The last two months have been extremely busy. With four film festivals in less than sixty days, I’ve developed quite a backlog of awesome interviews waiting for me to get to them. One film I caught at aGLIFF this year was the crowdpleaser and extremely funny BFFs, a film about two best friends who lie their way into a couples’ therapy retreat to enjoy the world class spa. ‘Working on their relationship,’ taking into account they don’t really have one, leads them to begin to consider feelings for each other that they didn’t know they had. The film has been a runaway hit on the LGBT festival circuit (and has played a number of ‘straight’ festivals as well) and part of that has been the charm of the two lead actresses, Tara Karsian and Andrea Grano, who also wrote and produced the film and who are as hilarious in person as they are on screen. I had a chance to sit down with the two of them (who bicker like a couple in real life as well) and director Andrew Putschoegl, who they barely let get a word in.
“We were going to do it as a short film,” says Grano about the start of the project, although neither of them remembers how the initial idea came to them. Well, they remember, but they don’t remember it the same way. “I’m quite sure I was walking in the parking lot and she’s quite sure we were together,” Grano says. “You’re a liar, you’re a pathological liar,” chimes in Karsian. The idea very quickly became a feature when they sat down to write it. “We started the short and we were on page 4 and we have even gotten to the retreat,” says Grano, “without the other characters it would really mean nothing. Kat and Sam don’t matter if they don’t have the other characters to see themselves through, and kind of mirroring what they’re going through.” The duo always intended to be the stars of the film. “And then that changed a little when we started sending it out and people said oh my god you can sell this movie,” admits Karsian, “we had that moment where we were like ‘do we?’ and then we kind of at the same time thought ‘No, We wrote this for us.” Grano agrees: “we are actors first, so we put the effort in thinking that’ll be great to do a film together and to act in it. It was tempting to sell it but truthfully, we’re not writers first. We are actors producers writers in that order.”
My first question had somehow spiraled into a five-minute response, with them cracking me up and each other. I asked about their background, whether they had stand-up experience, because the film is full of these brilliant mini-rants that are so well-written and performed they have the confidence one usually only sees from a comic. “He was talking to you,” Grano looks at Karsian, “you’re the funny one, he thinks I’m your sidekick.” Karsian is quick to defend her writing partner: “Andrea doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a comedic actress and I was like ‘you are so wrong, you are brilliantly funny.’ Our timing is so different.” But no, neither of them have done stand up. “My idea of hell is being in a standup club,” says Karsian, “I think that’s masochistic.” She then looks over at Andrew Putschoegl and tells him they won’t be needing him for this interview, they’ve got it covered.
“It’s interesting, when you’re in this industry enough you have a lot of director friends,” explains Grano about Putschoegl’s coming on board the project; “we were really careful, your friends are different than mine, we didn’t want to write for a specific person we just wanted the best script we knew how to write, and same with directors, we didn’t want someone that was ‘team Andrea’ or ‘team Tara.’ We wanted to neutral everything for this project. And so I maybe had that concern in the beginning but then I met Andy. And he was the perfect fit. He got the script.” “He got us,” says Karsian. Putschoegl had worked with Karsian on a short called HELLO CALLER three years earlier, a short that had actually played aGLIFF. Grano had seen the short and liked it and what Karsian had said about working with Putschoegl. “When you write something and you’re really invested, you want someone that guides it and directs it but isn’t necessarily trying to turn into their own vehicle,” she says, “he wanted to make the movie that was on the page.” But of course, coming on board as an outsider where the film was going to star the writers would cause any director a bit of hesitation. “My first film was that and it was a disaster,” Putschoegl says, “so that’s a huge red light. But because I’ve worked with Tara and because I got to know Andrea I felt very comfortable and knew that first and foremost they’re both incredibly talented actors. There’re going to pull this off. This is not something that they’re doing just because somebody got some access to some money. They were really open to collaborating. I really feel like this is our movie.”
Karsian: It’s not.
Grano says Putschoegl may have gotten the job because Spielberg said no, but that one of his greatest talents as a director is “knowing when to step back and when to insert himself.” She explains: “especially comedy, I think it’s really tempting for a director to want to create it, try to ‘make the funny,’ and I think Andy was really smart about going ‘let’s see what these actors come up with.’ And what wasn’t working he would tweak.”
The script for BFFS is not only Grano and Karsian’s first script together, but their first script really at all. Karsian admits she had tried in the past, but had never really finished anything. “I don’t find it an enjoyable process,” she says about writing, “with her I did. It was so easy, and I hate saying that because it makes it seem like the writer’s job is easy.”
Grano: During the writing we were like ‘What’s the big deal? Writing is fun.’
Karsian: But when we got to rewrites that’s when everything went to shit.
Grano: We got like five notes maybe total and it took us like twice as long to do the rewrites.
Karsian: And almost ended our friendship.
Karsian says she has such respect for writers who do this day in and day out because you have to love the process of it, something they never did, although co-writing made it a lot more fun. After the film Grano asked her if she would ever consider doing it again and she immediately blurted out ‘No.’ But now, six months later, she says she would in a heartbeat. “It’s like childbirth,” Grano says, “you have to forget the pain.” Part of what saved them, in the writing process, was that they were writing for themselves, so they knew what it was supposed to look like. “Also
our story had a beginning, middle and end,” Grano says; “if you know where you’re headed, then the rest is easy. If you have a concept but you don’t know where to go, how do you tie it up?”
One of the things I found most fascinating about the film was that it was pretty ‘straight’ for playing at an LGBT festival, the ‘L’ content really only comes in near the end, and is often the subject of scorn by the characters themselves, who are somewhat afraid to deal with these new feelings. I found the programming very exciting for aGLIFF and something that might draw in audiences from outside the usual attendees. “We premiered in Santa Barbara [the Santa Barbara International Film Festival]” says Karsian, “and this woman came up to us and said I think it should play at the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and we were all like ‘really?’” Grano flat out asked “are you sure we’re gay enough for that?” But BFFs has gone on to play several LGBT festivals since, including Outfest, Reeling Chicago LGBT Film Festival, Q Cinema in Fort Worth and Reel Pride Winnipeg. “It’s a different audience, and yet it’s not,” says Karsian, “it’s an audience. The response has been so wonderful, it’s been incredible.”
Grano: I think a lot of what you see at LGBT festivals are very sexy or coming of age films and I think people find it [BFFs] slightly refreshing. The reason we’re here is that we happen to have some gay theme, gay couples, a gay director, whatever you want to say.
Karsian: Oh my god Andy’s gay? That’s why you didn’t want to sleep with me!
Grano: He slept with me.
Putschoegl: I said one of you, and Andrea got there first.
Bears: Was that an attempt to play them off each other?
Putschoegl: Yes, it’s building alliances.
Putschoegl continues, “I have to say with Hello Caller, the short that we did three years ago, it’s not a gay movie at all, other than the fact that I’m gay, and Tom who wrote it – ”
Karsian: Wait, he’s gay too?
Grano: I slept with him. Slept with him twice.
Putschoegl: But aGLIFF was the only LGBT festival we played. We try to reach out to others to see if they would consider programming it because of the fact that we as filmmakers fit into that category, and they wouldn’t. But aGLIFF did. And it really resonated with the audience. Not one audience member said ‘You know what, I loved the movie but there wasn’t anything gay about it.’ They just enjoyed the movie. And I think we do a disservice to the LGBT community if we assume that every film has to have certain things that we’ve seen, coming out stories, or some big sex scene, or boys in their underwear. I think that we are a much more nuanced community now than we have ever been.
Karsian: We should have had boys in their underwear.
Putschoegl: BFFs is really Blue is the Warmest Colour with less scissoring.
I had a similar conversation with aGLIFF programmer Jim Brunzell when previewing the festival. I asked him how he felt about films made by LGBT filmmakers about ‘straight’ subjects, or straight filmmakers making films about LGBT subjects? “It’s a question about segregation,” Brunzell said; “Todd Haynes is one of my favorite filmmakers, Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorites, and they’re both gay men and they’re directors and a lot of their content has been straight. You’re telling me if you had an opportunity to screen [one of their new films] and it had no LGBTQ material you wouldn’t do it? I think you’re doing a disservice to your audience of opportunities to see these really great living filmmakers that really strive in the LGBT community and are doing great films.” Incidentally, aGLIFF recently announced that Brunzell will be returning to program next year’s festival, something to which we can all look forward. “Programmers have to be brave,” says Karsian, “that’s what I dig about programmers. There are so many programmers who are willing to not go ‘this is what the audience wants,’ but go ‘wait a second, this may not fit in our little box, but let’s go outside the box.’”
Another thing that makes BFFS so special is the mature way it handles its subject matter. I can’t help but think that if Grano and Karsian had sold the script and it had been made by a studio with Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy or something it would have just become a bunch of fart jokes. “It would have been ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,’” Putschoegl says. Karsian agrees, “I think part of what makes the movie work is that our friendship reads on screen. And that was a difficult thing for Andy to have to do, how much of our friendship ends up in the movie, where do the characters come into play.”
Karsian: And again we are going to compliment Andy and it doesn’t happen very often, and it will not happen again in this interview –
Bears: It’s going to happen when I type this up.
Grano: Then don’t say it.
Karsian: Yeah you know what, fuck him, I don’t have to say anything.
Grano: This movie directed itself. Andy was just there for show.
Karsian: Yeah he just yelled ‘Action!’
Grano: He didn’t even yell ‘action,’ we yelled ‘action’ and we just knew when to go.
Karsian: And we yelled ‘cut’ to. Have you ever been on the set, where the actors yell cut?
Putschoegl: Wait, we left this moment where you were about to complement me.
Karsian: No, we’ve moved past that.
Grano: No, give it to him. Because I have no idea what you could possibly say.
Karsian: Andrea and I have a tendency — We said to Andy before we started to film: you have to make sure that it doesn’t come off as too bitchy.
Grano: It always has to have love behind it, or else they are really unrelateable characters. There are times in public or people can’t tell If we are kidding. But in this movie that should never have been a question. We had to always know that they were doing this with love for each other.
Karsian: Was that really a compliment?
Grano: No, because he never really had to say anything. We just did it.
It’s fairly clear to me Andrew Putschoegl earned his director’s credit just keeping these two on task and letting them be funny. BFFs is one of my favorite films of the year, with humor that I think, like last year’s similarly acronymed GBF, plays to both LGBT and straight audiences equally well. BFFS continues its festival circuit with screenings this weekend at the Indianapolis LGBT Film Festival, Long Island Gay & Lesbian Film Festival and LIFT Lesbian Identities Festival in Budapest, Hungary.