Caroline Dhavernas in "Easy Living"

SXSW ’17 Interview: Adam Keleman & Jen Richards on Celebrating Complex Women in “Easy Living”

“I am the architect of my life,” Sherry (Caroline Dhavernas) says to herself in the opening moments of “Easy Living,” reciting the soothing self-help pablum emanating from a cassette in her car being played as motivation to sell cosmetics door to door. There is little doubt she is on shaky foundation when writer/director Adam Keleman finds her, barely getting by during the day when sales of concealer have trouble masking the desperation of living out of a motel with little potential of upward mobility while heading to the bar at night in search of one-night stands to take her mind off things. However, this isn’t true of the filmmaker’s intricately crafted study of this woman on the edge, her descent hastened by the support of her longtime friend Danny (Jen Richards) and the aspiration of owning her own beauty salon.

In uncertain — and all too current — economic times, Sherry feels especially close, but “Easy Living” comes across as a throwback to another era in the way in which it slips into her life to observe a defining moment before quietly slipping out. Often filmed at a remove, Keleman allows the audience to come to her, slowly filling in the past indiscretions that have brought Sherry to her current predicament, while her persistence in attempting to put her right foot forward, even as her worst instincts continue to dog her, drives “Easy Living” to unexpected places, particularly once the late night heist films she often falls asleep to and the gun she finds at her sister’s house give her ideas about jumpstarting her ambitions.

Whether or not the gun is ever fired, “Easy Living” manages to pierce, with Dhavernas burrowing deep to play the extremes of Sherry’s behavior and Keleman establishing such a lived-in sense of the small town life she feels entrapped in that you can feel the weight of the world on her shoulders. Still, it never feels too heavy to be enjoyed as a mischievous streak runs throughout the film, punctuated by Juke’s zesty score, that keeps it light on its toes while keeping the audience on theirs, casually throwing off sparks of intrigue born out of the curious and unmistakably human instincts of its characters. After “Easy Living” premiered at SXSW, Keleman and Jen Richards, who delivers a standout performance as Sherry’s confidant, spoke about the work that went into creating such rich depictions of women, giving the actors the room to be creative and the occasional need to shoot quickly to evade the authorities.

How did this come about?

Adam Keleman: I do a lot of shorts of lonely women, [often] at a crossroads in their lives, living out of motels and [show] a glimpse into their life, like a scene or two, and it’s like this film is the third version of this theme. I’m a huge fan of films in the ‘70s — a lot of Robert Altman films like “3 Women,” “Nashville,” and this great film called “A Cold Day in the Park” and there’s just something about them [where] there’s a vulnerability and a rawness about humanity there. I’m such a huge fan of women actors and they’re so expressive and they’re characters I just want to explore. There’s an energy to Caroline Dhavernas, who I’ve known for so long — I didn’t know her personally, but I just followed her work, that I saw in her this unique perspective. I really wanted to have a rich, complex character [with] these two sides — this more polished, flawless energy she puts out there with selling makeup and then this [feeling] that there’s something broken and she’s in shambles inside. There’s an angst about [Caroline], but also a great comedy about her that I just love and I thought this role would really showcase her abilities to tap into this complex character with also a warm, light tone, but also a dark side to her as well.

Jen Richards: Just as an audience member, I was so taken in by Caroline and the character of Sherry and just how original and unique her journey was. It was really liberating to see a woman act out that way because I’ve acted out that way and I know lots of women who act out sexually in those ways, but we’re never shown that. That kind of behavior is just shown as a masculine thing, so it’s really refreshing and cool to see that character on screen.

Jen, how’d you get involved?

Jen Richards: That’s kind of funny. Adam had seen a Kickstarter video I was in when I was fundraising for a web series [“Her Story”] that I wrote and starred in. Just based on the Kickstarter video, not even my performance on the web series, he thought I had a certain kind of energy that he really liked and responded to. He thought I would be perfect for the role of Danny, so it was a direct offer. I didn’t have to audition or anything. It was a little unusual.

How did you find your way into the character of Danny?

Jen Richards: There was enough in the script to make it really clear who the character was because it’s just about their rapport. It was really clear in the few scenes that they had together [that Danny] was the most consistent person in Sherry’s life, so I figured they were probably friends since they were in high school. In my mind, when Danny was probably like the sensitive, artsy boy in high school, probably [doing] theater and stuff like that and Sherry was some gothy, weird kid and they bonded together as outcasts. Then Danny transitions and becomes a woman and stays in the same town. She’s the waitress at the local diner, so everyone knows her. She lives with her boyfriend, so she ends up having this really stable, consistent life while Sherry is the one who continues to spin out of control, but Danny is still her stable touchstone.

I don’t want to make a big deal about it since the film doesn’t, but you’ve mentioned you were surprised that the fact Danny is trans in the film never comes up in the film overtly. Was there much discussion about it?

Jen Richards: As soon as Adam and I met, that was my first question! Like “What’s the deal? You wrote this character, you offered it to a trans actress, but there’s no mention of her being trans, so what’s the point then?” I was really shocked, because he didn’t tell me that before he sent me the script. He said, “I really want you to be in this part, take a look at the movie and see what you think.” So I start looking through the script and I keep waiting for what I call the “trans moment,” where it comes up and that’s the reason I’m there is to illuminate some point or be a kind of lesson to learn. I kept flipping through and it never came up. I was like, “What the hell? I don’t get it.”

So when Adam and I met, I asked him about that and he made this really good point, “I just saw her as a trans-woman and [Sherry and Danny] have been friends forever, so it just doesn’t come up.” It’s funny because it’s like it’s not an issue in the movie, but in our current cultural context, that’s revolutionary. And that’s like the most honest thing you can do with someone like me because I am just part of the world and being trans doesn’t come up much in my day to day life. I hang out with my friends and it doesn’t come up much, so I loved that got represented in the film because so often when it comes to media and trans people, they’re only in media to be trans. That’s their whole point, so to just be a person in the world, like I am in real life? It’s quietly revolutionary and subversive and I love it.

Adam, since Jen mentions a pretty vivid backstory, were you big on giving background to the actors playing these characters?

Adam Keleman: Not really. I talked briefly with Elizabeth Marvel, who plays [Sherry’s sister] Abby, and then with Caroline a little bit, but I really allowed the actors to explore a lot. I watched the Maysles’ documentary “Salesman” in 2011 or 2012 and it gave me this germ of an idea — what is the female version of this like? Originally, this film was like a narrative/doc hybrid of [Sherry] going door to door and really capturing these “Salesman”-like moments, but then I realized that will never happen. No one’s going to willfully let us into their house – random people — so I had to cast some non-actors and just told them we were coming over and created these moments, and I hoped that [Caroline] would find something in those improvised moments in makeup selling because some of them actually reveal very detailed character points and I didn’t write that. She came up with that herself. I was just amazed. They’re subtle, but they add so much and if you’re paying attention, they ground her in a lot of ways. We weren’t able to get our main camera, a Sony F55 [for a while], so we shot the improvised makeup film selling moments two weeks before our scripted shoot and we used a different camera.

Jen Richards: Adam said from the start, said listen, the script is just a framework. You can play however you want within it, as long as we hit the major beats and we move the story forward. Because Caroline and I hit it off and our characters have that vibe, I don’t know how much of what we said was in the script [because of] how much it was her and I just riffing off each other and being friends. It’s nice to have that freedom, when you can really connect with the character and it makes it very authentic. I think part of the charm of the film is that these seem like real people who are just relating to each other in real ways.

This might be a question for Caroline, but did having that time before the scripted shoot with the makeup selling scenes actually help build that character?

Adam Keleman: I think [Caroline] really valued that time, being able to improvise and give her some wiggle room to really explore the character in those improvised moments because we weren’t going to use that stuff [necessarily], so she could try things out. I actually put some of that stuff on Vimeo just for her to watch before the scripted portion, and I don’t know if she did watch it, but I think she really valued that opportunity. We [also] did a two-camera set-up for the makeup selling moments with a glossier kind of lens and ultimately, I think it [visually] added a lot to those moments — it gave [Sherry] a shine and a polish and really showed a different side of her to show the contrast between the two Sherrys.

Something that’s great about the way this unfolds is that there’s a feeling that you’re being dropping into this person’s life for an interesting moment in time, but also it has the subtle narrative drive of where her depression will lead, potentially emulating the crime films she watches late at night on TV. Was it tricky to bring those two types of narrative impulses together?

Adam Keleman: It was very tricky to figure out because with my other shorts,I really wanted to have a striking ending [that would] take the character to a new place [from my previous shorts], and a place that hopefully fits in thematically. I really wanted to show a character outside of her world, but also taking control of her life in a dramatic way. We’re almost stripping [Sherry] raw at the end, and the genre elements were really something that I was interested in exploring. I really am a huge film fan and I always try to incorporate nods to movies when I can because it’s just so much fun to show respect to people you love, but I [also] hoped that while she’s watching the TV moments, they’re all about her as a dreamer. She’s a stubborn dreamer, and the film moments add to that and [show] the way she escapes.

Sherry’s bright blue suit is certainly a cinematic touch, along with her bright yellow car. How did that come into the mix?

Adam Keleman: The costume designer [Sarah Maiorino] did so much research and found several suits that could work. She showed me one and I was like, “This is perfect.” It fit Caroline perfectly and then we added the buttons ourselves. Then I was worried [about the car] because we had no money and it’s hard to find a car for a small movie — it is almost its own character in a way and our production designer [Dani Broom-Peltz] ended up finding this Ford Escort on Craigslist for $1000 and just put in a new engine. Whatever she did, it worked and I was so happy to see that yellow and blue pop.

Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?

Jen Richards: We were filming in this diner and we got clearance to use it from a manager, but then another manager was there that day and she was really angry we were taking up so much space. Eventually, we were trying to shoot really quickly in the parking lot and she had called the cops. [laughs] So there’s a scene where Caroline and I are chatting casually in the parking lot, taking our time, but the truth is we were trying to get that take done so quickly because the police were on their way. We had to hustle out of there. It was really hard to fake being casual when I’m looking at the police out of the side of my eye.

Adam Keleman: It was just a miscommunication and we were allowed to be there, but one person didn’t know and it was a bit nuts, but thankfully we were able to get what we needed for the scene. I don’t want to reveal too much about the ending, but the last scene in Norman’s house was all done in one day. It was our longest day and really intense and it was such an intimate moment and so crucial that I didn’t want to rush things, but at the same time, we needed to get so much. Fortunately, we were able to accomplish it, but that was one of the more stressful days.

What was the premiere at SXSW like for you?

Jen Richards: I hadn’t seen the film yet, so I didn’t know what to expect and I think there’s that little bit of nervousness of like what if I don’t like it? Like I’m going to have to do interviews and what if I don’t like the film? So I was a little trepidatious. Then it started and I was sitting next to my agent and literally, I turn around and go, “Oh my God, I’m in a movie. That’s kind of cool.” Up until then, I had never really thought about that. Then after 10 minutes, I’m like “Oh, thank God, it’s really good.” We had a really good time and it was fantastic to go up to Adam afterwards and give him the big hug and honestly say, “I loved it.”

Adam Keleman: At first, I was actually really quiet and chill and then once I saw the Alamo [Drafthouse, where the premiere was], pulling up in the cab, my heart started racing. It was just a lovely experience. The audience really engaged with the film and there were people who enjoyed the film that I didn’t think would, so it was interesting to see who will relate to your film because you don’t know. Once you put a piece of art or a piece of film out there, it’s out of your hands. You have to let it go. So it was really great to see some people who I would never expect come up to me and say they really connected to it.

“Easy Living” does not yet have U.S. distribution.