“I Can’t Hate Anyone Unless I Love Them:” Drew Tobia, Eleanore Pienta and Rachel Wolther on See You Next Tuesday
Once in a while, a film comes across your radar that plays so perfectly to your sensibilities, it seems someone handcrafted it with you in mind. These sorts of films are usually small, personal endeavors, that — preference-pending — are too niche for mass audiences, and struggle to find the complimentary festival or forum that will realize their loaded potential. Drew Tobia’s See You Next Tuesday is the lastest entry in this unjustly underground canon. A cult hit in the making if there ever was one, See You Next Tuesday concerns Mona, a pregnant, loudmouthed, lonesome and unhinged grocery store cashier, inhabited by the utterly uninhibited Eleanore Pienta.
As Mona spirals toward her nebulous due date, her relationships with her negligent mother May (Dana Eskelson), megalomaniacal sister Jordan (Molly Plunk), and Jordan’s do-gooder girlfriend Sylve (Keisha Zollar) coalesce and crumble in alternate measure. For all the film’s hysteria, Tobia never loses sight of the bonds between Mona and the three other women, as well as situational practicalities, like how on earth Mona is fit to care for a child when she herself is still defecating on the bedroom floor.
On the eve of a road trip to Wilmington for the Cucalorus Film Festival, Filmmaker spoke with writer-director Tobia, lead actor Pienta, and producer Rachel Wolther about the surprisingly personal script, and capturing characters in the heat of the moment. See You Next Tuesday will make its hometown premiere at BAM for Migrating Forms on December 14, and you can purchase tickets here. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Filmmaker: Let’s start at the end, which is to say the credits, where it’s revealed that Mona is the brainchild of Eleanore Pienta and Drew Tobia. Where did she come from?
Pienta: I make characters, and photograph them. Kind of Cindy Sherman-esque. And I make videos based on the characters. Drew was in my studio, and he saw these photographs, and a particular one, which was of this woman who was pregnant and holding a fly swatter. Her name was Mona, and she was afraid of flies infecting her unborn baby. That’s the mental state that Mona was for me, and Drew took that and ran with it, and made it much more three-dimensional. And a little less zany.
Tobia: I was writing other stuff that was boring. It was trying too hard to shock or something. Trying to be something that I’m not. I saw the picture and I knew I wanted to do something else with Eleanore, because we used to do stuff together when we were 18. I knew that I wanted to make a feature, I was scraped for ideas, and then I saw the picture and thought, “Oh, that’s a pretty funny character. I bet you could make a movie out of that. I wonder what her life is, if she has a family, what she does when she goes home, does she have a job?” I started writing stuff about that. I knew I wanted to write about family and Brooklyn in general, the neighborhood I was in, and how I perceive some things going on here, and just about outcasts. I just wanted it to be funny. I started writing stuff, and then I showed her the script.
Filmmaker: So you didn’t develop the story together?
Tobia: No, I just stole her character. I blatantly stole from her.
Pienta: But you would give me drafts, like the poop scene —
Tobia: Yeah, you came up with the poop scene.
Filmmaker: We have to talk about the poop scene. I have such strong feelings about the poop scene.
Tobia: Good or bad?
Filmmaker: Wonderful. I love it. It took a right-hand turn when I thought it was going left. I was howling. Alone. At my computer. It’s committed acting. You should be proud.
Pienta: Thank you. I really tried to make that my own.
Tobia: Usually that scene is just a lot of silence. You can see people’s heads cocking, and then she throws it out the window, and then they start laughing.
Wolther: It was the first day of shooting.
Pienta: It was skeleton crew. It wasn’t out of choice. People were grossed out by me. I was ready to take it there. For real.
Tobia: The crew knew they had to be there for another three weeks, they couldn’t watch her actually try to go through with it.
Wolther: We ended up using a Snickers bar.
Filmmaker: I watched some of your older stuff.
Tobia: That’s the kind of thing I was trying to do.
Filmmaker: To do, or to get away from? In terms of shock value.
Tobia: Well, that’s what I mean, I was writing things in that vein that weren’t going anywhere for me. What did you watch?
Filmmaker: Leperfuck, which I love. And I watched Ladyfemmes. You can tell me if I’m reaching or not, but that is obviously concerned with women, how they view themselves versus a more subjective perspective. This film is also a character portrait of a woman, but you pay due attention to an ensemble. The only male character in the movie is Mona’s boss, who maybe has three lines.
Tobia: Well, one of the guys at AA.
Pienta: There are two men, okay?
Wolther: There aren’t really any men who have names, except for the boss. Jeff.
Filmmaker: Well, what interests you about observing women? As open-ended as that is.
Tobia: Was I taking a Women’s Studies class when I made Ladyfemmes? I don’t know. I don’t remember where I was when I made it. Obviously it’s something that interests me because I’m just not interested in making movies about straight men, which I feel like a lot of my contemporaries are. I don’t know why, but I always identified more with female characters in movies and wondered why they weren’t the lead. They always seemed a little more interesting to me than whoever the lead was. When I was writing this one, I don’t think there was an attempt in my brain to try and make a movie about women.
Filmmaker: Yeah, it doesn’t work like that.
Tobia: In fact, Jordan, Molly Plunk’s character, was initially a boy, but I rewrote it because I wanted to give Molly a role. But yeah, I was writing, and I got to the last draft of my script, and people started saying stuff about, “Oh, wow, girl power.” And I was like, “Oh, wait, really?” And I went back and read it and realized there were no male characters. Maybe you could make the point that I was making a movie about outcasts. I knew that when I was writing it, and the fact that they all turned out to be women played into it in a way. It’s usually the female characters in movies that are either marginalized, or total shrews. They’re there to piss off the main male character. That’s just not interesting to me.
Filmmaker: Well, also, I find a lot of the time there’s another extreme. What people may say about this movie, is that you have a protagonist who’s batshit crazy. I don’t think it’s that simple, and I don’t even think she’s all that crazy.
Tobia: I’ve had comments about people watching it with the distinct knowledge that a man wrote and directed it, and trying to look at it through that lens. Like, “This is how I see women.” But at the same time, I was never writing about them from an insider’s perspective looking out. I identify with the characters. It’s not like I was writing about characters I didn’t know about, and wondering, “What’s life like in their shoes?” I was writing stuff that I identify with. When you watch the film, I think you can see stuff in there that’s clearly really personal. It’s not something I made up. Writing it was a super personal experience.
Pienta: If someone were to say that this is representative of how you view women, I would take it as a compliment. As fucked up as they are, each character is really cared for. You really feel for each character, despite their problems. It’s with empathy that you’re looking at these beautiful women.
Filmmaker: I agree. I watched it twice, and the second time, the shock value completely dissipates, and to me, it’s a really tight script. You keep close track of these shifting relationships. You’re never letting that get away from you, while also handling the more gross-out, kookier sequences. How do you work out that balance? It sounds like you write from a place that feels true and honest to you, that you can relate to.
Tobia: Well, I’m in the middle of the writing process now. I’m sitting on a lot of weird ideas that are floating around in my brain, and then trying to pick the things that I like, and figure out what exactly it is in my life that I’m trying to deal with. It sounds self-centered, because you’re making a movie for an audience—
Pienta: But it has to come from you.
Tobia: You have to want to make it. And it’s cheaper than therapy.
Wolther: [shakes head] No, it’s not.
Tobia: Oh my God, writing it is. Writing it’s cheaper than therapy, making it is a different story. Good point, Rachel. Now, I’ve started keeping a really detailed journal, and figuring out what’s going on in my life, what I need to work through, what are the problems. I’ll think of the people around me, different characters and things that interest me, and how a character would fit into the narrative of the story I’m trying to tell. And then I sit on it for a really long time. I write it out longhand in my notebook, and then I type up a treatment, and then I start writing dialogue. So for See You Next Tuesday, I wrote up a draft and I showed it to Rachel. Rachel and I were looking at things, and she would say, “This scene we don’t need, this scene is stupid, take this out.” Basically everything she said was right. There were a couple of things I was really adamant we keep in the script, that she was like, “Don’t keep that stuff. “
Filmmaker: Like what?
Tobia: For instance, there was a scene we shot here. [At The West.] I was like, “Okay, we’re shooting this anyway.” And we shot it, and then we ended up cutting it out.
Filmmaker: Producer knows best.
Tobia: Everything that she thought that we should cut, we cut. You and Sofi Marshall, the editor — right about everything.
Pienta: They’re good at what they do.
Filmmaker: How long was the script?
Tobia: 110 pages.
Filmmaker: And the film is just 82 minutes.
Tobia: We cut some shit. But also there’s a lot of dialogue, and the characters speak pretty fast.
Filmmaker: Right. There’s also a lot that goes unaddressed, but deliberately so. We don’t know about the baby daddy, we don’t know why May and Jordan hate each other, we don’t know why Mona doesn’t have friends — though some might say that’s self-explanatory —
Tobia: I would say that the girls in the supermarket are justified in their behavior.
Pienta: Low blow. All I want is for people to love me, and that pushes them away.
Wolther: I thought those gaps in the narrative were a POV choice.
Filmmaker: That’s what I was going to ask. How do you decide what’s expository, and what’s essential?
Tobia: That was one of the things we ended up cutting out. We had this whole scene basically explaining — I’m not even going to say what it was. It just explained far too much, and it was the one time I indulged when writing.
Filmmaker: I feel like writing something, you always have to have that in there. You need to get it out of you.
Tobia: It’s so important. It was really important for the actors that were involved in those scenes. I think that everyone needed to know that information, and I’m glad we shot it. But it should not be in the movie. I think the fact that we did it gave the actors a deeper understanding as to where things were coming from. Then, we got into editing, and realized, this is telling you so much more than you need to know. The characters are already so defined in terms of their dynamics that, to do this, would a) take five minutes out of the movie and screw up the pace and b) I think you can infer it already from the way they act around one another.
Filmmaker: So do you need to write it and have them act it out versus, say, taking Eleanore aside and parsing through backstory?
Tobia: I thought at the time I needed to have it. I was fighting with Rachel about it. And I was wrong. I mean, it would’ve been nicer to figure that out during rehearsals but —
Filmmaker: How long did you rehearse for?
Tobia: Only a week. We didn’t have much time at all, because everybody had jobs. We flew Molly in from Chicago, and she had a limited window before she had to go back to work. It’s independent filmmaking. You have to do it when you have the chance. I wish we could have done more rehearsals. Eleanore, how did you feel about that?
Pienta: You know what, I almost liked that they were limited.
Tobia: You were amazing, because you could just tap into it like that. You had to do really intense performances every day.
Pienta: Yeah, that was incredible. I would go home every day and tell my boyfriend what we shot, like, “Yeah! It’s a comedy!” And he didn’t think it sounded all that funny. Because I’m talking to him about how I had to vomit, poop, cry.
Tobia: Lots of excretions.
Pienta: But, you know, Drew and I had talked about this so much, I had seen so many drafts. It was kind of in me already.
Tobia: You knew what you had to do.
Pienta: Exactly. I was there. But Drew did a pretty good job of getting me there when I needed it. I do think it was because I had been sitting with the material for so long, and talking about it so much, that I was comfortable going for it.
Filmmaker: There’s an emphasis placed on how Mona’s a loner, and quick to alienate everyone around her, but I get the sense that she doesn’t even want friends. There’s the scene where her co-worker invites her somewhere, and she candidly rebuffs her. She only likes being around her family, she doesn’t want to be talked about to others, she’s oddly private in some way. Did you have to create some sort of inner narrative to rationalize this behavior?
Pienta: Well, I feel like she kind of wants to be close to people because she doesn’t understand why she alienates them. It’s the tragic truth of the matter. But, you’re right in that she has her mom, and her sister, and those are her girls. She’s fine with that, and doesn’t particularly need anyone else. I don’t try to rationalize it, because I don’t think she would. I try to stay as instinctual as possible.
Filmmaker: People are often curious about what it’s like to play an “unlikeable” character, and the difficulties it may present from an acting standpoint. The abrasive personalities are probably my favorite characters, because, for some reason or another, they’re the ones that draw me in and excite me the most. What was your favorite part about playing Mona?
Pienta: I don’t know, honestly. Everything. I just love her. And, like I said, I was able to be instinctual, and give a lot, because I felt so supported. Not just Drew, but our DP, Andrew [Whittaker], was also amazing. I knew he had my back. I could look at him, and he would give me a nod. The party scene, for instance, was a crazy scene that actually is totally different from the script.
Tobia: It’s actually really not that different. I read the script the other day. Weirdly. The beats, all the major beats are there, we just hit them in a different way.
Pienta: We got there differently, visually, at least. There was this point where they were taking filler stuff, and I knew that Andrew was there, and I started doing something weird, and he followed me. That’s when Drew realized, that’s what this scene essentially needs to be, a montage of Mona’s behavior. But there was something about the partnership, feeling totally supported, and free. He had my back.
Filmmaker: You knew that if you did something, he would be there to catch it. You weren’t self-conscious about setting it up and making sure they got it.
Pienta: Yeah, for that specific scene.
Tobia: It’s a really unsung relationship between actors and the d.p. They have a very special relationship that no one really talks about, because there is the whole idea of auteur theory, the director being God, which, I buy a little bit. It’s a really personal movie, but at the same time, there were so many choices being made in a collaborative way. My relationship with Andrew was really strong, and I felt really comfortable being on set working with him. There were no egos, we all knew what we were doing, we were all there for the same common goal. It felt good.
Filmmaker: Had you worked with him before?
Tobia: Never. But he was a friend.
Filmmaker: Lastly, I wanted to ask about a climactic scene between Mona and Jordan. They’re talking about May, their mother, and Jordan says something to the effect of, “I thought you hated her,” and Mona responds, “I do. But doesn’t that just prove how much I love her.” In a lot of ways, this is the key into Mona’s perspective, which is, askew, to say the least.
Tobia: I mean, don’t you feel that way? I do. I really can’t hate anyone unless I love them, because otherwise, they’re not even worth my time. See You Next Tuesday’s tagline is “you always hate the ones you love.” I’d say it’s the thesis of the movie.