Emily Lape, where do I start? Our relationship seems to be serendipitous. I was introduced to Emily by a filmmaker friend, Michael Glover Smith, who told me that Emily would be a great feature. I watched her film “Mercy’s Girl” and the vulnerability got to me, in a good way, and then I shared it with my partner Matt Fagerholm, assistant editor of rogerebert.com and writer on Indie-Outlook, who immediately gravitated to the film in a similar way. That relationship opened doors to many other relationships, along with Emily’s “Mercy’s Girl” costar Alison Hixon. For my interview, Emily walks me through her journey from actress to filmmaker. Read Matt Fagerholm’s interview with Emily Lape and Alison Hixon for another personal look here.
REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?
EMILY LAPE: I grew up all over the US. My dad was a pastor and my parents were a bit like hippies. I was homeschooled and I think I moved like sixteen or seventeen times before I left my parents’ house.
MARTIN: How did that work? Your dad would just move churches?
LAPE: A lot of it was occupational, he was a seed starter at churches, and we were missionaries while we were in Mexico. So, a lot of it had to do with his occupation, and circumstantial. I mean they had five kids. They were dirt poor. We were living on food stamps, basically.
MARTIN: You have four siblings? Wow. I’m sure that shaped you a bit with all of your moves.
LAPE: Totally. I could dive into the psychology that has manifested in my life. As a kid I really got interested in people’s stories. That was the beginning of my road into filmmaking.
MARTIN: Were you drawn to acting first? Were you a part of any theatre programs when you were a kid?
LAPE: Not really, I remember wanting to be, and asking to be, but they did not have the money, and also we moved a lot. I couldn’t get involved with a program because then they would move like six months later. But I wrote my own stories. And I had three younger brothers, so I kind of directed them in the stories. At that time I didn’t know women could be directors. I don’t think I did until I was in my early twenties.
And I had three younger brothers, so I kind of directed them in the stories. At that time I didn’t know women could be directors. I don’t think I did until I was in my early twenties.
MARTIN: I know, I could only count two female directors when I was growing up, Penny Marshall and Nora Ephron.
IVANA CHUBBUCK AND HOLLYWOOD
MARTIN: When you left home, did you go to study acting or did you just jump in to the industry?
LAPE: I moved to Los Angeles, and I wanted to study with Ivana Chubbuck, who I had read about in a book I found at the library.
MARTIN: Who is Ivana Chubbuck?
LAPE: An acting coach in Los Angeles, pretty famous, she’s been around for twenty years. She studied under Larry Moss, and has worked with Halle Berry and Beyonce. Halle Berry thanked her in her Oscar speech, so she’s really well known in LA and by actors. I studied under her for four or five years. I didn’t want to do any acting, I just wanted to learn, to learn the craft.
I studied under her for four or five years. I didn’t want to do any acting, I just wanted to learn, to learn the craft.
MARTIN: That’s such a good education.
LAPE: Yeah, she’s amazing, she became a mentor of mine, and I’m still close with her. She taught me everything about breaking down a story, understanding the character, and people’s motivations, why they do things.
MARTIN: Yeah, I could see that in your film, like all over your face. What specific takeaways did you take from the process in to your own acting?
LAPE: She literally breaks down everything. I feel like with acting there are some people who just have a natural ability. But she really makes you put the work in to it.
MARTIN: That’s awesome.
LAPE: There’s always something current, she doesn’t ask you to bring something up from your childhood, it’s always something current you pull from. Who’s the person you see a need, and who in your real life do you see that need coming from. Then you impose it on that person you are talking to in that scene. It’s really detailed, the book is amazing. Even my filmmaker friends who are not actors, I recommend this book to them.
MARTIN: What’s the name of the book?
LAPE: “The Power of the Actor.” It’s really about the psychology of humans.
MARTIN: Just watching your film, I could see you are very much in tune of the psychology of how people think. After you were done studying under Ivana, you started out as an actor, correct? How did that go working as an actor in Hollywood?
LAPE: It’s so crazy. It’s so hard to navigate. It’s all the luck of the draw. I got pretty lucky after auditioning for a year. I got in to a feature film that did really well, an indie feature film. It premiered at Toronto. It opened up some other doors for me.
MARTIN: What was the name of the film?
LAPE: The film was called “Gaia” (2009), directed by Jason Lehel. “Gaia” was his first feature, he was a cinematographer for forty years. Then he decided to make a film on his own.
It’s just a weird world to live in, in Hollywood, to act. I was there for seven years, and it definitely wasn’t for me.
MARTIN: Were there women out there that were supportive in your process?
LAPE: Oh yeah, absolutely. My agent was amazing. I always wanted to work with just women. Casting directors are almost always women, so you kind of bond with them, you build a relationship with them.
MARTIN: So you then decided to come to Chicago to do acting here?
LAPE: Yeah, I’d never been to Chicago, but I have siblings here.
MARTIN: That’s crazy! Watching “Mercy’s Girl,” I just assumed you were from here. I totally bought in to that.
LAPE: Yeah, I didn’t know anybody. I just moved here. I really, really struggled. I’m starting now to find my group. I think that’s so smart to find a group, to meet up and build a network. Because that’s the worst, especially trying to make a film with such a low budget, when you don’t know anybody. It’s literally almost impossible.
MARTIN: It’s not easy to do a movie. What was the drive to do the film? You wrote the script, right?
MARTIN: So you pretty much did everything. What called you in to doing that film?
LAPE: Part of the reason why I left Los Angeles was because I wanted to make my own work. I needed a break from the one industry town. So I was like great, I’ll go live in Chicago, take a break for a little bit, and then I’ll circle into filmmaking. I didn’t know anyone here, and I tried to reach out and hire a cinematographer, and a producer. It was almost impossible. It was 2015, there’s a lot of resources now, but then it wasn’t a lot. It was really tough. I had so many people come on to the project, and then flake out. And I didn’t have any good core people that I could really trust because I was new to the city and I didn’t know anybody.
MARTIN: “Mercy’s Girl” touched me. I recently started a new relationship, and it’s more serious than anything I’ve had before, and I felt the relationship between the two women, Mercy and Jesse, was so powerful, and I related it to my own. The film was so raw, and that’s what I’m seeing with a lot of Chicago films. I think those are the kind of films that we really need right now, because of all the other BS that’s going on. And just to have these real relationships, real connections transferred on-screen, connects to you in a deep way. These are the kind of films that I’m really excited about.
LAPE: Chicago is so ripe right now. And I talked to some of my other film friends, and some of them are thinking of moving, and I’m like no, it’s so ripe, it’s so hot right now. Four years ago when I was trying to make “Mercy’s Girl,” it was so hard. Now, I don’t know if it’s because I know more people, but it’s very ripe. It’s a great time to be a filmmaker.
Four years ago when I was trying to make “Mercy’s Girl,” it was so hard. Now, I don’t know if it’s because I know more people, but it’s very ripe. It’s a great time to be a filmmaker.
ACTING AND DIRECTING
MARTIN: What was the inspiration for “Mercy’s Girl”?
LAPE: Well I’ve been working on a couple different stories, I’m always writing. Always thinking about what story line to do. And honestly it came down to my budget. I knew I wanted to do something human centered, a personal portrait, and their journey, and their arc. I wanted to deal with sexuality and I wanted to deal with religion. And then it honestly just shifted throughout the process, and even the casting process. So after I wrote this script, it changed with the flow of what I could find as far as location and actors. Casting was really hard. I had no intention in acting in it, zero interest. That was a last minute decision.
MARTIN: I don’t think anyone else could have played Mercy.
LAPE: Thank you. Yeah, I would never do that again. I’ve retired from acting, that was the last time. I had no interest at all.
MARTIN: So directing?
LAPE: One hundred percent. Playing the role of Mercy was a last-minute decision. I was really struggling to cast, there was nudity, there was sexual violence, there’s a lesbian relationship. There was so much stacked against it, even though I was paying a day rate and me being a female director I thought I would get all of this talent, I couldn’t really get people in the door. So that was really frustrating. The people that I did, just didn’t have what I was looking for.
Playing the role of Mercy was a last-minute decision, I was really struggling to cast. there was nudity, there was sexual violence, there’s a lesbian relationship. There was so much stacked against it, even though I was paying a day rate and me being a female director I thought I would get all of this talent, I couldn’t really get people in the door.
MARTIN: Well that wasn’t reflected on-screen. I mean you nailed it with the cast.
LAPE: Yeah, I got so lucky, I started filling in the roles. I was screen testing a couple different actresses and I had casted Alison Hixon as Jesse. I cast her and I was like she’s perfect, and now I just need to cast the lead. I was thinking about switching and having Alison play Mercy, it would have just brought a different energy, because of who she is to the character to the film. And finally my sister was like why don’t you just do it. My sister is a filmmaker as well. We were a couple weeks away from starting shooting.
MARTIN: Really? Oh my god! That’s a lot to take on.
LAPE: So I was like we’ll do a one day test shoot and see. So I booked one day, I booked all the crew, booked the location, got extras. I was like, let’s try to see if I can do it. So I prepared as an actor, and I worked with the cinematographer, we set up the shots, and then rolled. And finally I was like okay this is going to be terrible, in far as all the work, but I think I can do this?
MARTIN: With your cinematographer, I really loved the shots. Especially with the subway scenes.
LAPE: I worked with Justin Howe, he came on first as sound. My original cinematographer, we had to part ways, which happens sometimes, early on. Then Justin was like I really want to do this. Like, give me an opportunity to do this.
MARTIN: Great job.
LAPE: He did a great job! We worked so well together, and he knows long one-takes, and cuts, so we shoot on location in one long tracking shot. We’d do it three or four times, and we’d pick the best one. He has a great eye, and he was willing to do anything, because we shot a lot of guerrilla style with a limited crew, and he could just roll with the punches.
REPRESENTATION ON-SCREEN AND BEHIND THE LENS
MARTIN: Now I wanted to dive in to the story a little more. I appreciated that you brought some of the issues of prejudice of same-sex relationships that still exist in our culture, even though it seems that we’ve moved beyond it. But it’s still there, the prejudice, just maybe not as represented on-screen as it used to be. The relationship between Mercy and her mother was a bit aggressive, and I love the reaction of the father, when Mercy came out to him. He was just like, “OK,” and just changed the subject, with no real acknowledgement.
LAPE: Yeah, a very dad way to respond. He was like right, and let’s just move on.
MARTIN: I appreciated the dynamics, because they were realistic. Being a female director, what were you trying to bring to the light the most with your female characters?
LAPE: Honestly I didn’t think about representation as much on-screen as behind the screen. My first crew was all female. And I ended up losing them, but my first round was female. That was my conscious decision to do that, and I think I’ll always do that, even for the next one. That’s what I’m going to strive for, even if the story is female centered or not, even it has to do with a relationship that doesn’t involve a man, or whatever, I think I will always consciously decide to have a female crew.
That’s what I’m going to strive for, even if the story is female centered or not, even it has to do with a relationship that doesn’t involve a man, or whatever, I think I will always consciously decide to have a female crew.
MARTIN: What kind of advice would you give a young female filmmaker starting out?
LAPE: I know it sounds so cliche, but just go and create something. Go grab whatever camera you have, even if it’s an old digital camera from ten years ago. Write down a short story, about something you’d want to see or a journey you’d want to work on. Invite your girlfriends or people in your life to help you. Go ahead and go there, and get your feet wet. You’re only going to learn and progress in the doing. I think a lot of people are waiting for people to hand out an opportunity. So don’t wait, create the opportunity.
You’re only going to learn and progress in the doing. I think a lot of people are waiting for people to hand out an opportunity. So don’t wait, create the opportunity.
With the distribution process I feel I could write a whole book on it. The advice I would give it’s okay to ask really dumb questions. The more questions you ask, the better. Have somebody look over the contract, even if it’s just family members, or somebody you know who may have a legal background.
LAPE: I think my next film project is going to be this story I wrote about grief. It’s so fascinating, I recently experienced it for the first time in my life last year. And it changed me in so many profound ways. It changed the people in my life in so many profound ways. And I don’t think there is enough films out there about grief. I mean it was so strange, I had to search for a community of people that were also dealing with grief, because I felt so alone. The film is about a man who loses his wife, and his process of healing to becoming friends with this young immigrant family.
LAPE: I would say anybody who has not made their first feature film, and is struggling, because they don’t know anyone in the community, like when I did, when I made mine, I would say really vet out the people you decide to work with. Ask the cinematographer, what exactly did you do in that shot? Watch the reel. Really ask detailed questions, just because you don’t really know what you’re getting into, unless you do that.