Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston in "Kelly & Cal"

SXSW ’14 Interview: Jen McGowan on Getting the Right Fit for “Kelly & Cal”

When Jen McGowan was growing up, she was a competitive swimmer, something that gave her a confidence in knowing when something felt right to her.

“When [my parents] took me to the Y and dropped me in as an infant, that was it,” says McGowan, mere hours before her first feature “Kelly and Cal” premiered at SXSW. “That feeling [of knowing] is very calming. I feel like I’m like a tuning fork, and that’s my pitch.”

Perhaps that’s why there’s so much confidence in the tone of “Kelly & Cal,” a film that so easily could have gone awry had there been someone more interested in the sentimental version of a story of an unhappy new mother and her wheelchair-bound teen neighbor who look to each other to get back on the right track. Instead, there’s a punk rock spirit just underneath the surface of the suburban-set drama embodied by its leads Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston and captured by McGowan in such a way that is illuminating both in its electricity and its insight about the two characters, separated by a generation, but united in seeing their world get smaller and wanting to rebel.

It’s an idea that McGowan’s familiar with as someone who trained as an actress at the Atlantic Theatre Company before deciding that the roles she was being offered weren’t for her. Yet in finding her groove as a director, she’s able to show a tenderness towards characters striving for the same and while in Austin, she sat down to talk about getting into filmmaking, making her first feature in a hurry and why she’s now not such a fan of rehearsals.

How did this thing come together?

It’s very unique in that I went to USC and the writer also went to SC. We didn’t know each other at the time, and I don’t think we were even in the same years. But about four years ago, some alumni at USC started this program called USC First Team fostering feature projects for alumni, like the Sundance Lab or the Film Independent Lab.

They put an email blast out to all the alumni. They said we want 30 writers and 30 directors, and we’re going to see what happens. I got in as a director, Amy Lowe Starbin got in as a writer, and from there, they were like, okay, we’re going to set some deadlines for you. As long as you meet the deadlines, you can stay in this program. ‎They didn’t get involved creatively. It was just enough to get people to get move forward, then it started from an idea that Amy had, and I think she had 20 or 40 pages, and we liked each other a lot, and were like, “let’s do this.” It took about a year to write and then another year to put it in service, and then we shot.

We shot in 20 days, and we posted in a month and a half, and we finished December 20th.

That’s insane to me because I saw you only made casting announcements in August, so that was less than six months before you made it here.

It was. But you know what? It’s my first feature. I didn’t know better. So I was like, “Okay, I can do this, sure.” One of my colleagues who I went to school had just made his first feature and I would occasionally call him and be like, “Sam, we’re talking about 20 days [for the entire shoot]. Is that okay?”

He was like, “Yeah, yeah, 20 days is fine. We did mine in 20 days, and we have special effects and explosions, and yours is just talking. You’ll be fine.” Then when we were shooting, I’m getting my ass kicked every day. From the moment I walk on set, it’s like, “You got to collect shots,” and I’m like, “oh my God.” So I call Sam and ask, “What am I doing wrong? I’m getting killed.” He goes, “Well, how many hours are you shooting today.” “Twelve.” He said, “Oh, no, we shot like 18 or 20-hour days.” I’m like, “Dude, that’s a little detail I would have needed to have know.”

Was it a help or a hindrance that your husband Philip Lott was‎ the cinematographer? I could see it being a little bit of both.

You’re right, and the thing is we’ve worked together on and off for years and years, and we both have done our careers independently. I can do my job without him, he can do his job without me, but we love working together, and frankly, I thought he was the best person for the job. Shooting your first film in a state that you don’t live in and all these other new things, the shorthand was wonderful. When you’re shooting that fast, I don’t have time to explain.

We met almost 15 years ago now, and for the first five or six years, we would not work together at all. We were like, “No, this [marriage] is more important.” Then slowly what you realize is that person is the most dependable, most committed or the most hard-working and [you start saying], “Honestly, you’re the best person. Do you mind doing this?” Then slowly but surely, we ended up working in more substantial, collaborative ways.

On the surface, this story seems like it could’ve easily have been the most horribly saccharine thing imaginable in the wrong hands…

I know, and that’s why I really tried to tell people that angle from the beginning – I knew for awhile what the problems were, what the pitfalls could have been. I was comfortable with that because it was within my areas where I feel comfortable. I feel very good with actors and performance, so when things come up, and I know it’s a risk, if it’s within that, I usually take it.

Does casting someone who brings a history to her character like Juliette Lewis help?

This is what’s interesting about when you start casting people who are known people. You’re not dealing with casting calls and things like that. Their images have meaning, and you’re not just looking at the role. You’re looking at the role through the particular shade of glass that they bring to it, and you have to look at each individual person you’re considering and say, “What do we know and feel about this person, and does that work with the character?” In this case, it worked perfectly. I don’t know if you even know, but she wrote two songs for the film – the one when she plays for him [from her past in the garage], and then at the end, the final song when they’re on the porch.

This may be what she brings to it, but was it tricky to tell the story of a mother who doesn’t bond with her baby immediately without antagonizing her, as most do with such characters?

Maybe I’ll change my mind as I do it further on in my career, but I think the key thing in dealing with characters and just human beings in general is you need to treat each person as an individual. When you do, you can understand their point of view and their perspective. You don’t just paint a brush and say she’s a shitty mom. She’s not. She’s just having a hard time. I think that’s how people can have compassion about here. That’s another thing we were aware of – too much one way, and she’s a bitch, and too much another way, and she’s pathetic. It was a challenge.

My favorite moment in the film may have been a scene where you simply have the two main characters on the sidewalk, he in a wheelchair and she pushing a stroller in tandem as if they’re equals and it’s a particularly striking image. Was that actually planned or a happy thing that just happened?

Here’s the honest truth about that particular image. As you know, in moviemaking, sometimes a conscious choice is not always what happens, but through the process over the whole film, I was very conscious of balance of power – when were they even, when was she bending down to him, and when were they in the frame, and when do we see the wheelchair. That was all very precise. That particular shot, though, happened because the morning of our shoot, it rained. By the time we got to that shot, we had 15 minutes to shoot that scene.

This was my director of photography’s idea. He said, “Let’s just shoot it in one [take].” Shooting anything in one is like the riskiest thing you can do, because if anything is off, it actually doesn’t save that much time because you have to get everything about it right. My thought would be, we did the thinking ahead of time. We understood the language of the film that we were working in so that we could make that decision. That particular shot was not preplanned, but ‎it’s funny that you responded to it, because many people love that shot.

It connects to one of my favorite lines in the film, which is when Cal talks to the baby and says “It’s amazing what a conversation between equals can accomplish.”

I love that too, because it’s important for her to hear that. You know, life is hard, and sometimes we get to a place that we thought we intended, and it isn’t what we thought, and that’s what this is about.

This may be a strange parallel to make, but did you feel that professionally? I understand you started as an actress and felt better suited to directing.

It was absolutely a Goldilocks moment. When I was a kid, I was a competitive swimmer, and I’m very competitive. I love the water. I love swimming. I was a swimmer from when they took me to the Y and dropped the infant in and that was it, so for me personally, that feeling is very calming. I feel like I’m like a tuning fork, that’s my pitch. So when I found acting, I loved it as a student, but when I got out into the world to start making it into a career, I didn’t enjoy it as much.

I found directing as a way to kind of satisfy some of the problems I was having an actor. I didn’t like the material I was getting cast in, so I said, “Well, I’ll just make something so I have the material.” When I did that, I accidentally discovered that directing was my tuning fork. That was my moment, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I felt competent and excited and challenged by every moment of it, from beginning to end, from reading a script and thinking, “Can I do that?” to standing on stage and presenting it.

The funny thing is I went to USC because I thought I wanted to direct, but I don’t know how to do it. In retrospect, as great as that was, the best training was actually all my acting training, all my script training, and all my theater theory.

And you still get to work with actors.

I love it and Juliette, she’s amazing as a collaborator and as far as the director-actor relationship, which is very specific, she just brings it, so you say, “Okay, let’s jump in and see what happens.”

Since it sounds like it came together pretty quickly once it was ready, did you actually get to have much time to prep with Juliette?

No, we had a couple of phone calls, and we did one reading in New York, but that was my decision too. It’s not out of laziness, because sometimes you do need to rehearse, and other times you don’t, and what I like about a reading like that is if you watch and go, “Okay, here’s what I want. This is what they’re doing. Is it good, better, or worse?” and “Whatever I want to do with it, can I achieve that on set, or do I need to address it now?” But if you can achieve it on set, it’s better to do it on set, because you can capture them doing something rather than repeating something. That’s what we did.

“Kelly and Cal” opens in New York on Sept. 5th and Los Angeles on Sept. 19th.

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