Interview: Tanya Wexler on Taking a Bull By the Horns with “Buffaloed”

Tanya Wexler couldn’t tell you exactly how she got the gig to direct “Buffaloed,” but she does know the exact moment it happened. The director had been in a pitch meeting with the film’s producer and star Zoey Deutch when her phone lit up with news of an emergency involving one of her kids.

“I obviously was there [in that meeting], but you have that weird thing where you’re not watching your own life,” recalls Wexler, who politely excused herself from the room to address the situation, but inadvertently stayed long enough for Deutch to see her grace under pressure. “Director brain kicked in, which is [when] you step back from your feelings for a minute and work through the issue and come back… and later, [Zoey] was like, ‘That was amazing!’ [because] that’s what a movie set is like. It’s this constant emergency when you’re shooting because you have very limited time and everyone acts like their hair’s on fire. I don’t know if it’s being a mom of four, but in a way the film set helps me calm down because I’m just like, ‘I have four teenagers. This is nothing.’”

Wexler’s ability to handle any crisis in front of her had its obvious benefits for the run-and-gun production of the scrappy comedy, but she also manages to get her arms around a far larger one in taking on debt collection with its unofficial capital in upstate New York. Uncovered in vivid and wickedly funny detail by screenwriter/actor Brian Sacca, “Buffaloed” follows the exploits of someone new to the game in Peg (Deutch), whose accumulated $29,000 in student loan debt leads her to discover the outrageous underworld operation where the balance sheets of those preyed upon by predatory lenders are passed around for pennies on the dollar, becoming insurmountable debt to those in real need, but steady business for parasitic lowlifes who enforce the interest. Always looking to make a quick buck herself, Peg is seduced by the profit margins she sees after paying down her own debt to a local heavy (Jai Courtney), but as she comes to learn the truly amoral foundations of the industry, particularly in regards to her mother (Judy Greer) who appears unlikely ever to be able to retire as a result of her credit situation, Peg tries to turn the tables as much as possible, with Wexler and Sacca turning her education on the arcane subject into a trenchant absurdist satire.

Even before its release this week following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, “Buffaloed” has already done a world of good, with its distributor Magnolia partnering with RIP Medical Debt to wipe out $1.5 million in debt, as well as ushering back to the big screen the wonderfully witty and exuberant Wexler nearly a decade after her brilliant third feature “Hysteria.” While the director has been candid about missing out on a number of opportunities to make a follow-up at a major studio, often seeing herself as a runner-up to her male counterparts, the film is a sharp reminder of what we’ve been missing in her absence with a delightfully savage turn from Deutch anchoring this entertaining tale of a young woman who outmaneuvers a system designed to take advantage of the most marginalized in society, and we were fortunate enough to talk to Wexler on the eve of the film’s release about joining forces with Deutch and giving voice to people who often don’t have one in movies.

How did you get interested in this?

I read the script and just laughed my ass off. I always loved that it’s both funny and about something that actually is of real substance. To me, this idea that the facts themselves are so absurd that that’s where a lot of the humor comes from and [I’m always attracted to] relatable stuff people are struggling with, which as we all know debt is a big one.

I also love telling stories about inconvenient women and people [in general] who don’t fit the script. I’m not even consciously looking for it, but the minute I read “Buffaloed,” what leapt off the page to me was Peg’s complete sense of confidence and knowledge that she was supposed to make this thing happen in her life, and her character makes a lot of questionable moral choices, but a lot of female characters kind of think, “I should’ve done this…” or “Should I do this?” They’re written in a wishy-washy or passive way, but what I loved is there was a completely active antihero role here. Yeah, there was a love interest and yeah, there was family, but she was doing her thing in a way that we’ve seen male characters get the option to do for years and years and is really only starting for female characters. I kept waiting for [Peg]to apologize for wanting what she wanted and she really didn’t. She learned maybe there’s a different way to go about it, but I loved there was a kind of intolerance right off the block, even if she needed to learn something about our common humanity a little more. Then I hear Zoey was attached and producing and it was like run, don’t walk.

Was it an interesting coming into the process knowing Zoey was the lead and also knowing that she had that energy, it might’ve dictated what the pace of this movie would be from the start.

It’s the dream way to come into the process, which is you read a script that you love and then the perfect actress is attached to play the lead. [laughs] You can’t really get a better way into the process than that. Usually, there’s either an actor you love and a script you don’t feel is there yet or a script you love and they’re all desperately chasing the same 17 movie stars everyone else is chasing, so when you’re lucky enough to have the marriage of great material and the right actor to play your lead, like I said, it’s run, don’t walk. It was funny, it had pathos. I called Zoey a quadruple threat because she can act, sing, dance and I think comedy is a whole other skill on top of it all. She’s so talented and this is like what we see from her now is the tip of the iceberg because she has so much range, it’s crazy.

It seems like you can get away with a lot when you have Zoey, especially when you’ve got a story that needs to be as dense with information as this regarding debt collection.

For sure. Brian [Sacca, the screenwriter] grew up in Buffalo, and this is a passion project of his and really knew a lot about it, [which is] deeply engrained in the script and the fact that he had done all the research and is a talented actor himself — he’s in the film, playing Sal Scarpetta — we were really lucky because sometimes you don’t have good chemistry with people when you like the material, but in this case, Brian and I got along amazingly. We’d meet every Sunday while we were shooting and review all the materials for the week and work through all these things and it was intense and we’d challenge each other, but we always would help lift each other up, which was fantastic. And Zoey jokes that she didn’t go to college, but she’s so brilliant and a lifelong learner, so you’ll sit down in a script notes meeting with Brian and her and she’ll be like, “I did some reading over the weekend about…” and you’re like, “Oh no! We’re doing fact checks!” [laughs] But it’s fantastic because Zoey really gave a shit, did the work and she was Peg instantly in terms of [having] that sense of encyclopedic knowledge. It really worked how you would hope the collaboration would be.

Zoey has said she went thrift shopping in Buffalo to get into character – did you join her? What was it like finding the milieu?

It’s funny looking back when you look at all the things that go right because when things are going right, you’re not stopping to go, “Hey, that was easy.” All you do is obsess about the things that are not easy, but [Zoey and I’s] sense of design and [ideas about] the look of the world was so completely in sync that she would talk about how she saw the character and I would talk about the framework I wanted to put around her whether that was with costumes or sets and they were completely in line with each other. I was sooo bummed that I missed the field trip to Buffalo for that big thrifting jaunt because I was doing something else in pre-production, but I was bummed because she had ferreted out the best beef on weck sandwich in town and she got the place down.

And that’s the other thing I love about Zoey is she loves to eat, for realzies. That girl can eat and it’s fantastic because it’s just hard when you have an actor and they have to be eating in a scene and they don’t actually eat in the scene because they’re on a very strict diet, but also Zoey was always pitching stuff where Peg is shoving popcorn into her face or eating chips, which just gave Peg a sense of authenticity. That feeling of nervous eating is something we all identify with, so it was really fun because I’d always be like, “Come on, get Zoey snacks for…we’re going to do a new thing!” And she would just be like, “Yeah, it has to be crunchy!” It’s fun to hang out with an actor who can eat well and it’s an unusual thing.

There’s one scene in the film where Peg gets drenched in blood, which I understand was actually maple syrup. Is that the kind of shot you only get one go at?

It’s insane because we had it set up so we’d do one take at the beginning of the day with two different cameras for two different shots and it was like this weird fake blood syrup concoction and then the plan was if it didn’t work for some reason — if it didn’t splash right — we’d shoot out the day and [Zoey would] get cleaned up and then we’d do one more at the end of the day because it was a huge reset. If we just waited to reset, then we wouldn’t have time to shoot the rest of the day, and I don’t want to be too spoilery, but if you [see it], there is this perfect central blood trickle down her forehead, down her nose, and that was complete luck. We did all of that in one take. The universe smiled on us that day. I couldn’t believe it and I think it was our first day. It was crazy. I’m like it’s too perfect. No one will believe us.

“Buffaloed” opens on February 14th in limited release, including Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and the Los Feliz 3, New York at the Quad Cinema, Buffalo at the North Park Theatres and Seattle at the Grand Illusion Cinema. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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