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Interview with Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini Directors of Tanner Hall

by Melissa Silverstein
September 19, 2011 2:07 AM
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Women and Hollywood: How is your coming of age story different from others we have previously seen?
                        

Francesca Gregorini: We tried to make an artful, poetic film about teens. One that values cinematography, production design and costume design. One that doesn't speak down to them or just rely on quippy, snappy back and forth repartee. A timeless piece, void of technology, leaning towards folklore. 


Tatiana: We tried to make a poetic, artful film about that time in one's life. What I feel sets "Tanner Hall" apart from the other teen movies is that it does not speak down to teens. Typically teen girl characters are reactive. They are reacting to their parents or to their teachers. In Tanner Hall, they do stray--  but they are proactive about eventually identifying their own internal compass and what feels right to them and finding their strength and individuality from within. They are also adventurous. We tried to give them enough strength of character that they would not submit to anything that did not feel truthful and authentic to them. 

WaH: When you made the film did you have any inkling that Rooney Mara was going to become The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?  What is it that makes her special?

Francesca: We had no idea about "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" because that came several years after "Tanner Hall". What we did respond to right away was her genuineness/naturalness, her depth. She is not a show-man that is looking to wow you with her audition. She gives just enough to keep you wanting more. She has an intrigue about her. There is so much going behind those green eyes. Things you will never know, things that make you want to lean into the monitor (while filming) and lean towards the screen while viewing. She is both brave and vulnerable. She is not formally trained, but rather uses her own internal compass to truly inhabit the character and truth of the scene and the moment. She is fascinating to watch. So much so, that I based the lead character of my next film "Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes" on her. 

Tatiana: I had no idea that she would become the GWDT. I knew that she was photogenic and I knew that she was compelling. I knew that she was extremely available and present-- naturally authentic and feeling truly like the character would at that moment. I knew that she has an inherent dignity and restraint/ reservation about her coupled with the fact that she notices and is taking in and becoming inspired by the environment and the world of the character. I have not read the book so I don't know much about the character of Lisbeth Salander. I know that Rooney works very hard and has pushed herself to become fluent on a motorcycle and physically able to fight. That is not the same girl I cast for Tanner Hall. But, she is determined and brave--  she was brave enough to take the responsibility of carrying a leading role in her first movie role and she was incredibly present and professional and free of any attention seeking drama. I loved watching her in the monitor because she is magnetic and it feels like you are making magic.




 
WaH: You wrote and directed the film- which one was harder and which one did you like more?

Francesca: I have always been a writer. Originally I wrote songs and then segued into screenwriting. Writing has always been an important part of my life. I find it very satisfying on a soul feeding level. Directing to me is just an extension of the writing as it's bringing to life the world that exists in my mind and on the page. And my writing has always been very visual, so directing has been a natural transition and one that I greatly enjoy and feel like I have a natural aptitude toward. I love actors and love the collaborative process of bringing a story to life. 

Tatiana: I like writing because it is personal and feels very intuitive--  when it's going well. And, directing is fulfilling because you get to communicate to the heads of department and then based on the quality of your communication and what you are conveying, an entire world becomes real. The ideas have manifested beyond words on a page and are now becoming realized and very real.




 
WaH: The comic relief with Amy Sedaris and Chris Kattan is unexpected.  What made you decide to put that in there? 

Francesca: Much like life, we wanted to portray a full bouquet. And feel like there is room for absurdity and silliness even in the midst of drama. Some people take umbrage with that, but we firmly stand by our decision as we find the Middlewoods highly entertaining. 

Tatiana: Because dramatic story lines are not enough to keep my interest and therefore, we wanted to offer something different - a respite from the main tone and a respite from the principal story lines.

 

 
WaH: How was it directing together?  How did you break up the work and did you have any differences on any shots or other issues?

Francesca: Tatiana and I had made several shorts together before embarking on this gargantuan task of making a feature, so at least we already had a shorthand and knew our process of working and working things out between ourselves. We only had 3 weeks of pre-production, so it was actually very helpful that there were two of us because we could divide and conquer. And there is a lot to conquer on a daily, consistent non-stop basis. As far as breaking up the work, I mostly worked with the cinematographer, because I shot our shorts and cinematography is a big interest of mine. And Tatiana worked very closely with the production designer and costume designer and her incredible aesthetic sense is very present throughout "Tanner Hall". 

Tatiana thrived in pre-production and I love production, so we both had our moments to shine and moments when we leaned on each other. We have such trust in one another. I could not see myself co-directing with anyone else. That's for sure. I do think we will do it again at some point, but we are both working on solo projects at the moment where we will just be support for one another without doing the whole journey step by step. But, knowing that the other is just a phone call away from coming to set gives us both a great sense of comfort. It's a big world out there, so having a friendship like ours is an incredible gift.


Tatiana: Pre-production and Production was absolutely helped by the fact that there were two of us. It is incredible to be able to troubleshoot and bounce ideas off of one another. There is such an enormous work load, that we were able to really divide and conquer and rely on each other when one of us was burned out or dispassionate about a particular decision. Writing and editing are much more personal and internal and much more subjective. What feels authentic and truthful when you are writing is so personal, that it is difficult to share that with a writing partner. We did not have a writing process that worked for us in place, so the discovery of what that would be was rough. Editing is also more difficult in a partnership because it is very much like orchestrating, you are subduing aspects and raising others. It is nuanced and again, when it feels right it is intuitive and personal. Also, Francesca and I have different processes. She is very thorough and combs through many variations, I tend to trust my original impulse and adjust from there.


 
WaH: What was the hardest part of making the film?

Francesca: Editing. Mostly because the script was only about 70% there by the time we rolled camera, so we had a lot that we tried to compensate for in the editing room. And by then we were pretty tired so we had less patience for the process and for each other. Our differences seemed to be more magnified because you are spending 12 hours a day in a small dark room watching the same scene over and over again. It's not like if one of us got bored or frustrated we could go somewhere else and move the process forward as we had done on set. And the decisions you make in the editing room are final. It's not like on set where if I didn't like a certain performance I could make an adjustment and we would roll again. But, we developed a good tie breaker. when we got stuck on some decision, we would defer to whoever felt the most passionate about that particular decision/cut. And 99% of the time that worked.


Tatiana: Editing--  you have captured so much hard work, so many strong moments and performances and harnessed so much hard work. You want to honor it all and you can't. 40 hours of film must be chopped down to 95 minutes. At times in feels criminal, but the objective is to service the overall story.


WaH: What was the most unexpected thing you discovered about yourself in this process?

Francesca: That I bite off more than I can chew and am thankful that my big appetite for life and challenge pushes me beyond my comfort level and forces me to grow.

Tatiana: That I am energized by challenges and that being inspired is critical to my happiness.



 
WaH: What advice could you offer other female directors?

Francesca: To pull the trigger and make your work. Find a story that inspires you, write a story that inspires you and shoot it. Especially now that there are so many cheap digital cameras, there's no excuse for not making work. Not to mention that I think it's critical that more women make films, because it is such a powerful medium. So, if we are not actively telling our story with our voices as seen through our eyes, then we will just have words put in our mouth and be seen singly through the eyes of men, which is not an accurate portrayal of who we are. So, beyond our own personal need for expression or personal ambition, I think being a female filmmaker is of service in terms of leaving behind a more accurate portrayal of who we are. 

Tatiana: Be very deliberate in decision making. Do not waver. Make the decision and move forward. Also, as a woman, I place great importance on my relationships and friendships. Navigating and balancing this was challenging, but at the same time crystal clear. The main event was servicing the film and I had to trust that I had invested enough in my relationships that they would not only sustain, but also grow from my inattention to them. It was incredible how much my daughter grew through this experience. This film expanded all of our lives--  it was an adventure and we were all operating at our highest potential.


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