Age and experience is an asset when you let it be. Susan Walter’s is a prime example. After nearly a decade training and working as an assistant director, she left the field to focus on her own creative pursuits. In a few years, she had a script that studios wanted to produce. But as so often happens things were delayed and fell through, and by the time the film was ready to become a reality she and her characters had matured considerably. She was ready to sit in the director’s chair, and found an iconic leading lady willing to vouch for her. All I Wish is a coming-of-age film that just happens to be about a woman in her late forties (Sharon Stone) who hasn’t found herself, professionally or personally, yet. As each birthday passes (the film takes place on the same day over five years) her life evolves, specifically her relationship with Adam, played by Tony Goldwyn.
Lesley Coffin: It’s somewhat unusual in my experience to speak with a writer-director who got started in the directing field and moved into writing. How did you get started in directing and make that transition?
Susan Walter: I probably took the longest road possible. I started as a DGA trainee, I doubt there’s a position that’s lower on the totem pole. And my first job was on David Lynch’s Fire Walk with Me and they realized I had no affable skills. And the set and the base camp were literally too far away to relay messages by walkie-talkie. So they put me halfway between and had me relaying messages to both sites. Those were my humble beginnings, but at 21 I was so excited just to be there.
Lesley Coffin: So you didn’t get you start in film school or at a university? How do you think that on the job training helped you in the long run?
Susan Walter: It’s so valuable because a film set has its own language. We use hand signals and profanity. That’s just part of the environment. And being familiar with that on a movie with a short schedule really helped. I only had 20 days to film this movie and you need to establish a relationship and trust with your crew so quickly. I learned a lot in the parking lots of movie sets, or standing outside trailers and listening to the actors vent about a bad director or praising a good director. I took all that in, I worked in that arena for seven years. But I realized I wanted to be a creative person and I went away for a while. I had a brief stint as a development executive and then I started writing. I always knew I wanted to go back to directing, just directing my own films, and did my own film school. I took masterclasses, I directed my own short film, directed some theater. I needed to learn the language of acting, because I knew and was comfortable on set but didn’t know how to give direction to actors.
Lesley Coffin: Was this the first script you wrote?
Susan Walter: I’d written a couple scripts. I only worked as a development executive for 18 months before I got fired. And that’s when I decided to work on my own scripts. This was an early script I wrote 13 years ago, and at the time, they planned to make it on a much larger scale at a studio. But it wasn’t happening and I decided I’d worked on sets long enough that I could direct this film. And I had to fight really hard for the opportunity.
Lesley Coffin: How did Sharon Stone get involved? I assume she was a big fan of the script if she stepped in as a producer as well?
Susan Walter: She saw a different version of the film. The original version of the screenplay was about a 20-something coming-of-age and the film ending when she turned 30. That’s the typical age for a coming-of-age romantic comedy. And I offered Sharon the script, thinking she could play the main character’s mother. And at some point that 30-year-old actress dropped out, but Sharon remembered the script and called me to say “Why make a coming-of-age comedy about someone turning 30? The stakes are low, who cares if someone doesn’t know what they want to be at 30? Why not make it about someone turning 50, who’s had a dream that’s been festering for decades? Wouldn’t that be more interesting?” And she convinced me immediately. I mean, the idea resonated with me because I’d wanted to direct for decades but even two years ago, it was really hard to break in as a female director. And I needed her strength and name to get me in the door. And any time I needed someone to return a call, she’d make it happen. I’m so grateful that she came on board early and in full force.
Lesley Coffin: She probably really appreciated your willingness to change the age but keep her as the main character. She’s the exact age when women lose opportunities for work, and this is a bit of a reversal.
Susan Walter: I totally have to give her all the credit. There’s a scene when she puts on a string bikini and plays beach volleyball, and that was written for a woman in her late twenties. And I thought, I can’t put a 58-year-old woman in a string bikini, and I said “What should I write in place of that scene?” And Sharon was a little insulted and said “Why would you re-write that? I play basketball with my son, I’m an athlete. I have no problem putting on a bikini.” And I was humbled and realized that I had preconceived notions about age, which applied to myself as well. I play tennis and do yoga all the time. I can outrun a lot of women half my age. I was suffering from a little ageism and self-loathing about myself.
Lesley Coffin: I’ve been a fan of Liza Lapira’s for a long time. She’s a wonderful comedic actress but rarely gets big roles. How did you select her for the part of Darla?
Susan Walter: I saw Crazy, Stupid, Love as Emma Stone’s best friend. And Emma’s character in that film was a little bit brittle, but because Liza, who is so warm and self-effacing likes her, the audience likes Emma. It’s so easy for the audience to love and trust Liza, and I wanted her to provide the same thing for Sharon’s character. When you first meet Sharon, she’s a little brash and doing somethings which don’t make her especially likable. But because Liza’s so warm and caring, and clearly loves her, the audience has an easier time carrying about her too.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about the decision to use the storytelling devices in the film, the interviews and showing the passage of time by setting it on her birthday every year. First, I wasn’t sure if you thought of Ellen Burstyn for the role due to her role in Same Time, Next Year. But second, were there films that inspired that technique?
Susan Walter: I never even thought of Same Time, Next Year, so that was just coincidence. But of course my favorite romantic comedy of all time is When Harry Met Sally, it’s a cut above the rest. And the thing I love about that film is it takes the characters years to figure out who they are and that they should be together. That movie has so much more credibility and gravitas because they aren’t meeting Monday and getting engaged Friday. And I was looking for a fresh way to do something similar. And the thing about birthdays is, they are a time to be self-reflective. And it’s natural for someone to feel pain and self-loathing if they aren’t where they want to be, because you’re comparing where you were last year and where you thought you’d be at this age. I thought it added a layer of depth.
Lesley Coffin: How did Tony get involved in the project?
Susan Walter: I’d of course seen him on Scandal, but in real life he’s so warm and attractive. For the romantic element of the film to work, you needed actors with chemistry. I’d actually met him before and he charmed the socks off me. And Sharon was also involved with that casting decision, and will admit to having had a little crush on him. She’s wanted to work with him for years, and we made that call together. And to his credit, he was quick to say yes. I think the opportunity to do something comedic really appeal to him, especially after all the high drama he’d been doing on Scandal.
(C) Lesley Coffin (3/26/18) FF2 Media