Film Pulse writer Ernie Trinidad caught up with writer-director Alison Bagnall at this year’s AFI Fest to talk about her latest film, Funny Bunny, which is screening as part of their American Independents program. The film stars Olly Alexander, Joslyn Jensen, and Kentucker Audley and is set to open in New York this Friday, November 13th. Be sure to check out our full review here.
Please note there are a few topics discussed in this interview that could be considered spoilers so read with caution!
So, you co-wrote the film with your leads. How did that dynamic work? Were there challenges?
No, it wasn’t an issue. First of all, the script was already completely written, but whenever I cast actors, I like to go through and kind of tailor their characters for them. And also these actors are auteurs in their own right. I had not been planning on rewriting it with them, but in the end, we decided to go through the script from Page 1 right ’til the end, and we ended up overhauling it so much that I felt that I had to give them credit at the end.
Did you already have your actors in mind when you were writing it?
I always have an actor in mind when I’m writing because I find it hard to write in a vacuum without a person in mind, but often I’ll be visualizing an actor and a character they’ve played. For my Dean character I was inspired by John C. Riley’s character in Magnolia, but I was also thinking of the type of person who is a do-gooder and has no social filter. I love characters who don’t have social filters, who will say the things that we all think of saying but we don’t dare say them.
With the characters, did you ever fear that some of them may be a little too unsympathetic…that the audience can’t relate to anyone?
I like characters that are hard to like; that’s what I was drawn to with Buffalo 66, the Billy Brown character. He’s sort of awful and lovable at the same time. I like having characters that you dare the audience to like, and I actually prefer the sort of character that’s harder to love, as opposed to someone who’s wonderful and perfect.
The press notes say this is a film about intimacy and trauma, but I found it as a commentary of social awkwardness and the struggles people go through to finally make a connection and how that connection sets them free. Regarding this awkwardness, how did you keep things grounded in order to avoid devolving into parody?
All the characters are based on real people. The Titty character is based partly on a real guy I know who was raised that way, with a whole lot of money but a really dysfunctional family. I don’t think of him as a “trust funder” in the typical sense of a spoiled child; he’s actually a very neglected child who’s had a very difficult life. He’s had all the money he needed, but he didn’t have the important things, such as a nurturing or a loving parent. He’s like a house plant that’s been kept in a closet. In the course of this movie, he’s like a plant that’s been taken out of the closet and brought into the light, and you watch him sort of bloom into a fuller human being just through the contact of these other characters. Ginger, the internet girl, is very much based on real survivors of sexual abuse; she’s a totally solid character, as far as finding intimacy difficult to impossible, but she does crave attention. Another thing about survivors of sexual abuse is that they tend to provoke a sexual response in others unconsciously, and then they’re actually upset or angry when they receive a sexual response. I guess the characters do border on parody, but I think of them as a pure brushstroke as characters living in my mind, and I’m not trying to be quirky per se; I’m just imagining characters who are innocents.
I want to get back to the character of Ginger; the scene when it’s revealed she was a victim of sexual abuse was a heartbreaking moment and one that really brought the whole movie together. Joslyn Jensen gives a really powerful performance, and I was wondering, when directing that scene, was it something you went over with Joslyn or did she figure it out herself?
I’m glad you asked that. Yeah, I did a lot of research on incest survivors, and I hired a psychologist who specializes in incest survivors to go through my whole script. She’s had a number of patients who have had a recall of sexual abuse right in front of her in her office because these memories are often buried so deeply in the body that you don’t have access to them until you’re an adult. Statistically, the age of recall is about 26. I was talking to the psychologist, and she described a typical scene of when a patient has had this recall in her office, and basically she went through what that looks like. I had some long conversations with my actors a month or two ahead of shooting, where I handed over all my research I had done, and so she just sort of absorbed it all, internalized it and probably did her own research. So that scene that you’re talking about is the most critical scenes in the movie. I did not direct that at all; I was hiding behind a kitchen island because we were shooting it 360 [degrees]. My cinematographer, Ashley Conner, was circling around the action; I had headphones so I could hear, but I didn’t direct it.
Did Kentucker know what [Jensen] was going to do?
Yeah, I mean, he had never seen it because we didn’t rehearse it. I’m of that school of thought that I’m terrified the very best performance to happen when the camera’s not rolling. He knew the contours of the scene, but he didn’t know exactly how she would play it. I think it was much more wrenching than even he imagined it was going to be, so he was sort of responding in time. All his dialogue was actually improvised; his character wasn’t going to be speaking at all, but he just found himself trying to help her. He was so wonderful in that scene because after each take he would just embrace Joslyn to make sure she was okay; it was very touching.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I love making people laugh and then making them cry, because that’s what I love to do in a movie. I hope it’s healing. I actually made it for my mother’s cousin. Ginger is inspired by my mom’s cousin, who took her own life at 36. This movie was my imagining of if some well-intentioned person had come along and rescued her and changed the ending of her story. I want the movie to be a way for people who have had traumatic pasts to feel that they can open up and talk about those things and not have shame. I want people to have fun and be moved.