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Tribeca Women Directors: Meet Susanna Fogel (Life Partners)

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood April 18, 2014 at 10:00AM

"The idea of normalizing a best friendship between a lesbian and a straight girl without overly politicizing their sexualities felt exciting and true to the zeitgeist now."
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Still from "Life Partners"
Still from "Life Partners"

Susanna Fogel began writing and directing short films as a teenager, premiering her first two, "For Real" and "Words of Wisdom," at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1995 and 1997. She and writing partner Joni Lefkowitz have written several scripts for film and television. Life Partners, a fellowship project of the 2012 Sundance Screenwriters and Producers Labs, is Fogel's first feature film. (Press materials)

Life Partners will debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 18.

Please give us your description of the film playing. 

Life Partners is a film about two codependent friends nearing 30 -- one lesbian, one straight girl -- whose bond is tested when the straight girl meets the (romantic) love of her life. It's about the unofficial love triangle that forms by default when a friend enters a relationship, the way all our relationships have to be recalibrated as we grow up, and the heartbreak and humor that entails.

What drew you to this script/story? 

So many of my favorite stories, in any medium, are about friendship. Those relationships are so often just as emotional and complex as any romantic or family dynamics, and yet there's a dearth of resonant, grounded films about platonic bonds in American films. Granted, we've enjoyed a handful of "bromances" over the past ten years, but there haven't been many female equivalents that handle the specific way we relate to our friends honestly and comically. 

My writing partner, Joni Lefkowitz, and I love studying girl friendships in particular because they seem defined by a combination of codependent intimacy and subtle, constant passive-aggressiveness. And more generally, as a director I was excited about telling a story where the women are layered protagonists: witty without being glib, emotional without being overly vulnerable, or letting a dude define their self-worth. On a related note, the idea of normalizing a best friendship between a lesbian and a straight girl without overly politicizing their sexualities felt exciting and true to the zeitgeist now. 

What was the biggest challenge? 

The biggest challenge in this process was, ironically, related to exciting and relevant political progress. When Joni and I initially developed Life Partners, first as a short play in 2011, then as a feature, we workshopped at the Sundance Writers Lab, the politics (and political inequality) of one friend being a lesbian and the other one straight were a central focus of the plot. Although thematically the film is about an evolving friendship and the sexualities are incidental, the politics of that time contextualized it. 

And then, midway through the editing process, DOMA was overturned. As thrilled as we all were, we found ourselves faced with an unforeseen challenge as filmmakers: was our film suddenly going to become a period piece? Should it be one? What would be the most emotionally effective, progressive story we could tell given the change in the zeitgeist? Ultimately, we chose to deemphasize the politics and keep the movie present-day, favoring the emotional journey of the friends. I'm hoping the result is that we've ended up with a film that feels all the more accessible and current.

What advice do you have for other female directors? 

Have confidence in your own voice, be entrepreneurial, and take big risks with the knowledge that, by default of being a woman, people are going to advise you to be conservative, play it safe, make sure everyone likes you, and constantly question whether or not you're ready to be in charge. It's rarely talked about as a gender thing, and it's often subconscious, but people are generally less comfortable entrusting executive power (and finances) to women, and I think it's easy as a female director to sense their doubt and psych yourself out. Which only perpetuates the cycle and proves their point. 

Culturally, as women, we're raised to be very concerned with others' approval in a way that men aren't, but an inevitable part of directing and being visionary is that you have to be a boss, and as such not everyone is going to like you all the time or agree with your choices. With that in mind, if you can combine sticking to your guns with being open to discussion, respectful of your collaborators and their expertise and willing to consider other perspectives before doing what you genuinely feel is best, you can manage to make a product you're proud of and still create a positive working environment that brings out everyone's best work. 

Don't buy into the false dichotomy that you have to be either a Pushover or a Bitch. If you can be a combination of confident and nice -- with the knowledge that some people still won't like you and that's okay -- you can avoid being either. 

I'd also say that finding a community of likeminded creative people to be part of is important. There's such a culture of mentorship and support with male filmmakers that it's no surprise you always read about young guys stepping up to direct their first features after a year or two working for X established male filmmaker (who's a producer on his first movie, helped him get financing and casting, etc.). You just don't read as many of those stories about women sponsoring each other in that way. 

Honestly, I think women are still figuring out how to reconcile the idea of support with the culturally reinforced notion that there are a limited number of power seats for us and we should see one another as threats to our own position. But hopefully that's starting to change, and you (and I, and all of us) should take an active role in changing it: be proactive about connecting with other artists, both more established and at your level -- women and men -- and hopefully we can all help each other up the ladder together.

What's the biggest misconception about you and your work?

I think there's an assumption, just by default of me being a girl (and my interest in giving longwinded answers to questionnaires about female filmmakers) that I would only be interested in telling stories about women. Generally, I think people assume female writers are mostly interested in female stories. Relatedly, because I've written several generational/coming-of-age stories in the past, I think people assume I might want to tell stories about people in phases of life I'm personally experiencing. 

In reality, what excites me is the idea of having a diverse career and challenging myself. For instance: I would someday love to direct a smart, grounded, kids' movie for a studio that reminds me of the movies I watched growing up and could reach a wide audience. Or I would happily adapt an acerbic, satirical novel about a 60-year-old misanthropic man going through a divorce (once Alexander Payne passes on it). Or if all else fails, I'll make another tiny movie about a relationship between two friends. To me, it's not about the gender, age or world of the characters; if I can find a way into any character's journey and see an opportunity to convey it with humor and heart, I want in.

Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films? 

As a first-time director seeking distribution for the first time, this is a new frontier for me, but I've been giving a lot of thought to the double-edged sword of today's marketplace. It's amazing that films are cheaper than ever to produce and the voices we get to hear from are all the more diverse for it. Likewise, the distribution platforms have multiplied exponentially, so these films can actually get seen. That said, there's definitely an oversaturation of content in the marketplace and it's hard for films to stand out when there are just so many of them. I know this because when I sit down to watch a film on a night in, I have absolutely no idea where to start since there are so many and the choice anxiety gets so intense that I just end up watching Scandal instead. I'd hate to think of my beloved film, which I want to share with the world, ending up midway down an endless list of options to be scrolled through and then passed over for network TV. (That said, nothing is more riveting than a good Scandal, including my movie.)

So what to do about the oversaturation problem? It's a tough one. Obviously, marketing is key and social media can and must be utilized to position a film the right way, but beyond that it seems we're still figuring out how to get our films out there and "brand" them properly, beyond just using the same hipstery fonts and colors to indicate, "This is that smart indie film you should see if you have good taste." It's amazing that now, with VOD and all the other models, you no longer need a Fox Searchlight or a Sony Classics to buy your film and spend money on said hipstery fonts for it to get out into the world. But how do you let the world know you've made something excellent and not just average so they know they're supposed to watch it? That seems to be the challenge, and I don't have any answers. I'm going to let my producer stay up all night worrying about it. You're welcome, Jordana.

Name your favorite women directed film and why. 

My favorite film directed by a woman is Nicole Holofcener's Walking and Talking, which is exactly the kind of funny, resonant relationship story I want to tell. This film was a huge inspiration for Life Partners: the friendship between Catherine Keener and Anne Heche feels so real, loving and dysfunctional that it's totally universal, and yet there's also a gently misanthropic streak to the narrative voice that makes it feel really unique. It's no wonder Nicole has had an amazing string of successful movies to follow. Joni and I were lucky enough to have her as one of our advisors at the Sundance lab and, after terrifying her with our creepy fangirldom, were thrilled to find she's every bit as cool as her films would suggest.

This article is related to: Women Directors, Interviews, Tribeca Film Festival, Susanna Fogel, Life Partners


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