LIFE PARTNERS is about two female friends: one gay, one straight. Not coincidentally, it was written by two female friends: one gay, one straight. One of those writers, SUSANNA FOGEL, also took on directing duties, and she and co-writer Joni Lefkowitz have created a relationship comedy where the focus is less about landing the perfect boyfriend and more about how said boyfriend can come between two best (girl) friends. In this case, the friendship between Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) is about as co-dependent as they come, which makes it even more difficult when Paige starts dating Tim (Adam Brody) while Sasha is still struggling to find a serious girlfriend of her own.
Sasha and Paige’s story (which began as a one-act play) portrays a more nuanced, multifaceted friendship between women; something that contrasts the backstabbing Real Housewives on TV or the wise (and wisecracking) has-no-life-of-her-own sidekick in romantic comedies. Life Partners is the feature film debut for Fogel and Lefkowitz, who also serve as showrunners of the ABC Family series Chasing Life. The film boasts a supporting cast including Gabourey Sidibe, Julie White, Beth Dover, Abby Elliott, and Kate McKinnon. It’s currently available on VOD through Magnolia Pictures, and hits select theaters on December 5. [UPDATE: Life Partners is now available to stream on Tubi, Hoopla, and Hulu.]
We caught up with writer/director Susanna Fogel to talk about how Life Partners came to be, her experience at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and how a Supreme Court decision almost derailed the movie.
COLIN McCORMACK: Tell us a little about the writing process in adapting Life Partners from a play into a feature.
SUSANNA FOGEL: Joni and I wrote a one-act play that [Life Partners producer] Jordana [Mollick] developed as part of this play series for frustrated writers who were employed but not seeing their work produced, to get a chance to put something up on its feet. So we had this play that went over really well and decided to expand it into a feature. With Jordana and her producing partner Brendan [Bragg]’s help, we developed it and sent it to the Sundance Lab, and then went through the Screenwriters Lab there. So through that process, we were able to take the script from play to film, but also a lot of the themes and plot of the movie evolved in an interesting way.
CM: I heard that a gay marriage plotline had to evolve?
SF: When DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned, yeah. So that was the most interesting thing that happened, which was that originally the play was based on this sort of little gimmicky concept of what happens when you make a promise not to get married until your lesbian friend has equal rights, and then your lesbian friend is not in a long-term relationship and you are. And you don’t want to break the promise, but also you’re not equally needing those marital rights at the time. So it’s more about friends growing up at different rates. Then as we developed the script and went through the Labs, they really encouraged us to bring out the emotional components of the friendship and the characters and de-emphasize the high-concept of that [plot], which then proved to be a really good thing when we had to lift that [gay marriage pact] out of the movie after shooting it. Actually, while going through preproduction we started hearing rumblings about DOMA getting overturned, and every meeting I had with crew or cast, that was the first question they asked, “What happens when this movie becomes irrelevant?” “Is it going to be a period piece?” On top of all the other nerves I had as a director trying to prep her first feature, I had to then also answer to all these people who were basically forecasting the irrelevance of the movie that I was about to make.
So we dealt with possibly changing the plot before shooting, but we were basically on the eve of shooting the movie at that point. So we decided to shoot it and kind of deal with it later, and sure enough DOMA was overturned. The day we screened the rough cut for our financiers, DOMA had been overturned. So it was a very emotional day, both because my writing partner could finally marry her wife, and because we had so many lesbians and women involved in the team and everyone was really excited, obviously. But then on the most narcissistic filmmaker level, we were all kind of sitting there like, “Does this render our movie completely irrelevant and [a] terrible investment for everyone?” So we then had to add a couple extra months of editing on, and try to figure out how to extract that part of the plot but keep the story what it was supposed to be. And then we had one re-shoot day where we were able to fill some of the gaps that had been created by changing the plot.
CM: When you submitted to the Sundance Lab, was it still in play form or had you started the adaptation process?
SF: We had the [screenplay] done. We had adapted it and gone through a few rounds of notes with Jordana and different people we’d asked for feedback. So it was in a good place. It’s interesting in the context of how the script had to evolve and what we changed about it, because I think that Sundance’s brand has not traditionally been comedies, and without the gay marriage political component I don’t know that it would have been on-brand enough for them to accept it into the Lab. I like to think that it would be, but I think for them it was kind of what made it enough of a Sundance Lab project to put it in this wonderful lab and give us access to those types of resources. So I feel like we sort of snuck in the back door in that way, because what the movie became was much more of a universal, relatable, not traditionally “indie movie” type of story, but we were able to benefit from the Lab in the process, which was really great.
CM: What was the Lab like? Tell us about what you learned; who some of your mentors were.
SF: The one request we had going in – they let you sort of pick and choose, or make requests [for advisors] – and the one request we had was Nicole Holofcener, because we’ve been obsessed with her for years. We had talked about her so much in the process of applying to the lab that it was almost a creepy fangirl situation. And then we requested her and we got her, and we were really overeager.
But basically it’s five days on this beautiful mountaintop in the middle of winter and they pair you with five or six advisor meetings. And so you get the benefit of two-hour notes sessions with screenwriters that you admire, and what they really try to do is give you a range. We assumed we would get [The Kids Are All Right writer/director] Lisa Cholodenko because she creates content [featuring] women and lesbians, but actually they sort of thought outside the box and they gave us John Gatins, who wrote Flight. We had really interesting, great craftsmen and craftswomen who are not super on-point for what this movie was, and some of the best notes we got were from those people. So it was a good lesson in that kind of perspective. We had Nicole Holofcener, we had John, Dana Stevens— we had wonderful advisors. And then in between when you weren’t in these notes sessions, they were hosting seminars where we’d watch a clip reel of the greatest introductions to characters in movies. Scott Frank, who was one of the advisors there, showed his favorites, which were the introduction to Annie Hall, the introduction to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network— giving us sort of global lessons on screenwriting and how to craft and create a memorable script. So there’s general talk and then super specific talk at the same time.
CM: And then how much time passed before you went for the [Sundance] Producers Lab?
JORDANA MOLLICK: The Producers Lab was in August, and [Susanna and Joni] were in January.
SF: Yeah, in late summer Jordana did the Producers Lab. And then with Sundance’s help, we got into the IFP No Borders Program and we went to New York and did this professional speed-dating round of awkward meetings with executives. And then at that time had a really great meeting with Red Crown, who ended up putting money in for the movie. It all moved pretty quickly compared to the glacial pace of other movies we’ve been trying to make.
CM: I was going to say, you’ve worked in the studio world and I’m sure things took a lot longer.
SF: Yeah, I mean the play itself came out of the fact that Joni and I have at this point been writing professionally for eight years, and this is the first movie we’ve had [produced]. And we’ve written countless movies for studios that are just never going to get made, and it becomes depressing after a while. So Jordana’s idea with the plays was to get a few screenwriters in that position – all of whom have since gone on to do really wonderful things; we had Emily Halpern, who created Trophy Wife; Leslye Headland, who made Bachelorette – all these people were our equally-frustrated friends and we’d go for hikes and bitch about how we never got to see our work out there. So that’s where we all formed a little community, too. It was all in a year, and from the play to now is three years.
CM: Wow, that’s so quick.
SF: I know. Isn’t it sad to say that? So fast!
CM: What was the main thing going through your mind on your first day of production of your feature debut?
SF: I was really excited. It was interesting because this dive bar that I’ve been going to as long as I’ve lived in LA – The Roost – the very first script that Joni and I wrote when we were 22 or 23, I had saved up money at my horribly-demeaning receptionist job to finance a four-minute trailer to this movie that we wanted to make, and we shot a scene at The Roost, and it cost $400 to shoot at The Roost for the whole day. And then the first day of Life Partners’ production we were also shooting at The Roost and it was $400 for the day, same thing. I think it’s like a time warp where they don’t know about inflation or the economic collapse or anything. So in a weird way it was incredibly emotional, not just because it was the first day of production, but because it sort of felt like– there’s something familiar about it in a really nice way. So that was the first scene at 6 a.m. showing up at The Roost with all the gear, just like when I was 22 or 23, which was really wonderful.
And then I think there’s also that moment where– we didn’t have an extensive rehearsal process; we didn’t really have a lot of time with the actors. We had had a table read, but there’s that moment when you don’t really know if it’s going to work until you see the actors doing their thing. And we shot first a scene that was really comedic and also really emotional, where Paige tells Sasha she’s getting married, and Sasha’s bitching about her job, and that was the first scene we shot at 7:30 in the morning, and they were so great that it was this great relief. A moment of, Okay, this movie’s going to be fine. It’s all good.
CM: With the characters, were there specific stereotypes that you wanted to avoid, or tropes you wanted to sort of flip on their head? Because it does a good job of subverting the sidekick rom-com character or stereotypical lesbian character, did you go into it with that purpose?
SF: Yeah, I think for us – Joni’s gay and I’m straight – it’s always been very much in the backdrop of our twelve-year friendship, where we don’t think about [it]. We would go through these universal twentysomething struggling experiences, and it wasn’t super specific to her being gay and me not being gay. But it seemed like when we’d watch movies, that was always a stratified, weird thing, like the gay character was always really extreme, that sort of over-the-top Jane Lynch version. Or there were these small, LGBT niche arthouse movies that no “normal” indie moviegoer would know to watch necessarily, because they’re just [targeted] for that niche. So for us it’s always been really important to bridge that gap and [be] sexuality-blind in our writing, and we end up having a lot of gay and lesbian characters in our work. So this was a good opportunity for us to just tell this story of these two friends, one who happens to be gay and one who happens to be straight. But I think also for Joni especially – who’s now embarking on writing a lot of other comedies that are relatable and universal that involve lesbian characters, because she feels like it’s an underserved market – it’s just been important to show gay and lesbian characters being real, multidimensional characters who are not defined by their sexualities. [The] one nice offshoot of taking the gay marriage pact out of the movie was that it just becomes less political, and in doing so is like a post-coming-out type of movie. Which ultimately to us feels like a progressive statement just by default. So I guess we did want to subvert the conventional portrayal of a lesbian character in a heteronormative movie, [and] hopefully we’ve done that.
CM: And did you ever feel any pressure, since it is an underserved audience, that your film would have to speak for every LGBT person?
SF: Yeah, I was actually afraid of being a straight filmmaker telling a story where– just because Sasha is a lesbian and she’s the single one, there are so many more [instances] of [a] revolving door of crazy dating stories. There are more lampooned lesbians in this movie than there are straight people, just because she’s the one who’s on the scene dating. So yeah, I was a little bit afraid of the scrutiny of an LGBT audience, who would be asking me who I thought I was making this movie. Although I did have partial immunity because Joni’s gay and half of our crew is gay and lesbian. But yeah, it does feel like there’s lots of pressure, but we tried to ignore it because when you start getting hung up on what kind of story you’re “supposed” to tell, you’re playing into this idea that you can’t just express yourself. We want to live in a world where it’s not that big of a deal, so we just went forward and we figured if you can make people laugh, then there’s only so much they can be offended. We hoped.
CM: How much room did you leave for improvisation? When you have someone like Kate McKinnon [who plays one of Sasha’s dates, a woman who works as a decoy on To Catch a Predator], I’m sure it’s tempting to let her run wild, but you have to keep the character in mind, and the story.
SF: We did let her run wild. The character that Kate plays is based on somebody that Joni went on some dates with, who also happens to be a girl who actually worked for [a] To Catch a Predator-type of organization. She was featured on The Today Show or The View, and we had a YouTube video of the actual girl that the character is based on. So we sent it to Kate and we emailed with her a little bit. We met her the day we were shooting, but she showed up with this idea of who this person was, so she was improvising in-character and a lot of what’s there– it’s a relatively short scene, but I think it’s about half improvised just because she was cracking us up so much on the set. But I think in general, the level of improv really varied. I think that for some comedic actors, when they improvise they break character, and to the extent that that was happening, we didn’t end up using that. But we had worked on the script so much and it had been through Labs and we wanted it to feel like it was a well-crafted, deliberate script.
Having said that, we always let the actors do a take at the end of every setup that was their own thing, and sometimes those moments made it into the movie. So there was some improv, but it wasn’t improv-heavy compared to a legitimately improvised movie. But I think for some of the actors like Leighton, who have worked on television shows where there is no improv at all, it felt like a really liberating experience, so she felt like she could be herself and add a lot. Whereas for Gillian, who has done a lot of improv-based movies, it didn’t feel [that] way. So I think it just varied from actor to actor– their perception of it and how much they felt comfortable doing it.
CM: With your background mainly being in writing, how technical did you have to become when you took on directing? Did you have to do a crash course, or is a lot of that in hiring the right crew?
SF: I had actually directed a lot of shorter-form stuff. I had made a few shorts in high school and college that we’d shot some on video and some on film, and so I had some experience with that. And then I did that short in my twenties, and then in 2007 Joni and I actually made a web series– Warner Brothers had a short-lived web series initiative that Childrens Hospital came out of, and our show – and we starred in it, but I also directed those too. So I did have some on-set experience, albeit a lower-fi version. And I felt very ready to do it. It got pretty technical, but I think at the end of the day– there are directors who can do any of the crew’s jobs; somebody like Steven Soderbergh could operate the camera and edit his own movies, and does those things. But I also think that if you’re not that specialized in that way or trained in that way, a big part of directing is just assembling really talented people and communicating with them enough so they have their marching orders. So it was that. It was making deliberate choices and trying to be really specific. At the same time, I couldn’t operate a RED Epic [camera] myself or anything like that, but I talked to the DP for weeks about storyboarding and everything. I think I had built it up as a scarier thing than it ended up becoming. When we were actually in those talks, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t equipped to answer those questions, which felt good.
CM: I almost cringe to ask the “women in film” question, because part of me feels like it might not be an issue if people like me didn’t keep asking questions about it. But the DGA released some reports about the number of female directors–
SF: There’s like three of them, yeah.
CM: It’s absolutely dismal. Have you noticed from the inside whether there’s resistance to hire you on a project as a director? Or do you see those numbers and just try to power through?
SF: I have a very complicated answer to this question, because I do feel like now that I’ve made a film I have a lot of institutional support, and I do feel like I have opportunities to try to get jobs. Whether me calling the bluff of people saying they want to hire women works or not, it does feel like there is this initiative to hire women even on the parts of studios, and they really do feel like they’re getting flogged a bit for that statistic. At the same time, I definitely feel like compared to a lot of the male screenwriters that I came up with and was friends with, they were always encouraged to make that leap to directing their own work and [were] being supported in that way years before I was, even though I’d been the one making shorts and actually the one who had always wanted to direct. So I did notice that, and I’m really hoping now that the tides are turning a bit because it felt like ten years ago when I was starting out, there just weren’t reference points for that. And I think there are so many reasons it’s true. There’s a culture of mentorship with guys because there are a lot of older male filmmakers who will take a young male filmmaker under their wing and shepherd them through, and we don’t have a lot of women to do that for us. And I also think that older men don’t feel comfortable taking on a young female protégé in the same way.
There are so many reasons, many of them are discussed in [the Sheryl Sandberg book] Lean In, not to be cliché: That women just don’t feel as comfortable making that leap; there isn’t the community support; we don’t have the precedent set so we have to make our own, which is tough. And in general I think we just care a lot about what other people think, and we care about people liking us more than we should and more than most men. And I think that prevents us from taking those leaps to be a boss that people might not like, which is what directors have to be. It’s all of those things and more, but I’m hoping that changes. I’m really interested in taking on projects– I do want to write and direct small indie movies, but I also want to be open to any and all types of directing, just because I feel like more women need to be doing that. It’s liberating to tell small, personal stories as a director, but also the idea of directing a family movie for Disney or an action movie and adding that to the repertoire feels really important. There are like no women doing that, and I’d really like to be one of them– I’m hoping that starts to change. It’s not changing as fast as it should be, but hopefully [will].
What’s the first movie you remember seeing in theaters?
What’s your go-to drink order at a bar?
Gin and tonic
Recommend a movie you love that most people haven’t heard of.
The Spanish Apartment (or L’Auberge Espagnole is the French title)
What’s an interview question you never want to hear again?
From this interview or others? [Laughs] Um… I haven’t had any really traumatizing interviews. Let me think… [Pauses] I recently had to answer a question about what my movie was saying about the human condition and how that resonated with what’s been happening since the dawn of man, and that was mildly awkward.
Finally, where and when can people see Life Partners?
It’s now available on Ultra VOD, which includes iTunes, Amazon… and December 5 we start our theatrical rollout. But you can watch it now by downloading it!
If you’re an independent filmmaker or know of an independent film-related topic we should write about, email firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.