Filmmaker Susan Walter on Preparation, Friendship and ALL I WISH — Nell Minow interviews

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susan walterSusan Walter wrote and directed All I Wish, a romantic comedy that takes place on the same day each year, the birthday of Senna (Sharon Stone). Over seven years, we see the ups and downs of Senna’s relationship with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) and sometime boyfriend (Tony Goldwyn) and her sustaining friendships. After graduating from Harvard, she learning filmmaking from the ground up in the DGA Assistant Directors Training Program. She’s worked on television (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Melrose Place, Cheers, Caroline in the City) and movies (House Arrest, Alien: Resurrection). All I Wish is her first feature. Here, she talks changing her script to give the lead role to the actress she’d originally wanted to play the mother, and about what she learned as a talent producer who walked actors to and from set for seven years. Continue reading…

NELL MINOW: Is it true that the original script was about a much a younger main character and that it was your star who persuaded you to change that?

SUSAN WALTER: It absolutely was. I had written the script and submitted it to an actress in her early thirties to play the role of Senna because the movie spans seven years so the character went from late twenties to early thirties. We were looking for someone to play the mother. They submitted the film to Sharon Stone and she really responded to it and then that other actress got pulled into another commitment and the movie kind of fell apart. It was several months later and I was home alone (my kids were at a birthday party) and the phone rang and she said, “I keep thinking about this script of yours that I read several months back and I know you wanted me to play the mom but I should play the lead because what is interesting about a woman in her 20′s trying to find themselves? It’s much more interesting to ask what if you don’t know who you are when you are 50?” She said to me something super interesting. “If this maybe had Bill Murray or Adam Sandler as the lead and it was sort of a Peter Pan syndrome, we’ve seen that movie, we understand that movie, that movie is being done. Take a chance; make the Peter Pan syndrome about a woman, this is something we’ve never seen.” I felt that was super exciting. There’s a scene in the movie where she plays beach volleyball in a string bikini, so I asked her “So what do you want instead of beach volleyball — I can’t put you in a string bikini” and she was like “Why the hell not; have you seen me in a bikini?” I was so embarrassed and I’m so glad that she just pushed back on that right away and I did not change a thing. All of those set pieces that I had written for a 25-year-old she does, she does with enthusiasm and you saw the movie; she is totally believable and vibrant and beautiful.

Sharon Stone in All I Wish

Sharon Stone in All I Wish

MINOW: Vibrant is exactly the word. We do not get enough of a chance to see her gift for comedy.

WALTER: Yes we haven’t seen it for a long time and she was really excited to be funny again. Again, this is my own prejudice — I’m also a woman of a certain age, I’m well over 40 now and I was nervous to have her do things like drink too much and bump into a wall but she wanted to take every comedy beat that I’d written just one step bigger and one step further. So I had her drink a little too much and stumble and she was like “No I’m going to bump into the wall, I’m going to fall down and then when I get to my bedroom not only am I going to fall on the bed I’m going to roll out of it and hit the floor” and I was like “okay.” I had my stunt coordinator on speed dial because I never knew what she was going to come up with and I’m like, “Todd you need to get here right now because she started talking about doing all these falls and I need bags.” So he would come over and sort of be like, “It is okay, I’ll make her safe,” and she just went for it; she just had a really big appetite to be physically funny.

MINOW: While this is your first film as a director, you had an opportunity to work with so many different directors and on so many different productions. What did you learn along the way that really helped you on this film?

WALTER: I worked as a second AD for about 7 years, and the second AD is the first person on the set. You greet the actors when they come to work in the morning, you are sort of checking in on them when they’re in hair and makeup and then you walk them to the set and they do their work and then you walk them back to their trailers. I tell you that’s the most valuable time because that’s when you hear what the actors are upset about or muttering about or so grateful for what the directors did for them and you see the ways in which they are supported. You also learn that that time that they have away from the set where they are getting ready is really critical to their preparation and to come in to set ready to work. So I think as a second AD you spend a lot of time off the set, you spend a lot of time at the trailers and with the actors and talking to them before and after and I just sort of absorbed all of those things. There were directors who didn’t listen and then actors get really mad that they prepared something and the director didn’t even listen or that the director talked too much or there were times when the director was just super supportive and let them play and they were very happy about that or that the director left them alone like the director saw that they weren’t ready and wasn’t in a rush. Sharon was one of those actors who when she came to the set she didn’t want to run lines. She didn’t really want to rehearse, she just kind of needed to talk and settle in and talk about her weekend and about her kids and we just sat and talked sometimes for half an hour. My first AD would be looking at me, raising his eyebrows like, “Are you good?” I’m like, “I’m good.” I knew because Sharon is a pro and she’s been doing this for so long that as soon as it was time to work she would nail it, and she did.

MINOW: When your lead character is a fashion designer, the wardrobe really has to help tell the story, especially in one like this that stretches over seven years. How did you work on that?

WALTER: We had a wonderful costume designer in Mona May who famously did the movie “Clueless.” I knew that she was capable of creating a wonderful look for Sharon but we kind of tied her hands because this is an indie and we had very little money for wardrobe for the movie and we also ran a really tight prep schedule because it didn’t come together until very late and then we were losing Tony Goldwyn back to “Scandal” and so we had to shoot almost immediately after we got greenlit. So she only had about eight days prep. So she didn’t really have time to go to thrift shops and she didn’t have the money to shop, so Sharon did something very generous. She invited us into her closet and can I tell you Sharon Stone’s closet is a magical place. She has a wall of vintage shoes it’s probably 10 feet high and 12 feet wide and they are works of art — Chanel, Valentino. My jaw must have been on the floor and she very carefully hand-picked shoes and accessories and we sort of filled in the things that she wanted that she didn’t have but most of her wardrobe came from her own closet and God bless her. She’s a producer on the movie and her contribution is immeasurable down to even these tiny details of “we need shoes that are worthy of this actress and I can’t spend $5,000 on shoes.” It was way better than anything we would have found anywhere; she has exquisite taste.

MINOW: I love the friendship in this movie. Why was that important to you?

WALTER: Liza Lapira who plays Senna’s best friend Darla is such a warm and egoless actress. She is humble and she is funny and she’s in the moment. I thought it was really important for Sharon’s character, who is self-sabotaging and doing some things that are a little bit unsavory, her first boyfriend is inappropriate, she’s kind of swirling and messy. I wanted to make sure that she was sympathetic. Part of the trick in making a character sympathetic is to have a caring friend. If somebody is super likeable and warm likes the lead character, then we follow her lead as an audience and we like her, too. Liza was that person for me in casting. She is the barometer for the audience. This very nice, warm, approachable person likes Senna so she must have redeeming qualities we don’t see out of the gate. We see them later but I wanted the audience to have access to her and to know that she’s a good person right away.

MINOW: Birthday celebrations are the heart of this movie – what was your own all-time favorite birthday?

WALTER: When I was 21 my best friend in college threw me a surprise birthday party. It was so out of the blue — nobody had ever thrown me a surprise birthday party before. She engineered it so well that she made it seem like everybody forgot about it and then she was like, “Oh, I’m here at this corner can you come meet me? I’m inside because it’s cold,” and they walked in and everyone shouted, “Surprise!” I was just like, “That’s a friend.” Those are the things that warm your heart and having a good friend like that is for life; she’s still my best friend.

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