GIFF 2017: Susan Johnson Talks CARRIE PILBY

Talking with the director about her feature debut, her love of John Hughes and working with one of her crushes.

Carrie Pilby is the story of a young woman who grew up too fast. Skipping grades and then graduating Harvard before she left her teens, her biggest struggle isn’t in recollecting facts or doling out philosophical bon mots but in finding a way to relate to those around her.

While Susan Johnson has spent years as a successful indie producer Pilby is her first feature as director. With a cast that includes Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne and Vanessa Bayer, this charming film holds its own against the vast pantheon of quirky New York romantic dramedies. We spoke to Johnson after her film screened at Tampa’s Gasparilla International Film Festival.

You've produced a bunch of films, but here's your directorial debut. What was it about this project that made you think, hey, I want to do that part of the job!

I actually have a degree in directing from American Film Institute. I produced my first movie, Mean Creek, and it sort of had a home run. It was bought by Paramount and Focus at Sundance, it went to Cannes, and it had a good theatrical run. So I was suddenly a producer and didn't intend to be. Ten movies later I woke up and realized that I really needed to find material to direct.

Suzanne Farwell and I had been talking about doing a film together for a long time. We met on What Women Want and she had read this book, Carrie Pilby and always kept it on her desk and checked in every year or so to see if the rights were still available.

Surely the hardest special effect that you had to deal with was finding your Carrie. I understand there were a few bumps in the road but you ended up in the right way.

We're thrilled to have Bel in the movie. We knew if we didn't find the right Carrie, we wouldn't make the film - It was that critical. She's in every scene, she's the whole thing. As we were looking at actresses, and doing some chemistry reads, we were sent The Diary of a Teenage Girl and we all just flipped out over her performance.

Was she always going be someone that’s crossed the Atlantic?

She's British in the book.

So whomever you were casting, whether they were an American actress or not, Carrie was always going to be a Brit?

Yeah. In fact, with Bel, we did research about how if you moved to the States at 12 what would her accent sound like. We put [Bel] through a dialect coaching in New York City to sort of tone down her British accent and bring in words that were more American for a 19 year old. It is definitely a performance, it's not her natural accent.

Do you find it sort of a different sensibility or timbre between Brit performances and the Americans?

I'm a huge fan of British actors, just in general, Bel included. Most of them spend a lot of time working in theatre and I think they bring a different access to the material that American actors who haven't had that experience do. The humour part is so critical in any film - It doesn't matter if it's a drama or a comedy or a horror film or whatever, people connect to each other based on moments where both realize something is funny. I started my career working in the UK for a couple of years and I sort of just lean towards that.

Similarly some of your American cast, such as Nathan Lane, has extraordinary theatrical experience.

Nathan was perfect to work with. He read the book, start to finish before saying yes to the role and came in with a dog-eared copy and we went over things for hours. On the shoot, he would come in certain days with dialogue ideas and changes based on what he connected to in the book, and we took all of them. His work ethic is amazing, I could listen to him speak all day.

Did you get him to sing an answering machine message for you?

I didn't think of that.

Jason Ritter seems to have become a kind of indie darling of late.

I wasn't sure what his take on Matt would be. I had in my head a different actor who shall remain nameless but who has more bravado and more a ladies mannish. Jason came in with his take and I was just floored. I didn't even know there were these layers to this character - my own fault - so I hired him basically in the room. I'm just in love with him. Everybody in the cast is. Everyone in the movie is. Everyone on the crew is. He's just a fantastic guy.

And of then there’s that Irish guy.

Gabriel Byrne, I will say totally to any press, is my big crush since I was 20. I just really love everything he does and I really wanted to work with him. He was the most supportive person, actor-wise, I've ever worked with. He helped me see some things and made me confident that I could do it.

What film was that first crush from?

Miller's Crossing - The company I worked for distributed it, so that's how I came to know his work.

You have one particular bravado continuous shot walking the streets of New York.

We did 7 takes of that. I went through the script with my DP in the weeks before we shot and we shot listed the whole film. We watched Manhattan about 3 days before and there's a beautiful scene where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are waking through New York and he said let's just try it.

It's interesting that that scene plays differently for men and women. They're so uncomfortable with each other, and they're supposed to be, so they're not only walking and performing, but they're just supposed to have lapses in dialogue where they don't know what to say to each other. It seems to make the men very nervous and the women are like, yeah, that's exactly what a first date looks like.

Other than Manhattan were there other films that inspired you?

I felt that she was a neurotic character like a Woody Allen character in a lot of ways but I'm sort of more obsessed with John Hughes movies. The ensemble of The Breakfast Club all works so beautifully together and each person brings a part of the story. I went to those movies to study tone.

There's a lot of Molly Ringwald in her.

Beautiful and awkward. Exactly.

The biggest challenge surely is making you like Carrie despite her being quite challenging at times.

In the book, you really want to punch Carrie for about three-quarters of the book. It's really hard to find any empathy whatsoever because it's all in her head and the things that she doesn't say to people. It was really important to me to have an actress that seems a little bit fragile. Bel is beautiful and bright and has this light to her that I thought was really critical to casting that role. If we had put in anyone that was a little darker or a little edgier or a little angrier, or a little affected, we would have lost the whole movie. That's why it took us a year. We had to get that tone right.

We have to connect with her even though she can’t connect with others.

Exactly. I'm a big fan of just staying on an actor and I do that a lot in this movie. With Bel she could change the direction of a scene with a single expression. It sounds stupid to say you can feel what she's thinking, but, and you're supposed to do that with all actors in all roles in all movies, but with her you really can feel the shifts in frustration between not being able to figure everything out and sadness at losing her mom and the awkwardness of trying to connect.

What surprised you most moving from producer to director’s chair?

One was that it was completely seamless. I wasn't the least bit nervous and I felt like I put on an old sweater the first day. But w after the film finished, when we finished the edit and knew we had something, we were really excited about the movie and then it dawned on me, oh my god, this is all on my shoulders for the rest of my life! I have to be responsible for this forever and I have to defend the movie to people who don't like it. I hadn't really experienced that ever in my career, so that was terrifying. I literally stopped sleeping for weeks and got all nervous about what people would think. You just have to learn to speak about the movie and the interview part is suddenly the hard part. To understand how to talk about the film, and I've never had to do that before.

I hope this isn't so hard and such a terrible interview.

It's getting easier! On the next film, we'll talk again and we'll see if I've gotten any better.