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“I Want All The Lesbian Experiences I Can See On Film”: Tricia Cooke on Drive-Away Dolls

A woman and man, both wearing face masks, watch a monitor on-set.Tricia Cooke and Ethan Coen on the set of Drive-Away Dolls

Directed by and co-written with collaborator and husband, Ethan Coen, filmmaker and editor Tricia Cooke’ Drive Away Dolls (or Dykes, per the end credits) finds her doing sapphic donuts around classic movies like Kiss Me Deadly and even a little North By Northwest. As Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marian (Geraldine Viswanathan) decide to take a trip to Tallahassee, they’re dogged by inept criminals seeking a package and suitcase in the back trunk of the car the pair have rented. If the road trip movie and film noir have long been exercises to explore the American psyche and the landscape’s possible past and future, Drive Away Dolls’ future is rooted in its picaresque and picturesque conception of community, ping-ponging from one lesbian bar to another, affirming that dyke culture is supple and ever potent. Finding the balance between B-movie charm and a sincere adoration for queer culture, Dolls’ is shorn of the anxiety of sucking up to vaguely assimilationist notions of fitting gay characters into straight genres (see: Bros, Red White and Royal Blue, et al.), instead content with its own fairly unserious sensibilities.

I first heard about the film from Tricia back in 2016 when I was living in Provincetown, where Tricia and Ethan have a home. Spending my second summer working in town, Tricia and I became friendly through a mutual friend, and I didn’t find out who her husband was until later that season. Sitting beneath the amber glow of a piano bar’s dim lighting, Tricia told me about the caper noir she was writing with Ethan, and the silly MacGuffin in the back of the car.

Now, nearly a decade later, I spoke with Tricia about becoming an editor, rewatching your own work, and how activism has shaped her life. Drive Away Dolls comes out February 23, 2024.

Filmmaker: Huge congratulations on everything. I remember when you were telling me about it at Porch Bar in Provincetown. How does it feel to have all this finally come together?

Cooke: I’m glad we were finally able to get it made. I mean, we had written it so long ago, and had tried to get him made with our friend Alison Anders, who would have made a great, and different, movie. You work on something, then  put it aside and think about it every now and then. It was a way for me and Ethan to be connected, so I’d always wanted to make it, because it would mean that we got to do something together.

Filmmaker: Now that the film is coming out and you’re doing press for it, do you find any similarities to the road trip aspect of the movie?

Cooke: Well, Margaret and Beanie and Geraldine are doing a bit of a tour. I know they were in San Francisco and Philadelphia, then New York.  My press tour has been going to and from the production office, wherever the internet is better. We’re in Albuquerque right now, [working] on the next movie, Honey, Don’t. I’ve never done it, so, being part of a press junket is a little interesting. I’m always trying to come up with new things to say about the same questions and trying not to sound foolish piecing together parts of the experience of working on the film, but also making sure that it feels fresh, so to speak, for whomever you’re talking to.

Filmmaker: What came first? Your love for film or your queerness?

Cooke: I think my love for film, because I think it was after seeing Grease for the fourth time, and understanding that the reason I was watching it was because I had a crush on Olivia Newton-John, that I understood that that I was queer.

Filmmaker: I get it. Grease was also  a very significant text in my adolescence as well. Were you bringing in your feelings about the way images can trigger those feelings and that relationship to one’s identity as you were heading into NYU?

Cooke: I think going to New York was important for me and my queerness, because I had been at USC, which was a very conservative community, and didn’t feel I could really express myself or feel comfortable. I mean [I didn’t] come out until I moved to New York in my early 20s. But I don’t know if that sensation of watching Olivia Newton-John transform from Sandy in the white dress to Sandy in leather—I don’t know if I thought, “Oh, I’m gonna go to NYU, and that’s gonna be a part of how I tell stories.” But  being there helped me understand who I was in my sexuality. And I made a short film called The Secret Integration, which was [based on] a Thomas Pynchon short story, about someone with an imaginary friend. But in that story, the kid’s imaginary friend was a black boy who moved into the neighborhood, and I think that feeling of being a part of a more marginalized community was important for me.

Filmmaker: Were you developing your voice as an editor, as a filmmaker, more at NYU or or USC?

Cooke: It’s funny, because I went to film school at NYU. But at USC, I took one class in particular. It wasn’t a film class, it was a comparative literature class. And I remember we read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and watched Sullivan’s Travels. That was when I was 18, and both of those two artists became very important to me when I was in my twenties. Then I ended up in a relationship with Ethan, who ended up making O Brother, Where Art Thou? which is the movie that Sully (Joel McCrea) wants to make [in Sullivan’s].  NYU is where I got my first real experiences on a larger scale. I used to edit my dad’s backpacking movies when I was young. I started cutting other friends’ films at NYU, then made my own and cut that, too.

Filmmaker: You started working with Ethan on Miller’s Crossing as an apprentice. What were the kinds of things that they were actually giving you to do and at what point did these tasks begin to develop this thirst for becoming a capital-E editor?

Cooke: Back then, everything was done on film. And it was really just organizational—okay, here’s our trims.  Trims were either side of the footage that was left after you used what you wanted for the shot that you wanted. It was just a lot of organizational work, which I enjoy. But listening to them make choices and watching—at that time we’re working with an editor named Michael Miller, and when they were cutting on film they always used a second editor. Because it’s just more cumbersome and takes longer, so watching how they worked with him and watching him cut his scenes ,and talking with Michael a lot about the choices he was making—I was just all consumed by how shots would go together, and how you could pace, especially when two different people were cutting a movie and performance choices that you would make. Joel and Ethan always work with such great actresses and actors. So, it’s a little easier to put things together, because the performances are almost always so great.

Filmmaker: What was it like establishing the pace for Drive-Away Dykes first on the page, then shooting, then putting it together as an editor and negotiating all those changes in mode?

Cooke: Pace [you think about] when you’re writing. You’re really just trying to get the plot out, and trying to make sure that the characters are interesting, and the dialogue pretty much works and you’ve got something interesting visually that’s going to lead from scene to scene.

Directing, it’s all about making sure that the actors and actresses and everyone’s on board stylistically with the same story and tone that you’re using. Sometimes [that means] slowing things down or picking up the pace depending on whatever the choices actors are making. And working with Ari Wegner, the cinematographer, making sure that you’re telling the story with the same devices tonally that you have seen when you’re writing it.

Cutting-wise, it’s funny. The script was over 100 pages long, and usually that translates to a minute a page, right? But when we were putting together the first assembly cut, it was 74 minutes or something—so short, shockingly short. So, that [meant] maybe opening things up a little bit more, and there are still times I’ll watch the beginning, and I’ll be like, “Oh, that should be cut tighter.” But then I have to remind myself we couldn’t cut anything tighter, because [we] had a running time issue. But yeah, just making sure that never feels there’s any fat. Especially in this caper movie, we wanted to have it be pretty quick paced.

Filmmaker: Does it feel different to have  such a sense of authorship over the movie as compared to working on a film where you’re not credited as writer?

Cooke: It’s terrifying in some ways. I mean, it feels a little more vulnerable. When you’re just editing something, you’re trying to tell the story, and you’re working with the directors and the producers. But there’s not as much ownership, as you say. All of the choices [here] are our choices that Ethan and I made, and sometimes you have to compromise. There’s things that didn’t work the way you wanted them to work. Sometimes there are lines in the movie that you wish you wish were better, and you can never come up with something that’s better. So, you end up with a line that every time it goes by it’s like, “Oh.”

[But it’s also] just exciting, because it is a story that I wanted to tell. I’ve said this 100 times, but I felt  there weren’t a lot of—for lack of a better word—trashy, unimportant, lesbian films out there. I mean, it’s not easy being part of the community. Any part of the LGBT community can be rough at times and feel alienating. But there’s also a lot of joy and fun and pleasure, especially in community. So having co-authored that feels really satisfying.

Filmmaker: What I really like about the movie is the way that it takes a bunch of these tropes from film noir and exploitation road trip movies, and treats them “unseriously.” I think the undergirding of a lot of film noir is this very self-serious masculine anxiety, and this seems to respond to it with humor.

Cooke: That was definitely intentional: “Okay, we know we’re making this B-movie, and B-movies are full of tropes and stereotypes. How can we take those and fuck with them in a way that make us laugh? How can we mix this up and just make it fun and gleeful in a way that someone like John Waters does?” Tropes exist because a lot of them work and people understand them and can relate to them. We wanted them to feel fresh.

Filmmaker: When you’re re-watching the work that you do, are you thinking about the things that you want to tighten up or rework?

Cooke: I, as a rule, could just never watch any of it. I so rarely go back and revisit anything that I’ve worked on. I made this documentary called Where the Girls Are about the Dinah Shore lesbian weekends and the golf community. I watched that with my partner Lisa, and it was easier than I thought it was going to be. I didn’t recut it while I was watching it. But even I said watching the beginning of Drive-Away Dykes, I’m like, “Oh, God!” Especially if you’re an editor, [you’re] thinking, “Oh, I could have done this, or this”— there are always so many options when you’re cutting. But yeah, as a rule, I don’t ever go back and watch things, because I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid I’m not gonna be able to enjoy it.

Filmmaker: One of the things I really appreciate about the film is its sense of community. it has a very clear idea of how Margaret and Geraldine exist within a broader landscape of lesbians. I was wondering what was it like to put that on the page and have all these memories of all these dyke bars that you went to and have to figure out how to articulate them visually?

Cooke: I’ve spent a lot of time in all those lesbian bars, not only in New York but also in Los Angeles. I take a lot of road trips, so whenever I take a road trip, I try and find the queer bar in the town that I’m in. So, it was fun to visualize or envision those. For The Butter Churn in particular, it was fun to think, “Okay, what would that bar be in the middle of nowhere?”

I took a lot of pictures of the Cubbyhole, because I thought that aesthetic there felt a little like it might exist in Florida. It’s so colorful there. Then I demanded that there be go-go dancers in Sugar and Spice, because that bar to me was my time at Cattyshack in Brooklyn.

I played a lot of pool in Henrietta Hudson’s, so for the Butter Churn, it was like, “Okay, these are the sportier lesbians who are playing pool and throwing darts and stuff.” I brought everything that I could remember from spending so much time in those bars to Nancy Haigh, the set decorator and Yong Ok Lee, the production designer.

Filmmaker: So, having worked on Where the Girls Are and The Notorious Bettie Page, what is the feeling of working on a narrative feature film of this scale, where you get to explore lesbianism and sapphic culture and be in charge of it in a way that you weren’t necessarily prior?

Cooke: Daunting. It’s like, “Okay, now, here I am talking about the lesbian world, and what it’s like to be a lesbian, and hoping that I can properly represent it, or at least my own experience in it.” It was fun to go back into that period when I was spending more time out, meeting more people. My queer world now revolves much more around activism work than going out and meeting people in bars.

I want all the lesbian experiences I can see on film, and to be one of the voices, and I know that my voice might not be the most representative. But it’s the world that I knew. I feel super privileged to be able to. It’s not easy to make a movie, and it’s expensive, and to be trusted to tell the stories is a real privilege.

Filmmaker: During this press process, you’ve become more public about your intricate relationship with Ethan, which I have a great deal of respect for. How does it feel to be that vulnerable?

Cooke: I mean, it’s not hard for me. I’ve been out and open about my sexual identity for 40 years, so I don’t mind talking about it. I never thought anyone would be that interested. I know it’s important talking about it around the movie, and making sure that people know that  there’s a queer voice in making the movie. And I’m happy to talk about our unconventional relationship. I [get to] talk about my partner, Lisa, who I think is amazing and does really important political work. It’s nice to be able to share those things. It doesn’t feel vulnerable.

Filmmaker: And can you tell me a little bit about the activist work you’re doing and the way that shapes you as an artist?

Cooke: I have helped organize the Queer Liberation March march for many years. The first three years I did a lot of work. I have still worked doing some signage and archiving, and I do a lot of work with a group called Gays Against Guns in New York, direct action work where we’re on the street. I’ve gotten arrested many times. There’s a boldness that I probably have always had, but I have been able to utilize in that work, and that helped in self confidence making the movie. And just being truly inspired by so many people that I’ve had the real privilege to work with, like Leslie Cagan and Northrop, my partner Lisa, and Laurie Arbeiter, Jay Walker, Robert Kirk—there’s so many people who have been doing it for so long, and have humility and who are just so incredibly dedicated to the work. They’re making it safer for our community to be out in the world. I definitely plug into that  inspiration all the time. I think it’s important for me to put some of that political material into the movies. There’s a line in this new movie about guns. I try to pepper it in wherever I can.

Filmmaker: And it’s clear Matt Damon is this Republican Senator type in Florida.

Cooke: Right? DeSantis, Rubio. I mean, we looked at a lot of pictures of both of them, unfortunately, for research for Matt’s character. We definitely wanted to give a big middle finger to all the conservative politicians and people down in Florida.

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