After the premiere of their new film “Adult Life Skills” at the Tribeca Film Fest, Jodie Whittaker, Rachael Deering and writer/director Rachel Tunnard hit up a piano karaoke bar where Whittaker wasted little time commandeering the mic for a brief set that included “9 to 5,” “Drops of Jupiter” and “Respect.” Apparently, however, it was not brief enough for her friends.
“That’s three whole songs we sat through,” kids Whittaker’s childhood pal Deering, pulling a face of mock disgust.
“In my head, I thought I was Christina Aguilera,” laughs Whittaker. “The worst thing about it is Rachel is a hoarder of things and anything humiliating that happens and you know Rachel’s writing it down. We’re going to get sent a script in about five years and it’s going to be like, “Oh, that’s how you see me.” You just reminded me of that awful moment.”
With these three, it sounds like there are so many ideas for movies you’re just glad they filmed one of them and as excited as the Brits were excited to be in New York, it seemed after the first few minutes of “Adult Life Skills,” the locals were even more excited to see them. The tale of a young woman named Anna (Whittaker) who has withdrawn from the world following the death of her twin brother, Tunnard’s directorial debut shows how hard a time her family and friends have pulling her back, particularly when she’s secluded herself in a shed outside the house shared by her mother and grandmother, making videos in which she travels to galaxies beyond this one through handcrafted props with her thumbs in the featured role. With the arrival of a young boy who lives next door who lost his mother, as well as her vivacious friend Fiona (Deering) who returns from two years abroad, Anna is slowly lured out of her shell, but on her own terms as someone forever altered who saw the world differently than most in the first place.
Tunnard, who comes from a background in editing, moves gracefully through a period of grief, careful to linger on the sparks that eventually reignite Anna’s drive and with a beautiful turn from Whittaker at the center, “Adult Life Skills” may depict someone whose life is spinning out of control, the film itself is steady as a rock. As the women behind it recovered from their big night on the town, they graciously sat down to talk about how their longtime friendship translated into warmhearted film, shooting just nearby the place where they really grew up and how even the film’s exquisitely detailed props and production design came from reality.
How did this come about?
Rachel Tunnard: It’s complicated because it came about in so many different ways, but fundamentally I wanted to have a go at writing something myself and we all knew each other and we were all friends…
Rachael Deering: …And I was kind of starting out and saying, “Rachel, I needed something to work on.”
Jodie Whittaker: Rachael Deering and I have been best friends since we were little girls and had grown up together. And Rachael went to university with Tunnard… We met through that and it was a very organic thing. We weren’t sent scripts. We talked about it and it was absolutely something that required no one to say, “I’m signing on.” It was like, “Yeah, we’re in it.” Weirdly, it’s all three of us combined into two characters and we swap our own natural traits in a way. It’s such a celebration of who we are as a three.
Rachel Tunnard: I thought I would write something for all of us, and working together came as an idea before anything else. I didn’t have a producer. I didn’t really have the script…it would’ve been really awful if they hated it.
Rachael Deering: Wouldn’t it?
Jodie Whittaker: It’s really awful. [laughs]
Rachael Deering: [laughs] There’s something we need to tell you…
Rachel Tunnard: I’d written a version of this story that was quite serious as a book scheme in the UK for something called She Writes, and basically, I gave the script to my brother to read. He doesn’t work in film and he read it and he was like, “Wow, well done, you’ve done something I could never do. You’ve written a feature film. That’s brilliant. But I don’t like any of it. It’s not like you. I don’t want to go and watch it.” I was like, “Okay great, thanks.” Then he said, “You should write a version of it that is more like you and your friends.” So I did, taking elements from my own life and experience.
Jodie Whittaker: Rachel makes the videos in [real] life. They’re actually her thumbs in the film! I auditioned but mine were deemed too fat, so we went for thinner thumbs.
Rachel Tunnard: My first thumb video was flirting with my now husband. I met him and I was like, “I’m going to make him a video with my thumbs,” and so my first thumb video was for him. He liked it so much I thought, “I’m going to make one for the film.” Show off, that’s it.
Rachael Deering: You wooed him with your thumbs!
At the premiere, you said you had written the feature script before shooting the short, but then you shoot the short and you make the feature. Did that timeline of events help the final feature?
Rachel Tunnard: Oh man, massively. I’d written the feature film script and there’s two big elephants in the room – I’d written an otter into the feature film that sang.
Jodie Whittaker: Oh yeah, it swam in the lake.
Rachel Tunnard: The otter used to sing Seal songs like …
Jodie Whittaker: [sings] “Crazy, never gonna survive…”
Rachel Tunnard: Everyone loved the otter. All my script editors, all the funders in the UK. Everyone was like, “Uh, the otter’s amazing.” When we started doing the short film version, the execs kept saying to me, “You need to put some magic realism into the the short film because your feature film has got an otter in it that sings.” But I was panicking about it and I didn’t do it. I didn’t put anything into it. Then afterwards, the exec [working on the] short film said, “Right, so lets go look at CGI otters. Are we going to just make his mouth move? There’s an otter farm in Yorkshire. You can go look at that. You can put subtitles on.” I was just going, “I don’t like films with talking animals.”
In the end, what happened was that Ed, who plays the snorkeler [in the feature] had been in the short film playing a different character, and I loved him in the short but he didn’t feel like he was a love interest and all the way through the writing of the feature film I’d been going, “There’s going to be no boyfriend in this. This girl’s problem is not a man.” Then when I made the short film, I liked the flirtation between Ed and Jodie, but it made me go, “Oh, he’s not the right love interest. He should be something else, but maybe someone else could be.” So things changed. Basically, we made the short film and whilst the producers were getting the financing together to make the feature film, I did a new version of the script which took in on board some of the things that happened like the Hasselhoff mask [that Rachael and Anna play with].
Jodie Whittaker: That was Rachael going about in a garden, improvising, and then that became a huge part of everything.
And you said last night, you actually got David Hasselhoff to shoot a short bit on his phone for the film, but you didn’t use it!
Jodie Whittaker: Can you imagine? He’d have got top billing. Number one on the call sheet.
Rachael Deering: Should’ve told him come here to the festival with it!
In general, the props and the production design are so detailed and tell so much of the story on its own. Did that help the actresses?
Rachel Tunnard: Beck Rainford, the designer is amazing. I interviewed her on Skype and I was really worried about it because I never interviewed a head of department before. I didn’t know what to ask, but she got on the thing and I was like, “Oh, you’re like me.” She had this really strange upbringing in Wales [where] she didn’t have a television, so she had this really rich personal life and imagination. She had was lots and lots of stuff that she made and she still had it all in her mum’s attic. When we were talking about the design of the film, and I was saying, “Well, when I go out to my mum and dad’s house the attic is still full of all the crap that I made when I was a kid,” and she said, “Mine is as well” and she basically went home and raided it.
Jodie Whittaker: [On the set] there was no box, there was no lid or shelf or anything that you could move. It was hundreds of items, even knowing they weren’t going to be seen. There was no tissue paper padding anything out. It was so magical.
Rachel Tunnard: Actually, it’s a real shame that we didn’t get to shoot it more because the schedule meant we literally only had time to shoot the scenes as they were. It was so rich to play around in.
It seems like a rare opportunity as actors to get to go back to this childlike place.
Jodie Whittaker: Yeah, definitely.
Rachael Deering: Because we shot the film 10 minutes from where Jodie and I grew up, we stayed at home with our parents for the duration of the shoot and suddenly, we were like 15-year-olds again, going over to each other’s house to play after work, watching TV in our pajamas. I think there’s a real magic in that. Hopefully, the depth of a friendship reads for an audience.
Jodie Whittaker: Yeah, people often talk about chemistry between love interests, but chemistry between friends is vital and this is just how we are with each other. We just self-deprecate, bully each other and love each other as well. There’s just so much affection, and it was so important for all of us [because of the] friendship we were portraying is the sisterhood that is vital for any woman to get through life.
Was it obvious you’d set the film so close to where you grew up?
Rachel Tunnard: We’re just all from Yorkshire.
Jodie Whittaker: It was funny, wasn’t it? You knew that area really well and we needed quite a specific location to find water and the youth center as well. Then when [Rachel] was saying you were looking for certain architectures of homes, [Rachael and I] were brought up near a village that I knew had unusual architecture, considering it was a little country village. It certainly wasn’t chocolate box architecture.
Rachel Tunnard: Modernist.
Jodie Whittaker: Yeah, it was really interesting, so we said, “Maybe look in that area.” Then you you found a house.
Rachel Tunnard: I wanted it to be in the countryside, but the problem with British things, particularly when they’re in the countryside is they’re really quaint and they’re all like little beautiful little cottages. I didn’t want it to feel specific. I wanted it to feel like a place that you didn’t really understand. [The youth center] and the house were all in the county of Yorkshire, but they’re in slightly different places, which is how we created our own mythic topography.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Rachael Deering: Which day wasn’t? There’s a scene where Jodie and I are getting ready to go out on the town and we’re looking around and the train comes in. We had to shoot that in time for the train to come. It was due in 10 minutes and we were trying to make sure we had everything ready. We just made it. The train was coming in five minutes and we weren’t ready to shoot yet. But we got it. We didn’t have the luxury to take time with things.
Since this is your first time directing a feature, was it what you thought it would be?
Rachel Tunnard: I worked as an editor on other people’s films and have been on film sets quite a lot, but our film was like a little family. Also we had a lot of heads of department that were women and a lot of women involved in the cast and the crew, so it created a different dynamic than most film sets I’ve worked on. It was very caring. Pretty much everyone in the film is my friend and the moment we were finished, I basically got to my house, went into my attic and edited for five months and it was awful because I’d had such a brilliant time doing it. As much as there’s jokes and humor within the film, there was as much on the set behind the scenes as well.
It seems like there were plenty of family members also lured into the cast. For instance, I noticed another Whittaker in the credits.
Jodie Whittaker: There’s like three!
Rachael Deering: [to Jodie] Your brother has the most credits.
Jodie Whittaker: Yeah, my brother’s got loads of credits. He’s in the scenes as an extra — a scene stealer. My niece plays in the video with the younger twins. There were many family members homaged in it.
Rachel Tunnard: Rachael’s dad plays the recorder in the pub.
Jodie Whittaker: Oh my God, he was amazing. Best scene ever. That was the other joy of working near home was one of our best mates is one of the paramedics. She’s a solicitor. She took a day off work. [laughs] It was really fun and it was, “Come and do this” and it was wonderful for that — of being a huge ensemble of everyone who’s important in your life.
Rachel Tunnard: You do a project with all your mates and it’s [feels] like you’re just working with everyone on your cause. It was like doing a school project with all your mates. It’s brilliant.
Jodie Whittaker: Yeah, and none of the three or four days it takes to get to know each other and to get into each others rhythms. That’s always the way, particularly when you’re creating such a strong bond with another character so quickly. You’re always desperate to get that first week back because you’re like, “Oh, now I know you and now I get you now.” Whereas we just didn’t have that at all. It was straight away.
What was it like having the big New York premiere last night?
Rachel Tunnard: It was hilarious. It was great.
Jodie Whittaker: It [feels like we’re on] just a massive film set in New York. Just like, “Oh my God!”
Rachael Deering: I didn’t want to do the touristy thing, but I can’t help it. I keep taking pictures of yellow taxis.
Jodie Whittaker: When you’re shooting it, and you’ve run over [schedule] by an hour, you’re freezing, to know that after all that hard work and particularly for Rachael, who is just pouring her heart and soul into the months and months that come after wrapping [production], it’s amazing.