Mei Makino on Standing Out with “Inbetween Girl”

Mei Makino hadn’t initially planned to shoot any of her debut feature “Inbetween Girl” where she had grown up in Galveston, having met much of her crew in Austin after having headed north to go to film school and figuring she could get what she needed in the city without a company move. Still, the value added to the production by filming on the beautiful coastline and take advantage of the hospitality of her parents’ friends and neighbors was irresistible, resulting in a film that prove to be closer to home in more ways than one as she tells the story of Angie (Emma Galbraith), a high school senior weighing the thrills of pursuing her first romance amidst the fallout from her parents’ divorce.

“Initially, I think I was like, ‘Oh, we’ll just shoot in Galveston because it’s an interesting looking place,’ but as we were working through it, it obviously became immensely more personal to me,” said Makino. “For elementary and middle school, I went to an Episcopalian School where I was one of the few people of color there. Galveston isn’t as liberal as other cities, so a lot of Angie’s environment and my environment rubbed off on the film.”

If Makino stands out now, it’s because of the personality she brings to “Inbetween Girl,” a deeply charming romcom boasting the polish of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved,” “The Kissing Booth” and other YA-aimed coming-of-age stories of late, yet given a distinctly humanizing edge in its observations of Angie being caught between cultures, childhood and adulthood and even her own separated mom and dad. Even if Angie were more bullish on the whole idea of romance, she’s clearly chilled by having to heat up her own dinner while her mother is out working into the wee hours of weeknights without being able to look forward to weekends with her father after he’s already found another partner to start a new life with, and she has every reason to be reticent about getting involved with Liam (William Magnuson), a rakish classmate she would seem to have little in common with besides playing soccer.

Still, their chemistry can’t be denied, and with a refreshingly sex positive attitude, Makino evades the typical teenage conundrums of what happens when they can’t keep their hands off each other to instead head into juicier dramatic territory as Angie starts to get to know Liam beyond his popular image as well as Sheryl (Emily Garrett), the Instagram influencer who he continues to maintain a public relationship with even while he’s seeing Angie at the same time. Angie may come to see the flood of posts on a social media feed can’t possibly paint a full picture, but Makino crafts a touching portrait of the realizations that the teen must make for herself, including taking pride in her own identity when there isn’t anyone else quite like her.

That one of a kind feeling extends to “Inbetween Girl” itself, filled with lively illustrations from Angie’s artistic pursuits and energy to spare and after premiering at last year’s virtual SXSW where it picked up the Audience Award in the Visions section, it is now available far and wide on VOD and digital and after finding the time on set to make such a delightful debut under considerable pressure, Makino graciously took a moment to talk about how she mapped out the production and leaned on collaborators to create a such a heart-filled tale of falling in love with oneself.

How did this come about?

It came about first in 2017, so this was a very long process. I created a writers group with a group of friends and I wrote the first draft of it within about three months and I just let it pour out of me, but wasn’t really sure what to do with it. People in the writers’ group really encouraged me to make it and they came onboard as producers, so we spent about a year in preproduction and during that time, we had to shoot proof of concept videos to apply to grants. That’s where I met Emma Galbraith, who plays Angie, and William Magnuson, who plays William, through a youth organization I used to work for, [which] was super helpful because they were incredible actors. They were really good at improv and I was able to spend another year in that year of preproduction making the script more tailored to them and just getting to know them.

Is it true casting Emma really changed the direction of this?

Emma is a gem. She’s just so, so talented. A colleague of mine was doing auditions for a short film he was making and he’s like, you know I have a bunch of teenage girls auditioning for this. Why don’t you look at some? And there was a 30-second clip of Emma and she just has a tenacity about her that’s interesting to watch and as soon as I saw that clip, I was like, “I want that girl.” We ended up meeting and really getting along and William was super easy to get along with too and he really came alive in the improvisation. I remember one moment of us getting ready for this proof of concept scene we were shooting – it eventually ended up being this scene in the car where Liam is trying to reject Angie — and we filmed a version of that and on the day we filmed, their performances were pretty electric and the next day I went over to my editor’s house. He had already done a rough cut of that proof of concept and it was already pretty powerful and at that point, I knew we had something special on our hands.

You had only 15 days for the production, but from the sound of it you were able to figure out a number of ways to give yourself more time outside of that to make such a dynamic film. What was it like to figure out time management?

We were truly a micro budget film, so it was a huge labor of love from a tremendous amount of people and a lot of favors called in. My parents and neighbors were helpful in letting [the crew] stay in their home [in Galveston], so it was really just a huge community of people coming together to make this happen. I went into the first 15 days knowing it was a 92-page script and we weren’t going to get everything we wanted, but we had three things that ended up really helped us shape the edit, which were Angie has a voiceover, Angie has drawings and Angie has her video [diary]. So even though we didn’t get everything, we could still tweak and change things in post-production and make it work.

Those three things really allowed us to have a lot of freedom in making up for the things we couldn’t get because there were certain moments [like] a day on the soccer field where we lost four hours because there was a lock on the equipment truck and we weren’t able to get all the footage we wanted, but we had those workarounds [in the edit]. Then we were able to do four pickup days and one additional ADR day in 2021 where we shot the additional drawings, added one little last scene with Liam and we got additional B-footage of Galveston. I also went out with my camcorder from when I was growing up and just filmed a bunch of stuff and those elements really helped be the connective tissue for the moments where we weren’t able to get everything.

You really set such a fun tone with Angie’s art, which was all hand drawn by Larissa Akmetova. How did it come into the picture?

Larissa’s one of my best friends and basically, whatever I asked, she was going to do [because] she’s like, “I want this film to be the best it can be.” She drew a couple of drawings initially for us and then in post-production, we had her draw quite a few more and it was a really good collaboration. Some ideas I would straight up look at her Instagram and be like, I really like what you did here, when you draw more honest and serious comics” and we’d talk through it [together] and for other drawings, I would draw a proof of concept sketch, so she knew what I was thinking of in terms of blocking. She was living in California at the time, so we worked off an Excel doc, but the fact that Larissa grew up in Galveston and she had a very similar experience to me, she really understood what Angie was going through and I really think you can feel that in the film. Her drawings give such a charm to Angie that before we put in all the drawings, I was worried. I was like, “Is this character going to come off too harsh?” But Larissa’s drawings gave [Angie] that interiority, more dimension and a softer side.

Angie’s bedroom tells so much about her and becomes such a central location. What was it like to create such a dynamic environment?

On another short I did, I had done similar production design and I always wanted to be on the wall with all of Angie’s art and what she was interested in. A lot of that production design belongs to me, Charlotte Friend and Anna Trevino, our production designers and we got anything we had in our rooms that looked like it belonged to a teenage girl and brought it to set. My initial vision was to have this wall covered with art and the first day we were put in PD, it was half covered and I was like, “We really need more.” I ended up going to Larissa’s house that night and she gave me a portfolio of all of her artwork, which we put on the wall at six the next morning. Honestly, thank goodness Larissa was so willing and so giving because it really fleshed out Angie’s room and felt like a room you would want to live in as a teenage girl.

Was there anything that happened that took this in a direction you could get excited about that you might not have expected?

We made so many breakthroughs in the edit. Our editor Connor Pickens did not leave a stone unturned in terms of trying things out and the film is very different sequentially than the script. That’s because we really wanted to play around with it. For example, I had originally written the sex montage as having a dance number [in it], but we did principal photography and we were like, “Yeah, we’ll do the dance number,” but then we didn’t have the budget for it, so what we ended up coming up with was this really cool [sequence] using the freeze frames of Angie and Liam kissing and flirting and putting them right next to each other in this youthful kinetic montage. That hadn’t been planned and that’s a part of the film that I love watching and it was interesting to see which scenes needed that kineticism.

That intro where it’s really snappy and really fun [was another moment like that] but then there were other scenes that we had edited super quickly [where it was] almost like an Apatow comedy where it’s dialogue, dialogue, dialogue and you’re cutting from one person to another, and we actually found that holding things in a two-shot or not doing as much editing to let the naturalism of the actors come through was much more effective. It was really dependent on what we had and what we could make the most of and each scene, that was completely different. The blow-up scene that Angie has with [her] dad, originally, we hung back in that two-shot, but we had a really amazing performance on Emma’s single and most people making movies wouldn’t hold on a single, but the performance was so strong, that was the right choice to make.

When it’s your first feature – was it what you thought it would be?

I definitely knew it was going to be hard, and it definitely was the hardest thing I’ve done, especially because we didn’t have any money, but it was also really, really rewarding. To see everyone’s talents come together and just to see what I could create with this Austin and Galveston community, I definitely learned a ton for the next feature. I still haven’t watched it with an audience yet – I’m very self-conscious about [that], but seeing all the support online has been awesome. It’s been especially gratifying to have teens and young women say, “You saw me. That was my experience. I feel seen.” Because for me growing up, there weren’t a lot of pieces of media of teenage girls kind of having agency, so hearing the response from women is super, super cool.

“Inbetween Girl” is now available on demand on AppleTV, Prime Video and Altavod.