“Why the Fuck Didn’t You Laugh, Then?”

by |
08/13/2014 4:00 AM |

In See You Next Tuesday, shot at various points along the G line and opening at Cinema Village on August 22, Mona (Eleanore Pienta) is a supermarket checkout girl in the last days of a ticking-time-bomb pregnancy. The film begins by sketching the childish codependence of Mona and her recovering-addict mother (Dana Eskelson), and their estrangement from Mona’s younger sister (Molly Plunk), with short dyed hair and a live-in African-American novelist girlfriend (described as a “real person” by an indolently drunk hipster at her bartending day job). But as Mona’s tentative employment and housing situations, and increasingly evident pathology, begin to exert a cyclonic pull on her family’s extended social circles, unresolved issues rise to the surface as bodily excretions and atavism (sometimes cover-your-mouth funny). Though the film is compassionate and ultimately redemptive, it exerts a rubbernecking fascination; Ben Sachs, of the Chicago Reader, aptly described it as being about the kind of people you’d try desperately to avoid making eye contact with on public transit. The film is the feature debut of writer-director Drew Tobia, 28, who currently lives in the Bushwick-Ridgewood borderlands. We exchanged questions and answers over email earlier this month.

The film stages the kind of interactions—screaming fights; loud, wet, public breakdowns—that your average citydweller is used to speedwalking away from. So I’m curious about the impetus for the story and the characters. Where did these people come from, how did you decide to spend the length of a film with them? I’ve read that you and Eleanore Pienta came up with Mona based on one of her characters in a photographic self-portrait, but her whole life and milieu…
I always liked harsh and abrasive characters and subject matter, but I think some of the things I was writing before were a little too sarcastic or ironic. I wanted to do something that was personal and sincere while still keeping the dark humor I’m drawn to, but I was having a hard time figuring a way in. Eleanore has been a good friend for a decade, and that’s the work she does. I saw those pictures and I went through the thought process like you might passing by somebody that looks interesting, thinking, like, you must have a mother, you must have people in your life who love you, you must have people in your life who hate you, you’re not just a colorful extra in the movie of my life, you’re the star of your own. And then, especially thinking of Eleanore in the role, it started to become easy making this person somebody I wanted to spend a feature length with, while touching on things that were and are important to me, like who are the people that mean something to you, how does the past affect your present, living on top of so many different people in a quickly changing city…

The film depicts a range of racial and class identities within contemporary Brooklyn. (Even in the Clinton Hill exteriors, from the Pioneer on Lafayette and Grand, to locavore deli Victory Garden.) It’s both fascinating, and darkly comic, to watch Mona’s antisocial behavior (and its implications of a pathologically damaged upbringing, and the lack of a social safety net) spread like contagion to ever more chi-chi tiers of Brooklyn society…
That was a very conscious thought, and there was more of it in earlier drafts of the script, but I wanted that attitude to pervade the film instead of being obvious. I wanted to have a diverse cast that showed off the kinds of people I see in Brooklyn but rarely see in films about Brooklyn, partially because I think people are afraid they’ll offend somebody, so they just ignore it. Going back to your earlier question about avoiding people that are weird or different, you can’t avoid Mona when she’s in your path, because she won’t let you! The party scene [in which Mona and Jordan disrupt a middle-aged brownstoner gathering] was so much fun to do, because we shot a lot of the social niceties and introductions after we’d shot them getting kicked out, so that stuff was played with a falseness and a politeness that this movie isn’t about.

It’s notable that you’re a male writer-director making a film populated almost entirely with women going through very diffuse, equally intense personal crises…
A lot of the time I get questions about the female-centric cast like it’s a weird thing, and I’m aware that for the most part, a cast populated by men is the norm and a cast populated by women is treated like specialty fare. The dynamics just worked better with women, and there were some actors I really wanted to work with and I was writing with them in mind, but I never set out to make a movie about what it means to be a woman, I just wrote about what it means to be a human. Everybody’s been Mona, at one point or another in their lives. Except not necessarily pregnant. With a baby, anyway.

When the movie plays to an audience, does it get laughs where and when you expected it would?
Audiences WIDELY differ in how they watch the film. I’ve gone to screenings where there is laughter throughout and it’s a great feeling, and I’ve gone to screenings where it’s completely silent and I think, oh god I failed, and then people after will come up to me and say “I loved it so much and I thought it was so funny” and I’m like “well why the fuck didn’t you laugh then you nearly gave me a heart attack.” I was talking about this with some friends recently, that if somebody doesn’t laugh in the beginning and make it ok to laugh, then people get nervous and don’t want to laugh out loud or think they shouldn’t be laughing so they don’t.