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The Ladies of “Margarita Happy Hour”

The following women collaborated on a rare, so-far ignored, gem on the independent scene at the moment, Margarita Happy Hour, which makes its New York theatrical debut on March 22, 2002. Margarita is an engaging portrait of coming to terms with the universal experience of transition between youth and adult responsibility, as evinced through the group of female hipsters that have recently become mothers. Joining in this discussion on women, film, and politics are producer Susan Leber, talented writer/director Ilya Chaiken, and lead actress, Eleanor Hutchins.

filmcritic.com: Margarita Happy Hour is loosely based on personal experience. Was it difficult showing anyone the script because of this?

Ilya Chaiken: I am telling a story, and in the process use some personal experiences. So when I showed it around I would detach myself…and play dumb. I received good feedback, and was happy to get a variety of responses. The way men would respond as opposed to women. Some of the feedback from men was interesting. ‘We like the gory mom stuff. Talk more about that.’

Eleanor, you worked more in theater before Margarita. What attracted you to it?

Eleanor Hutchins: It was the only good script I had read in ages; that made any sense, had great characters, and a lot to work with. It wasn’t all fluff…and they wanted me!

What about you, Susan?

Susan Leber: I loved it. Everyone tells you they have a script. After a while you become cynical. It means nothing. I was a reader, and still am for production companies. Reading the script genuinely moved me. Ilya has a beautiful way on the page. And then I became obsessed.

I was struck me by how three-dimensional the women are. When you read about or see films, women are supposed to be ‘perfect’ on screen. Have you received negative feedback because of the flawed characters?

IC: When I was sending the script around, I gave it to someone involved with a women’s film festival that I’d participated in. Not all of her feedback was negative, but she wanted the women stronger or more politically correct, I think. I want to see strong women in film, and these characters are. It’s just that they are also human. So I guess it didn’t fit her political agenda. You have to decide who you’re writing for.

EH: Especially when you get out of the city. I had relatives saying, ‘I can’t believe people live like that!’ They were horrified. I think it’s a sad movie, but I know people who live like that who are perfectly happy. Some people were shocked at the lifestyle.

SL: It’s not something I’ve actually heard about through people, but it’s been a concern with who will go for the movie. We’ve thought about if someone’s uptight, sensing what they believe a good mother is, and whether they would consider that environment acceptable. Drinking margaritas with your kids, is that okay? There might be people who are apprehensive.

EH: It’s a reality, so why shy away from that?

I know you went to Sundance. What’s the festival experience been like? Did you get different reactions from people not in New York?

SL: Our GenArt experience was great because it was our group, and the audience was wonderfully responsive. Los Angeles also went well. But those are urban-centric environments, as opposed to when we were playing at a mall in Salt Lake City, our one non-Sundance screening.

IC: We’ve had a great response at every festival. It’s the actual feeling in the theater, and the way they react. In less urban places, they tend to be more silent, riveted. With the audience in New York, a lot of stuff was funny, which was written intentionally funny, but dark.

SL: When we played smaller towns like Woodstock, it still went well. Salt Lake, which we were nervous about, we had an overflow and took over two theaters. People liked seeing it, but it’s still another world they may not be used to. I think they do take it more seriously.

EH: It’s like an alien movie, ‘Who are these people? We’re scared! Get away from me!’

(laughter)

EH: I’ve actually had people ask me if it’s a documentary. ‘Is that your kid? Do you really live there?’

That’s funny because I remember asking you at GenArt whether or not you were a mother, and you said no. It surprised me. How did you prepare for that?

EH: If you were on set, you would have known. Ilya would say to me, ‘It’s not natural to be watching the baby with your arms out like this, making sure it doesn’t fall all the time.’

Was working with a toddler on set difficult?

SL: Certainly. We were working on crunched time anyway. Then to have several toddlers around, especially for the happy hour scenes, or simply just having Jonah [Leland, who plays Little Z]. Jonah needed to have her naptime, but we could never get her to lie down.

IC: We had scenes where, ‘Max [Little Z’s father] puts the kid in bed’ and they would put the baby in the crib. Of course, the baby equated that with its bedtime and got outraged. If you know baby language, and you watch the movie, you could see half the time the kid is saying ‘No night night!’

You said you worked on Margarita for a long time, how much rehearsal did you have?

IC: We had a long, drawn-out casting process. Somehow we escaped rehearsal.

SL: We had a reading first, where we pretty much cast everyone except the Natali character [Holly Ramos]. We rehearsed before that, but nobody knew they were cast yet.

EH: There would be auditions every once in a while and I’d get a call: ‘Can you come in?’ I’d worry if I got the part or…

IC: We tortured Eleanor.

Most of the cast is from theater, so when you say that most of it was casting, what does that mean?

IC: We didn’t want to cast commercial actors who were pretending. We were also casting non-union, so that was another struggle. I think that’s how we ended up using a lot of downtown performers.

SL: We had headshots, but we also had David Leslie, our casting director. He’s a performance artist, stunt guy, and all sorts of weird stuff. He knew a lot of people to bring in.

Did you find you had to change styles a lot, coming from the stage to the screen?

EH: In theater you get a high off the audience, and work off them. It’s bigger. Film is small. It’s about the reality, finding the drama within the reality, and realizing there’s a camera right in your face so any facial movements you make show up more. The instincts are the same, but it’s all about adjustment from bigger to smaller.

How did Ilya help you with that?

EH: I could tell if something wasn’t working right away because of her reaction.

IC: (mocking) Sure, that’s good.

EH: You know when somebody lies, if something didn’t feel right, or a line came out forced. You have a sense of how you need to adjust yourself, although we only had a couple of takes of each scene.

You have your shot list of close-ups?

IC: Not even close.

No storyboarding?

IC: Our shooting schedule was frugal, so (cinematographer) Gordon Chou and I would ask ourselves how we could shoot an entire scene within three shots. That often dictated what a scene would look like.

SL: Or what would be shot. In the morning, or after lunch break, it was, ‘What are we doing next?’

EH: But it was still very smooth. I’ve worked on films that people think they’ve done everything and then forgo
tten what the point was, why they were shooting, and things got lost. The communication between Gordon and Ilya was fantastic. You didn’t see a director and director of photography fighting, which happens a lot. I was comfortable the whole time. ‘Everybody loves each other’.

IC: One thing I’m happy we did was save the more dramatic stuff for the end of shooting.

EH: The ‘serious’ scene. Everyone felt bad for me that day. I had been friendly on set up until then. That day, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I’d sit alone in a room, doing my thing. Everybody would come up to check on me, and I told them to get away. They all thought I was mad at them.

SL: (laughing) We had a very insecure crew.

Speaking of crew, you’ve worked with Hal Hartley, which probably meant bigger budgets. Was it hard to switch?

SL: Hal’s world is hardly bigger, but it was having some money versus not having any. The reality of that is, for instance, we didn’t have one gaffer. We had different gaffers for different days, 9 days was the longest stretch we had the same one. I think that hurt everyone, that nobody could commit to the 21-day shoot because they couldn’t take off from paying gigs. But I couldn’t have asked for a better crew.

Being an indie, everyone took on multiple tasks?

SL: I’m surprised nobody was more intolerant. The production assistants would grip and electric when they knew how, and everyone was a boom operator at one time or another, including co-producer Michael Ellenbogen and I. I didn’t boom for long, though, because I’m too short.

Ilya, you’ve mentioned that Eleanor’s character Zelda represents free will and that Max represents fate.

IC: I tried to explore modern sexual politics and choice in terms of having a baby. It’s more complex than just yes or no. Zelda’s character made this decision, it’s implied that it’s not a planned pregnancy. The movie is about is the baggage that comes with that. In modern times, men are expected to do their part as a father, which is not that simple. Since the woman is the one who has this so-called choice, she has this responsibility not only to herself, but to this new life she brings into the world, and her partner. She’s basically making a decision for three people. Max is this helpless soul who things just happen to. I was trying to stress the idea that, though he’s sort of a loser and not really stepping up to bat, maybe he didn’t expect to be in this situation.

Reading other reviews, I’ve noticed both men and women find attachment to the film, though it’s a female-based story. How would you explain that?

IC: There are hot chicks in it. (laughs) I think because it’s about change. Crossing the line from youth into a new world of responsibility. Different generations happen at different times, but everyone has to experience that at some point.

SL: When I read it, and I’m not a mother, what registered to me was a coming-of-age. That strongly resonates. I also think sometimes men find the ‘otherness’ interesting, what’s not explored, to see the mommy stuff.

IC: I think people relate to the starving artist aspect as well. They reach a certain age and they aren’t exactly thriving in their artistic careers and they are not necessarily channeled into anything else that’s productive.

EH: Most of the intelligent men I know have those kinds of reactions. Then there’s men who say, ‘I saw your boob!’ But I think there is something intriguing about seeing something that’s not your world, and done pretty realistically.

I know you don’t have a distributor yet. What might be holding you back?

SL: There are the normal reasons, such as not having name talent. There isn’t a niche you can easily put it in. There are no quick log lines to describe it, saying, ‘This is what it’s about.’ People don’t know which angle to take on it. So we’ve been marketing ourselves, and I think we’ve come to some terms of dealing with it. But sometimes we don’t know if we should push the Mommy end or the Bohemian end. It will eventually sell itself on the strength of the film and the performances.

Do you feel it’s important for all the projects women take on to be worthy of respect?

IC: We were just talking about making a porno the other day. (laughs) It’s too difficult to make something important.

SL: That also wouldn’t be fair. That would be like being chauvinistic against ourselves. We should have the freedom to be as sucky as men, to not always be fighting a battle.

IC: It’s also important to have the freedom to do whatever you feel like doing. People have to do what they’re good at.

EH: It’s against women, this constant, ‘What are you trying to say?’ I’m trying to say what I feel like saying. I live in this world, I am a woman, and that’s something I was thinking about. It isn’t necessarily a political point to shove down your throat, but it’s still an important view because it’s coming from a person. Now I’m all angry!

It’s something I’ve been thinking about. Every time I read an article on an actress or director who is a woman, it’s imperative to strive for perfection if they’re working on a project.

EH: There’s this whole thing about image that takes over work, and it has nothing to do with anything. When they reach a certain level of notoriety, and they start saying, ‘I give to these charities. I’m rich and spoiled, but I’m doing good things.’ Now I’m really angry!

IC: It’s also another way to keep women down. I like the idea that there are women out there making comedies and action films.

SL: Again, too, it’s goes back to character. We should be able to create people who aren’t idealized. Parents have bad days. Just because it’s a woman’s film doesn’t mean it has to be on a certain agenda.

EH: We were talking about doing a movie that would sell. It would be all sex scenes linked by car chases. Two hours of sex-car-sex-car.

(laughter)

What is your favorite story from your production of MHH?

EH: The Little Susan story. We had to get a body double for Jonah, the doll looked exactly like Susan.

SL: That’s not Susan’s favorite story.

EH: So we called it Little Susan. And then we had to rip a hole in its head because the head was overstuffed.

IC: It was convincing.

SL: And I thought you were never going to find some doll at the Salvation Army…

IC: But I did, and I had to meet Susan on the subway platform. I came up the stairs carrying it like a baby. I threw it to her and everyone on the subway platform was scared.

Are you looking to do Hollywood, bigger budgets?

IC: I’d like to be in a position to eliminate worries, and pay people. But the reality is that you don’t necessarily have as much control.

So you wouldn’t want to go to Hollywood?

IC: I would go to Hollywood. But I’d want to have my Hollywood and eat it too.

SL: You want your make-believe Hollywood.

EH: If I could do the big projects without forgetting who I am, and what I want to say. I want money, but I want to be able to do things I like. I don’t want to be a whore.

SL: I do like the small world, but I want to make money. Most people consider an $8 million movie small, but to me that’s about as huge as I would want to go. That would be paying people, while staying with an intimate film. That’s what I’m more interested in.

You wouldn’t want to produce in a studio system.

SL: If it happened, if something was studio funded, I’m not going to turn down money. I would turn down money if it came to too many horrible things, but I’m not stupid. You want to work. You want to get th
e projects you do out there, but it still has to continue to be the work you want to do. It’s too tiring and exhausting to just be another job.

For more information about Margarita Happy Hour, check out the official site.

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