“I tend to like films about things that I would like to walk up and tell people about, but I can’t because they would like punch me.”
– Alison Bagnall
Alison Bagnall launched her career into the Feature Film World in 1998 as co-writer to Vincent Gallo for his directorial debut Buffalo ’66. Her most recent film Funny Bunny, which she both directed and wrote, played in the prestigious Film Festival South by Southwest in March of 2015. Funny Bunny is her third feature. She also directed and wrote Piggie (2003), and The Dish & The Spoon (2011).
What made you first decide to be a filmmaker?
I showed my final film, from that basic film and sight course… I shared it with a bunch of parents and students at graduation, and people were laughing. Really laughing. It was just a five-minute short I had made. My professor had really liked it. He kept asking me: “How did you think of that?” I thought, “Oh wow, he seems to like that.” Then, all the parents and students were laughing, and I felt like I was suddenly high. It made me feel delirious to cause a whole room full of people to laugh with something I had made. Then people told me: “I hope you keep going with this. It certainly seems like you should.”
I love that feeling of tickling people through film and engaging them. I don’t think its just narcissism, causing some people to watch something that I had made: “Me. Me. Me.”
It’s a craft thing kind of like a performer having to engage their audience. I felt like a craft person whose job was to entertain people. I felt like that is what I ought to be doing. It seems to have been very successful and not that hard. It seemed to come pretty naturally, to entertain people through weird little films. So, I thought okay, that’s what I’m going to do. Then I still didn’t know how to do it for years. I had no clue how to get into it. Nobody does…
Did you find it harder to get started (making your first film) or being able to keep going (making the second and third film)?
The hardest thing in the world to me was making the first feature. It’s one thing to make a short. That’s not that hard. You can get it together in a short one or two-day shoot. It’s not that huge of a deal. Getting a feature made, just feels like percolation. When I started it was a little more expensive. Even now it’s expensive. It’s still really expensive to get people…
It was really hard to make a feature because just getting the money to get the budget together… and then I had been trying to put this feature together for so long – I had been working on it for four or five years trying to get it up. I had a baby in the meantime. I was already 32. It had been dragging on for so long. – My husband said, “I think you should make this film this year or else don’t make it anymore, cause it’s just been dragging on for so long.” So, I said: “Oh okay, that seems fair. I’ll make it this year or else I won’t make it.” Then I had to make it because I didn’t want to not make it.
It’s very hard to make the next one too. It’s hard to get the money for these things. Now, I know you can make films very cheaply. So, you don’t have to get quite so much money together. I don’t know. It’s weird.
It is really hard to make the first film and it’s really hard to make the second.
A lot of your films are very character driven. Do you find it difficult to convince people that the stories you tell are worth being told?
I never worry about things being character driven. I also feel like it is the antidote to the big dumb Hollywood movie that’s out there right now. They are so dumbed down. They are so watered down… When you make a character driven movie people are hungry for that.
I don’t care about convincing anyone. I don’t care. I don’t care to convince anyone.
…It is a problem when the budget gets bigger. When I did my film Funny Bunny, there was a period when it was going to be a half a million-dollar film. The producers that I had for a period started giving the screenplay to paid script readers, I had no idea who they were, and that’s when I lost interest in making the movie. I find movies that are character driven more compelling to me personally.
My life is too short to make stuff I don’t really like.
In 2015 the DGA reported that women accounted for 16% of Directors employed that year. In 2016 the jump was only by 3% making men account for 81% of all directors and women only 19%. Can you comment on these findings?
I found that sometimes women who are in charge prefer to give jobs to men. Directing is sort of thought of as the man’s job. Sometimes even the women producers and executives are more likely to give something to a man director than a woman. Women sometimes don’t support other women very well. I’ve had some of my tougher experiences with women producers. Women don’t always support each other. We’re oddly competitive with each other. It’s weird. I don’t often understand it.
I personally haven’t felt the glass ceiling. Maybe I have experienced it. I’ve never felt it. I’m not saying it isn’t there. It evidently is. So much culture is masculine, I guess. I just don’t know what causes it.
I never think of myself as a female director. I don’t always go around thinking “I’m a female director and this is harder for me.” I never think in those terms. I’ve only lived in this one body. I know some people talk about that gender thing a lot, and undoubtedly it’s accurate. I just never really thought in those terms.
It is so often said that there is a lack of “original stories” in the world. How do you stay fresh in the face of that mindset?
That is something I think about. When I am originating a project. Coming up with a project. I will often think about what is something I have never seen, but that I really would love to have watched on a screen? I usually start with a scene, a moment. Images. Mostly moments, like characters in situations and the way they are behaving.
I do definitely think about it. Like I don’t think “Oh, who cares if it is the same old story? It’s going to be great.” I’m going to be making it. I don’t think there is any reason to make the sort of movies that are the same old thing that has been made before.
It’s related to the notion of entertain myself. I try to think, “What would be really fun to watch?” Like a scene I have never seen before, and that I would really love to watch.
I do think of a movie in terms of five really good scenes. What are the showpiece scenes I will be really excited about, after I have made it, and will be excited to watch? What kinds of scenes will be kind of cool to watch again and again?
There is this scene in Funny Bunny. I just love it. That sounds like total narcissism. Maybe it is. I just never get tired of watching it… The three films I’ve made are all flawed in their own ways. I don’t really care that there are flaws. They have certain scenes that I love. I can never get tired of watching them. I love the actors that I put in it. I love these actors saying these certain lines and in that situation. I just kind of make stuff… that is fresh, that I personally haven’t seen; that I personally think would be fun to watch. That’s my criteria.
I think there is no point in rehashing, regurgitating things we’ve already watched. Making derivative cinema. I don’t really like when people make movies that are kind of an omage to Tarantino or P.T. Anderson. Why are you going to rehash that stuff from 5 years ago or 10 years ago? I guess I can understand people who interpret a 50-year-old Japanese film or a Buster Keaton because it’s always going to be quite different.
Can you tell us a bit about your new project?
Now I’m not even really sure one should make features anymore. It seems like a dying medium. People aren’t really watching them. I don’t know. There are just so few that can be distributed each year, and there is almost no way to make the money back. I really don’t like taking people’s money anymore and not giving it back to them. I don’t know if I am going to make any more movies. People are not paying for them. If they aren’t the cost can’t ever be covered. The math doesn’t work anymore. It hasn’t worked in a long time.
I don’t really know what my new project is…
…I have a story I have been working on. These sort of characters in my mind. It’s called “The Mendicants.” I know it has these scenes of suicide in it, and wealth disparity, and white racial ignorance. I know I want to do something with those themes, but I am starting to think that I maybe wanting to develop something more sort of long form, like rather than it being a film. A three, five-part thing. So, I guess it would be for television or whatever you call it now. Not necessarily in a movie format. I’m thinking of something that is funny and touches on those themes. I have a feeling it will be a longer formed thing. I am going to let the story dictate the structure of the project. I’m not going to try to plan what it is ahead of time.
I kind of like psychological themes. The last one (Funny Bunny), explored the themes of maternal neglect and incest driver, and so, but making it kind of funny and sad at the same time. This one explores those other heavy themes, but they would be kind of done in a sort of light or funny way. You know it’s kind of heavy and sad. You can’t give them too much power. It needs a little humor to treat difficult and dark subjects. I’m interested in addressing the whole racial issue of people thinking we live in some post-racial world. Most sentient beings need to realize we don’t, because specifically a lot of Americans don’t get it. I’m interested in doing a film with characters who really don’t get it. Maybe some other characters who are going around trying to educate white people about their white racial ignorance. I thought it would be funny. It’s something I would like to do.