“85% of Protagonists in Film and Television are Male”: Madeleine Olnek on The Foxy Merkins
The world’s oldest profession proves stressful and arduous in The Foxy Merkins, director Madeleine Olnek’s follow-up to her zany “fish out of water” black-and-white debut Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. By having much of her work featured at the Sundance Film Festival throughout the past 10 years, Olnek has developed a prominent voice in the queer filmmaking community, and The Foxy Merkins finds her once again working with some familiar faces (Dennis Davis, Alex Karpovsky, Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan) and locations. The film is a buddy comedy for an underserved audience, observing the misadventures of Margaret (Haas) and Jo (Monahan), two New York-based lesbian hustlers often found hopelessly hooking outside of retailer Talbots by day and sleeping in a Port Authority bathroom by night. It’s a kindhearted movie about occasionally dirty things — and yes, the subjects featured in the film’s title do make an appearance, proving there’s a black market for even the most specific forms of private accessories.
Upon the release of The Foxy Merkins, which opens today at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP, I spoke with Olnek about her work in the theater, the Republican Party’s perception of the gay and lesbian community, and using New York City as the ultimate cinematic backdrop.
Filmmaker: Could you speak a little bit about your theater background? What was it that lead you into filmmaking?
Olnek: I originally wanted to be an actor. I studied acting as an undergrad at NYU. I became a playwright/director in the theater, and loved it because it was so immediate. You could make theater and just put it on, especially at downtown venues in New York City. I was putting on productions that were considered cutting edge, but as time went on, I started to notice that, with the technological advances, film was becoming the place of immediacy. All the stories I was seeing that had my admiration, especially oddball or queer comedy, were in film. With the changes in technology, it was becoming so accessible, and it was theater that was becoming much more institutionalized and focused on development. That’s when I decided that I wanted to start working with film, enrolling at Columbia and learning things in a hurry.
Filmmaker: I noticed that throughout your two shorts (Hold Up, Countertransference) and two features, you employ a cast of recurring faces – Dennis Davis, for example, appears in all four of your films. Is this way of casting stemmed from the world of repertory theater?
Olnek: A lot of the people you see in my movies were in my plays for years. Besides the fact that they’re excellent actors, it’s easier to bring out the relationship that they already have by working with the same people. When you’re working in independent film and resources are thin, it helps to share a shorthand communication. You can get further with those who know what to expect from you and who trust your direction. I do think the idea of a repertory company is a theatrical one. The importance of the performances in my work is something that I took from theater, and what’s so wonderful about film is that you can preserve a performance forever. In theater, however, whenever we would remount the same play, we’d have to go into another rehearsal process. With film you can show a movie in a different venue without rehearsing for a month! A lot of filmmakers don’t understand the idea of testing in performance and testing resources, making it an actor-centered set instead of an equipment-centered set. That’s a value that comes from theater, for sure.
Filmmaker: How did the idea for The Foxy Merkins come about?
Olnek: I had this idea for a long, long time. I wanted to do a female hustler movie, a movie about lesbian hookers who are picked up by housewives and Republican women. I wanted to set it in a world that doesn’t exist. There’s not a world of lesbian hookers who stand on corners as women honk their horn and get in their car. It’s a totally made-up, ridiculous world that I always wanted to explore in a movie, although I didn’t think I would ever be able to. When we were at Sundance with my first feature (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same), stars Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan made a very funny podcast together. They had only shared one scene in Codependent, so I hadn’t seen their chemistry together. I thought to myself, “I should try to make that lesbian hooker movie while we’re on the festival circuit for Codependent.” It can often feel very uncreative to travel around promoting your film, as if your craft is taking a backseat, so we started shooting in 2011 at the Provincetown Film Festival. Pretty soon after we realized we had to shoot in New York. I asked our director of photography, Anna Stypko, to come on board, and she shot while I directed and boomed. We ran around the streets of New York getting all of this great footage and felt that we had to make a feature out of it. Laura Terruso came on as a producer, and Frances Bodomo, who made the short Afronauts that premiered at Sundance this year, came on as an associate producer, assistant director and assistant editor (and had a cameo in the film too). Victoria Mele, a recent NYU graduate, was our associate producer. We basically had four women and that was our set! Everyone had four or five roles that they were managing. We did that first shoot, spent the rest of the year editing, wrote more, and then did some extra shoots. We shot for comedy, and if we didn’t think it was funny enough, we’d re-write it and shoot something else.
Filmmaker: Could you speak a little more about shooting on the streets of New York? I enjoyed the contrast in your shooting them in black-and-white (as you do in Codependent) as opposed to in color (as you do in The Foxy Merkins).
Olnek: I think New York is a great place to shoot, and I find it sad that we rarely see the great cities in microbudget films anymore. Everyone seems to be about going out to a house in the country, hovering down, and limiting the wildness that the city has. Both of my feature films have premises that are so fantastical that putting the characters out in public is an important part of creating a reality around these characters. Part of the premise of Codependent was that lesbian space aliens, dressed like stock 1950s aliens, landed in New York City. When you see these women walking down the streets of New York and none of the passerbys look at them, you think, “Oh, this actually could happen!” [laughs] New Yorkers are so jaded that they don’t even react to anything, and we captured it all on our hidden camera. For The Foxy Merkins, we thought we would put these lesbian hookers out into the public. Shooting on the streets was very important to me, and capturing the feel and energy of the city is one of the joys of living here. As the films travel internationally, audiences love being able to see a realistic and intimate view of New York.
Filmmaker: Your films not only take place in New York City, but around 14th Street specifically. I’m sure people who spend a lot of time in that area (or are students attending The New School) will recognize many specific locations.
Olnek: 14th Street is the widest street in Manhattan, serving as the borderline of the Village. At the turn of the century, it’s where the first version of Broadway theater was located, the first center of performance in New York. New York is really a series of small neighborhoods, and when I go to local places and ask “Hey, can I shoot in here?,” it helps to be a regular. Many of the places where I’m a regular at are around 14th Street. I think it’s a very cinematic street, and it’s very interesting to me how it’s gone through so many changes.
Filmmaker: The Foxy Merkins features direct visual and situational homages to Midnight Cowboy, including a scene featuring an impatient taxi driver and a woman who appears outside of a movie theater in a sequence that hearkens back to Bob Balaban’s appearance in the film. Was that a direct inspiration or were there multiple cinematic influences you drew from?
Olnek: We wanted the movie to be a take on the male hustler genre. When the viewer watches the film, they could notice the references to Midnight Cowboy and other movies, but at the same time, if they hadn’t seen any of those other films, they could still enjoy this one. There was a Sundance study that came out a year or two ago that talked about how 85% of protagonists in film and television are male. I think one of the things that happen for women is that they end up projecting themselves onto the male characters. Hustler films are certainly the most adventurous of film genres when it comes to the lives of the characters. The filmmakers who tell these stories aren’t often living on the streets themselves, but we all accept the conceit of them taking on this adventurous story. With The Foxy Merkins, we wanted to approach it by imagining women in these roles and having the comedy evolve from that.
Filmmaker: Do you encourage or even allow improv on your set? The Foxy Merkins’ screenplay is credited to yourself and your two lead actresses, Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan. Do you all work extensively in crafting the screenplay or is there a lot of give-and-take?
Olnek: There was improv on set, but it’s directed improv. We worked on the movie for two years and it was a pretty seamless process. We’d write and then shoot. When interesting things would come up on set, we’d include it in further sessions of writing. We’d shoot based on what we wrote. We spent a lot of time writing The Foxy Merkins because comedy is really about people listening and reacting to ideas. It has never been an off-the-cuff medium. It’s rather rigorous, and the writing and reflecting process is a very important part of that.
Filmmaker: There’s a sequence in the film that involves female hookers being interviewed about their experiences with clients. It serves as a sociological inquiry of sorts with an effective simulation of vérité filmmaking. I noticed your voice off-camera serving as the interviewer. Who are these women? Are they actresses? What made you want to include a scene that’s not necessarily removed from the narrative, but one that takes us away from the two leads?
Olnek: It definitely pulls through the premise that this is a widespread thing happening over the streets of New York. The purpose of that section was also to heighten the actions of the protagonists, in the sense that we’d understand that their actions take place in this larger world. Without giving away anything, I think I can say that those women are all comedians and writers, and yet some people still can’t believe they’re not really lesbian hookers. They are some really brilliant performers, and it was important to have that documentary-like section in the film as it made the whole world seem real.
Filmmaker: You had mentioned wanting to make a film that featured Republican women interested in paying for prostitution services. The Foxy Merkins features that, but there’s also a sex scandal aspect there too, of framing politicians for monetary gain when a character tries to sell her sex tape, featuring a member of the right, to the news media.
Olnek: Married people who are secretly seeing a homosexual prostitute are often living a double life or coming from a background where that’s not going to be accepted. In the Democratic Party, one of the stances of the party is that they support gay marriage. They also, of course, support civil rights, the Voting Rights Act, etc. If a Democrat realizes they’re gay, there’s no reason for them to secretly go to a prostitute. They can just come out. For a Republican, they have to repudiate their entire value system in order to accept who they are, because their value system excludes them. Conservative women would have to seek lesbian prostitutes on the side, while liberals wouldn’t have a reason to do that. They could just go on with their life. I feel it was a plot point rather than a political statement.
Filmmaker: The film ends on both a positive and sour note. [spoilers follow] Margaret and Jo both find love, but in very different ways. Jo finds a husband and has a child, later reflecting negatively on her past experiences on the streets.
Olnek: I hope the film doesn’t portray marriage in a negative light. She’s more of a free spirit, really giving something up, losing aspects of her individuality. The problem isn’t that she married a man. For Margaret, I see the ending as her taking steps toward happiness, finally accepting who she is, while Jo is denying what she wants to do with her life and goes back to toeing the line.
Filmmaker: There are recurring themes throughout your work, such as a continual interest in the dynamics of one-on-one therapy. Are you conscious of this fascination at the outset and attempting to explore it deeper each time out, or do you try to always start anew?
Olnek: One of my main interests is personal psychology and what motivates someone to do something. Therapy is endlessly interesting because it deals with the idea that when you’re in therapy, you’re consciously trying to figure out your subtext. There’s also the juxtaposition of the subtext of the subtext, like what’s actually happening in the room. In terms of comedy, it’s like a minefield as people try and fail to get ahold of their impulses. Their impulses are something they can’t understand as much as they try to talk it through and put it into words. Contradictions, to me, are so funny. I think therapy will always have a place in my work, whether via actual scenes of therapy or a unique psychological investigation. In terms of family and relationships, those things are very primal. They’re so important to people’s experiences in the world that it makes sense that they would be featured in my and everyone else’s work [laughs]. I also think there’s something very funny about seduction and it’s something I try to look at throughout my movies.
Filmmaker: You also feature some recurring meeting places, such as recognizable New York movie theaters like the Quad (in Codependent) or Cinema Village (The Foxy Merkins). When the characters sit down in the theater to watch a movie, the set seems to be reused from each of your films.
Olnek: [laughs] Yes, but you’re watching the films too closely! We tried to change it up by shooting with different camera angles and using different extras! But I will say, we were able to use some great exteriors. Cinema Village was very nice and only charged us a small fee to get that outside shot. The Quad was great too. I have a record of featuring these very important movie theaters in my films, and I hope that for the next one I’ll be able to shoot my movie theater scene at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP [laughs].