“The Feels” begins with an orgasm, which given the exuberance that writer/director Jenée LaMarque demonstrated in her delightful debut “The Pretty One,” seems just about right. Unfortunately, it isn’t had by Lu (Angela Trimbur), a fact that threatens to upend her impending nuptials to her girlfriend Andi (Constance Wu) when it comes up during the two’s bachelorette weekend at an idyllic countryside abode under less than ideal circumstances. Outnumbered by Andi’s friends at the getaway, she awaits the arrival of her sister Nikki (Jenée LaMarque), who is experiencing troubles of her own with her husband, and grows more inhibited as Andi’s posse of longtime pals Josh (Josh Fadem), Vivien (Lauren Parks) and Kárin (Kárin Tatoyan) get drunker and more inquisitive, leading to the discovery that Lu has never climaxed sexually.
The revelation leads to a raucous, ribald comedy, tingling with the kind of sensations that Lu would seem to be missing out on, but LaMarque and co-writer Lauren Parks employ the misunderstanding around their Lu’s situation as a way into a broader, thoughtful rumination on complicated women, untangling the particularly close connection between psychology and physicality for the fairer sex. Naturally, LaMarque sought out a diverse set of women to illuminate a variety of experiences, an attitude further emphasized by interspersing direct, personal addresses throughout the film from each of the characters, and let them loose in the film that draws plenty of its energy from being partially improvised. Hence the impromptu musical performances from the chanteuse Kárin and the utter unpredictability of Helen (Ever Mainard), an acquaintance of Lu’s from culinary school who tears through the film like a bull in a china shop as she follows her interests wherever they may lead.
With the same sense of curiosity, LaMarque boldly ventures into territory often left unexplored onscreen and shortly after the film’s premiere at the Seattle Film Festival en route to stops at Frameline in San Francisco and Outfest in Los Angeles, the filmmaker spoke about how that mirrored the process of actually making “The Feels,” in which LaMarque’s acting roots became a necessity to direct the freewheeling affair, and being pleasantly surprised by the end result.
How did this come about?
I started writing with one of my friends from film school and we really wanted to make a film that had a primarily female cast and at the time, we were pitching a television show about sexual dysfunction, so the idea came from using that as a vehicle [for a film] to explore issues regarding intimacy and relationships and it grew from there.
The film engages you almost immediately as you have Andi (Constance Wu) address the audience about her first orgasm, something that becomes a recurring part of the film for each of the characters. How did that come about?
As we were developing the story, I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone that was there had an opportunity to talk about their first experience and [how they] came into their own in terms of their sexuality and learning how to enjoy sex,” as a gift offering to the character of Lu, who is really struggling in that area. Lauren, my writing partner, had just gotten married and her sister had just put together this video of people talking about the couple, and it’s [a dramatic device] that’s very famously used in “When Harry Met Sally,” [where] the couples talk about how they met or first fell in love, so it was more so everybody in the film [could] talk about what the film is exploring from their own point of view. We called them the “orgasm confessionals.” [laughs]
It’s funny because in the final film they moved around a bit from where we had placed them in the initial outline, but we knew what we needed from each of them in terms of where we were at in the story, so some of [those interviews] were what this story’s about and then [the actors] had the freedom to improvise it from there and others were more free and could talk about what they wanted, so it definitely varied from case to case what beats we wanted each performer to hit in their confessional.
How much of a script did you have to work with?
We had a 20-page outline where it broke down every scene, who was in it, what they were doing at the beginning of a scene and what happened in the scene and where everyone landed. Within that, we gave the performers a lot of lattitude to find their way and so it was a really fun, highly collaborative process. Lauren, my writing partner, and I Lauren wanted to be in the film because we wanted to be part of the writing process, start to finish. [laughs]
Was that an interesting experience as a director, actively manuevering from inside a scene rather than observing it?
Yeah, that was definitely the goal – and really challenging for me because I want to be in the moment, just reacting and being in character. But it was hard for me to totally turn off the director part of my brain that wanted to guide it in the direction that I wanted it to go in. It was definitely a balancing act of just allowing people that freedom to let things to play out and knowing where I wanted it to go.
The way that we ended up shooting it, we would shoot a master shot and give everybody free reign for the first take or two and then we would zone in on the direction that we thought the scene was best to go in. Then we would come in for coverage to make sure that we got those beats that we really liked from those exploratory master shots. So it ended up being more focused than I anticipated because of the way we’d hone in along the way as we were shooting a scene.
You have such a strong eye for composition, as was evident from “The Pretty One.” Was that at odds with something that’s improvised?
With “The Pretty One,” it was a lot more thoughtfully and purposefully designed and this film was much more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. We had two cameras going in every scene and we tried to do the best that we could. I’m really happy with the production design and with the work that our two DPs did because it was a very short, very intense 12-day shoot and a very challenging schedule, but we did our best.
If you and Lauren were in from the start, how did you build the ensemble around you?
The first person we knew was going to be in the film besides the two of us was Kárin [Tatoyan], who plays the musician in the film, because she is also one of my best friends and I wanted part of the ensemble would be already a group of people that already knew each other really well. She’s a really interesting and talented person and I wanted to showcase how wonderful I think she is, so she was the first person. Then I had been in a directing workshop with Josh Fadem, so he was one of my ideas for that role [of the lone male Josh, a longtime friend of Andi’s] but everyone else were ideas from my casting director Amey Rene – Angela Trimbur was her first choice for that role and then Constance came about through UTA [where] we’re both [represented]. Then Ever Mainard actually came about through Josh – they’re both standup comedians. We were looking to cast a lesbian standup for that role and [Ever] was at the very top of his list of recommendations and he knows a ton of standups. She did an amazing job. [That] character was written in the outline as [not] always understanding social cues and she’s in your personal space, and she’s really funny. For me, she’s my favorite part of the movie.
Where did you find this incredible property to set this?
It was really funny. One of my best friends from college has five sisters and one of her sisters owns this property in Sonoma County. and I’ve known about it for years. It’s this six-acre, sprawling estate with this beautiful modern house. It has three other or two other houses on it and a river running through it and a fire pit. It’s really beautiful and when we were trying to find a location, I thought about that house and thankfully, they let us film there, but when we went to scout the property for the first time, it just happened there was a lesbian bachelorette party happening that weekend. [laughs] So we really got some good research done that weekend. It was really fun.
Were there any surprises that made it into the film that you were happy about?
That was what was so creatively exciting about deciding to make the film this way was that every scene we shot, there was something interesting and funny that was not written. Honestly, the hardest thing was picking and choosing the things that we wanted to keep because when you’re improvising, you end up with very long takes and a lot of material. But every scene was a surprise.