Interview with Denise Papas Meechan, Director, Writer, and Producer of Freckles
This interview is part of a double feature on the film Freckles. You can also find a review of Freckles by Katie Grimes.
Freckles tells the story of a woman plagued by her freckles. Can you tell us a little more about the film and the inspiration behind it?
Freckles are super charming! They’re an identifying feature most people find very attractive. I wanted to flip that cultural standard because I thought the demonization of such a lovely trait would allow the audience to see how other people’s interpretations of beauty can be so gravely flawed. The protagonist in Freckles, Lizzie, has embedded a false ideal of beauty in her mind and allowed it to warp her psychological development. It’s devastating when I hear my friends bemoan the very features that I believe make them unique. We all know too many beautiful women who see distorted images of themselves staring back in the mirror.
You chose to center your film on the effects of beauty standards on women’s psychological wellbeing. What drew you to this issue?
With the onslaught of social media, body shaming has become a ubiquitous epidemic. It’s heartbreaking to read stories about girls—and boys—being bullied for their appearance. It’s very important that we provide additional, more rational dialogue so people can detach the nasty comments and hashtags from reality. We need to supply tools to combat the negativity and nourish self-confidence because a self-assured person is a more creative and productive one. And I believe we can build a richer world if each individual is given the means to achieve their greatest potential.
You’ve worked as a writer and producer for several television shows, including Subway Q&A and Fashion Police. Did those experiences with TV influence how you approached directing a short film?
It has been said that it is more difficult to write a short piece than a long one. The TV shows I worked on were cut into individual segments with an over-arching topic. It required me to exercise my narrative editing skills and to remain focused on the theme. I approach filmmaking in much the same theme-focused way.
What makes working on a short film different from working on a feature?
I find short filmmaking exciting specifically because of the restraints it puts on a filmmaker. Storytellers have a lot to say—that’s why they are storytellers. Short filmmakers do not have the luxury to stretch out character and story development over several scenes but rather the characters and events must be open and in the middle of change when we meet them. It’s a more dynamic way of telling the story, in my opinion.
As the writer, director, and producer, you wore many hats in the production of this film. How did you juggle these roles?
Each stage of production is exciting and vital in its own, very different way. The juggling of roles staves off any speck of boredom with a project. When I write, I see the direction in my mind so, in a way, it’s easier because I can fool myself into thinking I have everything under control. Then, when I find a fantastically talented crew like in Freckles, that vision is elevated in a compounded way by their talents and I end up with something infinitely more impressive than I originally conceived. I continue to be humbled by the artistic creativity of my DP Steve Gray and his striking aesthetic, as well as the talents of the entire crew and cast. I felt like my biggest role was just to make sure all the fireworks of brilliance I witnessed on set and in post stayed in line with what I wanted as the final result.
Freckles includes some animation that provides viewers another layer of insight into the protagonist’s inner thoughts. Why did you decide to include these asides, and how did you go about integrating them into the film?
The office where Lizzie and Margo work is an excruciatingly boring place. They are two workmates with clashing personalities sequestered into a claustrophobic cubicle. For an introvert like Lizzie, I wanted to give her a release – a portal back into her own mind – which is the only place she feels comfortable. The audience needed a little humor to break from the heavy topic as well. Animator Adrienne Shneyder created the cartoons based on Jane Dashow’s incredibly spirited performance as Margo, so it pieced together brilliantly.
The film features some graphic violence. Why was it important for you to include these scenes?
I wanted to show Lizzie’s internal trauma boiling to the point where she could no longer control it. Anger is a secondary emotion that Lizzie is just discovering as a possible outlet for her loneliness and inner pain. It was very important to me however, that the violence not be shown gratuitously in her POV but rather by placing the camera in a position where the audience can see how it is affecting her.
How long did it take to complete this film, and what were some of the challenges you had to overcome to make it a reality?
The actual shooting of the film took only a weekend. But after it was written, the pre-production and post took about six to eight months. I dedicated a lot of time to the casting process and I am thrilled that I did. I was blown away by the magnificent performances of Jenn Halweil and Jane Dashow, and the charm that emanated from Antonio E. Silva.
In the beginning, I was afraid that Jenn’s freckles wouldn’t pop on camera as I had envisioned but my superstar make-up artist, Meredith Stracar, came up with a way to trace the dots on her face for more contrast. She was able to calm my greatest anxiety after one screen test.
I also feel that music is one of the most important elements of a film. I would not lock the picture down until I had the music of the phenomenal Keith Oqueli, so I waited until he had the time to compose.
Luckily, my post team – editor Ulysses Adams and sound designer Luis Inestroza – were extremely professional and patient with me throughout the process.
How did you go about funding your film and what advice do you have for others wanting to fund their own film?
Indie filmmakers should think about paying it forward! I believe in karma and that being part of a community means supporting others whenever you can. I have helped some filmmakers in the past and I called them up for a return of favors. Because of that, I was able to self-fund the bare necessities and equipment with a micro-budget. I will be forever grateful to those who, for only credit and a belief in the project, helped on the film.
Freckles was just accepted to the Cannes Short Film Corner. What do you think this prestigious selection says about the film?
I have been floating on air since Freckles was accepted to the Cannes Short Film Corner and I’m not sure I will ever come down! I’m certain every writer and director have a shred of insecurity that their work will not be accepted or understood. By Cannes screening the film, it’s like the most esteemed panel in the industry views the issues I have portrayed on screen—body shaming and the self-confidence of women—as an important conversation to have and is highlighting that topic on a global stage. That’s invigorating!
It also means the world to me that the crew – and everyone that extended a favor and supported me throughout the process – are acknowledged by such a respected cinematic committee.
What advice do you have for women filmmakers starting their own projects featuring women protagonists?
Women need to get angry about the Hollywood situation as it stands now and to channel that anger into positive action. Only 22% of films in 2015 featured a woman protagonist – that’s a bleak number especially since there is a spotlight on the subject these days. But it’s not enough to just put women on screen. The stories need to be interesting and deep and something the audience wants to see. Women must grab a camera, hire more women as crew, and write from their perspective. We need to change not only what stories are told, but the storytellers themselves. I imagine a very possible utopian Hollywood where 50% of industry professionals are women that encourage, support, and nurture each other’s talents. I found a fairy film-mother in Jennifer Cox of Moto Films and I hope to some day be as encouraging and helpful to other filmmakers as she is to me. We need to all fight together! Thankfully today there are some very effective organizations like yours (agnès films), as well as Women Occupy Hollywood, The Director List, Diversity in Cannes, and Directed by Women that are garnering much-needed attention to the cause. I am so grateful for the recognition each of these agencies has given me specifically, as well as what they are doing to help minority filmmakers in general. I want to help keep the positive energies flowing!