Interview by Danielle Winston.
June Falling Down is your first feature and you not only directed and wrote it but you played the titular character. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea of making the film and of playing so many roles in its production?
My dad passed away from cancer in 2009 and that ended up being the only thing I could write about for years afterward. I also had a guy friend who got married right out of college and that really threw me for a loop. It was about one year after my dad died and I felt the “loss” of this friend I think a little deeper than I would have otherwise. It’s not like my friend was disappearing from my life, but I had this realization that we’d never have the relationship again of me walking into his dorm room and plopping down on the bed and hanging out. Things were going to be different. So I realized that there were two forms of loss happening and if I really dramatized those, I could have an internal and external battle for a character in a movie.
I also had always been dreaming of making a movie in Door County, Wisconsin, where my family had a beautiful old farmhouse. I’d been writing the script for June casually for years, but then when I learned our place was going to be torn down, my filmmaking partner Chris and I decided to go ahead with the feature and push it forward. Because I’d always been dreaming of using this home in the movie, we suddenly had a serious deadline.
I always knew I’d be directing my own script for this movie as well as editing it myself. Chris and I made two short films before this in the same way, so we had a good system down just the two of us, crazy as it might be. Chris ran the sound and camera and I directed and acted. Both of us produced, which means we did everything else. We both ended up playing so many roles because of the time crunch with the house.
You drew on some aspects of your own life when writing on June Falling Down. Can you tell us about the experience of turning part of your past into a screenplay?
It’s definitely a little strange to take some of your real life and put it into a movie, but in losing my dad I realized how much the movies and our culture in general had misled me about what loss was like. I found grief to be so much messier and more traumatizing and surprising than I was prepared for. A lot of movies focus on the first few months or year after a death and then the characters seem okay. In my experience the grief didn’t really solidly hit me until a year later, so that’s the point in time I chose for the character in this movie.
Another aspect of grief I wasn’t really prepared for was how everything else in life continues forward—and that life can still be funny, even in the worst moments. The day after my dad died my brother and sister and I watched the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall and laughed so hard. And that’s not cold, that’s survival. That’s why this movie has a lot of humor in it—because going through tragedy made humor that much more important for me and my family. That’s how this movie ended up being a relatively light comedy with some harder moments. That’s why one of the biggest laugh lines in this movie also has the word “hospice” in it. When I realized that tragedy and comedy could live side by side in this movie, that’s when I really hit the ground running on the script.
You’ve written about “having nothing to lose,” in terms of making your first feature. Can you tell us what you mean by that and how that sense influenced your creative process?
Well, I had nothing to lose in a lot of ways in making June. I had no reputation to worry about. I’d only made two short films before and neither was extraordinary, they were just experiments. So I knew that filming and completing a feature could only be an incredible experience as a film school, in building a community, and in celebrating where I come from. That said, I knew I had the drive to do it, but I’m grateful also for my naiveté at the beginning because I had no idea what I was in for!
I also had nothing to lose because I was rather broke before making this movie. I was working as a house cleaner and home assistant and I figured with making a movie I could only go up from there. I didn’t worry too much about being broke again afterward because I’ve gotten used to a lifestyle of barely scraping by in bigger cities (I live in LA now and before this I was in the Bay Area). I’m also in a position where I don’t have kids or any kind of real responsibility yet, so it was a good time to just go for it.
All of that of course then influenced what kind of movie we were going to make. I knew I had this incredible resource of Door County in terms of local actors, gorgeous scenery, and the music scene (where a lot of our music came from). In the script I wrote in the exact restaurants and bars where I wanted to film (and we got all of them). I also knew that we had to match the content to the form, and Chris and I are not professional cinematographers, so we knew it would have a slight homemade feel to it and we decided to take advantage of that. I knew the charm of a homemade movie could match the charm of Door County.
You’ve written that June Falling Down shouldn’t exist. Why is that?
Oh, for the same reasons that I had nothing to lose! We were inexperienced and broke and completely foolish. We weren’t ready to make the movie. I had been writing the script originally for several years down the line when I was hoping to have found more people to be on our team—producers and crew members. But because the house was going to be torn down, we went for it as a two-person crew. I was the director/actor and Chris ran the camera and sound. Maybe half the time we got a friend to hold the boom mic. In other words, it was at times an unbearable amount of work. And yet somehow we did it and it all worked out. Our actors were exceptional and brought so much spirit and love to the movie, and the community was so helpful and enthusiastic. It’s honestly a miracle this movie ever got made.
Did you always plan to act in your film and what was it like to be behind and in front of the camera working on a story that you had written?
I always knew I wanted to play June. I have a much nicer, quieter way about me in real life than her, but I’m actually more sarcastic than I’m usually cast, so I wanted to play someone tougher and, I guess, ruder and meaner than I am! So I definitely wrote it knowing I’d be playing her. That said, when it came down to acting, I realized that I really had imagined a very different character than myself and it took some work to figure out how to play her, changing my voice and mannerisms, all of that actor prep.
And in terms of directing and acting, I mean, it was completely nuts. Very difficult and straining, especially in emotional scenes, and having to go back and forth some with the camera can really take you out of it. I’m lucky that Chris is such an exceptional partner and has almost identical taste to me with acting. So he was always keeping an eye on a scene, on whether it was hitting the right emotional tone all the way through. But I loved acting and directing. I would do it again someday … with a much bigger crew!
You also worked with non-professional actors for most roles in your film. What was the experience like and what advice do you have for others wanting to do something similar?
A lot of key roles actually were played by professional actors—Claire Morkin, who plays June’s mother Kathy and Steven Koehler, who plays June’s father, are both professional actors. Evan Board, who plays June’s brother Dave, is in college studying theatre, as did Joanna Becker, who plays Sarah. And other smaller roles were performed by professionals also. But a number of prominent roles were filled by non-actors—both Nick Hoover (Harley) and Justin Pahnturat (Marcus) are musicians and artists in their own right. And I think that was really key in this movie, that they’re both artists as was everyone involved in this movie. Talking to creative people who are sensitive to story and have exceptional taste (it always comes back to great taste) in film and music is very different than trying to work with people who don’t really have that developed level of awareness.
We cast this movie based on feel. A lot of folks were cast into roles where they could mostly be themselves in the character, and I think that actually does a lot of the work for you as a director. When people are cast perfectly, the characters suddenly blossom bigger and with more detail and life than you could possibly imagine. Each person brought so much of him or herself to the story that we just had to create a comfortable environment for them to open up in.
What advice would you give to first-time feature filmmakers wanting to make a micro budget film?
I think the important thing is to know your story inside and out. It’s funny, I have a tendency to be self-deprecating and focus on how crazy it was to do this with two people, etc., but my vision, well before we started shooting, was crystal clear. I knew exactly how every single moment should feel. I knew how I was going to edit between scenes. We were constantly monitoring tone and emotional arc—not by using those kinds of mathematical sounding phrases, but just by feeling it out.
One thing that happens with extremely indie movies like this one is that I see a lot of people aren’t vigilant enough with their vision. It’s easy to get on set and get distracted by how funny an actor is, for example. But then in the theatre no one is laughing but the people who made the movie. That drives me crazy. You have to find moments on set when you step away from people and ask yourself, “Is this true to the whole movie?” It’s hard to do and it’s hard to be the boss and stick to your guns—but it’s your job as the director to carry this thing through to the end and make it all work as a whole.
If you had to make the film all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently?
It’s kind of a tricky question, because of course I would have had a bigger crew, hired a cinematographer, had a fantastic producer, had an assistant for myself—there are a million things that would have made this process so much smoother and better and more professional. That’s what I know I would do better next—have at least a five-person crew! I joke, but it’s true. That said, when I look at the movie now, I can only say that we did the absolute best with the resources we had available to us at the time. And I’m proud of it. That’s all you can do. By the time you finish the movie, you would make the whole thing differently given a second chance. I’m honestly just amazed we did it.
What would you like people to take away from watching June Falling Down?
I just want people to feel better, whatever place they’re in in their lives. In the end, this is a feel-good movie, and I’m proud of that. It’s not Hallmark, there’s a lot of naughty language and beer and pot smoking, but it’s got a really good heart. It was important to me that June’s journey in the movie doesn’t seem solved. She still has a long way to go with healing—and I think it’s important that neither she nor her family will ever be the same again without her father. That was my experience of grief: it’s never going to be okay with me that cancer killed my dad halfway through his life, but I have to live with it. And there can be a lot of laughter despite that.
Are you working on any new projects and how has your first feature influenced process for you?
I am writing two features right now, and I couldn’t be more excited about them. One is set in the Bay Area and it’s more of a romantic comedy/drama, and the other is set in Wisconsin again in the winter and it’s a darker, kind of rustic suspenseful movie. I would love to direct both of them and it seems I might have to because I’m already starting to imagine the camera work as I write. June was my film school, so it will stay with me forever. The lessons I learned—like get a bigger crew!—and the things we did that really worked, like keeping the set loose and fun for our actors, will come with me into every movie I do from here on out. I really feel like this is just the beginning.