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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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 a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).