The eighth annual North Hollywood (NoHo) Cinefest kicked off on October 1 and lasts through October 7. One film making its debut at NoHo is Woman of the House, by director, writer, and producer Michelle Salcedo.
Christine Chandler (Christine Holt) is a young adult novelist who is divorcing her husband and having an affair with a much younger lifeguard (Gui Agustini). Her friends’ loyalties are tested as these developments unfold. The film also stars Kourtney Rutherford, Keith Chandler, Jason Schuler, Matthieu Eveillard, and Jack & Joseph Farnham. I caught up with Salcedo by phone to learn more about her influences in filmmaking and the development of the story and its themes.
Since the film was shot in Rhode Island, what’s your favorite thing about New England?
I love swimming in the ocean, in East Beach, Watch Hill where the sound and the Atlantic meet. There’s nothing like that. It’s beautiful and clear. I love the beaches. Rhode Island is called the ocean state, but people don’t really think of the beach when they think of Rhode Island.
I see you’ve mentioned Alejandro G. Iñárritu as an influence. What do you like about his films?
I love Iñárritu’s film Biutiful. It’s not one that comes up a lot [being] a lesser known film [of] his. For me, it’s an immigration story, beautifully shot and acted so naturalistically. Javier Bardem knocks it out of the park. I love Iñárritu’s treatment of the supernatural…because Javier Bardem’s character can see ghosts. I think it’s powerful to have that magical realism, but it’s still very steeped in realism.
I love the way that Iñárritu is able to cross genres. His movies are so different when you’re talking Birdman versus Biutiful. I’ve been a huge fan since Amores Perros. His stuff is super gritty and steeped in realism.
What did you take away from your experience making theatrical trailers for your filmmaker toolbox?
Absolutely. How you can tell a story in two and half minutes that is going to bring people to see the movie, that’s really gonna move them, and intrigue them without giving away the ending? I hate trailers that give away too much.
I think that skillset to be able to distill the spine of a story has really helped me as a filmmaker because I feel that I always think of the spine when I have any scene. If it doesn’t belong, then it needs to be discarded [as] not true to the heart of the story, whether thematically or in the storyline.
Also with the visuals in a trailer, you’re always thinking of the big shots that transport a viewer to the location. When I’m shooting a film—even in this low budget—I made sure that we captured all the scenic beach scenes and the rocks. You always look for the shots that are exteriors and really bring you to that setting and place. I make sure there’s a lot of time to bring in the b-roll and the beauty of the location. Location is always a character for me in movies.
What was a challenge in building the story for your film?
The inspiration for my film was a couple of things. One thing was that Albert Einstein actually stayed in that house in the 1930s. I was always fascinated by that idea and to think of time and the different people that inhabit a house. There’s a bit of a universal twist in the movie, without giving away spoilers.
The title Woman of the House was very much a play on “man of the house.” I wanted to make a female centric story. I’m a huge Mad Men fan. I loved Don Draper’s character. How could someone be so despicable and such a womanizer, yet you are still rooting for him? I’m a huge fan of Fleabag. I think it’s super important to know that your character doesn’t necessarily have to be likeable, but you have to make the journey believable. They are on a journey that is interesting for their self-discovery.
That was my inspiration for creating this character in Woman of the House. How bad can I make this woman behave and have her still get away with it? She’s been unfaithful and she’s not the most attentive of moms. I feel like these are things that men would get away with. When it’s a female, I think they are judged more harshly. I’m very interested to see how people will like this character or not.
Christine Holt has this big role and interesting personality to carry through the film. What do you appreciate about what she brought to her portrayal of Christine Chandler?
I was blown away. I met her in the theater on the Off-Broadway circuit. I’ve been friends with her friends for 25 years. I’ve been a fan of hers for forever. She really transported me in this crazy theater piece, Kenny Finkle’s The Hussy Chronicles. She pulled off that superhero so well. She was woman in charge. I felt that no matter what she did as that character, I still found her vulnerable. She’s this badass man-eater the whole time.
At the end of that play, she gets out of the costume and is super vulnerable as she addresses the audience. She had me in tears. She could really pull it off because she embodies that strength, that superhero woman taking charge, but she keeps a vulnerability and humility behind it. I really wrote this piece with her in mind.
The film also focuses on the reactions of the friends and their loyalties. What did you find interesting about highlighting that in your film?[By] your 40s, you become friends with couples. You’re in these long term relationships. Couples are also friends with other couples. [However,] when that couple breaks up and divorces, it’s like, who gets to keep who?
I thought it would be interesting to set this during an anniversary party that’s now turning into a divorce. All these friends who came to celebrate both of them are forced to choose sides. In choosing who they like more in this relationship, it also shows their problems within their own relationships and forces them to confront their views on monogamy.
It’s a huge thing. Is monogamy really outdated? Is it something we still strive for? As kids of divorced parents, maybe we were raised to aspire for something different. It’s like we’re caught in between generations [with] that.
How did you approach balancing the elements of comedy and drama?
I think at the end that the tone does work. The double concept of dramedy is tricky. I think a lot of the best comedy deals with uncomfortable, dark subjects. If you bring levity to difficult times in our life, it helps us deal and cope with them. That’s really important.
The score helps with keeping the tone consistent. The music throughout is melancholy but lighthearted. One of the actors is Matthieu Eveillard, a musician. I love his French music because it is whimsical and then it’s dramatic, which helps carry the movie throughout those feelings.
Life is like that because one moment you’re crying, and at another point you’re laughing. We don’t live in either comedy or drama, but we live in both.
Did you have a favorite day on set?
I was laughing really hard during the improvised scene, with a master debaters game that we would always play as friends. We’ve been hanging out at this house for 20 years, I was always in stitches. There were subjects for everyone to debate and they just went off. We were shooting until 2:00 a.m. and we got giddy. That was my favorite because everyone was willing to bring their best even though it was so late. It was great to have that support from my friends. Even though they were tired, they were super funny.
We’re in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month. What does this film signify to you in regards to representation and diversity?
As a Latina writer-director, my first film was Piel Canela, which takes place in Cuba. It’s in Spanish. It’s very much in my voice. People ask why I am setting my next film in Watch Hill, Rhode Island? Well, why not? I happen to be Latina and I go there all the time. This is a location I’m familiar with, with people that have these beach houses in this strange microcosm of privilege. It’s an outsider’s view of this location. It’s little bits and pieces that I’ve taken away. One of the leads is a YA novelist. Her friend asks her at one point in the movie, “How do you come up with this crap?”
She says, “I’m always eavesdropping.”
I’ve been going [to Watch Hill] these 20 years, eavesdropping about these first world problems. They’re kind of hilarious to me. Gui Agustini is Brazilian, so the love interest is Brazilian. My kids are in it. They’re half Latino. There are little sprinkles in there, but it’s not quite as Latino as my first, but it’s still very much me. It’s my own experience living in the United States. I hate to be pigeonholed to tell certain stories because of where my parents are from. I grew up here. I bring my own voice regardless of where I set the story.
For me the important part is that this film is a reaction to being in a misogynistic, patriarchal world: an embrace of female sexuality. It’s not an accident that the guy she hooks up with is Brazilian. In the middle, which is the heart of the film, there are two songs in Spanish by feminist Renee Goust, “Cumbia Feminazi” and “Patriota Suicida.” I adore her music. The lyrics are my voice about how it’s difficult for us to be flawed and to not be judged for it.
What are your thoughts about bringing the film to its first screening?
It’s always nerve-racking. I’ve listened to Martin Scorsese and other filmmakers in their interviews. They all feel the same way. Everyone feels like throwing up before the screening. I’m excited because I just came from the final mix and final picture. I can’t believe we’ve put this together with no money. I’m blessed my friends were able to volunteer their time and hard work. It’s a celebration of our creativity together in one package.
For more information, please visit the NoHo Cinefest website.