First-time director Susan Johnson embraces ‘old-school’ Hollywood

Susan Johnson’s been working in the film industry for more than a decade, making a name for herself as the producer of 2004’s Mean Creek and going on to produce Nearing Grace, Eye of the Hurricane, God Help the Girl and Unleashed. Now she’s making her feature directing debut with the romantic-comedy, coming of age film Carrie Pilby.

Based on the novel by Caren Lissner, Bel Powley (The Diary of Teenage Girl) plays the title character of Carrie, a teenage genius from England living on her own in New York City. Film on location in Manhattan during the holidays, Johnson surround Powley with an impressive cast of character actors including Nathan Lane, Vanessa Bayer, Jason Ritter, William Moseley, and Gabriel Byrnes as her father. Johnson discussed making the move from producer to director, taking Lissner’s Carrie from page to screen, and showing a different side of comedies familiar faces.

Read FF2 Media’s review of Carrie Pilby. (Rating: 4/5)

Lesley Coffin: Had you been looking for a project that you could director or was this a project that motivated you to move in that direction?

Susan Johnson: I started out as a music video director and was an assistant director for Michael White. And then I got my Masters at AFI in directing. But right out of the AFI I produced a film which was a hit. So suddenly I had a producing career, I was known as a producer, and that was great because I love creative producing. But I was doing a film a year as a producer, so I didn’t have time to devote to my directing career. But I always wanted to direct, and I finally had to take a step back and find the right project. I read a lot and reading Carrie Pilby, I felt that was exactly the right project for me. I knew as a producer that in Hollywood, you find a lot of great scripts but the writer often wants to direct it, or there’s already a director attached. So I knew that if we wanted to make Carrie Pilby, we’d have to option the book ourselves.

Lesley Coffin: When you optioned the book, did you talk about ways to make the story feel “cinematic” and allow Carrie to express herself without relying on voice-over narration to mirror the character’s internal dialogue?

Susan Johnson: It was daunting because the first thing we had to think about was, how do we get Carrie out of her head? We read her thoughts all the time in the book, but it’s not as if we want her walking around New York City and hearing her thinking out loud. And you don’t want her to start talking to a lot to people, because that wasn’t who the character was. But we got lucky because Kara immediately got her voice and once we knew that, we had the freedom to focus on the visual elements. And that was a pleasure for me, because the only job I would have been interested in doing if I hadn’t gone into directing and producing would have been cinematography. I think that’s such an integral part of telling a story, and it can be like having another director on set with you to collaborate with. And Ganzalo Amat and I really thought of this film as a love letter to New York and wanted that feeling for the city to come across.

Lesley Coffin: And New York romantic comedies are such a specific sub-genre of the romantic comedy sub-genre. Besides the fact that it is the setting in the book, what was it about Carrie that made New York feel like the right place to film?

Susan Johnson: Well, the author of the book, Caren Lissner, set it in New York after living there and observing people when she was close to Carrie’s age. So I was lucky because I didn’t need to think of the location, but our budget dictated that we had to shoot New York for New York, and shoot between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, because it would give us free production design. Unfortunately we picked the one year with no snow at that time, although a blizzard happened a week after we wrapped. But growing up in Arizona, I’m just fascinated by New York, every street corner seems to have something worth taking a picture of. So the energy of the city seemed to reflect Carrie’s obsessiveness.

Lesley Coffin: And she’s also this lonely character so having the people around her all the time sort of highlights her isolation at the beginning of the film.

Susan Johnson: It does, but whether you’re in the middle of the country or on an island, you have to make the effort to be happy, or happier, than you are. And that’s the universal lesson Carrie learns. Make choices every single day which will help you to move forward in that goal. Some people are depressed, ill, have families or don’t have families they want, but we can forget how much of our life’s about the choices we make. And part of Carrie’s journey is to learn that she has the ability to choose happiness. I love that time when Nathan Lane’s character tells her, “You are allowed to be happy” because I think a lot of people forget about that in their everyday struggles.

Lesley Coffin: Did you find Nathan’s character to be especially helpful in the adaption because some of what Carrie would express in her inner dialogue was what she talked about with him?

Susan Johnson: I would say he’s an even bigger character in the book, and we originally had more of his character we had to cut down because we wanted a little more of the focus to be on the romantic relationship. But Nathan’s character’s probably my favorite, and I think this is one of his best performances in a long, impressive career. When I first met him I just thought, “I could sit in therapy all day with Nathan Lane.” He’s exactly the type of person I’d want to talk to, and I love his voice and find his mannerism very comforting. So we were just so lucky that we got him to make a big impression with that role, and I just love the approach he took. I’m glad that a lot of people have said how much they like him and that it feels like they’re seeing another side of him as an actor in this part.

Lesley Coffin: How did you come to cast Bel in the role?

Susan Johnson: One of the first things we talked about was the fact that Carrie isn’t a likeable character in the beginning, but she’s always a sympathetic character. And Bel as a person is very centered, along with being very talented, and intellectually well beyond her years. But I felt that if I’d picked someone tougher to play Carrie, the sympathy you had for her right away would be harder to convey. But seeing Bel’s beautiful big eyes, you can read so much in her face. She could convey so many emotions without saying anything. And that would be key to helping an audience connect with her.

Lesley Coffin: The dialogue in the film is screwball, and the key to that type of dialogue is rhythm and timing. Did you work with the actors to make sure they had the dialogue down before coming to set?

Susan Johnson: We only had one rehearsal day, and that day I only had Bel, Nathan, and Gabriel. But that was part of the reason I cast the actors I did. Most of Bel’s scenes are with Nathan, Jason, and Vanessa. Nathan’s a natural at that style of dialogue, Jason was literally born into comedy so he picks it up right away. Vanessa I’d seen be so good at that type of dialogue on SNL, and I knew she could bring the comedy up for any actor I put her up against. I just wanted to surround Bel with actors who understood that comedy is the way we connect, even in difficult or stressful times. It’s the thing that allows us to get through the day to day.

Lesley Coffin: Vanessa is such a lovely throwback in her comedic style on screen, she has almost a Rosalind Russell-Lucille Ball quality on screen. And movies have been great for her because they allow her to show a different side of herself.

Susan Johnson: We haven’t even begun to see what she can do. I keep saying how incredible she is on screen, but she’s just this young woman who is unique and insightful. She’s had challenges in her life that are personal, but it just added to her comedy in this beautiful way. We are actually trying to find material to work together on sooner rather than later. I just feel people haven’t seen a fraction of what she can do yet. And she’s just such a beautiful person, she stayed with the project for a year and a half before shooting.

Lesley Coffin: Now that you’ve had the experience, do you want to stay in the director’s chair or are you open to returning to producing others films?

Susan Johnson: Directing is where I want to be, it’s what I’m most passionate about. I’m happiest on set in that capacity. Directing feels like putting on a warm sweater for me, where you’re not self-conscious at all. I just feel like I’m in my element. I wouldn’t be against producing for someone else’s film, but I want to stay put, now that I’ve found my way back.

Lesley Coffin: Do you think it’s important for a director to be involved in a project from the very beginning?

Susan Johnson: I actually don’t. I think directing is about interpreting a writer’s words. That’s the way old school Hollywood did things. And I also don’t think all directors should write, or all writers should direct. The joy for me comes in reading someone else’s words and seeing it in my head. That’s a thrilling experience. I love to find the material on the page. I already said yes to my next movie and I said yes because it was already on the page. Actually, I said yes to two movies because they were already on the page. They don’t need work, although once you cast a film you always make slight adjustments to a script. But I like being able to come in with a script and just start to build from there. I don’t think there are that many directors like me anymore. But there are several major directors out there who don’t write their own material, and they’re generally the directors I follow.

Lesley Coffin: Do you see yourself staying in the comedy genre?

Susan Johnson: Not right now. The next film I’m doing is a very heavy, all-male, dramatic piece that takes place during an ice-storm. I don’t feel the need to stay in comedy, and I also don’t feel the need to only tell female-driven stories.

Lesley Coffin: You’re the second woman I’ve spoken to in a week who mentioned branching out from female-driven stories. It seems like that can be as limiting as a director being labeled a genre filmmaker.

Susan Johnson: It’s just an assumption people make. Look at a woman like Kathryn Bigelow. Her films aren’t labeled as “girl movies.” As a film viewer I tend to gravitate towards films which are political in nature or true stories. I think we need more female directors, but we also shouldn’t be limiting them to just telling a certain type of story.

© Lesley Coffin (4/1/17) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Bel Powley as 19-year-old genius “Carrie” dancing with her musician neighbor “Cy” (William Moseley)

Middle Photo: Carrie buys goldfish to cross a task off of her list

Bottom Photo: Vanessa Bayer as Carrie’s co-worker


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