Towards the end of an hour-long conversation with Alison Bagnall, the writer/director began talking about a film she saw at SXSW, where her own “Funny Bunny” premiered just a few weeks ago, utterly invigorated by the experience of seeing a certain filmmaker’s third feature.
“I really think three’s a charm,” Bagnall said. “It’s such a learning curve to make something decent and the third movie is often when you finally hit your stride.”
She would know having just made her third feature, though she’s too modest to suggest it turned out well. Still, a delicate touch was required to turn “Funny Bunny” into something transcendent, both an affecting character study in the mold of Bagnall’s other films “Piggie” and “The Dish and the Spoon” about a trio of lonelyhearts that can help fulfill something in each other that they’re incapable of doing on their own and an outre comedy that plays on their eccentricities to consistently bemusing effect. Yet Bagnall hardly made such a film easy on herself, focusing on three people who have been extraordinarily wounded in Gene (Kentucky Audley), a advocate against childhood obesity who’s lost some of his fire in the midst of a divorce; Titty (Olly Alexander), a 19-year-old heir to a great fortune and an empty house that Gene stumbles upon; and Ginger (Joslyn Jensen), a fervent animal rights activist Titty corresponds with online who hides a history of devastating abuse.
Bagnall never betrays the dark corners that always seem to lurk at the edge of the frame for each of the three, capturing that moment where youthful idealism collides with the hard truths of reality. But as “Funny Bunny” comes into focus, she allows the light to pour in as they find purpose and seize upon the few things in their lives they know they can trust, which comes to include each other. With fearless performances from Audley, Alexander and especially Jensen, the high-wire act doesn’t seem so difficult, yet it was the product of a nearly decade-long journey on the part of its director. On the eve of the film’s debut at the Maryland Film Festival, Bagnall spoke about her inspiration for the story, how it took the eyes of others for her to see the film she wanted to make and why she’s satisfied with a smaller audience so long as they’re passionate.
Even going back to writing “Buffalo ’66,” you seem to have this attraction to lonely people who gravitate towards each other. Is there a reason it’s of continuing interest?
I grew up in the countryside in a pretty rural environment in Connecticut and my dad was a doctor, my mom was a therapist and the other kids in my school had parents that were [either] truck drivers or secretaries, so I just didn’t have a lot in common with other kids. We lived in a kind of farm situation, so I spent most of my time alone, often just with animals. I had this enormous rock that I used to sit on in this field and I would personify [it]. [Other people] just thought I was strange and a weirdo and [would have a] somewhat polite way of calling me as such. I was very isolated. But I did have a great mom who’s very affectionate and caring. She was also a therapist, and if I hadn’t been a filmmaker, I think I could have been a really good therapist or social worker because it’s my natural bent and [it’s why] I’ve been interested in mental illness, isolation and trauma — people that have had very hard beginnings and the notion of how they can heal each other.
The main character Ginger is based on my mom’s cousin who was a victim of incest and killed herself. I always wanted to imagine if someone had come and rescued her – like what if somebody really kind had come along? Instead, she just found one abusive husband after another and just had a terrible life. I’m interested in how a person can go from being isolated to how they can blossom through contact with another human being, whether it’s between two people or a person and animal – just that notion of healing others through nurture.
You’ve said you actually consulted with psychologists before filming. What insights did they give you?
Once I decided to go with the Ginger character being an incest survivor, I became very concerned about getting it right, so I spent two or three months doing research. People have done movies with incest or child abuse in them, but I was more interested in the aftermath. I wanted to capture the stolen innocence. [In meeting] other playwrights and screenwriters, I’ve always heard for many years that there’s nothing you can make up that’s better than reality, so I felt it was very important [to talk to experts] and those were actually the darkest months of my adult life I can remember.
Every time I’d meet a therapist, I’d just talk to them about the story and get anecdotes from them. This one British [doctor Judith Herman who] wrote this book called “Trauma and Recovery,” about survivors of incest as it relates to children of war as a kind of PTSD and talks about the similarities between the two [through] first person accounts, which were just harrowing and horrific. Then I also interviewed my mother, who talked to me about her cousin and I found the house where my cousin grew up in Denver with this stepfather. Apparently, they weren’t enough bedrooms in the house because the parents didn’t sleep in the same room, so they put [her] room out in the garage, which meant that her stepfather had pretty much full access to her. I knew the horrific man, one of those real predators a la Sandusky.
Basically, I wrote this film [after that], but then I hired a a psychologist who exclusively deals with incest survivors up in upstate New York. She said, “You can pay me like a patient,” so I brought my script and I went [over] certain things and I said, “Does this sound accurate?” She told me that with incest or sexual trauma in children, the mind often buries the memory in a place that’s not acceptable. We have parts of our brain that are reserved for memories, generally speaking, but when trauma like that occurs to a child, the mind stores it somewhere in the tissues, like the muscle [since] we have memory and brain cells in other parts, not just in our brains alone. It’s a way that the child will survive to adulthood so that the memories aren’t debilitating to survival.
I found out that the average age for recalled incest is age 26 and this psychologist described several patients who had these recall moments in front of her in her office, [saying they were] triggered by something physical or sensory, like a smell or a touch. When [survivors] explore the sensory memories come back. They’ll accuse their therapist of being drunk because they smell alcohol and of course, she isn’t drunk or anything. But they’ll feel nauseous and start throwing up. They just have this whole series of physical symptoms. She had witnessed this a number of times and in describing it to me, that’s what I based [Ginger’s] breakdown scene on [in the film] when she has that memory and she’s howling and sobbing. [The therapist] just talked about little processes and things you would do. She wouldn’t do anything overt and she was talking about how the greatest anger that incest survivors feel is not toward the person who perpetuated the incest, but the person who did not protect them, which I found very interesting.
The main thing that happens when someone is a victim of incest is there’s this immediate loss of innocence. From the time that starts, you’re robbed of your childhood, so I was interested in [exploring in] some of the pain that [Ginger] and Titty experience, it’s like they’re having these childhoods they never had – they go out and they’re getting ice cream and putting the cat’s makeup on and I feel like they’re reliving these little moments of childhood that were stolen from them.
Your actors are actually credited with co-writing the screenplay. Did you give them an outline to improvise from? What was the collaboration like?
I wrote a screenplay eight years ago with Greta Gerwig because she was going to star in it, then the movie fell apart for casting reasons and it became a different breed. Then [Greta] aged out of the part and I was just going to put it away. But I couldn’t get away from it and I realized that I did need to make this movie next, so I did a whole new draft of the screenplay. I made Ginger into a incest survivor. We had a total of 15 scripts, but during the filming of the movie, we had script meetings every three days in the evenings and we’d go through [the entire script] starting at page one right to the end. We cut scenes and adjusted dialogue.
The movie was quite faithful to the original script, but the actors each worked on their characters and their dialogue a lot. I also was able to develop Olly Alexander’s character with him. He grew up always loving owls. He and his friend used to play woodland creatures where they would chase each other as an owl or a hare, so it was my screenplay but the actors had so much input in the writing once we were actually shooting that I wanted them to have co-writer credits.
How much do you work on physicality with your actors? Whether it’s the defeated shoulders of Gene or Titty’s spry but awkward demeanor, it seemed like something you must’ve talked about since it’s so distinctive.
I didn’t do too much, but I’m a big fan of Buster Keaton, whose physical comedy is so fantastic. Olly is a very physical actor and he used to be a gymnast, so he naturally uses his whole body, even in “The Dish and the Spoon.” He’s like, “Oh let’s film that,” and he does things physically that are interesting to watch. But those are [mostly] the actors just inhabiting their characters and I would just sometimes make adjustments like “Oh let’s do that a little less or a little more.”
Any good actors uses their whole body as an instrument and they’re just all really good. But it was designed to have a lot of physical comedy and physical acting, so often it was less about the dialogue because that’s something that’s always been interesting to me. Like that scene where Gene and Titty are putting up tents, that’s kind of a Buster Keaton homage. When I watch the movie I feel like they’re little puppets. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but that’s what they look like to me, which is fitting because puppets are one of the oldest forms of storytelling.
You mention how this originated with Greta Gerwig, then when we spoke for your Kickstarter campaign, Ginger was going to be played by Kate Lyn Sheil. Now I can’t imagine it being anyone else but Joslyn Jensen, but those seem like three very different acting styles, so was it interesting to constantly reenvision the part?
Yeah, absolutely because when I first was thinking of the movie, the Ginger character was more like … you know that Web site Suicide Girls? I only became aware of it ten years ago, I don’t remember how. Now it’s gotten all slick, but when it first started, it would be these normal girls who like take pictures of themselves and would pin it on the internet, so initially the character was very distant. I figured it’s someone who doesn’t like to have physical contact with guys, but does like to conquer them virtually. That was more fitted for Greta. Then when I thought of Cate, I saw her and Kentucker at South By Southwest in “Sun Don’t Shine” when I was there with “Dish and the Spoon” and I knew Greta wasn’t going to do it anymore. Kate just had this frailty, and that very luminous face that you can’t take your eyes off of, so I just thought she would be really good at doing it. In the end, she had a conflict.
So it definitely shifted every time there was a different actress. My producer Ted Speaker suggested Joslyn because he had met her at Priderock Sunfest at Birmingham and seen “The Unspeakable Act.” Also, she made videos of herself in her apartment, similar to her character. When I showed those to Kentucker, he said, “We don’t even have to do anything. She’s already the girl. That’s the character.” By that point, it was a kind of Polanski-style casting, because Polanski always says to just cast down to who is as close to the character as possible so they just have to breathe the character.
Joslyn had this feeling of being vulnerable, and she reminded me of a baby bird that’s fallen out of a nest. In one of the videos [she made], she had this super-short hair because she had shaved her head for a film short, which I don’t even know got made, so I asked her to cut her hair that short again and she didn’t mind. It made her head look like a little baby bird with the short little black feathers when they’re first born. It was also inspired by the women who slept with the Nazis and they had to chop off their hair, so they’re walking around in public almost like the adulterers in Salem wear an “A”. I just liked the idea of doing a public sign of some sexual degradation.
Then on top of that, [Joslyn’s] just a really good actress. I was just trying to fill her with as much information as possible about the memory recall of what happens and she just internalized all that. In fact that was the end road for all the main characters. We spoke at great lengths about the background of their characters. [Olly] made these webcams by himself because I knew anything he makes is going to be a lot more interesting than what I could come up with, so he did all this research on his own and then we went into the basement of the house the cast and crew were staying in and he recorded those webcams into laptop by himself.
I really like choosing actors who are filmmakers in their own right. Joslyn makes her own little music videos and shorts. Certainly, Kentucker is a filmmaker in his own right and Olly is a natural born writer and artist. My favorite monologue where he says “We’re doing this for our children, our children’s children and our children’s animals children’s children’s,” he wrote that. Finding actors who are really smart and funny and creative can bring so much to the table as opposed to everything coming from me. You just get everyone’s lines contributing to this story and they know what to do, but it’s amazing how you can tell at the end, it still felt like exactly what I had envisioned it could be ten years ago.
I had read that it was Kentucker that helped find the film by doing his own edit. Was there a moment or something specific that made it all suddenly click for you that he did or that you started seeing for yourself?
I’m not sure why that happened. I hired [cinematographer] Ashley Connor because I loved her work. I saw a little bit of “Butter on the Latch” and there had been a couple of shots that really made me catch my breath because I felt like I was so inside the scene. She had a way of shooting things in master [shots], but she’s very autonomous. Most [directors of photography or] operators don’t feel comfortable necessarily moving the camera around within the scene because they feel like that’s the director’s job to say where the camera’s going to go, but the director can’t be saying during the scene, “Okay, now move to her feet, now move to her face, no move to…” I didn’t know it at the time, but the reason I liked her work is that she’s able to shoot a whole scene and you never have to cut because she’s moving the camera around.
A case in point is that scene where Ginger has the breakdown and Joslyn’s on the floor, then she’s on her hands, then she moves to her feet and the rug, then she’s on Kentucker and the camera follows her. What’s great about that is you don’t have to cut to another take — Fassbender used to not say he hated cutting between different takes because it’s a slightly different tension in each take. Each take has a very precise tension and you can cut from one take to another take it feels slightly different. But the movie was shot in this way that was very different from the way I had shot films before, so once we started put it together, I didn’t know how to cut it.
I thought that I had possibly made a terrible mistake. It’s hard to describe because it’s never quite happened to me and there were times [during the production] when I was able to say, “No, I want the camera here” and then other times, it was just shot in a very unconditional style, which several editors who worked on it were struggling with. Basically, I was worried I didn’t have a movie because it was a very traditional film in the way it was scripted. I had a very complete script and it was meant to be very comedic. There was a lot of dialogue that was written to be funny, yet I couldn’t cut for comedy the way I normally might want to and I was confined by the type of coverage I had.
I loved the footage when I would watch just the raw, uncut tapes, but then once we went to cut the scenes, I thought it fell apart and I was just lost, so when Kentucker and other editors were working on it, they were cutting it more for plot and [for me], the movie was not about plot. It was about moments, psychology, the subconscious meaning and just seeing. There’s all this stuff breast talk [with Olly’s character] — his name is Titty and he has a breast obsession because the breast is like a metaphor for his not having been mothered, so a couple of scenes where they’re talking about boobs, the editors initially cut some of those because they weren’t driving the plot. But the accumulation of all those good references played into a very complete metaphor for Titty, so when we just tried to cut for story and plot in this movie, it fell apart.
I think because Kentucker had been involved in the writing and starred in it, he was so deeply involved that when he went to cut it, he was like “Hey, I know what to do.” It was just totally clear to him. He just really wasn’t fettered by formal concerns. He was just cutting to get the best dialogue and acting and moments. There were a couple scenes where I actually asked him to uncut them and revert to the full master like [Ginger’s] breakdown scene and the furry love scene at the end because I felt like it created this beautiful tension. But in Kentucker’s cut, I saw the footage we had did work because he just went at it like he was making some shoes out of leather and he really didn’t agonize about it. It was incredibly fast, like three of four weeks and It usually takes three or four months to cut. He’s fast.
I think that in order to make an interesting film, and indeed any work of art, it is necessary to get out of one’s comfort zone, to go way out on a limb. Really, you need to walk within inches of disaster in order to have a final product that might possibly cross over into the sublime, or at least the singular. I’m not saying by that that “Funny Bunny” necessarily succeeds at that, though it does for me personally. So I definitely went way out on a limb on it, nearly to the point of no return. And luckily, due to great collaborators, I didn’t fall off the limb.
Additionally, my producer Ted – after watching me squirm and be racked with near fatal doubt over the film – came to the conclusion that when a project is just so personal, it is difficult for a director to be detached about it. This movie was such a Herculean effort to get made that I got to the point that I had no perspective at all on it. It’s almost like I couldn’t bring myself to believe that it could all have actually worked as I had hoped. Filmmakers don’t always talk about the terrific self doubt that comes with the job, but I like to bring it into the open and place it firmly as part of the process of making art. Fear, panic, uncertainty are not necessarily your enemies. They’re intrinsic to making something you can really love when it’s done. Maybe it’s similar to how you’re not really a true friend with someone until you’ve had a big old fight and maybe even a falling out with them. That’s when you know a relationship is real and when you really love someone. A film is like a lover. And like a baby. A lover and a baby, alternately.
Is it gratifying to have this out in the world after having it in your mind for so long?
The thing I was happy about was I didn’t make this movie to make some big splash. I just don’t care anymore. I’m not invested in like trying to be the next big thing. All I care about is connecting to an individual person watching the movie, even if just one person liked it, although of course, I do believe that if one person really feels moved by a movie, there’s a lot of one persons out there. At the premiere [at SXSW], there was a woman in the lobby who came over to me and she couldn’t even talk, she was so overcome. She said, “I was trying to be composed and I just can’t.” Then at the second screening, a woman came up to thank me for the film and was really crying. I was just glad because it seemed to really be working in the way I had hoped because people were laughing in the right parts that then they got very silent in the right parts. I do really want to make people laugh, so all that dialogue at the beginning where he’s canvasing [neighborhoods]? I love the way that came out.
I was also glad because I didn’t go to South by Southwest saying, “Now we’re going to sell the movie and get reviews in the trade.” I’ve gotten to the point in these movies where I just have no fantasy about the trajectory of these small films I think that as long as they get to the people who want to see them, the people in the world that the movie should be existing for. When I got a review in the trades for “The Dish and the Spoon,” I actually thought they were overly complimentary [because] it was a wisp of a film in a way. But this film, I just was happy that people responded to it, laughed and seemed really moved.
When I was struggling with this film, the thing that kept me going was that I was just trying to make it for the people who had been through these similar trauma, for incest survivors. But in a way, it doesn’t really matter to me what happens to the film as long as it gets out there to people. Ideally, it won’t be totally pirated. “The Dish and the Spoon” was pirated in 27 different countries, so we never saw a dime. We never sold foreign. We only sold North America. But if people are laughing and crying, I’m good.
“Funny Bunny” will open in New York on November 13th. It will play in Los Angeles at AFI Fest on November 7th and 8th at the Chinese.