The philosophy of improvising a film and life: Tori Titmas talks ‘The Girls of Summer’

“The Girls of Summer”, a delightful gem of a film, starring and written by Tori Titmas, directed by John Hancock. Speaking with Tori about her film, I felt like I had found my long lost friend. She is so in tune with life, and like Bill Murray, has a zen quality to her, inspired by the art of improv. “The Girls of Summer” is about self-discovery and so much more. I was so happy to talk with Tori about her road to “The Girls of Summer” and so happy I can share her wisdom she’s gained along the way, useful for emerging filmmakers and people in general. Prepare to get your mind blown. You can follow Tori and her work at torititmas.com

REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?

TORI TITMAS: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.

MARTIN: Were there any film things you did growing up? Anything that you did that drew you into the industry?

TITMAS: Ever since I was little I loved to perform- my Mom would always ask me to stand on the mantle in my family  room. I shake my head at it now. The reason why I do what I do now is because my parents encouraged me. We’d have teachers over and I’d sing school bus blues. My mom’s so creative, and she would put me in costumes, I was Mona Lisa when I was in third grade, it was ridiculous. 

MARTIN: So you were like the painting?

TITMAS: Yes, and no one at that age knew what that was. My mom is an artist, and she just loved to do all of that stuff. 

MARTIN: That’s brilliant, I may steal that for my Halloween costume. Your mother was a strong influence on you? 

TITMAS: Definitely, her and her creative side. She would always take us to museums and shows, so I was always curious.

And for film, I always loved the idea of collaboration, I was point guard and always playing sports, so that idea of having a team. But I didn’t think I initially was going to do film and acting. Although I always had done comedy and stuff. But I always played sports. And it was so funny because sophomore year of high school I was all about trying to play Varsity, and I tore my ACL. The day that I did that I had the wrong jersey, and I’m always so superstitious about that. I usually would wear jersey number three, but I was wearing jersey number one. And if you look at numerology, number one is the devil. Isn’t that weird? 

MARTIN: That’s crazy. 

TITMAS: You’ve got to wonder. And then I attended the New York film academy that summer, from there I was hooked. I didn’t go to the school to act, because I knew I wanted to learn the other side. And then I hung out with a lot of the actors and the drama club. After college, one of my roommates was from Chicago, and she got to do Second City, and she said you’ve got to go try it. Shortly after that I moved to Chicago. I knew I wanted to do comedy, but I got in to the conservatory, and then pursued acting. I really wanted to do more serious work, at least get some training. I took a class at Black Box Acting, Green Shirt Studio, and I just dived in. Then the Harold Ramis Film School opened up and I caught wind that they needed actors. That’s when I started doing stage reading, I worked on certain projects with them. John Hancock was one of the teachers of the acting class. He approached me and asked if I’d want to help him with the scene in the class, with an exercise. He took me and some other people to do this pageant working with Rich Williams who is an improviser, and we did a pageant for the Three Oaks, Michigan bicentennial. 

Tori Titmas

MARTIN: What kind of pageant?

TITMAS: A historical pageant. I’m not kidding. I’ll have to show you footage, it’s amazing.

MARTIN: So wait, can you go into this a little more? Now I’m intrigued.

TITMAS: Yes, I played a tree, one of the oaks of the town. 

MARTIN: I bet that experience was so much fun.

TITMAS: It meant so much to this town, and I think it was also a blessing, being out of the city, it was nice to be in an environment that was more peaceful and community based. It’s important to have that space, you probably also feel this way, where you have to process and everything. You just really want to take it in. I get distracted very easily, because I want to observe, and watch, because I’m naturally nosey in that way. But it’s important to create a space for yourself. Don’t take it for granted. 

It meant so much to this town, and I think it was also a blessing, being out of the city, it was nice to be in an environment that was more peaceful and community based. It’s important to have that space, you probably also feel this way, where you have to process and everything. You just really want to take it in. I get distracted very easily, because I want to observe, and watch, because I’m naturally nosey in that way. But it’s important to create a space for yourself. Don’t take it for granted. 

MARTIN: What drew you to writing?

TITMAS: Like comedy, I just like to create. I like to see how things work and are put together. For me, it’s about the storyline, and creating those relationships- 

MARTIN: When I speak with women in film, I’m always fascinated by the process. What’s your favorite part of doing the writing, the creating, and seeing it come to life? Also your acting process, since you did both for “The Girls of Summer”.

TITMAS: For my process, I need to create that space. I take long walks. I think it’s Tzu who says, when you stand in the muddy waters, let it be still, be patient, and the mud settles, so you can work through it.

“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” 

Lao Tzu
Tori Titmas in “The Girls of Summer”

MARTIN: Great quote! Where did the story of “The Girls of Summer” come from?

TITMAS: During the process of making this film I learned a lot about myself. John Hancock, who directed “The Girls of Summer”, he and his wife are incredible and they are both artists. John is a teacher at Harold Ramis film school. He’s a filmmaker, she was a screenwriter, but they just loved art and creating. They became like grandparents to me. I looked up to them. They would share stories with me about the industry from back in the day. I just soaked it in. It was so special. He directed the Three Oaks pageant. After the pageant he wanted to do another picture. He’s getting older, and he said he wanted to do it now. He wanted me in it, and I was like yes, let’s do it. We tried to co-write it. We wanted to make it a comedy, and we’d meet up at Second City to write together. We had people at Second City in mind to be in the film. I just think that process, it’s harder in a sense. I know if I have an idea, I have to see it through. I don’t know if that necessarily is a good thing about me. It’s like an improv scene, where if it’s not organic, it doesn’t always work, you know?

MARTIN: That’s so important to let things organically come together. So how did it follow through from there?

TITMAS: We’d meet and we’d write, and the story worked, but it just wasn’t organic. It didn’t fall into place. At that point, we had things coming along with production. This was the beginning, like in October or November, and he wanted to start filming in June, July and August. So we’re in March and I’m like, ‘this isn’t going to work’. In April we had a chat, and he was like ‘Do you think you can do this? Do you think you’ve got this?’ And I said, ‘yes, I think I do’. We now had the confines of a location and a deadline, and I worked within that.

MARTIN: The locations you filmed at are beautiful by the way, with the lakes and the cornfields.

TITMAS: The midwest has so many hidden gems. At that time I liked to use the analogy that it was like we were in one of those chef shows. They give us the ingredients, now we make the best thing we can out of this thing. We also knew we had one of our main actors secured to play the Dad (Jeff Puckett).

Jeff Puckett in “The Girls of Summer”

MARTIN: He was great!

TITMAS: He was great! So I knew that John wanted a girl band, and everyone was on the same page as that. Now I had all of these elements, and I was like okay, I think I have the story. Looking back, some things just came out.

“The Girls of Summer”

MARTIN: The film seemed personal, in a good way.

TITMAS: It was and it wasn’t, you know? I don’t think I would have set out to write that story if I hadn’t had that experience. I probably would have written a comedy about three girls going on a road trip, like Europe or something. It was such a cool experience where I could say you gave me this and now I had to improvise with that, and I get to make it my own. There was just so much I learned through that. 

MARTIN: I love the film’s story because it’s not just one thing. It’s not just a comedy, it’s not just a romance, it’s really a film about self-discovery, at least that’s how I saw it. I love watching films where I feel the main character is just drawing me in through her moments of discovery. I’m sure it was therapeutic for you in a way, with you discovering the character, they are discovering as well. 

Tori Titmas in “The Girls of Summer’

TITMAS: Absolutely. Thank you for saying that. It’s funny because with writing the story there is a parallel that happens between real life and the story. There are no coincidences in that. My sister, who is in the movie, and the Dad, that experience of trying to hold a family together- like my Grandma plays the woman who dances with the main male lead, Nathan Hosner, who plays Luke. I wrote that scene because my Grandpa passed away and he and my grandmother would go to dances on cruise ships, and everywhere they went. We wanted Luke to be likeable, we wanted him to be like Bruce Springsteen where he pulls someone on stage. It was so cool to see the premise of wanting to pursue your dreams come to life. To me that was the crux of the film, along with self-discovery. How do you find a way to do your dream, and bring people with you? Pretty much a win/win scenario. Like beating the odds of your past. Looking back it’s hard to fully convey this feeling you have about someone or something. But I try to, when my character Maren says ‘when you move on from something, doesn’t mean you didn’t care about it’. You can still honor something by moving on, and not carrying it along with you. I realized I was doing that with something in my life, just the weight of that circumstance. A lot of the self-discovery was also just letting go.

MARTIN: I do love that because you can see the transformation of the character. And the character’s transformation I feel can connect with many different people on many different levels. 

Tori Titmas in “The Girls of Summer”

TITMAS: In the same vein, I don’t know how many films are made in the midwest. This film was made in the midwest and for the midwest. Obviously I’d want anyone to relate to this film and that would be such a joy. In this time period, where are world is, our country, it has lost its way a bit. And the heartland is forgotten to a degree in that. That’s apart of it too. Just this lifestyle, still having dreams. My main character never dreamt of being a huge star, it was more about doing what she loves, while also keeping true to herself, and her values, you know?

MARTIN: Yes.

TITMAS: I think that was the idea, I didn’t want it to be about fame or anything. To me, it was a love letter, in a way, to the midwest. 

MARTIN: Love that.

TITMAS: “The Girls of Summer” is also a good film to connect with women in the midwest, dream bigger you know, do what you love. 

MARTIN: In the film you work on a farm, you look like you know what you’re doing. Did you ever work on a farm?

TITMAS: No and thank you. Funny story, it was raining the day before the shoot, and I totally pulled my back. Not there fault, but they didn’t think to tell me that they are fifteen to twenty more pounds on hay when they are wet. So yeah –

MARTIN: Well you looked like you knew what you were doing. 

TITMAS: It was kind of fun. You get dirt on you and just go with it. 

One last thing about “The Girls of Summer”- I feel the best thing that ever happened to me is thinking that I didn’t know anything. Meaning, I obviously had confidence in my skills, and knew who I was, but it led to so many different doors. Learning how to move sod, learning all of these different things that I thought I’d not be interested in or wanted to know, just following my curiosity, allowing things to happen. 

MARTIN: I love that.

TITMAS: From there the film just progressed. It’s funny, the script is one movie, the film is another movie, even the post production is another movie. And seeing this evolve it’s so true. And I think having a mentor- which I never thought would be an older man and his wife, but you know that’s just how it happened. Just letting yourself say ‘yes and’, and that’s what I learned in improv. And not only did I learn this at Second City, but it actually led to something being made. 

MARTIN: What are your thoughts about the landscape of women in film. Do you see change? Thoughts?

TITMAS: I think we’re headed in the right direction. I think we’ve made a lot of improvements, just in terms of quality and diversity in casting, and I’m a hundred percent for that. I do worry about the stories that are being told through the mainstream media. I am a fan of Marvel, but I think because it’s become such a business framework, that we lose those narratives. We need a place where all people can come together to make films, help share each other’s stories, and collaborate. Will there be such a place where we can be lucrative and make a living and be encouraged? Because if there’s not a place, then those stories are silenced in a way. Because they don’t have a place to be shown.

Tori Titmas

I was listening to a podcast recently, and they said we have to have responsibility as filmmakers. We can’t just crank out content. We have to be thoughtful and intentional. I think that’s also part of it. Are we trying to make money, or are we trying to make an impact? I think you can make money, but at the same time, art is at the center, artists are the ones at the center that are pressing the dial forward. Also, the ones that carve a path. We want to watch these stories. We want to relate to these people. See ourselves represented. Feel that, what does that say about me? Even if it’s not directly saying anything. It’s indirectly saying that you are not apart of this. And then you start to lose your way. Like I said we are taking steps forward, but if there is a way to make cheaper films and still hold that value creating spaces, people will feel like they don’t need to come from a certain background. If you know how to tell a story, you can do this, you know?

I was listening to a podcast recently, and they said we have to have responsibility as filmmakers. We can’t just crank out content. We have to be thoughtful and intentional. I think that’s also part of it. Are we trying to make money, or are we trying to make an impact?

MARTIN: Yes, and there are just so many platforms. And you’re right, the part that could use a lot of help, is the money. Because the people who are giving the money out, those are the people that need to have more of an open mind, see the value in those stories that need to be told. I’m right there with you on that. Hopefully we’ll see some change there. There are some people out there, like Ava DuVernay, she seems to be the one backing a lot of different projects. We’ll see, but I think the conversation is good.

Final thoughts? For emerging female filmmakers?

Tori Titmas

TITMAS:  If you’re scared, you must do it. The fear is the indicator that this is your soul telling you you’re on the right path. The only way to grow is to face that fear, because it never really goes away. It just gets louder in different ways. It’ll work through your body, your body will do weird things. My mind, it will ruminate. Nothing is against you, it’s all for you. For your growth, in the next leveling up. I think the best beauty is trusting yourself. You may not know what to do in the immediate situation, but if you remain calm and clear, there’s no way that the right thing will pass you by, and you cannot make a mistake. There really is no such thing as a mistake. That’s the beautiful thing I realized making a film. I can be in control of myself, and if I can be as grounded as possible, then I can see what’s going on. The best thing you can do for yourself is to focus on yourself. And that’s true for life. And learning this as a filmmaker, it’s going to happen, it’s already in motion, you just have to trust. And not trying to micromanage or worry about every little thing, because life has a funny way of organically working out. 

“Tori has a visceral confidence that is just beautiful to watch. It’s not bravado, it’s what you get when talent takes action.”

Paula Goldberg, screenwriting and acting professor at SMU, Dallas Texas

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