An Interview with Mara Lesemann and Laura Thies – By Philip Smolen

Back in April of 2012, I reviewed the indie film “Surviving Family” for Rogue Cinema. I was struck by the film’s honesty in dealing with a difficult subject (mental illness). It made me think of other great films in the genre including “Shock Corridor” (1963), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Girl Interrupted” (1999). The film is beautifully written and directed with style. It features terrific photography and first-class acting. I was quite literally stunned by the excellence of the film, so I decided to contact the two women most responsible for the creation of this indie gem. It was my pleasure to interview screenwriter/producer Mara Lesemann (ML) and director Laura Thies (LT). It took a little bit of doing, since Mara lives in New Jersey and Laura lives in Germany, but using modern technology (thank you Skype!), the two filmmakers reflected on their accomplishment in creating this outstanding drama.

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PS: How did “Surviving Family” develop?

ML: My mom is an artist and I went to one her gallery openings a couple of years ago and she was talking to a woman I had never seen before. They all hugged and after the woman left I said to her “Who’s that?” and another friend said “Oh, that’s your cousin.” And it wasn’t a distant cousin; it was a first cousin who I didn’t know existed! So a lot of the characters in the film were inspired by my family. And it got me thinking about what it’s like when your family isn’t quite what you think it is. Of course a cousin isn’t dramatic enough which is why it becomes a half sister in the film.

PS: Mara, was this your first screenplay?

ML: Yes, my first produced screenplay. I wrote a screenplay that I’m still playing around with called “No Options,” which is the first feature screenplay that I’d written. It’s a thriller that takes place in a bank trading room. I did a number of shorts before this and Laura and I collaborated on several projects which is how she came to direct “Surviving Family.”

PS: So some of the characters are based in reality?

ML: My best friend’s mom went through multiple iterations of shock therapy and my niece is the inspiration for the character of Lily in the movie. She has OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and she’s a terrific young woman who’s really dealing with her problems and moving forward. One of the things that I found that’s amazing is that so many people have these issues in their family, but that most of us just don’t talk about it. It’s so common, so prevalent and it’s still one of the things that is so verboten at least in American culture to really talk about. One of my goals was to talk about it – the movie’s a drama and I hope it feels dramatic and I wanted to talk about it in a matter-of-fact way.

LT: And it’s not an American issue – it’s the same in Germany. When I first read the script I initially had a hard time connecting to it, but the characters were so human, so realistic and so down to earth, so I started watching my family and I realized how universal this was. I have a relative who tried to kill herself and I didn’t find out about until much later and when I did, it was a very awkward conversation. And that’s when I began to dig into the subject and I realized that there were so many connections. Anyone who watches this movie can relate at some level to the awkwardness, to the not talking about it and finding out things about family members and issues that lie underneath.

PS: Laura how did you get involved in the project?

LT: Well I came to New York in 2002 and Mara and I met in early 2005 (she saw one of my first short films) and at that time she had written her first short script. She and her husband Carlo [Fiorletta] came to see my first short film. One week later Carlo auditioned for my second film. He came up to me and said that his wife had a screenplay and she’s looking for a director – would you be interested? So I met Mara in 2005 and we worked on that short film that summer. Since then we made three short films together (and a play), and while we were scouting locations for our 2nd film (“Foreclosed”), she began telling me about her idea for this film. That’s how I got involved.

PS: How did the financing come together for this project?

ML: I’ve spent most of my life toiling in the finance industry. I work for a small European bank and my husband and I live simply, so I was able to save some money (not a fortune). And I tried like most screenwriters try to get my script out there (along with my screenplay for “No Options”) but I figured that if I’m ever going to get a feature movie, I’m going to have to make it myself. And I actually wrote “Surviving Family” with the intention of producing it. There are no special effects, there are no large crowd scenes and the film was written with economy in mind. The positive about making these films and producing them yourself is that you really do have complete artistic control. I knew that there was no one I had to answer to at the end of the day.

LT: The amazing thing about making this movie was that we had so much freedom. We didn’t have to justify what we wanted to make. This movie is exactly what Mara and I wanted. I think I understand completely what Mara writes and I’m able to translate it, and at the same time she trusts me so much that she gives me her work and lets me put it on the screen.

ML: And because we were on our own schedule, we could discuss things (sometimes for months and months). We talked the film through thoroughly, so by the time we started shooting, I had complete confidence in Laura that I could change things and encourage her to change things and the film wouldn’t be ruined because I knew we were on the same page.

PS: The cast in the film is fantastic. How did you go about casting the film?

ML: We have to give a lot of credit to our casting director Caroline Sinclair. She’s cast a lot of independent movies in the New York area and she is tremendous. Hiring her as the casting director was one of the most important things I did because Caroline also got me the lawyer who helped me get all the deals done. So Caroline (and my husband, Carlo) did all of the first line of auditions. Carlo would tape all of the auditions with a camera, come home, upload the auditions to the computer, and I would get the first cut and then we would send the auditions to Laura (in Germany) and she would give us her feedback. This went on for months. We started in February or March (of 2011). We spent months on this, but Caroline was invaluable. One of the great things was that when all was said and done, we were all in complete agreement on all of the casting decisions. For some of the “name” actors Caroline knew the agents and she could call them and make them an offer. Our two leads (Sarah Wilson and Billy Magnussen) were both terrific and Caroline had cast both of them in other movies.

PS: Being this was the first feature for both of you – what surprised you the most about the filmmaking process?

LT: Everything and nothing. Every day there was a surprise. Something would pop up, but we would address it and get things moving again. It was funny how mistakes kept repeating. It was surprising to work with great actors like Vincent Pastore (who plays the mayor in a cameo) and Phyllis Somerville (who plays Sarah Wilson’s aunt). There were things that you can’t prepare for. But there was nothing that was so surprising that we couldn’t deal with it.

ML: I was surprised by the sheer number of people we had to deal with. I tried to count actually, one time when we were out in Pennsylvania doing the wedding scene. We had some extras and a majority of the cast. So we had about 75 people and God knows how many cars as well. As the producer, I had personally approved hiring these people, but I never totaled them up! All of a sudden you look around and it was pretty amazing. We shot the scene with Aunt Mary at my parents’ house. And you could have knocked my father over with a feather when he saw the sheet amount of people who were converging on his house.

PS: Did you do research into mental illness for the film?

ML: I definitely did some and it’s something I’ve been reading about for years. I really looked at two issues in particular. I wanted to confirm my own impression that people who are bipolar (manic depressive) are more likely to commit suicide than people who only have depression. And that is true because people who are bipolar miss the highs and they are afraid that they will never have that feeling of euphoria again. And I wanted to take a look at the issues related to electric shock therapy which runs in and out of popularity. I didn’t want to have anything that was completely out of line. Laura and I also put together a list of movies that dealt with mental illness, see what’s out there.

LT: My key research was watching the European indie movie “Helen” (2008). There are similarities to some of the characters we have in “Surviving Family” including the prehistory before the mother’s death. I had the cast watch that film and then when we started discussing the issues in our film we were already on the same level.

PS: Laura, what was the hardest scene for you to film?

LT: Logistically, it was the wedding dress scene. It took place at this very beautiful little store in Jersey City. There were a lot of dresses and mirrors and we wanted to work with them in the movie, but with a crew of 40 people and white dresses everywhere and with the summer heat, that wasn’t a good combination.

PS: What did you do to celebrate when you got the last shot in the can?

ML: Our fearless director had spent the night before making tiramisu!

LT: That’s what I did the night before. We had been rolling day after day and on the last day I was sitting in the car with my mom (who did the catering) and I said “Oh my God, tomorrow is the last day of filming for my first feature film and I have nothing for the cast and crew to thank them” and my mom was going shopping and so I said “I know, I’m going to make a tiramisu.” And my mom said “Are you crazy?” So I went home and made two huge plates of tiramisu. So shortly after we wrapped filming that evening, I gave everyone a piece.

PS: Were you encouraged by the independent film community?

ML: I kind of found it was like the children’s game of telephone. Our casting director put us in touch with Jonathan Gray, who is our attorney, and he in turn put us in touch with the post production house (Off Hollywood) and they in turn put me in touch with folks who turned out some very nice DVDs. It was kind of like a tag-team and that was our biggest help. We had a lot of New School contacts and that was the heart and soul of many of the people that we used in our production. We’ve been able to access people as we go along which has benefitted us tremendously.

PS: What roadblocks did you encounter?

LT: Should I be really honest about this one? I believe the biggest roadblock for me was working with friends. It was very different than what I had expected.

PS: What has been the reaction to the film?

LT: Extremely positive. We did a couple of test screenings before the final cut was done and I have shown it to friends and people in the industry in Germany and everyone has been very surprised about the quality and honesty of the film. The honesty is what strikes people the most – and the acting quality!

ML: Our actors were ‘knock your socks off’ good, and Timothy Naylor (our DP) did a terrific job as well. I don’t want that to go unsaid. The film really looks terrific.

LT: Tim and his lighting crew have a very beautiful style and we were on the same page in terms of the look! It was great working with him!

PS: What about festival activity? What can we look forward to?

ML: We have five festivals lined up between now and Labor Day. We’re going to have our world premiere on August 3rd (2012), which ironically is two days short of the one year anniversary of our wrap! That’s at the Woods Hole Film Festival in Cape Cod (which I’m delighted about). We also have AOF (Action on Film) which is out in California. Then there is Columbia Gorge which is Vancouver, Washington and run by a delightful woman named Breven Angaelica Warren, and she’s been tremendously supportive. We’ll also be screening at the Indie Gathering in Ohio and the Central Florida Film Festival. Beyond that, we have a number of other festival submissions out there including several in the New York and New Jersey area.

PS: What about future plans? What else can we look forward to?

ML: There are several screenplays that I’m working on, including “No Options”, my thriller. And I’ve started a new one called “Icing,” which is about a single mom who juggles running a cake decorating business, her daughter’s sweet 16, and a visit from her brother – a dying bank robber who has escaped from prison.

LT: At the moment I’m trying to build up my connections in Germany. I’m trying to build a future where I can go back and forth between New York and Germany, depending on projects. I found a great screenwriter I’m working with here in Germany and we’re trying to produce a feature-length film here. I’m also working on a TV series right now, where I’m working as a production assistant to learn how the TV industry works here. So I’m building my little tool box and my connections right now.

PS: Final thoughts on “Surviving Family”?

ML: It was a tremendous experience and I can’t tell you how happy I am that Laura was the director. In my mind, there are two things you need when you’re making a low-budget movie – you need somebody with a real artistic sense who’s on the same page as you, and you really need someone who’s organized. And because Laura and I worked together before, I had complete confidence that if I said we had to be done in 20 days, we would be done in 20 days. And there was virtually no flexibility with schedules for some of the actors we hired. So it was very important to me that Laura could deliver the goods on time. It sounds so clichéd, and maybe this comes from some of my background, but to me you could have the best theoretical project in the world, but if you can’t get it done, then it’s irrelevant. At the end of the day I’m a very practical person.

PS: Thank you for your time. Good luck to both of you and “Surviving Family.”

ML: Thank you Phil.

LT: Thanks Phil.

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