Thursday, April 30, 2015

Laurie Agard on “Frog and Wombat”

When did you first become interested in being a filmmaker?

LAURIE: Well, I had a huge gap. I was really interested in film for a number of reasons when I was little kid. But as an adult, not until after I graduated. I went to school in the Midwest and never really contemplated being in Hollywood and working on films. My degree was in writing and I was writing computer manuals. Then I suddenly decided one day that I wanted to write a screenplay. That screenplay got optioned, and that is how I got into filmmaking.

As a kid, what got you interested in film?

LAURIE: I got perfect attendance in school. I lived in a really small town in Colorado.  I was the only kid that year that got perfect attendance, and so I got a free movie pass. I actually got that every summer.

So I spent every summer literally seeing movies over and over and over. Which was actually pretty good, because my parents went through a divorce, we didn’t have a lot of money, and so it really ended up being pretty awesome. I got to watch Grease and Star Wars, sometimes hundreds of times in a movie theater, often all by myself.  

But the idea that, ‘oh, I’m going to go make a movie,’ never occurred to me.

How did you gravitate toward writing a screenplay, instead of something else, like a novel?

LAURIE: I was writing poetry, and I think there was something about the condensed form of writing. I remember I was in a bookstore in Santa Cruz and I saw a book about how to write a screenplay. I can’t remember the name of the book or what it was. But I sat down and literally read it in the bookstore.

I wrote the screenplay in about three months. I sent it away and got an agent within a month. And it was optioned by the company that was handling the Olsen twins back then, when they were little.

That all happened pretty quickly, to write a script, get an agent and get it optioned.

LAURIE: I know, it was crazy. Sometimes there is an advantage to being a little bit naïve about something. And I was lucky because it was a bit of a hobby, and I was making my income and paying my mortgage doing something else.

It was actually just a way for me to escape my job. Now that I live in Los Angeles, I realize that it’s a little bit scarier for people, when it is their job. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on you to do something.

Do you remember where the idea for the screenplay, Frog and Wombat, came from?

LAURIE: Yes, my best friend and I, when we were kids back in Durango Colorado, had walkie-talkie names. I think our walkie-talkie names were Frog and French Fry. But it was two FRs and it looked confusing on the script. So somehow one of them became Wombat.

It was just about us in the summer and riding our bikes around and having walkie-talkies. That’s not what the script is about, but I think the budding relationship and walkie-talkies is where it started.

How did you make the move from having written a script to directing the movie?

LAURIE: Well this is another weird story. I knew nothing about Hollywood or anything, but the notes I was getting back made me confused. The story is about two girls who are opposite--the story is about friendship and what happens when you grow apart. It’s a sad part of life I think. So it did not really make sense to me to have twins playing those roles. But I thought it was cool, hey, it got optioned.

And then it became clear to me, as I talked to more and more people, about how many billions of scripts get optioned and never made.

The other thing that happened, was that it was really fun to write scripts, but I was missing the collaboration. I played basketball at University on the scholarship. At that point, I had been out of college for a while. Having played in a team environment, where often, one plus one equals three, I was sort of lonely working as a writer.

So I decided not to renew the option.

Also, I started taking a class at UC Santa Cruz on videography and film. Through that a bulletin came by about a film, Mad City, that was shooting in San José.  And they needed videographers for that, because the plot of the film was about reporters. So they needed people who knew how to operate a Betacam camera.

It was the first movie set I have ever been on. I was basically a prop. Just a bunch of us running through the shot with cameras. We just had to know how to hold a Betacam camera.

I just absolutely fell in love with the process. And I met a lot of other people on the set, like assistant casting directors and production assistants, people who have Masters degrees. But we were sort of in the Bay Area, where not a lot of productions come. So they get people from all different walks of life, filling in for different spots.

By the end of that week I had determined that I wanted to form my own production company and direct and produce that script. So there were a handful of women on Mad City that came on as producers and production assistants and we found, I think, 52 investors. And we made the film. And we ended up making the film within three months of that.

That’s really amazing.

 LAURIE: It’s kind of crazy. But when I look back on it, it was one of those magical things that happens when you’ve got one plus one equals three. When there is a spark of creativity and a lot of people come on board, you build on that energy. Everyone came in with their own strengths and backgrounds. And none of us had ever produced.

The whole film was shot on short ends, getting just one or two takes. With two 11-year-old kids starring, who had never done anything. And it went onto HBO and Showtime and was sold to a number of different countries. It was a little piece of magic I think, to get it done.

It is a very sweet film.

LAURIE: Well thank you. I think it’s very sweet, but it embarrasses me a little bit, because I can’t go around while people watch it and say, “We only had one take.”

It was what it was. Now that I’m working on these giant budget films, I’m like wow. These are the resources other people have. It makes me laugh even more. Had I known that, I never would’ve been crazy enough to try to do what I did.

So on the first day of shooting Frog and Wombat, with the exception of watching Costa-Gavras direct Mad City, you had never been on a film set, right?

LAURIE: That is correct, except as a little kid, in Durango, there was a movie called Avalanche starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow. And I was on that set for a week. But that was when I was in the sixth grade.

So how did you prepare for your first day?

LAURIE: I think people come into it completely differently. There were three things that I came in, feeling very confident about.

First was teamwork and how important it was for everyone to have their own function and to do their own function. And to understand that.

Second was to inspire people to do as well or better than they can do. I think that is definitely what my sports background brought into it.

And the third part was telling the story.

Most this movie was shot in master shots. So the question always was, ‘how does this serve the big story and how does this serve the little story we’re trying to tell?’ And I think I knew that, because I had written it.

So, looking back on the experience, what are your thoughts?

LAURIE: If I knew then what I knew now, I would’ve been more terrified. But I was just really excited and felt very confident. It never occurred to me that the film wouldn’t be finished or wouldn’t be released. But I had a lot of people who were stressed, who were coming to me crying and just afraid. And I remember just thinking, why are they worried?

Was your technical team more experienced than you?

LAURIE: The technical team definitely had more experience. I have been reading a lot and I had driven down to Los Angeles and taken a couple of weekend workshops.

But the crew was fabulous. When we started, I did not have an editor and we did not have post-production money raised. That would have been really helpful. We ended up having a fabulous editor who I have worked with a number of times since.

If I were to say anything to a first-time director, it would be to surround yourself with a really great technical team. And listen to them. You know what you know, and if you can communicate your story, they can do their craft.

Did you get any resistance from the crew because you’re a woman?

LAURIE: It was a non-issue. That may be because I was also producing and I interviewed everyone and hired everyone. I think I probably would not have hired someone had I felt that might be an issue.

After making the movie, you moved to LA and worked in television. What has that experience been like?

LAURIE: My experience in Los Angeles in television is that you get hired as a director and it’s a moving bus and you just jump on. You really are the guest. The crew works long hours, sometimes six days a week, sometimes for years on a series. And you are coming into their home. And although it’s their home, you are telling them what to do, which is sort of strange.

It’s a very different experience from creating something all on your own. You’re not a guest, you’re not jumping on a moving bus. You are the one creating the momentum.

In a way, there is not much similarity between television and making a low-budget independent film.

Now that I’ve done the few independent films that I’ve done, just by going out and doing it, Now I’ve sort of created my own film school and am watching some of the best people that I can do it from beginning to end and see how it is different. And then see how I can apply that to what I want to do.

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