Filmmaker Alice Foulcher on Collaboration, Multitasking, Fame and THAT’S NOT ME — Interview by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Exclusive)

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alice foulcher white shirtThat’s Not Me, the Australian independent comedy that premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and won audiences awards at both the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival, was made with an extraordinarily low budget of $45,000 by filmmakers Gregory Erdstein and Alice Foulcher. Receiving rave reviews from The Guardian and Time Out, the self-funded comedy seems to exemplify a trend in Australian cinema, where creatives are finding alternate ways of making movies outside the orthodox framework of notoriously genre-shy formal, institutionalized funding bodies. The local and international acclaim for Foulcher and Erdstein’s breakout film promises the creative couple a bright future, and Foulcher here takes time to discuss the background of That’s Not Me, her feelings about the film industry in Australia, collaboration, fame and future work. Continue reading…

Foulcher and Erdstein met at the esteemed Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, the same east coast Australian city where the film is set. The creative team, who are also husband and wife, co-wrote the screenplay. Erdstein directed the film, while Foulcher starred in it as identical twins, Amy and Polly, both of whom aspire to become famous actors. However, as Amy’s star soars across big screen and little, Polly gets stuck working the ticket desk at a local cinema. Desperate to make it on her own, Polly seeks success in Los Angeles, where her hilarious, awkward and at times genuinely moving story unfolds. Ultimately she finds that professional success might not be the only avenue that can provide her with a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

That’s Not Me will be released in the United States via The Orchard from February 13.

ALEXANDRA HELLER-NICHOLAS: From the outset, I’d like to ask you about the collaborative process: so much of not just cinema culture but the artistic imagination is about the singular (often male) visionary, the way that you and Gregory work together really seems to challenge that.

ALICE FOULCHER: For me, filmmaking really is a collaborative process. I know it works for a lot of people, but I don’t personally buy into the singular “auteur” vision. You’re not a poet writing a poem through one set of eyes, one voice. There’s so many creative elements involved in filmmaking, and there’s so much to gain in giving people creative license over their department. Someone on a panel we were on said as a director that their job was to make sure everyone is making the same film – which I think is a beautiful way of putting it.

alice foulcher with gregIn terms of how Greg and I operate – I think we each bring a different sensibility to our writing, that seems to work for us. Before we started collaborating Greg was making Lynchian surreal, dark comedies, and I was making heartfelt dramas. So together – he brings a kind of realistic cynicism, but I bring a warmth and sincerity. Given we’re also in a relationship outside of filmmaking, we have a very easy and straightforward shorthand with each other. So whether we’re writing or working together on set, we don’t have to worry about upsetting the other person with honesty. We trust each other. If something’s not working for one of us, then it’s just not working.

I don’t think our work has an exclusively male or female vision. That’s probably a product of each of our voices and experiences making their way into the script. But it was really important to me that Polly didn’t feel like a woman through a man’s eyes. It’s funny, when we did a test screening of the film we found that men responded very differently to her to women. A lot of men were far more critical of her behaviour. Women were generally more open to accepting her with her flaws, as a kind of “beautiful mess”. I’m probably generalizing – but it does feel like men are often more willing to put themselves in the complex, flawed shoes of male characters like Ben Stiller in Greenberg or Paul Giamatti in Sideways, but still find it hard to relate to the female equivalent characters. But I think that’s changing… slowly, but surely.

HELLER-NICHOLAS: I’m fascinated with how this collaborative aspect of the film in some ways manifests on screen in That’s Not Me in terms of having one single ambition or goal – fame – yet two, identical women who are negotiating it. Where did the inspiration to structure the story around twins come from?

alice foulcher that's not me movie posterFOULCHER: That’s a really funny way of putting it! I like it! The inspiration for the twin idea came from attending a film festival several years ago. We were discussing an actor afterwards, and Greg said “are you sure it’s not their twin?” – because I’d completely forgotten they had a twin. And sure enough – it was the twin. As a film, we loved the idea of using twins to explore a heightened idea of competiveness and the way we compare ourselves to others. We all do it. Whether it’s someone you went to school or university with, worked with, whatever – we all track our life’s progress against others. Who gets married first, who has kids first etc. And as the Sunscreen song says: “Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and in the ends – it’s only with yourself”. I often come back to that song a lot for life advice.

We also wanted to specifically focus the story on the less “successful” twin. Enough films are made about people who follow their dreams and “make it” in the end. But life doesn’t always work like that. There’s so much focus on the end goal and a satisfying conclusion, that we forget to enjoy the process. Polly is so obsessed with the idea of being an actor, that she hasn’t stopped to ask herself if she even enjoys doing it. I’m aware of how pretty ironic it’ll be if this is the only film I ever make/act in – my lone statement on failing at a career in the industry. I hope it’s not!!

At one stage of writing we actually didn’t see Amy at all – but it felt like we were hiding from that conflict entirely. There’s a lot of anticipation about meeting Amy throughout the film, so I felt we really had to give that to the audience.

HELLER-NICHOLAS: What is your own impression of ‘fame’ and was this something that you and Gregory consciously sought to tackle in the film?

FOULCHER: There is certainly a connection between success and fame. I struggle with the fame side of things, personally. Fame isn’t my end game. I want to keep making films, and get paid to do it. But fame, or getting more of a profile, seems to be unavoidable to a certain degree. If you want to achieve a certain level of success and continue working. So it’s understandable to conflate the two.

When it comes to Polly and Amy and their dreams/ambitions – I think it’s really important to be kind to your characters. My favourite script advice, ever, comes from Sam Simon (of The Simpsons): story above all else, love your characters and don’t be scared of the quiet moments. It’s such a great mantra for scriptwriting.

alice fooulcher as polly

It’s funny – even though Greg and I have shared so much of this experience, it’s still my face on screen and I sometimes forget that. I don’t mind people coming up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed the film – that’s really lovely (and doesn’t happen all that often anyway!). What I don’t love is when people think I can somehow give them a silver bullet to achieving their own dreams. I’m happy to give people advice, but I can’t do the work for them.

HELLER-NICHOLAS: One of the things I love the most about the film is that it’s aggressively not a romantic comedy…

FOULCHER: We very consciously didn’t want to make a film where any kind of resolution came from romantic love. At both the script stage and test screening we got feedback from more than one person suggesting Polly should end up with Jack (Rick Davies). That would’ve been such a betrayal of what we were trying to do. Polly’s sense of worth and place in this world couldn’t come from a man. It is absolutely about a kind of self-love, and discovery of oneself. The very last line of the film is Polly on the phone to Ariel, and she simply says “Hey Ariel. It’s me.” That’s Not Me is about discovering who you are and what you’re not – it’s not a film about romance.

HELLER-NICHOLAS: What other texts were you guys were riffing on, whether consciously or, in retrospect, unconsciously?

FOULCHER: We absolutely don’t create in a vacuum. I’m inspired by so many brilliant writers/creators. I’m a big Greta Gerwig fan. I’m dying to see Lady Bird when it comes out in Australia (on my birthday!). I remember seeing Frances Ha at the cinema and thinking I’d never seen female friendships represented that way on screen – the way they change in your twenties. The lights came up and I just burst into tears. It’s so real. I think Frances Ha was a big inspiration for That’s Not Me. I also love Noah Baumbach in general – particularly The Squid and the Whale. I’m also very inspired by a lot of the usual suspects – Tina Fey, Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West and The Little Hours are two of my favourite films of 2017), Lena Dunham (whatever you think of her, Girls was a game-changer), Amy Schumer, Amy Poehler. They’re incredible women and creatives. The Comeback, co-created by and starring Lisa Kudrow, is another inspiration – it’s absolutely brilliant and totally underrated. It’s a warts-and-all look at ageing as a woman in Hollywood and subsequent flailing careers. It’s wet-your-pants hilarious, heart-wrenching and easily as good as Curb Your Enthusiasm (which could be seen as the male counterpart – dealing with very similar territory).

Also, as per Polly, my all-time, favourite film is It’s a Wonderful Life. I see it every year around Christmas on the big screen at the Astor (where we filmed the cinema scenes for That’s Not Me). I think all my films come back to the core message of that film: that we are loved, and that we matter. Or as Samwise Gamgee puts it: “That there’s some good in this world Mr Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.” I’m also big Lord of the Rings fan!

HELLER-NICHOLAS: I was so struck by how different you made Polly and Amy in your performance, just though gesture, expression and tone of voice. Do you think of yourself as a ‘writer’, ‘actor’, or are both linked in a more organic way?

FOULCHER: To be honest, I was really nervous about the “twin acting” aspect. I did a lot of prep. I worked with a brilliant drama coach (Kate Ellis), and really importantly – we had two different actors (Emily Thomas and Erica Field) acting opposite me on the day as both Polly and Amy. They were brilliant. They came to rehearsals, learnt all the lines, and gave me the most beautiful performances to act opposite to on the day. Knowing full well they’d end up on the cutting room floor. It was a selfless gift, and helped me enormously. I also found costume and posture really helpful in delineating the two. Polly has the weight of the world and her own failed expectations on her shoulders, whereas there is a lightness and confidence to Amy. It was actually a whole lot of fun to play Amy after being in Polly’s sad-sack shoes for so long! Poor Polly. I do so love her.

alice foulcher toilet

In terms of whether I consider myself an actor or a writer – I’m both. I love performing, I love writing. I think it’s all connected, and don’t feel the need to label myself as predominantly more one than the other. They activate and energise different parts of me. I’ve also discovered I enjoy producing! Tina Fey is a great role model in that way – she’s not predominantly one thing over another, and you really don’t have to be. I think there’s never been a better time to be a female creative. I’ve never felt more empowered.

HELLER-NICHOLAS: As Australian filmmakers, do you feel much pressure about the need to succeed in Hollywood to ‘make it’ as an Australian creative? I love how the film consciously tackles precisely this from within.

FOULCHER: There is an expectation that Hollywood is the end goal, absolutely. It’s not necessarily mine. Look, I certainly wouldn’t turn down work opportunities if they arose in LA. There’s a lot of terrific work happening over there and in a perfect world I’d love to work with those creatives. But I’d love to be able to continue to create here in Australia – where I’ve already got a life, family, friends, working relationships. I love home. Hollywood is very foreign to me at this point. I haven’t spent much time there. Maybe that will change in the future.

HELLER-NICHOLAS: There’s a particular sexual encounter Polly has that will haunt me as long as I live with an arrogant, awful man called Oliver (Rowan Davie) – it was almost just too real. Was this inspired by anyone in particular, or a specific incident?

FOULCHER: A lot of people have asked this! The thing I love about Oliver is that everybody does know that guy. We were at the New Zealand International Film Festival and an audience member was convinced they knew who he was based on – and it was some guy in Wellington. So whether or not he’s based on a specific person is really not important at the end of the day. But for the record – the persons and events in this film are fictitious. Any similarity to actual persons and events is unintentional. But yes, of course I’ve drawn on some personal experiences. I’ve been on a lot of bad dates… before I met Greggles, obviously!

HELLER-NICHOLAS: An all-female remake of Jaws is mentioned in passing in the film, and is a stroke of genius. Aside from Isabel Lucas (of course), if you and Gregory were given an open check to make this happen, who would you cast?

FOULCHER: Ooh yes! Great question! Ok, my remake would be Australian (which makes sense, shark-wise doesn’t it?). I’m in, obviously. But I’d be casting Ming-Zhu Hii (she plays the director in the audition scene in That’s Not Me) as Brody – she’s fierce, and one of my favourite actors. Isabel Lucas (who plays Polly’s friend in That’s Not Me) and I can battle it out over Quint and Hooper. Look the more I think about this, the more it’s a genius idea. Somebody fund this please.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Also of interest, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’ full review of That’s Not Me.

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