Having been born and raised in New York City, Rita Merson had grown up naturally inclined to be a theater junkie, but then a film came along and changed everything.
“I watched ‘Pretty Woman’ and it was all over,” says Merson. “I became a connoisseur of the romcom.”
So much so that when she was nursing a broken heart, she decided to make one herself. The result is “Always Woodstock,” a movie that clearly embraces the conventions of the genre, full of outrageous mishaps and misunderstandings while slowly revealing a beating heart underneath in the story of a young woman named Catherine (Allison Miller) who, frustrated with her career in the music industry and a philandering boyfriend in the big city, migrates upstate. There, she attempts to reignite her love for singing as well as perhaps sparking up something new with the comely doctor (James Wolk) she meets along the way.
Making the transition from being in front of the camera to behind it wasn’t something Merson had ever planned on, but her acting past did help her attract an unusually starry cast for a low-budget passion project, including Jason Ritter as Catherine’s constantly cheating beau, Brittany Snow as the British pop star that pushes Catherine over the edge, and Katey Sagal as the sage coffee shop owner who helps put Catherine back on the right track. As it would turn out, Merson’s move had the same creatively rejuvenating effect on her as her film’s heroine and shortly before the release of “Always Woodstock,” she spoke about how inspiration struck for the film, having her cast write and perform their own songs, and surviving the flu that plagued her cast and crew.
How did this come about?
I wrote it very quickly over a weekend in Woodstock. I really was not a writer. I was an actress, and a very unemployed actress and I wrote it on a whim after buying Final Draft. I wrote it to make myself feel better after a breakup and I ended up falling in love with the process. Ultimately, a lot of people just loved the script because it was such a simple, happy story, so it snowballed after that.
Because that’s a quick time to write a script, does the final product resemble what you wrote initially?
Not exactly, but it’s what started the process. Sometimes I wished that organic raw first version made it, but there were lots of cuts and lots of changes that were made even on set, especially with our low budget and the limitations of a 20-day shoot, I went through tons of rewrites, and as the actors came on, the cast brought ideas. For example, Brittany Snow has a tiny part she did as a favor to me and she came up with the whole character, the British DJ pop star. We developed that together and that wasn’t there in the original script.
She plays it big and you definitely have some big comic moments, but you could also see this easily going in a more dramatic direction. Was it important to keep it light?
Yeah, we had a more indie version of the script that we would’ve shot completely differently and the jokes were different. It would’ve been a different movie, but we made a very conscious decision with the producers to make a light film that we could make on a very small budget, but that would look big and play big. I wasn’t trying to be Bergman with this one, so the lightness of a conscious decision, especially [since] right now I appreciate things that are just entertaining and kind.
Katey Sagal actually wrote some songs for the film with her husband, “Sons of Anarchy” creator Kurt Sutter. How did she get involved in the film?
I’m obsessed with Howard Stern. Literally, I fall asleep to his radio show every single day and one of my producing partners Peter is also obsessed with him, so we’d always talk about Howard Stern or what was on the day before. We were casting the role of Lee Ann and we couldn’t find the right person and Katey was on Howard Stern the morning before. and Peter called me and was like, “Oh, my God, I found her. We have to contact her,” so I called my agents, and a week later we were sitting with Katey. She was so kind and creative and brilliant to talk to. When she expressed interest in writing music, it was just perfect because she not only is an incredible actress but she’s an incredible musician.
We [also] encouraged Allison Miller to write music and they both ended up writing a song for the movie. Our music supervisor was someone that Katey worked with on “Sons of Anarchy,” so they collaborated on the song that was featured in the movie. It wasn’t something that was a requirement, but it was a natural extension of her character, and such a beautiful song and it fit so perfectly for the moment, so it was just a lucky and exciting element that she brought.
Throughout the film, Catherine is someone who keeps giving herself advice to herself. Since writing this came at a low point, were some of those things you needed to tell yourself?
Yeah, definitely. In everything I write, even all the things I’m doing now, you’re always working through your issues in some way. My writing process has a cathartic element to it. With “Woodstock” in particular, I was at a point in my life where I realized that I was chasing things that were very momentary in pleasure but weren’t ultimately fulfilling, really. What I realized then was I needed to start owning my creativity and who I was in a general sense instead of specifically wanting to be an actress or whatever it was at the moment. I just became okay with myself. I started getting from all of these amazing opportunities and that’s a very simple message, but it’s ultimately, for me, what “Woodstock” is about – it’s about finding your own Woodstock. It’s not about escaping somewhere, but finding that place in yourself where you’re just true to who you are.
Did you enjoy directing?
It was the best experience of my life. I loved every second of it more than anything else I’ve ever done, just because for many, many years when I was a child, I was a theater kid growing up in New York just loving the craft and the process so much. Facilitating that for actors was just a gift. It was amazing to support talent all day long. I just loved that experience, especially the actors I worked with. That collaboration was so fulfilling and I loved their performances and being on the other side, coaching them through that. It was so, so fun.
Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
It’s harder than I thought and it’s more fulfilling than I thought. It’s a long process making any movie, even a small movie like this. It takes years. That singular focus for two, three years is different. You battle yourself and your own doubts, especially being a first-time director, but you ultimately grow from all the challenges.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Every day was crazy. There was just so much to shoot every single day. Luckily, we always finished our days and we didn’t do re-shoots. We had an incredible producing team and everything was so organized. When we were shooting at five in the morning in freezing temperatures, and I was very sick and everyone on set had fevers. My parents are doctors, so I had them fly in to take care of me that weekend because literally, the entire cast and the entire crew had the flu at one point.
So what’s it been like to have survived and now be releasing the film into the world?
It’s interesting. I feel like a completely different writer now three years after I started. It’s strange because it’s the first thing I wrote, so in some ways, I’m almost disconnected from it. We had a really big screening in Tampa for a young audience and that was my favorite experience so far. Hearing people laugh is amazing, but having teenagers in college come up to you and feel inspired to pursue their creative dreams is really exciting. I had a girl come up to me once after a screening and say that she feels like she can have her cake and eat it, too. That’s really satisfying. That’s my audience. I care about creating characters for women to play and also speaking to women, especially young women and empowering them. That’s been really gratifying.