After missing out on the SXSW screening experience in 2020 with her feature The Golden Arm, director Maureen Bharoocha is even more grateful to be screening her latest film, The Prank, in person this year. As the dark comedic thriller premiered (you can read our festival review here) our Peter Gray spoke to both Maureen and The Prank‘s lead actress, rising talent Ramona Young, about working with the legendary Rita Moreno and how the film came to both of them.
Congratulations to you for screening at SXSW! I know that you, Maureen, were meant to play there two years ago with The Golden Arm. How does it feel to finally be at the festival in person?
Maureen Bharoocha: It feels surreal, a little bit. I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t really going to be here. I was supposed to be here in 2020 with Golden Arm and was very excited about that, but obviously (SXSW) was the first thing to shut down in the pandemic. So it’s kind of a little bit of a beautiful story to be back with a new movie two years later, when it’s back in person for the first time.
How have you found the in-person experience? What’s the reception been like for this film so far?
Maureen Bharoocha: It’s been really exciting. People, I think, are just so excited to see movies in the theatre and be together and talk shop and, you know, walk the red carpet and hug each other and be safe and to not always be wearing a mask outside (now). So I think it’s overwhelming (but) in a good way.
I noticed that there seems to be a really strong female representation this year. I think it’s great to see that so many more female directors are getting their stories out there.
Maureen Bharoocha: I think it’s getting better. I think we still have a long way to go. It does seem like women are starting to tell their stories. But really, it’s a start, we’re starting to reach parity. We need to have more stories of women and people of colour… (to show) just the fabric and layers of how the world is. So I think it is really exciting, and I am hopeful. I love that we’re here and that I have seen so many other female driven movies.
How did this story come about for you? I love going into films and not knowing what’s going to happen. So one of the great things about The Prank was I thought it was going in one direction, and then it pivots somewhere else entirely. How was it presented to you?
Maureen Bharoocha: It’s kind of funny. Steven Wolfe, the producer, was looking for a director and he actually looked at movies in 2020, at South By, and I had written an op-ed for the Hollywood Reporter about not being able to show my movie (The Golden Arm). And so he kind of like was like, “Oh, she seems cool”, and wanted to meet me. We have a friend in common, Rachel Goldenberg, and she connected us. He sent me the script and I thought it was just so much fun. I immediately was like “Oh, I have such a take. I love this genre. I love comedy. I love thrillers”, so I instantly kind of clicked into the movie and could see it with my own spin on it.
And Ramona, how did this get presented to you? Did you have to audition? Or did they reach out to you?
Ramona Young: So this script and audition were sent to me via self tape, by my agents, and when I read the script, I was like “Wow, this is so funny”, and I read through it so fast! My agents had told me that my character (Tanner) was written as a male character, but now they’re opening up to look for females (to take on it). I thought that was so fun and different.
Maureen Bharoocha: That’s what’s cool was that we didn’t know who to ask because Tanner is such a unique character. (So we knew) we should be open to whoever it is. As soon as Ramona’s tape came we instantly knew (it was her) because she just was so funny. You could just see the character come to life in a way that was really unique.
I couldn’t imagine that character not being as played by you now having seen it because I think you and Connor (Kalopsis) have such a natural dynamic. That’s a testament to both you as a director, Maureen, and you as an actress, Ramona, because it was just one of those things where you’re watching it and I didn’t seem like it was “acting” if that makes sense? It was very organic the way you and Connor bounced off each other. Had you met him prior to filming?
Ramona Young: We didn’t meet too often prior to working on this project just because it was pandemic times. I think the first time we met was a little bit before filming, and Maureen gave Connor and I a project to create the “frock swap” song together (which) was then like used in the film. Connor is a very easy guy to hang around with. He has no ego.
Maureen Bharoocha: There isn’t enough platonic friendship in movies between men and women, especially in high school. I think we don’t get to see that enough in movies to just normalise that. It was really important to me, because so many people I spoke to could relate about those special types of friendships. I think that that’s such a powerful thing that you don’t get to see in movies enough.
And then obviously, you get to Rita Moreno. We’re so used to seeing her as like such a likeable character, and here is this incredible shift for her. She’s amazing and so terrifying in this role. Maureen, how did you pitch the idea of having Rita Moreno in this role?
Maureen Bharoocha: When I came on to the project I kind of pitched my idea for her, and I always say it’s really fun to be able to go to any actor and (ask them to) play something that they’ve never played before. I knew that she had never done a role like this, and I wanted to work with her, so when I pitched it to Steven, he’s like, “I love that”, so we sent her the script, she read it in a weekend, and she said yes. The fact that I got my first pick, like that never happens, and again, the fact that it’s Rita? She is an icon. She is the pinnacle. And again, no ego, just so generous, and lovely and open and collaborative. So she really set the tone.
How was it working opposite her, Ramona?
Ramona Young: Oh my gosh, Rita is absolutely amazing. I never thought I would be more scared of a 90-year-old woman in leather pants (laughs). She is iconic and she is a legend, and also on set she was very open about sharing her experiences. So, for me who has not had as much as experience as her at all it was great from a learning standpoint, to just absorb all that she is.
On the on the topic of stories, was this a case of living vicariously through these characters in terms of acting out revenge on teachers you had at school that you particularly didn’t like?
Ramona Young: Yeah, absolutely. It’s absolutely fun being a kid and being a little mischievous towards a teacher you don’t like.
Maureen Bharoocha: I think it’s kind of a fantasy. I wish that I, maybe not to the extent (in this film) but my Mrs. Wheeler was a teacher named Mrs. Jordan, and she was horrible to me! (That) probably gave me so many insecurities. And so I wish that I had been able to play a prank on her. I did not. But we all have those teachers that are tough on you.
The Prank is screening as part of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, which is being presented in-person and virtually between March 11th and 20th, 2022. For more information head to the official SXSW website.