Zoe Worth still can’t believe she went to Marfa, Texas.
“I saw the whole country for the first time on this shoot,” Worth marveled a day after the premiere of “Shut Up and Drive,” trying to recall whether she had ever even been outside New York before taking the ride from Los Angeles to the Lone Star State for her latest film.
But in the case of “Shut Up and Drive,” the territory covered wasn’t just geographical but emotional. With the friends and fellow actors and other creative professionals Worth’s helped assemble over the years in a group that’s come to be known as The Collectin, “Shut Up and Drive” was a road trip movie with many more miles on it than appear onscreen. Taking a story that Worth and pal Kelsey McNamee forged in a single night, a burst of creativity that the women recalled at the premiere as keeping them on the curb outside one of their favorite watering holes until four in the morning, the film is an all-too-rare take on female friendship, invested with the kind of authenticity that only happens when your cast and crew has known each other for years, having already gone through the same feeling out process years earlier, most when they were at NYU.
That’s why director Melanie Shaw’s goal for “Shut Up and Drive” was simple, “to put a lot of ourselves in the film,” which isn’t to be mistaken with be autobiographical. Instead, Worth and “Veep” scene-stealer Sarah Sutherland, who have known each other since they were 12, play two very different young women in Laura and Jane, who are brought together by circumstance when Jane’s boyfriend Austin (Morgan Krantz) is called up for a film shoot in New Orleans. Laura, a friend of Austin’s, has blown into town and intends to stay as a houseguest. Instead of sitting pat, the two hit the road in a beat-up Buick to visit Austin, despite barely knowing each other or having much in common.
Typical road movie hijinks ensue as the women raid minibars at roadside motels, tangles with cows and wend their way into a MDMA-fueled evening at a space-age trailer in Marfa, but less typical is how you see Jane and Laura’s relationship deepen along the way, with Jane’s caution and Laura’s free-spirited nature beginning to wear off on one another. Just after the film’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, Worth, Sutherland, Krantz and Shaw spoke about the New York homecoming, the Collectin filmmaking process, and going on the road less taken with “Shut Up and Drive.”
Melanie Shaw: We just like making films and so when Zoe and Kelsey [McNamee] came up with this, we all just started working on it.
Zoe Worth: Mel and I had made a feature together before too, so it seemed like making another was within our reach, so it was a combo of wow, this is a good film idea. It’s like we got the idea and wanted to make a movie together.
Zoe had mentioned the other night how this film felt like it ran the gamut of all your experiences together all at once. Could you explain what you meant?
Zoe Worth: There are two gamuts to discuss. One is the running the gamut of the different forms that female friendships take on, especially when you are in the car. Being on a road trip is like camp brain – it’s like a make believe world [where there’s] full disclosure. You don’t need to live by any kind of rules. Strangers can get to know each other really fast.
Melanie Shaw: It’s also like doing a film.
Zoe Worth: Which is also like doing a film on the road. You have to cut to the chase really quickly. That’s really interesting for Sarah and I because we’ve had so many different generations of our friendship and our working creative relationship, from being kids to being in high school to being in college together and making this movie together.
Sarah Sutherland: Yeah, we both attended the experimental theater wing, so I stayed at my dorm when she was coming to audition.
So for Morgan, what was it like to come into this situation where so many of the people knew each other?
Morgan Krantz: It was really exciting, but I didn’t feel intimidated by everybody’s super tight relationship, necessarily. I knew Zoe and I felt included pretty early. It was good for the movie. We are all supposed to be pretty tight knit and we gelled together really quickly, I felt.
Zoe Worth: Prior to shooting, Mel had us all get together and work on some scenes, rewrite things and adapt the character to Morgan in the way that she did when I was cast.
Morgan Krantz: We had a lot of preparation, rehearsal and discussion.
How much input did you want from the actors and how much input did the actors actually have?
Melanie Shaw: I think that your actors are some of your biggest collaborators and each time you do rewrite a film a few times…
Zoe Worth: You make a movie three times, when you write it, shoot it and edit it.
Melanie Shaw: …But also casting a film is a rewrite. What you really want to do is to bring in people who can be those characters but also fit the characters to them, bringing elements of the actual actor in and showing a way which you can highlight the performance.
Would the script evolve over the course of shooting?
Melanie Shaw: We had a complete script but we would usually do a little improv and also do the script. We’d also improvise and then write the script from that so there was both.
It looked like Sarah and Zoe were really driving and this wasn’t some rear projection thing. Did that make this tricky?
Zoe Worth: It was a little scary.
Sarah Sutherland: It was terrifying. The first day there was this torrential downpour and we had rigged the camera in a certain way that we [eventually] discontinued because it was completely unsuccessful. We had a walkie-talkie that wasn’t working and apparently, I was speeding, so I got a lecture after we finished shooting the first scene. [laughs] It also wasn’t a car that I was accustomed to driving and then having a camera mount in your face is definitely something to adjust to while you are trying to have a conversation. But what is so beautiful and authentic about it is that we are actually looking at each other and talking the way that one would when they are actually driving whereas some movies it feels so contrived. You know it is green screen because they are just staring at each other the whole time.
Zoe Worth: I did a lot of driving in Mel’s first movie, so now I was in the passenger seat with Sarah.
Sarah Sutherland: Yeah, because Laura doesn’t know how to drive.
Melanie Shaw: It was better that way.
Zoe Worth: It was scary to do that. [looking at Sarah] You were scared.
Sarah Sutherland: Yeah, the first couple days it was a massive adjustment, but I got used to it.
Zoe Worth: Yeah, then you were a pro. You were femme racecar driver.
Would you actually stop at hotels along the route and shoot scenes inside them?
Melanie Shaw: We shot a lot of that stuff in LA, but a lot of our exteriors were stuff that we either saw on our scout or that we looked up. Many of them are actually locations along the road that we either scouted or just came to, or just liked.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Sarah Sutherland: One of the scenes we shot in New Mexico – I won’t describe the context because it is a bit of a spoiler – but basically I am on the side of the road and I am thrusting my leather jacket and the zipper came back into my eye. I had this eye injury and we were going to Marfa immediately afterwards, but there weren’t any proper doctors that I could see, so I had to shoot with sunglasses on for a couple of days.
Melanie Shaw: It was awful.
Sarah Sutherland: It ended up being completely fine.
Melanie Shaw: But that was definitely a bad day.
Is that how you ended up wearing those strange glasses in that even stranger trailer in Marfa with that guy Milo? I know he supplies your characters with ecstasy, but you hardly need it with how surreal his place is – how did such an insane character come about?
Zoe Worth: I don’t even know. We have a really good friend Zach Webber playing it, who is awesome. I think we just thought “Zach is going to do this really well.”
Zoe Worth: I can’t speak to the insane nature of that kind of person, but we did want someone to shake up the story and throw a wrench in the relationship that Jane and Laura are starting to forge. That character in that whole commune scene does that all the frills and all the personality [were brought by] Zach and Emma, the production designer, who took it in a fun new direction.
Sarah Sutherland: And Zach is so wildly funny and eccentric. I pride myself in not breaking when I work and I laughed every single take when he came up really close to my face. He would say something different every time. He just really keeps you on your toes and any semblance of professionalism I had just completely fell apart.
Melanie Shaw: We had a few other good friends in that take, which was cool too.
Zoe Worth: Yeah. Kelsey [McNamee], whose story this was, and Chloe Searcy, a dear friend and fellow Collectin member [are both in it]. And one thing to talk about [in terms of] writing for actors is that my main interest and a big interest of Mel’s too was writing characters exactly for [the person playing them]. Milo was pulled directly to write a character for Zach Webber to play. Our group called the Collectin is basically a process of tailoring parts and stories for specific actors who are playing those parts, or rewriting as we did for Morgan or Sarah.
Was it exciting to see this collective you started in college end up taking the stage at a festival like Tribeca?
Zoe Worth: Yeah, Mel’s made two features now using that process and it’s awesome. It’s wild too, to see it here at Tribeca where we went to school. I saw movies at that theater we [premiered] at last night while we were doing our plays using this exact type of process.
Melanie Shaw: It was funny because I remember in the beginning, there was so much stuff that was like “We can’t do this. This is ridiculous.” We would do an improv that was way too long that would be about nothing. But we slowly learned how to do it and just came up with this because we were interested in the process of people like [John] Cassavetes and taking from them and trying to bring that into a few shorts and plays that we did this way, not that I directed most of these. But it was great [to see it]. That was so much fun. That was a lot like what we did for two years.