The day Adult Life Skills hit theaters in the US release, I spoke with writer-director-editor Rachel Tunnard by phone from her home in England - a hectic day with multitasking a Skype call and dog walk. Yet, it felt oddly appropriate for a movie which has been waiting release since winning the 2016 Nora Ephron Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, it’s coming out during a flurry of activities for Tunnard). Three years later, with Tunnard already in post-production on her next film, international audiences have embraced Adult Life Skills, and it’s no wonder considering despite the sad plot of a woman on the edge of 30 dealing with life after the death of her twin brother, Tunnard create a warm, funny coming-of-age film.
Lesley Coffin: I remember seeing and really loving the film when it originally premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and won the award, and then it just flew under the radar in America until now. I’ve even asked other writers if they knew when it would be coming out.
Rachel Tunnard: Well it’s all different, since then Jodie’s gotten famous. It’s funny for us because she made a video for Twitter and we laugh because we made the film ages ago, literally years. And because it was made so long ago, now it’s just fun for us to look back.
Lesley Coffin: Because you had the experience of making the film and having it come out years later, can you look at the film with distance and see the final product or do you nitpick?
Rachel Tunnard: I’ve worked in the film industry for a long time, I’ve worked as an editor. And with any project you think, “If I had more money, more time, I could have made this film even better.” But with this film, it was such a family project. Jodie and Rachael Deering are my two best friends, the person who plays the snorkeler’s, Ed, is our other good friend. Brett’s a very good friend of ours. Jodie’s dad and brother’s in it. We decided to shoot the film quickly, we lost our financing three weeks before shooting and had to relocate the shoot. So, Jodie had to stay with her mom and dad because we had no money. We felt before starting shooting that we were kind of made to make it, but we sat down and decided it would just be fun. We might never get the opportunity to make a movie together again. Let’s take the opportunity to make a film together and take the license to do something so personal. So, we decided to just go for it. I haven’t watched the film since going to the Michael Moore film festival, and like everyone I see my work and want to make changes. But it’s also such an odd little fish of a film. Even the reviews are interesting, it seems to be a very divisive film. Some people really dislike the film, but people who like it seem to really love it and take it into their hearts.
Lesley Coffin: I feel like as a filmmaker with a film this personal, it’s better to have a movie where even if the audience is smaller, they really fall in love and they aren’t just saying, “Oh, it’s nice.”
Rachel Tunnard: It won several awards in England and that doesn’t result in bigger audiences, nor does it in America. But it has found a cult fanbase which is very satisfying to us. Jodie sent a picture on Twitter of her wearing the hat she wore in the short film and loads of people recognized it.
Lesley Coffin: Do you see any link among the people who have created that fanbase and developed a personal connection?
Rachel Tunnard: What’s interesting to me is, when I was writing it and pitching it, the demographics were considered very niche. We were told the film was “very artsy, leftist, whimsical for girls” although the age was specifically 25-to-35-year-old women. But when we started doing test screenings, it found a cross-generational audience, and a lot of men identify with the story as well. A lot of people identify with the characters, some people love the kid, or Brett and Jodie, or the relationship between the best friends, or Jodie’s mother and grandmother. Having three women in a family bickering and loving each other really tugs at some heartstrings. The film is relatively unique in terms of my own work. But the thing that seems to link people is the sense that the people who made the film had a really good time working together. Like 30 of us went to New York when the film premiered at Tribeca and just had a ball, and people seem to sense the fun had making the film when watching it and that’s why so many people have been compelled to reach out directly.
Lesley Coffin: I think it can be felt, especially because you have this running theme in the film of someone who just love the process of making films.
Rachel Tunnard: Absolutely. I was laughing this afternoon because Jodie’s given me a thumb video to upload to our Twitter, and I kept up loading a black screen. I had to get my stepson to help. So, all these followers saw me having technical problems and said, “You need an adult life skills badge for working twitter.” And then people started sending their own thumb videos. And we had so many examples of fans who make their own DIY films.
Lesley Coffin: You mention being an editor, and I wonder if the way you’ve trained your brain to see movies had a direct impact when you started directing?
Rachel Tunnard: Oh, for sure. I know that you will always have to compromise on a film. And I sat down with my husband six weeks before we started filming. And he said, “Go someplace quiet and cut out 15 scenes.” And I said, “I can’t do that, it’s gold. I’ve been working on this for three years.” And his response was “You don’t have the time or money to shoot everything, so you’ll need to know the scenes you can lose.” And when I’m an editor, I’m always saying what we don’t need, if you must drop a scene, what’s the minimal information you’ll need to avoid a logic problem. So, knowing that on a film set really helped. I knew that this six-year-old child looks great but can’t remember lines, so always shoot him in singles, so I or Jodie can feed him lines and give him lots of takes. So, I knew I could edit that with Jodie’s cutaways and it would look great. It’s helpful when running out of time on a film set, you can say what you really need to make the scene work. I don’t think I found it easier as a writer, I found that process difficult.
Lesley Coffin: Watching it a second time, I think the film feels more restrained than you’d expect on a project so clearly personal and intimate, everything seems to be in the film with a sense of intention and purpose.
Rachel Tunnard: I’m pretty strict with myself, knowing that if you’re not making The Godfather or Ben-Hur, I think a movie would be 90 to 95 minutes. It isn’t a rom-com, but it falls into the same type, and I think those movies should almost always be around 90 minutes. There was a first assembly that I cut being 115 minutes. And watching with the executives, they were making little notes about minor changes. And I said, “I think I need to cut about 20 minutes out of the movie.”
Lesley Coffin: You’re probably the first director in history to suggest to executives that you should cut that much out of your own movie.
Rachel Tunnard: But you need to be rigorous, and I enjoy scrutinizing my work. I always do the same thing to other directors, so I need to apply the same logic to my own work. Don’t be sloppy, don’t be too precious. I actually cut it down too far and an executive came to me to say “you’ve cut too much” and we started putting some things back in. I think a film like this should move.
Lesley Coffin: When showing the film in the U.K. vs in America and around the world, are there aspects which just don’t translate?
Rachel Tunnard: I actually don’t think so. We played South America and Russia, and people do sometimes struggle with the accents, but in general audiences were always so warm to the film and stayed for these long Q&As. It was odd that a film I’d written in my shed in the North of England, translated across the world. And ultimately, if your work connects to one person, it’s kind of worth it. When I was very young, first working in the film industry, someone told me the point of making a film is to reach the heart and mind of a stranger. And that’s been my experience, and I know I’ve reached some hearts and minds because I’ve read their letters. The most interesting response I’ve had has come from twins. The original project came about from money I’d received from the Welcome Trust in England to do research on twin loss. It’s often very different from other losses because it frequently manifests as an existential crisis. And the response from twins has been remarkable, and that experience is of course global.
© Lesley Coffin (1/25/19) FF2 Media