A Film of Her Own: Interview with Award-winning Filmmaker, Wendy Jo Carlton

Filmmaker Wendy Jo Carlton (Photo courtesy of WJC)

Bio:  WENDY JO CARLTON is a Chicago-based filmmaker, or as she says: “Screenwriter. Film director. Collaborator.”  She has directed a number of narrative & experimental short films which have screened internationally at the American Film Institute, Sundance and other festivals.  Carlton is the director of the award-winning feature film Hannah Free which stars the Emmy award-winning Sharon Gless, and is the founder of Chicks Make Flicks, a media literacy program for teen girls.  Her newest feature film (as writer/director) is the romantic comedy, Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together.

Check the links below the interview for more information on Carlton’s work.

Her Film: Describe your new film for us.  What are you trying to say with this story?

Wendy Jo Carlton: Jamie and Jessie are Not Together is a queer romantic comedy with an edge, a lesbian love story with musical numbers! Jamie and Jessie are 20-something queer girls just out of college, both are theater actors who work for minimum wage but know how to have fun hanging out.

Everything takes places in 2 weeks, after Jamie tells Jessie she is moving to New York to start a new job and be a Broadway actress. Jessie panics because she’s about to lose her best friend, but it’s more than that because Jessie is in love with her and Jessie needs to figure out what to do about it.

Photo from Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together (Photo courtesy of WJC)

And when characters have difficulty expressing themselves, the fantasy realm of the musical number helps them out. I love how singing and dancing can transcend banal communication that we often feel stifled by in our day-to-day lives.

This film is refreshing in other ways as well. I wanted to put two women onscreen whose relationship moves back and forth in this gray area of erotic intimacy and show how that can be confusing and frustrating or misleading, but that there is also a drama and a connection there that is hard to walk away from! I think this is particular to many women not just lesbians. We see it between straight male characters in mainstream movies all the time. There are countless examples, like I Love You Man and what not.

This film is also about power imbalance. Because in the beginning, Jamie has the upper hand, emotionally and socially. Jamie is simply a more confident person as an actor and as a lover. She gets around, if you know what I mean. And Jessica is more naïve. She has to work harder for the acting gigs that she lands and the dates she scores.

There’s a lot of things going on in this film. A romance. A love triangle. Leaving home. Community. It’s a Love story small, Love story Big.

HF: You both wrote and directed your newest film, and have made several other pictures.   When you wear both hats, how does your script change over the course of the production?  Do you take input from your cast, allow for improvisation, etc.?

WJC: It depends on the project, but I’m a big fan of developing the story and characters with the actors. We had a lot of fun doing this, especially Jacqui and Jessica and I because I wrote this script based on what I was inspired by about their real friendship. I was interested in the behind-the-scenes world of actors, how vulnerable they have to be, auditioning and all that, and so they both helped me with those details as well as other ideas for the characters. I knew what I wanted in terms of the codependent friendship and the erotic tension, based on my own experiences, but I also wanted their input, fresh perspectives on it.

In general I like to rewrite scenes with main actors privately then also revise on-the-spot when we’re shooting. Because something else happens when they are in character and in wardrobe on set and we can hear what does not work, what sounds false that maybe didn’t previously.

Carlton directing Sharon Gless on the set of "Hannah Free" (Photo courtesy of WJC)

HF: You’re based in Chicago and have directed several movies, including a documentary, prior to Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together.  How would you describe your experience as a filmmaker working out of the Midwest and not being located in one of those “left coast”/”right coast” industry hot-spots?  Has it helped or hurt?

WJC: Helps a little – Hurts a little to be making features in the Midwest. It’s hard to know where my career would be if I’d already lived in L.A. or NY for several years. Would I be making commercial work for other people? Making lot of money but feeling unhappy? Would I be recognized as a talented director and cross paths with the “right person” over cocktails? Dunno!

I am open to where my projects and heart take me, so we’ll see if my address changes in the near future. But I really like to be surrounded by down-to-earth people and I’ve had a lot of great folks here in the Chicago area help me make this movie and there is a lot to be said for working with people you like and want to have drinks with.

I’ve been in Chicago for 6 years. I wrote JJANT for Chicago, as a Midwest story with characters who are naïve about New York and the bright lights/big city!

Photo still from "Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together" (Photo courtesy of WJC)

I think it’s helped to be in Chicago to make JJANT because it’s about what it’s like to be 24 and excited about all the opportunities, all the women and the fun ahead, but I can write it now with humor and insight and a kind of tenderness. What it’s like to love someone who doesn’t love you back the same way, and how you can survive it. I grew up in Michigan so that Midwest memory is “in there.”

HF: What was your biggest challenge in making this film?  How does your experience compare with other films you’ve done?

WJC: The biggest challenge so far in making this JJANT is not having the resources to delegate the intern tasks to interns (update photos/blogs/mail stuff/pick up burritos) or to pay an assistant to be a cool assistant(schedule stuff/write grants). Although I have control over the film and the creative aspects of its promotion, if I had more funding I could hire assistants to help with the recruiting of all the Jamie & Jessie fan troops we’re going to need to make this the sexy Queer indie sleeper hit of the year! Right now, it is basically me with an Americano in one hand and a single malt Scotch in the other.

HF: What are your thoughts on the state of women-centric films (made by women or men) and the place of “women’s films” today?  And films with lesbian-centric stories?

WJC: I don’t like even having to consider that there’s any other “place” for me as a filmmaker than there is for any male filmmaker of similar talent and ambition. And put it this way, there is so much more room in the culture and in the marketplace for films by women and by queer women that I’m not worried about feeling “un-needed” any time soon.

HF: What are your thoughts on the status of women filmmakers both within and outside of the Hollywood, studio-based system?

WJC: You know, I’ve gotten so used to feeling like an outsider, that I’m not sure how I would behave in the studio system! I’d really like to have that problem for a minute. I’d probably totally feel like a shoplifter and end up stealing the stapler off the Vice-President’s desk just to get it over with!

All I know is that it seems like the system is designed for older men, gay and straight, to mentor and hire younger men, to write and direct films about older and younger men. So guess what? I’m writing a screenplay right now about a middle-aged straight man! And it’s funny and sexy so there! And it will make a lot of money. And I will use that money to help fund queer and female and weirdo films.

Photo of Carlton with JJANT cast (Photo courtesy of WJC)

HF: With such a massively known lesbian-centric film as Rose Troche’s Go Fish having been filmed in Chicago, have you been inspired in your work by that film?  Do you draw much inspiration from lesbian filmmakers and their films when making your own pictures, whether you’re the writer or director, or both?

WJC: I’m inspired by a load of things, music, places, people’s faces, but when it comes to films per se, I’m more inspired by the characters, the directors vision and the overall essence of a film, not by whether it has a queer character in it or it’s made by a lesbian. Each film has to stand on it’s own. Honestly I’ve been disappointed by many queer-labeled films over the years that have great intentions but whose craft or originality is sorely lacking.  Some filmmakers I’m inspired by are Jane Campion, Steven Soderbergh, Kelly Reichardt, Mike Leigh, Jim Jarmusch.

Go Fish was a good film at a time when there was little else out there like it. I applaud any woman who makes a feature film and pushes to get it seen. It takes so much skill and effort and guts. What is exciting now is that we can take advantage of all of the new digital distribution and social media strategies and we can have a lot more control over our projects than indie filmmakers did when Go Fish was made. My goal is to make a feature film with female and queer characters in it every year. Life is short. People are vast. Let’s go!

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Read more about Wendy Jo Carlton.

Check out Carlton’s filmography.

Visit the Hannah Free website.

Find out more about Carlton’s new movie, Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together.

Follow Carlton @juicyplanet.

Check out Juicy Planet, founded by Carlton.

Read Carlton’s 2009 interview with Melissa Silverstein of Women And Hollywood.

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