To many audiences, Melanie Mayron has been a familiar face on screens since the ’70s. From her breakthrough performance in Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends to her Emmy-winning role as Melissa on Thirtysomething, she’s had a long and impressive career playing complex and idiosyncratic women. But since 1990, she’s been cultivating her second career in Hollywood as a director, including work on more than 50 series. Snapshots, her new film making its New York premiere at the Soho International Film Festival this weekend, gives her the opportunity to direct a female-led film based on the true story of writer Jan Miller Corran’s (who co-produced the film with Lee Ann Matusek) mother. Just in time for Pride Month, Snapshots is both an LGBT love story of the past and a family drama about three generations of women.
Lesley Coffin: I know some of the actors you’ve worked with before, but how did you bring the ensemble together? How did you approach someone like Piper Laurie?
Melanie Mayron: With Piper, I’d met her over the years as an actress. And we just sent her the script and her representatives said she was interested but that I needed to talk to her. And I called her up, we talked about things for about an hour. And the one things she was concerned about was the fact that she prefers to have the materials for at least a month before starting a project, because she’s always concerned with knowing all her lines and really diving into her characters. And this was a 15-day shoot and we were starting in less than a month by the time we talked. But I assured her that we would have time for multiple takes and she could learn lines scene by scene if she needed to. That was her biggest concern and she signed on which was a big deal for the film.
Emily Gross, who plays Louise, starred in a film called The House on Pine Street and she came in and just auditioned. Jan, the writer and producer whose true story this is, found Shannon Collis on Twitter if you can believe it. And she came in and auditioned and then she did a chemistry read with Emily. Emily Baldoni I knew because I’d been directing a lot of Jane the Virgin over the past few years and Emily is married to the actor who plays Raphael, Justin. And she’d frequently came in to fill in for actors during read throughs. And she had starred in an indie called Coherence. Just before the wrap party for Jane, I heard we were go and had the funding to start filming, and I asked her at the party if she would consider the part. But the music was so loud at the party I don’t think she really heard me so I told Justin and he was so excited and took the script right away. And Brett Dier had been in Jane and Max Adler had been in an episode of Switched at Birth I’d directed and we’d stayed in touch. And I’ve known Brooke Adams for years.
Lesley Coffin: You’ve been directing consistently for years, but you’ve primarily worked in TV and haven’t made a movie in a few years. Had you been looking for another film project for a while or did this project come up and inspire you to return to films?
Melanie Mayron: I’d actually been attached to a couple of films that stalled and continued to direct TV while working on those projects. I’d been working on another film with our producer Lee Ann called Follow and she just happened to mention that I should look at this new script by Jan too. And the three of us worked on development of the project for almost a year and half. And then they got the money and this film went all the way. But I’ve been attached to a lot of independent films over the years. It’s so hard now to get films made because studios just don’t greenlight “people movies” anymore. They greenlight big blockbusters, but the people movies are all independent films that require a lot of personal financing. I came of age in the ’70s, I came to New York to study acting then, and all the films back then were “people movies.” We didn’t really have big blockbuster movies. And those were the movies I love, those are the movies I love to make.
Lesley Coffin: I’ve often heard TV called the writer’s medium, compared to films where directors have most control. Do you still find that to be true?
Melanie Mayron: I think like theater, where the playwright’s vision is kind of first and foremost, TV shows are anchored by the vision of a creator or showrunner, compared to film where the director is in control and given final say. The big issue right now is this idea of “final cut” and I know a lot of directors lose control in the end. I was lucky because Lee Ann, Jan and I were very collaborative.
Lesley Coffin: What was your initial reaction to the project?
Melanie Mayron: I loved the idea of three generations of women getting together. As an actress who’s getting older, I love to see parts written for women my age and women older than me. I always love the idea of being a woman who can support other actresses and give opportunities to women my age. Because when you get past 40, the parts become limited. But I also just loved the love story and especially at a time, just after World War II, when things were so repressed. I loved the movie Carol, but what made this film so different was the fact that these were two married women. They weren’t choosing a lifestyle, they were just clipping along with their lives, and then somebody completely knocked their socks off. I thought that was beautiful message.
Lesley Coffin: Did you have the opportunity to direct one time period and then the other?
Melanie Mayron: Usually with movies you are completely limited by practical matters like actors’ availability and locations. And we only had 15 days to film this movie, we had one camera, limited funds, and I only had Bret for the first seven days. And we could only shoot at the lake for three days. So we shot all the scenes at the lake in three days. Then in four days we shot all of Bret’s scenes. And then over our last eight days we shot the three women in the present day and went back to shoot the old scenes on our last days. So we were kind of all over the place.
Lesley Coffin: Did you find you were using different color palettes or making visual choices to differentiate the two periods?
Melanie Mayron: Our cinematographer used a filter for the scenes filmed in the past. And that gave those scenes a slight amber, golden hue. And we had a Canon 5D with a filter, I think it was eight millimeter movie, to grab as much footage of Rose and Louise as possible. And that gave us the opportunity to show what their life was life between scenes.
Lesley Coffin: I know Jan has mentioned being inspired by stories like Fried Green Tomatoes when she was writing the film. And the multi-generational story is a bit of a subgenre especially for female driven films like Friend Green Tomatoes, How to Make An American Quilt, or Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Did you look at any films for inspiration?
Melanie Mayron: Those are all great films and this film certainly is comparable. To be honest, I looked at The Notebook to see how they did transitions from past to present. I just wanted to avoid being obnoxious with that. There was also a movie with Kate Winslet that I can’t think of now that used those transitions beautifully. I found I almost felt like I was making two different films, the present takes up about 60 percent of the film, the past takes up about 40 percent, so they are almost given equal time and equal importance. The flashbacks aren’t more important or less important than the present day. What I remember saying to the actresses playing the scenes in the ’60s was a story of growing up in a housing development in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I remember being nine or 10 and one of the couples in my neighborhood getting a divorce. And as a little girl, I remember all the women just gossiping about it and making such a big deal. It was like a nuclear bomb had gone off in our neighborhood. And I told the girls about that, because I wanted them to understand how buttoned up things were then. For that to be the reaction to a heterosexual couple to divorce, imagine if someone left their husband to be with another woman!
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about Brooke Adams’ character, who is a child who was essentially raised in the shadow of this unspoken secret. Did you and Brooke think of how growing up, perhaps even sensing that there was a secret, shaped her character?
Melanie Mayron: I think that was something I left in Brooke’s hands to establish. I was most interested in this transitional period she was going through, essentially having to start over after the death of her husband. Being in grief and losing everything and having to leave her home. And I know a few women who’ve experienced that. What’s interesting is how much is explained and comes together once this secret is revealed.
Lesley Coffin: Having been an actress, where does that experience come in handing when directing?
Melanie Mayron: When I first started, I think I said, “How do people direct if they’ve never acted before?” Because whether you’re an actor or director, TV and film’s all about putting behavior in front of the lens. And having worked in film and television for as long as I had before I started directing, I also knew that doing that was also a technical process for actors. And on this film, having the limitations we had and having a script which was dialogue heavy, I thinking knowing the actors process really is essential.
Lesley Coffin: Has directing impacted your acting?
Melanie Mayron: I’m of the belief that when you’re acting, you should only worry about acting and leave the directing with the director. I see them as two very different jobs and when I’m acting I’m happy to let the director do what they’re here for and just focus on my work. I just love the whole business of movie making. When I starred in an independent movie from 1978, at 24, called Girlfriends, directed by Claudia Weill, that was amazing because we were this young cast and crew. And there was such an excitement among the entire crew that infected the entire set. And I felt something very similar on this film, people working quickly but pitching in and collaborating. That’s what I love about filmmaking, I’ve just always wanted to be a part of that.
Lesley Coffin: I’m glad you mentioned Girlfriends, which I think for a lot of people was revolutionary independent film. Both that film and this one is sort of joyfully female-driven. Do you think movies with that narrative focus should be directed by a woman?
Melanie Mayron: That’s such a complicated issue. I remember when Claudia was being praised for Girlfriends and she was called a woman director. And she was a little frustrated because she wanted to be referred to as just “a director.” And I’m not sure of the answer because there have been so many female driven films directed by men and many female directors have made films which primarily focus on men.
Lesley Coffin: And of course the answer could just be that you make the best films about subjects you’re personally interested in because you can make them personal.
Melanie Mayron: Exactly. And having a female experience can give you something from your own life to pull inspiration from and that does help.
Lesley Coffin: The film’s played other festivals and has a few more before its release. What’s the experience been like seeing the film in theatres, not just having Q&A sessions after the film but just hearing an audience react?
Melanie Mayron: That’s what’s been amazing. Most people are watching things on TVs now, and it seems like people only see the big, big movies in theaters now. But it’s been thrilling to see the movie with audiences. The film has a lot of laughs and hearing people laugh at the same time at every screening is great. And observing people going into a stunned silence at the same scene or burst into applause, or just crying at the end has been so amazing for me. To see the consistency of those reactions.
Lesley Coffin: It must be so gratifying to see the reactions you anticipated land every time.
Melanie Mayron: It is, because the film could have gone online and done well. But I wouldn’t have a chance to see how people are reacting to scenes and moments. And I’ve been doing so much TV where the show is made and released a few weeks later, but I don’t really know how people are reacting the way you get instant gratification in the theater.
Photos courtesy of Three Women in a Box Films