"The Foxy Merkins"
"The Foxy Merkins"

Madeleine Olnek takes one ice cube in her coffee.  “It’s so good, it’s life changing.” She explains: “The drink should still be hot and have this little pool of cold. It should be a big ice cube. If they just have those tiny ice cubes that are like thirds then ask for another.” If that doesn’t convince you that we already have the lesbian Woody Allen, then go see “The Foxy Merkins,” playing during Newfest at the Walter Reade Theater tonight at 7 pm.

Olnek’s second feature is a follow up to the Sundance hit “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same,” now streaming on Netflix, which earned her the title of sole auteur of the “Neurotica” genre. “The Foxy Merkins” is a raucous buddy comedy about lesbian hustlers, a riff on iconic hustler films like “Midnight Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho.” I recently sat down with Olnek to discuss downtown theatre, nudie movies, and the growing problem of prostitution in the lesbian community.

You started in the theatre, how did your theatrical background influence your filmmaking?

It’s at the core of it, I think. It influenced it both in my approach to directing actors and my relationship to actors, putting them at the center of the movies. And it also influenced it in that how I ultimately made theatre is how I make film. In the East Village, all you needed was a title. And then you could write the play to match in time for the run of the show. As long as you were around and putting in time as part of the community, you could book runs and shows. You could book a show that didn’t exist… I could be wrong, but I feel like the east village is still the same, in that you can book something that doesn’t exist--if you have a track record.

Can you set the scene a little bit?

It was the late 80s, I had just [graduated] NYU, where I trained as an actor, and I could have gone either way at that moment, and I made the fateful choice to go East. I could have tried to stay in more commercial environments that I had access to. But I was very interested in the urgency of downtown theater… There was an assumption of intelligence on the part of the audiences where you could assume they knew as much as you did and then you could all go to the next level together. So that was very appealing to me and it was also very subversive and counter cultural… But the main thing that appealed to me was how offbeat the humor was.

And it wasn’t until I saw the movie “Stranger Than Paradise” (Jim Jarmusch)…that I was like, “Oh my god, a movie can be like downtown theatre. I’d never seen that on the screen before, where that sensibility was up onscreen. And that was the first time I thought ‘I would like to do movies if they could be like this.’”

So you were originally a playwright?

Madeleine Olnek (center) with cinematographer Anna Stypko and producer Laura Terruso
Larry Busacca/Getty Images North America Madeleine Olnek (center) with cinematographer Anna Stypko and producer Laura Terruso

Actor first.

Actor turned playwright turned director?

Playwriting and directing at the same time. That was the best bet. No one was going to work harder than me, and I also had a real interest in directing. And that’s not the norm in theater... You were expected to give it away. There was an assumption that a playwright couldn’t direct their own work, whereas in film that’s quite normal, the auteur thing.

Why do you think that is?

People are stupid? I don’t know… Maybe plays typically used to be set in one location, so there wasn’t that much a playwright could bring to it directorially, whereas my plays are set in a million different locations and have very short scenes, just like films. Maybe…because they didn’t have enough skills to shape it within the one location, like the colors and shades they have to use…when its mostly two ladies talking by the kitchen sink. That’s a good question. I think I sufficiently made up an answer.

Do you feel like you got pegged as a downtown theatre director trying to make movies?

It’s not a bad pegging, because it’s different. It does seem to me that in film people have respect for people that come from theatre… In some ways as a writer, doing downtown theatre there was nothing to hide behind, it’s so bare bones that you had to create something that was really compelling or the audience wasn’t going to turn up…and that was a really rigorous training ground for independent film. And there does seem to be, in the industry in general, even in the commercial part of it, respect for people coming from playwriting backgrounds. They’re seen as “real writers,” whatever that means.

I’ll tell you one kind of rap I’ve gotten one or two times that has really annoyed me: When people see women who don’t look like…models, and they assume I’m just casting my friends. Like they don’t think they’re actors… Especially people who look gay identified or whatever, that to me is amazing. Whatever. That’s just one review, but I’m still mad about it!

But often, indie films seem to be getting more commercial and even the casting is more commercial… But what annoys me more are the films that just seem like TV without the box… Whereas, if you’re going to make an indie film, it’s your chance to really make something different than the big commercial movies that have to follow certain rules… Independent film loses something by just being a cookie cutter experience.

So, the formula is tragedy plus time equals comedy, but in this case it’s almost tragedy plus absurdity.

Part of what we’re looking at is what behavior is expected of women, how the world is socialized, how we’re the ones, gay or straight, taught to repress our sexuality and be the responsible people. And thinking about this world, if it existed, what would freedom from emotional connections with sex look like? What would this world look like? It is so ridiculous...

The thing they say about the lesbian world is that we have a different standard of beauty…and people look at that and say, “oh it’s ugly, it’s ugly, it’s ugly.” So there’s something funny about Lisa’s character, and her friend who says to her in the movie, “those women…are so embarrassed to be seen with you, but they want you, and they’re gonna pay extra for you to sneak around with them.” That’s very funny.

And you’re addressing it too, which I think is great. You’re putting it out there. And the nude scene is so amazing, and how you lead up to it.

I also like that we see her naked and we don’t see the…movie star looking woman naked. Usually when people go to movie theaters, it’s almost like what entices them is “we get to see conventionally glamorous looking women naked.” So that was part of the thought in that too, I didn’t want us to see the other woman naked.

You share writing credit with Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan, the two leads. What was that process like?

I had this idea for years of doing a female hustler film, and I thought, “I’ll shoot it while we’re on the festival circuit.” It can feel so uncreative being on the festival circuit, because you’re just promoting something that already exists… But that was a totally unrealistic idea… At one point we thought this was just going to be a silly art project, it’s such a niche of an idea, it’s almost a niche of a niche.

We did like six months of screenings in progress with like totally crazy attendees, people I didn’t know…I call them randoms. Work in progress screenings, I would have them in my apartment… Not that its’ filmmaking by committee, but to understand what people were getting out of it… You have to keep sifting through feedback and considering it in the context of your vision. Or you’re just like a studio movie where they’re like “this is scoring high” and then they give you more of that. So those screenings were so important and so meaningful and we tried so many different cuts of the film.

So there wasn’t a script?

There wasn’t a script per se, but there was a ton of writing. Like, many trees died in the making of this film. We wrote so much. I mean we wrote more than people with regular scripts write. And that’s how we came up with a lot of ideas.

Do you think you have a comedy formula?

Comedy is the juxtaposition of opposites. That is the textbook definition of comedy. And if you think about anything that’s humorous to you it can fall into that equation. But it’s not formulaic. When I think of a formula sometimes that can mean something that’s simplified, but it definitely falls under that definition. Like any single thing you can think of in the world that you’ve ever laughed at, somehow it falls under the juxtaposition of opposites.

Do you know who’s credited with saying that?

I think Daniel Webster. But it’s in the dictionary.

“The Foxy Merkins” is playing this Friday at The Walter Reade Theater as part of Newfest. You can get tickets online or at the door.