Editor’s note: CultureMap has partnered with the Lone Star Film Festival to publish a series of filmmaker interviews conducted by LSFF organizers.
Writer/director Colin Healey’s film Homemakers, which will screen on Saturday, November 8, as part of the Narrative Feature Competition at the 2014 Lone Star Film Festival in Sundance Square, tells the story of part-time Austin indie rocker, Irene McCabey (Rachel McKeon), who attempts to restore her recent inheritance: a crumbling, abandoned three-story row house built by her great-grandfather.
With the help of a drinking buddy who happens to be her long lost cousin, Irene attempts a boozy restoration project and discovers in the forgotten home a hidden urge to settle down.
In a recent interview with the Lone Star Film Festival, Healey talked about casting his first feature, converting a row house into a dilapidated home and why he decided to tell Irene’s story.
Lone Star Film Festival: You created such a wonderful mess of a character with Irene, and Rachel McKeon’s performance proves she has such a solid grasp on that character. At what point was she cast for the role, and how did you prepare Rachel to bring Irene to life?
Colin Healey: We found Rachel through an open casting call; the part wasn’t written for her. Like me, she had been living in New York but moved to Pittsburgh for a few years. She’s (thankfully!) not much like Irene. Pretty organized, in fact. She’s a reader. Irene barely sits down.
In the lead-up to production, we created a walk for Irene, and we had Jack and Rachel do some improv together to get used to each other. Finding the voice was important. It was interesting when we went back and did ADR to see Rachel have to find that voice again. It’s very distinctive. Rachel cut her own hair and grew out her armpits. She wasn’t that keen on the last part.
As written, Irene is a comedic role with a sadness behind her, but another actress might not have been able to find that, and the role could have become caricature. It could have become a series of punch lines and attitudes, but that’s not what Rachel looks for.
She’s looking for the roots behind the behavior, and the movie follows suit. Her Irene is awfully sensitive and well-intentioned, even when she’s being awful.
LSFF: The sets and production design are brilliant in this film. Who was behind designs like the “Moon Room” and converting the row house into a dilapidated wonderland?
CH: We had my old friend Seth Clark, who never worked in film before. He’s a Pittsburgh artist who works in collage dealing with disintegrating architecture and thematically touches on these ideas of lost homes and forgotten structures that Homemakers is dealing with.
We were living together in Pittsburgh while I wrote the film. And we had our new friend, Danielle Laubach, who’s a brilliant thinker, decorator, and interpreter of character and color, and they led a team of mostly visual artists and college students.
Danielle was the only person in the art department with previous experience on a movie, but that worked, because she and Seth are such great leaders with such amazing moxie and work ethic; they were able to take these cartoonish ideas and make them real and textured and gritty and mournful.
Everyone wanted to be on the art department, and friends from the neighborhood would come and help. They worked their asses off and made it look so fun. One night on set, I found Seth sleeping in Irene’s bed. I turned the light off for him.
LSFF: Besides being a visual delight and Rachel’s magnetic performance, Homemakers has some incredibly insightful thoughts about what it means to be an adult. Can you talk about the process of writing the film and why you wanted to tell this story?
CH: The story really came out of looking at the cityscape of Pittsburgh and the economic schism that city went through after the steel industry abandoned ship. Pittsburgh is hills and houses, and many of those houses are long empty.
I wanted to tell the story of one of those houses and what had happened to its family. At the time, I was living with a girlfriend for the first time, and I was living far from New England for the first time, and there had been some schisms in my extended family too, so that all bled in.
I’m a big believer that everyone is kind of crappy and unbalanced — or at least the interesting people — and adult life is about finding those other sides of yourself, individuating and exploring, and changing as much as you can before you pop off and hopefully don’t leave too much of a mess for your grandkids. When we’re young, we’re reacting to things that have happened to us and these legacies that are dumped in our laps. We’re a mess of reactions.
As we get older and we see that our personas are decisions, we start to see the rest of our lives are about what we grow in that mess. In Irene’s case, the first step is slowing down and joining a community in a non-destructive way. That is what’s hard for her, so that’s what she’s got to do.
LSFF: Creation by way of destruction is a common theme in the film. Do you have any interesting stories from production about capturing that chaos?
CH: First off, I am proud to say no one ever, ever got hurt. I’m CPR and first aid-trained, and our prop master, Travis, always had a medical kit, but I think just one band-aid got pulled from it over the course of the summer. Just being around the house, because it was so torn up, was the most dangerous part.
As for the destruction, everything actually went really, really smoothly! The opening stunt — which I won’t spoil — could have been done a second time, but it wasn’t necessary. We had a wonderful pro stunt double for Rachel for that scene; her name was also Rachel.
A lot of other big crashes were one shot only because we were destroying funny vintage microwaves and things like that you can’t get duplicates of, but we had good coordinators and smart actors who knew how to roll with chaos and stay in character, so it always worked out.
Every film crew builds up and then tears down at the end, but ours explores that on screen, and sometimes I think it was very hard for the art department to accept that everything nice they made or found would be destroyed! Some of our art crew actually stayed on after to gut this old house, so they had an even more intimate experience with it.
LSFF: With such an accomplished first feature under your belt, what can we expect next from the mind and lens of Colin Healey?
CH: Oh my gosh, I wish I could tell you that now. I’ve been leading some creativity workshops in New York, and I’ve moved on to three new scripts with three different writing partners, so we’ll see which sticks!
One is much bigger budget, so it likely won’t be made too soon, but it’s inspired by a 1980s kids TV show that sort of creeped me out when I was young, and that’s grown into a wilderness epic with some serious existential madness.
I’m working on another one with a childhood friend that we’d probably find another director for. The one I’m most excited about right now, I can’t say much about at all, except that I’ve been writing it with one of the key Homemakers folks, and it’s fantastic, chaotic Americana with a wild character relationship at its core that will be really perfect for our team.
I love production. I can’t wait to get back in the mess.
The 2014 Lone Star Film Festival takes place November 5-9 in Sundance Square in Fort Worth. For more information, visit the film festival website.