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SXSW '07 Interview: "The Lather Effect" Director Sarah Kelly

by Erik Childress

“The Lather Effect" Pitch: The Lather Effect is about a group of high school friends, now in their mid-thirties, who get together for one last '80's themed rager at the soon-to-be-sold childhood home of one of the lead characters. The movie takes place the day AFTER the party, where the immediate task of cleaning up the trashed house before the new owners arrive competes with re-buzzing, re-living, and reminiscing over the past. At its core, The Lather Effect is an homage to all the songs, movies, situations, relationships and "firsts" that Generation X experienced as they were coming of age, and an invitation to "Come As You Were" to a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

SARAH: This is my long-dreamed of return to SXSW, 10 years after premiering my documentary, "Full Tilt Boogie" there in March 1997. And honestly, throughout all the ups and downs and false starts of trying to get another film made, it was the thought of coming back to this festival that kept me from giving up. I just think that Austin is the absolute greatest place of all time to show a movie, because it's a town full of true movie lovers. And with music and beer flowing everywhere you go, you can't really have a bad time.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?

SARAH: I dreamed of being a spy, and even had a little neighborhood "Spy Club," where we would set up elaborate stakeouts with walkie talkies and binoculars in the bushes outside houses that we deemed creepy or "suspicious." It felt dangerous and exciting, but now that I think about it, I guess I was the creepy one!

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?

SARAH: During the spring of my senior year at UC Santa Cruz, a producer named Moctesuma Esparza came to speak to the film students (of which I was not one) and I happened to hear his lecture and was so inspired that I decided to bail my summer plans to work in a law firm and intern as a production assistant on his movie "Gettysburg" instead. It absolutely changed my life, and I knew after that summer that filmmaking was the only road for me to take. Soon after Gettysburg wrapped, I lucked into another production assistant gig back in LA on a movie called "Killing Zoe" which was being directed by Roger Avary, starring Eric Stoltz, and exec produced by Quentin Tarantino, and THAT experience inspired my dream of becoming a director, and I was lucky enough to be encouraged and mentored by Roger, Eric and Quentin.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”

SARAH: I don't feel differently about it, I'm just happy and excited for it!

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?

SARAH: Kermit, because I know it ain't easy being green.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?

SARAH: All the time. I made the movie with and for a certain generation in mind, and I just hoped they'd appreciate it. I've already written all the good and bad reviews in my mind, heard the applause from crowded, appreciative audiences, and been mad at the imaginary people who have walked out. It's inescapable, I think. And it also helps you prepare for what's to come, so you can let it go and just do your best.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.

SARAH: I actually threw an '80's themed party in April of 2004, and was so impressed with how hard core people got - from the costumes to the quarters-playing to the break dancing - and how nostalgic the party seemed to make everyone feel, that I knew there was a movie in there somewhere. I was already going through an intense period of "missing," and realizing that I wasn't the only one inspired me to try to write a movie for my generation of grown-up teenagers. I wanted it to be the kind of movie I had been waiting 20 years for John Hughes to make...a kind of follow up to The Breakfast Club. I was also inspired - obviously - by The Big Chill, but wanted it to be a fun homage as opposed to a remake. The idea was to have the movie be basically just one giant nod to all the movies and filmmakers and songs and iconography of the '80's. And the other idea was to write something that would be fairly simple to actually GET MADE. I was sick of NOT making a movie, and this seemed like a doable, tangible possibility. I gave myself a year to accomplish it, and with the help of my producer Rachel Rothman, my casting director Karen Meisels, my editor Darren Ayres (who helped me shoot a teaser for the film) and the commitment and encouragement from my mentor Eric Stlotz, it just seemed to get WILLED into being.

Our shooting schedule was only 3 weeks, and our budget was tight, but the whole cast and crew just came together seemlessly and managed to pull it off without a hitch and did it all while having a total blast. And the best part, for me, was the fact that the actors all truly loved each other, and so quickly and convincingly developed their own language, which made it really feel like they were a group of friends who had known each other for 20 years. We had a mandatory and intense week of rehearsal before shooting, which I think was invaluable, and really got everyone in the right mind frame and comfort level. I totally lucked out with these actors - and I'm so proud of their performances and grateful for their talent.

Editing was a magical time - just me and Darren and the footage, holed up in his dining room/edit bay - with the occasional drop in from Rachel and Stoltz (who was extraordinarily helpful and nurturing) and my brother Dominic who did the awesome score. It's hard to explain how both satisfying and bittersweet the editing process is, but it just is. Every time we'd finish a scene I would feel both excited and sad, because I knew that the movie was being born, but that it was going to have to grow up and leave the nest at some point. I couldn't wait to see it finished, but I didn't want it to end. It's an emotional, exciting time.

And then comes the mixing and all the final touches, which is so fun but feels so rushed. You have to make final decisions that will last forever, and you have no time to make them. But I loved all of it, and tried to stay zen. The zen doesn't last long though, because then it's time to show the movie to the world (or to a film festival audience) and you just hope and pray they'll love your baby as much as you do.

And then the worst time comes, when you're just waiting to see if your baby will find a home. And apart from the time way back when you were waiting to see if your movie could even get made, it's the absolutely most frustrating part about the whole process. The "wait and see" time. But luckily, during the "wait and see" you get to go to festivals all over the country, and meet clones of yourself who and in the same boat, and you feel understood and lucky and just happy to be a filmmaker.

And that brings me to last night, which is the final part of this in-depth question. I was feeling about as understood and lucky and happy as a filmmaker ever could, watching a movie up at Quentin Tarantino's home screening room with a bunch of fun people who just love movies.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

SARAH: Act like it's happening and it will.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?

Well, I break that down into two categories: those I am lucky enough to know and have been mentored by, and those who I just admire and get inspiration from. I think I’ve always been drawn to and influenced by Woody Allen, Robert Altman, and Cameron Crowe, because their films always seemed to me to be about real people, real circumstances, and real moments…like, if you left the theater, their movies would still be going on. That’s how I felt the first time I saw Richard Linklater’s “Slacker”…and it kind of changed my life, not to be too melodramatic about it, but it’s true. And then a couple of years later, to meet him ,and then to become friends with him, and to learn from him, well, it’s just been a huge gift in my life. He’s been a great inspiration to me.

And then there’s Quentin. The magic he’s given me over the years, in terms of inspiration and education about movies, is something that, well, I just liken it to the best film school on earth. And to have been able to watch him work, that’s probably the best education anyone could ever get. And I took notes, and I paid attention. And I feel grateful for all the moments I’ve had with him…just walking down the street with Quentin can be a revelation, both in the way he sees the world, and in the way the world sees him. It’s like being with the pied piper. People just follow him. And he also has a way of making you feel like you can do anything. I think that's why actors trust him so much, and he's able to get the performances he does.

Did you watch any movies in preproduction and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?

SARAH: Every '80's teen movie ever made. And, of course, The Big Chill.

What are your best memories of the '80s?

SARAH: Early memories are of playing all kinds of make-believe in the backyard with my brother and friends, putting on plays, re-enacting the movies like "Grease" and TV shows like "Little House on the Prairie" and "Charlie's Angels," and lots of roller-skating and boogieboarding.

Then came all the "firsts," which is what The Lather Effect devotes itself to. The first concert, the first kiss, the first date...all of that stuff. But I think my absolute favorite '80's memories are swirled into the two out of the four years of college that fell during that decade, which sort of felt like a combination of make-believe and firsts all rolled up into a foggy haze of freedom and fun.

If you were throwing your own 80s rager, what would you include? Would you make it specific to one good year or encapsulate the entire decade? (And be sure to get the details right - a 1987 reunion in "Music & Lyrics" plays The NeverEnding Story theme song from 1984.)

SARAH: I did throw my own '80's rager, which then became The Lather Effect. The basic idea was "Come As You Were" which covered all the bases. Just watch the opening credit sequence of the movie and you'll see what went down!


Favorite Movie: Too hard to say. Ferris Bueller. Breakfast Club. Chariots of Fire. E.T. Top Gun. Fast Times. Terms of Endearment. Flashdance. How can you say just one?

Favorite TV Show: Again, just one??? Moonlighting. Cheers. LA Law. The list goes on...

Favorite Song: You're killing me! Sister Christian maybe.

Favorite Group: U2

Favorite Solo Artist: The Boss and Madonna

Favorite Cartoon: Scoobydoo - was that '80's?

Favorite Political Moment: There weren't any good ones.

Favorite Toy: Derby Queen Roller Skates

Favorite "I Remember Where I Was" Moment: When Reagan first got elected, my family was living in Australia, and my mother said "Let's not go back."

Least Favorite Anything: Materialism


What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?

SARAH: Chris Elliott

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?

SARAH: Magnum P.I. - but with all the same actors

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.

SARAH: I think they all are, honestly. But Peter Facinelli is just a huge, action hero/romantic lead of massive proportions waiting to happen. He's got it all.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...

SARAH: …really frustrated.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)

SARAH: Paul Newman

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be
able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”

SARAH: No, I haven't made it yet. When I'm able to make whatever movie I want, whenever I want, and with whomever I want, then I will have made it. Not sure if that actually ever happens...

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?

SARAH: They're still a little too important

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?

SARAH: Coppertone sunscreen...'cause it smells so nostalgic AND is good for you.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?

SARAH: I guess I'm getting an NC-17!

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?

SARAH: I think it's cool, but it's not about the final word. It should actually be reserved for people who write AND direct the movie, because then it truly is their vision & story and their heart & soul on the screen. All the other amazing collaborators deserve (and get) their own credit, but no one has more on the line than the writer/director.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

SARAH: If you miss anything or anyone, either from the '80's or from whenever you came of age, you owe it to ourself to come to this party, as you were. :-)


Sarah Kelly’s The Lather Effect will have its world premiere at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival on Wednesday, March 14 at 7:30 pm and screen again on Friday, March 16 at 11:00 am (both at Austin's Paramount Theater.) And check out for even more info!

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originally posted: 02/24/07 02:52:53
last updated: 03/07/07 09:23:18
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