DEBRA: I remember when I was very little being interested in plays and I used to read all the Tennessee Williams plays and all the Sam Shepard plays – all the books that my older sister had on her shelves. This was in elementary school. So I was always interested, always seeking out opportunities to be in plays. But I was never cast.
I think there are two kinds of actors. There’s the writer actor and then there’s the performer/singer actor. And I was always more into the writing of it. And I was always interested in writing, too. But my sister was a writer, and so I always felt like that was her territory. So I went into acting, even though I think for me I had the same feeling for writing.
Acting was very good for me for a lot of reasons, so I stayed with it. I would take the train into the city to take acting classes when I young, like fourteen. And then I majored in theater when I was in college and I went to special summer programs for acting – it was just what I did.
Then when I graduated from college, I started interning at Circle Rep, which I don’t think exists anymore. It was a pretty big off-Broadway theater at one time. And then I would go on auditions through Backstage. And I immediately started getting work in off-off-Broadway plays.
And then I went to an open call for Oleanna, to understudy, and I got the part as the understudy. Then, after a few months of understudying, I had been rehearsing with David Mamet, who was putting in a new actress, and he offered me the part. So that’s how I broke into it, as far as making money and making my living.
From there I just kept getting work as an actress, so I was able to make a living. I did a lot of theater. I did the Wendy Wasserstein play, The Sisters Rosensweig, and then I did the movie The Heidi Chronicles and I did the movie of Oleanna and I was doing television and TV movies – I moved out to
But the business of acting was not good for me. I wasn’t very happy and I didn’t understand it. Nobody taught me, there’s no book to prepare you for what it is. I had just been acting in classes, which I enjoyed. But auditioning for casting directors and dealing with agents – I was completely green. I had no idea how to deal with these people. I was pretty young, about twenty-three.
I’m always amazed when I see young people who are having careers and are professional, because I got completely lost in the whole idea of having a manager, having an agent, people talking in your ear telling you what you should be doing, what you shouldn’t be doing. I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like the out-of-control feeling. And so I left LA and I went back to New York. I thought if I went back to theater I would be happier.
I went back and I was doing this production of The Greeks, and I played all these parts – it was this epic production that was supposed to come to
– and I had just a miserable
experience with that as well. And I thought, I’ve got to make a change, because
this career is not making me happy. I was lucky that I could find that out in
my twenties. Lincoln Center
So I went to film school and I learned how to edit and I learned to do all the things you need to do to make a film. It really opened up a whole new world to me that I changed my life completely and I became a much happier person. Everything just fell into place in my life when I moved into film.
Which film school did you go to?
DEBRA: I went to the
, because it was around the
corner. I really knew what I wanted to do, because I had been writing scripts
and had been submitting them to theaters and they were getting rejected. I
wanted to be in control; I just felt very out of control. I had very much an
agenda, and when I went to the New School they had this
thing called The Knowledge Union, which was this amazing place that had all
this equipment that nobody was using. New
I had friends who were going to NYU and they had to work on their friends’ films and they never got a chance to do a lot of their own work because everyone was doing the same thing. At the New School it was much more of a media studies program and people were not doing much production. So I could be in there all night, learning how to edit and not have to work on other people’s stuff. So I kind of had this idea that I could go in there and make a feature on my own and also get a graduate degree.
They told me that you can’t do that, you can’t make a feature for your thesis, but I did, because I knew I could. The technology at that time was just changing to digital and so everything was getting very easy and it was much easier to do on your own.
My first short was called The Guest and it got into a lot of film festivals and it did pretty well for a short film. Then my second film, which was my thesis film, was Daydream Believer. It was very guerilla style and I enlisted my friends and it was really just a fluke that it won awards and did really well.
I had also met my husband at this time and after I won the Spirit Award for Daydream Believer, a month later I got pregnant. But I also had gotten an offer to work with Good Machine. But because I was pregnant and all that, everything kind of fell through with that project.
So I had to start from scratch with The Limbo Room, which I shot when I was pregnant. I was five months pregnant and I was thinking I was never going to be able to make a film again; and this was my second child. So I’m a good example of a mom who’s making films really on the fly, because I have to.
I’m hoping that I can keep making movies, even though my priority really is my kids, which I think is the battle for women: You want to be able to have a family, but you only have a certain amount of time realistically.
DEBRA: My sister and I had been working on a play. I really wanted to write a play about an understudy, because I had started understudying and it was this whole backstage world. The whole idea was just so bizarre to me: you’re trapped backstage while this play is going on out there. And you’re in this little room in the back and you have to listen to what’s going on out on the stage and you may (or may not) go on. There are just so many metaphors going on within the idea of an understudy.
When I was doing Oleanna, I was the understudy. When I walked into that play, David Mamet’s wife was the actress and she had been doing the play for a long time. And was suffering horribly from playing that role. Every night she got beat-up on stage and every night the audience would cheer. It’s just a hated character. And I thought that I would be immune to that. I played that role in Oleanna for a year and I realized, in retrospect, that it really did depress the hell out of me, playing that role night after night.
So that was one element I was interested in: what’s real and what’s not real and how you take on the character – you are this character but you aren’t this character. Then this whole microcosm that’s happening backstage with the understudies and the actors.
So we wrote The Limbo Room; we finished it in a summer, and then I shot that film in nine days. I got Melissa Leo at the last minute.
And then I edited it over the course of a year. As soon as I finished the rough cut, I went into labor and had my baby. Then it went to Slamdance and the Sundance Channel has played it. It won some awards, too, so it’s not bad for nine days and $30,000 dollars.
And I edited it on my laptop; it was really funny, I took my laptop in, because I was having some problems with it. I said I had edited a film on it, and they said that I couldn’t, that you couldn’t edit a feature on a laptop. But somehow I was able to. It’s one of those things, where if nobody tells you “no,” then you can still do it. Because I had no idea I couldn’t edit a feature on my laptop. If I had gone to them before I edited my film, I wouldn’t have even tried. So it was lucky that I didn’t.
What sort of prep did you do in order to be able to shoot in nine days? How much rehearsal did you do?
DEBRA: I tried to do a little bit of rehearsing with the actress who played Ann, in my apartment. Very little. I mean, very, very little.
We did a couple of readthroughs before we shot it. And we would shoot the rehearsal a lot of the time. And this time I had Jay Silver shoot the film, I did not shoot it myself. He did a great job. Basically, everybody worked for nothing.
Like, with Pete Dinklage – I didn’t have anybody for that part. The woman who I offered that part to was insulted, because she wanted to be the lead. So then I called Pete Dinklage, who’s a friend of mine, and he was happy to come and do it. He was a known actor and he had no problem coming in and doing this.
He’s so great to work with; we went to college together. He was in the middle of shooting another movie and he literally left that set, came to where I was and without any reservations just did it. He was so great, so funny, and everyone loves that scene the best in the movie. He was hilarious.
And Melissa Leo, too, was so great. It was very last-minute. She read the script and then I met her. She definitely was testing me. She was great. We’re very good friends now. And she’s really tried to help the film as much as she can. Everyone who worked on it was so supportive and so great and so easy to work with.
For my next one, I just hope I keep incrementally getting better at what I do. I’m not looking to do a huge budget feature. I like working in this way; I like not having a very big crew. And I like having the autonomy. So I’m hoping I can find a balance there, too, where I’m not losing money. So far, I’ve broken even, pretty much, on both my films, which is amazing. Except for legal fees, maybe.
But maybe on the next one I can have a little more money and a little more time and I can make an even better film. Because I think, if I’m given the opportunity, I could make a really good film. I love working with actors and actors love working with me – I understand them. I’ve always had great experiences with the people I’ve worked with.
How far did you take The Limbo Room on your laptop?
DEBRA: I can only edit up to a point, so I hired this editor, Jennifer Lily, who has been the assistant editor on big, big movies. She had a system in her apartment, so I gave it over to her and we fine cut it there together.
And then once that was done, I got a professional sound person to come in and do sound effects. That’s really where I put the money. Because I didn’t pay the actors, and I didn’t pay for anything, really, because it was all digital. But I knew that you’ve got to put money into the sound, that’s really important.
I was lucky that I got to work with real professional people, who do professional sound for big movies, who were willing to work on a small movie because they liked it.
Obviously, nine days doesn’t give you a lot of time and there are going to be mistakes and all that kind of stuff. I think for the limitations I was given, I’m really proud of it. And I learned a lot.
DEBRA: I worked with David Mamet on the stage production; I had already done the play for a long time before I did the film. So it was like we were doing the play again when we did the film.
David’s method of working with actors is very different than my way of working with actors. He just basically gave me three Super Objectives for each act, which is kind of genius. So he said, “In this Act, you’re seeking help, in this one you’re doing this, in this one you’re doing that.” And that was really the extent of it.
The thing that I learned the most from David was how he led. He’s a great leader. And I think that’s what I took away from it.
DEBRA: It was the way he treated everyone. He treated everyone with the utmost respect. It was a very tight ship; everyone felt like they were part of what was happening, from craft service to the grips. Everyone felt like they were special.
I’ve been on sets where people are really unhappy and miserable and cursing the director because he’s disrespectful. That’s what I learned from David, the way he respected everyone. And I think that’s probably one of the most important things to learn.
You’re their director, and people are not going to work for you and do the things you ask them to do if they’re feeling unappreciated. And he was really good at making everybody feel totally worthwhile and appreciated and important. That’s a lesson that could be easily overlooked, but when I compare it to other situations where the director is just not really present and not making everyone feel important and appreciated, it definitely shows.
In the past, I’ve been in a situation on shooting a movie where the director is just really rude and really disrespectful to the actors. And everyone takes their break and that’s what they’re talking about, they’re talking about how they’re feeling they’re being disrespected. And then it shows up in the scene. It’s like a domino effect.
David’s a very, very smart man and he knows exactly what he needs to do to make everybody feel good. I think that’s his strongest thing as a director and that was the biggest lesson I learned on that film.