Go backBack to selection

The Art of Angling: The Making of Rose Troche’s Classic Microbudget Lesbian Love Story, Go Fish

Rose Troche, V.S. Brodie and Guinevere Turner on the set of Go Fish (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

1994’s Go Fish, Rose Troche’s smart, punked-out work of guerilla filmmaking, combined a playful take on lesbian dating with discursive dialogues around gender politics and the cultural history of gay female representation. Part of the late ’80s and early ’90s low-budget boom of what critic B. Ruby Rich dubbed New Queer Cinema—films such as Poison, Swoon, The Hours and Times, Born in Flames and The Watermelon Woman—the Chicago-set Go Fish finds hip college student Max (Guinevere Turner, also the film’s screenwriter and producer) in a romantic rut and set up by friends with a hippie-ish older lesbian, Ely (V.S. Brodie). Stalled in an unfulfilling long-distance relationship, Ely has obvious romantic problems of her own, and the couple’s eventual sexual connection is the result of both sartorial adjustments and shared intimacies, a coupling that also speaks to the film’s generational dialogue within the lesbian community. (One character asks, in what could be the film’s treatise, “What would you rather our collective lesbian image be? Hot, passionate, say-yes-to-sex dykes or touchy-feely, soft-focus sisters of the woodlands?”)

Go Fish marked the debuts of both Troche, who would go on to direct the features Bedrooms and Hallways and The Safety of Objects, as well as much TV (including The L Word pilot), and Turner, whose acting and writing credits include American Psycho and The Notorious Bettie Page. The 1994 picture also is historically significant in the business history of American independent film. Out of production monies and needing overall guidance, Troche approached producer Christine Vachon and director Tom Kalin, both early in their careers, and the two boarded as executive producers. Vachon got the film to legendary producers’ rep John Pierson, a keen talent-spotter and exuberant salesman who knew how to work the heads of the day’s various independent distribution companies. (Pictures he repped include She’s Gotta Have It, Slacker and Roger and Me.) Pierson invested finishing funds and then announced to buyers headed to Sundance that he would be selling the film at auction immediately after its premiere. The film went to the Samuel Goldwyn Company for a reported $450,000, the first film ever to be sold at the Sundance Film Festival, and began a custom of late-night Park City bidding wars that continues to this day.

Thirty years after its premiere, Go Fish returns to Sundance in a new restoration overseen by Sundance Institute’s Archives and Collection Program. To mark the return of Go Fish, Filmmaker is reprinting here for the first time Holly Willis’s original cover story about the film, a bit of a time capsule itself in its conversations with Troche, Turner, Vachon and Pierson. And while we wait for a release of the restored version of the film, the old print can be seen on Tubi, as well as other digital platforms.—Scott Macaulay

Like many independent first features, Go Fish might have easily sunk from production crises and financial problems. But it didn’t. The film started when Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner joined forces to write a lesbian love story in Chicago. After they had run out of money with a significant part of the film already shot, they went looking for money. Producer Christine Vachon and producer-director Tom Kalin were approached, as was John Pierson at Islet. All three liked the project and agreed to help out. The final result inspired a feeding frenzy at Sundance, with Goldwyn taking the film home. But before rushing on to Sundance, let’s return to the beginning of our story…

“I never imagined myself a filmmaker or screenwriter,” claims Turner. “I met Rose and we started talking. She had graduated from film school at the University of Illinois, and I had graduated from Sarah Lawrence, where I studied writing, and we said, ‘We’re intelligent and skilled and we have these mundane jobs—what are we doing with ourselves?’ We decided to do the film, never knowing what we were getting into and, of course, having no idea that it would take three years of blood, sweat, tears, money, panic, anxiety… all of it.”

Troche had made a few short pieces in school, films like Let’s Go Back to My Place and Have Some Sex and the video Gabriella, You Scare Me, which she characterizes as much more personal and non-narrative. The two also collaborated on a couple of projects for ACT UP/Chicago, and that community of artists and filmmakers formed the network of support that helped make the larger project seem possible. There was even talk of starting a film collective. “Go Fish killed that idea,” notes Troche.

The screenplay was written jointly by Turner and Troche. “As hard as it was for Guin and me to work together,” explained Troche, “there are things that we do quite well, and writing the script was one of them. We lived together at the time, so we would write things, discussing what we wanted for each scene and then go off separately to write. For example, we discussed the trial scene, and Guin went off and wrote it. She handed it to me, and I edited it.” Things didn’t always go smoothly or efficiently, however. “Because we were codependent fat-asses, we procrastinated. I would say. ‘Oh, we’ve gotta write that dinner scene now… Do you want to go out and have a beer?’”

For Turner, who had written fiction, writing a screenplay proved very difficult. “I went into writing this film blindly. Dialogue had always been a real challenge, even in fiction. It’s also hard to write with someone. There were certain scenes that we would put off for so long, and while we knew what would happen in the scenes, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to write them.”

And the long evolution from page to screen was also new to Turner. “It was good that I got to read the voiceovers. This is something that I learned about film: A third of it is what you write, a third of it is the director and a third of it is what the actor says. It’s been a real experience for me as a writer—I co-produced, I co-wrote, I acted, I cooked, I put powder on people. I did so much, but my heart is very much in the writing, and that is what l’m most proud of. But it’s been a very educational and at times painful experience to watch how what you write on paper passes through so many interpretations before it’s actually on screen in a theater. It requires a certain amount of letting go.”

To cast the documentary segments that were part of the original film, Turner and Troche handed out invitations to open shoots. “People would drop over and answer a few questions in front of the camera, and afterwards we’d make a lunch or dinner and just sit and chat,” says Troche. While this material did not end up in the film, the filmmakers met women who were later cast in the fictional segments. Guin and Valerie (V.S. Brodie) were cast mainly due to their availability and presumed commitment to the project. Other women were spotted by Turner and Troche at various places and cajoled into being in the film. Rose describes finding Migdalia (Melendez): “I saw her at a bar. I was looking for a Puerto Rican character, and it’s kind of funny—what do you make a Puerto Rican lesbian look like? I was originally going to play the character myself, but I’m a little too white-washed for my own good. But when I saw Migdalia I could see that we had a certain amount in common.” Migdalia was cast with the stipulation that she could bring the child she baby-sat along with her. Thus, for many days of production there was a child on the set. “If you weren’t on camera,” claims Troche, “you would be taking care of Torie.”

Anastasia Sharp was a waitress at a restaurant Tumer and Troche went to often. “The neighborhood was one of those where everyone goes to drink beer, play pool and have breakfast at the same places. Leo’s Lunchroom was the breakfast place,” explains Troche, “so Anastasia worked there, and Guin and I were like, ‘You ask her,’ ‘No, you ask her.’ Finally. we asked her and she was interested because she’s an actress.” 

Having cast the film with friends and acquaintances who were working for free, the filmmakers had to balance their obsession to make the movie with the needs and desires of a cast and crew who were not so driven, As Troche explains, “The hardest thing about working with people who are non-professional is that if they are feeling at all crabby or having their own issues, they’ll have an incredibly hard time shaking it off.” The differing degrees of commitment also took its toll. “In terms of working with friends, I would do it again, but I think money will make the difference in making the step toward something a little more professional.”

“Hell” is how Troche describes some days on the set. “Take the laundry room scene. Valerie was in such a vile mood that day. She’d just got her hair cut, and what happens when you get in a bad mood is that your lines are the last thing you want to remember. So she’d keep on fucking up, and that scene has longish takes in it so if she’d fuck up at the end, we had to do the whole thing over.”

Like every film shoot, Go Fish had its share of disasters, although for Turner and Troche, the disasters seemed to come all at once and during the height of production. One weekend was particularly bad. Ann Rossetti, the cinematographer, had twisted her ankle, and so Turner and Troche got a second DP. Being union, explains Troche, ”she wanted all this equipment that Ann would never dream of asking for because she knew we didn’t have the budget for it. Because I needed her, I said, ‘Sure, you got it,’ and in all fairness, she was trying to be cheap.” They rented the equipment, only to have the DP back out at the last minute. “That was the beginning of cracking for me. I was stuck with all this equipment, which was costing $300 a day, which I know is nothing, but to us it was a huge amount. So I had to shoot.”

“We had a crew of four people, and I was shaking. It was just nuts. The next day Ann came back and said she’d try to shoot. Her ankle was all taped up,” says Troche, “and I was in a rotten mood and thinking, ‘You and your fucking taped-up ankle!’ You don’t understand that people have regular lives and that the world does not revolve around you or this little thing you’re doing.”

The following day, a full roll of film was exposed, the AD quit and the money to feed everyone was stolen. Turner, who had been responsible for the cash, tried to cover the loss by buying Klondike bars for everyone. “They just looked at us,” says Turner, “and we sort of smiled and said, ‘Please stay!’ Of course, a couple of people left.” As Troche says, “This kind of thing happened on Go Fish. It was never just one thing but a mountain of disasters. Guin found me in the closet crying, totally cracked. She said, ‘Snap out of it. Get yourself together. Tell these people to go home or shoot.’ Guin was good to work with because as a producer she would just say, ‘You’re clearly too upset to work—let’s just drop it.” I always wanted to try just one more time to make the day more worthwhile.”

 Acting, for Turner, was pretty much a new thing. While she gives a strong performance in the film, it is not something she wants to pursue. “For me, one of the biggest challenges was being totally stressed out and not necessarily getting along with everyone around me and having to smile and be the goofy romantic Max. That makes me feel like a good actress. And with some of those scenes it was three in the morning after an 18-hour day.” Because she stars in the film, many people forget to acknowledge her other contributions. “I feel like acting is not only not what I aspire to do,” explains Turner, “but I only did it because I knew I would be completely committed to working for free until it was done. When people say, ‘Oh, you were good in the film,’ I feel like asking, ‘Hey did you read the credits, I’m a writer.’” Another career that Turner will never aspire to is producing. “I don’t know how someone would have to twist my arm to do that again—it’s a thankless job. At this level of filmmaking it means something completely different than at higher levels. At this level, it means doing whatever happens to need being done, like cooking.”

Along with documentary footage, the film originally had transitional elements which were in color. “The color would bleed out in a way that let you know that you were leaving the land of documentary and color and coming to the fantasyland of black and white.” The transitional elements remain in the film, offering metaphorical commentary on the narrative and giving the film moments of delicate beauty amidst the rougher footage, but the documentary and color elements have been removed. Both Vachon and Pierson recommended the removal of the color footage, noting that they would have to process the entire film in color, thereby reducing the quality of the black-and-white segments.

At other times, the filmmakers just had to act. “The sex scene was one of the scenes that we never got around to writing, so we found ourselves with the whole crew sitting there waiting while we discussed ‘what is sexy?’ We decided that to just photograph two people having sex wouldn’t be sexy, but we were not sure of the next step. Finally after Valerie and Rose and I had discussed what turned us on, Rose just said ‘All right, all right, let’s just do it.’ We had a couple of glasses of scotch, and we were ready.”

Trying to finish the film took an incredible effort for Turner and Troche. “There were several points when we had run out of money,” says Turner, “and it felt like everyone who was involved in the project except us really didn’t believe it would ever get done—one actress dyed her hair, one actress cut her hair. Or we would run into people on the street and they would say, ‘What ever happened to that movie you guys were making?’ and we would be like, ‘Fuck you man, we’re getting this movie done.’ And that was really hard—when we were the only people who believed that we would get this thing done. We would look at each other and think, ‘Don’t even tell me for a second that you think it isn’t going to happen,’ which, when you consider some of the shit we went through, makes me wonder how I could believe in something so blindly that I made it my life.”

“One of the best things that happened to Go Fish was that we ran out of money,” claims Troche. “It was August of ’92 and we had to close up shop. We had hit rock bottom. But then we hooked up with Christine [Vachon]. We were able to take the film and do a rough edit so we could look at what we had and see where the holes were. It was like Swiss cheese; there were holes in the narrative galore.” Additional scenes were shot, and the voiceover commentary was added. Despite the additional funds, Troche is still acutely aware of deficiencies in the film. “When we got money, it was still not enough to do what we wanted. People will say that the cafe scene should be reshot, and I know that, but to go back in there and reshoot takes money.”

For executive producer Christine Vachon, the project was love at first sight. “Rose and Guin sent me a videotape almost a year ago. It was 20 minutes of rough scenes and a letter saying, ‘We don’t have any money and we don’t know what to do.’ I saw that the film was something that I wanted to get involved in.

“The writing was very strong and the performances were good and I saw that there was a quirky sensibility to it that I found interesting. I also saw that it was the lesbian movie that I had been looking for. It had the potential to go very far, and I knew that the so-called community was looking for this kind of movie. At that point I started trying to raise money. They were about 60 percent finished, although I thought and they thought they were a little further along. But they ended up reshooting some stuff. So I knocked on a lot of doors and carted that tape around to a lot of different places and mostly met with rejection before I finally made a deal with John Pierson at Islet to finish the film. We were able to provide the funds for them to shoot some more, and then Rose and Guin came to New York last summer for post-production, which we thought was going to be a fairly short process but stretched into quite a lengthy one. With them in New York, Tom and I were able to help with post-production and make sure everything was going well.”

While the filmmakers happily greeted the financial support, they were a bit hesitant about some of the suggestions. “By the time we took the film to Christine, Tom and John,” says Troche, “it was completely our baby, so when Guin said, ‘Not only do they want us to drop these things, they want us to change the name,’ I just thought, ‘Oh the fuckers, I can’t believe it!’ But it turned out to be really good advice and was confirmed when Sande Zeig said, ‘I really think you should drop the doc material.’ I think it was a good idea.”

John Pierson agreed to come on board only if things were kept clear.

“I learned my lesson on Amongst Friends. I made money on it, but it was a horrible experience and consequently more than ever I’m really keen on choosing to be involved with people who I think have a clear idea of what they want. The only thing I would take any credit for at all in terms of shaping of Go Fish is making something very evident more evident. It’s in the same way that I basically took everybody else’s advice and my own to Kevin Smith on Clerks and said, ‘Look, you can’t have this guy get blown away at the end of this comedy. It just really rattles everybody.’ So if I made one suggestion on Clerks, it was really a simple one: get rid of this guy getting murdered at the end of the film. On Go Fish about the only thing I can claim to have creative credit on is being the first person to be really vocal about thinking that the original working title, which was Ely and Max, which is the name of the two central characters, was really a lame title for two reasons. One, I hate any movie title that has two names in it because it usually indicates dudsville. And second, I know it’s a lesbian movie and I know it’s a dyke-y lesbian movie, but still it just didn’t seem helpful to have a movie which bore two names that were unisexual. I just thought there could be something a lot livelier and funnier. At first I think there was some resentment or resistance to the idea, and then Christine called me one day and said that they’d come up with some potential new titles and I thought, ‘Oh great.’ She told me there were three in ascending order of preference and the first one was Leave it to Beaver. I said, ‘Oh, just stop teasing me. Don’t call me up to bust my chops about how I’m asking for a better title so I’ll have a chance of selling it.’ And the next one was Once Upon My Girl, and I said, ‘OK, just stop right there,’ and she said, ‘No there’s one more and it’s Go Fish.’ And I said, ‘Well, if they’re serious, it’s a great title.’

“The Go Fish deal is what my deals always are. I put up a certain amount of money which carries the film to completion. I own an equity interest in the film as a result of that. I, of course, act as the sales representative for the world, so I get a fee for that. My investment money earns an interest factor as well, in addition to the equity I have in the film, and that’s how the Islet deals work.” He pauses, and then says, “I’m willing to say that I won half the equity in the film, but I am not willing to discuss the budget.”

For Troche, editing the film was harder than shooting it. “Film is a very communal thing, like having a large family, and it in some ways fills a lot of emotional needs. We would go out every night after shooting and talk about the day and it was like check-in time. Once we hit post-production, though, all that changed.” Troche moved to New York to edit the film—having alienated a lot of people with the production of the film, she was feeling lonely. “I went to San Francisco, and then I came back to face my girlfriend, the Moviola. I had an assistant who was syncing up the stuff, but in terms of support I was completely alone. And I couldn’t go out because I knew I should edit. In terms of the editing itself, it was a lot of putting things together and taking things apart again. Even though I had made my first-round decisions, my first pulls, I would still look back to the first rolls afraid that I was missing a gem in the rough. And you do sometimes. Editing is fun, but it calls for me to be something that I’m not, which is organized.”

The response at Sundance was overwhelming for Turner and Troche. “Even in our wildest dreams I don’t think we imagined this,” explains Turner. “We didn’t imagine any crossover in terms of a heterosexual audience. We didn’t think anyone would really pay attention; we didn’t particularly care about that. Also, lesbians are excited not only because it’s a lesbian movie but also because it’s getting so much attention. It’s this affirmation for everyone. We are interesting. We are talented. We are real people.”

The plans for the future include more writing for Turner; she’s not sure about screenwriting, but she’s working on a novel. For Troche, avoiding what she calls the “sophomore slump”—and the fact that she is considered first a lesbian and second a filmmaker—is certainly on her mind. 

For Vachon, the success of Go Fish may help convince skeptics of her abilities to see a good project. “What I’m hoping Go Fish will do, and I’m sure it won’t because this never happens, but I’m hoping it will make it a little easier for me as a producer in the future to develop a small movie that I know is something really important. I hope the doors won’t close so quickly next time and that it will be a little easier for me to convince people that even if they can’t see what I see, that they will trust that my vision is quite intact and solid.”

For Pierson, the project was a good arrangement all around. “We all brought different things to the table, and as the one flag-waving heterosexual middle-aged guy here, I think my endorsement—one from a neutral or a non-politically correct figure such as myself—made a difference. Once people got to see it with their own eyes it was clear as day. I’m happy things worked out with Go Fish. It’s a film with a lot of heart.”

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham