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“I Was a Teenage Theater Nerd”: Rachel Wolther on Her Tribeca-Premiering Feature Debut The French Italian  

The French Italian

The New York City nightmare of giving up a rent-stabilized apartment inspires (literal) dramatic vengeance in The French Italian, writer-director Rachel Wolther’s feature debut. Long-term couple Doug (Aristotle Athari) and Valerie (Catherine Cohen) live in a gorgeous brownstone on the Upper West Side—that is, until they’ve had it with their raucous downstairs neighbors oscillating between screaming matches and belching off-key karaoke renditions of “La Bamba.” They move out after obsessively peeping and eavesdropping on their newfound enemies; their hatred drives them to Rye, New York, where they take over Doug’s parent’s house while they’re in Boca.

Now forced to shuttle back and forth from the city via the Metro-North, they find themselves at a (now increasingly rare) social gathering in Manhattan where they recount the tale of what drove them out of their apartment. While fixating on the fact that pesky neighbor Mary (Euphoria’s Chloe Cherry) is an aspiring actress, their friend Wendy (a scene-stealing Ruby McCollister) suggests holding a mock audition for the sole purpose of pranking the wannabe starlet with the prospect of starring in a non-existent play. When the high of pulling one over on Mary proves intoxicating, Dough, Valerie and Wendy decide to write a real play—complete with the pretentious-sounding and nonsensical title The French Italian—that mines from the couple’s neighborly observations with the intention of showing Mary how unbearable her actions were. As it turns out, accountability is a two-way street, as are tenant-on-tenant faux pas.

 Wolther previously appeared on our 25 New Faces of Film list back in 2017 alongside her collaborator Alex H. Fischer due to the strength of their 40-minute short Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North American Combat Zone, which boasts a similar theatrical fascination. I spoke to the filmmaker ahead of The French Italian’s Tribeca premiere today, June 6. Below, we discuss the intersection of film and theater, composer Simon Hayne’s fabulously textured score and the popular grocer that Wolther considers the crown jewel of the Upper West Side.

Filmmaker: You’ve steadily worked with collaborators on projects, but The French Italian finds you operating solo as a writer-director. How did this project emerge and evolve as your feature debut?

Wolther: Yeah, this is the Rachel show! Although I have had really great collaborative filmmaking experiences, I’ve always been my own artist. When I started writing this, I was spending a lot of time in my apartment alone with my partner. I kept notes and started writing ideas down about imagining what my neighbors were doing, who I could hear but not really see. I was like the old lady looking out the window [laughs]. Then at some point I was like, “Oh, this could be a really funny movie.” Then I thought, am I just a voyeur? Do I just write down things that happen to me and that’s my art? Then I realized that this self-own is actually the driving force of the movie. So I wrote the script and it became The French Italian. I was lucky enough that people who I know from all of my other work as co-director, co-writer and producer dug it and wanted to do it with me.

Filmmaker: Last year, you made your theatrical directing debut with Paul W. Kruse’s play Eelpout. An integral aspect of this film concerns staging a play. I’m curious how your experience directing Eelpout may have influenced The French Italian and where this fascination with theater comes from for you?

Wolther: Like many Americans, theater was my first foray into the performing arts because we all get to do drama [class] in school. I was a teenage theater nerd. Then I grew up and went to film school, and I feel like the more you get into movies, the harder it is to like theater. It’s like a sibling that’s so close to you that everything they do annoys you. So I really lost touch with modern theater for many, many years. But living in New York, I go to a lot of plays. I know some actors, and everybody’s always in plays, so you end up seeing theater. I had a lot of feelings about the theater scene in New York, then I made this movie, but I had never directed a play. After I finished shooting the movie, my buddy [Kruse] asked me to read his work. Actually, I asked him to read it. It was so good, but I was like, “I don’t know how to direct a play. Can I do this?” So he let me do it.

Eelpout was just an incredibly funny script and it had to be a play. It has these fantastical elements; it couldn’t be a movie. I had to learn what theater [directing] was.

Filmmaker: I suppose the better question, then, is how did making this film influence your direction of that theatrical production?

Wolther: I was trying not to do the things that I made my characters do in The French Italian. I was trying not to posture like I knew anything that I didn’t. As it turns out, directing a play is all about doing the fun parts of making a movie. With making a movie, there’s so much waiting—for lighting, for someone to arrive, whatever—and with this play I just worked with the actors for like, 40 hours. It was super-duper fun.

Filmmaker: Speaking of actors, the film’s cast is so well-calibrated for the comedic demands of the material. The dynamic between Catherine Cohen, Aristotle Athari and Ruby McCollister is great, and Euphoria’s Chloe Cherry is perfectly deadpan. How did the cast come together?

Wolther: I wrote the script with nobody attached or really in mind except for Ruby. I saw her do stand up like eight years ago in the back of a bar in Williamsburg, and she really bombed [laughs]. I think that I’ve thought about her every week since then, so I wrote something for her. But I knew I needed super strong comedy leads, and I saw Cat live a bunch of times. I loved her [Netflix] special and we have a bunch of comedy friends in common, so I was really relieved when she read the script and thought it was funny. She had exactly four weeks available, so I was like, “Great, we’re in.” Then I cast Aristotle opposite Cat because I wanted people that you could believe would love each other and that you’d be supportive of as a unit. A lot of male comedians are kind of…off-putting [laughs]. Aristotle is just the warmest, he’s like the sun. I knew him from SNL and Silicon Valley. He’s so funny. I don’t think the two of them had ever met before. Maybe they knew each other’s work, but they had about four days to become a couple and they were very cute about it. They warmed up instantly.

With Chloe, my producer Miranda Kahn read the script and the first thing she said was, “Oh, we should get this girl Chloe from Euphoria.” I hadn’t watched the show yet, but it was like she came out of my imagination. She is so unique and is almost on another planet. We also got lucky with timing; she was in New York doing another movie and excited about expanding her acting career. I knew it might be a challenge because we were putting her up against these really experienced comedy improvisers, but she held her weight. She was very funny, fast and became a great team member.

I also want to say that I’ve known Ike Ufomadu, who kind of swoops in during the third act, for years. He’s so funny and I saw him in Inspector Ike, which Graham Mason directed, and I was in awe. He’s so singular. He had no rehearsal time and I didn’t even write him the play that he performs at the end. I talked to him and was like, “Can you just riff?” He killed it.

Filmmaker: I was going to ask about the underlying structure of this play within a play. Were there any references or inspirations you looked to for the overall dynamic, or was it truly just riffing, even within the conceptual process of writing the script?

Wolther: Ike really just brought a lot of his own stuff. I knew that it was supposed to be ripped verbatim from the stuff that the couple had been arguing about. I had the fight [written], so I gave him something to start with. I also had the art department make all of these weird props, then when I put them on stage, Ike and Ruby just went for it. They’re both very experienced improvisers and really got each other.

Filmmaker: You brought up Graham Mason’s film, and one of my favorite aspects of this film as well is the score, which was composed by Simon Haynes, who also worked on Inspector Ike. I’m a big fan of his project Tredici Bacci, which performed some of the songs for your film. The press notes mention that he composed some stuff as you sat together during the edit, but I’d love to know more about your collaborative process.

Wolther: I first met Simon through Graham and Ike while they were all working on Inspector Ike. That soundtrack is just bonkers, it’s so good. I originally thought it was lifted from a period movie. When I found out it was original, I was like, “I’ve got to meet that guy.” Tredici Bacci makes movies for like, fictional 1970s Italian films, which is the exact level of fantasy that this movie needed.

He was awesome. We met up a lot and he composed as we were editing, so I was able to cut pieces in a demo. He did a bunch of different arrangements of “La Bamba,” which continued to crack me up every time. It turns out that it’s a folk song and is in the public domain, so that’s how we were able to use it. He did this one version that was just a saxophonist playing a four-part arrangement. I ended up using that all over the movie because I was just dying, it was so funny.

What’s really cool is because Simon is an actual gigging musician, he didn’t just do the score with a MIDI. He brought in a whole band—a string orchestra—and we went to this great recording studio in Brooklyn. He did that for us on a shoestring, which was very impressive to me. The sound is so much richer, too. You can really tell that you’re not hearing synthetic instruments, there’s real talent expressing itself there.

Filmmaker: I’m also interested in knowing how the film’s comedic style may have developed from your script to workshopping with the actors. Was there use of improv outside of the final play that gets put on in the film?

Wolther: Oh, definitely. Pretty much everybody in the movie is funnier than me—even though I do think I’m funny, but they’re all professionally funny. There are a lot of jokes in there that the cast came up with on the spot. I really tried to leave space for everybody to riff. Maybe we would do one take with the script, then I’d be like, “Okay, now just do literally anything else.” Sometimes I also knew a joke that I wrote was weak, so I wouldn’t even bother to do what was in the script. It was great.

Filmmaker: In terms of the film’s New York City setting, what felt really important to capture and represent on screen for you?

Wolther: I’m a long-time New Yorker. I’m kind of obsessed with the Upper West Side, but I grew up in the suburbs and have a lot of anxiety about not being a “real” New Yorker. Like, am I too fucking bridge and tunnel? So with this movie I’m trying to draw attention to the fine lines that you only really see if you live here for more than a few years. I do think the one thing the Upper West Side has over the suburbs—though they share a lot of chain stores these days—is Zabar’s. I’m obsessed and they were generous enough to let us film there.

To her credit, my cinematographer, Charlotte Hornsby, is always pushing me to choose the most visually interesting locations. I think Grand Central was a really good compromise for both of us because that place is gorgeous, but it’s also a land of purgatory where you’re trapped when you don’t actually live in the city.

Filmmaker: You said that you have some anxiety about the New Yorker label, but the throughline of this film is that everyone in this city has a different relationship to it. What felt important about representing this feeling amongst your characters?

Wolther: The thing about New York is that it’s everybody’s own world. You can live in a hundred different New Yorks and share no common experiences with the people right next to you. This is a movie about how everyone’s in their own little bubbles. Like, there are two characters who are really into running 5Ks. Some people do that every weekend here! I’ve literally never thought about doing that. I don’t want to do that.

Filmmaker: We featured you and your collaborator Alex H. Fischer as a unit when you appeared on our 25 New Faces of Film list. You’re reuniting for the forthcoming feature Nobody Nothing Nowhere, which you’ll co-write and direct. Can you share any updates about the film right now?

Wolther: I have no actual updates about the film that I am allowed to share. Alex and I made Snowy Bing Bongstogether, which was our first time collaborating. We kind of became best friends in the process and had a little mind-meld. We had already been directing our own work separately, so I felt like we were a mini super group together. We wrote Nobody Nothing Nowhere and went to the Sundance Labs, we were on the [25 New Faces] list, we did some other stuff together. But it takes a really long time to get a movie made, so you just have to work on your artistic practice in the meantime. He’s been lucky enough to get some other things made and I’ve been lucky enough to get this made, but we have still been talking about this next movie every day in the background. It could happen soon.

Filmmaker: With Snowy Bing Bongs, The French Italian and Eelpout, the intersection of theater and film seems to be a recurring interest of yours. Will that continue?

Wolther: I love theatrical movies. I love movies that are out of reality and that usually doesn’t make a lot of sense in a theater context. But theater is where I sometimes meet the most interesting performers and artists. Live [theater] has different artistic constraints and it’s also way cheaper. People who take more risks often end up on the stage, which is constantly an inspiration for me.

Filmmaker: Is there anything else interesting on the horizon for you?

Wolther: I have a new script that I wrote when I finished The French Italian, which I would like to direct solo. It’s another feature-length comedy in a similar bright but dark vein. I also have some TV projects that I’m pitching around, but apparently it’s a bad time to be in TV. Every time I talk about it, everyone’s like, “No!”

I mean, we’re about to premiere The French Italian, which I just finished seconds ago. I think we delivered it last week. So we get to enjoy this wave for the summer and then, hopefully, release the film.

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