“The Girl in the Green Dress” is a thought-provoking, beautifully rendered 2015 short film. Playing upon the themes of feminism, society, and sexual freedom, it’s set in the 1950’s yet speaks very much to modern audiences. We recently had the great opportunity to chat with director Johanna Goldstein, and writers/co-stars/co-producers Sara Fletcher and Leah McKendrick.
Examiner: In “The Girl in the Green Dress,” there are a lot of themes on feminism, sexuality and community. While it’s set in the 1950’s, it definitely speaks to modern society. So how were you able to reach modern audiences, and what were the benefits and challenges of using that era as a setting?
Sara: I think the biggest challenge is you have to make sure that things are still relatable to people today. So when Leah and I were talking about this, what really resonated with us was the idea that the struggles of women today may not be what it was in the 1950’s but it’s still relatable. I think that in general, there’s always something relatable from the past: that we learn from our mistakes, but yet we still make the same mistakes and keep learning. And so I think we were really trying to not beat people over the heads with the 1950’s, but rather using it as a backdrop for what is a bigger issue.
Jo: I think that’s a really good point Sara. I feel like we’ve had some conversations about how much Ann should explore her sexuality, and how much should be viewed on camera. And one of the things that came up for us…was the way that women are presented as sexual objects versus women exploring their own sexuality. It was really important for [“The Girl in the Green Dress”] to be about Ann’s entitlement. And that’s something that’s a really hot topic today, so it’s not actually something that I think is subject to a 1950’s era discussion. It’s almost sad that it’s something we’re still dealing with today, as well as at that time period, but it’s very much the case. And we wanted a portrayal of Ann and her exploration of her sexuality as something that she was choosing to do, that she was looking at herself and doing, not something that was about how others would perceive her…Like that shot where she’s drawing her hand on her face, she’s starting to see herself as someone who has desires, needs, wants, and I think that was a part of it too.
But this is not just about women in the 50’s, it’s relevant to women today, and all groups of people. Men too, and how they are not able to truly be themselves because of the societal pressures they’re dealing with.
Examiner: It’s interesting that you mention the subtlety of delivering the message, because often that’s a more effective means of conveying themes.
Sara: I think there are so many films, unfortunately, that feel the audience is stupid. And often what happens is there are too many cooks in the kitchen that worry the audience isn’t going to get it, and I think you have to give the audience credit where credit is due.
Leah: Every time you have something with a strong message or an idea, or thought you’re trying to convey, it’s always a battle to give the audience credit, and not come across preachy like you’re on a soapbox.
Jo: And the story’s coming from the characters, and their lives, and what they’re doing. It’s not like we’re just stamping a message on top of them and letting them be symbolic. They’re real people, who are complicated and complex. I think people will relate more to the characters than just hearing the message over and over again.
Examiner: There are musicals with dance numbers, but “The Girl in the Green Dress” doesn’t abide by that model. So what inspired the storytelling through dance?
Leah: Sara and I thought of the concept of a love story set in the 1950’s between two women years ago. And we always wanted to do it for a few reasons. We love working together, and wanted to have two juicy characters. It was sort of on the back burner, we had a bunch of other projects, and we just kept thinking about it, but if felt like something was missing. Like it was there, but it wasn’t really there, and I didn’t put too much hardcore thought into it until I went to go see a dance show by a choreographer who does everything I do, Justine. All of my work, she’s always my choreographer. She had a dance show, and I was watching the dancers, and there were no lyrics, but there was so much emotion, and so many stories being told, and there was so much romance. There was so much going on, and I just thought “that’s what we need.” It’s the missing piece.
So I brought it to Sara, and I wasn’t confident that we could do it in that moment. Maybe we cast the actors in the lead, maybe we get professional dancers to do it. And Sara was like “we’ll do it! We’re gonna do it!” But I wondered if we were strong enough dancers. Both of us were dancers, we danced in college, but we’re not professional dancers; we’re more actors that dance. It was Sara who said “we’re going to do it, we need to do it.” So we hired Justine, brought her on board, and she was down. It was a way of helping Ann explore her sexuality, exploring her romance in a way that hopefully on-screen we didn’t need to get physical. But it was a way to enter her daydream, and her fantasy.
Examiner: Since that was a suggestion by Sara for you two to perform the dance scenes, what went into the spontaneous preparation?
Sara: Leah said “ok, we’re going to start going to dance classes,” and I was like “oh fuck, I haven’t been to a dance class in ages. I’ve been taking zumba at the gym, but that doesn’t count.” We went to a class together, and afterwards we went to lunch, and I remember being really sore, and thinking “I’m a horrible dancer. I am nowhere near where I need to be to do this, how in the hell are we going to be able to pull this off?” But I think in the same thought, part of the discussion we’d been having was that the thing we could bring to the table was we could act our balls off, and bring an emotional side to things that will come across on camera. So even if we aren’t bringing every insane trick in the book as far as the dance goes, that movement will elicit emotions. There was a realization that my body wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do at times, but Justine is an incredible choreographer, and Leah had been dancing for years. Because they had an awesome symbiotic relationship, Justine knew Leah and knew what Leah was capable of. So when Justine came in she said, “let’s figure out what we’re going to do that will highlight you guys, be something different, and tell a story.”
Jo: And we talked a bit before Justine started working on the choreography with you guys, and we were really interested in that sort of push me pull me dynamic of some modern dance pieces we’d seen. We discussed whether we wanted it to be modern, or more a time period dance, but the feeling that we wanted to put forward was more important than anything else. And that was very modern, two entities circling around each other, pushing, pulling, what it means to be in love, really. Which is what I think the dance is, it’s about the whole process of falling in love, and that relationship ending. And I can’t imagine anyone else doing it but you guys.
Leah: I still have a hard time watching parts of it because I think “we could have gotten that better, we could have done that better,” but at the end of the day it’s always about the emotion. It’s always going to be about the connection that’s happening. And I do think that’s there, and I saw it in the dance. So I try not to be a perfectionist about it. But like Sara said, I think it can be hard to see your limitations, and the beauty of acting is you often don’t feel the limitations. If you feel limitations you’re holding back, but when it’s something as physical as dance, there are some things you won’t be able to do as badly as you want to without the practice required, the years of training. So I can watch it, and I appreciate the film, and I really get the comment that people love the dance sequences. It makes me feel really validated, because I have a hard time watching it sometimes.
Examiner: So is viewing your work like watching game tape?
Leah: Yeah, totally. For me personally, but I won’t speak for the other ladies. I always have problems with anything that I’m in or I’ve shot, but I’m very proud of “The Girl in the Green Dress,” and I think it has a lot to do with the costumes that Kim did, and the hair and make up that Jen and Jenna did, the cinematography from Kristin, directing from Jo, the performance from Sara…And everyone else’s contributions. I’m very much proud of the film because I feel that my role was such a small piece of such a large pie that…I don’t get as harsh on it because I’m just one piece of the puzzle. As opposed to other films that I’ve made where I’m wondering “why did I do that weird thing with my eye?”
Jo: I think it’s a very collaborative piece, that’s for sure. And that’s part of what makes it so great, it was a true collaboration, from the beginning when you and Sara were collaborating on it together.
Sara: What’s also awesome about being producers is you have to step back, but having people around you that you trust is the key. I can be an amateur actor, but if I hired the right people or have the right team around me, I have to let go and trust. If Leah, and Jo, and Kristin, and our editor Phil [are around me], then I’m with a good team and have the most confidence as a producer. I can watch edits of “The Girl in the Green Dress,” and not pass judgment because I know there are other people who are critically watching the art.
Jo: And when you’re talking about watching yourself, and the work you’ve been a part of, and judging yourself, part of the process is…dissecting every tiny every detail of it. Because it was a piece we worked on so hard for so long, I think we can feel really happy with what’s come out of it. But I definitely watch almost every scene that I’ve produced, or directed, or written and go “ugh…”
Sara: I think that’s just the artist mindset though. If we were satisfied, we’d be done. The reason we continue to make art…is because there isn’t a level of satisfaction.
Jo: And you need someone to take it away from you at a certain point.
Examiner: You mentioned the collaboration. What are some of the advantages and difficulties of having multiple roles in a project, such as writing, producing, and acting?
Sara: It’s really easy to be too much in control, and having a clear vision of the outcome is important. However it’s also really important to have other people who are your checks and balances. To say “Hey, this isn’t working, you’re too emotionally invested in this one part of the job…” Working with people that you trust is key, and the only way to find the people you trust is to work with them. I think we were really lucky in that everyone on board…had a vision and an idea of what [“The Girl in the Dress”] needed to be. So wearing multiple hats became easier since there were other people to help along the way.
Leah: I agree with that completely, it has its challenges, but I’ve said this before, it’s not my passion to be a producer, I don’t even know how much of my passion it is to be a writer. Really as an actor I just try to create things I want to be in. I wouldn’t be producing if stuff like this was already getting made. If someone else was making “The Girl in the Green Dress,” I’d be happy to do nothing but show up, and act, and dance around and go home at night. But the truth is we’re in a really competitive field. There are so few projects being made, and even fewer that are really poignant, and meaty for women, and the kinds of roles that actresses really want to do. And wearing multiple hats to me is a kind of necessary evil. You just do what you have to do create the kind of art that you want to make.
Examiner: So what projects do you each have coming up next, or that you’re currently working on?
Jo: Well, I actually own a film production company, so I work as a producer and a director. We have a sci-fi and a thriller that we’re directing. I’m one of the co-writers on the thriller and the sci-fi. They’re feature films, so they probably won’t come out for a while. But that’s what I’m working on right now. And then Avalanche Films is a company I run, we do commercials, music videos, short films. We do a lot of short film content, and it’s good to constantly be creating even when you’re working on a long-term project. I think it’s important to make sure that you spend a lot of time out there and just film something so you can keep that muscle active.
Sara: We’re doing a webseries, called “Brooding.” on our fake network The WC…there’s a lot of heavy brooding that happens. I’m in a Lifetime movie that comes out this spring, and currently I’m in Montana filming a movie called the “The Puppy Swap: Love Unleashed.”
Leah: The thing that’s taking up my full brain is I’m getting my first feature film made. It’s about an art student and vigilante who starts murdering her campus rapists. So it’s pretty dark, a bloody thriller, and I’m aiming for a summer 2016 shoot.