The psychological drama film NANCY premiered in competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for its writer/director, CHRISTINA CHOE. With a screenplay touching on themes of truth, lies, and identity, it was inspired by Choe’s real-life encounters with an imposter. In Nancy, the title character (played by Andrea Riseborough, also a producer on the film) is a lonely, isolated 35-year-old-woman in desperate need of personal connection. When she sees a news story about a couple (Steve Buscemi and J. Cameron-Smith) whose young daughter was kidnapped 30 years ago, Nancy becomes increasingly convinced she is the missing girl and decides to make contact with the family.
Choe previously directed the short films I Am John Wayne (which won the Slamdance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize) and The Queen (which won Best of the Festival at Palm Springs ShortFest), and the docuseries Welcome to the DPRK (which was filmed in secret over the course of three trips to North Korea). She was an artist resident at The MacDowell Colony and landed fellowships with the Sundance Institute, Film Independent, the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, and HBO. Her feature directorial debut, Nancy also stars Ann Dowd and John Leguizamo, and hits theaters on June 8, courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
Writer/director Christina Choe took some time to speak with us about the long and winding road of making Nancy, from unplanned snowstorms to hiring an 80% female crew.
COLIN McCORMACK: From what I understand, the idea for the script came not only from your fascination with famous imposters like JT LeRoy and Clark Rockefeller, but also from a personal experience you had with a college professor. Could you go into a little more detail about what happened and how it affected you?
CHRISTINA CHOE: I had this amazing writing professor who was really charming and would tell us these things like, “Write what breaks your heart, because what breaks your heart will mend your heart.” He had this Irish accent and he looked like Jesus and was very charming. I think he inspired hundreds – if not thousands – of students. He told us he was a ghostwriter for this huge Hollywood franchise and that he was a playwright from Ireland, and none of us questioned it. And basically, after I graduated it came out that he had been lying to the faculty and the students and his family. I, of course, was shocked at first and like a lot of people felt betrayed. But then after I thought about it, I was like, Well, does it really matter why if what I experience is very truthful and authentic? I still feel like he was one of the best teachers I ever had and I know he inspired lots of people, so I think that theme really resonated while I was working on Nancy. I realized that’s kind of what it was about ultimately.
CM: You’ve worked in documentaries before. Did you ever consider making a doc about that professor or did you always know you wanted to take the inspiration and make a fiction film?
CC: I mean, I did start a documentary but I really wanted to make a fictional film. That could be its own fascinating documentary, perhaps. [Laughs] I don’t know where he is right now. But I just really also wanted to make this female antihero type of character, and that was the other motivation for it. It wasn’t just this professor.
CM: The film got a lot of support from organizations like IFP, Film Independent, and Rooftop Films. What stage was it in when you started applying for grants or labs and programs? Had you completed a draft of the screenplay or was it before that even?
CC: Definitely there was a script that I think for all of the programs, they had to read before they accepted it. At that point it was un-financed. Some of them were more about setting you up with meetings and some of them were more about developing the script and workshopping the script.
CM: As part of the Film Independent Directors Lab you filmed scenes with actors as workshop scenes.
CM: In what ways did those sample scenes influence or change your approach to the eventual feature film version?
CC: We only did two scenes, but I think anytime you can try out a scene it’s a luxury that you don’t usually get when you’re shooting. We didn’t have any rehearsal days [on Nancy], so I think having that extra time to workshop it out definitely saved me a lot of time on set. Just to see certain things that work and certain things that don’t, and blocking. Once I hear actors do the scene I’ll take some of the lines out. Yeah, it’s all useful. I don’t know exactly what has changed, but I find those kinds of things luxurious but useful.
CM: Like a table read taken to the next level.
CC: Yeah it’s definitely the next level because you’re shooting the scene. We did a lot of that in film school, so it’s like practice. You don’t usually get to practice when you’re shooting. So you can just experiment and do stuff that you might not do on set.
CM: The film was close to getting made years back but funding fell through. What stage was it at when you had to sort of go back to square one?
CC: We were pretty far ahead. I don’t know how much I can really say. But, you know, this happens all the time with movies but I didn’t know that at the time. I just thought this was my own tragic mishap [laughs].
CM: Were you the last person standing from the first iteration all the way to the eventual release of Nancy, or did you have collaborators that stuck with it as well?
CC: Because I wrote it and directed it, I’m the last man standing. Always. But I definitely had amazing collaborators on this. The entire cast, DP, producers, editor. Everyone put in their time. It’s not like anyone’s getting rich off of this, so it was a total artistic collaboration.
CM: So much of the film’s stakes were going to be based on how audiences connected to the character of Nancy. How did you end up thinking of Andrea Riseborough for the role?
CC: I’d seen a bunch of the things that she had done in her filmography and I was just blown away by this woman who in one movie is Margaret Thatcher and then she’s an IRA spy and every time I would see her she was like a completely different person. Initially, because I thought she was the best actor alive and appropriate for the role, that was why I wanted to work with her. But now I look back on it like it actually makes sense that she’s also known for being such a chameleon that that kind of actor would be the perfect imposter character. She would totally disappear into this character.
CM: Did her interpretation of Nancy change the character much from your initial conception?
CC: Yeah, you never know how someone’s going to play it. Especially a character like this that’s so depended on; she’s in every single frame, she carries the entire film. I think I instinctually knew that whatever she was going to do, she has an emotional vulnerability and transparency to her that I think was part of what I really was looking for. Someone who’s kind of morally ambiguous, but also [has] some empathy for that character. I don’t know who else could have done it as beautifully as Andrea. I always knew she was the one I wanted for Nancy, but it’s more and more clear how perfect she was for it in my mind.
CM: It’s one of those roles where it could really go one way or another depending on how an actor approached it.
CC: You could go totally batshit crazy with it and it would totally change.
CM: Did she always show interest in signing on as a producer from the get-go, or is that something that came through your meetings and developing a relationship with her?
CC: It was more of an organic process. It wasn’t an immediate thing, but it did eventually just happen. She has her own production company, so she really wants to make more stuff with female filmmakers and her own work.
CM: Did Andrea bring [executive producer] Barbara Broccoli onto the project?
CC: Yeah, she sent her the script and the rest became history. She had worked with her on another project.
CM: She’s not necessarily the first producer you think of when you have a low-budget indie film. [Broccoli has been the producer of the James Bond franchise since the 1980s.]
CC: [Laughs] I know.
CM: It’s nice she could still go to her with a different sort of project than she’s known for.
CC: Yeah, it was definitely a surprise to me. I was like, “Huh?” She’s been an amazing supporter and angel of the project. And she’s a very big supporter of the arts and theater.
CM: Your entire cast is so good, but they’re also so busy.
CC: I know!
CM: Just to gauge, Andrea had four films premiere at Sundance this year, Ann Dowd had five; Steve Buscemi is Steve Buscemi. How difficult was it to get all your actors locked down?
CC: To wrangle all of them? It’s one of those things. I think there were a couple of moments where I was like, I don’t know if John [Leguizamo] is going to make it. He was flying from the set of Bloodline in the snow, or Ann Dowd was shooting Handmaid’s Tale. It was very crazy. That’s the one part that I find amazing, that anytime there’s an ensemble like that, it’s like, How the hell? Especially when they work on so many different things, it’s insane that anyone was able to make it. I think the film gods were looking down on me. Ann Dowd was attached very early on, like three years before we shot. So she really tried her hardest to make it. It was a very intimate, friendly [set]. For Andrea and John and Steve to work together again — they had already worked together and really enjoyed it — so I think that also helps, for sure.
CM: You said you didn’t have any time for rehearsals. Did you have much time [with your actors] at all before shooting began or were you all just jumping right in when you got to set?
CC: I had conversations with everyone, and obviously with Andrea. Over the years we would talk, but that was kind of it. We didn’t have actual rehearsal, it was just conversations about the character, I sent them character bios, then they did their own prep. The other thing is — because I had not worked with actors of that caliber before — when they’re that good, it’s not as crazy. I guess some actors like more rehearsal or some rehearsal. At all, period. [Laughs] But they are so experienced that I don’t think it really fazed them to not have it. I find it amazing.
CM: You had almost an entirely female crew on the film. Was finding women to fill all of those positions easier or harder than you expected it to be?
CC: It was a little bit of both. In the end, it’s not that hard. You just have to make more calls and get more references. A lot of times we were giving people either a promotion in a way — you were a key grip and now you’re second AC — sometimes that takes a little bit more work. But in the end, it wasn’t that big of a deal so I feel like everyone should be doing more of it. You know what I mean? You would think that it was so insanely hard that that’s why people don’t do it. But it’s just because a lot of people haven’t been given their first break. I just directed an episode of Queen Sugar because Ava DuVernay and the showrunner Kat Candler, their mandate is to hire all female directors. And a lot of them are people that have never directed TV before. They’re just doing it and it’s not that big of a deal, which is what I find amazing about it. You just do it.
CM: Were there any resources that you found helpful in terms of finding people or was it mostly personal references or connections from people you know or have worked with?
CC: My producers Amy Lo and Michelle Cameron were more in charge of that and on the ground making all those calls. But when you’re an indie film in New York, it’s funny because everyone sort of has similar lists of references and people are doing this more and more. I remember I asked a producer because I’d known he did a majority female crew, “Can you just send me all your crew list?” And a lot of them overlapped with ours. Then the next movie, these people will get hired for the next thing. So that’s what I think is cool about it, it doesn’t just end with Nancy. These people who might have their first credit — like a sound mixer or whatever it is — they can go on to do another movie and then the pool gets bigger. At some point, they’re not going to be like, “I can’t find a female blah-blah-blah!” There will be like ten more of them.
CM: The film takes place in New York in the winter. Was it written with cold blizzard weather in mind?
CC: No! That’s the irony, it was supposed to be in the summer. And I remember one year I didn’t shoot because I was like, “There’s no way we can shoot in the winter.” And then of course what happens is we end up pushing and it has to be in January. Andrea was doing like four movies and we had to do it, that was her only window. So we just had to do it and I was like, I dunno, I’ll just figure it out. I was not sure if that was right, but it’s really funny that that’s the thing people comment on. Like, “The snow! It’s so pretty!” But I think it is so perfect that it was snowing, like this sort of magical melancholy snow globe that they’re all in. It’s one of those things about filmmaking that you can’t plan or control everything, and sometimes that’s not a bad thing necessarily.
CM: When they get to the farmhouse, you can’t imagine a better location than this house with the wood-burning stove and the blizzard all around it.
CC: Yeah, totally.
CM: I assume some of the weather-related challenges you could plan for and others you learned that they were challenges when they happened?
CC: A lot of it was not planned. The walk in the snow, I was not expecting that and when it was happening I was like, “Oh no! Why would people walk in a blizzard?! It makes no sense!” Then later in the editing room, I was like, “Oh. No, it’s actually amazing.”
CM: You were a part of the Sundance Editing Lab. Did that help reshape your vision before going to the lab and after, or did it just give you some time to work overtime and bang out a lot of work in a short period of time?
CC: It wasn’t so much editing while we were there. We showed a rough cut to at least 20 people who were industry advisors– well-known filmmakers or DPs or producers. That was the first “outing” of Nancy, so it was good to get feedback on how it’s playing. Then we spent a week there just totally restructuring some of the movie and seeing how that played. At some point, you have to start showing people to get an idea of how it’s playing. Sometimes it’s a little painful. Then we also had an amazing two-time Oscar-winning editor advising us, Joe Hutshing. He was amazing; he was Oliver Stone’s editor and Cameron Crowe’s editor. It was a magical place.
CM: In terms of showing it to somebody, do you feel the same way about a screenplay? Like you can tinker with something forever, but eventually you need to let other people read it and comment on it?
CC: Yeah, I think you just have to be careful about who you show works-in-progress to. That’s what I’ve realized over the years. I don’t just send stuff to anyone. I send stuff to certain people at certain times that totally understand the process and my sensibility. And it’s not always easy to find those people, but that’s why a lot of these labs can be good. I found one of our mentors Michel Reilhac, who used to run Arte France, he gave me brilliant notes that were “the notes” that transformed the script into what it is. Those are invaluable. At some point, you have to start sharing stuff. Some people are not like that, some people don’t want to show their stuff until it’s totally, totally done.
CM: You went to North Korea and made a documentary series in secret.
CC: I did, yeah.
CM: So after pulling that off, does every other filmmaking job seem low-stakes?
CC: [Laughs] I guess so. I feel like if I did that, I can probably handle most things.
CM: The “what’s the worst that could happen?” aspect on an indie film shot in the States is maybe a little less severe than the alternative.
CC: Yeah, the only stakes are you don’t make your day, I guess. Lots of crazy stuff can happen all the time, but I feel like in a way maybe that’s why I’m good under pressure.
CM: Has your episode of Queen Sugar aired yet?
CC: I think it’s the end of June. [Note: It is currently scheduled to air June 27.]
CM: Finally, what do you have coming up next?
CC: I am working on a TV series right now, and then I’m working on a Sci-Fi movie script. Those are the two things I’m pretty busy with.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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