I think we decided to do that because we were writing about an arrested adolescence, someone who didn’t want to take responsibility for his own life and didn’t want to grow up and face the challenges of adulthood. And if you’re going to work with a character like that, what better place to put it than in graduate school, an environment that can easily become a sort of incubator for perpetual adolescence, where people can go and postpone engagement with the actual world for a prolonged period of time.

Another thing was that we decided early on that we wanted to write articulate characters. We wanted to write characters who could speak very clearly and distinctly and sometimes eloquently, even if they were not very good at recognizing exactly what it was they were going through. And we thought okay, well, if we’re going to have articulate characters, they should be educated and it just seemed natural to put it in that environment.

The opening shot of the film is wonderful because it establishes Nancy as a presence without really showing her, simply watching her as she paints her toenails ominously. Was that always upfront?

That’s how it was in the script. We wanted to start with Nancy, but the idea was you wouldn’t encounter Nancy fully. You wouldn’t hear from her – she would be talked about a lot and she would be this sort of specter hovering over the events, but you wouldn’t really have any meaningful scenes with her for a while. Like in “Jaws,” we wanted to wait awhile until you see the shark.

Of course, the idea of stalking is timeless, but how he’s able to build up an image of her in his head and actually can glean online evidence that vaguely supports his ideas on her Facebook page and other digital ephemera seems to be a modern phenomenon. Was that an interesting thing to play around with?

That was really fun because it’s a movie ultimately about self-sabotage and a person tearing down their own life, but the main character Paul, who is doing this to himself, wants to remain on the moral high ground. He’s very self-righteous. If he’s going to tear apart his own life, he must remain blameless. He needs to pin it all on someone else, so he picks a person who seems like the best villain available. But in order to continue doing what he’s doing, he’s got to conceive of her as someone truly someone evil, someone whose sole goal in life is to destroy Paul, in order to justify his choices. It was very fun to write Paul’s increasingly exaggerated ideas of how evil or corrupt Nancy is as he struggles to justify his decisions.

As we we’re writing the script, we actually went kind of crazy with that and really took it in some far-out directions that we ultimately decided to scale back. In certain drafts of the script, [Paul] was envisioning Nancy as this truly supernatural, monstrous hound from hell who had mystical powers of destruction.

Even before “Nancy, Please,” it seemed like in your short film “All Day Long,” you enjoy applying genre ideas and aesthetics to rather mundane situations. What do you like about mixing those things?

If you actually check out my Vimeo page, there’s another short that I made called “I’d Rather Be Dead Than Live in This World,” which is similar to “Nancy” in the sense that it’s about the collision of the mundane, everyday world with a deluded character who is desperate to view their life and experience as more “cinematic” than it actually is. I feel like every time I write anything, it’s always about self-delusion. I don’t know what that says about me, but it always seems to be about people encountering problems in their lives and trying to turn it into a movie.

In “Nancy, Please,” Paul keeps acting as if he’s in a horror/suspense movie, but he’s really not. He’s in a very mundane, frustrating everyday situation that he’s blowing out of proportion. I’m someone who’s always trying to feel like he’s living in a movie, but reality is always staring me in the face, contradicting that fantasy. And I’m drawn to genre elements because they’re just so cinematic and if you’re going to do something about the conflict between fantasy and reality in a movie, it just makes sense that you veer into genre trappings. And I like genre movies. I’m a big fan of suspense/horror movies.

It could be anything, but how did “Little Dorrit” become Paul’s object of obsession?

We knew what we wanted the central object to be a book and the subject of Paul’s dissertation, but we didn’t want to pick a book that somehow seemed to reflect the story or had some kind of symbolic meaning. We also thought it would be funny if he had this extremely boring thesis topic, so we thought okay, well, we’ll pick Charles Dickens, the most written about and analyzed novelist in the English language, and what’s a book that at least American audiences won’t have strong associations with? Initially, we picked “Our Mutual Friend,” which is not one of your better-known Dickens works, but that just didn’t sound right. “I need to get my ‘Our Mutual Friend’ back!” It just didn’t have a ring to it, so we switched it to “Little Dorrit.” Honestly, I have not even read “Little Dorrit.”

It’s such a precious sounding title.

It sounds good. Yeah, it sounds almost adorable. “Little Dorrit.”

It’s been a year since completing the film. Have your feelings changed about it now that you have some distance from it?

It’s always weird whenever you make a movie. By the time you’ve scripted it and raised the money and shot it and gone through post and gone out into the world with it, you’ve been living with it for so long. By the time you’re done, no matter how much you like the film or liked the experience, the finished product always like a time capsule of who you were and what you were interested when you began, which could have been many years previous. In my case, I look at the movie  – and I have great fondness for the movie – but it’s the kind of subject matter, the kind of characters, and the kind of movie that I was really interested in making when I started the script five years ago. Now I’m really excited to make something else. Of course, when I’m done with that, I’ll look back and say well, that was the person I was a few years ago and that’s great, but I want to move onto something else. So my feelings about the movie have not changed particularly, it just reminds me of where I was at four years ago. That’s just the nature of the beast.

“Nancy, Please” is now open at the reRun Theater in Brooklyn.

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