Yes, Sarah Kernochan has won two Academy Awards. But that barely scratches the surface of her decades-long career, where she has been everything from director to novelist to screenwriter to musician.
“I didn’t have any ambition to be a director, and certainly not a documentary filmmaker,” Sarah said, looking back on her Academy-Award winning feature, Marjoe. “But you go with the story… And that was an amazing story.”
The film, which Sarah made when was only twenty-five years old, was co-directed with her then-partner Howard Smith. It followed former child preacher Marjoe Gortner, who began his sermons at only four years old. Gortner, as chronicled in Sarah’s documentary, spent half the year making the devout congregation members on the Bible Belt convulse with the holy spirit and the other half mocking them for doing so.
“There was absolutely nothing in industry wisdom that would tell you that somebody was going to actually put money into making this documentary about an evangelist, when documentaries weren’t even very successful,” Sarah said. “But it came together so fast; it was really kind of breathtaking.”
This is, in a nutshell, the story of Sarah’s career, made with equal parts hard work and divine intervention. Projects, as varied as horror short stories and musical song cycles, surface intermittently with nothing to determine which will be a success and which will be surreptitiously stopped in its tracks. A novel she loved was canceled by a publisher when it was almost finished, her musical got halfway through rehearsals before being shut down by the theater. And then there’s the Strike saga…
“There seem to be a whole lot of ups and downs, which I think is very common to most creative careers.”
“There seem to be a whole lot of ups and downs, which I think is very common to most creative careers,” Sarah said. “Way ups and way downs in my case, but whenever the ‘ups’ happen, there always seems to be the hand of fate involved somehow.”
Sarah had always wanted to be a writer, and it was almost an accident that she got involved in filmmaking through Marjoe – fate, some might say. The movie changed the course of her life, resetting her from her ghostwriting journalism job towards Hollywood, where she is perhaps best known for her screenwriting work. The Oscar, as she put it, was ‘good for nothing’ except getting her into Hollywood offices.
“In Los Angeles, I split up with my partner/lover, and discovered that I could not get hired because, as the female part of the partnership – and the much younger one – it was simply assumed that Howard did everything. And there were no opportunities for female writer/directors anyway, there were no role models to be had. So after attempting for about a year to put projects together, I simply turned back to my ambition to be a writer.”
This was a time of new adventures for Sarah, who published a book, Dry Hustle, chronicling a pair of female con artists as they traveled across the country scamming easily-aroused men out of their money. She actually followed the two real-life women the novel was based on as they went on a hustling road-trip around the United States, “researching” by taking part in some of the scams herself. She got a recording contract with RCA and released two albums as a singer-songwriter; you can still find both albums on Spotify.
And yet, it also introduced her to the harsh realities of Hollywood – both the injustice of being a woman in Hollywood and hardships of a creative career in general. Sarah’s second novel was abruptly canceled, and the musical she had been developing stalled out. The movie based on Dry Hustle (which she was already slated to write the script for) fell apart, so she began working as a script doctor on screenplays for a variety of movies that needed a discerning eye to refine them. 9 ½ Weeks, Dancers – most of them didn’t find much critical success.
“Impromptu is my favorite, favorite thing that I’ve ever written.”
“And then, I wrote something simply for my own enjoyment,” Sarah said, pleasure glinting in her eye. “And that became Impromptu, which is my favorite, favorite thing that I’ve ever written.”
Eventually, given creative freedom during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, she wrote the movie that she is proudest of to date – Impromptu, a playful exploration with gender that told the strange, and sometimes obsessive, story of French author George Sand (played by Judy Davis) and her passionate affair with Polish composer Frederic Chopin (played by Hugh Grant). When the strike was lifted and production began, the film was directed by Sarah’s husband, renowned theater director James Lapine (best known as the writer of the Into the Woods libretto). It was after this experience – the first where her script hadn’t been rewritten and edited into something unrecognizable – that she began to think of directing herself.
“That was when I turned to my best friends from boarding school, and said, I want to do a film for us at that time, and then our daughters can watch it,” Sarah said. The girls at her alma mater – Rosemary Hall in Connecticut (now part of Choate) – served as her inspiration.
All I Wanna Do is the first and only film that Sarah both wrote and directed.
This idea materialized into All I Wanna Do, the first and only film that Sarah both wrote and directed. It was the biggest of her screenwriting successes and also the most devastating defeat. Despite the strength of the movie – a teen comedy at an all-girls boarding school that is as witty as it is hilarious with a script deserving of its nostalgic place in cinema history – All I Wanna Do was suppressed by no less than Harvey Weinstein (the infamous Miramax distributor now in prison for his lengthy list of #MeToo convictions). Harvey Weinstein demanded cuts and refused to release All I Wanna Do as promised, forcing Sarah to use her entire script fee, out of pocket, to open her film in one theater for one week.
“When I got that news [that Harvey bought the movie], I was over the moon,” Sarah said. “Harvey had a reputation by now of being a wizard. There was no better distributor A) for indie movies and B) teen movies… but the problem was he said I didn’t fit into either one. He said you’re too smart to be this. But it doesn’t also belong in the adult indie fair either.”
Sarah had originally titled this film The Hairy Bird, but when Harvey Weinstein decided that The Hairy Bird was too vulgar, Sarah says she began to realize that he did not understand what he was dealing with. During the first encounter that they had, he screamed obscenities at her, reminding her that he was so powerful he could bury her in an instant. As a result most people were never given a chance to encounter this uproarious story of 90s feminism.
As far as the movie industry was concerned, The Hairy Bird was a flop… It was my flop…
“As far as the movie industry was concerned, The Hairy Bird was a flop… It was my flop as a director, a writer-director. It was not blamed on Harvey. By no means,” she said. “I had made a movie that was so bad that it played for one week and then went to video. So I tried to get directing projects from my scripts off in the aftermath, but there was no interest.”
(Note that The Hairy Bird was retitled All I Wanna Do, and can now be found on IMDb with the title Strike! According to IMDb, only the Australian release retains the original title The Hairy Bird.)
All I Wanna Do had been the highlight of Sarah’s career up to that point – walking onto the set, seeing all the people at the ready to bring her story to life – it was everything that she had dreamed of. For most, a setback like this would have been crushing. And yet, in her infinite ability to reinvent herself, it was only a blip. Sarah moved on, using it instead as a learning experience. Harvey Weinstein had kept cutting and cutting, hacking away at her carefully constructed movie until eventually he demanded the removal of one of the film’s most important scenes. He promised that it would be his final order… but… of course, it wasn’t.
“His threat was not to release it unless I made the cut. And then he didn’t release it anyway. That was the lesson. If I’d stood up for myself, even earlier,” she said (a bitterness creeping into her voice as she remembered his demands), “It would have had the same result, except that I could have been proud of myself.”
But then another script that she had given up on finally came to fruition after going through eight different directorial pairings. Learning To Drive (starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley) was another one of those hand of fate moments, proving that when the story is strong, it will find a way to get told. When she saw it in 2015, our FF2 Media Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner gave Learning To Drive a 4.5/5 rating, concluding “Bottom Line: For me, director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Sarah Kernochan definitely ‘hit it out of the park.’” And Sarah has even won another Academy Award in the interim for her documentary short, Thoth (which tells the story of a street-performer based out of Central Park).
Sarah has never let herself be limited, taking unfamiliar opportunities as a challenge rather than a threat.
Now, just as she thought she was retiring, Sarah has taken on yet another new and exciting title – librettist for a new musical in development based on of the popular teen detective Nancy Drew. It’s just like her. Sarah has never let herself be limited, taking unfamiliar opportunities as a challenge rather than a threat.
We can only wonder what new gems will come next.
© Catherine Sawoski (10/3/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Read my article on the All I Wanna Do screening at the Metrograph here.
Read Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of Learning to Drive here.
Pursue Sarah’s website and storied career here.
Watch Thoth here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Sarah Kernochan is all smiles after the Q&A at the Metrograph!
Bottom Photo: Catherine Sawoski and FF2 team member Dayna Hagewood are all smiles after the Q&A too!
Photos taken by Jan Lisa Huttner on 8/11/23 (the night Sarah screened All I Wanna Do at the Metrograph in Manhattan). The sold-out crowd was jubilant!
Photos authorized for responsible use as long as user references this post.