They say that connections are everything in Hollywood, no matter what facet of the industry you're in. You never know if that person you meet at a party will become a future collaborator. For first-time feature director Jen McGowan, her film Kelly & Cal, was born out of a USC alumni program, where she met screenwriter Amy Lowe Starbin.
Four years later, Kelly & Cal is currently available on VOD before opening in Los Angeles September 19, boasting a superb cast (Juliette Lewis, Jonny Weston, Josh Hopkins, Cybill Shepherd, Lucy Owen and Margaret Colin) and a wonderful story about growth and friendship. Juliette Lewis stars as Kelly, a former punk rocker who has settled down with her husband (Josh Hopkins) and their newborn child in the suburbs. Uncomfortable in these cushy surroundings, Kelly sparks a unique friendship with Cal (Jonny Weston), a high school senior confined to a wheelchair after a tragic accident, a relationship that will change both of their lives.
I recently had the chance to speak with director Jen McGowan about her feature directorial debut, assembling the cast, shooting in just 20 days and her favorite memories from the set. Take a look at our conversation below.
I got a chance to see this last night, and I quite enjoyed it. It's a wonderful little drama.
Jen McGowan: Oh, thank you.
You're quite welcome. I believe this is the writer's first feature. Can you talk about how this came into your hands?
Jen McGowan: Yeah, absolutely. Amy Lowe Starbin is the writer of the script, and she and I both went to USC. We were there at different times, and about four years ago some alumni created a program called USC First Team. The purpose of that program was to encourage feature film projects, among the alumni. In that program, I met Amy, and we just really hit it off. We really liked each other and we had good conversations. I read her scripts and I enjoyed her writing. She had about half of the script written, and I said, 'Let's work on that.' She wrote it and I developed it over the course of a year, and once we were happy with it, we sought out producers.
That sounds like a fairly fast process.
Jen McGowan: It's funny you say that. Everybody says that, but I felt like it was taking ages (Laughs).
You hear these stories like, 'I wrote this script 25 years ago...'
Jen McGowan: Oh, God. I never want to have to tell that story.
When everything came into place, did the cast come together just as quickly, or did that take a bit more time?
Jen McGowan: Yeah, it really did. We cast through a great company with (casting director) Rich Delia. We cast Juliette first, and from there, we got everyone around her, Jonny, Josh, Cybill, Lucy and Margaret.
I was really struck by the relationships. You hear about these new mothers and how they can't really handle their new reality, but you don't often see them bonding with a younger kid. Was all of that developed when you first met Amy?
Jen McGowan: Oh, that was definitely the script. She just had it about half-written. That was definitely what the script was about. That was the interesting thing to experiment with and explore, and see how can we make this relatable and accessible. We didn't want to put everyone off. We wanted people to understand her point of view.
I loved that there are a few little red herrings thrown in there, like, 'He's got to be cheating on her, right?'
Jen McGowan: (Laughs) I think there are moments too where you can see into what Kelly was thinking, and why she was behaving that way and what her concerns were and what her worries were. I think it's funny because, you can never understand a human being if you aren't speaking to them. There are so many ways you can misunderstand something.
How long did you have to shoot this, and where did you film this at?
Jen McGowan: We shot in New York, Long Island and Queens. We had a 20-day shoot.
That's fairly quick, but that seems to be more normal these days for independent film.
Jen McGowan: Yeah, it's definitely not easy. It felt super-fast to me. I would have loved to have another day or two, but those are the boundaries you have to work with.
It was a very cool area, and it wasn't something that I immediately recognized in thousands of movies before. Was there a lot of location scouting that went into finding the right neighborhood?
Jen McGowan: Yeah, that was very deliberate. I wanted it to be somewhere that looked like suburbia, but I didn't really want people to place it. That's not what the film is about, and it also conveys that this could take place anywhere. It's funny because I lived in New York for years, but I never really saw these places. And it's right next to Manhattan. It's crazy how diverse it is.
Are there any memorable behind-the-scenes moments on the set that you'll always remember when you think about this project?
Jen McGowan: That's an interesting question. Oh, there was a really sweet thing that happened one day. We were shooting in Cal's garage, and I think Jonny was on a break, or something, and I heard this gaggle of girls squeal. I looked out of the garage, and at the bottom of the driveway, there were five or six pre-teen girls, who were waiting there for like an hour to get Jonny's autograph. He was walking down to the driveway to them, and they were just exploding. It was really cute.
How much research did you go into as far as the handicapped aspect of Jonny's character?
Jen McGowan: Yeah, that was very important to get that right. I did not want to be offending people. We weren't doing a caricature, we were doing a real person. Even though Jonny was shooting on another project right up until our shoot, we got him a wheelchair a month in advance for him to use and get comfortable with, to experiment with. He worked with two physical therapy centers, and they helped him figure out how to do things, using the chair. We also put him in touch with two guys who use wheelchairs in their real lives. That was super important, getting that right.
I thought the in-law family dynamic, with Cybill and Lucy was great. Those scenes were hilarious to me. They were so subdued and just on-point.
Jen McGowan: I like that. I appreciate that kind of humor. It makes me laugh.
I'm not too familiar with Lucy Owen's work, but I thought she was great.
Jen McGowan: I love Lucy Owen. She was fantastic and, I have to say, such a dedicated actor and a professional and a hard worker and just a really pleasant person to be around. I'm her biggest fan.
I saw that you used twins to play the baby Jackson. Was that a tough process to find the right baby's?
Jen McGowan: It was obviously, as you pointed out, helpful that they were twins. They were actually triplets, but we only used two of them. That was definitely one of the more challenging aspects of the film, having the babies there. You can't direct babies. You just have to wait. They just scream! It's funny, Cybill was on Good Day L.A. today, and she said the same thing I've said many times, which is, the baby will come on set and scream, and everyone's brain's just get scrambled.
Kelly & Cal is out on VOD now, before expanding into more theaters in the next few weeks. This seems to be the new wave for smaller films like this, doing a VOD run where you get that wider audience, but also a theatrical release as well. Is that kind of the best of both worlds, for a film like this?
Jen McGowan: I don't know. It's hard for me to answer that question, because I don't have anything else to compare it to, in terms of my personal experience. I will say that there are things I like about it, and things I don't like about it. What I like about it is, you still get the cache of going theatrical, you still get the reviews and the press and the attention of being theatrical, you still have access to an audience you might not have theatrically, so I think that's all great. I wonder if maybe there should be a week delay or something like that, but I don't know. I think it's a changing world and, really, the only thing I care about is that people see it.
Is there anything you're developing now that you can talk about?
Jen McGowan: Yeah, totally. I have a film called Millie to the Moon. The company that's doing that is called Very Special Projects. We hope to be shooting that in 2015 in Los Angeles. It's about a young woman in her early 20s who lives with her mother and her autistic brother. She's been taking care of them, but she isn't really taking care of her own life. She starts dreaming of space travel and space tours, and those dreams lead her to have bravery in her life and go out and find out what she wants to do for real. It's a lovely script, which was written by another USC alum, Lynn Hamilton. It got to the top 30 of the Nicholl's a couple of years ago, so it's a really solid, great script.
Is there anything you'd like to say to people who might be on the fence, about why they should give this a shot in theaters or on VOD?
Jen McGowan: I think people should see it because I think it will surprise them. We have had a really broad response from people of all different ages and different genders who respond to something in the film. A lot of people really love it, so I hope you'll give it a try.
I thoroughly enjoyed the film, so I hope it does well.
Jen McGowan: I do too! Thank you so much!