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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“It Came Out of Feeling Like I Didn’t Actually See Myself in the Movies…”: Claudia Weill on Girlfriends

Melanie Mayron in Girlfriends

Claudia Weill is a director whose work meant so much to me at such a formative age that I was almost hesitant to interview her; the two features she directed, Girlfriends (1978) and It’s My Turn (1980) spoke to me on such a profoundly personal level that I feared speaking with her could only be a disappointing experience—either because she wouldn’t live up to my image of her or because I would be so intimidated that I’d turn into a blabbering idiot. One of Weill’s many talents is to create work so intimate and precise that it always feels like there’s a direct emotional link between the director and the individual viewer; a former documentarian, Weill has an astonishing ability to block and compose her scenes in ways that powerfully convey both her characters’ inner feelings and the contradictions between those feelings and the characters’ outward behavior. This is true not only of Girlfriends and It’s My Turn but of Weill’s television work; her episodes of the overlooked and underrated Once and Again are as sharply observed and sensitively directed as any great feature.

Girlfriends remains Weill’s masterpiece though, a hilarious, deeply empathetic study of a single New York woman navigating the increasingly complicated terrain of friendship, romance, and work while struggling with both her own neuroses and the mixed messages she gets from men, employers, and roommates. The movie couldn’t be more specific in its behavior and milieu, but it’s the ultimate example of how the personal can become universal; when I first saw it as a 19-year old Chicago film student, I felt like Weill was talking directly to me, a feeling I suspect many viewers experience when encountering the film. Girlfriends is now available as a special edition Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection, with a lot of great interviews and supplements and a terrific new transfer of the film supervised by Weill and director of photography Fred Murphy; the release gave me the perfect excuse to talk with Weill and ask her about her approach to this film that meant so much to me. The good news: my anxiety that she wouldn’t be as smart, funny, warm and interesting as her work proved to be completely unjustified.      

Filmmaker: When you directed Girlfriends, you had mostly been working in documentaries, and I’m curious what motivated the shift into dramatic filmmaking. Were there impulses you felt you weren’t able to satisfy working in nonfiction?

Claudia Weill: I had been doing nonfiction for a long time and remember spending months and months in the editing room trying to manipulate the footage into a film. I thought, “God, wouldn’t it be great to start from a script?” as opposed to trying to find the story the way you do when you’re shooting a documentary. I had learned a lot about human behavior shooting documentaries, and I wanted to translate what I’d observed into a narrative film. I had this idea about a friendship between two young women and what happened to it when one of them decided to get married, so I brought in Vicki Polon and we collaborated on the story. Originally it was three different stories, essentially three short films that were sort of connected, and the story about the two friends was just going to be the first third. I got a $10,000 grant from the AFI and we shot what ended up being the first eight minutes of the film, and when I looked at that I realized that I really wanted to follow Susan, Melanie Mayron’s character. At that point I didn’t have any money to continue the film, so I kept applying for more grants and we started shooting again almost a year later.     

Filmmaker: Melanie Mayron is so good in the movie, and part of what makes her interesting is that she’s not the kind of actress who would ordinarily be carrying a movie. Anita Skinner, who plays Anne, is a little more of a conventional leading lady type. 

Weill: That was the whole idea, that the movie would be about the best friend character, the woman who would usually be the sidekick. Going way back you always have these sidekicks—usually they’re funny, maybe a little overweight, maybe a little ethnic—and I wanted the sidekick to be the protagonist. It came out of feeling like I didn’t actually see myself or my friends in the movies, if you understand what I’m talking about.

Filmmaker: I completely understand, because when I saw the movie for the first time I saw myself in the Christopher Guest character!

Weill: Again, I wasn’t looking for a typical male romantic lead. I was looking for a guy who was quirky like the guys I knew, guys who were interesting and complicated and kind of afraid of intimacy. When Chris came in he put a whole life behind the words we had written and I suddenly knew who the character was. Same thing with Bob Balaban as the husband; he was great playing this perfect husband who’s really not so perfect. He had to project a certain kind of strength, because that’s what the abortion is about. She’s not yet strong enough to say to him, “Look, I’m not ready to have another child.” 

Filmmaker: Was there a steep learning curve figuring out how to get what you wanted from actors after spending so much time in documentary filmmaking?

Weill: Well, I did study acting for a couple years before doing the film, while I was finishing my previous documentary. I learned pretty quickly not to give people results as a direction—stuff like, “Be more angry,” because his idea of angry might not be your idea of angry, and it’s not a helpful direction. A helpful direction is, “She’s not going to stay over, and you want her to stay over.” The actor processes that, and if he’s not angry enough, then you add a circumstance, like, “Well, you really expected she was going to stay tonight,” or, “She led you to believe she was going to stay tonight.” So, I learned enough to know what not to do. Then, like all directors, I just stumbled around. It’s not like you ever really know what to do. It’s just not an obvious thing. I think every director is anxious, and they might be aware of it or not aware of it and deal with it differently. You don’t know exactly what you’re going for and whether you’ll get it and how to get it. It’s about learning to live with that and going for it.

Filmmaker: Tell me a little about your collaboration with the director of photography, Fred Murphy. He went on to become one of the all-time great cinematographers, shooting The Dead for John Huston and a lot of other incredible things.

Weill: We were shooting on 16—not even Super-16, just 16mm on an Éclair NPR. It was great. It was just Fred’s second feature; his first one was The Gardener’s Son, which he shot for Dick Pearce. So, he was one step ahead of me, but we were basically in the same place and learning together. That was the exciting part. Our lighting kit was just a case of six 1Ks I had left over from documentaries. You could bounce lights around and do a little fill or something, but it was not sophisticated. Every once in a while if we needed something extra, like in the scenes outdoors in the country, we would rent it, but the equipment was really rudimentary. It wasn’t troublesome to me because I didn’t know any better, and it also seemed to fit the style of the film.

Filmmaker: One interesting aspect of the style is that a lot of the scenes play out without an abundance of cuts. I love the way you let the staging tell the story and don’t cut to a close-up or something unless there’s really a reason to. 

Weill: I’ve always loved masters, and moving masters. I like seeing people move in relation to each other in a way that tells you what’s happening in the scene emotionally. If a scene is properly staged, you can understand what’s happening even if the film is in another language.  You can read the scene because of the physicality of it and where people are moving. To me, that’s so much more interesting than Cuisinart movies where you cut, cut, cut and everything’s covered from a million angles and a million lenses and you’re just cutting between them. That’s not really filmmaking to me. I mean, that’s not fair to say. Of course it’s filmmaking, but it’s not the kind that interests me. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t some quick cutting in the film. In the opening there are very abbreviated, short scenes that I think were longer in the writing. All those staccato scenes are shorter, ten or fifteen seconds, because that’s the best way to advance the story.   

Filmmaker: What other kinds of discoveries were you making in the editing? I’ve always wondered about that great final shot of Susan and whether that was scripted or discovered during the shoot or in the editing room.

Weill: Well, the movie originally ended with a scene between the four main characters talking after Martin and Eric drive to the country together and meet the girls. The girls were on a balcony, the guys were down below and I had no idea what the scene was really about and it didn’t really work. I talked to a friend about it, and I said, “I guess what changes in the movie is that in the beginning, Anne leaves and Susan’s devastated. At the end, Anne leaves and Susan’s no longer devastated. She’s kind of grown a life for herself.” So I had this idea of showing Martin arriving, which I had with a shot of his headlights, and Anne getting up and going and making a slightly dry joke, then ending with a shot of Melanie looking after her and then smiling to herself and looking down. I had that shot because the way I used to shoot these scenes, I might let the camera keep rolling after I said cut. Or I might not even say cut, I might just say, “Okay, let’s reposition and let’s go again. Let’s just keep rolling.” And the girls would kind of mess around and joke, and one time Anita said, “Oh, Martin.” And Melanie took a beat and looked down before we started again. We found that by just excavating it from the footage we had. When you’re editing you almost need to approach it like it’s a documentary. What do I have? What is my footage? What can I do with it? Particularly when you run into trouble and your scenes aren’t working the way they’re supposed to, that’s the only way to proceed.

Filmmaker: Once you were finished with the movie how did you get it out into the world? It’s not like there was the Sundance Film Festival or South by Southwest or any of that kind of thing then…

Weill: No, it was totally not happening. There were no independents. I showed it to the New York Film Festival and they rejected it. I didn’t have the money to finish the film. It was still in double system, magnetic sound and 16-millimeter picture. I got an invitation from the Rotterdam Film Festival, which was an avant-garde film festival. I’m not sure how they heard about it, but they invited me. On the strength of that I went to DuArt and Irwin Young, who was the head of the lab. I said, “Is there any chance you can make a blow-up for me? Let me just pay costs, then I’ll pay you the rest once I sell the film.” I really felt I had to finish the film in 35, otherwise it would always be just a good try. It wouldn’t get taken seriously as a feature. He was just great, and he made the blow up for me and I left the same day. It came out of the lab and I got on the plane, and we screened it. I went right into the screening, and people were laughing like crazy. It took me so many years to make the film that I didn’t even remember it was a comedy anymore. So, I thought, “They’re Dutch. They don’t understand English or something.” Then the next day in the newspaper, someone wrote, “What is a commercial movie like this doing in an avant-garde film festival?” It was a rave but sort of a backhanded rave. Then somebody said, “You should call up the Cannes Film Festival. See if you could get it taken there.”

So, I called them up and they said, “Yeah, please come screen it for us. Let’s take a look,” and accepted it for the Directors’ Fortnight. On the strength on that, when I came back to the States I screened it for the guy who owned Cinema 1 and 2 in New York and was sort of the only really independent distributor for feature films. He didn’t want it. He didn’t like it. I struck out with the New York Film Festival, and I struck out with any distributors for independents in New York. So I just got on a plane and went to L.A. with a print, and I would call one studio after another and say, “I made this movie. It’s a feature starring Eli Wallach, and Viveca Lindfors is in it”—because they wouldn’t know any of the other people—“and it’s been accepted at the Cannes Film Festival. Would you be interested in taking a look?” Invariably their most junior person would take a look, then recommend it to a senior person. It would work itself up the line, and we eventually sold it to Warners. I was really lucky because earlier that year Paul Mazursky’s film An Unmarried Woman had come out and done really well. There was also another movie called The Turning Point about ballerinas, so suddenly there were two big movies that had female protagonists. I think that was very helpful to me. If I’d appeared two years earlier, I’m not sure whether they would have bought it. 

Filmmaker: And then you directed a big studio movie, It’s My Turn, which I’m a big fan of. I’ve always assumed it must not have been a great experience though, since you never made another studio film.

Weill: It was really hard for me because, first of all, it was produced by Ray Stark, who was known to be a very difficult person. And I think I was ill-prepared for what you have to do in Hollywood, which is humor people, deal with them very tactically, kind of say you’re going to do something their way but then not do it. I was just like, “You want me to do what? No, no way.” I didn’t have any political skills, so I had no idea how to deal with these studio types who were telling me what to do with the movie. I didn’t know how to handle it in such a way to make them feel seen but still get my own way. I don’t know if that was even possible, but I certainly didn’t handle it well, and the way I was treated was not great either. It was sort of abusive, so there was no point in repeating that experience. 

I’ve never been the kind of careerist who says, “Oh, I have to make features, and by the time I die I have to have made eight great ones and won however many Academy Awards,” or whatever. I could care less. All I’ve ever been interested in is telling stories. One of my earliest jobs was on Sesame Street when it was just starting, and I really loved working in television. After I did those movies, the new golden age of television was beginning with Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, and I got to direct those for producers like Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz who were also directors and were wonderful at creating complex characters and letting me do what I wanted. They weren’t telling me how many close-ups to shoot or how to stage things. I was really happy, especially because I was also directing a lot of theater at the same time. I felt very, very lucky. Some people say, “Well, but you never made another feature.” Yeah. So what?

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

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