I've been a nonfiction writer all my life. I write books and humor essays. I never envisioned becoming a screenwriter. But at age 60, I seem to have rewritten my obituary. I am a screenwriter now, with a comedy-drama feature film about to premiere at a film festival. A female character-driven indie called Lies I Told My Little Sister.
I first confessed to the lies I told my little sister in a humor essay for Seventeen in my twenties. You know the drill: she was born with a tail, we bought her at the baby store in the clearance bin -- all the stuff you dump on younger siblings just because you can. Those patterns of childhood are tough to break, even into adulthood. It's a subject relatively unexplored in film, and certainly not well mined from a strong female point of view.
But I also wanted to tell a story about losing my older sister, and how family members have to re-jigger their relationships after that hole in the heart. I wanted to tell it so that the sadness didn't overwhelm the humor, because even after great loss, life is still funny, if you let it. And I wanted a female voice unencumbered by stereotype, because frankly, that's how I've always envisioned my own.
The son of my tormented little sister ended up going to NYU Tisch film school. That kid, Jonathan Weisbrod, said, "You're a writer. Write a screenplay," then got me free screenwriting software and began giving input on my first drafts. It was thrilling, actually, to write a script about a family with a little kid in it, and have that actual little kid, then in college, helping you write that script.
Reinventing your life into screen fiction is tricky. The themes remain essentially the same, but the plot needs major revision. Eventually it became a story about the two leftover sisters on a trip to Cape Cod, packing all the family baggage, replete with recriminations, revelations, a very strange shopkeeper and an old romance. It stars a young breakout actress from Steve McQueen's Shame, Lucy Walters. She walked into the audition and we knew immediately. Perfect combination of sexy and powerful and vulnerable and broken.
With a budget of $125,000 and armed with NYU training, Jonathan found equity investors, got SAG on board, recruited the best director and crew just out of NYU (with whom he'd already been making award-winning short films), and produced it himself. At first I stood on the sidelines in awe, but ended up co-producing, learning on the job, putting out fires every day.
His director, though, was a guy. William J. Stribling was a 21-year-old emerging talent. William and I talked about this being a film through women's eyes, and he understood my initial hesitations about a male director -- he had them himself. But it was obvious that William got it. He understood that, although the film was "female-driven," extremely personal, and emotionally raw, this was essentially a story about universal feelings that made sense to him both intellectually and emotionally. He had immediately wanted to make it, to explore how to integrate childhood into adulthood, and grief into living. And he was gifted in his touch with actors of both sexes.
We need more men like Stribling who have that George Cukor touch. It's not just about needing more female directors, though we most certainly do. We also need to take risks on male directors who see past gender stereotypes and aren't afraid of female leads. Then we'd have more films with strong and real woman characters, in stories that resonate, no matter who owns the heart.
Judy White is the former editor-in-chief of a Time Warner website, author of several award-winning books (including the encyclopedia Taylors Guide to Orchids), a photographer at GardenPhotos.com with thousands of photocredits in magazines, books and advertising, and a past president of the Black Bear Film Festival.
Lies I Told My Little Sister will have its world premiere at the Gasparilla International Film Festival in Tampa on March 22, 2014. It will then go to the Sarasota Film Festival, where it will screen twice, first as part of a fundraiser for the United Nations, in Through Women’s Eyes on April 5, then again on April 8.
Watch the teaser trailer below: