Interview: Darren Press (Co-Director ‘Theresa is a Mother’)
Theresa McDermott has chased her “ideal” life as an urban-dwelling, punk(ish) singer-songwriter to the very end of its possible existence. She is broke, options have run out and she happens to have a few kids she is raising on her own since their dad split a year ago. Facing eviction and nowhere to go, Theresa packs up her children and what is left of her life and moves back to the small rural town, childhood home and parents she deliberately ran from a decade ago. Theresa needs a job, her parents need their space and a painful family history needs some closure. Old wounds, unattainable dreams, and some “other things” are exposed as a fractured family works to become whole and a woman with a few kids learns to become a mother.
We talked with the Co-Director of ‘THERESA IS A MOTHER‘ DARREN PRESS about the making the low budget film, as well as its inclusion in the INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL MANHATTAN on Sunday, November 11 at New York Cities QUAD CINEMA.
Where did the idea of ‘Theresa is a Mother’ Come About? I read in one of the director’s statement that you originally wanted to make a film in an East Village tenement building. Was that script going to feature a similar story?
Yes, my wife C. Fraser Press, originally wrote a different script that does take place in an East Village tenement building. That script is also a feature and in fact is the next film we intend to shoot. It is quite a different kind of movie with a very different storyline. The truth was, that movie would have simply been beyond our financial means to shoot in a way that we felt would serve the story. Therefore, my wife “shelved” it and began to pen what became Theresa Is A Mother. As she has said, she did start out attempting to write a movie that would embrace all of our actual obstacles and utilize whatever resources we did have. I know the initial nspiration for the story came from a small house we owned with a little addition housing a hot tub. My wife tends to write from character out, and I do believe that the story for Theresa Is A Mother developed around characters who she felt might inhabit this space, as seen in a crucial moment of their lives.
What is your filmmaking background?
Theresa is a Mother is our first feature film. In 2007 we shot the short film “A Driving Lesson”. That film was an official selection to 35 film festivals and won a few awards including the Lou Costello Comedy award at the Garden State Film festival. It was also part of Glamour Magazines online short film fest featuring top new female directors. Prior to 2007, I worked on films mainly as a PA. Somewhere in there I started an advertising agency and that’s been active since 2003. I won a few awards shooting videos and commercials for a few clients. My wife was a writer and Emmy nominated actress before we were married. All of her film experience was in front of the camera or as a writer.
Have you and your wife always been a creative tandem or is ‘Theresa is a Mother’ the first time the two of you have collaborated? How did you split the enormous responsibilities of a film production?
We’ve always done projects together. I directed and produced a one woman show she wrote and performed called “Why We Don’t Bomb The Amish” that ran in NYC and prior to that a show called “Treading Alphabet Soup” that played at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and also a short run in NYC. She was also in a play of mine I wrote and directed called “Checkpoint”. “Theresa is a Mother” is by far the most involved project we’ve done together. The good thing is that we love working together. We have tremendous trust in each others instincts. Without sitting down and dividing responsibilities, we each pretty naturally gravitated to aspects of the process that we felt we’d handle best. I handled a bit more of the on set directing, often because my wife was in the scene or getting ready. She also spent time directing on set, working closely with the kids. That allowed me to prepare for other scenes or handle producer things. We also do quite a bit of being on set together as directors and really enjoyed the process. She was very involved daily with editing and we really teamed up on most of post. Every moment in the final cut was agreed upon by both of us.
Your family as a whole was involved with the film including your daughters as well. How did the conversation with your children go when you mentioned you were going to make a movie?
They were very excited, but not surprised. We have always supported our children’s creative endeavors and allowed them access to participating in ours, so this was a more involved version of other things we’ve done. Our girls are used to life being fairly “spontaneous” in our household, and this was just another “crazy” family activity. The kids worked incredibly hard. We explained to them that if they were going to do this, they were expected to act professionally, to be prepared and be responsible for their work. There were late nights and long days and they remained focused throughout. In the end they met some great people and had a fantastic summer.
Being a low budget production, how did you manage to use limited financial resources to your advantage with the film? What kind of compromises did the financial aspect of production cause your production?
This can be the subject of a book. I think for our budget we really stretched funds as best as possible. We shot locally, we used whatever “location” resources we had including our own house and the houses and properties of friends. All in all, we knew we had to focus on character and story because we did not have any other frills available to us. This is ultimately a wonderful thing. Another positive spin on our financial limitations was the fact that we were creating a story that dealt on certain levels with how a woman’s financial difficulties forces her to a place where her priorities and values all come into question and she ends up finding a “truth” through that struggle. The art imitating life aspect of our own financial struggles with the making of this movie, I believe added to some of the authenticity of characters and story that resulted and people seem to respond to. In terms of compromises, I know there were many. Things would have been smoother for our production with a larger staff and crew, more equipment and most importantly, more time. Time was probably our biggest obstacle, and in the film business, money does buy time. Yet, even with our compromises and the stress that can result, it was really a joyful, albeit exhausting, experience. I guess I will notice all the areas we compromised more clearly when I have a bigger budget on the next one.
How did you assemble the cast? What were some directorial techniques you utilized while working with the actors on set?
Our cast was assembled in a fairly traditional way, through casting sessions. As we were casting in New York City, we had the great fortune of meeting some fantastic stage actors and ultimately cast some wonderful ones. Then of course, we chose to cast our three daughters. This goes back to my previous comments on using what we had. And, we also knew based on their personalities that they would really take to the process. My wife had created parts for them that gave them an opportunity to really embrace characters that were not at all who they are as people. The one exception would be our baby, who only two years old at the time. Her personality was the inspiration for that character through and through. In terms of working with actors, we had some very experienced and some novice people (particularly our own children) on set. It was an interesting experience to blend the two and direct a scene allowing each actor to feel very much on the same level. Respect was key, and creating an environment where the actors felt extremely comfortable around each other. They had opportunities and were encouraged to relate to each other before and between filming. After all we were creating a family with a deep history with people who had just met each other. Although we spoke individually with actors before shooting to discuss characters, there was limited time for rehearsals. Because of this, time on set needed to be focused for our actors and it was our job as directors to mute the background chaos for them. This story is so much about the history of the characters relationship and the history of the place they are in so we wanted to encourage our actors to really delve into that reality, to look to each other for a sense of who they are and to occupy their space with a real sense of personal familiarity and history.
The film has seen some success on the indie film festival circuit (including being up for ‘Best Picture’ at the upcoming International Film festival Manhattan on Nov. 11). How has this experience been and what do you plan going forward with the film, festival wise?
It is of course fantastic to feel that our little movie is touching audiences enough to win these awards. That has been our ultimate goal, to touch audiences, and we really did not know what to expect when we let the movie out of our own protective hands. Winning is fun, but more wonderful has been seeing that audiences are entertained and moved by our story. We are new at this and still figuring out how to move forward. Our sense is that we feel confident that the movie is worthy at this point and would like to try to get it to a bigger audience, whether through finding the right distributor or starting out with our own micro-self distribution, we feel people will want to see our movie and tell their friends about it – we’re seeing it happen already. In terms of festivals, that is up in the air. There are so many amazing festivals, but the expense of applying and then physically getting to the festivals in order to ensure crowds come and enjoy our movie is almost as daunting as distribution. There are a few more festivals we would be honored to be a part of, so we’ll have to see what happens. In the end, with or without festivals, I think we all want to feel that there is room in our culture for good movies that are artist driven which can be delivered to audiences.
How have you found the NYC Independent filmmaking scene? Do you find the resources available in NYC make the filmmaking process easier or does the high financial obligation create more of a burden to aspiring filmmakers?
It’s hard to address this with a lot of knowledge as we shot most of our movie in a tiny town in upstate New York. We were not a big enough “little” movie to really take advantage of some things such as tax incentives offered by the city although they are available. We intend to shoot our next movie though in New York City and preferably using a soundstage, so we are in the process of learning about those resources right now. New York City is full of really top-notch deserving talent, both creative and technical, but yes, that comes with a price. So, it’s complicated in the beginning when you’d like to take advantage of these wonderful resources but really cannot afford them. I guess that’s why we ended up shooting a rural movie for our first film and hope to earn the ability to use more of what the city has to offer the next time around.