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February 2006
An Interview with Director Sue Kramer

An Interview with Director Sue Kramer
By Nicole Schmuelian

In writing and directing independent films, both women and men have the position that most wouldn’t get with a big studio film, and that is to be in control. Often when too many “cooks” (producers) are in the kitchen, changes are made within the story, that the original concept goes and what’s on screen is not what the screenwriter set out to do. For director-screenwriter Sue Kramer, she got what she wanted. She put out a story that’s personal to her. In the romantic comedy “Gray Matters”, both the brother (Tom Cavanagh) and sister (Heather Graham) both fall for the same woman (Bridget Moynahan). In speaking with blackfilm.com, Kramer talks about getting her project off the ground.

Tell us about screwball comedy. What was the first best gay screwball comedy you ever saw?

Sue Kramer: I don’t think I can remember a gay screwball comedy but I can remember that my favorite screwball comedy is His Girl Friday. That’s definitely the Preston Sturges’ of the world and those directors are people I wanted to pay homage to. Walk very far miles in their foot steps but those are the movies that I loved. Is that a little daunting you named some giants in cinema?


To know that you have your two women in the film that dance. There is a certain Woody Allen like feel did you tread consciously?

Sue Kramer: There was never a moment that when I was writing the script, the script is very much the movie it’s not like it veered in any way. I wrote that title sequence, I picked the shots that I wanted in the script and I got those shots. Maybe I put a few extra ones when we were here and I saw some great shots to take. I never was thinking, ‘oh I really want this to be Woody’ or people have been making refrences to Norah Ephron, ‘oh I really want this to be like a Norah movie’ or ‘I really want this to be His Girl Friday’. It was more you know you grow up in a culture and artists are infulenced by people constantly. Whether you are a painter, writer, director and so I think all these people are my influences even subconsciously but it wasn’t consciously. There was nothing consciously that I was thinking that I really want the banter to be like His Girl Friday. It’s kind of what I write. I write very bantering dialogue in all the screenplays that I have written prior to this it’s always what I have done. I love New York. I am a New York and I see New York as a Jewel box. I love those Woody movies that make you think I love living in N.Y. So it’s more about just being influenced through my whole life but there was nothing purposeful.

Can you tlak about how you got Sissy Spacek in your movie? Also how you got her to wall climb?

Sue Kramer: Well, Sissy and I have been dear friends. We met in this crazy circumstance about ten years ago. Her husband and I met first. Then we started working on a project that we were trying to develop together that actually she was going to direct. A book adaptation so we became even closer. Knowing Sissy as personally as I do she has an amazing sense of humor but people never think of her for comedies because she is an amazing dramatic actress. She is so funny in person that I thought wouldn’t it be great to write something for Sissy so people can see how funny she is. She has this really dry sense of humor. So I wrote this role specifically for her and then gave it to her and was lucky enough for her to say that she would do it. That was a great calling card because people love Sissy so much and admire her so much that other actors really wanted to come on board or read the script. Her stunt, she is the greatest trooper in the world. We had a stunt woman dressed in her exact clothes perfectly ready to go that rock climbing day. Sissy would not let them do it. She did the fall herself, she did all the climbing herself, she did everything herself. Sissy got in shape before hand by going to a rock climbing gym which she never did in her life. She really trained for the part and when Sissy got there she was like ‘nope I want to do it myself’. My producing partner was going ‘if Sissy Spacek gets hurt we are going to be killed. Are you sure you want her to do this?’ I kept asking Sissy ‘Are you sure?’ She was like ‘no I can do this’ and she did it a couple of times actually. We didn’t have to do many takes but a few times.

It was historic when Sofia Coppola was nominated for an Oscar for directing and Bridget just said that you were the first woman director that she ever worked with. Why is it in the year 2007 is it so rare to find women directing films?

Sue Kramer: I would love to know the answer. Last I heard there is only six percent of the director guild who are directing features. More on Television, I think it is thirty percent. Only three or four percent who are writers, director and in my case producers as well and Sofia is tha same way. It is really a hard question to answer I think that unfortunately we are a very big minority. Hollywood is being runned by a lot of women right now in terms of being president of the studios. Between Nina Jacobson, Amy Pascal and Sherry Lansing they are all very powerful. Oh and who runs DreamWorks, Stacey Shneider. I think between all these women you would think that they would be hiring more female directors but it’s not the case. Also unfortunately in Hollywood I feel like women don’t help women. That is something I would really like to change. I think that women get very territorial when they get to a certain position of power in Hollywood because it is so hard to get there. It’s a male dominated world and once you get there you feel like you have to just stay in your territory. They therefore don’t feel like they need to help that many women. There are many exceptions to the rule but in terms of the generalization I have felt that in my career. I would love to break that trend because I would love to see many more directing.

Can you talk about what Alexander Payne brought to the table, what he offered?

Sue Kramer: Well, Alexander and I went to film school togeather. We worked on each other’s films in film school and we have been dear friends ever since. When I was trying to get my movie made I thought to myself, well he had these films made and it would be great to have him on board. Especially with foreign financing with his stamp of approval they thought okay there is someone she can turn to all the time as a first time directors. Luckily there was no problem but I would turn to him when I was going over my story board. Orignially we were going to have thirty five days to shoot the movie and then it got cut to twenty one. Which is massive I remember saying to him ‘I can’t do it’. I think I should tell them I can’t do it. Alexander told me to tell them I should tell them I can do it. You can definitely do it; you just go through your shot list and you will just have to consolidate and think which is the best shot. So he was very helpful in terms of that. He was very helpful right before I handed in my director cut, giving me notes. Everyone loved the kiss in the movie. For everyone who loves the kiss in the movie you have to thank Alexander Payne for making it longer. I showed him the first cut and he was like ‘I think this should be longer.’ I said, ‘really you think I can go that long with the kiss’and he said ‘yes’. He gave me that which a lot of people are thanking him for these days.

You had a twenty one day shoot what does that mean in terms of the budget? It strikes me as a small budget.

Sue Kramer: They rather that I don’t say the budget but it is a very small budget. Smaller then you probably think even in a small way.

Heather and Bridget were saying that your inspiration for this film was your sister. Can you talk a little about that?

Sue Kramer: I have two sisters; I am the youngest. My sister Caroline is six years older. This was really to honor her because she was saying that there was never a movie that she could take everyone to. That her gay, straight, parents, sisters everybody could go and be completely entertained and learn something with a gay character being the lead. She was giving examples; then I really studied it in terms of the history of Hollywood that there has never been really no great clever, intelligent leading lady lesbian. You look in the history of Hollywood during the thirties there was always gay characters. From the gay butlers of the 1930’s to Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon or Tony Curtis in Spartacus. Even the spoof in the Billy Wilder movie Some Like It Hot they are cross dressing. Whatever it is there always been a gay male character but there hasn’t been in terms of lesbian. They usually have been scarey like The Children’s Hour and all these kind of starange. Even now with Notes On A Scandal she is brilliant but scary like a stalker lesbian. She thought that In and Out was a great example because it was very commercial that everyone can go see and there was nothing equivalent. That was one of the ideas but also honor her because she is very attractive girl-next-door. She was the prom queen in our high school, she dated all the guys, and she was one of the most popular girls in school. She was not a lipstick lesbian; she was just a very attractive girl-next-door. I wanted to do something that protrayed a character like that.

Did you watch any of the previous lesbian romantic comedies like Kissing Jessica Stein?

Sue Kramer: I don’t see that movie as a lesbian comedy because she ends up straight.

As a writer did you always think that you were going to direct this piece?

Sue Kramer: Yes, absolutely. I was always going to direct this movie. I was suppose to direct a movie about ten years ago and we had an amazing cast including Anne Bancroft in one of the leads. Ultimately right before we were about to go into production it got pulled two months before the studio went bankrupt. It took me a long time to recover from that experience. Then I wrote Gray and I and I said ‘okay this is going to be the one’. It has been a seven year struggle.

You knocked on a lot of doors?

Sue Kramer: Beyond. My knuckles are soar form the door knocking.

You and Alexander Payne were peers, he is here and women are still struggling. How does that feel as a woman training with lots of guys who are getting jobs?

Sue Kramer: We had an extraordinary group of filmmakers our little group of six people. We all have gone on, I’m the late bloomer in the group, to make great movies. Alexander Payne being one of them, Brad Silberling, Neil Mueller who did The Assassination of Richard Nixon. We all are making movies but I don’t think it is because they are male that they got their movies made. I think that Alexander, Brad, and Neil were extremely talented in film school. They all made wonderful films so I think their talent had a lot to do with it. Alexander bloomed late in a way. He was trying to get a movie made in a really long time up until seven years ago.

I think the word chick-flick can be very derogative and demeaning to women and this could be categorized as a chick-flick. So how do we break out of those conventions and change some of the terminology to something more positive.

Sue Kramer: Well people have been asking me what do you think, is this a chick-flick or a date movie or is this what?

How would you define date movie?

Sue Kramer: Well, date movie means that a guy will like it versus going out with all your girlfriends. I think this is a movie for everyone and that’s what we’ve been discovering in all of our screening and film festivals. People from all ages like the movie for different reasons. I even screened in Washington for Congress and Senate last week. I had Republican senators come up to me afterwards and saying that they loved the movie. I think that the chick-flick thing I don’t know if it is so derogatory. I think it’s derogatory only if you make it derogatory because if you are going out with a bunch of your girlfriends it can be a chick-flick. I don’t think this is necessarily a chick-flick, I think this is a movie that can really apeal to a lot of everyone. Guys also really like the Bridget Moynahan and Heather Graham kiss. So it can be a guy movie.

Nancy Meyers was just saying that audiences are too cynical for romantic comedies these days; that television has jaded them. Do you agree with that? Do you think that audiences are too cynical for romatic comedies?

Sue Kramer: I don’t actually. I think that critics can sometimes be cynical towards romantic comedies even more than the public actually. Right now we have soldiers going to war, we have election coming up it is such a precarious time in terms of United States history. I think that people really want to go to the movies and laugh right now and that’s what we are finding out. I think that in terms of critics romantic comedies have always been something that is more criticized than most genres. Because when you walk into theater we have these preconceived notions in your head oh what is this going to be? Is it going to be When Harry Met Sally? Is it going to be Pretty Woman? Romantic comedies are known as the formulaic screenplay. So that’s part of it. I think though audienced do want to see romatic comedies and really be entertianed by them.

Don’t you think it is more of the fantasy because as a critic when I see these movies I say ‘well that can never happen in real life.’ Do you think people just want that escapism and see that fantasy?

Sue Kramer: I think that people do as long as there is something very grounded in the theme of it or incredibly romantic. I mean people want to be romanced and laugh. Also I was writing the screenplay I went to film school, I studied screenwriting and you always talk about the formulas of all these different movies. Boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl. So I was thinking how can I turn this on its head. How can I come up with something that was still in the formula of a romantic comedy but make it original. So I thought a brother and a sister falling in love with the same girl was original. Also you havent seen a brother and sister relationship before other then You Can Count On Me. In addition, throwing in the whole tip of the hat to the 1940’s I thought that would also bring something.

Why Heather Graham?

Sue Kramer: Heather I met with her, I met with many actresses to play the role of Gray. Heather and I met for lunch and within the first ten minutes of meeting her I thought she is my Gray. Because she is much like Gray in person. She is very idosyncratic about the way she orders food. She was eating my food across the table within five minutes of eating. I was thinking she is reaching over taking my avocado and I just met this girl. Heather was giving the waiter complete recipes for the food. Not only just saying can we have half and half but literally saying if you tell the chef to cook the chicken. I was like ‘Oh my god, she is telling the chef how to cook the chicken.’ That lunch was why I gave Heather the job. Also I was a fan of Heather’s from Drugstore Cowboy and seen her career evolved. I thought she really has never been given the oppurtunity to be a true blue romantic comedy star like a Reese Witherspoon or Cameron Diaz. I thought she had it in her. She has this very young Goldie Hawn kind of feel about her. Very bubbly and effervescent and not to be conscious of herself.

Do you have another movie that you are working on already? Or another script that you are writing?

Sue Kramer: I just finished another scipt that I am going to be directing this fall. It is a romantic-dramady.

Women are not getting leads in Romantic comedies it’s more about the men.
Can you just talk about putting a woman in lead what that means? How do you want women to look at it?

Sue Kramer: Well, I think it is interesting because once again in the history of Hollywood women use to be the ones that made the movies. It was the Carol Lombards’ and the Betty Davis’s and all those had the bigger deals than the men. They were paid more than the men and they were actually the ones who got the movies made. Things have completely have turned around and now because now you need the guy to get the movie made. It’s the guy that holds the power. There are so few women that can get a movie box office which means a very small handful that can get a movie greenlight. Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Cameron Diaz and a few others but many more men. That was the struggle with maiking this film made. People were tunring me down because it was too much of a girl lead, they wanted me to turn it around and made it still her story but make brother a bigger role and you can get a bigger a guy star. So it is kind of an anolomoly for a big role being her story. I would like to see more of that. I am doing the same thing in my next movie.

On a personal level when Heather comes out Tom was like thank god I knew all along. Is that how you felt about your sister?

Oh yeah, when I was ten and she was sixteen she was so depressed and introspective. She kind of had this alter-ego because she was the most popular girl in high school and then she would come home and be so depressed and reclusive. I was like ‘what is the big deal I know why you are so depressed’ and she was like ‘why’ and I said ‘because your gay.’ Then she came out about seven years later which was the biggest deal in her life for her to tell me. Then when she told me I said ‘hello I was ten when I told you that you were gay.”




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