Known to the public as an actress, Annabelle Attansio has been making short films for years before becoming one to watch feature debut, Mickey and the Bear. Debuting at South by Southwest, the film stars Camila Morrone and James Badge Dale as Mickey and Hank, a daughter-father team in Montana. But for some time Mickey has taken on the caretaker role to her veteran father Hank, who is addicted to pain medication and often abusive and controlling of his daughter. Mickey’s opportunity to escape comes with college acceptance, but leaving that situation is both strategically and emotionally challenging for a woman on the verge of adulthood who lacks parental support. With standout performances by Morrone and Dale, Attansio’s quiet film also features outstanding support from Calvin Demba, Ben Rosenfield, and Rebecca Henderson.
Lesley Coffin: Where did the initial concept for the film come from?
Annabelle Attansio: The idea of the kid, especially a female, who takes on the role of caregiver isn’t something I see a lot in films. That was an idea that really resonated with me. And that’s really what initially excited me. At the time, about 5 years ago, I was also researching veterans and specially the way trauma a veteran’s experience can impact their children. So, I think I merged those two ideas to create what is essentially a two-hander about a girl and her dad.
Lesley Coffin: The main character of Mickey’s right on the brink of deciding whether to leave home and go away to school, which would be a big risk for someone from that family life and economic background. Why was it so important to clearly place her at that specific time in her life?
Annabelle Attansio: For me the tension of the impending development of an 18-year old was something I really wanted to play with. I think in culturally, America specifically, tends to put a lot of emphasis on a girl’s coming of age in terms of their sexuality, which they didn’t ask for. That was something I wanted to call to question in the film. The gender roles which are being imposed on someone like Mickey by the outside world. I think we impose a lot onto teenage girls we wouldn’t necessarily impose onto teenage boys.
Lesley Coffin: I remember reading a study on coming of age films and how many films about boys don’t deal with their sexual development compared to the majority of female led films which do.
Annabelle Attansio: Of course, because we still live in this somewhat puritanical culture, although that may now be closeted. Virginity is still given so much credence and society still believe losing your virginity is the biggest moment in a girl’s life. I certainly didn’t feel that way. And with Mickey, her life isn’t about her sexuality, but she is frustrated to be living in this patriarchal society. She’s surrounded by men who are trying to control her and to break free she needs to untether herself from any of the men around her.
Lesley Coffin: Was that part of the reason you wrote the character of the psychiatrist as a female? Otherwise we don’t see her have much interaction with other women.
Annabelle Attansio: I think making Watkins a woman and woman in her 30s, she can be like an older sister to Mickey. She isn’t there to replace her mother, but she does want to look out for her. She’s like this guardian angel. It was important that she be played by a woman because you can see how open and forthcoming Mickey is around her, compared to when she’s around Aaron or Hank. And Rebecca Henderson brought this refreshing energy to the film that was very necessary. It gave us a break from what is a very male-centric story.
Lesley Coffin: We should also mention the character of Wyatt who isn’t another controlling man in Mickey’s life, and we also learn that he’s gone through and come out of a similar experience that Mickey is currently dealing with.
Annabelle Attansio: Wyatt represents Mickey’s potential, he sees the worth in himself and can see the worth and potential she has. He’s come to terms with having this broken home and challenging upbringing but managed to emancipate himself from that situation. He storms off in that moment because he refuses to move backwards, he can’t date someone who would take her father’s side in those situations. He would be stepping backwards if he stayed with her.
Lesley Coffin: As you mentioned you were also interested in the life of veterans and one of the issues you deal with is Hank’s addiction to prescription medications, drugs he’s been given by a veterans’ hospital. What issues that came out of your research impacted how you wrote his character?
Annabelle Attansio: I don’t know, doubt that Hank became the guy he is because of his addiction. You see that he can be very funny, charming, is manipulative. But he can also change on a dime and become mean and vengeful. Those are the scariest people, the ones who can play with your emotions. I think his behavior comes not from addition but his need to control and have power over his daughter.
Lesley Coffin: Without giving away too much away, were you conflicted on how much to resolve things in the film?
Annabelle Attansio: I certainly played around with that and considered having more closure. But I thought the strongest ending would be one which left things ambiguous and at a very high point of emotion. That was exactly where this story at this stage in her life needed to end.
Lesley Coffin: What were some of the things Camilla brought out in the character that were different from how you initially envisioned Mickey.
Annabelle Attansio: We certainly workshopped the character but for the most part we used the script as written. The character I wrote is close to the character you see on screen, down to the costumes. One thing that Camilla brought out was this biting sense of humor. That was an element she naturally brings to a role. She was also completely natural in a parenting role. She had the body language of a caretaker. Mickey is a product of what was on the page, but we also collaborated quite a lot, trying to guide her through her artistic process.
Lesley Coffin: Did you do the same kind of workshopping with James Badge Dale?
Annabelle Attansio” Badge has a completely different process. Cam and I are both type A personalities, she color-codes her script and highlights everything. We both want to go through every moment together. Badge prefers working on his own and coming to set the important things he needs or wants to change, but he does most of his character work on his own. He’s very loose and fluid, never completely making up his mind about how to play a scene. Cam doesn’t either to be honest. So, while they have completely different processes, they both show up knowing the scene down cold but with the freedom to play the scene differently.
Lesley Coffin: The movie has a lot of emotional extremes. Was there a particularly difficult scene to film?
There were a lot of those. We tried to keep our spirits high by it was grueling to shoot on location in Montana in August and September. I think the hardest one of Cam and Badge was the scene in the hospital, but a lot of their scenes together were grueling.
Lesley Coffin: Why did you decide to shoot in Montana?
The veteran’s population in Anaconda has a very prominent veterans’ community I could get in touch with easily online, yet their stories remain relatively untold.
Lesley Coffin: I noticed a lot of your heads of departments on the crew were women. Was having a largely female led crew that something you actively looked for?
Definitely. It was very intentional to find women behind the scenes, especially to tell a story that was proudly female centric. But I think going forward it will be a necessity to hire women to take on those roles. We talk about it a lot, but there aren’t enough allies coming forward to give opportunities. As long as I’m making my own movies and can choose who I hire, I want to continue to do that.
© Lesley Coffin (11/15/19) FF2 Media | Photo credits: Utopia