Interview by Alexandra Hidalgo
This interview is part of our double feature on The Girl in the Green Dress. Please also see Laura Gonzales’s review of the film.
You co-wrote, produced, and starred in The Girl in the Green Dress. Can you tell us about your writing collaboration process?
Leah: It was very easy. We had the concept. We improv-ed as actors a bit. We banged it out in a matter of hours. It went through several drafts and when our director, Johanna Goldstein, came on board, she revised it a bit, as well. Writing-wise, it was very natural. It isn’t a dialogue-heavy piece. It’s a lot about what ISN’T being said.
Sara: Totally agree, since we had both discussed the piece at length with each other and had a really solid understanding of the concept, the writing seemed really natural!
It’s a very timely story in spite of being set in the 1950s. Can you talk about what inspired the piece and whether you tried to tie it to LGBTQ issues today?
Leah: Sara and I always want to be doing new exciting things that are fun, challenging, and relevant, and the story came about organically. What can we both star in? What have we not done? It resulted in this film, but we never set out to make a “lesbian film.” The more LGBTQ relationships and perspectives you see onscreen, I think makes it a little less shocking or different, a bit more part of our normal everyday lives — which we need. It’s a human story. It’s a love story — a tragic love story, if you will.
Sara: I love period pieces and anything vintage. When brainstorming ideas, Leah and I wanted to have the challenge of making a 1950s film, but also ground it in something relatable today. Everyone can relate to love.
Did you know which parts you wanted to play as you were writing the screenplay and did that knowledge affect what you wrote?
Sara: As we were writing, we naturally developed roles that fit both of our strengths not only as actors but as scene partners. We’ve worked together in probably over nine or ten projects at this point, so I feel like we both have character patterns we fall into. Leah and I always joke that I play the straight-laced voice of reason, and she plays the carefree, spontaneous, bad girl. One of these days we’re going to write and produce something where we switch!
Leah: We have a horror film in the works, which is a bit of a departure. There will be a little bit of a rivalry between our characters, which is new. We always play friends. Or lesbians. That’s kind of our thing.
That’s interesting and not very common in the entertainment industry, where women characters are often paired against each other as they compete for male attention. Can you talk about why you like to play friends and lesbians? What attracts you to those stories?
Leah: We are such good friends in real life. It always feels natural to have us play characters that care about each other because we don’t have to fabricate that. The chemistry is there. It would be very foreign as writers and as actors for us to make a rom-com where we fight over a guy. Weird. Not that I’m opposed to it! If we were hired to do that, we would have so much fun, but that’s not where our minds go as filmmakers or as women. There’s no lack of those stories. It’s been done.
Sara: I agree. Since we have such a good friendship, it would almost be unnatural to play against each other. To me, it’s more interesting and natural for us to create characters that are extensions of ourselves and therefore are an extension of the established chemistry we already have. If the characters have conflict, it only comes from the progression of the story and the need to create emotional depth.
One of the ways in which you present the film to audiences is by mentioning the fact that it was made for women, by women, and about women. Why do you think it is important for women to make films about women?
Leah: My hope is it is made by women, about women — for everyone! I think everyone of all races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, etc., should be making films. The beauty of a great film is that it can invite you into a world you might never experience; it allows you to see the world through different eyes. A woman has a unique perspective, a distinct experience and story to tell. That should be reflected in the films that are available to the public. Women in movies are often stereotyped. We’re there to serve a specific purpose — often as a romantic interest or a symbol of sex. It’s so antiquated it hurts. A movement is beginning, though. I am hopeful.
Sara: I like to look at filmmaking with my lady friends as my modern day “knitting circle.” We’re knitting scarves and mittens for everyone, both guys and gals, but there’s something really lovely about being creative with your girlfriends.
This film is a big undertaking, in particular because you beautifully captured the 1950s, a complex and costly process for a film. Can you tell us about the experience of making a period piece and provide advice to other filmmakers seeking to do the same?
Leah: Get an art director who is passionate about that time period. Then the inevitable challenges aren’t soul sucking for them. Our art director, Nicole Vardi, LOVES the fifties.
Sara: If you’re planning on doing a period piece, try to choose elements of things you might already have access to and then get creative with how you shoot it and what you choose to show the audience. When we wrote this piece we tried to keep in mind what resources were available to us: my house, Leah’s house, wardrobe, etc. However, we didn’t want to limit our story by only sticking to what we already had; pulling together the other big 1950s elements was a huge challenge. We were incredibly lucky to have two extremely talented designers. Both our production designer, Nicole Vardi, and our costume designer, Kim Brunner, were able to create a world that felt authentic on a shoestring budget. I collect antiques and vintage clothing, so Kim and Nicole were both able to pull from my collection and from Leah’s wardrobe; however, Nicole rented or borrowed most of the ’50s home goods. Kim scoured thrift stores looking for the right pieces, and we were lucky enough to have donations from incredible companies whose aesthetic fit our film: ModCloth, Seychelles, Azazie, and CEO Tees.
What strategies did you use to fund the film and what did you learn about fundraising from this project?
Leah: My Tia (Aunt in Spanish) passed away and she was such a huge lover of dance. A large portion of the budget came from my inheritance when she passed, and it felt very appropriate to dedicate this film to her. She was a lifelong career woman who never seemed pressured to conform to societal expectations. I think — I hope — she would have liked the film.
From there, we producers funded the film. I am currently reading up on raising financing for my first feature. Obviously, it’s very limiting working with your own money. If you have the means, power to you! Otherwise, at some point as a producer you have to come up with a more sustainable way of funding your work. For future projects, the goal is to team up with like-minded individuals who understand what we are doing and want to be a part of it.
Sara: Fundraising for any large creative endeavor is incredibly difficult, but we were so lucky to have Leah’s Tia’s funding to help us tell this story. If we learned anything, I think it was that it’s important to save every extra penny you have and get creative with how you can cut corners while still staying true to the story and authenticity of the film.
Some of the most arresting sequences in the film are the dance scenes in which you tell the story of the characters’ love affair through movement. Can you talk about what prompted you to choose that format and how you see dance as helping you tell this story?
Leah: Dance is so emotional. It’s such a universal language. Our choreographer, Justine Menter, had a dance show that really inspired the idea to thread dance into the film. The dancers onstage were so beautiful and captivating, it seemed like a visually cool way to live out the romance in Ann’s fantasies. For Sara and I, it meant another level of challenges, but that’s the fun, isn’t it?
Sara: When Leah suggested we add dance into the piece to tie in the book, it absolutely seemed like the right medium to really explore the emotional side of the love affair. What you can’t say with words, why not say with movement? Besides, who doesn’t want to dance their heart out when they feel so inspired?
You’ve both worked on TV series. In which ways does that experience help you as you work on a short film like The Girl in the Green Dress?
Sara: Working on different projects, in varied mediums and in multiple genres, has helped me make informed decisions during the creative process. Television prepares you to think on your feet and make quick decisions; for example, when you receive 15 new pages of dialogue first thing in the morning and will be shooting in an hour. How do you cope and get the job done? You have to think quickly, be flexible, stay focused, and say please and thank you. All of which are necessary skills when producing and acting in your own low-budget project on a tight schedule.
Leah: Something I’ve noticed about Sara, who works tons in TV, is that she doesn’t question herself or get up in her head while shooting. It’s great because she just GOES for it. She’s a pro and I don’t worry about her when she’s shooting. I’m able to go take care of producer stuff because I know she will deliver.
You have also produced, written, and starred in other projects. What are the benefits and drawbacks of being involved in so many formative aspects for a piece?
Sara: What’s liberating is having full creative control, but it’s a balancing act because we have to wear so many hats. We hired an amazing crew and production team which certainly helped alleviate some of our responsibilities on shoot days. But it’s really hard to take off the producer hat and jump into the actor shoes when you know you’re on a time crunch. Having someone who has your back through the creative and producing process is key, and I feel lucky that Leah and I genuinely enjoy each other’s company and respect each other’s ideas.
Leah: I had a realization that as an actor I don’t get to choose my roles or projects. The project chooses me, or it doesn’t. I am basically at the mercy of everyone else, which can be really frustrating. You feel a bit powerless. As a writer and producer, you DO have the power to create work you want to be a part of. You CAN choose your role and your project. It’s empowering. I find myself feeling more creative than I ever have. It forces you to expand as an artist and a business person.
Do you have any advice for filmmakers wanting to write, produce, and star in their own projects?
Sara: DO IT! Wait, let me say that again…DO IT! Right now — go, find a camera, an iPhone, your Mom’s old camcorder from the ’90s and make something. Find your friends who also want to make stuff, pool your resources, do a kickstarter, save some lunch money, etc. I think people get scared about failure. What if I make something and it sucks? So what? Fail and then the next time you make something, do it better. And what if that stinks? Oh well! Guess what — you’re creating, you’re making, and you’re (hopefully) having fun while doing it.
Leah: “If you build it, they will come.”