Ask for Rachel: FF2 Interview with Filmmaker Rachel Carey

Guest Post by Diane  K. Martin

Rachel Carey is a writer, a playwright, and a filmmaker. Her feature film, Ask for Jane, covering an abortion collective in the years before Roe v. Wade, debuted in 2018 and is now streaming from Amazon, Apple, Google Play, and elsewhere.

In addition to several other plays and a television pilot, she has written a novel, Debt, published by Silver Birch Press and optioned for a TV series by the production company Calamity Jane. She has a new play, The Disciple, opening in New York on July 20. And for all that, she still found time to answer my questions!

What were your first movie memories?

My parents say they took me to the first Star Wars film at a drive-in when I was a baby, so I like to think that was my first movie, but it’s hard to say what was actually the first film that mattered to me. I used to love the Bambi soundtrack as a child—along with a lot of other movie musicals, courtesy of my mother. My dad exposed me to more adventurous fare, like ET and Raiders of  the Lost Ark. So my love affair with film started early. 

Was there any particular movie that you connected with or found inspiring?

Here is a funny story: my parents were divorced; and when I was 13, my father and his girlfriend at the time took me with them to a French arthouse film, which turned out to be very inappropriate for a young teen. (My dad was embarrassed.) But rather than being shocked, I remember thinking, “Everyone keeps having sex, but no one is being very nice to each other.” And to this day, there’s a certain kind of European art cinema that provokes the same reaction in me—whether it’s Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier or even the brilliant Lynn Ramsay—that is, “Everyone’s having sex, but no one is being very nice to each other.” For a long time, that’s what I thought independent cinema was, and I had no interest in making that kind of film. It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 that I started to discover filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch or Gus Van Sant, who were more humanist and funny but still artistic. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho was a big film for me that way—it opened up the possibilities of cinema that was beautiful and strange and not quite so cynical. That was what made me think of film as an artistic medium that I could get excited about. Of course, over time, I’ve grown to appreciate some of those darker European filmmakers, but I still don’t aspire to do what they do.

How did your family react to your filmmaking goals? Did they take it seriously?

My mother was not thrilled when I went into filmmaking because she didn’t have a favorable view of Hollywood, but mainstream Hollywood was never the system I wanted to go into. In retrospect, some of her pessimism about the industry was justified, but so was some of my optimism. Aside from that, my family has been very supportive. 

You are not “just” a filmmaker. What is your favorite type of work? 

I love movies because they are a visceral, direct way of telling stories. I thought about being a novelist, but I fell in love with movies because they seemed more democratic—this big, glorious mass medium that dramatized emotions and told daring stories. It’s been endlessly exciting to unlock the puzzle of what makes films work.

Did you have any mentors? Did you ever say to yourself, “I want to be like XYZ”?

I’ve never had a particular mentor, although I’ve gotten a lot of support from various people, including Caroline Hirsch, who was critical to helping us make Ask for Jane. She’s amazing. In terms of who I aspire to be like: I find a lot of female filmmakers inspiring in different ways—just seeing them blaze their vision—particularly folks like Katherine Bigelow, Leslye Headland, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Greta Gerwig. It’s exciting to see more voices come to the table and to see what they do with their films. I also enjoy Martin McDonagh bringing his dark playwright sensibility to some of his screenplays. And Taika Waititi seems to be having a great time directing, which makes his films a lot of fun.

I know that you were once miserable teaching high school English in a small Massachusetts town. Was this when you decided you wanted to get into film? What particularly inspired you?

During my last year of college, I thought about going into filmmaking, but I had a lot of self-doubt and wasn’t quite sure I should do it. Instead, I taught high school for two years. Though I loved my students, I was deeply dissatisfied, so I decided I should just go for it and pursue film. This was in the late 1990s when independent film was at an exciting place—Miramax was winning Oscars—and I started by interning at a great company called Good Machine, which made films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Interestingly, though, by the time I got out of film school in 2005, things had changed a bit. Cable TV was doing a lot of the things independent films used to do: complex, antihero stories like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, and so forth. And quality indie companies like Good Machine were being bought out by studios. So true independent films started to become a little tougher to get made, and that has escalated with the rise of streaming television.

You studied film at NYU. What do you think of the program? 

I got a graduate degree in film directing at NYU, and I had wonderful peers and teachers. Even so, the program had issues: certain students were singled out for grants and awards, which led to anxiety around internal politics and “picking favorites.” I certainly felt like I hadn’t earned the gold star of approval from the leaders at that program when I left, and I also left with a lot of debt, which wasn’t a great feeling. But I was determined to persist with writing and making projects.

You’ve worked in film as a writer, as a director, as a casting assistant, as a film editor, and as a camera person. What do you think of each job?

There’s so much to say about the various positions in film. Editors, in particular, are underrated artists. I have definitely learned a lot from the various jobs I’ve done on small and large projects. One of the very good things about NYU film school was that we really had to learn every job—sound and camera and editing and so on. As a result, when I direct, I’m better at communicating with the crew on set because I have a real sense of the challenges they face. 

Have you written every work you directed? What is that like, making your vision come to life? (Is that an advantage?)

I tend to direct my own work, although my friend Cameron Bossert actually directed the streaming series The Female Genius, which was one of my recent projects. I like working with actors and enjoy directing, but it can be exciting to see what other people do with my writing, especially when they really understand the intentions of the piece.

How much of your novel Debt is reality-based?

Debt was a lot of fun to write. It’s a cathartic, satirical novel based on my time working for very wealthy families in Manhattan (which I did for a few years to pay down my film school debt).  A lot of the events in the book are heightened versions of real things I experienced. For example, I wrote an episode in the novel about kids paying other students to take their SATs and then later heard about that happening. So I think I captured the spirit of a certain kind of wealthy family who has lost touch with reality. We saw that type of family surface again with the college admissions scandal a year or two ago.

Before Ask for Jane, had you heard tales of when abortion was illegal from women in your mother’s generation? 

A lot of the details in my film Ask for Jane were based on real-life stories I heard and read, including stories told to us by the wonderful Judith Arcana, who worked with the original abortion service of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and was one of the “Janes” who got arrested and put on trial. Then when we took the film to festivals, frequently, after the screenings, women who had lived through that era would stand up (or approach us afterward) to tell their personal stories about illegal abortions, sometimes for the first time. That was deeply meaningful and moving.

Have you experienced threats or worse because of Ask for Jane?

I didn’t experience direct threats from anti-abortion people, perhaps because the film flew under the radar since it was made for such a small budget. But one of the negative things I experienced was that on various review sites, people who clearly hadn’t seen the film gave it very bad ratings. For example, on the first day our film was “released” on IMDB, we got dozens of low, 1-star reviews from people that very same morning—when people literally could not have watched the film yet because it had only been available on streaming for about two hours. So those ratings were from people who were just angry that the film existed. That was frustrating because audiences use those numerical ratings to evaluate a film, and our ratings on several websites were (and are) artificially low because of what seemed to be coordinated attacks. (Of course, we got plenty of honest positive and negative reviews as well.)

I know that your husband, Jeff, and you share family responsibilities, but there must be challenges you have to deal with raising a family and having a career. Any special advice for other women in the arts?

I think balancing career and family always intersects with finances. Someone who is independently wealthy or a single parent or a parent with a special needs child deals with very different things—so it’s hard to give general advice. In my case, I chose to have kids, knowing it might slow down my creative output a bit, but I also lost time to just having to earn a living through teaching college and so forth. I am now writing and filmmaking full-time, but it took some effort to get there. I think the key thing is to continue creating and getting better and to find a community of people, so you are not doing your creative work alone.

How is working in theater different from working on a film?

I really enjoy working in theater because I love having rehearsal time with actors. As a playwright and screenwriter, I find it invaluable to hear my words delivered by actors and to workshop the project with them, and there isn’t nearly enough time to do that on a typical movie shoot. (Instead, you try lots of takes and change things in the editing room!) So in terms of the rehearsal process, I prefer theater. That said, I have a lot more experience with the craft of filmmaking than theater directing. And I love the intimacy of film—the way a camera can sit right next to an actor and capture a look in their eye. In theater, those moments often have to be telegraphed by the text, which can make playwriting feel a little more artificial in some ways.

Have you ever been tempted to go Hollywood?

I would love to “go Hollywood” if that means being able to pay people on my projects a good salary! But to work in a highly commercial space, you need both to have projects with mass appeal and to be able to convince the gatekeepers that your projects have mass appeal. And the trouble is, I don’t necessarily write projects (even if I try) that have truly mass appeal and, therefore can easily earn back tens of millions of dollars. And those gatekeepers for a long time skewed white and male, which influenced their perception of what was commercial. That has improved in the last decade, but there’s still a kind of working mythology within the Hollywood system about what “sells”—which is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. So to work within that system—and to be creative—means navigating a very specific set of challenges. I would be happy to do that if I were working with the right producers on the right projects. But that’s the whole trick, isn’t it?

What are you working on next?

I am currently directing a lightly satirical full-length play I wrote called The Disciple about Ayn Rand’s relationship with her much-younger follower Nathaniel Branden. Nathaniel Branden went on to help found the “self-esteem” movement in the 1970s, and the play looks at how the roots of the American self-help movement connect back to Randian philosophy. That will be my first return to staging live theater in New York City. I am also attached to direct a charming feature script by screenwriter Jim Beggarly, so we are trying to get that made. And as always, I have three or four other things I’m writing and sending out. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of getting the right project in front of the right person.

BONUS: Rachel Carey’s new play, The Disciple, runs at the Wild Project in New York City from July 20-July 25t. Buy tickets here!

© Diane K. Martin (7/17/21) – Special for FF2 Media

Photo Credits:

Featured Photo: From Rachel Carey’s film “Ask for Jane.” Credit: Michael Bernstein

Photo of Rachel Carey. Credit: Jeff McCrum

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Diane K. Martin’s prose has appeared in numerous publications including Tin House, The Establishment, VIDA, and The Rumpus. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies including  Best New Poets. She received a Pushcart Special Mention and won poetry prizes from Smartish Pace and Nimrod Journal. Her first collection, Conjugated Visits, a National Poetry Series finalist, was published by Dream Horse Press. Hue & Cry, her second book, was published in March 2020 by MadHat Press. She lives in western Sonoma County, California.

Tags: Ask for Jane, Diane K. Martin, FF2, FF2 Media, Pro Choice, Rachel Carey, Reproductive Rights, women in film

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