INT: Sue Kramer
It's a refreshing experience to meet an intelligent woman who celebrates and supports her gender. Representing the few exceptional female directors in Hollywood, I admire and applaud Sue Kramer's vision and determination. She is grounded, driven and encouraging. Inspired by her sister's personal life altering revelation, Kramer makes her directorial debut with her first feature film GRAY MATTERS.
Although classified as a romantic comedy, Kramer adds a unique and edgy flavor to an otherwise conventional formulaic blend fortifying its originality. GRAY MATTERS is a clever and humorous script about a brother and sister who both fall for the same girl. However, unlike other romantic comedies, this film carries a consistent element of surprise and an underlying positive message: the importance of gaiety and embracing your true self. I had the honor of meeting Kramer last week to discuss her experiences in making this film, honoring her sister, working with a wonderful ensemble cast and being a minority in Hollywood. Check out what she had to say about her original soon-to-be- released film, GRAY MATTERS.
Tell us about screwball comedy. What was the first best gay screwball comedy you ever saw?
I dont think I can remember a gay screwball comedy but I can remember that my favorite screwball comedy is His Girl Friday. Thats definitely the Preston Sturges of the world and those directors are people I definitely wanted to pay homage to - to walk very far miles in their foot steps but those are the movies that I loved. Billy Wilder and William Willer; those are my heroes.
Having two women who dance in the film gives it a certain Woody Allen-esque like feel to it. Did you tread consciously?
There was never a moment when I was writing the script...the script is very much the movie. Its not veered in any way. I wrote that title sequence, I picked the shots that I wanted in the script and I got those shots. Maybe I put a few extra ones when we were here and I saw some great shots to take. I never was thinking, Oh I really want this to be Woody or people have been making references to Norah Ephron. [I wasn't like] Oh I really want this to be like a Norah movie or I really want this to be His Girl Friday.
It was more you know you...I grew up in a culture and artists
are influenced by people constantly. Whether you are a
painter, writer, director and so I think all these people are my
influences even subconsciously but it wasnt consciously.
There was nothing consciously that I was thinking that I really want
the banter to be like His Girl
Friday. Its kind of what I write. I write very
bantering dialogue in all the screenplays that I have written prior
to this its always what I have done. I love
Can you talk about how you got Sissy Spacek to act in your film AND climb a wall?
Well Sissy and I have been dear friends. We met in these crazy circumstances about ten years ago. Her husband and I met first. Then we started working on a project that we were trying to develop together that actually she was going to direct. A book adaptation so we became even closer. Knowing Sissy as personally as I do she has an amazing sense of humor but people never think of her for comedies because she is an amazing dramatic actress. She is so funny in person that I thought 'wouldnt it be great to write something for Sissy so people can see how funny she is?' She has this really dry sense of humor.
So I wrote this role specifically for her and then gave it to her and was lucky enough for her to say that she would do it. That was a great calling card because people love Sissy so much and admire her so much that other actors really wanted to come on board or read the script. She is the greatest trooper in the world. We had a stunt woman dressed in her exact clothes perfectly ready to do that rock climbing day. Sissy would not let them do it. She did the fall herself, she did all the climbing herself, she did everything herself. Sissy got in shape beforehand by going to a rock climbing gym which she never did in her life. She really trained for the part and when Sissy got there she was like nope I want to do it myself. My producing partner [said] If Sissy Spacek gets hurt we are going to be killed. Are you sure you want her to do this? I kept asking Sissy Are you sure? She was like no I can do this and she did it a couple of times actually. We didnt have to do many takes but a few times.
It was historic when Sofia Coppola was nominated for an Oscar for directing and Bridget Moynahan just said that you were the first woman director that she ever worked with. Why is it so rare in the year 2007 to find women directing film?
I would love to know the answer. Last I heard there is
only six percent of the director guild who are directing features.
More on Television, I think it is thirty percent. Only three
or four percent who are writers, director and in my case producers
as well and
Oh and who runs DreamWorks Stacey Snider. I think between all
these women you would think that they would be hiring more female
directors but its not the case. Also unfortunately in
Can you talk about what Alexander Payne [executive producer] brought to the table?
Well Alexander and I went to film school together. We worked on each others films in film school and we have been dear friends ever since. When I was trying to get my movie made I thought to myself 'well he had these films made it would be great to have him on board.' Especially with foreign financing with his stamp of approval, they thought 'okay there is someone she can turn to all the time as a first time director.' Luckily there was no problem but I would turn to him when I was going over my story board.
Originally we were going to have thirty-five days to shoot the movie and then it got cut to twenty-one. I remember saying to him I cant do it. I think I should tell them I cant do it.' Alexander told me to tell them I can do it. 'You can definitely do it. You just go through your shot list and you will just have to consolidate and think which is the best shot.' So he was very helpful in terms of that. He was very helpful right before I handed in my director's cut, giving me notes. Everyone loved the kiss in the movie.
For everyone who loves the kiss in the movie you have to thank Alexander Payne for making it longer. I showed him the first cut and he was like I think this should be longer. I said, really you think I can go that long with the kiss and he said yes. He gave me that which a lot of people are thanking him for these days.
What does a twenty-one day shoot mean in terms of the budget?
They would [prefer] that I dont [reveal] the budget but it is a very small budget. Smaller then you probably think even in a small way.
You sister was the inspiration for this film. Can you talk a little about that?
I have two sisters. I am the youngest, my sister Carolyn is six years older. This was really to honor her because she was saying that there was never a movie that she could take everyone to - for gay, straight, parents, sisters everybody to go and be completely entertained and learn something with a gay character being the lead. She was giving examples then I really studied it in terms of the history of Hollywood. There has never been really a great, clever, intelligent leading lady lesbian. You look in the history of Hollywood during the thirties there were always gay characters. From the gay butlers of the 1930s to Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon or Tony Curtis in Spartacus. Even the spoof in the Billy Wilder movie Some Like It Hot, they are cross dressing.
Whatever it is there has always been a gay male character but there hasnt been in terms of lesbian. They usually have been scary like The Childrens Hour and all kind of strange. Even now with Notes On A Scandal, she is brilliant but scary, like a stalker lesbian. She thought that In and Out was a great example because it was very commercial, that everyone can go see and there was nothing equivalent. That was one of the ideas but I also wanted to honor her because she is a very attractive girl-next-door type. Carolyn [my sister] was the prom queen in our high school, she dated all the guys, she was one of the most popular girls in school. She was not a lipstick lesbian she was just a very attractive girl-next-door. I wanted to do something that portrayed a character like that.
As a writer did you always think that you were going to direct this piece?
Yes, absolutely. I was always going to direct this movie. I was supposed to direct a movie about ten years ago. We had an amazing cast including Anne Bancroft in one of the leads. Ultimately before we were right about to go into production it got pulled two months before the studio went bankrupt. It took me a long time to recover from that experience. Then I wrote Gray and I said Okay this is going to be the one. It has been a seven year struggle.
You knocked on a lot of doors?
Beyond. My knuckles are soar from the door knocking.
You and Alexander Payne were peers but he moved up so quickly. How does it feel as a woman working and training with men who are all getting the jobs?
We had an extraordinary group of filmmakers, our little group of six people. We all have gone on, Im the late bloomer in the group, to make great movies. Alexander Payne being one of them, Brad Silberling and Niels Mueller who did The Assassination of Richard Nixon. We all are making movies but I dont think it is because they are male that they got their movies made. I think that Alexander, Brad, and Niels were extremely talented in film school. They all made wonderful films so I think their talent had a lot to do with it. Alexander bloomed late in a way. He was trying to get a movie made for a really long time up until seven years ago.
Would you categorize this film as a chick-flick and do you consider that to be a negative interpretation?
Well people have been asking me what do you think, is this a chick-flick or a date movie or what? How would you define date movie? Well date movie means that a guy will like it versus going out with all your girlfriends. I think this is a movie for everyone and thats what weve been discovering in all of our screenings and film festivals. People from all ages like the movie for different reasons. I even screened it in Washington for congress and senate last week.
I had republican senators come up to me afterwards saying that they loved the movie. I don't think that the chick-flick thing is so derogatory. I think its derogatory only if you make it derogatory because if you are going out with a bunch of your girlfriends it can be a chick-flick. I dont think this is necessarily a chick-flick. I think this is a movie that can really appeal to a lot of everyone. Guys also really like the Bridget Moynahan and Heather Graham kiss. So it can be a guy movie.
Nancy Meyers was just saying that audiences are too cynical for romantic comedies these days because television has jaded them. Do you agree with that?
I dont actually. I think that critics can sometimes be cynical towards romantic comedies even more than the public actually. Right now we have soldiers going to war, we have elections coming up - it is such a precarious time in terms of United States history. I think that people really want to go to the movies and laugh right now and thats what we are finding out. I think that in terms of critics, romantic comedies have always been more criticized than most genres. Because when we walk into a theater, we have these preconceived notions in your head. 'Is it going to be a When Harry Met Sally? Is it going to be a Pretty Woman?' Romantic comedies are known as the formulaic screenplay. So thats part of it. I think though audiences do want to see romantic comedies and really be entertained by them.
Dont you think it is more of the fantasy because as a critic when I see these movies I say, well that can never happen in real life. Do you think people just want that escapism?
I think that people do as long as there is something very grounded in the theme of it or incredibly romantic. I mean people want to be romanced and laugh. When I was writing the screenplay I went to film school, I studied screenwriting and you always talk about the formulas of all these different movies. Boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl. So I was thinking how can I turn this on its head. How can I come up with something that was still in the formula of a romantic comedy but make it original. So I thought a brother and a sister falling in love with the same girl was original. Also you haven't seen a brother and sister relationship before other then You Can Count On Me. In addition, throwing in the whole tip of the hat to the 1940s I thought that would also bring something.
Why did you choose Heather Graham?
I met with Heather and I met with many actresses to play the role of Gray. Heather and I met for lunch and within the first ten minutes of meeting her I thought she is my Gray. Because she is much like Gray in person. She is very idiosyncratic about the way she orders food. She was eating my food across the table within five minutes of eating. I was thinking she is reaching over taking my avocado and I just met this girl. Heather was giving the waiter complete recipes for the food.
Not only just saying can 'we have half and half' but literally saying 'if you tell the chef to cook the chicken...' I was like Oh my god, she is telling the chef how to cook the chicken. That lunch was why I gave Heather the job. Also, I was a fan of Heathers from Drugstore Cowboy and seeing her career evolve. I thought she really has never been given the opportunity to be a true blue romantic comedy star like a Reese Witherspoon or Cameron Diaz. I thought she had it in her. She has this very young Goldie Hawn kind of feel about her. Very bubbly and effervescent and not too conscious of herself. Those were all the things I was looking for in the person.
Did your sister partake in the casting process as well?
She did not with the exception of Julia Bartlett's character played by Rachel Shelley. She cast her completely and wouldn't let me meet with anybody else [for her role]. She was like 'This is Rachel's cellular. Don't meet with her, don't meet with anybody else!' I was annoyed and said 'Stop, I have to meet with other people. I'm casting a movie.' Then I met with Rachel and said 'Okay, you're right.'
Do you have another movie or script that you are working on already?
I just finished another script that I am going to be directing this fall. It is a romantic-dramedy.
Fewer women are cast as leads in romantic comedies than men. Can you talk about putting a woman in lead?
Well I think it is interesting because once again in the history of Hollywood women used to be the ones that made the movies. It was the Carol Lombards and the Betty Davis were bigger deals than the men. They were actually paid more than the men and they were the ones who got the movies made. Things have completely turned around now because now you need the guy to get the movie made. Its the guy that holds the power.
There are so few women that can get a movie box office which means a very small handful that can get a movie greenlight. Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz and a few others but many more men. That was the struggle with getting this film made. People were turning me down because it was too much of a girl lead. They wanted me to turn it around and make it still her story but make the brother's a bigger role and get a bigger guy star. I never wanted to do that. So it is kind of an anomaly for a big role being her story. I would like to see more of that. I am doing the same thing in my next movie.
On a personal level when Heather came out in the film, Tom was like thank God I knew all along. Is that how you felt about your sister?
Oh yeah, when I was ten and she was sixteen she was so depressed and introspective. She kind of had this alter-ego because she was the most popular girl in high school and then she would come home and be so depressed and reclusive. I was like what is the big deal I know why you are so depressed and she was like why and I said because your gay. Then she came out about seven years later which was the biggest deal in her life for her to tell me. Then when she told me I said hello I was ten when I told you that you were gay.
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