“A female version of classic male hustler films”: Talking to The Foxy Merkins Director Madeleine Olnek

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With a sweetly neurotic stammer, asthma inhaler, and wardrobe of muumuu-sized t-shirts and denim cargo shorts, Lisa Haas, star and co-writer of The Foxy Merkins, is notably unlikely as a runaway turned lesbian prostitute in big, bad NYC. In the film, which opens today for a weeklong run at the IFP’s Made in NY Media Center, in Dumbo, co-writer director Madeleine Olnek renders gender roles productively wobbly by treating familiar fraught John-Jane scenarios as Mad Libs for an all-female cast, and variously stilted and/or deadpan and/or loopy stagings—think Susanne Oberbeck’s Desperate Not Desperate. Meanwhile, the Midnight Cowboy-referencing bond between Haas’s Margaret and her mentor, savvy gay-for-play Jo (Jackie Monahan)—the two bed down in the ladies room of the Port Authority Bus Terminal—also offers a sneakily deep consideration of the varieties of female companionship. This in a movie that also features Alex Karpovsky as a black market merkin merchant. Madeleine Olnek answered a few of my questions over email.

The tonal balance of the film seems like it would have been a tricky thing to achieve: the film gets laughs arising from incongruous or parodic situations, but also has much to say, sincerely, about female relationships. So I’m curious about how the project originated and evolved, what the original inspiration was and how elements were added and subtracted as it came into fruition?

For years, I wanted to make a female version of classic male hustler films—it was a comic idea I carried in my head but didn’t think I would ever have the opportunity to actually do it. When my first feature Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same premiered at Sundance, two of the actors, Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan, made a jokey video/podcast in Park City about how many women they were picking up at the festival and how many times they got “laid” on the cinema shuttlebus. They hadn’t been in any scenes together in the movie really, but I noticed they had a real chemistry as an odd “couple.” I thought of that movie idea, and thought—why can’t we make another feature while we are on the festival circuit promoting this one? Of course, that wasn’t possible (although we tried) and we decided to shoot the movie in NYC.

In terms of talking about adding and subtracting elements, I can say that getting the comedy right was extremely important to us—so we threw away a lot that didn’t work. Making this movie was a painstaking process which took several years. And since it was also a movie about a female friendship between a gay woman and a straight woman, it was important to me that the movie had that tonal balance you mentioned, and would seriously examine of the nature of this intense friendship, since that is what drives the film.

The interview-style interludes, with other supposed lesbian prostitutes talking about their lives and careers, add a striking dimension to the film. Is sex work something you investigated at all in preparation for this film, or is the film entirely an imaginative work?

Bear in mind that the world in this movie—in which lesbian hookers are all over the streets of NY, routinely being picked up by housewives and conservative women—doesn’t exist, so in that sense there wasn’t a world to research—it was an entirely imaginative work. What we did research was the portrayals of hustlers and prostitutes in cinema, since that was what the film was referencing. And we looked at some actual hustlers’ narratives, like John Rechy’s biography, in which he talked about the tendency of some young men to work as male hustlers, so that they could justify having homosexual sex by the fact they were getting paid for it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but some scenes have some somewhat improvised textures. What were you hoping to achieve with this sort of approach—was it primarily that it was expedient to make the film that way, or something more? (It seems to me like the occasionally open-ended shot lengths and occasionally unpolished dialogue tend to undercut the potential titillation factor of the film’s premise, in a way similar to some of the joke-y and slapstick “dates”…)

l actually have great belief in the use of improvisation—not off-the-cuff, unplanned improvisation, but highly structured, character- and objective-driven dialogue, that is the result of many, many hours of writing out ideas and storylines. We did write this project for two years, so the improv wasn’t about saving time—and we also wrote dialogue in scenes. However, improv is something I value so I always include it. Improvisation is certainly what made Italian Neorealism great, and now even Scorcese is coming clean that the rich texture of his dialogue in his films is due to on-set improvisation. For me, one of the things improvisation can do is add a layer of reality to a very heightened given circumstance, and make the comedy funnier by making it more realistic.

Especially for the sequences with the various oddball “Janes” (like “Johns,” right?), were you writing for specific actress? Or were the various inflections (and/predilections) brought to the film by the performers?

I don’t write, and I know my co-writers Jackie Monahan and Lisa Haas never wrote, with anyone specific in mind. With comedy, you have to lead with the idea and the truth of it; if you are also trying to think of how some specific performer might act under those circumstances that’s too much to balance at once, you are going to lose the thread of the idea you are following. That the roles fit those actors—Rae C Wright, Babs Davy, Betsy Farrell, Deb Margolin, Diane Ciesla, Nancy Giles, Claudia Cogan, Laurie Weeks—really has to do with the fact that they are great downtown NY performers, ready to throw themselves into anything 100%, and they are at the top of their game because they are constantly performing in front of live audiences.

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