about their great feature debut, what she said
Theydies and gentlethem, welcome to a special edition of bed crumbs!!
Today’s newsletter is not an essay (ur welcome) but an “interview” with Jenny Lester and Juliana Jurenas about their very very very good new film What She Said. I used quotations around interview because (a) we are friends and (b) this was just more of a long (long), rich conversation over pizza and wine about their movie and how hard it is to make shit where I just threw out broad thought starters and then sat back and reveled in the way they just finish each other’s sentences in the best kind of brilliant shared brain way. There was also a lot of talk about Bad Art Friend (we all agree that everything is copy!) and trauma (much to say about big T and little T varieties) and the act of questioning whether or not you are the right person to tell a certain story (it’s tough!) that did not make the cut because this is already very long, but maybe you’ll get them as a bonus part 2. I don’t know!! Be nice to me and we’ll see!!!
Anyway! To the important things: Jenny and Julie wrote and produced their first feature, a wonderful ensemble drama (with some fucking great comedic levity, I feel compelled to point out) called What She Said, that is centered on a young woman who contemplates dropping the charges against her rapist and her friends and siblings who gather to stage a Thanksgiving intervention to get her to change her mind. I know I said up top that we are friends but, truly, even if I didn’t know them, this would be extremely my shit and I would yell at all of you to watch it. Its script is lived in and natural, and it feels studied in the best ensemble pieces that have come before—respectful of the territory and in conversation with them rather than blatantly ripping them off. Too often you watch a movie like this and say, “Jesus Christ, they already made The Big Chill, give it up!” Even though this also has a bat scene (purely coincidental!!!), this is not that!
okay thanks sorry love u bye!!!
Carrie: I love the voice of your film so much. How did that come about? Just gonna start this off with the biggest, broadest question, I know.
Jenny: Well, the initial initial idea was to make something that was a ensemble piece came from our love of indie dramas and ensemble plays. We've seen them all 50 times, except for—the funny thing is that we've seen all the ones that want to be like The Big Chill, but we had never seen The Big Chill until we were like halfway through the writing process. And then someone was like, "You should really watch it." And we did and were like "Ohhhh, okay. We get it, we get it." There's even a bat scene! And I was like, "WAIT!" I was so mad. It was like, “that came out of my family!"
Julie: We were just like hitting each other.
Jenny: Julie's cousin, Amy [Northup], directed it. It's her family's farm and she grew up going to Christmas and Thanksgiving there. I visited for Christmas in 2015 and I was like, "We should make a movie here." We had that conversation and started writing down ideas of, like, couples—
Julie: Couples having marital problems! [laughs] We were, like, 22—
Jenny: —and like, "We could do that! We could pull that off!" [laughs] Yeah, and then we put it away—
Julie: Thank god we didn't make that movie.
Jenny: I know. Well, we knew, inherently, there's nothing there. That's not a movie. We needed more to it. But it was really [seeing high profile stories about sexual assault in 2016]. I read them and was like, "What the fuck." I couldn't get it out of my head. I was just like, "Who is this person who has that experience and is speaking about it in in a way that’s touching so many people?" [Some were] anonymous, so I sketched in all the details about who she must have been.
Julie: There were so many coming out at the time that we were passing back and forth and finding in the deep dive.
Jenny: And then there was the idea to make her a linguist because of the language of consent. There was this one article that came out about the language of consent that we flipped out over, talking about what words are used when we talk to women on the stand and what words are used for men. The words for women were just devastating.
Julie: They were all incriminating questions you can't answer—which we have in the brief moment where Sam is questioned. It's like "So you do like vodka? You did drink vodka, right?" For a man, it like, "What are your goals for your future?"
Jenny: More and more was coming out and we were raising money for the film—the script wasn't even done, but we were still raising money—and the Dr. Blasey Ford trial was happening while we were in the midst of our money raising campaign. And we were just glued to the television watching her.
Julie: But it also helped our campaign because it was so topical that we were like, "People will notice us right now if we are actively participating and having opinions about what's going on.” And I think that really, honestly, affected our campaign. Which is weird, to describe it that way.
Carrie: No, I get it, being uncomfortable about that aspect. But I think the movie ends up contributing to the conversation thoughtfully in a way that doesn't feel like a slimy co-op. I feel like we got so many pieces of media that seemed like they were coming out because the topic was trendy, versus, “this is a good story; the timing just happens to be right now.”
Julie: Right, because this topic will always be relevant.
Jenny: I think a lot of the trendier stuff was trauma porn. Or, the other version of this story, which is a revenge fantasy. The impetus, for us, was more like "Who is this woman? Who was she before? Who are her friends? And like...maybe she sucks." We don't know anything about her. Maybe she's fucking annoying, dramatic, and sort of self-obsessed. Perfect victimhood was such an interesting idea—
Julie: That we wanted to flip on its head.
Carrie: At what point were you like, "This should be a movie."
Julie: I think from the beginning. It didn't have any other forms.
Jenny: I think when reading victim impact statements, Me Too kind of stories or whatever, in the back of my mind, I was like "the farm movie." At a certain point, I think I was in a yoga class or something, and I came out and I was like, "Julie. This is the farm movie." Because it was like, we have this idea of all these people in a cabin. But why are they there? Who are they? We abandoned all of the original written down couples things and then it just spiraled from there. I talked to a lot of survivors, where their stories were just so varied and so traumatic. Traumatic, but the women I was talking to were good humored and kind, were whole beings who were funny and lovely. But the thing that came across from all of the interview was that they were always worried about the people who were trying to take care of them. They were managing other people's feelings in addition to trying to navigate that.
Also, so many people asked, "Why a feature? Why not a short for your first thing?" And we're like, "Because how many good shorts do you see or get seen?"
Julie: I mean, every once in awhile you see a good short but then you look it up and it's by someone famous's grandkid who was given a million dollars.
Jenny: I think we also had this idea, I don't know where it came from, this sort of understanding that—we had never asked for any money for any projects. So we were like, "Let's go big once." We crowdfunded almost $40,000—
Julie: And a part of us was like, "Is this because we've never asked anyone for anything before?"
Jenny: And we still are learning how to ask for help in general. But that was a huge thing. We were like, "We have one trick pony, so let's fucking go all the way."
Julie: Because yeah a lot of people do crowdfund for their short and you get to make it but it's really so much harder to get that to go somewhere. And at the same time, we only made enough money in our campaign to probably make a good short. And then we were like, "This is enough! We can start on this!"
Jenny: And we were like, "We didn't go to film school. We know plays. And we have an ensemble piece that's long." I don't know how to make something pretty for 10 minutes. That's not something I have any idea how to do. I know how to write a lot of people in a house screaming at each other. That's Chekov, baby!
Carrie: I feel like this is a table of people who are whole-ass people who cannot half-ass anything.
Jenny: We are whole ass people.
Julie: Two whole asses right here.
[they high five]
Carrie: I'm fascinated by how you both work together. What is that process like?
Julie: I feel like we've worked together in the past where it was a little bit easier to focus on our collaboration and what we wanted it to look like. This was so much bigger than anything either of us have ever done before that we were both buried in logistical stuff.
Jenny: It was a lot of like, "You good?" "Yeah. You good?"
Julie: We were both in the same room tackling different things, but at the same speed. We hype each other up to get stuff done, which makes us very productive, but also hard for anyone on the outside to get in there.
Jenny: Yeah, we definitely speak in a short hand that people are like, "What's happening?" But it would seesaw, too. Sometimes one of us would be like, "We took on too much. I'm gonna die. Let's run away." And the other person would be like, "No, we got this!" And then within mere hours, it would flip.
Julie: It wasn't until post-production, really, where we could be like, "oh, let's collaborate."
Jenny: And then it was 18 hours a day of us sitting next to each other. She does all the technical editing, but I was in the room almost the entire time. We learned a lot. Like, "Oh, you actually do need to capture that b-roll for a reason." Shooting we were like, "Eh, we don't need it."
Julie: And then in post, we'd be like, "Yeah, we need that."
Jenny: So there was a lot of that. And then sometimes there would not be a solve, it would be like 2 A.M., and she would say, "I'm done. I gotta go to bed." And I'd be like, "I think I can crack it." And she would say, "Good luck!" She would make a copy of the scene so that I wouldn't fuck with the original. And then in the morning she would see what I had done and be like, "What the fuck."
Julie: As if it turned into an art house film. Jenny got really into using YouTube sounds. She was like, "If we don't have something to show, we can find a YouTube sound that will show it!”
Jenny: Honestly, fifty percent of our sounds—we thought they were placeholders and our sound editor would come in and replace them. But Julie's so good and such a perfectionist and she manipulated them so well that by the time we sent them to our sound designer, he was like, "That's pretty good." We were like, "We ripped that off of YouTube! YouTube to mp3 dot com, that's how we got that sound!"
Julie: But then [collaboration] would happen in other ways, like times where I would forget to eat and just go, go, go. Like, as soon as I wake up until like 6:00 PM and then Jenny would just like, come over, dry shampoo my hair, and put a glass of wine in front of me.
Jenny: And we had just insane amounts of support as far as like—we didn't have any, like, financially or from anyone who could help our careers—but our friends would just sometimes drop off groceries. There were small things that would send us over the edge and we would be crying. People probably don't realize how much of a difference that made.
Julie: Seriously, it takes a village to make anything, especially when you don't have money. It was really intense for the two of us to take on. Which, cool, we did that. But we struggled. It will be so fun to collaborate in the future when we have more resources and more support.
Carrie: I keep thinking about that guy who tweeted something the other week that blew up where he was like—I think it was somehow related to the new iPhone cameras—"SEE? ANYONE can make a movie. There's no excuse."
Jenny: Fuck off. That's what I have to say to that.
Carrie: Right? "You have an iPhone, go make a movie." He obviously got dumped on and then deleted it but I feel like ever since Steven Soderbergh made his little iPhone movies and Tangerine blew up, people are like, "You can make a movie with nothing!"
Jenny: Yeah, but it will suck!
Carrie: Exactly! It will suck! People don't realize how much goes into it! Which, speaking of, what was your set experience like?
Jenny: We had an almost entirely female crew. Most of us came off bigger productions that were not that, and the theater, which is mostly run by old white dudes or whatever. But it was crazy being on a set of all women. When things go wrong, my experience has always been like, "Whose fault is this? How did we let this happen? What's happening!?" And when something went wrong—and shout out to Eden Martinez [What She Said’s line producer], who is amazing—it was "What are we doing? How do we fix this?" It was solution oriented.
Julie: And it was like that across the board. It was calm oriented. We were treating each other with respect, even when everyone was going into closets and crying because it was overwhelming. When we were doing the film, at the end of our five days of shooting—we’d shoot five days, have one day off, and it's a really stressful day on the last day before you take a break—immediately, we were like, "Okay, party, everyone! Move the furniture! We're blasting music and dancing!" It's the only way that a group can recover.
But [next time], I definitely want to build time to enjoy it and take it in. Because I just had my blinders on of “the next thing, next thing, next thing.” And I tried the best I could to look around, but then I would look around and be like, "Oh, I need to fix that." I want to allow myself time and space to also enjoy it and not just make sure other people are enjoying it, which I feel like is something that a producer often does.
Jenny: I think the main lesson we'll take with us is to treat the crew and the people you're making it with well—but include yourself in that. Keep everyone wildly happy because people are happy to make art and do the thing that they love when they feel taken care of, when they feel safe, when they feel unafraid to fail.
Julie: We did figure that out as we were doing it, but it wasn't something that we went in knowing. And, I did learn like, oh, there are other ways you can make people happy that aren't just money. Like, we called the local farmer and he brought his animals to set and people were happy.
Jenny: To have facilitated a sort of family atmosphere, even though it broke us and we were in a closet crying sometimes, that was special. It also felt, at the end, like, "This is it! We did it!" We had no idea because we were doing this on audacity alone and a little at a time—we didn't know each step was coming. We were sort of like, "we'll deal with that later." So at the production stage, we felt like, "We're just going to whip this thing into a movie and it'll come out in six weeks!" We had no idea how many years after it would take.
Julie: I remember I was very hot-headed and over-confident when we started pre-production and production to like actually shoot. I was like, "We just had our campaign. This is so early. Everybody says it takes five years to make a movie. We are moving so much faster, we're so capable, we're doing it." And then it still took five years.
[this interview has been edited and condensed]
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