Meg Thayer

Guerilla Filmmaker Magazine interviews Meg Thayer 

Shoot First

Answer Questions Later...

An Interview with Director Meg Thayer

If you've ever driven down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, you'll know that practically every other storefront is either a shoe store or an eatery, or a great place to get some coffee and tea. Well, that's the way it appears to be, until you park your car and start walking from store to store Actually, you can pretty much get all of your holiday shopping done on that strip, browse for some antique collectibles, put a down-payment on that wonderful sofa you've always wanted, pick up some new CDs, or possibly even get a haircut or a facial. Recently, I opted to skip all of the above and found my way to Elixir, a place where you can have the finest blends of what else? Elixirs. You can enjoy the peaceful surroundings of its garden, and on some days, even catch a glimpse of, or, if you're as lucky as I was, a chat with director Meg Thayer. Okay, well we planned our meeting. But she did say that we were indeed sitting in one of her favorite places in Los Angeles. What followed was the official initiation ritual, according to Meg. She insisted that since she chose the location for our chat, then she would also have to buy the beverages. We then proceeded to select our elixirs. Sebastian, our GF marketing guy, who also came along for some sun and relaxation, went for a blend that would jolt him out of the semi-comatose state he was in, while I decided to take Meg's suggestion for the more subtle and soothing Kava blend. We then settled in a quiet spot in the garden, tested our mini-recorder, and got down to the nitty-gritty.
Meg, who was elegantly clad in black and armed with a smile, seemed anxious and ready to get started, whereas I was actually feeling a little bit on the nervous side. It wasn't that she made me feel uneasy in any way, but I think I was a little 'star-struck'. What Meg didn't know yet was that my admiration for her feature directorial debut True Rights was up in the 'hailing' zone. Her film (reviewed on page 44) marks the first time a feature receives our highest rating of four bananas. Based upon Meg's incisive observations, and the way she managed to capture this particular slice-of-life' in her film, I was convinced she had to be a Los Angeles native who knows her town and the people who inhabit in the same way Woody Allen knows New York But, I couldn't be more wrong about her origins. This Denver-bred auteur described her view of L A life and its people as something she sees from the outside.

BRUNO: Filmmakers often tackle difficult subjects during the course of their careers. You've chosen to do so with your feature directorial debut. What was it that drew you to this material?

MEG: Part of the reason I did this movie myself was that it was tough material. I felt that if I tried to sell the script for someone else to direct, it would wind up being 'softened,' and I definitely didn't want the material to be softened. Can you imagine if they had softened the ending? (The film's ending is not exactly a traditionally happy one, nor does it compromise its honesty in favor of an, all's well that ends well' mentality.)

BRUNO: Considering the parameters set by budget limitations, how easy/difficult would you say it was to shoot your film entirely in Los Angeles locations? Do you think it would have made a difference if you had shot it in another urban setting?

MEG It was quite pleasant actually. I hear stories of people who'll turn on their lawn-mowers or find ways to make noise just to get someone from a film crew to pay them to stop, but we didn't have any of that. We were lucky that way. We did everything by the book: we had permits, talked to the authorities before shooting people were generally very cooperative, except for one day, when we had this gun-wielding guy who insisted he wanted to talk to the director. That was quite scary, but our security guys kept the excitement under control. As far as shooting this somewhere else well, the main character is a housewife from the Valley. She's a product of her environment. It wouldn't have the same impact or meaning at all.

Bruno: A lot of the press material surrounding your film has described it as a "mockumentary", but I feel that your film is actually a straight, narrative satire with a mockumentary feel. How do you describe your film?

MEG: Thank you (smiles) I'm gonna use that I didn't want to do a mockumentary. Originally, I was going to shoot (True Rights) on video. My uncle, this Dutch farmer who lived his life aspiring to simple pleasures, never spent much of his money. When he passed away, he left each of his great great grandkids $7000, and I thought, well, there's my movie. I dedicate the movie to him. Now, knowing that with the tight budget I was going to have to be shooting on video, I needed something that would make sense to be shot with a single camera. I don't like it when projects shot on video try to emulate the style and approach of the 'film' medium. I don't think it works. Am I going off on tangents? (chuckles) Well, I think that the mockumentary feel comes from that approach, but I'd definitely describe it as a satire.

BRUNO: A great portion of your film has moments that feel very real, perhaps even ad-libbed. How faithful were you to the original text in your screenplay?
MEG: I feel that each actor approaches the interpretation of a script in his/her own way, but for the most part, everyone was right on target with the script. I mean, Claudia Christian, who I feel is so outrageously brilliant in the film (and we agree), is so different in real life from the character she plays, it was quite amazing to see the transformation. But everyone definitely stayed very faithful to the original text. In a couple of instances, particularly with Jonathan Jackson (who plays the head of a militia group hiding out in the mountains), actors threw in some of their own lines - but these are such good actors, that the overall feel is always real.

BRUNO: You had a great ensemble of actors. Tell me a little bit about your casting decisions. Claudia Christian -did you have her in mind when you wrote the screenplay, or was it more of a right pieces falling into place situation?

MEG It's funny, but when my producer originally came to me with a picture of her, I immediately said no, 'she's too pretty'. We then met over dinner, and looking at her I thought, she's too tall, too well, she has too many assets'. But she later came to a reading we had, and I thought she was astounding. I was so lucky with everyone in the cast. Everyone involved is so connected with this project I mean... we all travel together. It's like one big family. Whenever we've gone to festivals and other screenings, we've shown up with this huge entourage. I don't see this as just my film. It's a part of all of us. And I love sharing it with them.

BRUNO: Jack Betts, brilliant as the aging silent film actor Thad Whitney, is the catalyst that sets all your characters in motion. His character's refusal to accept modern practices of the, film industry actually opens the doors for a full-fledged satirical attack on current media trends. Was there a time, during the writing process, when you might have considered a different inciting story line?

MEG: When I originally started writing the film, I pretty much had all the other characters in my mind I started with these ambulance chasers, and then I had this young idealist, Reynolds, who creates a balance in the story. But I didn't want to make the sort of film where characters are running here and running there without ever having much of a point. Who'd want to see that? So, I decided to add in this character (Thad Whitney). He represents the beginning of film, the integrity. The other thing that was going on way in the back of my mind is that this elderly character represents 'film' itself, and with the advent of video, he's being killed off. It's kinda about the death of film. And I didn't play that out overtly, but this was something that all of us (those involved in the making of the film) were clear on.

BRUNO: Even with the current evolution of digital video as a medium for low-budget filmmaking, you chose 35mm motion picture stock as the primary tool to capture your story. Was this based solely on aesthetic consideration, or is there a specific statement behind this choice?

MEG: I want to say that by-god that was the only thing that I'd shoot on (laughs). But the truth is that this commercial company that decided they'd make the film, asked me if I could make it with $100,000, stating, "You could definitely make a feature film shot on video for that much," but then asked me "Could you make the film on 35mm?" And, at the time I didn't know shit about film budgets, so I said "Sure!". (Laughs again, this time quite heartily). So, here I am. We get Dave Darby, who is one of the top commercial cinematographers, and Darby is not going to work unless we shoot film - and not only film, but the most expensive film stock. Of course, we couldn't afford it, so we had to scurry around for raw stock and get it recanned We got some recans from Disney

BRUNO: Oh yes, I was wondering what the 'special thanks to Disney' in your end credits was all about.

MEG: Oh good, so you watched the film through the end credits?

BRUNO: Of course. Art vs. voyeurism, how much is too much? How far would you go to tell your stories?

MEG I'm moral. Overly moral. Even the (shock TV) footage we used in the film. We bought it from a company that sells footage like that, but I still wouldn't use any footage that depicts human misery. I'd be guilty of doing exactly what I'm pointing the finger at. If there's a victim in the video, I don't use it. I'd never cross moral lines. But lately, I see this bizarre trend toward weird usage of video, which is unfortunate, because I think video allows people who wouldn't ordinarily have a cinematic voice to have a voice. On the other hand, when video is used in the news to capture violence, or the way its used on some of these 'real TV' shows, I always have the feeling that the guy who's holding the camera should be the same guy who ought to walk up and say "Hey, cut it out!". Or at least, dial 9-1-1. We've become extremely voyeuristic. I hear there's a huge slate of 'real TV shows lined up - even more than what we have now. And what's with all these people becoming exhibitionists?

(At this point, we broke away for some unrelated chit-chat, an idle observation on the weather, and a couple of sips from our drinks. I figured it was the best time to dig in for some 'inside' scoops)

BRUNO: I'm a big fan of Gothic literature, and your press kit bio promises an adaptation of one such work. Which novel are you going to bring to the screen and what draws you to it?

MEG: Well, I don't realty wish to reveal the actual project just yet, I mean, I'll tell you if you turn that (the recorder) off. All I can say is that it's set in modern-day L A., a torn-down area of downtown L A. Despite its updated setting, it is very faithful to the original work, and it is quite violent (I'm sure Meg will tell us all in the near future.)

BRUNO: In your filmmaking, in general, do you have any special mentors? Whose work inspires you?

MEG Well, the Coen brothers are gods to me. But I also like the Farrelly brothers a lot (laughs). They're just wild. They just go out there and do it. I like Capra. And lately, I've rediscovered Carlos Saura. I love his work. 

BRUNO: And finally, just to keep in faith with our current issues focus, what advice do you have for aspiring women filmmakers, and would that advice differ if I asked you the same question in regards to the opposite gender?

MEG: I'd like to see women burst out of what's usually expected of them, like Kimberly Peirce did with Boys Don't Cry. I think that film was tremendous. But most important, what's even more exciting is when I see filmmakers, male and female, find their own, true voice.

(And Meg has certainly earned her right to say that, for her own voice speaks clearly and, just with one feature film thus far, so courageous and true).

Here are some links for Meg Thayer. If you have a suggestion for a link, please e-mail me.

Brooklyn Film Festival

True Rights Film Clips

iF Magazine Interview Film Festival Review

Guerrilla Film Festival Domani Vision Award



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