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 films lead characters, a teenager (Amber Tamblyn) whos hidden pregnancy culminates in the infants death, and a forensic (and coincidentally pregnant) psychologist (Tilda Swinton) whos 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 didnt 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 its 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 theyre close to. The story of a teenagers hidden pregnancy grew out of that.
After Id 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 doesnt always make the headlines.
The subject wouldnt let go of me. I realized that news stories just present the facts, but they dont delve into emotional realities and subtleties of situations. Thats 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, its transformative in all their lives.
MERIN: This is a subject that people usually have strong opinions about, yet youre non-judgmental in your telling of the story. What do you want audiences to bring away from the film?
BROUGHER: If theres 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 theyre trying to protect them, and theyre both deeply afraid of not being able to control their path on a fundamental level. And youre reminded of that in pregnancy because you can do everything right and youre still in the big lottery of biological chance. And I think they reach a place of real bravery at the end.
Id 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 shes in control of her destiny. Thats 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 wasnt my personal story, but still, it wasnt easy territory for me to navigate. I actually would try to talk myself out of it, but Id 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 Id submitted to the Sundance Labs. I was amazed they accepted it. Theyd 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. Its not like on an actual shoot, where youre spending zillions of dollars and theres huge pressure. So, its a place where you can grow a lot as a writer and director.
MERIN: Whyd 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. Its a funny thing: Ive 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 thats what happened there. And one of the reasons this movies is always going to be something Im 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, Im 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. Thats what happened here. I think Ive reached a point of being able to communicate more truthfully. Thats what I care about, and thats what I want the film to do for audiences. I dont care if they like the film, or agree with it– but I do hope theyll really talk to each other about it– and other things that are important to them– as a result of seeing it.