An interview with writer, director, producer DENISE PAPAS MEECHAN.
One of the many pleasures of writing about film in a freelance capacity is that, every now and again, you come across a piece of work, or a film maker, who displays exceptional talent in their field.
Denise Papas Meechan is one of those film makers.
A writer, director, producer, you could never accuse her of being lazy, nor could you accuse her of burning the candle at any and every end, as the results of her extreme hard work have resulted in a career directing for television, including an Emmy win for Subway Q & A , now blossoming into film, with her short FRECKLES.
I reviewed the film earlier this year (you can read that review here) and it has since been working its way through festivals all over the world, most notably Cannes.
FRECKLES is one of the most remarkable debut films I have seen in many years, a dark, visually sublime genre bender, with a terrific lead performance and assured, confident direction that marks Meechan out as one of the most exciting film makers currently working within the Indie scene. Whats more exciting is that she is just getting warmed up.
Mark my words, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
Q. Let me start off by congratulating you on FRECKLES. I see a great deal of short material from film makers, and yours stands out on so many levels. Was this a particularly personal film for you?
Thank you so much, Chris, for taking the time to watch and review FRECKLES. It means a lot to me, in large part, because the film is so personal. It is my response to the beauty standards placed on women– and men as well. In our culture, appearance holds too much significance. Young women/men are getting unnecessary plastic surgery. My gorgeous friends complain about everything they think is ‘wrong’ with the way they look. I myself spent too many years paranoid that I wasn’t attractive or skinny enough for a boy to like me; to be invited to a party; to just have my picture taken. The effect this has on a person’s self-esteem is devastating and my reaction to it came out in the form of FRECKLES. I hope it can add an element to the discussion.
Q. Its an incredibly multi-layered work. Do you see it fitting into any particular genre?
You’re right. It’s difficult to place into the strict genre guidelines. I have been describing FRECKLES as a “Psychological Drama” because I feel that category is broad enough. It has found an audience in festivals dedicated to women’s issues and some other festival curators have considered it may be placed in the horror category. I don’t tend to agree with that as I feel it is too internal a storyline. Plus, it doesn’t scare me at all! I guess the viewer can focus on whatever they want- the blood or the message.
Q. It is also a film concerned with body image and perception. In a culture over-populated with imagery they perceive as attractive, this film strikes up a conversation that is certainly worth having. Does the portrayal of women, particularly in film, concern you?
Oh my god, yes! Women do not look or act in real life as they are depicted on screen. In film, most female characters are defined by their relationship to a male protagonist. This strips them of their identity. They are also ultra-sexualized to appeal to the male gaze. Which just strips them. (ha!) But it’s not funny, the cartoonish way women are portrayed on screen perpetuates harmful stereotypes and expectations that broaden the gender divide. It supports the objectification of women as well as provokes unhealthy body issues. I decided the best thing I can do to help fix this is to add my name to the population of women filmmakers and express a point of view that is 52% of the movie-going audience.
Q. Given how women are treated within the film industry, particularly in other countries, do you feel it’s important to tell these stories?
Pop culture- in all forms- has a powerful effect on our perception of people. Lazy filmmakers or musicians that use stereotypes in their work can easily imprint those ideas into the minds, and therefore, actions of their consumers. Studies have shown that young girls get depressed after watching a few hours of film or television whilst boys feel more confident. If women are shown in fewer numbers than they are statistically found, doing menial work with no effect, and existing purely as a love interest for men, then of course little girls feel hopeless for the future! Female voices are desperately needed in Hollywood in order to show a more realistic world where women are proactive, important, intelligent members of society- because that is exactly what they are.
Q. Where do you stand on the equal pay debates going on in the industry right now?
I cannot believe we are here in the 21st century still fighting for equal pay. Seriously, it seems so basic to me that hiring practices and pay standards should be equal to all- in every business. Hollywood is ignoring data and pretending women-made films don’t succeed in the box office. It’s a ridiculously stupid and easily debated point. We need to set a lot of new rules for the game (number of minorities hired, types of movies they are given to direct, etc) and equal pay is the easiest and quickest part of this to fix. So why is it taking so bloody long???
Q. Was there a large percentage of women on your crew?
I originally intended to have an all-women crew for FRECKLES. However, after approaching two female DPs who fell through due to scheduling, I ended up with a very male-heavy crew. I am so proud to have worked with each of the men, as they were super talented and very cool. But I see the anemic number of women crewmembers as a failure on my part. In future- and better funded- projects, I aim to be more uncompromising in the hiring of women.
Q. It has a very visual sense, how closely do you work with your D.O.P.?
DP Steve Gray, is a superstar! We worked really well together. We blocked all the scenes three times before the shoot. He has great creative ideas, an incredible eye and is highly tech-intelligent. He was the perfect person to shoot FRECKLES and I would be lucky to be able to shoot with him again.
Q. One would imagine, growing up, you took inspiration from particular directors, actors, etc. Were there any that stood out?
There are quite a few movies that I would watch over and over when I was young, like Stanley Kubrick’s A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE SHINING, George Miller’s MAD MAX (the first one) and anything that starred John Cusack, but especially BETTER OFF DEAD. I am fascinated, to this day, by Mel Stuart’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and am so grateful that movie existed to inspire me as a child.
Q. And of the current crop of film makers and artists, who do you find interesting?
The works of Spike Jonze, Kathryn Bigelow, and the writings of Charlie Kaufman inspired many of my other screenplays but Justin Kurzel’s SNOWTOWN MURDERS was the biggest inspiration for FRECKLES. I think everything about that movie is perfect- the pacing, the placement of the camera, the music, and what Justin chose not to show in the story- it’s just poetry.
Q. Going back for a moment, Where did you grow up? Do you feel that shaped you into the person you are today?
Woodstock, New York. That’s where I grew up. It’s a fantastic town! Most of my friends were artists, or kids of artists and the place nurtures all creative types. It’s only a two hours drive from New York City so I still visit often. I have a great connection to the area and the open-mindedness of the people there. It has instilled in me an admiration for the quirks in people and a great respect for anyone who makes art.
Q. Did you go to film school?
No, I did not attend film school. I studied Psychology at Rutgers University and interned for a television station while there that got me hooked on production.
Q. What was your first film?
FRECKLES is my first film. I directed, wrote and produced television for years- mostly on shows that concentrated on fashion and entertainment.
Q. You cast FRECKLES extremely well. Where did you find Jenn Halweil, who is absolutely brilliant in the lead?
I got soooo lucky. I put an ad on some online casting sites looking for “super-freckled actors” and Jenn Halweil showed up at one of the auditions wearing a hoodie and looking spectacular! She really just got the character instinctually so it was an easy choice for me. Later, she told me that when she read the script she cried. She was so used to getting roles as the “love interest” or “prostitute” sent over and was so happy to be able to do one where the protagonist was three-dimensional and had her own thoughts and feelings.
Q. She manages to bring a great deal of quiet intensity to the role. Did you work closely with her on the character?
The role of Lizzie is very difficult as there is a lot of ‘reaction’ compared to dialogue but Jenn made it come to life. I didn’t have to coach her at all really- she is a true professional and really connected with the character. When she was in the voice over booth (which we recorded before the shoot) doing her monologue, the sound recordist and I had tears in our eyes. That’s super weird because it’s my words so I know them well, but Jenn put so much emotion into them. I knew I had a very special actor. Oh, and a funny thing, the VO sound recordist was Jane Dashow, who plays her workmate in FRECKLES. Jane, another amazing talent I was fortunate to have on set, also coaches voice-over actors.
Q. You seem to trust the actors to know how far to go. Is that correct?
Oh yes. I make my life easier by casting really great talent and then see where they will go with it. When we rehearsed the office scenes, I made Jane (Margo, the workmate) stick to the script but told her when we get in front of the cameras she should just go over the top with it- dick jokes and everything- and try to get a rise out of Jenn. I thought it would be more natural if I caught Jenn off guard. Jenn of course, played it so amazingly straight, even as the crew was hysterical off-camera watching Jane.
Q. Do you like to rehearse?
Normally, yes, I find rehearsals useful and a great way to get feedback from the actors to improve the script. However, I knew I had a very talented cast for FRECKLES so I think I only made them read with me twice before we shot. Of course, I let them know that I was available to go over anything with them. Jenn Halweil had a very good instinct for the character Lizzie. I remember when we were shooting the office scene where Lizzie says she will “just go home and do her taxes so the federal government can see she is still single” she wanted to try it sad. I had written it to read as angry. But Jenn’s choice made the character so much more empathetic. That was just good instinct on Jenn’s part. And I cast Jane Dashow without having her read at all – or even seeing her in person! She matched the personality of Margo exactly. She had me in hysterics with our first phone call and that was all I needed.
Q. Would you say that you have a particular technique in how you direct?
I tell people I am more an actors’ director than a technical one. I am not as versed in equipment and lenses as I would like. But in reality, I am a director that is dedicated to the screenplay. I think the script is the single, most important thing in any film so I am super concerned how the story is coming across.
Q. What cameras did you shoot with?
FRECKLES was shot on an Arri Alexa. Originally, DP Steve Gray and I were thinking of shooting with another camera but when I explained that I wanted the shower drops to be in super slo-mo so that they look like tear drops, he suggested the Arri Alexa to get that effect. I am so glad he suggested it because the film came out more beautiful than I imagined.
Q. Was the film storyboarded?
I attempted to storyboard the film but I am the worst at drawing and I think the angles I drew only confused my DP.
Q. You also write. Do you consider yourself a director first, writer second, or the other way around?
I first and foremost consider myself a writer. Too many films– especially indies- are shot before the script is tight. No amount of fancy camerawork can resurrect an ailing script. The screenplay is the foundation and it must be strong enough to build on.
Q. Do you have a process when you write?
Story ideas can come to me in a dream or an overheard conversation in a café or somewhere. When one of them gets stuck in my mind, I outline it to see if it’s big enough to carry 90-100 pages. If it is, I then vomit out the story. I purge the ideas into a very poorly written rough draft. It makes me angry when I write this draft because the writing is so bad. But I have to get the story out. The second and third and eighty-seventh drafts gradually get good enough where I can let a friend read it and get their critique.
Q. You took the film to Cannes this year. What category was it shown in?
FRECKLES was shown in the Short Film Corner in Cannes. This means it was not in competition. But what filmmakers should know is that Cannes is the only one of the Big 3 festivals that has a market for shorts. So, a few hundred shorts are accepted. They do not screen or have a red carpet event but it gets a filmmaker there!
Q. And how was your experience of Cannes?
Cannes is a filmmaker’s wonderland! To describe it in one word: Magic. Everyday you meet filmmakers you admire, see beautiful people in gorgeous clothes, and are made to feel like a royal. Cannes has allowed me to meet amazingly talented people and has given me confidence in my work – which is gold.
Q. One would imagine the film playing at Cannes will give you more clout to play with when it comes to your next film (although knowing the film industry, possibly not). Are you already looking for that next project?
Although people are less likely to slam the phone down after I mention I had a film in Cannes, the film festival acceptance does not include a bottled genie waiting to grant a filmmaker all her/his wishes. And unfortunately, no one hands you a blank check when you get back on the plane. I have several screenplays written that I would love to get in front of a producer and get made. I am also in search of a manager or agent to improve my writing opportunities. I am so eager to get started on a new project!!
Follow Denise on Twitter: @denisepapas