For this edition of GUMworks, we talked to screenwriter, director, and producer Laura Terruso. Terruso’s newest movie, co-written with and directed by Michael Showalter and based on one of her earlier short films, is Hello, My Name Is Doris, which you can see in theaters right now. The film stars Sally Field as a woman who develops a “romantic friendship” with a much younger co-worker.
We caught up with Laura by e-mail to talk about movie stars, May-December romances, and how NYC’s avant-garde downtown scene influenced her filmmaking.
GUM: How did you feel when you found out Sally Field would be the lead in Hello, My Name Is Doris?
Laura Terruso: Michael Showalter called to tell me and I was in an office and I was so happy I squealed with glee and everyone in the office suite came by to make sure I was ok. Then I walked home on Broadway practically dancing down the street.
GUM: The May-December romance has obviously been covered before in film. How is Hello, My Name Is Doris different from other films about couples, or potential couples, with an age disparity?
LT: I hope that our film looks at their relationship in a more nuanced way. Doris and John have what I would consider a romantic friendship. I think they’re both drawn to each other for different reasons, and the film explores why Doris is drawn to John at this particular time in her life.
GUM: How did the characters and story of Doris & the Intern change as it became a feature?
LT: In writing the feature, we were able to take the comedic premise of the short, which was that an older woman develops a fixation on a younger man in her office, and expand it and peel away the layers to find out who this character is and how she got into this situation. We use many of the same situational comedic gags from the short in the feature, but in the feature we were also able to reveal the sadness and heartache that drives her. Great comedy is tragic.
GUM: A notable thing about Doris & the Intern is that Doris does a lot of really creepy things throughout. How do you write a protagonist who acts unsympathetically, and still keep the audience engaged?
LT: I think that most people can empathize with being so infatuated with someone that they do crazy things, so we forgive Doris for the things she does because we can relate to her on some level. If all protagonists acted sympathetically all the time, storytelling would be really boring. We’re all human. We all do strange things sometimes. If we didn’t, we’d be really dull.
GUM: What was it like working with Todd Solondz? [Terruso produced Solondz’ short film 3013].
LT: Todd is awesome. He has been so generous and is a real mentor to me. Working with him was an honor!
GUM: Congratulations on finishing Fits and Starts [a comedy Terruso directed, due out later this year, starring Wyatt Cenac]. What was it like to direct a feature, as opposed to writing or producing one?
LT: For Doris, I was on set for all of production and was very involved with the decision-making on the film, so when I came back to New York, I was hungry to direct. I love working with actors and directing is a discipline like any other-- the more you do it, the better you get.
GUM: Most of your recent work has been comedy in some form or another. What are some key elements for you in writing something that’s funny? What common mistakes do writers make when attempting to do that?’
LT: Comedy is naturally the way I best express myself. It’s how I communicate and it’s the lens that I see the world through. It’s my voice, and the thing about your voice is you don’t have much of say in it. It is what is it.
GUM: Your Bum Future short was a great mix of science fiction and realism. When writing about something like seeing the future, how do you make sure it doesn’t get too outrageous?
LT: I think Bum Future is pretty outrageous! I made that short during my second year of film school at NYU. Your second year film (as it is known) is a big deal-- you spend the better part of eight months writing, directing and editing a film and then it is critiqued to high hell. I feel like Bum Future was my way of getting through the stressful process of making a film that I knew would be critiqued up the wazoo. I mean, you can’t get too serious about a film where the protagonist has the future in his butt. Making something a little bit ridiculous felt right at the time.
GUM: What made you decide to do a short documentary about a butcher in Little Italy?
Can you see yourself doing nonfiction film again?
LT: Yes, I love making documentaries and definitely will continue making non-fiction films. I met Moe Albanese, the butcher featured in the film, and recorded an oral history with him and was so moved by his story that I decided to turn it into a short film.
GUM: I read that you got your start doing downtown performance. How has that informed your filmmaking/writing process?
LT: I did start out as a performer in the downtown comedy/performance scene. I met so many wonderful artists, many of whom continue to thrive in the performance world. I love the immediacy of live performance and I feel like that’s where I developed my voice and learned to trust my instincts as an artist. You don’t have much time to over think things when you’re on stage.