By: Senior Contributor Lisa Iannucci
Every time I go to a film festival, I try to find that one film that I absolutely love and would see again. I also hope to find a director that I feel is on the verge of making it “big.” Meet director Melissa Finell, who wrote and directed “Sensitivity Training,” a romantic comedy and coming-of-age film that stars Jill Alexander (“Silicon Valley,” “Mad Men”) and Anna Lise Phillips (“Revolution,” “Animal Kingdom”). “Sensitivity Training” follows the unlikely friendship of a microbiologist who is great with what she does, but lacks people skills. After crossing a line with a colleague, she is forced into sensitivity training with a bubbly coach.
Finell grew up in New York City, then attended middle school and high school in Westchester County, New York where her first performing arts experience was in the Metropolitan Opera children’s chorus. “It was an amazing experience to be in the professional setting with all of the costume and production design,” said Finell, who grew up doing a lot of theater. “I started writing during that time in school, writing screenplays in high school, too.”
As much as she loved theater, Finell watched as much film and television as she could. “The shift from wanting to go from theater into film happened in college,” she said. “I started to appreciate the role of a director in a film. I like this idea that you can work on a film and make it an expression of your own vision and perfect it and hone it into something with multiple takes and editing, and create this one product. Film suited more of my creative process.”
She went to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. “It’s a special place where you’re in this bubble for four years and feel like your opinions matter and you can do what you want,” she said. “Going to a school like that helps you to focus more on what you want to do compared to the opinions in the outside world. It was a great incubator for me.”
Finell recognizes the challenges that face women directors in Hollywood. “I was always aware of it,” said Finell.
However, she never thought that she shouldn’t become a director because there were less opportunities for women. “I always thought I’d do my best work no matter what film I’m working on,” she said. “It’s so hard to become a filmmaker, no matter what. I always felt that I can’t control prejudices. I can just do the best job I can to tell the story that I want to tell. Hopefully that will lead to more opportunities.”
She said that it’s more important for her to tell stories about women. “They don’t get talked about as much where the women are at the center of the story and drive the plot forward. I want to see movies where women are interesting and complex and flawed. I want to see people I identify with on the screen.
“I love misanthrope characters,” she said. “I knew there was a lot of potential there for comedy. I thought of the character’s wants and needs and what the worse thing was that could happen to Serena – being forced to work with a chipper therapist represents everything that Serena hates. The therapist started changing, too, which was an unexpected journey that came out later.”
Finell said that she tries to write every day. “I spend as much of the day as possible in front of the computer and have certain goals,” she said. “I typically start with character and think about the person and what they want or need. What am I throwing them into? From there I think about theme and hopefully come up with a story that supports the journey of where I want them to be.”
She completes a beat by beat outline of the film, but doesn’t outline every minute of the story. “I don’t want to take the joy of the writing process,” she said. “Someday you get one scene or moment and other days you’ll blast through it. Then you start to look at supporting characters and sharpen characters and make it a unified and telling story.”
The script started as a grant proposal for the Alfred P. Sloan program. “When I became a finalist, they connected me as a scientist that guided me through research,” she said. “I wanted to know what Serena’s lab work would be, the discoveries she would make along the way and how would that support what she would do. It took four months of outlining and learning about science. I wrote a first draft and from there it was just rewriting and thinking a lot about characters.”
The idea for the film won an Alfred P. Sloan grant and the script won a Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award. The film premiered at the LA Film Festival and Finell’s goal is to continue the festival circuit to build an audience. “We’re also talking to some distribution sales agents and distribution companies now,” she said. “I tried to make an audience-friendly movie and it has been so fantastic and rewarding to sit at the back of the theater and watch a room full of strangers laugh and hear their questions after.”
Connect with “Sensitivity Training” via: https://www.facebook.com/sensitivitytrainingmovie/
© Lisa Iannucci FF2 Media (11/14/16)
Top Photo: Anna Lise Phillips in Sensitivity Training
Middle Photo: Anna Lise Phillips andJill Alexander in Sensitivity Training
Bottom Photo: Woodstock Film Festival logo
Photo Credits: Woodstock Film Festival
Lisa Iannucci has been writing about film and entertainment for years. She has interviewed hundreds of celebrities and is currently working on a film and travel book.