Almost without fail, I get a huge charge out of interviewing first-time filmmakers. They are always legitimately excited to be talking about their movies and usually optimistic about the future of their work and career. There’s something downright infectious about their energy, and I can’t think of a director more inspired and full of enthusiasm about doing press for her film than Jen McGowan, who helmed KELLY & CAL, about a former punk rocker (Juliette Lewis), now suburban new mom, who can’t stand the life she’s trapped in. She meets and becomes friends with Cal (Jonny Weston), the 17-year-old son of her next-door neighbors, who is in a wheelchair.
During the course of the film, the two kick-start something in the other—her to play music again and him to relearn to paint. Naturally, something bordering on inappropriate develops as well, thus risking all hell breaking loose in both their lives. The film didn’t really get a wide release in 2014, but the film is now being released on home video this week, and you have a chance to catch up with Lewis’ most impressive performance in quite some time. And the film is quite good, on top of that. I truly enjoyed talking with McGowan at the SXSW Film Festival back in March, so please enjoy that and check out the film if you can…
Capone: So, let’s dive in here.
Jen McGowan: Yeah. I'm so excited you guys are doing this interview.
Capone: Thanks. The idea of Kelly being this former punk singer, it seems almost tailor made for Juliette Lewis.
JM: Well, it kind of was.
Capone: I was going to ask you if it was written for her, or someone like her.
JM: Well, I didn’t write the script—the writer is Amy Lowe Starbin—but we developed the script from early on together. It’s funny though: our dream cast was Juliette while we were writing. Excuse me, WE were not writing. Amy was writing. I want to be clear about that. So that’s why it was suited to her so perfectly, but we didn’t really know if that was possible, because she was doing other things.
Capone: Did she know that?
JM: When did she know that? I don’t know when she knew that. She knows it now. But yeah, it was our dream to have her.
Capone: Tell me about the importance of music in this story, because it’s definitely a launching point to so many parts of this story.
JM: It’s huge. It’s connected to her identity. And for me, as a filmmaker, what’s interesting to me are the universal themes. The themes that are universally accessible. I don’t have kids, so why would I make this movie? But that’s not important. What’s important is that I identified with the story about a woman who is…you go thought these different phases in your life, and every time you have this change from one identity to another, there’s a chaos, and everybody can relate to that. So that I connected with very much. So for me, that’s what the film’s about. The film is not about a mother with a baby; it’s about identity. It’s about aging, it’s about marriage, all those things. And those I can relate to and get with, and the music was connected to that. I thought about it early on, and we really wanted to make sure the music was authentic to the time. Film music is funny, because it has to do so many things.
Capone: Well especially because the one song she plays is an original song, right?
JM: She wrote two songs. One is the “Moist Towelette” song, which first of all, Juliette is insanely amazing. She wrote that song in like a day, and recorded it in a day, which is like for someone like me, who is not musically talented at all, I’m in awe of this. But yeah, she did those two songs. I gave her some music and was like, “You know, something kind of like this, and here’s what we’re trying to achieve with it,” which is very different than a way a musician would normally write music.
Capone: I saw her and the Licks play at Lollapalooza a few years ago. It was like 11 in the morning, they were the first band to play, there was like nobody there.
JM: Oh my god. That’s intense.
Capone: They were great.
JM: She’s awesome. We just drove over from our screening to here, and she played some of her new music in the car, and someone was like, “Can you guys look at a menu to order lunch?” I was like, “We can’t. We’re rockin’ out. We’re too busy.”
Capone: The one thing that really struck me about the film is that it’s not about were squashed; for Kelly, it was just more about setting them aside. Somewhere she made the decision, “Okay, now I’m going to live like everybody else.”
JM: Right. And that’s what happens with everybody. You live life, and if you’re not living it mindfully, you get a long way and you go, “How did I get here?” It’s like when you’re driving. I don’t know why, but sometimes I do this: I’ll drive, because I’m like a really heady person, so I’ll be driving around and all of a sudden I’ll be like, “I wasn’t going here today. Why did I end up here?” But I got lost in my head, just like people get lost in life. They get lost in paying bills and picking up the kids and getting groceries, and then you go, “This isn’t what I thought I was doing.” And it’s nobody’s fault; it’s just what happens.
Capone: There's not a single event usually.
JM: No, it’s a drift.
Capone: For Cal, his dreams are squashed by an event.
JM: And in a way, that’s why he was able to deal with his event better, because it was a specific thing, whereas hers was more of a drift.
Capone: They’re both, in their own way, very broken people and they find a way to snap back into place through each other. What is it in each other that they have that allows for that? They’re very different people, so it’s not like they’re completing each other. There’s something about the other that makes it possible.
JM: I think it has to do with time. It’s like when you date somebody, and years later you’re like, “What the hell did we have in common?” You couldn’t even have a conversation with that person now. But at the time, they had something that you needed, and you had something that they needed, and that’s the case here. And I think that’s why we go along for the ride with them, because we see there’s a need that one is satisfying in the other, and so that’s satisfying to watch, but you also know it’s not right. It’s not going to end that way. So you want them to go through the experience, but you want them to go through the experience and get through the experience. You don’t want them to stay together. This is not a film where you’re like, “Yeah, I want them to stay together.”
Capone: No, that’s exactly right. You actually think that would be a bad idea. So Juliette you had in mind during the writing process, but talk about finding Jonny. What were you looking for in your Cal?
JM: We were looking for a puzzle piece really. That’s what it had to be. It had to be a puzzle piece. It had to be someone that fit, that they connected, that there was charisma, that there was a spark between the two of them, that was the most important. We had a great casting director, Rich Delia, and I said to him from the start,“This is going to be a very physically demanding role, so we need someone that gets the language of the body—a dancer or an athlete—somebody who gets that. We’re going to need to find somebody like that.” And he’s like “Maybe a surfer.”
Capone: And Jonny was in CHASING MAVERICKS.
JM: Yeah. And he came in and was just really authentic, and I was like, “These two are going to spark, and that’s what we need.” Because otherwise, the whole thing would have fallen flat.
Capone: You dance around the sexual nature of what they have, but you avoid turning it into a love affair, just barely.
JM: It was one of the lines that we had to be very careful of, and we were mindful about from the start, because you don’t want to see a pedophile film. I don’t wanna see that film. We had to stay away from that. But again, that’s not what it was about, and I think so many movies go astray when they get lost doing something that the film is not about. You can only do one thing with the film. You do something else with your next film, but this film is about this thing, and that’s what it’s about. And when those questions come up, you always go back to your theme and your thesis, and your “What are we doing? That’s not what we’re doing. We’re not going to shoot it like that.”
Capone: There may be people that come out of this not liking Kelly, and thinking that she’s stringing him along and playing with his emotions.
JM: Absolutely, absolutely.
Capone: I always have a sense she knew what she was doing to him, not maliciously, but she was aware of her impact on him. So is it more important for us to like her or to understand her?
JM: That’s a hard question. I’m actually going to add something to that. It’s not about understanding., because it’s not mental. It’s more about compassion. It’s having empathy for the character, so if you connect with a character like that, I don’t think it matters if you like them. What’s interesting too is, when we did our test screenings, oh man. The discussions afterwards were so funny. So much of the feedback on the film is about the film, and then there’s other feedback on the film that’s about the viewer. We had one screening where one person said, “I don’t think she should have had to apologize to [her husband] Josh. What did she do?” And I was like, “Did you watch that movie?” And then the argument came out between people in the audience, and later I was thinking about it, and the people who didn’t think she had to apologize were single. Sometimes like it’s telling about the film, and sometimes it’s telling about the viewer.
Capone: Well I won’t spoil the moment, but there’s something she does that A: I think probably crosses the line, and B: triggers everything that comes after it in an almost entirely negative way.
JM: You know what’s interesting about that? Even when you said it now, you said, “I think probably crosses the line.”
Capone: It’s as close as she comes.
JM: It’s close, yeah. And we were really mindful of that. At one point in an early draft, that happened closer, they weren’t apart through the window, and it just didn’t work. And sometimes that happens. It just doesn’t feel what we’re trying to get.
Capone: What do you want people to take away from this?
JM:I’ve done a lot of short films, too, and I’ve noticed a pattern, and my pattern always seems to be a fleeting love story, a fleeting love experience. We come into one another’s lives and we need things from them, and they need things from us, and we take what we need and we continue on. The other aspect is life, and this is true about all indie films, which is what I love about films that don’t try to be so quite so broadly accessible, is life is messy and hard and confusing for the person that's going through it, but it will most likely be okay.
Capone: At the end, it feels a little hopeful.
JM: A little bit. And I didn't want it to be all schmaltzy, but you want some sort of closure. I wanted people to feel, “They probably can work this out.”
Capone: It’s closure without tying all the bows.
JM: Yeah. It’s like emotional closure but not plot closure.
Capone: Alright, I can’t wait to see what you do next, Jen.
JM: [laughs] Me too. I am equally curious.
Capone: Thank you so much. It was great to meet you.
JM: Awesome, thank you very much. And thanks for watching the film and getting the word out.