CUFF 2018 Interview: Clarissa Jacobson
“I think about what’s authentic, how can I be authentic, how can I do justice to these characters and give them life and make them real and bring myself to it.”
MUFF has enjoyed interviewing filmmakers from Toronto-based festivals but this year we are branching out so we can reach more filmmakers and communities, starting with the Calgary Underground Film Festival!
Sometimes you read the logline for a film and you know instantly that not only do you absolutely need to see the film immediately but, no, you REALLY absolutely need to see the film immediately. Such was the case for LUNCH LADIES, written and produced by Clarissa Jacobson. I mean:
Two burnt out high school lunch ladies do whatever it bloody takes on their quest to become Johnny Depp’s personal chefs.
How could that not be anything but amazing? It’s actually incredible how much awesomeness Jacobson and her team were able to cram into this short film’s 19 minutes, from the production design to the editing to the blood… so much blood!
Watching this made me think back to my grade school lunch lady. Her name was Shirley and she always used to tell us that if we didn’t chew our food at least 20 times we would choke and die. Lunch ladies, right?
Clarissa Jacobson started her career in the film industry as an actress but soon realized her true passion was in writing, especially kick-ass female characters. Lunch Ladies is her first film and it has screened at more festivals than we can count. It has also won awards like Best Editing at Mumbai Shorts, Best North American Short at Nevermore Film Fest and Best Horror Comedy Short at Nightmares Fest, just to name a few.
You can see LUNCH LADIES as part of Calgary Underground Film Festival’s Shorts: A Turn For The Worst programme !
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with filmmaking.
I started as an actress. From the time I was a kid in the first grade and played Papa Elf in the Christmas Play (yes, I played a dude) I THOUGHT I wanted to be an actress. So I pursued it pretty heavily — being in plays, attending Indiana University and majoring in Theatre, going to The American Musical & Dramatic Academy in NY then moving out to LA. But the thing that I loved the most was creating characters, sketch characters. I didn’t realize back then, but that’s what drew me to acting, the creation of characters. Years later, when I discovered Twin Bridges Writing Salon run by Joe Bratcher and Judy Farrell, I was hooked and realized I was a writer, not an actress.
Lunch Ladies is my first film. I have several feature scripts that I’ve finished and Lunch Ladies is one of them. When I would send it out, people would tell me how funny it was but they’d say there wasn’t a market for weird horror/comedy like it. So, I got a bonus from work and decided to make a short of Lunch Ladies as a proof of concept to show producers that there are weirdos like me who like quirky horror comedy. So that’s how it happened. I started with a script, some money, the support of Twin Bridges writing class, and that’s it. And then I put it all together. A writer who made a film.
Tell us about “Lunch Ladies.” Where did the idea come from?
I came up with the concept several years ago while having dinner with Donna Pierioni, who plays the lead in the film. She told me that she was always auditioning with this other woman and it was frustrating because they really liked one another but since they were the same type, only one would get the part. So, it was always competitive. Donna said she wished someone would make a movie about lunch ladies so they both could get cast. That sparked the idea for me to have a spoof on Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is my very favorite musical and I thought it would be awesome to spoof it with middle-aged lunch ladies. Then, because there are so many spoofs of Sweeney Todd, I thought, hell, why not wink at it? Why not blatantly admit you stole the concept of spoofing it and make it about these two nutter underdog lunch ladies who are obsessed with Johnny Depp. And because they’re obsessed with him, they get the idea to do what they do FROM him because he played Sweeney Todd. Twisted and weird, I know. Anyhow, I wrote the feature first which took 18 months then the short which took another six.
The styling/character development for LouAnne and Seretta is INCREDIBLE. Where did you get your inspiration?
Thank you! I always knew that Donna would play Seretta. So I thought of Donna a lot when writing it — not only how Donna is as a person, but the type of characters she plays. I wanted Seretta to be this crazy Divine-like character but with a sexy soft side — you know, a woman that could kill but could also wear tacky lingerie and kitten heels and cry over The Depper. And not some ingénue, but a middle-aged lunch lady. I wanted her fraternal twin sister, LouAnne, to be the opposite of her, like an Odd Couple type of relationship. LouAnne is the centered one: plain, tall and thin. Their energies are completely different but both are loveable in their own ways (even though they’re murderers) because they’re both underdogs and have been through hell. Then, I worked those characters for months in class. Characters don’t happen overnight, no matter how clear they are in your head. They take a long time to marinate and make right.
As for the styling, I knew exactly how I wanted them to look, but Desmond Evan Smith, the costumer, brought some amazing touches that I never thought of. He added all the Johnny Depp flair on their lapels. He chose the aqua colors of their uniforms. He put LouAnne in that stupid do-rag rather than a hairnet, which was hysterical next to Seretta with her hairnetted beehive hairdo. He chose those ridiculous over the top latex gloves in the meat grinder sequence. He did a fantastic job. As did Devon Gold and Bobby Guo, our make-up artists, who fulfilled my request to give LouAnne a ducktail and be plain as hell and Seretta a beehive with eyelashes a mile long.
The first lunchroom scene is a manic bit of genius. Can you talk about creating that scene?
In the script, the lunchroom sequence is written as a rhythmic dumping of trays. Joe Bratcher, who is my mentor/writing teacher and the owner of Twin Bridges Writing Salon, was a tap dancer on Broadway before becoming a writer. He said to me, “Clarissa, I have an idea. I wanna get some ballet dancers, tap dancers and hip hop dancers and choreograph a dance scene instead.” And I said, “Joe, you are the most talented person I know. I have no idea what the hell you are planning, but go for it.” He did not disappoint! We held auditions for dancers and he brought on Rebecca Ruschell, who was the ballet choreography, and Monika Felice Smith, who did our hip hop, to help him — he did the tap and was the head choreographer. Then Josh, the director, picked the music, Prokofiev — which was NOT easy to choreograph to — but Joe and his team did it. Josh put the whole thing together with the actors who played the students and didn’t dance (who were amazing by the way). The day we filmed it, we didn’t know what it was going to look like or if it would even work, and amazingly it was magical.
I’ve gotta ask: why Johnny Depp?
As mentioned, I chose Johnny because he played Sweeney Todd. But the most remarkable thing I’ve learned about The Depper (as the Lunch Ladies call him) while doing this film is that people flipping LOVE him. He has a fan-base like you wouldn’t believe. So, it was the perfect choice because I really do believe there are people out there that would kill for him.
Can you tell us about some/all of the other amazing women who worked on this film?
So many great women! Shayna Weber was one of the producers. I’m currently writing a script with her. She held my hand and helped me through some of the hardest parts when I felt like things were almost impossible. Then there was Amelia Allwarden our editor who won best editing at Mumbai Short Fest. This was NOT an easy film to edit; she killed it! She is currently the assistant editor for Good Behavior on TNT. Alicia Ho, who was our production designer with her husband Ray, rocked it — that set looked as good as any top notch Hollywood movie and they did it with less than a thousand dollars. Our sound was done by Kirbie Seis and Sara Bravo was our boom operator. There were also our lead actresses in addition to Donna — Mary Manofsky and Daisy Kershaw. Mariana Marcano our script supervisor, Estrelle Matranga our production coordinator, Luqi Zhao who did our DIT, choreographers Rebecca Ruschell and Monika Felice Smith, Susan Boyle who was our food stylist and Jessica Janos who was the only one on the crew who would drive the big ass truck to and from set. (As a side note, our director JM Logan was awesome and was not in the slightest intimidated by all the estrogen.)
Tell us about why you are a feminist and why it’s important to your filmmaking.
If one would ask me if I’m a feminist, I would look at them kind of confused because I don’t think of myself that way or lead with that. I just think of myself as a strong-willed chick who doesn’t like to be told “no” or that she can’t or that she shouldn’t. don’t think feminism is important to filmmaking — I think authenticity is. If you are being an authentic female, whatever that is to you, then you can’t help but be “feminist.” Sometimes it’s harder to be authentic as a woman because some people want to hold you down and tell you what is appropriate, but I think as long as you strive for authenticity then the filmmaking will reflect your feminine voice; it can’t help but reflect it, because you are a chick! So for me, I never think about feminism, I think about what’s authentic, how can I be authentic, how can I do justice to these characters and give them life and make them real and bring myself to it.
Who are your favourite women working in the film industry?
Carol Burnett, Meryl Streep, Catherine Keener, Dolly Parton, Emily Blunt… tons!
What’s the best advice about filmmaking you’ve ever received?
“You can do it.”
If you had your own talk show, who would your first three guests be?
If I get to have anyone then I’m going to have some dead people: Harry Houdini, Eddie Mercury, Anne Frank. Alive? I’d go for John Waters, Guillermo Del Toro and hell… Johnny Depp.
If you had one extra hour of free time a day, how would you use it?
Studying Spanish. I’m working on it, but if you can give me that extra hour I’ll be golden.
What are you working on now/next?
My sweet coming of age script, Stella by Starlight was just optioned. And, I have a gothic horror about Elizabeth Bathory and a woman in jeopardy thriller that are picking up some steam. Meanwhile, I constantly work on Lunch Ladies promoting (so thank you for helping to get the word out!), writing blogs, keeping the energy going to get interest in the feature and lastly, I’m writing a really funny chick flick with Shayna Weber.