We had the pleasure of chatting with the theatre actors turned film directors, Jessie Barr and Lena Hudson, about the challenges of making their new short film Too Long At The Fair, female representation, the uniqueness of indie film, and working with seasoned actor Chris Messina.
Too Long at the Fair is a coming-of-age story which sees two friends become desperate for funds after a mishap with their current job as kids’ party princesses. This refreshingly original short film is written and directed by, and stars, real-life best friends, Jessie Barr and Lena Hudson.
Similarly to the Joan Didion essay in which the film’s title originates, Jessie made the move from New York to Los Angeles in her late twenties, so the co-creators were actually at opposite sides of the country for most of the process.
You both come from the theatre. What drew you to filmmaking?
Jessie Barr: I think we both really wanted to take control of our creative destinies. We were part of a group out of college that devised new work - we helped create, we helped write, we improvised - so that collaborative spirit which is so a part of filmmaking, and indie filmmaking in particular, I think really prepared us for that.
Was this both your film directing debuts?
Lena Hudson: It was!
Was there anything that you found surprisingly difficult, or perhaps surprisingly easier than you expected?
Lena: I wasn’t really shocked by how hard it was. It’s just hard doing things with little money where you’re making everything yourself. So I think I was semi-prepared for that. The cross-country process -
Jessie: *Laughs* Wooo!
Lena: - is hilariously interactive. Like when you’re 3000 miles from your collaborator, there’s a lot of, just, shenanigans that happen. But yeah, there were so many things that surprised me about the process. Some that surprised me with how much I enjoyed them which was lovely. That’s always nice when you’re like “oh this is really hard, but really enjoyable”. I mean, thank god! Otherwise it would be such a bummer. It’s too hard to not also be enjoyable!
Jessie: Yeah, Lena and I do an insane amount of prep, and work, and planning and we both enjoy that process, but there’s no way to prepare for something you’ve never done. I was pleasantly surprised that all our decades of theatre actually did inform us. Whether it was just how comfortable we felt improvising with each other, or working with Chris [Messina], or making decisions quickly, or really listening to what is working in a moment or what isn’t, and being very open to making different choices. That was a surprising and encouraging thing.
So. any tips you’d give to aspiring directors?
Lena: It’s maybe scary when you’re starting out, but I think that it’s also okay to be where you are and not have all the answers. That’s fine. Especially if you’re making your first couple of things, you have to be a little gentle with yourself.
Jessie: Yes! You’re so good Lena, you’re so good!
Lena: And also, I can’t tell you the number of unbelievably idiotic questions I had to ask during the process, because I literally didn’t know, like, technical ways to say things! I would have to stop a production meeting and be like, “so sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about”, or “I don’t know what that means!” But you have to, and then you learn. There’s just a learning curve and I think you have to, kind of just, be willing to be okay with that. At least in our case I found that very valuable.
Jessie: Off of what you said Lena, that’s so brilliant - let yourself be where you are. But that’s the thing that’s amazing. It’s such a free medium and there’s room for everybody. Your expression is valid and your point of view is of worth and value. Like if you didn’t go to some fancy film school and you don’t have a rich aunt who’s bankrolling all your movies, like, who fucking cares! Just get your friends together and write something. This ‘auteur’ mythology in America where this, usually ‘whitecist’ man, is at the top of this hierarchical thing and everyone bows to their genius - oh my god. Film is the most collaborative, most insane thing and it takes everyone! It takes a collective consciousness. So yeah, I think disproving that myth, even if it’s just to yourself, that you don’t have to be an auteur. You don’t have to be a genius.
Was it always a conscious thought for you both that you are representing women in film and also the way in which these characters were portrayed?
Lena: Yes, definitely, very much. But I think for both of us, that idea of representing women is kind of a double-edged sword. I think it’s so important and I want women to feel like they have the voice to do what they want to do and make the stories they want to make. Jessie and I have talked about this. Sometimes it’s a little frustrating to be like, “we’re female filmmakers”, because also, I am just a filmmaker. I think we wanted to show that these characters go on a journey and that they learn something and that, also, they both make mistakes. They’re both still learning, they’re not superwomen; they’re very human.
Jessie: It’s funny, with the increase of women writers, behind the cameras, greenlighting power, financing power, we’re getting more varied and dynamic and nuanced versions of women on screen, which is great. But I think Lena and I wanted to take it even further. It’s not like, “you’re the really pretty, good one and you’re the weird quirky one!” It’s like, no, you’re all just a mess. Humans are messes. Once women are seen as full human beings with control over their bodies, we’ll be able to be like, “oh, it’s not just a female character, this is just a complex human who happens to be a woman.”
How did you find the challenge of directing yourselves acting?
Jessie: It’s definitely hard!
Lena: It’s kind of weird. Jessie’s husband [Tom O’Brien] AD’d on set, so luckily we had at least one extra set of eyes outside of ourselves. Also, the edit gets really interesting! It’s definitely an exercise of letting go of your ego.
Lena: There were times where I was like, “I really don’t want to use that take - my chin looks so big” and Jessie had to be -
Jessie: What’s best for the story man!
Lena: And I would have to be like, “fine, fine, you’re right” and my vanity would have to suffer! That part I found very challenging, but also fun.
Could you tell us a bit about the film’s title, ‘Too Long at the Fair’?
Lena: We stole our title.
Jessie: It was given! It was given.
Lena: It’s from a Joan Didion essay called ‘Goodbye to All That’, which is her essay about loving and leaving New York in her late 20s. There’s a line she has, where she says that she began to understand that “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair”. And that’s how we got the title!
Being based in New York and LA, what’s it like to be part of their film worlds?
Jessie: I think, regardless of what city you’re in, it’s just the support of indie film. Everyone that makes films this way is in it for the love of story and community, so I think that’s the thing that was most heartening. It like, if you make something or if you reach out to people, it’s a really supportive community, because everyone knows how impossible it is. So that is something that I’ve learnt about the indie film community at large.
The scene where Chris Messina’s character tells you his sexual fantasy was so well-performed. It was such a brilliantly uncomfortable switch of atmosphere. Did you always know you wanted a moment like that at some point in the film?
Lena: Yeah! We toyed around with that scene a lot, trying to get the right balance. The awkwardness of it hopefully creeps in and you aren’t slammed with it. We were so lucky to have Chris, and his performance in that scene is so good. I think you’re able to get the eeks in a hopefully specific way that also, sort of, moves the plot forward.
Jessie: The other thing that makes him so arresting is that he is being so vulnerable.
Lena: Yeah, it’s so uncomfortable!
Jessie: Because it’s so vulnerable. He’s so truthful and it’s so uncomfortable because of that. Having that discomfort coming from a grounded place, rather than an over the top or commenty-type thing, requires someone who can really be that vulnerable which Chris is and did. He’s such an actor’s actor. He’s so in it, he’s so alive and attuned and, like, fresh and present. But especially Lena, your scene with him, how did you find that one-on-one?
Lena: I mean, it was wonderful. He’s an incredible actor and he was really incredible to work with. That sounds so cheesy! But yeah, he’s so generous - he’s so generous. I felt very grateful.
Jessie: It’s really encouraging that someone who has had his level of success -
Lena: - will come onto your short film!