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From the Archives: Suburbia’s mean streets enter “Girls Town” (1996)

An interview with Jim McKay and Lauren Zalaznick

Twenty years ago Independent contributor Dana Harris sat opposite filmmakers Jim McKay and Lauren Zalaznick in a Soho coffee shop to talk Girls Town, the duo’s comedy-drama that embraced improv to explore the lives of teenage girls. Two decades have passed — with McKay going on to direct episodes of The Wire, Big Love, and Law & Order and Zalaznick going on to be an accomplished television executive — but this interview preserves a moment in which the three share an important discussion of a new dimension for women in film. This article was originally published in April 1996 and is available in The Independent’s archives.

Girls Town is like no coming-of-age film you’ve seen. In the world of best friends Emma, Nikki, Patti, and Angela, sex is a given. Patti has to pick up her baby at the high school day-care center. Drugs are no big deal; a joint is saved for “after school,” as if it were a cupcake in a lunchbox. But for all their modern-day nonchalance, these street-smart women still keep quiet about certain subjects. Acquaintance rape is one of them. Tragically for one teen, that silence leads to suicide.

As the remaining trio tries to sort out their friend’s life after discovering her diary and the full story of her rape, they realize the fear of speaking out could also kill them spiritually, if not mortally. As they put this knowledge into action, they begin to get a sense of their own voices and the impact they can have on their worlds.

Director/co-creator Jim McKay, who frankly describes Girls Town as “a feminist film,” got his start shooting music videos for the likes of REM, as well as producing an award-winning series of public service announcements about such topical issues as sexual harassment, chemical pesticides, and historic preservation under the banner Direct Effect. Producer Lauren Zalaznick is fresh from her success producing Todd Haynes’s Safe and Larry Clarke’s Kids. While both McKay and Zalaznick have their cutting-edge chops, it’s the collaborative process they used to create Girls Town that makes it such an extraordinary production.

McKay and his actors—Anna Grace (Emma), Bruklin Harris (Angela), Lili Taylor (Patti), and Denise Hernandez (Nikki) — share screenwriting credit, thanks to the intense improvisation workshops that shaped the script. The result is a film that’s as disquieting in its subject matter as in its style, which demonstrates a razor-edge awareness. Watching Girls Town feels like you’re inadvertently eavesdropping on these girls’ lives, but it’s so fascinating you can’t force yourself to mind your own business.

At Sundance, Girls Town won the dramatic Filmmaker’s Trophy and a special Jury prize for its improvisational techniques. Not long after they found out that Girls Town had been selected for Sundance and while they were in the midst of negotiations with October Films (which is releasing the film in August), McKay and Zalaznick met with me in a SoHo coffee shop. We talked about how they joined forces for Girls Town, the film’s creative process, and—of course—how they managed to scrape the money together. The two have an easy rapport that leads to them completing each other’s sentences, and turns an interview into a pleasure. I started things off by asking for the short-answer version of how they reached this point in their careers.

Lauren Zalaznick: I started out as a little person in big movies right after college. Then I got disgusted and crazy, did nothing, and, through a long, funny period of coincidences and six degrees of separation, ended up working with [producer] Christine Vachon on Poison. I’ll just give you the punchline: at lunch one day, Christine and I were dancing around the fact that she had way too much to do and no one to do it, and I couldn’t get a job in low-budget film because I’d only done big films. At the end of that lunch, she proceeded very nicely to offer to share her $200 per week salary with me, if I would production-manage while she assistant-directed the film.

Dana Harris: Very generous.

Zalaznick: That started a long partnership of Christine and me. We did [Todd Haynes’s] Poison, [Tom Kalin’s] Swoon, and Todd’s next short, Dottie Gets Spanked. That went all the way through last summer with Safe and Kids. To support myself in between low-budget films, I’ve always had a hand in commercials and television. I now have a full-time job at VH-1 [Creative Director and VP On-Air Promotions]. Somewhere along the line I met Jim — actually, a really long time ago—and some years later he had this project, called me, and a mere three years later we did it.

McKay: I come out of music videos. That’s what I’ve done for the last seven or eight years to make a living. I’d never made a narrative before this. I’m very connected to music — I played in bands and started doing videos for bands I knew. I didn’t go to film school, [but] taught myself while I worked. The first thing I ever did was a documentary about eight years ago called Lighthearted Nation. That was on video and I shot it all myself, cut it myself, taught myself through that. I shot it in New York State and Boston and edited it over the course of three years in Georgia, D.C., and Pennsylvania—I was moving around a lot. I moved back to New York three years ago and had an experience trying to raise money for a bigger movie that I was supposed to direct (Desperation Angels) that my friend Tom Gilroy wrote and my partner in my old film company, Michael Stipe, was going to executive produce with Oliver Stone. We looked for money for a year or more, and nothing was happening. We went through the whole [financing] thing; I really learned a lot about how to do that, which basically boiled down to “Do it yourself.”

Zalaznick: You left out the whole Direct Effect thing.

McKay: Direct Effect was a series of public service announcements that I executive produced with Michael and Tom. We did 21 over the course of three or four years…

Zalaznick: Totally unsponsored.

McKay: Yeah. Kind of alternative public service announcements, I guess. That’s how I met Lauren. She called because her production company had made a spot…

Zalaznick: I forgot about that.

McKay: We compared notes. I shared what little information we had about getting on MTV and stuff like that. Many years later I came to Lauren asking if she was interested in line-producing Desperation Angels if we got the money, so we made contact one more time. Finally, I realized that wasn’t going to happen and I thought, “I have an idea of my own, and I want to do it this a very different way,” and I went to Lauren right away. I told her I wanted someone as producer on this from the very beginning, because it’s going to be a very different process and I’m going to need help.

Zalaznick: It was torturous. Safe was taking so long to put together. I distinctly remember having to go to our 10:30 coffee and say to Jim, “Tomorrow I have to leave for L.A. for six months [to complete Safe]. What are we going to do?” We were just about ready to cast.

McKay: I talked to Lili Taylor about it, because I already knew her through friends. She pretty much signed on, and yet we still cast for that part. I can’t remember why we did that. Maybe we felt like she wasn’t going to be able to do it because of another project, or we thought she should have another part.

Zalaznick: Both. And we were afraid that maybe having one known actor and three unknowns would be weird, and maybe we should get people who weren’t actors but had experienced something similar. We went through every permutation, casting-wise.

McKay: I should back up a little here. We had a treatment and needed to workshop in order to write the script. That’s what we were casting for. We did an open call for 16- to 21-year-olds and had all improv auditions, because that’s what the actors were going to be expected to do. Bruklin Harris came in on one of the first calls. A lot of these people were without agents. The last day of the last open call, the last person to come in was Anna Grace. We did a series of callbacks…

Zalaznick: And had a lot of people in different groups, in different arrangements. At that point you started to give them little scenarios.

DH: The credits read “Devised and directed by Jim McKay,” and the screenwriting credit goes to the cast and you. How did that develop? Did you come to them with an idea of what you wanted a given scene to be about, and then see where they could carry it?

McKay: The treatment was very specific. It was a 24-page outline of a story, and it said, “Scene 2. They do this and say this and this happens.” But the whole point of doing it in this way was that I was open to that completely changing. And, in fact, it did. I mean, when I look at the original treatment now, the movie we made…

Zalaznick: It’s a different movie.

McKay: It’s nothing like [the treatment]. We spent a good week just getting ready, getting to know each other, talking about their characters, doing different exercises. It was hard because different actors work different ways. For the first half it was pretty painful at times, because we were working on the story, which could go anywhere, but at the same we were working on characters. We would stop in the middle of a scene and I would say, “What would Emma do in this circumstance? It doesn’t seem like you know where to go here.” And Anna would say, “I don’t know what Emma would do because I don’t know who Emma is yet.”

Zalaznick: It was more like playacting than acting in character for a long time.

McKay: And then things blossomed and every time a new bump came up in the improv work, it oftentimes would change things that happened before. In week three, all of a sudden Lili says, “You know, I don’t think I listen to heavy metal at all. I think I listen just to hip-hop.” Which means we have to change this, this, and this.

DH: It sounds like you had to have a lot of faith in the process.

McKay: Totally. And I did. I knew I was working with great people. And I had to constantly keep in mind that they were actors and not writers—and I wasn’t necessarily a full-fledged writer myself. We were all working together. By having Lauren there, to reflect what we’d been doing and talk about where we were going, it was a completely collaborative thing.

girls-town-1996-street-scene

Gal pals l. to r. Angela (Bruklin Harris), Emma (Anna Grace), Nikki (Denise Hernandez), and Patti (Lili Taylor) in “Girls Town” (1996).

Zalaznick: The actors were extremely strong actors at every step of the way, and they were also really smart people who weren’t acting at certain points. They would step out of their characters and ask where the story was going. “Is it working, is it too expected, is it too unreal?” Jim really directed them, more than just being a sounding board. He had to function as a director instead of just saying, “Okay, whatever; what happens, happens.”

DH: What was your role in the process?

Zalaznick: Jim would take what had happened and bring it all to me, and I’d be the one to say, “You know, it seems kind of strange when they say this after doing this…” That’s when Jim would become the actor and say, “Yeah, but that’s what happened!”, and I’d say, “Yeah, but it’s a movie, it’s got to be a story.” That’s how the story and dialogue got molded. We would pore for hours over which character was talking which way, and who was an interruptive character, and who was a passive character verbally but an active character action-wise…

McKay: There are so many characters “in” the film who are no! in the film. We made this huge list of people that they refer to, hut you never see.

Zalaznick: They all had a backstory.

McKay: We had a 200-page first draft and 400 pages of transcripts from the improvs, but by going that deep and rewriting, it allowed us to strip off all this other stuff and retain an unbelievably full life for the characters.

Zalaznick: We Charlie Brown-ized the girl’s characters. We made them have no parents that you see, no adults, no siblings—but the actors knew everything. So when we reduced it to this tight, completely insular world—to throw around filmmakers’ terms, it’s a true slice-of-life film. It’s also a true ensemble piece. There’s no real star, and there’s no real hero in the dramatic sense. Each character is a hero.

DH: Was there an actual script when you started shooting?

McKay: Definitely, although there were probably six scenes or so that were improvised on the shoot, and there was a lot of stuff written in the week before the shoot. When we got everybody together to rehearse for two weeks, the rehearsal really turned into another workshop. We knew very clearly there was going to be a lot of improv on the set. We had scenes written very specifically, but there was still freedom to change lines. We had to plan for that in how we shot it. I spent a lot of time talking with Russell [Fine, the director of photography] about how were were going to do that. The obvious solution was master shots that allowed this stuff to play out. It turned out that when we were shooting a lot of singles, a lot of coverage, the continuity was amazingly good.

DH: What was the genesis of the project?

McKay: Of all the political labels, I find that I’m a feminist. For as little as there is out there for women, there’s even less for teenage girls, teenage women. There’s no legal recourse for girls being abused by boyfriends or husbands…

Zalaznick: Or fathers or teachers…

McKay: Add to that the whole psychological thing that’s going on in a teenage person’s life. And it’s a time of life that’s not shown — at all. Go to a video store, and you’ll find maybe 10 videos that deal with a teenage girl’s life in a real way. We’re talking about a huge segment of the population. It started out as a girl gang movie. They shared these experiences they’d had and came to the conclusion that “This is fucked up, and what are we gonna do about it?” The workshops brought the story to a more organic place, where the experience of sharing gave [the characters] the consciousness that led to spontaneous acts of retribution, not planned acts. I think so much abuse of different sorts goes on in the world, and so little retribution happens. There are very human, real reasons why that doesn’t happen, hut it’s an interesting question to pose: What would happen if retribution were to take place? Would that he correct or good?

DH: Here’s the question everyone always wants to know: How did you get the funding?

Zalaznick: We were going to start the long, torturous route of individual sales, foreign pre-sales, $5,000 from a relative, a friend, whatever. I said to Jim, “I know how long this takes. And I know it doesn’t make any sense, but I don’t think we should wait another year to shoot the movie.”

McKay: We just got tired of waiting and decided to do it ourselves. We talked about shooting in Hi8; we were that desperate to make it. We did the usual low-budget credit-card-type thing, which I’m really not interested in detailing just because it’s been detailed to death. Now that companies know people out there are able to make low-budget films for very little money, they’re very happy to let them make them and buy them cheap. There’s something to be said for that. I think a lot of films shouldn’t be funded, probably most of them…

Zalaznick: And every single filmmaker is saying, “No, but mine is really good.”

McKay: If you’re really good, you’ll figure [financing] out.

Zalaznick: The bottom line is no one’s going to give you money, and if you don’t want to waste a year of your life finding that out, do it yourself. I think the later tragedy comes when someone’s proven themselves in a first film, and the second film is no easier to fund. If a director has a wish to stay out of the studio system and in the independent world, it doesn’t get any easier. There is no middle road. I understand why there are no-budget $200,000 movies, but there should be more room than there is for little movies that cost $2 million. That’s what doesn’t exist, from a single funder.

McKay: Throughout the making of it, tons of people chipped in their stuff.

Zalaznick: Their space, their storage space, their extra paper plates, their apartment, their fax machines. On the one hand, nobody helped us; we made this happen. On the other hand, things like this get made through the proverbial kindness of strangers. You get people who show up and work really hard every step of the way. It’s the people who are outside in the cold with a clipboard who are really unbelievable.

McKay: I’m a believer in a real equality as far as crew goes. I truly believe that PAs are just as important as the gaffer. If they didn’t get the gaffer’s lights there, then we’d be screwed. People are really tired of working for free, but at least we had an edge in that our film was about something. It was painful like every other…

Zalaznick: Painful, nightmare, nightmare…

McKay: But it makes so little sense to complain about the drudgery of independent filmmaking. It’s what it’s supposed to be, and that’s okay. The truth is, I’d rather make my next film exactly this way. You know, it’s the unbelievable joy of this being our movie. There’s no one telling us what to do. I wouldn’t complain about it for a million bucks.

DH: What was your shooting schedule?

McKay: It was a 14-day shoot, but we had three half-days. It was really quick. We did 15 pages on our last day. We didn’t need much rehearsal on set, and we didn’t have time or money to go longer. We shot in Queens, mostly, and a couple of days in New Jersey. The film got a little more citied-out than I originally intended. I wanted the film to be Anytown, USA…

Zalaznick: Now it’s Anycity, USA.

McKay: It’s funny, older white people who see it say, “Oh, it’s an inner-city movie.” And younger kids see it as suburban.

DH: How much pressure did you feel about getting into Sundance?

McKay: A lot.

Zalaznick: I truly believe that films break in the place that they’re meant to break. And if you don’t get into Sundance, it’s Berlin. If it’s not Berlin, it’s South by Southwest. It’s nice when it happens, but it doesn’t matter.

McKay: Independent filmmakers have to recognize that getting a big distributor isn’t necessarily your end goal. You may wind up self-distributing or going with one of the smaller distributors. You may have to play just as big a part in getting it seen as you did in making it.

DH: Do you have another film in the works?

McKay: We didn’t make this film so we could make another, bigger one; we made it because we really wanted to. We plan to spend a lot of time with this film, going to schools with it, going to women’s groups, and then we’ll be ready to make another one, probably very much in the same way. We’ll be working with actors in a workshop situation. I’m interested in exploring things that aren’t necessarily me. There’s a lot of realism in portraying women characters who are subservient to men, or are under-confident, but I think a lot of times portraying that vision is an excuse for a fear of going further. Where are the women who are unbelievably smart and articulate and aren’t ditzes and who aren’t the girlfriend and aren’t the bitch and aren’t the ho? I hope we see a lot more of that. I think there’s a real void of politicized viewpoints. A large part of this film is about breaking the silence of these characters and giving them a voice. They’re there, and they exist.

 

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