2014 Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Susanna Fogel (Co-Writer, Director – ‘Life Partners’)

At 29, the most long-term relationship Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) have ever been in is with each other, using their co-dependent friendship as an excuse not to venture out into the dating world alone. But when Paige meets nerdy Tim (Adam Brody) and starts to get serious for the first time, the nature of their friendship begins to shift. Fearing she’s being cast aside, Sasha tries to keep their relationship the same, but does growing up also mean growing apart?

Susanna Fogel directs this female-driven comedy about two friends and the guy that comes between them. ‘Life Partners‘ digs into a particular late-20s coming-of-age moment, filtered through the indescribable complexities of female friendship.

Life Partners‘ screens as part of the Narrative Spotlight selections at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, April 24 & Sunday, April 27, 2014 in New York City.  We sat down with the films Director Susanna Fogel and spoke about the film’s development, the nature of friendship, and much more.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Life Partners’ at the 2014 Tribeca Film FestivalHERE

Best friends Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) share a laugh.

How did you come up with the idea for the film, and was it personal for you?
My writing partner Joni and I have always been interested in telling stories about friendships, especially friendships between women, because they’re so complicated, emotional, passive-aggressive, and funny. But we don’t really get to see enough movies that show that. And yes, we had a very close co-dependent friendship of our own that started when we both moved to LA right after graduating from different colleges. That friendship evolved over the years. Joni came out of the closet. And we both saw each other through strings of bad relationships, and some good ones. Now she’s married. So I think we watched our friendship, which was the primary relationship in both of our lives, shift whenever one of us would date another person. Funny and dramatic and emotional things would always come out of those relationships, and of that love triangle that comes out of your best friend getting a new partner.

Both characters are approaching thirty in the film. Why did you choose that age?
We wanted to tell a story about two friends who are in very different places in their lives. We both felt that that’s the age where some people are really getting it together and have a lot of success, or money, or kids or great careers, and others are still living on their friend’s couch and trying to be a musician or something. So things start to polarize a little bit at that age, and we felt like that was a good thing to mine for this movie.

Do you think that it’s normal or even proper for very close friends grow apart as they get older and form other attachments?
Yeah, I do. I think inevitably that happens. But especially now, at least in LA or New York or other big cities, it feels like you’re encouraged to follow your dreams and not settle for the wrong person, and we’re not expected to get married and have kids at such a young age the way that our parents’ and grandparents’ generations were. So there’s more time to develop unhealthy codependent attachments to your friends. Your friends take the place of your family or a boyfriend or a girlfriend. So those friendships become deeper and more complex over time. And inevitably if you do find a romantic partner, if that’s what you’re looking for, they have to be in competition with your friend. So I do think inevitably those friendships have to change to make way for another partner to come into your life.

Do you think that friendships can be tenuous or intense in the same way that a romantic relationship can be?
Yeah, sometimes even more so. Because it seems like friendships are expected to be unconditional in a certain way. And you’ve known your friends for so many more years and there’s so much more history there. It can be akin to a couple that’s been married for thirty years, as opposed to somebody that you’ve been dating for just six months. And obviously the intimacy is different, but it definitely feels like a friendship-ending fight is just as devastating as a divorce–like growing apart from that friend is just as painful, or one friend moving, or cutting you out of their life, is heartbreaking in the same way. I think everyone can relate to having some friendship that’s fraught in that way, especially because we are so close to our friends, and we have love affairs with our friends platonically all the time.

Sasha is a lesbian, and Paige is straight. In an interview with IndieWire, you mentioned that years ago, when you and Joni Lefkowitz (who co-wrote the script)  first developed the story, you emphasized the politics of of the two friends’ situation more. Why did you and Joni ultimately deemphasize that aspect of the story?
When we first developed the script, it was a one-act play. And one-act plays tend to need a hook, like, ”this is what this one-act play’s about.” And we really wanted to tell a story of friendship, but the hook of that play was that one friend made another friend a promise that she wouldn’t get married until gay marriage was legal. And that becomes awkward when she wants to get married, and the other friend still can’t. It was the high-concept premise that made it a punchy one-act play. As we developed it into a screenplay, we discovered that people responded most to the emotions of the friendship, and less so to the politics. At the same time, it was still part of the zeitgeist of the time, and Joni’s gay, and I’m not, and we talked all the time about how it would be so awkward if she had to be my maid of honor if I was engaged and she couldn’t get married, and whether I would feel guilty about that. Simultaenously, DOMA [The Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned, and there was so much progress on gay rights. So it started to feel like we were making a period piece, and we didn’t want that. We wanted to make a contemporary story about two friends, and oh, one character happens to be gay.

There’s no sexual tension here– Sasha’s sexual orientation is just a detail about her, not her defining characteristic. In general, it’s unusual to have a relationship between two friends, one of whom is gay, and not have that be the central focus of a film. What does it say about the changing times that that you can depict a relationship like that nowadays?
I’ve known Joni since before she came out, and at the time we were twenty-one-year-old girls trying to go flirt with guys together, and then suddenly she was defining herself as bisexual, and then all of a sudden she was out, and part of a whole different community. And we were still best friends trying to find love in our awkward ways, and it just so happened that the backdrop now was this lesbian community that I’d never been exposed to before. And I was now the token straight person in that world. The ability to move from one world to another and to not think too hard about it, that’s the way we experience our lives, especially now that the barriers to equality are slowly getting removed. I would love for there to be more movies that just have that as a layer to a character, without being the focus.

How did you know Gillian Jacobs (Paige) and Leighton Meester (Sasha) were right for the film, and what did they bring to it?
Joni and I have always had a challenge with our writing because we always want to find people who can bring humor and a grounded emotion to roles, and it’s really hard to tell that about an actor when you meet them for an hour in a coffee shop. Especially with a relationship movie like this, where the chemistry between those actors was so important. It feels like you’re working for a matchmaking service and you’re trying to assess one person’s needs and vibe, and then meet another person and get a read on them, and then guess as to who’s going to have chemistry onscreen.  Meeting Leighton and Gillian–they’re both really smart, insightful, super down-to-earth women living in a crazy town in a crazy industry. We figured if we had fun and talked for two hours with both of them over pancakes, then they might want to talk to each other over pancakes for two hours. And within a day of rehearsing they had their little language and their in-jokes, and they were fitting right into it.

Were you a fan of some of their previous work?
Leighton’s not known for roles like this, but she is really versatile and also has a lot in common with this character. Not that you’d ever know it from watching Gossip Girl–which I did.  It was exciting to think about transforming her a little bit with this very different role. And Gillian’s done a lot of drama, and she’s done TV comedy, but I was excited to give her a grounded, indie movie-type role where she could do a different frequency of comedy from what she’s done before. I think there are a lot of actors who get pigeonholed, and they really want to prove that they can do something else, and I like the idea of collaborating with them and saying, okay, we’re going to show everyone that you can do this other thing…Casting is always a leap of faith, but in this case we ended up with the best two actresses we could possibly have imagined.

What are you pursuing in terms of distribution?
We’re hoping that we can find a distributor that will get this movie to the right audience–and the widest right audience. I want everyone who has a best friend to see this movie. And that’s more people than go to an arthouse theater. Someone like my sister, who’s 25 and lives in Arizona, doesn’t see any movies in the theater at all. I want people like her to be able to see a movie like this. And I think the right distributor will have a vision for how to make that happen. We’re hoping distributors will just hear good things about the movie and then put it out there, whether that means theater, theater and on-demand, or whatever works to get it to as many people as possible.

— Interview Conducted On Site @ 2014 Tribeca Film Festival by David Teich

Susanna-Fogel-Director-Life-PartnersAbout The Filmmaker
Susanna Fogel began writing and directing short films as a teenager, premiering her first two, For Real and Words of Wisdom, at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1995 and 1997. She and writing partner Joni Lefkowitz have written several scripts for film and television. Life Partners (a fellowship project of the 2012 Sundance Screenwriters and Producers Labs) is Susanna’s first feature film.

Facebook: /LifePartnersMovie
Twitter: @lifepartnersmov




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