Photographer turned-director Jenny Gage clearly has an interest in the inner lives of teenage girls. Her first feature-length documentary, All This Panic, documented the lives of Brooklyn girls from high school to college, dealing with the multitude of issues teenagers face head-on. For her new film After, she dives into the narrative world, adapting the bestselling “new adult fiction” After for the screen. Focusing on a relationship for college freshman Tessa (Josephine Landford) with a wealthy bad boy Harden (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin), the film is part romantic drama and part sexual thriller. Gage, who also co-wrote the film, discussed the film along with how not to pander to your audience, depicting sex responsibly, and her vintage choice of music.
Lesley Coffin: At what point were you brought on board?
Jenny Gage: I was brought in by Jennifer Gibgot, the producer of After, once she’d gotten the material away from Paramount and started to look for ways to make the film independently.
Lesley Coffin: What sparked your interest in coming on board this project?
Jenny Gage: I read the screenplay and book at the same time, basically over one long weekend. And what appealed to me was telling a story about a female point of view character, focusing on female sexual awakening and her coming of age, all things I wanted to deal with as a director, especially in my first narrative.
Lesley Coffin: Do you think your documentary put you on the producer’s radar because of the way you depicted teenage girls?
Jenny Gage: The production team really wanted, and I was in complete agreement, that they wanted to depict an authentic portrait of a girl that age. And I think they believed they appreciated the way I gave those girls a voice and told an authentic story.
Lesley Coffin: The subject and narrative of a book like this probably appeals to young women a little younger than the characters. How do you balance that need to make something that appeals to that age group, balancing what is age appropriate without watering it down or make something which feels condescending to the audience?
Jenny Gage: One of the things which is very universal in After, besides the love story, is the story of friendship and Tess’s relationship with her mother. Coming of age, leaving home, making new friends, deciding how to trust, are all issues girls who are 12, 13, or 14 have started to deal with. And After delves into female desire but, because I agree with you about younger girls watching this movie, it was very important that we deal with the issue of consent. When there were those intimate scenes between Harden and Tessa, we made it clear that consent was part of the romance.
Lesley Coffin: I wasn’t familiar with Josephine but she is a perfect fit for the role of Tess. How did you find her for the role?
Jenny Gage: Both Josephine and Hero were both cast initially from tape, Josephine in Australia and Hero from the UK. But once we saw their performances we flew them both in and they both bring this vulnerability to the roles which was necessary for both characters for the film to really work. It took a long time to find them but once we did, it was clear they were the right people for the role.
Lesley Coffin: Did they have to do chemistry reads for those parts?
Jenny Gage: We did. Josephine also came in a read with Dylan Arnold who plays Noah in the film. And that was also a hard role to cast, because I wanted Tessa to feel conflicted over ending that relationship and a character in his own right, not just old news. He just wasn’t fulfilling everything she needed. It was just really important that we believe the chemistry she had with these actors.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about the decision to cast someone like Selma Blair and Jennifer Beals in this film, both actresses who started very young and gone through similar experiences on screen. Was there an effort made to find actresses we’ve seen grow up on screen and depict female desire?
Jenny Gage: It was not a coincidence. It certainly appealed to me to remind audiences that female desire is nothing new. But I was also just so grateful to have cast these women I really admire and have loved on screen for decades. Both Selma and Jennifer are just incredible actors.
Lesley Coffin: This is a classic theme, even a film like Splendor in the Grass with Natalie, have dealt with sexual awakening and female desire. But what issues of the present day did you really want to explore?
Jenny Gage: I think the issue of social media, and the way we can keep track of people online is a new phenomenon. Both Carol and Noah can keep tabs on Tessa long after dropping her off at school and because of that more involved with her college life. That was something we wanted to include in the film visually, by showing the texts invading her life. And the way Tess gets obsessed with Harden and starts looking for her on Instagram, although I think he wouldn’t have a profile on Instagram. I think it’s difficult for young people right now because you’re stumbling through and making mistakes but must do it in this very public way. You can’t avoid social media when telling the story of young people.
Lesley Coffin: We’re probably around the same age and social media barely existed in college, maybe you had a cell phone and could text with a flip phone but nothing like now. Having a cast closer to the age of the characters, did you ask them if things felt authentic and rang true?
Jenny Gage: Absolutely, we drew a lot about their personal life. I’d be talking to Josephine and Hero about their characters and if Inanna was sitting in the circle with us she might mention something similar happening in her own life. So, it was great to have this up-and-coming cast around, they became a family on set. If one of them had to depict something they’d never been through, they could turn to one of the other actors for advice.
Lesley Coffin: I was interested in the choices you made with the music, a lot of which is sort of 10 years old or later? Why did you make the decision with slightly older pieces of pop music?
Jenny Gage: The choice to use music from that previous generation came from my understanding that a lot of kids that age is going back and listening to that music on things like Spotify and Pandora. My son is 16 and he played the song Paper Planes for me and I was like “I listened to that song 10 years ago.” And I told to one of his female friends who said she was into Lorde’s first album. So that was in inspiration for the music in After. This music is suddenly considered vintage.