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An Interview with Colleen Davie Janes, Writer/Director of Grill Check, Writer of The Family Remains

by Mike Haberfelner

January 2013

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First of all, why don't you introduce yourself to those of us who don't already know you?

 

What? People don't know me? Harrumph. I'm Colleen Davie Janes, currently a Director and Producer of films, also a writer and previously an actress, among other sordid jobs.

 

Your short Grill Check - in a few words, what is it about?

 

A young boy, abused by his father, returns ten years later to confront him... as a woman.

 

What were your inspirations when writing Grill Check, and what can you tell us about your co-writers and your collaboration with them?

 

Grill Check was conceived and outlined at a dive bar at Sundance in 2011, over a game of Rock/Paper/Scissors wherein the loser had to do shots of hot sauce. It was Joe Mingalone, Will Brook and myself, as well as a friend and we started throwing around ideas. Once we had this outlined and we were all excited (and buzzed, there might have been beer involved) we came back to New York and over the next few months started throwing around some drafts. My husband got involved as a writer as well. When someone, I think Joey, came up with the sex change idea, we all went, YES! And we went in to production soon thereafter.

 

A few words about the actual shoot and the on-set atmosphere?

 

Generally, on set, my goal is for everyone to have a good time, and feel the structure of the film. I set a tone that clearly says "we know what we're doing and we are not going to waste your time." On small films like this, especially when favors are being asked, I think it's incredibly important for the crew to see that we run a seamless and professional working set. There's nothing worse than getting on a project that's run like an electric bull with the squirts. Can I say that?

 

What can you tell us about audience and critical reception of your movie?

 

People really love this film. It's dark, it's twisted, it's sexy, it has a surprise ending, and I love it when the audience GASPS when they are supposed to and whisper "I knew it!" or "Holy shit!". It's incredibly fun. Did you see Hitchcock recently when he's standing outside of the screening of Psycho, almost conducting the screams? That's exactly how it feels to make a movie that works like this one.

 

As far as I know, you are presently preparing production of The Family Remains, a film written and produced by you. What is that one about, and what inspired you to write it?

 

Family Remains was inspired by true events in my family. Sadly, my aunt passed away many years ago and she wanted her ashes scattered in Ireland. She said my mother, her sister, would know where to do it as they had travelled there about four years before. So an entourage of more than a dozen Irish American McMahons, O'Connors etc flew over to do the deed. When they got there, my mother, who is the gloriously lovely flibberty-gibbet ever, announced, "Well, I'm not exactly sure where..." so they drove around the country for a week, waiting for my mother to be inspired by the ghost of her dead aunt. They followed rainbows. I had to write it.

 

The film is going to be shot in Ireland, right? Why there, and where do you see the advantages and challenges of filming in Ireland?

 

Even if you look at Scotland as an option, or New Zealand, or change the family to Israeli, if you think about it, you know the draw for Irish Americans to Ireland is simply not the same for most other countries. Name one. The Irish/American population in the US is huge, and when I say Irish/American I use it loosely. I don't even know how many generations back my Irish roots go but do I care? No! I'm Irish dammit. There's no other place that has the draw that Ireland has for the expats, where we will create relatives we aren't even sure we have just to be connected to "the home country". I mean we are crazy! Shamrocks on the walls, old Irish sayings in the kitchen over the stove, place mattes, green doylies. So the clash of this romanticized Ireland with what the family really finds in Ireland... it just works. Why go anywhere else?

Other reasons to shoot in Ireland:

1) The Irish Film Board tax incentive of 28% cash back on 80% of your spend, first day of production. 

2) Who doesn't want to work in Ireland in the Spring? 

3) Guinness and Irish Whiskey. 

4) The Irish.

 

The Family Remains is going to be directed by Gaby Dellal. In your opinion, what makes her perfect for the job, and did you ever consider directing the film yourself?

 

When we were looking for a director for this, we wanted someone with a sense of humor as well as drama, and based on her films On a Clear Day and Angel's Crest, she pretty much runs the gamut between these. Her facility as a director and the actors that really want to work with her made her the perfect choice. Early on it had been my intention to direct, of course, but I wrote a 4mm Euro film. 10 years ago, that was the budget for a first time feature director, but today it's way less. So to keep the investors interested and guarantee sales, we decided to go with a sure bet and that is Gaby.

 

Might be waaay too early to ask, but any idea when and where the film is going to be released onto the general public?

 

We are out to actors right now, so in a perfect world we will shoot this spring and get it out in 2014 for either Sundance or Berlin. That's my guess, as I haven't spoken to my other producers about our window lately.

 

Let's go back to the beginnings of your career: What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?

 

My life has a lot of overlap so it's hard to give you linear idea of how I got here. First I wanted to be an actress. Ok, I still do, but I found I was equally good at directing and love it as much, and since I have no idea how to cast myself I've decided I'll stick to working with great actors and occasionally have a cameo in my work. 

Going into college I had no guidance, so I jumped around and by the time I figured out what I really wanted to do, I was two years into Boston University. To join the drama department they wanted me to repeat my first two years of school (meaning repeat my 40k loan investment) so I said "hell no". 

Hmm what's the next closest thing? Ok, film production. 20/20 hindsight, these are not similar at all but I was so pie-in-the-sky-I'll-do-it-my-way, I went ahead and studied film directing. I had no idea at the time that my second cousin was one of the biggest 2nd ADs in Hollywood, and that I had this extended family in film/TV. Once I found out I jumped into PA work on some Hollywood films... in between gigs I studied acting in NYC, got a call back to The Actor's Studio and was conservatory trained in Meisner.

After getting out of PA work to concentrate on acting, I got into stand-up comedy as a last resort to get an agent, and after four years I realized I didn't want the comedy road. 9/11 was a big game changer in that area, as some comedians came out swinging and saved us with their humor, and I realized I wanted to act. So I was doing day jobs as an admin at banks, and my brother in law hands me this short film and says "you should direct this." He's a line producer himself, and I'd always been told I should be dircting, by teachers and actors alike. So I said, to hell with it, let's make a short. I raised money from the bankers I knew, and shot it at my boss's house (sorry about that stereo!). 

That film, Stranger, got into a film festival, and when we screened we discovered the master copy had been ruined by the dubbing house. They put it too close to a magnet, so the whole puppy was ruined and my one screening as well. Rafik is the house in NYC. Don't use them. Anyway, directing that short was so exciting, and I felt totally at home and on a high, that I set my sights to be a feature director no matter what.

 

As far as I know, very early in your career you worked as a production assistant on quite a few high profile films, including Oliver Stone's JFK, Robert De Niro's A Bronx Tale, Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way and Sydney Pollack's Sabrina. What can you tell us about these experiences, and lessons learned from them?

 

Oh man. I learned everything. I learned an unforgiving work ethic. I learned you give 110%. I learned you cannot be late and that there are 100 people who want your job. I learned you have to care about everything on a film set. I learned to say "yes" to everything, and if I didn't know how I was going to do something, I still said "yes" and I figured it out. Being a PA, it's thankless, but it is the stepping stone to be something greater in this industry. I have no patience for laziness and entitled people no matter their level. Even though I love to run a fun set, I'm pretty strict about it being a family affair, so everyone is part of the family. If you don't pull your weight you can go to your room.

 

What can you tell us about your own movies prior to Grill Check?

 

Well, like I said I made Stranger and the master was ruined, so what I feel could have been a successful festival run became a big dud. Before that I directed three films in college and a few small one-acts here in NYC.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

I'm in development on a few projects. One is called Bowling Buddies with an actor I cast in Grill Check. He came to me with no producing background but a really sensitive and potentially hilarious slice-of-life script and asked me to direct it. We are working actively on getting the script to a place where we both feel it's a winner. When it is we will hit the ground running. I'm also working with another writer on a pretty big project with NFL/NHL and MLS tie ins. It's early, and I'm producing that one thus far with no intention to direct. Otherwise I'm writing a RomCom that takes place in Spain (because I love to travel) and I've finished writing a short film inspired by true events about a young girl from a big family, a musical prodigy, who has to find her voice before she can find her music.

 

Besides actual films, you have also shot a handful of commercials, right? How does work on these compare to shooting a movie?

 

I love working on commercials, but they are really different animals. There's such a difference between working on these quick ideas, 30 seconds or 60 with a punch line vs a film, even a short. Film of course has more space to create an arc, take the audience on a journey. I don't want to cancel out commercial work in my future, but I love to tell intricate stories with a lot of emotional highs and lows over time, and you can't really do that with a commercial. You're selling something. It's not your own story. So I find it fun, invigorating, exciting and almost instant gratification because you prep it, shoot it and edit it in 2-6 weeks depending. But long form, even series television, is more my thing because of the character development and the breadth of the canvas upon which I can paint.

 

What can you tell us about your production company November Entertainment, and the philosophy behind it?

 

We created it so we could option scripts basically. We write, but it takes a long time to get a screenplay ready to make, so we are on the look-out for great stories. Great screenwriting. Not just good. It has to have a universal message that a broad audience will respond to. And we work with integrity. We say it like we mean it. We don't jerk you along, we don't blow smoke. We are just storytellers trying to make movies and money at the same time.

 

You also have to talk about your career as a theatre director for a bit, and between the stage and the movies - which do you prefer?

 

Well I wouldn't call it a career so much as keeping busy, directing theatre. Once I decided I wanted to direct, it was really easy to go to some small playhouses in NYC and say, hey, I'm a director, do you have anything? A lot of the tiny places have a pile of scripts and an artistic director with a huge ego so yeah, they let you direct, but they control who you cast, they limit your time in the space, you pay for everything except the tech rehearsal and the show. Really it's not a bad deal, but it was the lack of creative control that bugged me. That said, I ADORE directing live theatre. I'm good at it. I'm not a professional as I lack the experience but it's something I will do again. That said, I love film directing for it's immersion into the process. I love editing, working with the composer, the production designer, everything. I love love love the process of making movies.

 

A few words about your acting career?

 

Again that word career. My biggest success was an ATT commercial a few years ago. Residual checks rock. I worked very hard to get known in New York from about 1995-2003. I would get insanely nervous at auditions and my face would freeze up. I didn't know how people saw me, how they would cast me. I was my own worst enemy. Everything I booked was through recommendations of other actors who had worked with me in class, or someone who had seen a final performance or workshop. So stand-up was a relief because I could be loose and free and say whatever I wanted.

 

Colleen Davie Janes, the stand-up comedienne - you just have to talk about that aspect of your career for a bit, and about your own brand of humour?

 

Like I said, I got into stand-up because this agent who was repping my sister (she's a Broadway actress) met me and she was like (insert Long Island accent here) "Yeah, your resume is kinda all over the place. Have you ever done stand-up? If you do stand-up I can help you." I didn't realize the commitment that was stand-up comedy at that time. Didn't realize I was being blown off for 2 years. That's when I saw her next, two years later when I did a showcase at the Comic Strip. She didn't watch my set, and I killed that night (that's a good thing). I was pissed. I felt like I'd been dumped in the middle of a dirty ocean. You have to understand, to be a good comic you have to perform every night, write all the time, and sit through the most boring, shitty, twisted open mics where guys talk about their lack of size, ladies discuss things we just don't wanna hear about, I wasted two years trying to get good?! So I kept doing it. Through 9/11 it was really hard, and about two years after that I made a very hard decision to stop performing.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

I'm an actor's director. I love helping them find the character and brining out my vision through them. I'm constantly surprised and inspired by great acting. Having a background as an agent and production I really understand the cohesiveness between departments that has to be there, the animal that is filmmaking, so I'd say I'm really good at seeing all angles at once when I'm directing. I direct from the perspective of being in the audience, and I'm always thinking about the viewer and what will increase their enjoyment in a story and in a moment. When I go to a movie I want to be taken away. That's what I endeavor to do. Make you forget who you are for a bit.

 

Directors, actors, comedians, writers, whatever, who inspire you?

 

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USA  amazon.com

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John Huston, Billy Wilder, Ridley Scott, Kathryn Bigelow, Tony Gilroy as a director and writer, Carmen Lynch as a comedian I came up with who's doing really well right now. Marc Maron, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor. Gene Wilder, Cary Grant, Humpry Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Harrison Ford, the usual suspects - Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close. I like too many to list really.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

Currently in love with Argo. Before that, anything by Ridley Scott. 300, Waking Ned Divine, French Kiss, most Nora Ephron stuff. Some Like it Hot. I love romantic comedies and big epic films. I'm also discovering I enjoy political intrigue stuff like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Syriana. Stuff like that.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Bloody horror stuff. I do like psychological thrillers when done well. "Chainsaw Massacre"-stuff I don't get. I won't say I deplore this, but I'm not a fan of Wes Anderson's style and story choices.

 

Your website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

I'm redoing things so for now you can visit www.DavieJanesLocker.com. It will soon redirect you to the correct site. Also for my films in development as a producer you can see NovemberEnt.com. Twitter is @scarletfurie and @novemberEnt.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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