AWFJ Women On Film – Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini on “Tanner Hall” – Jennifer Merin interviews
Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini’s “Tanner Hall” is an engaging girls’ coming of age film independently made by two fledgling women directors who have, in producing their first feature, come of age as filmmakers. Von Furstenburg and Gregorini speak with Jennifer Merin about filmmaking, friendship and sex in school and on screen.
MERIN: This is your first feature, a distinctive coming of age film that revolves around a group of girls who are privileged but not happy. You wrote and directed the film together. Script pundits always advise novices to write about what they know. What gave rise to the idea for this story, and is it in any way autobiographical?
FRANCESCA GREGORINI: One of Tatianaʹs favorite games in the whole wide world is a game we call ʹComʹeroʹ which translated from Italian means ʹhow I was.ʹ It is played exactly as it sounds ‐ she will go on and on about some portion of her childhood life, embellishing at will, for the entertainment of others, but just as much for her own amusement. The person she plays this game with most is me. A few years back, I had just gotten into screenwriting and sold my first script to HBO. We were walking the dogs, playing a full round of ʹComʹeroʹ when it occurred to me that these stories she was going on about would make a great film. I told her we should write a film together, set in a boarding school and then she could really put some of her tales to good use. We left town that weekend and checked into a hotel, where we spent the whole time in bed (aka our office), hammering out the beginning of what would become Tanner Hall.
Naturally there are some autobiographical elements, combined with things weʹd witness in boarding school, and many other parts that we made up completely. You will certainly find characteristics of both of us in each of the 4 main girls and if you spend even a half hour with us, it will be very apparent to you, which girls are most like me and which ones are most like Tatiana. In truth, there is a part of Gio that I also relate to, my tremendous fear of being stuck in a situation and wanting to do ‘the right thing’, but somehow fucking it up even worse. Desire is an awesome opponent and loss of freedom, a terrifying concept.
TATIANA von FURSTENBERG: For me, I relate the most to the character of Kate. My sexuality during the time that I was in school was really more of an extension of play. I was ever seeking a cat and mouse game, and I was intoxicated by my power as a tease. It was thrilling, and more fun than I had ever known. Much like Kate, my antics led nowhere, but I’ll never know what wreckage I left behind. I also relate to the character of Hank, and the struggle between defining the love you have for a friend, and romantic love. I donʹt have that one figured out, yet. Still today, I fall in love with friends. Fernanda is an aspiration character for me. Because she is
reserved, and not attention seeking. I was always intrigued by people like that, and curious to
know what was behind their stillness.
GREGORINI: Both of us went to boarding school in England, me as a day student, Tatiana as a boarder, so we know that landscape well and it was the perfect setting in which to isolate these girls and really delve into their hearts, in this precarious, coming of age, time in their lives.
MERIN: How did you become filmmaking partners and, in working together, how did you collaborate and divide up the daily responsibilities of writing, in preparation, on set and in editing? Do you think each of you has your own particular strengths, and if so, what are they?
von FURSTENBERG: Francesca and I have been best friends since meeting in college. So, we navigated through the years of self‐discovery, adulthood and defining what our lives would be together. We have always collaborated on one anotherʹs projects, and life. Writing together gave a purpose to all of the time that we wanted to be spending with one another.
GREGORINI: Before making Tanner Hall, we traveled a great deal together and had made several shorts, in Venice, Austria and Portugal. These shorts I shot on Super 8 and Tatiana would act in them, along with whatever friends happened to be on our trip and whatever locals we could cajole into participating. Tatiana and I, often inspired by the locale, would come up with the characters and the story and then allow for improvisation from there. It was loose and fun and a really magical time in our lives. This was our beginning point as film makers.
We wrote the first draft of Tanner Hall together, literally lying or sitting, side by side, in Tatianaʹs bed for months. It was fun and exciting but an often grueling process, as we are both very passionate about our vision and choice of words. This was remedied, quite successfully, by then taking separate passes at scenes and then switching computers and rewriting each other, until we agreed that we were done….ʺfor now”
von FURSTENBERG: As for directing together, we are lucky to have different skills and interests, but also to be able to communicate in a well-versed short-hand that included a lot of Italian. Pre‐production utilized my strengths as a director, whereas shooting relied on Francescaʹs active engagement with the camera and her tenacious push for interesting, and hard to accomplish, shots. Locations, casting, costumes and set design — those are the departments that I really enjoyed directing. And, those are the departments that deliver largely during pre-production. I loved making the decisions about each character — what they would wear, how each girl would set up their dorm room, the feeling of the school through the furniture, locations and color palette. We walked through the blocking of the movie during tech scout, and had very different experiences. I acted out every scene. Inhabiting the beats of the movie was very helpful in preparing for production. Francesca, whose visual sense is much more related to the camera, utilized the same Tech Scout to envision shots.
GREGORINI: Casting and location scouting was really fun and extremely satisfying, but being on set was by far my favorite part of this process. I love working with actors. I love telling story through pictures. Finding the right way to frame a shot. I love the whole collaborative process. The set experience was amazing for Tatiana and I, because there was less overlap and we each gravitated towards our own personal strengths. We are both very visual people, but interested in different aspects of what ends up on screen. Tatiana was more involved with the production design and costume departments and I was more involved with the cinematography department (headed by Brian Rigney Hubbard), so we both got to express our vision, on the look of the film, but came at it from different sides of the lens. With regards to the actors, we were equally involved. Before rolling, we would set up the scene together, then I tended to stay on set, close to the camera and Tatiana mostly watched from video village. But we conferred with each other constantly and the beauty of film is that you can take several takes, so if one of us wasnʹt happy with a particular performance, that person would make the adjustment and we would just…
von FURSTENBERG: We established something then, that we used successfully throughout the filming and cutting of the film. It is very simple; turn the decision over to whoever feels more passionately about.
GREGORINI: I know this may not sound like a very effective method, but it really worked for us, ninety nine percent of the time. Editing was a completely different story. No one adequately prepares you for the infinity that is editing. It was like a giant, living, breathing jigsaw puzzle. There is something extremely satisfying about finding the right takes, the right shots to make a scene work and then switching around the order of scenes, to maximize the story. It was also our last chance to rewrite the film in pictures.
MERIN: The location you use for Tanner Hall is lovely and becomes a sort of inanimate character unto its self. How did you find this spot and arrange to use it? Is it a special place for you in real life?
von FURSTENBERG: Francesca and I met in Providence, Rhode Island when we were at Brown University. I was very significant to both of us that we were back in the place where we began our friendship, making something enormous together. Julie Snyder is from Rhode Island, and through her we connected to locations that were far from the Brown University campus.
GREGORINI: We thought it would be fun and fitting to go back and shoot our film, where friendship plays a major role, in the place where our longstanding friendship began. It was also helpful that our producer, Julie Snyder, was from Providence, currently living in Rhodes Island and active in the film industry there. From there she secured the crucial first piece of our financing and greatly facilitated getting us any location that our hearts desired. Everyone we met, while in preproduction and shooting, was very welcoming and obliging.
von FURSTENBERG: Tanner Hall is set in a world that is deliberately timeless. The intent behind doing this was to tell a story that could happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. To accomplish this sense of being suspended in time, we included furniture, architecture, music and clothing from five decades.
There is no technology, no trends. The haircuts are deliberately neutral, and the titles were designed by a letterpress printer. Drive through the woods with our protagonist, and you end up in the world of the story. A story that is as timeless as a Folk Tale. There is another Folkloric aspect of the movie, the Middlewoodʹs are exaggerated characters a la ʺoral historyʺ (boarding school legends, village legends, family legends — insulated worlds have legendary characters) We had a real window of opportunity to make this movie. The actual school is composed of three locations — a menʹs club in Pawtucket is the dorm rooms, Carey Hall in Newport for the Majestic exteriors and stunning stairs and foyer and all of the academic rooms and the shower stalls are at Nathan Bishop middle school in Providence. We scouted Blackstone Valley (for our town) and Newport for the exterior of Tanner Hall and the staircase and foyer.
GREGORINI: We give much of the credit to our amazing production designer, Ray Kluga, for making these three disparate locations flow seamlessly as one, on screen.
MERIN: Tanner Hall, the private school attended by these privileged girls, is shown as a lifestyle training ground as much as a place of academic learning — in fact, thereʹs little focus on classes, homework or career choices. What are these girls most concerned about? What do they think the future holds for them?
von FURSTENBERG: When I remember being away in the foggy English countryside in an old castle with 200 other high school girls, memories of the matron (dorm mother) filling hot water bottles at night to keep our beds warm because the wards were bitter cold, or the drama between girls living together in the wards or expulsions, secret boyfriends sneaking into the school through the window, or romantic friendships ʺcrushesʺ between the girls. Culturally and academically my years there were significant, but the learning soaks in unconsciously. Boarding school becomes home, and the friends you stay warm with at night or who witness you in your rawest hours as you discover pleasure, shame, anger, freedom, injustice, devotion, betrayal become your family.
Therefore, I have always thought of the story of these four girls who live together in a boarding
school as a family drama, It was intentional that to schoolwork, classes and career choices were secondary to the story this was about four friends emerging as human beings.
GREGORINI: Exactly ‐ Itʹs about coming of age and friendship, budding sexuality and the innocent choices that you make that ultimately shape who you will become as a person. The humanity of it all, the loss of innocence, the price you pay for the knowledge you gain, the secrets you keep, the friends you betray. As Tatiana said, this is really more of a family drama, set in a school rather than a straight up school drama. I think what these girls are going through and what they are most concerned about is very universal in theme. They want to belong, they want to feel loved, they want to find themselves and have as much fun possible in the process.
von FURSTENBERG: There will never be enough rules, or locks, to keep the powerful and natural force of ʺcoming of ageʺ from happening. Male attention, sexuality, companionship, love and growing up independent of family cannot be contained. Adolescence is untamable. Emerging as your own person is awkward, uncomfortable and calls upon courage. Being in situations that you are not mature enough to process, but discovering your own limits and your own pace. Pushing through the boundaries of childhood, and busting into adulthood happens in families and it happens in boarding school.
MERIN: The film, as with most coming of age films, thereʹs a strong current of sensuality carried forth by all of the characters. The atmosphere is hugely hormonal, yet there is, by comparison with many other coming of age films, relatively little overt sexual activity — at least not on camera. In writing the script, did you contain the girlsʹ behavior in order to heighten filmʹs ambient sexual tension? Each girl has her own curiosity about sex and her unique way of expressing it…how did that roster of postures develop during the writing of the script? And, did it change after casting and while filming?
GREGORINI: Sexual activity, in and of itself, on film, is ultimately not that riveting. Itʹs the getting there and the consequences after, that really hold the drama and the tension.
von FURSTENBERG: Exactly . The enormity of feelings is what resonates when you think about sexuality in adolescence. The emotion is so much more significant than the actual act.
GREGORINI: Once we came up with the characters and they lived in our hearts and our heads, they pretty much dictated where they wanted to go, what they wanted to do, sexually and otherwise. As far as the casting goes, we spent a lot of time finding the perfect girls. We couldnʹt be happier with their performances and what each of them brought to their characters.
MERIN: Do you have a favorite scene in the film?
GREGORINI: Hard question. Dramatically, I love the mother/daughter scene in the church kitchen because it captured such a fragile moment, when Fern has matured just enough to own her truth and express it. She lays out, not defensively, not pleading, not even trying to explain herself, she just lays it out as it is and expects it to be enough and it is, because that is the power of truth. Visually, I love the dance sequence, Mr. Middlewood’s fantasy rain sequence, the basement hook up scene, the ʹRomeo and Julietʹ through the broken pane of glass scene.
von FURSTENBERG: My favorite is Gio and Fernʹs love scene in the basement. It is sweet, climactic and we deliberately directed it so that Fern not only makes the first move, but initiates every step forward in their love scene and always gives her okay. This was important so that Gio is not perceived as a predator. This relationship is mutual and begins as a sincere friendship, but the physical and emotional attraction is undeniable, and they both submit to this truth. I think this scene reflects that. I also think that the way it was shot over the bottles of soda is very delicate and poetic.
MERIN: What do you want audiences — people who are like the characters in the film, and those who are not — to learn from the film and/or to feel as a result of having seen it? What, other than the pure satisfaction of seeing it produced and finally projected on the big screen, will convince you beyond any doubt that youʹve been successful in your first feature?
von FURSTENBERG: If we made a movie that is artful, and poetic and lyrical and resonates as true, then it has exceeded the margins of our imagination. We were fortunate enough to be raised at a time when there were wonderful movies telling of the complexity of adolescence– Endless Love, Little Darlings. These movies never dipped into boiler-plate morality lessons and never condescended to present stereotypical ʺteenʺ characters. Adolescence is very complex, and the intensity of navigating through uncharted waters of life and love and friendship is not simple. I feel very maternal towards these characters, and honor the heightened and critical time of adolescence as a terrifying and beautiful part of the human experience.
GREGORINI: On the surface level, the film is a voyeuristic peek into the private world of an all girls boarding school, but ultimately goes beyond that to what really binds us all; the awkward, sometimes thrilling, sometimes painful, human experience of growing up.
In terms of what the audience feels, as any filmmaker, I hope that they fall into the world that has been created for them on the screen, that they identify with and care about the characters and that they allow themselves to go on the ride.
We love this film and feel very indebted to all the talented people who so generously lent their abilities and time. And we will continue to support it, in anyway we can so that as many people as possible can see it.
MERIN: Will your partnership continue and, if so, do you have any future projects in the works? What are they?
GREGORINI: Our ʹpartnershipʹ is really as life long friends. Working together, with the concentration of stress that writing/directing and producing puts on a friendship, was very scary at times, because no project, however fabulous and earth shattering it might be, is worth the price of our friendship.
Moving forward, I have nearly completed a feature film script that I will be looking to set up and direct. And Tatiana has just finished shooting a short that she will be cutting. So, we are both
happy and engaged in our work. We have something that is in the early stages of development now that we are looking to work together on.
von FURSTENBERG: Our partnership is for life.
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