by Jordan Hill
Susanna Fogel wrote the epistolary novel Nuclear Family, cowrote the coming of age film Booksmart, and will direct the upcoming biopic Winner. This fall, Gulf Stream staff member Jordan Hill had an opportunity to talk with her. Here’s an edited transcript of their chat.
Jordan Hill: I read that before you were involved in Booksmart, the screenplay’s protagonists were two straight women focused on finding boyfriends for prom night. In the film, as you know, Amy is gay. What motivated you to change her character? And what was it like working with cowriters?
Susanna Fogel: I actually didn’t overlap with the cowriters, although they are friends of mine. They had written that script in the early aughts, and at the time just having women as the leads of a teen sex comedy was revolutionary enough. So it wasn’t on anyone’s radar that there would be a gay character. By the time I came on, the world had changed, and DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) had been overturned, and everyone felt a little more comfortable talking about gay rights. I had made a movie with my writing partner of twelve years called Life Partners about a friendship between a gay woman and a straight woman, so that was very much on my mind. It felt too dated to make the movie in the way it was originally written at the time, but made sense to have it written that way. I decided to make that change and update the script to a more modern version of what teenagers are dealing with when they’re going through their coming of age moments.
You brought up Life Partners (2014), and I believe you’d written before, but had you directed before that point?
I started directing shorts and things when I was in high school–I had been doing it for a really long time—but I had not made a feature. There were a couple of close calls with other movies I’d written, but I was working as a screenwriter by the time Life Partners came together. My writing partner at the time and I workshopped it at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and slowly went through the process of getting financing. It took longer for me to get my first movie made, and now with streaming and all of that, I think it’s much easier for people to get that first shot.
Your work tends to feature friendships between gay and straight characters, and I believe you gave Kate McKinnon (an openly gay actress) her starting role back in 2014 with Life Partners, right?
It was her first movie! She came in for a day and played a really bad date that Leighton Meester’s character goes on. It was really fun working with her for that one day, but then her career kind of exploded which was exciting to watch.
You also developed the show Chasing Life, which follows a young, determined reporter who is diagnosed with cancer. It was based on the Mexican show Terminales, and I was wondering what it was like not only adapting it but also navigating those cultural and linguistic differences?
In Mexican culture, there’s a conversation about death, and I think we’re more conservative about it in America. It was really exciting to work on a show that could kind of take a page from that cultural playbook and lean into conversations about spirituality. I don’t mean religious spirituality, I mean the idea of life. In American culture, everyone is so focused on what they’re doing and their individual goals. This is against the backdrop of the fact that we’re only on this planet for a short time, so everything takes on a greater sense of significance and changes the paradigm of this young person. It was exciting dialing into that theme—we were really inspired by the Mexican show in terms of how comfortable it was talking about death and life. Only by understanding that we’re here a temporary amount of time can we truly appreciate and embrace life. There were certain cultural differences, obviously. I think when the Mexican show was made it was a telenovela—very dramatic. I feel like American audiences are a little more cynical and may need a more sardonic way into a story that has a really emotional theme. So we added some more humor for the slightly more cynical American audience. It was wonderful adapting that show!
Tonally, I like that you’re in that space between the dimple and the tear duct: comedy with some emotional weight. It’s clear you’ve mastered writing screenplays and scenes, so I was surprised that your novel uses an epistolary form. I mean it’s hilarious—I’d previously read portions of it like “Your Dad’s Six-Year-Old Son with His New Wife Discusses His Superior Childhood” in The New Yorker—but why did you choose to write Nuclear Family as a collection of letters, texts, and emails?
Honestly, I was trying to write a screenplay, and I had writer’s block, and I was getting overwhelmed by the idea of trying to write a movie. I decided I was going to write a little monologue, and I ended up writing “Your Dad’s Fictional Son” in a burst of If I can just write a page of something that makes me laugh then I’m not a complete failure.
So I sat down and ended up with that and found that the format was really fun. I could kind of wrap my head around it, even at moments where I felt really blocked in other ways. It’s not that I set out to write a novel, per se, it was more that I just wanted to get the juices flowing. Once I ended up having these pieces that were published online, I decided that I wanted to synthesize it into a bigger story and create characters that could reoccur within a linear story. At the same time, obviously, it’s digressive and there’s some randomness and absurdity to it. I wanted to lean into talking about my family in this way that felt like it was a little bit off so that I could approach some of those scenes that didn’t feel like I was playing up the drama too much.
My family has so much—as you can tell from reading the book—absurdity to it; we’re all so different. I wanted to talk about themes like my dad’s young child, and his remarriage, and my mom’s way of life, and all of these things that I never really found the format in which to do that in. This (epistolary form) finally felt like a way to use humor and absurdity to talk about a raw emotional thing. I chose this format because my comfort zone is writing dialogue as a screenwriter. It felt like writing in someone’s voice has always been something I’ve been good at doing. So I’m not sure what my third-person prose voice is–I feel more comfortable writing how people talk.
I love how layered it gets, because some emails will be sent, and then other family members will email about those previous emails, so the fact that you keep building on them is just amazing.
You’re directing Winner, a biopic based on the first person to expose Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. It seems you’re taking a step away from comedy, though perhaps not from absurdity. Can you tell me about this project’s tone, as it seems slightly more serious?
For me, our way into this whistleblower story is that Reality Winner is a young, funny, vibrant person, and we never see someone like that as a heroine of a whistleblower story. She’s a millennial Texan vegan who loves guns, and is fiercely liberal, and speaks many middle eastern languages, and she’s just a complete unexpected mashup of qualities that don’t fit neatly into one box or another which seems like the most current and true thing we could possibly say about what it means in this moment in America where most of us are in the middle of these two extreme polarities. It feels like a good moment to tell the story of a real and funny girl. My favorite genre is funny person in serious situation. And she’s a very funny person who finds herself dropped into a political, high stakes situation. It’s a thriller and a prison movie and her life has gone into this incredibly high stakes place because of her ideology, but she remains herself. Her journey is one where the catalysts for change are imprisonment and becoming a martyr of the American system and being set up, but she’s still herself and that’s what we think will make her such an iconic narrator for this story and hopefully engage a lot of people, young people especially, in this movie about ideas and ethics, which I think is usually a dry, straight, very male genre of movies. To me, it feels like it’s another side of the coin of the things I’ve done: it’s using somebody who’s in the zeitgeist for young women. She’s the lens through which we’re seeing things about our world better. So I’m hopeful that it feels like an extension of the stuff I’ve done, ruminating on these high stakes themes in a more serious way.
You definitely have this great ability to tap into the zeitgeist, as you say. Reflecting on your past, to what do you attribute this ability to tap into the here and now?
Thank you for saying that. I don’t know how to answer that question, but I will say that I’m a total obsessive observational student of human behavior. Both my parents are shrinks. My dad is a psychiatrist and my mom is a psychologist, so conversations about people’s behavior—why they’re doing what they’re doing—and analyzing each other and ourselves to the point of total exhaustion is in my family’s DNA.
[laughs] You were born to be a great writer! You had no choice.
[laughs] So obsessively thinking like why this person is saying what they’re saying, what they are doing, and what’s their trauma, and what’s their healing—all these words are so comfortable for me to use. I’ve always been into that and I’ve always loved satire and comedy and showing people behaving in ways that are counterproductive to what they want. I think my self-analytical and obsessive brain is a part of that. I think it’s a comfort and fluency of analyzing everyone and everyone’s delusions and everyone’s ridiculousness.
Susanna Fogel’s forthcoming film Winner is currently in production.
Jordan Hill is an MFA candidate and Lawrence Sanders Fellow at Florida International University. He is a Sundance Co//ab Imagined Futures runner-up and Screencraft Cinematic Short Story finalist. He has read for The Mazur / Kaplan Company, and his short films have been screened internationally.
Susanna Fogel is a director, screenwriter, and novelist. She has been nominated for a BAFTA and a Writers Guild award for Booksmart. She directed and co-wrote the movie The Spy Who Dumped Me, starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Susanna published her first novel Nuclear Family in 2017.