Hilary Brougher chats with Jennifer Merin re “Stephanie Daley”

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In writing and directing “Stephanie Daley,” New York-based filmmaker Hilary Brougher embarked on a personal search for meaning in filmmaking that somewhat parallels the fictional journey taken by her film’s lead characters, a teenager (Amber Tamblyn) who’s hidden pregnancy culminates in the infant’s death, and a forensic (and coincidentally pregnant) psychologist (Tilda Swinton) who’s hired to evaluate the teenager for possible prosecution.

“After I finished my first feature, “Sticky Fingers of Time“ (1997), I was feeling a little lost in world of filmmaking– I just didn‘t know what kind of movies I should and could be making.” says Brougher. “I just decided to challenge myself to write in a way that was more personal, more character-driven, and in a way that pushed some of my own boundaries.”

MERIN: How specifically did you alter your style?

BROUGHER: ”Sticky Fingers” was more playful– it was storytelling with a lot of packaging form-wise. “Stephanie Daley” has more raw emotion, and it’s right on the surface. The story is much more straight forward, and comprised of everyday elements– like someone driving to work or eating breakfast. It was a real leap for me to say I think I can make a real drama out of the subtle stuff of life.

MERIN: Teenage pregnancy and infanticide are quite topical now. Was the story a personal one, or did you get it from the news?

BROUGHER: No. The script began with my fascination with the idea that people lead secret lives– or keep aspects of their lives secret from those they‘re close to. The story of a teenager’s hidden pregnancy grew out of that.

After I’d started writing it, I began noticing items in the news. And, people started to tell me about their unexpected and hidden pregnancies– not all of which ended tragically. My research indicated this sort of thing happens often– and it doesn’t always make the headlines.

The subject wouldn’t let go of me. I realized that news stories just present the facts, but they don’t delve into emotional realities and subtleties of situations. That‘s what I wanted to do. What happens to Stephanie is the sum of many missed opportunities of communication. I wanted to explore how and why that happened, and how, when she starts talking to her mom and to the psychologist, it‘s transformative in all their lives.

MERIN: This is a subject that people usually have strong opinions about, yet you’re non-judgmental in your telling of the story. What do you want audiences to bring away from the film?

BROUGHER: If there’s a message in the film, it boils down to the issue of personal control and communication. I think both characters choose not to communicate their concerns to the people they love, because they’re trying to protect them, and they’re both deeply afraid of not being able to control their path on a fundamental level. And you’re reminded of that in pregnancy because you can do everything right and you’re still in the big lottery of biological chance. And I think they reach a place of real bravery at the end.

I’d like audiences to think about what happens to a women during pregnancy, rather than just the results. There are a lot of films about what happens when a baby is brought home, but “Stephanie Daley” is about the window of time during pregnancy, when a woman questions her own identity and her relationship to the world. She has to let go of the sense that she’s in control of her destiny. That’s what both characterst– each in her own way– experience and can, with each other, explore. Ultimately, they help each other to achieve self-acceptance and realization.

This wasn’t my personal story, but still, it wasn’t easy territory for me to navigate. I actually would try to talk myself out of it, but I‘d get curious again and come back. I really wanted to work it through. And, it seemed worthwhile to struggle through it.

MERIN: You developed the script at Sundance Institute. Why did you go there and how did it help?

BROUGHER: “Stephanie Daley” was the fourth script I’d submitted to the Sundance Labs. I was amazed they accepted it. They’d given me some technical support on “Sticky Fingers.” With “Stephanie Daley,” I really needed help getting through the anxieties I felt about writing differently, outside my comfort zone. It was a great place to get all that into the open. You can really try things there, take risks. It’s not like on an actual shoot, where you’re spending zillions of dollars and there’s huge pressure. So, it’s a place where you can grow a lot as a writer and director.

MERIN: Why’d they take this script, not the others?

BROUGHER: I think this was a more honest script. And, just as I was compelled by it, they were compelled by it. It’s a funny thing: I’ve tried to sell out a number of times, and it never seems to work. I can only get the films that are really tough and keep waking me up at night made. And, I assume that’s what happened there. And one of the reasons this movies is always going to be something I’m incredibly happy and grateful and proud of– not just proud of the work, but also about how we did the work– and the number of guardian angels who came on to help get it done. I was a great effort.

MERIN: You seem to regard making “Stephanie Daley” as personally theraputic. How has it changed you?

BROUGHER: Well, I’m very cautious by nature, and I realized filmmaking is all about taking leaps of faith. When a cautious person takes a leap of faith, something transformational happens. That’s what happened here. I think I’ve reached a point of being able to communicate more truthfully. That’s what I care about, and that’s what I want the film to do for audiences. I don’t care if they like the film, or agree with it– but I do hope they’ll really talk to each other about it– and other things that are important to them– as a result of seeing it.

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