As Nicole Gomez Fisher was leaving a screening of her debut feature “Sleeping With the Fishes” earlier this year at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, a 12-year-old girl excitedly ran up to pay her a compliment, telling the writer/director, “My dad is Puerto Rican and my mom is Jewish and I just feel like I just watched my whole life unfold.”
“Your whole life?!? You’re 12!” Gomez Fisher recalls replying in disbelief. Yet the remark undoubtedly struck a chord with the first-time filmmaker who will be traveling to the Latino International Film Festival in Los Angeles this week to present her comedy about Alexis, a young woman (Gina Rodriguez) looking for an identity of her own after her husband unexpectedly passes away, putting her back in the home of her doting Jewish father (Tibor Feldman), her domineering Latina mother (Priscilla Lopez) and her carefree sister (Ana Ortiz), whose blithe spirit only puts her more on edge about realizing her sense of purpose.
With the presence of a handsome potential suitor (Steven Strait) in her midst, there may not be much of a mystery as to where “Sleeping With the Fishes” eventually takes Alexis, but Gomez Fisher hardly takes the easy route, as much as she smooths the ride with a keen sense of humor and heart. In Alexis, the film finds a twentysomething who has already had quite a bit of a life thrust upon her without having the time to truly live and in Rodriguez, Gomez Fisher finds an actress as able to express Alexis’ moments of unease as she is a confident comedienne, particularly when she’s got Ortiz onscreen as a sparring partner.
Shortly before the film makes its Los Angeles debut, Gomez Fisher spoke about making the transition from performing herself as an actress and standup comedian to going behind the camera, why the film is only loosely autobiographical and what it’s been like to show the film to different audiences.
Just looking at your own name, it seems like this film might be partially inspired by your own experience.
It’s funny, when I came up with the title of the film, I was really hesitant to keep it at first because I really didn’t want the correlation. I didn’t want people to [think of] the parallels between the story and myself, but then I was like, what’s the shame in that? At the end of the day, it is semi-autobiographical. The actual premise of the story is more in line with my life than the actual characters, [with] the mother-daughter relationship [being] the tying link.
Had you been wanting to direct for a while?
Truth be told, it was more a desire to write initially. I started off as an actress, then I did stand-up comedy and toured for many years. I found that I just enjoyed the storytelling process a lot more than actually being in front of the camera or on stage. I felt more comfortable with my humor as well. I had free rein to really write what I wanted and not go on stage and maybe be embarrassed or ashamed to say something.
As far as directing, I looked at the other people who were interested in the script [for “Sleeping With the Fishes”] and it just seemed as if I was getting a lot of hot air. People were making a lot of empty promises, so when I got tired of all that, I thought how could I raise the money myself and who’s going to direct it? My casting directors [Sig De Miguel and Stephen Vincent] who came onboard said, “You should.” I had never really thought about it, but it was definitely an experience that I would do over and over again if I had the opportunity.
Since you were a standup, was it a transition to find the right comedic rhythms on screen as a filmmaker? Not everyone can get the proper cadence just so as you do here.
It was interesting, but it was actually a lot easier than you would think. As far as my comedic timing on stage, that was something I had down, so I translated that onto the page when I would write and then when I was directing the actors, a lot of them already had the instinctual reaction to the lines or the moment or the scene, so they made it really easy. I found it to be such a joy to be on the other end and take my words and see somebody else bring it to life. It wasn’t easy because it was my life on the page, but it was easy because I knew exactly what I wanted for each of the characters and standup comedy and directing comedy for me were really parallel [experiences].
Was it immediate seeing Gina Rodriguez and Ana Ortiz together that these two were just going to have amazing chemistry with each other?
Yeah, it was quite scary, to be honest, because when you’re casting, a lot of these main leads are offers, so you don’t audition them. You can take a meeting with them and discuss the character, which is something I briefly did on the phone with Ana. But what happened was when [Ana and Gina] both flew in, they came in a day or two prior to actually starting production and we sat down at my house and went through the script. As soon as Ana walked into my home, she and Gina were like…it was instant chemistry. You would’ve thought these two were long-lost friends. It was just so simple for them to just get that vibe, so there was very little for me to do to bring that relationship to life.
Also immediate was name-checking “Real Women Have Curves,” which this shares a similar vibe with. Was it an influence?
It really was. The second I saw that movie…personally I thought the mother in that movie was a lot harder and maybe a bit more cruel, but the parallel between that mother and my mother was just oh so similar that it really resonated for me. It was one of the inspirations, amongst many, and the joke had to go in there because I thought it was so appropriate in the moment.
One of the great moments in your film comes when the mother is waiting up for Alexis, obviously disappointed in her for not keeping up appearances after the death of her husband to the point where she tells her “image is everything” and complains about her weight. Since you’re constantly upending that in the film with characters who aren’t who they appear to be at first, was that an important thing for you to explore?
[laughs] I had explored it in my own personal life enough that it was something that I wanted to move forward with. That moment in the film is what the film is. I really have always found my mom to be an interesting character in the sense that there was always an agenda. There was always a reason for everything she did, whether it was the way she dressed, the way she sat, the way she presents herself in front of people. That was everything to her, so it was something I found really important because again, that’s the moment of the film that explains why she is the way she is. A lot of times people will ask me why doesn’t she treat the other sister [Kayla] that way? It really comes down to the fact that it’s not a weight issue, per se, it’s that [Kayla] is so comfortable within her own skin that there are no issues. She just lives life for herself and does what she wants and beats to her own drum and Alexis is the absolute opposite. She’s so influenced by what her mother thinks and wants to impress her mother and no matter what she does, it never seems to quite get to that point of feeling loved in return.
Also, in that scene, Gina Rodriguez is wearing a kick-ass dress printed with comic panels and there’s later a visit to a comic book store. Is that a passion of yours?
It’s actually a passion of my sister, my real sister. My sister is a huuuuge comic book geek and lawyer, so she’s incredibly smart and she lives in comic book stores and goes to Comic-Con every year. That was like the one little flavor of reality that I put in there for that particular character. The truth is both sisters are very much a blend of me and my sister. It’s not one or the other.
When the film has personal touches, but isn’t necessarily autobiographical, is it strange then after it’s finished to see how much of yourself you put onscreen?
It’s one thing to write and direct a film and it’s like putting yourself and exposing yourself to the world, but it really is something when it does relay back to your own personal life. It’s really scary. You don’t know what people are going to think, if they’re going to think is this too much of a chick flick or is this really how your life is? Is your mother that mean? She’s not mean and the one thing I would tell Priscilla Lopez, who plays the mother, over and over again was there were a lot of times in that particular scene where they have that conversation after the night club where Priscilla was so harsh with her words — the way she would translate the story in her mind — I had to pull her aside and say, “You have to remember this woman does not see herself as being cruel. As far as she’s concerned, everything that she says and does is to help her children. She sees it as a positive.” That was really important for me that she did not come across as an evil, mean person. It came from just her understanding of what was important in life.
Has it been interesting to see the reactions to the film at festivals? It’s played at festivals with no specific cultural affiliations, but because of the story, it’s obviously appealed to Jewish and Latino festivals, such as the L.A. Latino Film Festival this week, where I imagine the responses may be different.
You know what’s really interesting? We played at Brooklyn, which was neither Latin or Jewish and we had a great turnout, but of course, it’s home base so there were a lot of family and friends, but even the industry that showed up really seemed to enjoy it. When we played at San Francisco [Jewish Film Festival], I have to be honest, I was concerned because I really honestly thought I knew my demographic and I was clearly wrong. We had a packed house of over 500 people and they understood some of the jokes that just go over the heads of other people. So at the end of the day, I really feel like whether it’s Latin, Jewish, old, young, there is a story to be told that is universal.