Emma Forrest talks beauty of modern, messy romance ‘Untogether’

At the Tribeca premiere of Emma Forrest’s debut film Untogether, the audience was treated to an anecdote during the introduction. As a child in London, her family had been friends with screenwriter June Roberts (Mermaids) and actor Tim Curry. Obsessed with the movie Paper Moon, the couple taught Forrest to smoke so she would look all the more like Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Prayer. It makes perfect sense that a child raised on films like Paper Moon and surrounded by artists like Roberts and Curry would make a film like Untogether. A journalist and novelist since her teens, Forrest has authored the best-selling memoir Your Voice in My Head.

After 15 years writing screenplays in LA, she’s written and directed her first film, starring Jemima and Lola Kirke as sisters Andrea and Tara. As the recently sober writer Andrea contemplates a relationship with a doctor/memoirist (Jamie Dornan) after what was supposed to be a one-night stand, sister Tara finds herself struggling in her relationship with the older Martin (Forrest’s ex-husband Ben Mendelsohn). Discussing her debut film during the festival Forrest touches on everything from the powerful influences of Cyndi Lauper and Pedro Almodóvar, the benefits of directing your ex, and why you shouldn’t get up until the very end of her movie.

Lesley Coffin: I loved the story you told about Paper Moon. I think you can tell just watching and listening to the movie that you are a bit of a cinephile. Did you find yourself pulling from influences when making this film?

Emma Forrest: I didn’t mention this at the premiere, but I’ve been thinking how my parents were cinephiles and raised us to be the same. And when my dad would take us to the movies he thought people who left before the final credit were criminals. We weren’t allowed to leave, and that could be annoying. But I realize now that I really internalized that and plotted a credit sequence to entice people to stay in their seats. That was my attempt to keep audiences in their seats until the very end.

Lesley Coffin: Why do you feel it is important for people to see that end credit scene as part of the movie, rather than fade to black before the credits start?

Emma Forrest: Well, I think of my dad’s manifesto that you show appreciation and acknowledge all the people who made the film by watching those credits. As a first time director, that was especially true. I was learning all the time on this film, and not just from my DP but about all aspects of filmmaking. My set decorator was this amazing woman named Chilly Nathan. And this is a low-budget movie and we were always short on time. But one day we were filming a scene with Jemima in bed and we were about shoot the scene and Chilly yelled, “Let me pull the blanket up, there’s a green blanket and you can’t see it.” And I said we don’t have the time, and she said “but that blanket’s so Andrea.” And to see how emotionally invested she was about the set was so eye opening for me. It was so beautiful to see that from the people working on this movie. So I want those people to get their credit and people to see their names on the screen. But I also like the dream aspect that this might just be the version we want this story to be. And I think there is a dreaminess about their walk down the hill. I always love that at the very, very end of Jaws when you see them get back to land. On an emotional level, you feel these characters are going to make it if you stay with them long enough.

Lesley Coffin: Where did you film the movie? It looked familiar but I couldn’t place it.

Emma Forrest: On the East Side. We wanted to film in Laurel Canyon but that’s a tricky place to film because there’s only one narrow road. It’s a nightmare to film out there actually. So we used Mount Washington as a double, but then I fell in love with Mount Washington and decided we shouldn’t even pretend, let’s just say they live here. And then we filmed that ridiculous scene with Ben and Lola in the falafel shop in Atwater Village. The scenes of them in the liquor store was filmed close by as well. I don’t know if I am, but I like to think I’m the first director to really put Atwater Village in a film as itself.

Jemima Kirke attends the screening of “Untogether” during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 23, 2018 in New York City.

Lesley Coffin: And I liked how specific the locations feel. It feels lived in and like this is a neighborhood, rather than a generic representation of LA. I loved that put Jemima in a tree house and how open and airy Ben and Lola’s house is. And I loved the costumes.

Emma Forrest: Oh my god. Kameron Lennox did Beginners. She gave Christopher Plummer that little necktie, and I just loved that. I think she’s a genius and got all my influences. When we first met, to see if she would take the job, I talked a lot about my love of Cyndi Lauper. And it isn’t just the colors and vibrancy of her clothes, but the friendliness that comes through. The touchability she has, compared to someone like Madonna. At my age, those are two big influences I had. And Madonna’s brand of feminism was real, but it felt like it was for her. She was going to be the person to succeed and advance. And Cyndi Lauper felt like someone who would take you with her. And part of that probably had to do with her clothes, so I wanted Jemima’s clothes to feel like someone you wanted to hold. So she wears a lot of mohair and angora, something that feels touchable and soft.

Lesley Coffin: And even down to the underwear we see her in. She’s in these dramatic pieces so when she takes everything off it’s a much bigger moment. She’s a woman taken off some serious armor.

Emma Forrest: I didn’t realize it but apparently all that underwear came from Dita Von Teese collection. And there was a book that had a big influence on me about a decade ago called “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy, about the culture of things like Girls Gone Wild. Going back to Madonna, she taught that girls have the right to look sexy. And a decade later it felt like women felt obligated to look sexy to everyone. And I think women that age got hooked on needing to be on display and Jemima’s character is one of those women. So the underwear’s another way to display herself, but also saying “see me this way, but don’t see the real me.”

Lesley Coffin: I know you had worked on a screenplay adaptation of one of your books but that production fell through. What lessons did you take away from that experience when you started to work on this film and decided to direct it yourself?

Emma Forrest: I didn’t realize how unlucky I’d been in Hollywood until recently. I’d had two projects collapse in a row, two adaptions of my books fell through during pre-production. I’d had Your Voice in My Head collapse, which was a studio project at Warner Bros, and Liars (AE) which was the Richard Linklater adaption which collapsed. And I’d worked very closely with him for about six months. But I’ll never forget that he told me his scripts are considered unusually short, around 70 pages, and he told me that’s because when you go to the movies people expect to wait about 10 minutes to get into the story. But he just starts where the story starts. And that stuck with me and I wanted to do the same. And my scripts are short as well. He also taught me that you can’t just think an editor’s talented, but you need to like them as a human being because you’ll have to spend a lot of time with them alone in a room. So, I learned a lot from him.

Lesley Coffin: What was the transition like as a screenwriter to write specifically for the screen, as opposed to adapting your own book?

Emma Forrest: It was lovely and not much of a transition really. I’ve been in LA for 15 years, paying my rent by writing scripts that never got made. So, I felt pretty prepared and was eager to make a film. I remember I heard when Carol came out that it took 12 years to get it made. And people were shocked but I just thought, that’s really not that long.

Lesley Coffin: Did you write the part Ben played with him in mind?

Emma Forrest: Apart from Billy Crystal’s rabbi character, who was written to be this sort of female fantasy or morality and goodness, the four main characters are a combination of Ben and I. There’s a lot of Ben in Andrea, there’s a lot of me in Martin. It’s all mixed together, because I wrote it when we first met and fell in love. It was that moment in our relationship when as Paul Simon wrote “all their belongings have intertwined.” We were one person for a while, so it’s hard to think of where he ends and I begin.

Lesley Coffin: And that makes the ending so interesting because you could easily see the relationship Andrea ends up in evolving into the type of relationship Martin and Tara are in at the beginning.

Emma Forrest: Yeah, it’s that figure eight, the cyclical nature of relationships. Another influence I probably had in the back of my mind, although I haven’t seen it in a while, was Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk To Her. And being so struck by way his stories exist in these concentric circles, and he does that in such a beautiful way. I like stories that have an elliptical nature.

Lesley Coffin: I understand you felt really strongly about casting Jemima and Lola in the roles? What was it about them and having real-life sisters play these roles?

Emma Forrest: Well, there are some amazing sisters out there. Look at Rooney and Kate Mara or the Fanning sisters. But I think I recognized immediately, when I went to the set of Girls to visit Ben and met Jemima, I just thought she’s a version of me and we’d be in each other’s lives forever. And to hear Ben, who is the actor’s actor, come back that first day and say, “This kid’s got it.” I had to listen to him, he’s the best. And she really is extraordinary. When I watch my own film, I felt watching her the way I felt watching Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, just thinking, “A star is born.”

Lesley Coffin: And this is certainly the best performance I’ve seen her give on screen.

Emma Forrest: She’s really acting, and by her own admission, she didn’t always have to on Girls. If the film does what I want it to, this is a film that could give her a lot of chooses in the future. For right or wrong, there’s always going to be a place in Hollywood for a woman in her 30s that’s considered beautiful but interesting looking and seems intellectual. Look at the way Rachel Weisz and Jennifer Connelly became stars. I could absolutely see Jemima playing those same types of characters.

Lesley Coffin: And Lola and Jemima look and feel like completely different types, and yet I think a lot of sisters are like that.

Emma Forrest: I think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show when describing how different they are. And Jemima’s like Magenta, this vampire beauty. And Lola’s Columbia, the tap dancing one who seems American. Because Jemima can be such a femme fatale and Lola can seem like a tomboy. Although after about 11 minutes with her you see how sexy Lola is, and I think her energy helped Billy relax on screen. And something about Jemima brings out the best in Ben.

Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about those scenes, because while I loved all the romantic relationships in the film, the scenes between Ben and Jemima really moved me in profound way.

Emma Forrest: I’m so glad, because that’s the same for me. Probably the nicest thing’s Ben ever said, at least on that set, was the day we filmed their kiss. And it was written as this very hesitant, gentle, nervous kiss that he immediately apologized for. But I saw on set that being with her made him feel more powerful, so we switched it so it becomes almost offensive with him shoving her against the wall. And at the end of the day he said “I’m so proud of you for switching it up like that. I haven’t felt that free on a set since

(L-R) Elena Ghenoiu, Jemima Kirke, Lola Kirke, Emma Forrest, Alice Eve and Chloe Catherine Kim attend the screening of “Untogether” during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 23, 2018 in New York City. (April 22, 2018 – Source: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America)

Place Beyond the Pines.” And on that film, Ben’s character had been written as the toughest man alive, but Derek Cianfrance reworked the entire role when he cast Ben. And that’s an incredible leap for a director to make during filming.

Lesley Coffin: When you’re editing and rewatching a movie, what’s it like to watch someone you were in a relationship with speaking lines you wrote. You even said that a lot of the lines were things you said to each other, but now you’re in control of how things are framed and how the story ends.

Emma Forrest: That really is the gift of the writer, you can write an alternate ending. And my editor Sophie Corra and I would be working so hard on the film, but every time that scene of Jemima and Ben in the back of the taxi would appear on screen I would just burst into tears. That scene when he lets her hold his hand for a moment and then takes it away, I would just cry every single time. We filmed that scene on a bad day, and I didn’t realize at the time, but when I saw it on film I thought, “That’s our goodbye.” And it destroyed me every single time.

Untogether premiered in the Viewpoints Section at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

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