Following its release in Australia on DVD last month, Nazia caught up with writer/director Andrew Semans to chat about his debut feature film Nancy, Please. They talk about the low budget, the challenges of working with squirrels and more…
How did you come up with this deceivingly simple concept and are you happy with it’s execution?
‘Nancy’ came from an effort to build a story around the simplest conflict possible. When working on a new story, I like to start with a situation that is extremely basic and straightforward, and then concentrate intently on that simple situation until characters and personal themes emerge. For Nancy, my co-writer (Will Heinrich) and I began with a rudimentary dramatic conflict: Person 1 wants something that Person 2 has; Person 2 won’t give this thing to Person 1.
That was pretty much it. From this, we gradually elaborated, adding to this elementary conflict a group of characters and a context that was quite familiar from our own lives. As we discussed the rudimentary situation and characters, themes that—for better or worse—are near and dear to our hearts emerged. Such themes include: the yearning to abandon responsibility, a reluctance to grow up, a tendency towards self-delusion and intellectual posturing, and the allure of victimhood, passivity, and self-righteousness in the face of mounting obligations. Our own fears of adulthood intruded into the story and took over as the central psychological motivation for the main character. The script quickly became a pointed critique of some of our own most embarrassing flaws!
You’ve mentioned previously that you wanted to break in with a low budget for your first feature, why and what were some of the other challenges you faced?
Despite having very little in the way of money or time (pre-production and production occurred in a harrowingly short window!), the physical production itself was shockingly smooth and incident-free. The greatest production challenge came in trying to replicate New Haven, Connecticut (the film’s setting) in various locations in and around New York City (a keen-eyed New Yorker will surely recognize certain local landmarks that have slipped their way into the film). Given that we had no means to alter any exteriors, we struggled to locate outdoor spaces/buildings/streets that could feasibly pass for the New Haven “Grad Ghetto”, home to many a Yale graduate student. Hence, the film is filled with a grab bag of locations in Brooklyn, New Rochelle, Piermont, and Floral Park, paired strategically with footage shot in the actual New Haven.
Also, we struggled mightily with Baby Lionel, the squirrel that appears in the film. Don’t hire him. He sucks.
Will Rogers’ character Paul can be quite frustrating and unlikeable, do you think how he’s portrayed may polarise some audiences?
The character does indeed polarize audiences. Hopefully, Paul’s psychology and the film’s narrative are compelling despite it being difficult for some to relate to him and/or sympathize with his choices.
Eleonore Hendricks does a great job as Nancy, how did you come up with such a multi-faceted character and is she based off anyone you know?
Nancy was inspired a real person to a certain extent, but I can’t tell you who she is! This person never caused me much trouble, but she did leave an indelible impression.
Why did you choose a copy of Charles Dickens ‘Little Dorrit’ as the object of Paul’s obsession?
Will Heinrich and I picked ‘Little Dorrit’ specifically because it had no thematic or narrative parallels with the Nancy story. We wanted the book to be a MacGuffin whose particular content signifies nothing, and we went with Dickens because his work is so popular and has been so thoroughly scrutinized – it’s not edgy or sexy or cool or obscure (Paul’s dissertation subject sounds particularly uninspired and bland). Initially, we had chosen ‘Our Mutual Friend’, but ‘Our Mutual’ Friend is a bit of a mouthful, so we decided on ‘Little Dorrit’, which has a snappier title.
The film tends to get a bit creepy near the end and takes a dip into horror territory, had you gone in with the intention of playing with a couple of genres?
As we were writing, my enthusiasm for suspense stories and thrillers began to creep into the mix. Will and I felt it might be fun to nibble at the edges of genre – to suggest a suspense or horror film – without actually going there whole hog. Because we were dealing with a paranoid protagonist who nurtures a substantial persecution complex, we thought it interesting to suggest that Paul thinks he’s in a horror film or thriller, but to sustain a pretty run-of-the-mill reality around him that does not bend to his perception of events. Paul’s delusions lead us into quasi-genre territory, but, ultimately, brute reality is indifferent to his fantasies, and the pain he suffers is largely self-manufactured. Despite all his crazy notions, banality wins in the end.
Nancy emanates this chilling scream in the situations where she’s trying to defend herself, was that something scripted to fit her character or a fitting accident?
I liked the idea of Nancy having a “war cry”. She’s a feral character, and it seemed to fit. Plus, Eléonore is a very good screamer.
The other characters written into the story Jen, Charlie and Dr Bannister seem to be quite rational, lovely people, are they designed to offset the chaos that surrounds Nancy and Paul?
Yes – we wanted Paul to be surrounded by people who care for him and are willing to help him (even if they occasionally give bad advice, as in the case of Charlie). Paul is forced to explain himself and rationalize his position and his choices throughout. It was very appealing to me to write his increasingly frantic efforts to justify himself rationally in the face of mounting (and justified) skepticism from the more clear-eyed people around him. Paul’s arguments always abide by a certain logic, even if they lead him down a very self-destructive path.
Nancy, Please is available on DVD in Australia now.