After 15 years with a script she wrote at the tender age of 25, Liz W. Garcia finally saw her film One Percent More Humid hit the screens as part of the US Narrative Competition at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
The sun-soaked drama tells the story of two college-aged girls (played by Juno Temple and Julie Garner) who are racked with grief and guilt after their best friend’s death. Both women seek relief from their pain in the small town they reside, Iris (Temple) in the company of her married professor (Alessandro Nivola), while Katherine’s only outlet is pain and punishment.
One Percent More Humid is the sophomore film by Garcia, who made The Lifeguard (starring Kristen Bell) in 2013. She’s also worked consistently as a television writer on a variety of shows such as Cold Case, Dawson’s Creek, Wonderfalls, and Memphis Beat (which she co-created with her husband Joshua Harto)…all while working to get One Percent More Humid to screens as she envisioned.
Lesley Coffin: I was amazed to read you wrote the script 15 years before getting the film made. Did you always have this script as a passion project that you wanted to direct, or did other directors have it in their hands over the years?
Liz Garcia: I wrote it when I was an assistant at a Hollywood studio, interested in becoming a screenwriter. And I wrote it thinking it would be a good sample, but once I had the script I really loved it and it felt like something special. At the time, I was reading a lot of scripts at the time, and knew people weren't writing honest, sexy portrayals about young women. I didn't think it would be made, because it wasn't the type of movie getting made. But early on there was a producer interested in it and attached an experienced director. And for about two years, we had a director who was trying to get a cast attached. And we just ran into the same problems. It’s hard to get a movie financed when the movie is dependent on young, female actresses who generally don't have the experience, have enough pull and value to get investors on board.
But while that happened, I was also working as a writer on TV and had the opportunity to watch directors. And that's when I realized I wanted to direct, and that I wanted to direct this movie. And then there was just this long process of getting it made. We could always get young actresses interested in the material, and over the years we had actresses like Evan Rachel Wood, Anna Kendrick, Kristen Stewart, all these phenomenal young women attached. But until I made The Lifeguard, we couldn't get it made.
Lesley Coffin: What made The Lifeguard different?
Liz Garcia: It centered on an older character so we could hire a slightly older actress in the lead. But once that got off the ground, we were able to get the financing for One Percent More Humid. Checking the "first time" director box was a big step in getting this finally made. It was one less worry for investors.
Lesley Coffin: When casting the two leads, did you rewrite the roles once you had Juno and Julie in the leads?
Liz Garcia: I didn't have to change the characters at all. Juno and Julie are very different from those characters but are great actresses and knew how to fit themselves into the role. They just slipped into their skin. I would change some dialogue on set if I thought things weren't working or they felt something sounded off, but the characters I had 15 years ago are pretty much the characters Juno and Julie play.
Lesley Coffin: Both characters are very sexual beings and acting out sexually because of their state of grief and guilt. When you were shopping the script around did you ever meet with people who were uncomfortable with how they were depicted or field questions about toning things down?
Liz Garcia: Over the years, I would imagine the content was a problem with some potential investors. I was never specifically told that, but when the script first got coverage by an agency the reader wrote that the script was anti-feminist because the women were supposedly behaving badly. The reader thought I hated women or something, which is absurd to think of now. But when you think of where we were in 2001, the types of movies being were about boys on spring break or guys having bachelor weekends. And the backlash I received sort of reflected that double standard about what men and women were allowed to engage in. I think it's really significant that we've had writers and directors like Diablo Cody, Lena Dunham and Sofia Coppola who are distinctly female and proven themselves to be box-office draws. These women laid the groundwork for women like me. They allowed a film like this to be made.
Lesley Coffin: Do you remember what sparked your initial interest in directing?
Liz Garcia: Absolutely. I remember exactly when it happened. It wasn't that I didn't want to direct, it was always in the back of my head and I was afraid to say it. I needed to give myself permission to say "I want to be a director." And first I had to watch other directors at work on TV, and realize directors aren't gods, they are just people with a craft they have to practice. There are good and bad directors, and when you first start, you won't be amazing at it. And then I saw Lost in Translation. It was such an expression of a female experience. And she had a female aesthetic that was cool and young. And people really responded to her vision. Sure, Sofia Coppola is Hollywood royalty so her ability to get a movie made is completely different from mine. But knowing that this young, female sensibility had a right to be on the screen and had been embraced by audiences made a huge difference.
Lesley Coffin: I got the sense that the sense of place and moment in time was very universal, even though the characters and their experience is intensely personal. What decisions did you make early on about the films aesthetic choices?
Liz Garcia: My DP (Director of Photography) and I talk a lot about how to make the film feel universal, because it is, but also because the story is very specific. So, it was important that there was something else that told the audience that this was about something larger than just a story about two girls. So, we always said, that was the camera’s job, and we did that by referencing classical camera work of people like Bergman and Antonino. They would put two characters in the same frame and use the physical distance between them to say where their relationship was at that point in the story.
So, we did that with the girls, they might be side to side when they were okay and we'd have a stranger in the frame when they were estranged. Those things just get in an audience's head on a subconscious level. We’re so experienced at watching movies, so people know how to read visual language while watching. And I also really loved that Juno and Julie have a similar look, and I tried to emphasize that.
Lesley Coffin: Filming in upstate New York, was there a reason you didn't name or identify the town they lived in?
Liz Garcia: I wanted to have a specific sense of place so the audience felt they were there. I wanted the audience to feel the sense of summer and start sinking into the place. But I didn't want to reference a real town because that can be distracting. And in reality, we shot in a couple different small towns.
Lesley Coffin: I know you mentioned growing up in a town where car culture was prevalent, but why was the specific type of accident an important detail to include in the story?
Liz Garcia: I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, and the death of a young person behind the wheel is so common, it literally happened every year. And it's a terrible loss, and is often the way people who grow up in a sheltered environment first experience the death of a peer. But I also heard and knew of some cases where the tragedy was compounded by guilt. Another young person was culpable in the death of their peer, and survived but now had to live with the guilt. And I found that idea so upsetting. We all grew up taking stupid teenage risks, and it was just by the grace of God that some of us survived and didn't hurt or kill someone else. And I just felt so deeply for people who had been left in the driver’s seat.
Lesley Coffin: This might be a complicated question, but in the 15 years ago since you first wrote it, our definition of sexual assault and misconduct has widened. Iris and Katherine are both active and willing participants, but both of them are also in very vulnerable places in their lives. Were you apprehensive about how to show Iris's relationship with her professor (Alessandro Nivola) without suggesting she was being taken advantage?
Liz Garcia: I always believed in their relationship as something genuinely romantic. We've seen the relationships of the older man, younger woman too many times. But what made it interesting to me was she identified him as a potential source of distraction and she made him into that. She is very clearly the aggressor in initiating their relationship. And I think you completely understand why she's doing what she's doing. If it had been the reverse, and he had been the aggressor of a beguiling young student, it might have been different. But that's also not a relationship which interests me? I'm interested in this guy who hasn't been truly seen by anyone until she set her sights on him.
Lesley Coffin: We don't hear or see a lot of her poetry, but there's always a sense that she sees the world through the eyes of poet. Why did you choose that as her artistic form of expression?
Liz Garcia: I grew up reading a lot of poetry. And it sounds a little cheesy, but I want my films to feel like a poem. How I structure the films and prefer to be more suggestive than literal. I wanted Iris to be an artist and writer because she's actively seeking out meaning and feeling from the world around her. You see her struggle to use understand how to use her poetry to understand and cope with her grief. The problem is, her grief is too big at the moment to find that meaning, so she's looking for other distractions. She's not at the point where she can be verbal or literal with her feelings, so it manifests in this intense love and lust.
Lesley Coffin: Why did you choose not to give Katherine any activities or artistic pursuits of her own?
Liz Garcia: Katherine was intended to be someone who is imprisoned by her privilege and guilt. She has the privilege not to have to work and lives in this big house, but that's making her guilt worse because she has no outlet for her energy. I think that's true of a lot of people in their 20s, because they don't have an outlet for how they feel. And they don't feel like they're allowed to contribute yet. So, they have idle time and big emotions, and start turning them against themselves. And that's what Katherine does. She starts punishing herself in worse and worse ways.
© Lesley Coffin (4/25/17) FF2 Media
Top Photo: Liz W. Garcia
Bottom Photo: Juno Temple and Julia Garner
Featured Photo: Maggie Siff, Juno Temple, Julia Garner and Liz W. Garcia
Photo Credits: Ilya S. Savenok, La Pistola, Red Entertainment