Director/co-writer Daryl Wein on the set of Lola Versus. Photo By Myles Aronowitz
After making his short film Unlocked, and the award-winning documentary Sex Positive, Daryl Wein established himself as a tour de force filmmaker with Breaking Upwards, the relationship comedy/drama shot for $15,000 that Wein directed, produced, co-wrote, starred in, edited, and sang on the soundtrack. After making Breaking Upwards, Wein and co-writer Zoe Lister-Jones immediately began writing their follow-up, Lola Versus, which follows a woman (Greta Gerwig) through a year of being single in New York after she’s dumped weeks before her wedding. In anticipation of the film’s release on Friday, I enjoyed an in-depth chat with Wein about his work leading up to and including Lola Versus. Here’s what Wein shared with me about what he’s learned on his journey as an independent filmmaker, bucking the traditions of the “rom-com,” and crafting Lola Versus.
Jackson Truax: Your directorial debut was the short film, Unlocked, on which three-time Oscar-nominee Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) was credited as an Executive Producer. How did he come to be involved?
Daryl Wein: I was a camera guy in rehearsals for Billy Elliot: The Musical on Broadway. I met Stephen through that and we became friendly. I showed him Unlocked after I’d finished it. I asked him if he would be the Executive Producer, purely because I thought it might help raise the exposure for the film. The only capacity Stephen had was lending his name and being just a very generous and happy supporter of me, a young filmmaker.
JT: Unlocked showed that you’re a great storyteller, getting a lot of story into a short amount of time. The film starts off with a potentially heartwarming premise that ends up feeling really bittersweet and shrouded in ambiguity. How did you figure out where to end the narrative, and what tone it should take?
DW: I am always a fan of ending films a little bit open-endedly, so that you leave the theater still asking questions and thinking about the story that you’ve just experienced. I had the ending of that in mind before the beginning. And also had the ending of Breaking Upwards…before we had all co-written the full screenplay. Sometimes as a director/writer, you think of certain scenes that could work in certain places and you formulate the story around that… In terms of the tone for that short film, Unlocked, obviously the subject matter is very weird. The premise of a guy working for a cancer organization, asking a woman to donate her hair on the street in the back of a van, is awkward. So the tone, I knew, had to be somewhat bordering on realistic, realism, and have components of being a psychological thriller. Because you don’t know if she should be doing what she’s doing.
JT: Your next project was the award-winning feature documentary Sex Positive. How did that come your be your first feature film?
DW: I was looking for material for my next film after Unlocked. I was told by Zoe’s mother that she had a friend who was a retired S&M sex worker. I was intrigued by this lifestyle. I told her I wanted to talk to him and meet him. She told me he had also written a book called, The Invention of Safe Sex. So he wasn’t only an S&M sex worker, he was a major AIDS activist during the 1980s and godfather of the safe sex movement. He was one of the first guys to promote safe sex in the world. I thought that was fascinating. So I met with him. He was a larger-than-life character. And very intelligent. And also had an assortment of issues that he was working through. I thought it would make for a really interesting and important documentary about the history of safe sex. Also, a portrait of this man’s life, living with AIDS, and how far we’ve come from the 1980s to now, and how we still have problems with safe sex education now and disseminating accurate information about the history of safe sex in America and the AIDS epidemic.
JT: What did you learn from it that you took into your narrative filmmaking?
DW: I learned how to tell the important parts of a story. When you’re making a documentary, you don’t necessarily know what the story is. You’re finding it as you go along. Especially in Sex Positive…There’s so much material about the AIDS epidemic. I was weeding through so much historical material trying to figure out…what story I’m trying to tell here. You have to learn how to consolidate and streamline the important parts of the story. I learned how to structure things well in that process. That was an invaluable experience. I edited that myself. And I edited Breaking Upwards. I didn’t edit Lola Versus. I wanted to step back and try and be a little more objective. But that was an amazing lesson I learned.
JT: Zoe told me she gave a lot of notes on Sex Positive during the editing process, and that’s how she came to be credited as Associate Producer. What was the best piece of advice she gave you?
DW: Zoe was instrumental in coming up with the title. I remember we were having trouble figuring out what we wanted. We wanted there to be “Sex” in the title, because the movie was so much about sex, and I think Zoe came up with the clever use of the word, “Positive.” Which I guess had already been a phrase in the LGBT population, being very open and positive about sexual experiences, and talking about them and communicating about them. It was also a little bit of a play on words. Aside from that, she gave instrumental notes in helping me structure the film.
JT: Breaking Upwards, for an independent first feature made on such a small budget, attracted a cast including Heather Burns (Miss Congeniality), Peter Friedman (The Savages), Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), and Julie White (Transformers) among others. How did you assemble that cast?
DW: A lot of those people happened to know Zoe, which was great. Because Zoe was working in the theater. So she knew Julie White. She got Julie White to be a part of it. Zoe had done a reading with Pablo Schreiber (TV’s The Wire). I think she had also done a reading with Peter Friedman. We’re big fans of all these theater actors. We wanted them to feel really authentic to the world. Olivia Thirlby (Juno) was in my short film, Unlocked, so I reached out to her for that part. Zoe did a play with Heather Burns. We didn’t have a casting director. We didn’t have money to go out to all the agencies. In many ways, as independent filmmakers, we had to rely on people we knew. But we also love these actors. There’s something really exciting about capitalizing on actors who are criminally underused, and more understated. They also…they’re not necessarily getting a lot of the big parts that they would maybe want to be getting. So to have an independent film, and be able to chew on these roles, because we really like to write for actors, I think was really exciting for them.
JT: When opportunity knocked to hand a producer a second screenplay, you and Zoe had Lola Versus ready to go. When did you start writing it?
DW: We started writing it as soon as we finished Breaking Upwards… When we were on the festival circuit. I think we started conceptualizing it when we were at a film festival in Italy. We were just talking about our experiences being single, and realized that there was a really interesting story in a single woman. Because we really haven’t seen…a lot of portraits of single women that feel real and honest, but also funny. Zoe, obviously, could relate to that really well when she was single… So we thought that would be fun to write, and kind of the…appropriate next step. Coming from Breaking Upwards, our agents were saying, “You’ve got to make another Breaking Upwards-style movie. But just in a bigger way, so more people can see it.” So we said, “Alright, that’s cool. We’re happy to stick in this genre for now and keep exploring codependent relationships.” Our spin will just be that this one will just be much more focused more from the point of view of a woman. And what that’s like, at the age of thirty, to have the rug pulled out from under you. At a time when there’s all this pressure to settle down and have kids, and become an adult.
JT: Lola Versus puts the main character into the center of what’s very much an ensemble piece. She has the quirky, female friend, the sensitive, male friend and the funny, black male friend. These characters are archetypes of the genre. In the writing and direction of these performances, how did you make sure they felt fresh and unique?
DW: We were picking up on a lot of classic tenets of the genre. The genre being the relationship-comedy-romance genre. I wouldn’t say this is a conventional “rom-com.” Even though some people might perceive it to be in that set, because it’s comedic, it’s dramatic, it’s romantic. It’s more of a romantic dramedy to me. I think we wanted to have a few touchstones for people to be able to identify with. Because that feels real to us… What feels real to us is having a best friend there for you when you’re going through a break-up… When writing these characters, while they’re classic archetypes in some respects, we, I think as comedic writers, tried to write witty, fresh comedy that we hadn’t seen before. So we’re always aware of our influences, and all the other films that are out there, trying not to copy anyone. So it’s just being self-aware. It’s also just or sense of humor… The trajectory of the character, is another way…of not having the archetypes not come across as so conventional. You usually have the female ingénue fall in love with another guy at the end. Or they get back together. It’s always wrapped up in a bow. We were trying to be the anti-romantic comedy in that way, where it’s playing on what you think is going to happen…but we go in a different direction. So you’re not rooting for what you would normally be rooting for. You’re rooting for her.
JT: One of things you established in Breaking Upwards that you brought into Lola Versus was your collaboration with composer and songwriter Kyle Forester. How did you come to work with him, and what has your collaboration evolved throughout the two films?
DW: Kyle’s an amazing musician. Zoe knows him through her NYU world. That’s how we brought him into the fold on Breaking Upwards. They had worked together on an album…Skip the Kiss, covers of Britney Spears and Jay-Z and stuff like that. He’s such a musical genius. He can play any genre. He did all the score for Breaking Upwards, and the soundtrack. Zoe wrote all the lyrics, which was so cool. We wanted to have him do the score for Lola. I think it was a lot to chew on… He’s obviously very busy. We had him write the song “Saturn Returns.” That was really cool… Musically, we’re always trying to have fresh, interesting musicians writing scores. Fall On Your Sword did the score for Lola Versus. They’re kind of edgy. Not as conventional as normal composers. They come from the band LCD Soundsystem. The soundtrack in Breaking Upwards was very homespun. We sang on a lot of those songs. We actually had a budget to buy songs… We got to choose all these cool bands that are a little bit underexposed. A bunch of amazing musicians like Taken By Trees and some cool indie rock that isn’t so overblown.
JT: When Lola Versus comes to theaters next month and audiences go to theaters to see it, is there anything in particular you’re hoping they’ll be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
DW: I hope that they will have enjoyed themselves. And laughed and related to what it’s like to be single. Because everyone’s been single at some point, or [is] single. And has struggles with relationships. I hope they take away that it was a fresh take on a relationship story, that a had a great time, and they’ll Facebook and Twitter about it.
Filed under: LiC Interview