Sue Kramer chats with Jennifer Merin re “Gray Matters”

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A MATTER OF SISTERHOOD: In Sue Kramer’s first feature, “Gray Matters,” Heather Graham plays Gray Baldwin, a successful ad executive who happily shares a loft and a lot of her free time with her brother (Thomas Cavanagh)– until they fall in love with the same women.

“For your first feature, you want to write something very personal and this movie is very personal to me. I wrote it to honor my sister, who felt there’d never been a film depicting a gay girl character or lesbian in a very positive light, showing that she was clever and intelligent and funny and attractive,” says Kramer. “In Hollywood history since the 1930s, there’ve been iconic gay guy characters– whether it‘s the gay butler or Peter Lorre in the “Maltese Falcon”– but there were no movies about women that are equivalent to “In and Out,” for example, where Kevin Kline played that great role. But lesbians haven’t been portrayed very positively, or much at all for that matter. I wanted to make a movie that my sister would be proud of, that she could go to with our parents, her friends and their children, our grandparents and have them be entertained and learn something at the same time. So I decided to write the script. The brother and sister character were similar to me and my sister– in terms of being incredibly close– but they’re brother and sister because it’s more interesting to have a brother and sister fall in love with the same women. Otherwise the story wouldn’t make the same sense.

MERIN: How did the story evolve?

KRAMER: The seed for the idea came along time ago, when my sister had crushes on some of my friends in college, and I realized that we liked the same things, so why not the same people– I thought, wow, that’s a great idea for a movie. That was the seed. Then came the characters, then the structure. My sister, Carolyn, had a friend, Gray Baldwin– who’s not gay but had such a great name, Gray, for a person who’s not black or white, who’s struggling to be herself, and struggling with her sexuality. The name Gray made perfect sense and was there even before I started writing the screenplay. It was always entitled “Gray Matters.” Gray was my lead character and I put the notion of ‘gray’ into everything she did.

MERIN: How long did it take to write the script?

KRAMER: Just over a year. I outline to death. I’m ridiculous about it. I do character biographies, making up all their character traits, even if they never make it into the script. I write where they came from, their idiosyncrasies, what makes them who they are, their parents, their relatives, what they do– and I write this whole very complicated biography book for each character. Then I do a very complicated outline, mapping out the entire script, which is the hardest thing and imy biggest struggle as a screenwriter– because I actually hate doing it. Every time I finish a screenplay, I think shit, now I have to so start another outline. I can’t believe I have to go through all that again because it takes so long….

MERIN: Oh, that’s funny….do you work with 3 by 5 cards, moving them around on a board?

KRAMER: I don’t do that. I know many screenwriters who do, but I don’t. I have my own outline form. I just switch scenes around, add to them. The outline is incredibly detailed. It’s about 30 pages of single spaced paragraphs of all the scenes. Then I start the fun work– which is the actual dialog. I love writing dialog.

MERIN: Are you in the characters’ heads when you write dialog?

KRAMER: I definitely become the characters. They’re all part of me. This is all so personal. There’s so many different aspects of my personality in these characters in different ways. Carrie (Molly Shannon) is defiantly my alter ego– I’m always looking at women’s magazines, always questioning why they say to boost your buttocks and have breast reductions, and I’m so annoyed by the way society makes women look at themselves. I have a two year old daughter and I just don’t want her to grow up looking at models as though they’re the way you have to look and be. Like Molly, I love Oprah– I’m completely obsessed with her and would probably surrogate a child for her, if she asked me. So, Molly is me speaking in many ways. Gray is a combination of me and my sister. And then there’s pieces of my personality in all the other characters, but I definitely get in each character’s head when they’re speaking.

MERIN: Did you write parts for Alan Cummings (a taxi driver) and Sissy Spacek (a psychotherapist) specifically?

KRAMER: Yes, I know Alan and he’s such a sprite– I wanted to give him opportunity to play a role more like himself– because he’s constantly playing superheroes– and wanted to hear his true Scottish accent.

And I knew Sissy, too, and wanted to give her something she’d never done before. I read an article about a New York therapist who walks patients on the West Side Highway for their sessions. I thought that’s hilarious, and took it to the next level– Chelsea piers. Sissy’s very athletic, so I wanted to give her something to show that off. She did her own stunts…

MERIN: Even falling off the rock climbing wall?

KRAMER: Yes, that’s her! We had a stunt women, but Sissy wanted to do it. And we didn’t’ fake that with an extreme camera angle. It’s real. Sissy did it. So did Heather.

MERIN: Heather’s a gas, and wonderful in your film. It’s sort of a coming out for her….

KRAMER: Yes, it’s true– in terms of her coming out as an actress. “Drugstore Cowboy” was her ingénue moment and you knew this girl deserves major attention. And “Boogie Nights,” too. But she’s played some roles that made people lose confidence in her range.

MERIN: Did you see many other actresses?

Kramer. Yes, many– some with much bigger names. But when I met Heather, there was really no looking further. I had no problems casting this movie. But it was a seven year struggle to get financing.

MERIN: Even with Sissy and Alan on board?

KRAMER: They were huge calling cards. Especially for casting, because actors want to work with them. This is an ensemble movie– even though it’s Heather’s– and putting the cast together was like solving a big puzzle. We’d gotten it completely cast, but the financer pulled out.

MERIN: What happened? Did he get scared…

KRAMER: Of the subject matter. When we got financing again, our cast weren’t available. So we started from scratch again.

MERIN: Then, what finally got you financed? Have things changed?

KRAMER: I think so. There’s more awareness of gay rights and the gay community– and although I’m a straight girl myself, I definitely consider myself part of the community– is more a part of pop culture. There’s a long way to go, but there’s more in consciousness. Before it was about “those people” who have nothing to do with me. Now, you don’t have that choice– whether your for or against gay marriage, you have to know about it. Then there’s “Brokeback Mountain” and “Will and Grace,” that are part of our culture. So, yes things have changed since I wrote the script.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).