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The Transformative Experience of Being Believed In
Recollections from directing Paint It Black.
A big thank you to set photographer Britney Cherry for all the photos in this post.
It’s National Women’s History Month, and I’ve been reflecting on what, exactly, this celebration is supposed to mean for us. I’ve always bristled slightly at the notion that the country gives us this crumb of time to celebrate ourselves—A whole month?! Just for us?! Oh, thank you!—before returning back to the status quo. Should we feel honored? Should we feel satisfied with this finite offering of acknowledgement? Should we fill feminist hashtags with posts of gratitude then call it a day come April 1st? What exactly should we do with a month that’s supposed to be all about us and for us?
This year, I’ve decided to lean into the potential of this month to make it a little more personal. I’m challenging myself to think of it less as an empty symbolic gesture and more of a meaningful assignment: to honor what womanhood has given me, and to honor the transformative stories from my life that have brought me immense joy and creative growth, and to uplift and thank the women who have supported me along the way.
One of the most empowering and transformative experiences I’ve had in my life was getting the opportunity to adapt Janet Fitch’s novel, Paint It Black, into a feature film which I also directed. Janet is a brilliant writer, best known for her novel White Oleander. We had a mutual friend—the poet Derrick C. Brown—who I begged for an introduction. He agreed, and Janet and I met for drinks. At first, she wasn’t sure I was the right fit to adapt her novel—I was mostly known as an actress who wrote poetry on the side—but I had a vision for her book that was unshakable, and like most of my writing, once something gets under my skin, it will stay there. Janet’s book did that to me, and even more so, the idea for its potential adaptation. After months of communicating with Janet (AKA wearing her down with bourbon-fueled conversations around a firepit with my ultra-cool dad and other artists, along with countless unsolicited love letters and poems and emails about my vision for her book) she finally gave in. “You are impossible to say no to,” she once said to me. “Impossible.” (Cc: My husband, who will attest to my persuasion capabilities.)
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Paint It Black centers around Josie Tyrell, a Los Angeles punk rock artist whose boyfriend, Michael, takes his own life. In the aftermath, Josie struggles to understand his death while desperately trying to hold onto the world they shared. She is both attracted to and repelled by his mother, Meredith, who blames Josie for her son's death. The two women are drawn into a twisted relationship that is equal parts distrust and blind need.
Janet was on board, but the struggle to get the film made had only just begun. I adapted the book into a screenplay with my friend, the screenwriter Ed Dougherty, and spent several years trying to get the film financed. My version of the film was an emotional battle royal between Josie and Meredith in an attempt to control Michael’s legacy and story, and ultimately, each other. Think The War of the Roses meets Grey Gardens. In my adaptation, the story centers solely around the two women, and Michael is seen only in small flashbacks whereas the book carried much more of Michael’s presence throughout. But every financier I met with to consider the film—all of whom were cisgender men, and I think this detail matters in this context—didn’t see the vision I had for it. They thought it was more important to include Michael’s perspective in the film, to have his presence play a much larger role so we better understood what the women were fighting over. But the financiers misunderstood. The film was a Bechdel-Wallace Test in reverse: the women weren’t fighting over a man; they were fighting over their obsession with each other.
My version of the film was one that the male film financiers couldn't see themselves in and therefore didn’t know how to get behind. Where I saw the potential for a rich, complex story centering the volatile relationship between two grieving women, the film financiers only saw their own erasure. My exclusion of Michael from the central story wasn’t because he didn’t play an important part in it. In fact, I believed that it was his absence that would allow for the women to take control of his narrative, letting the audience’s mind run wild with what really happened; who was telling the truth and who wasn’t.
I believe film audiences are much smarter than we give them credit for, and as a filmmaker, if you leave a good amount to their imagination, an audience will fill in the blanks in exactly the way you intended, as long as you lead them in the right direction: your direction.
I adapted Paint It Black around 2011, many years before the current demand to have women behind the camera, but getting the film made was an uphill battle every step of the way. It was largely with the support of the women in my life that the film was eventually made into what I had envisioned. One early champion of my plans for the adaptation was the actress and artist Tilda Swinton who I had become close with while filming Stephanie Daley. Tilda was a constant source of support during that time. I had wanted her to play the role of Meredith, and while Tilda ultimately couldn’t do the film when we finally made it years later, she encouraged me at every turn to keep fighting for the vision and version I believed in.
Then there was producer Wren Arthur (who runs Olive Productions with her producing partner Steve Buscemi) who was instrumental in the film getting made, alongside producers Anne Hubbell and Amy Hobby of Tangerine Entertainment. These women were champions of Paint It Black right from the beginning. Getting an independent film made has to be a labor of love—has to be—because the stakes are so high and the experience can be so grueling. You have an extremely limited number of days to film based on how many days of shooting you can afford and a budget so small you have to make miracles out of it at every turn. And finally, there’s the risk that, even after all that, it still might never see the light of day in a theater or on a streaming service. These women were veteran indie film producers who knew how to get low-budget films made, and once I realized that, my whole world began to open up to new possibilities.
I had wanted Courtney Hunt to direct the film, and we were in conversation to make that a reality for some time. Courtney had written and directed Frozen River which launched the career of Melissa Leo, earning both women Academy Award nominations for their work on the film. I loved Courtney’s edge as a filmmaker who really knew how to tell a complex, dangerous woman’s story. We had many meetings about the tone of Paint It Black and what kind of film it should be, but I couldn’t seem to get my own particular vision for the film I wanted out of my head, and that often spilled over into our meetings. She had a version that required a big rewrite; I saw my version so very clearly already on the page. She wanted a gritty, down and dirty version of the movie. I wanted a sharp, cutting, dream-like version that straddled fantasy and reality. Eventually, Courtney said something that I had never even considered—a few words that would change the course of my life: “You should direct this film.”
When Janet Fitch gave me the rights to her book years earlier, I was thrilled and knew I was the exact right person to adapt it. But now, one of my favorite female directors was telling me I should direct it too. I was almost immediately paralyzed. Yes, I thought, I should. Followed by, But can I? Am I even allowed to? I had been an actress and writer for so long that the possibility of being anything else had never even crossed my mind. It seemed like there were so many odds stacked against me: I had never directed. I was young, thirty-one at the time. I was a woman. In fact, I had only ever worked with two or three female directors in my entire twenty-five year career as an actress. This, coupled with the lack of encouragement I was used to experiencing in Hollywood, save for the Tildas of the world, made me even more unsure.
One brief but disheartening example of this discouragement came after an award show one night. I grabbed a car ride with a friend and her friend, the director Joe Wright. This was in the pre-Uber days of Hollywood when you’d just have to catch a ride with whoever had a town car rented for the night so you could get to the afterparty. Wright had directed one of my favorite films, Hanna, and I told him I was excited and nervous to be directing my first feature film. He paused, then said, “Most people never make a second film, you know.” Not even a “Good luck.” It was a short but sobering exchange.
But I knew I had a vision I had to see through and that in doing so, I would be seeing through to the next great chapter of my life. A chapter where I wasn’t just interpreting stories on-screen as an actress or writing stories on the page as a writer, but melding the two skills to bring all of it to life. What a joy and privilege to finally be the boss in the same way I had seen men on film sets be for decades.
I decided to do it. It was a WILD, thrilling moment. Wren warned me that many would balk at this idea but that she had my back all the way, that we would fight to make them see what a good filmmaker I could be. And she did just that. When no established financiers would finance the film with me attached as a director, I turned to more women I trusted to get the job done.
My mom suggested I talk to her childhood best friend, Katherine Michiels, who was also a close friend of mine. She has no affiliation to the entertainment business but connected me to another woman who was interested in financing the film. The adaptation spoke to her on a personal level, and she ended up financing the entire film, roughly 1.2 million dollars. I am forever grateful for her belief in me as a filmmaker.
I was blessed to have a phenomenal cast that included the brilliant Alia Shawkat playing Josie and the incredible Janet McTeer as Meredith. Alfred Molina played a small cameo as Michael’s father, but aside from his brief scenes and the even briefer flashbacks of Michael himself (played beautifully by Rhys Wakefield) very few men exist in the film. In fact, no two men talk to each other at any point in the movie. This was by design, not because I wanted to diminish their perspective, but because I was more interested in what conversations might take place in their absence.
Directing Paint It Black opened a whole new world of possibilities to what I might be capable of and to how it felt to captain my own ship instead of just manning the oars and sails. Everything I sensed about my creative potential was true; it was a joyous, thrilling endeavor that came naturally to me. Directing Paint It Black, and the uphill climb that came with that task, was a reminder of my resilience, my expansiveness—the importance of my perspective, my passion as an artist.
The film went on to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won best cinematography thanks to our brilliant cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard, and was lauded with wonderful reviews from legends like Peter Travers at Rolling Stone. Even recently, when I saw my friend Sarah Polley, director of the phenomenal film Women Talking, the first thing she said to me was, “When are you going to direct a movie again?” It is the little moments like these, the small reminders from our peers of how powerful we can be—how effective we can be in our own journeys and storytelling as women—that can change the course of our entire creative lives.
I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that Paint It Black would have the impact it did on those who watched it. Even more surprising was the lasting impact working on the film had on me and how the experience of working so closely with these women has continued to inform the way I seek to uplift and encourage women in my personal and professional life.
A few years ago, I was sitting in a bar in Brooklyn having beers with my friend, the actress and soon-to-be director Olivia Wilde. She was telling me about a script she had read called Booksmart. It was a project she had fallen in love with and had a vision for, and she was starting to think about directors for the film. Listening to her passion for the story, I remembered Courtney’s words to me all those years ago, Wren's encouragement, Tilda’s belief in my vision, and all the women who had supported me along the way. “You should direct it, Olivia,” I said to her.
“You think so?” she said.
I answered, fully knowing, “I do.”
Tell me about an uphill climb in your personal or creative life. Was there a time you succeeded when you thought you couldn’t? Was there a woman who was there for you as a friend, a mentor, a peer when you needed one?