Ingrid Jungermann is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who has turned her life in the borough’s often-mocked Park Slope neighborhood into art. She began with the successful web series The Slope, which she co-created with then-girlfriend Desiree Akhavan.
The series’ leads, played by the creators, were a couple of (as the show’s tagline put it) “superficial, homophobic lesbians.” The show turned life in the rapidly gentrifying Slope into comic gold, and caught the eye of Michael Showalter, who made a guest appearance.
After a season and a half of The Slope, Ingrid started another web series called F to 7th. Like its predecessor, it followed a slightly fictionalized version of Jungermann through a series of comic misadventures involving sexuality, gender, and moving into “pre-middle age.” With guest stars like Amy Sedaris and Janeane Garofalo, the new series has been having even more success than its predecessor.
We caught up with Jungermann by phone just after she completed her first feature film, Women Who Kill. We began by asking about her life before she decided to go to film school at NYU – a decision that would set her on her path to dark comic success.
GUM: What were doing right before you joined the MFA program at NYU?
Ingrid Jungermann: I never thought about going to graduate school. I didn’t think it was something I’d be interested in, or even an option. I was living in New York and working several $10 an hour jobs. I made a couple short films and just tried to do my own thing.
Then I thought, it’d be a bit more of a fast track if I could be surrounded by people who are making films and were in the industry. I was about 31 at the time and I decided, I’ll just apply and see what happens, and I got in. That’s what changed everything for me. I was immersed in a community of people who were making work, and was able to focus on work for three years. Of course, you take out major loans. But instead of working straight jobs and scraping by and doing my work on the side, I was able to totally focus on my work, and that changed things for me.
GUM: What were your films like before grad school?
IJ: I’ve always been interested in dark comedy, so nothing much has changed. My first film was a little broader comedy, but I guess comic drama. My second film was dark comedy.
I just wrapped on my first feature, and it’s also a dark comedy. So maybe things have gotten a little darker, but I definitely have similar interests as when I started.
GUM: Congratulations on wrapping the movie. I’ve read a little bit about it. It seems like it’s poking fun at the phenomenon around Serial.
IJ: Absolutely. That’s part of it, kind of like the backdrop. I’ve been writing the script for four years, so when I first started it had nothing to do with podcasts. The characters were just graduate students like I was.
After I listened to Serial, I was like, oh, that’s what they should do – they should be podcasters. Podcasting has been around for so long, but it became such a thing after Serial, so I thought it would be a funny little nod to that.
GUM: What did you think about the way within three weeks, Serial had become ubiquitous, at least in a lot of circles?
IJ: I get it. It’s exciting that storytelling has made a comeback, and the idea that listening to people talking about story and character is now a fad is kind of exciting to me [laughs]. As far as Serial and how it affected the actual people, I don’t know how I feel about that yet. But as far as storytelling becoming more of a thing now, it’s exciting for me as a filmmaker.
GUM: I know the Tribeca Film Institute people were involved in Women Who Kill. I’ve seen what they do on the documentary side, in terms of how they develop curriculum for schools. That obviously wouldn’t work for narrative films. What did they do for you? (Edited after the interview with Ingrid was done: Women Who Kill will be premiering at Tribeca Film Festival 2016!)
IJ: I was part of the All Access program. It is just a week of taking 15 minute meetings. It’s a networking-slash-pitch program. My producer and I would sit down with all different kinds of production companies or sales agents or producers or investors, and we’d pitch the project to one after the other.
When Tribeca All Access happened, I’m not sure if we had gotten our money yet. But by the time IFP Emerging Narratives was happening, which is kind of the same experience, we were a week out from production. So the things we were asking for were finishing funds and money for festival costs and music and that sort of thing.
GUM: This movie is set in the same universe as your web series. All the web series episodes are in four to seven minute bursts. What was it like to write one continuous long form story in that world?
IJ: It’s totally different. I’ve written a couple features outside of this one, but I feel like this feature film was that one that broke me, as far as understanding how to write a feature film, and the structure, and the time commitment, and the roller coaster of emotions that you go through. It’s so much more complicated than web series or any short form. I love web series, I love short form, because it’s fast and furious, because you can invent your own structure and take chances, and you can shoot fast and edit fast and get it out there to the public quickly.
With feature film writing, there’s another love I have for it, which is more like a long-term relationship. You realize that you have to be patient with yourself in dealing with issues of creating characters that can survive over 120 minutes, and situations and plot and themes that carry through. It’s a different animal, and it’s also a different set of skills.
GUM: We were talking about film school earlier. You’ve said that you did in The Slope was the exact opposite of what you’d been taught in film school, in terms of the relative importance of dialogue and action. How did your peers and professors react when they first saw that you’d totally flipped everything that you’d been taught?
IJ: Everybody loved the finished product. It was a really incredible response.
I still continue to hear from people, even those who read my feature, “Well, there’s a lot of dialogue.” I understand where they’re coming from, but my number one love is the dance of dialogue. Woody Allen is a huge inspiration for me. Dialogue between two actors, if you layer it enough, if you handle it with care and you put so much history into it, can be magical. Casting is a major part of it, if you have two actors or more who are putting the work into it to deliver what you’ve written.
The note “There’s a lot of talking” is something I don’t really pay attention to anymore. Because once you put the actors in it, the dialogue really moves quickly and, if it works well, it’s really magical for an audience. That’s something that a reader or a professor or anybody who’s looking at your work before it’s finished won’t really understand.
I get how that sounds. I’m not being a dick, like, “Oh, they just don’t get it.” But it is a really difficult thing for anybody to visualize two living people in that situation. Comedy is so subtle and so all about rhythm and timing that I think it’s really hard for people to visualize the end product.
GUM: Speaking of comedy and comedians, Michael Showalter has been in both your series. How’d that come about?
IJ: He was a professor at NYU. My first writing class was with Michael. I didn’t really know much about his work, but I read about him before I took the class. I knew The State.
We kept in touch and hit it off, and he was in charge of one of my independent studies. We just continued our relationship, and then when I did The Slope, Desiree and I asked him to be in one of those episodes. He also became a huge supporter of it.
GUM: In the episodes he appears in of The Slope and F to 7th, the dialogue is great and so natural-seeming. Did you write all of that? Did he collaborate? Was it improvised?
IJ: I wrote everything, but Michael and Amy added some improv. They sometimes just took it into a new direction, which is hilarious to me. Both of them are just so talented.
GUM: You’ve said that one of the big themes of F to 7th is internalized homophobia and trans phobia. Can you talk about how you came to realize you wanted those particular ideas to play a role in your series?
IJ: I came out when I was 18, so I’ve been out for a long time. But being out doesn’t mean that you’re okay with yourself. For years, I battled judging myself and my sexuality. The older I got, strangely enough, the more I started to think about gender, which is a completely separate challenge as far as fitting in. And fitting in has always been one of my issues from a very young age – I always felt like I didn’t quite understand how to.
The older I got, the less people were judging me. But it didn’t matter, because I still was. So I found that to be an interesting struggle, and I when I would talk to people about it, I would find that a lot of people felt the same way. No matter how okay it is, even though gay marriage is legal now, there’s a lot of us that still feel like because we were taught we were wrong, that we are. And it’s really difficult.
If you have a relationship with your parents where something occurs when you were very young, and the older you get, you realize that thing was wrong, it takes years of therapy, many years of rewiring your brain, to realize you’re okay. You’re fine the way you are.
That process of judging yourself is something I’m interested in talking about. That’s a universal problem. Everybody has self-judgment and self-loathing to deal with. That’s why people can connect to the character of Ingrid, because she’s totally lost. But it’s important that she makes really bad decisions, that she is kind of an asshole too. I have to point out that I can be a jerk, and that the decisions I make are sometimes self-absorbed. I didn’t want to shy away from that.
GUM: I know your mom is, or was, a Jehovah’s Witness. Were you raised J Dub also?
IJ: I was, yeah. Were you?
GUM: No. I write a lot about hip-hop. I’ve interviewed a rapper and a producer over the past couple weeks who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they both used the term “J Dub.”
IJ: That’s funny. I was raised J Dub. When I was eight, my parents were divorced, and we disassociated, I think that’s what it’s called. Then years ago, my mother decided to join again. When that happened, my chances at rebuilding that relationship were starting to fade.
Before that, I thought, we can get to a place and be close again, but that put a wall up between us. But the older I get, the more I’m like, I’m not going to change my mother, so I have to change my expectations of who she is and what is okay with her. I can only judge myself. I can’t constantly look for her approval. I think all of us do that with our parents, sometimes for our entire lives. But there’s a certain point where that stopped for me – when I thought, she’s never going to approve of me, and that’s okay. It was a long process, but Season 2 of F to 7th was me processing through that and being done with pleasing my mom.
GUM: You said one time you were part of a “lesbian lost generation.” I thought that such a funny phrase, and a fascinating idea. What did you mean by that?
IJ: I’m 38 now. There are young queer people who are very inspiring because they are growing up into a world where being gay or trans, or defining yourself however you want, is okay, and parents are more okay with it. I think we have a long way to go. In Middle America, or in other countries, it’s a huge struggle. But the youth is setting a tone which is pretty exciting.
The older generation went through a lot of pain and suffering, including losing a lot of people to AIDS. Being gay was associated with death. So I was kind of stuck in the middle, where I felt like both of those generations. I’m inspired by young queer people, but I understand the frustration that older queer people have with the younger generation, because the older generation fought for their rights, and they’re taking it for granted. That’s what I’ve heard, as far as arguments. I’m in the middle where I understand both parts of that. Maybe that’s what I meant [laughs].
GUM: With The Slope, you and your co-creator Desiree broke up between the first two seasons. You tried to make it work for the first couple episodes of Season 2, but eventually pulled away. Why’d you end up making the decision to stop working on the show?
IJ: Because it was too hard. It was impossible, really. We needed to not work together. All of that stuff was sort of intertwined, the work and the relationship, and there was no way we could work together with not being together.
GUM: In both web series, you’re playing a character with your name and a lot of your life events, and presumably at least some of your personality traits. So if people meet you who have first seen the series, do they feel like they know you?
IJ: I think so, though I don’t know how far that goes. People have talked about how they assume they know a lot about me even though they don’t. And I’m like, you kinda do! I’m not gonna deny that the character is pretty much me, but heightened. I’m much less exciting. I’m pretty boring, and my neurosis is not that funny [laughs].
GUM: You mentioned Woody Allen as a touchstone. I also read that you’re a big fan of Michael Haneke. How does his style influence you?
IJ: There’s a sense of humor about his work that I just love. It’s the same as Dogtooth. There’s a sense of humor about the way they handle darkness that makes me feel less alone. That’s why I’m drawn to so much psychological horror. In the same way that I use comedy to talk about things that are uncomfortable for me, I think they use darkness, and I am attracted to that.
I am not attracted to the torture porn stuff or anything like that at all. But I love the delving into human psychology and why we do what we do. There’s always this struggle to understand people, and I think that Woody Allen and Haneke and Robert Altman, who I also love, are all trying to get to that thing. No matter which genre you choose to try and communicate that, that’s what inspires me.
GUM: I remember watching Funny Games and saying, well, now I know what it feels like to want to throw up for ninety minutes.
IJ: Exactly! I remember there being a shot that I love. They’re watching TV, and you can hear what’s going on, and then you see blood spatter across the TV. That’s the kind of stuff I think is really powerful. I don’t want to see it. I’m far more frightened when I don’t. That’s what I aspire to, is to elicit that kind of emotion, whether it comes from laughter or whatever. I just like trusting the audience to figure stuff out. I think that can be really powerful.
GUM: When it comes to spots in Park Slope, I know you love the Pickle Shack, and you’ve filmed plenty of stuff at the Tea Lounge. What’s your favorite lesser-known Park Slope spot?
IJ: I go to Sun In Bloom all the time. When I’m working, I go to Gorilla Coffee on Bergen, and then I just move two doors down to Sun In Bloom. There used to be a comic book store on that block too too, and now that’s gone. There was Gorilla Coffee, comic books, a bike store, and then a vegan place. And there was Babeland. So I was like, everything that I ever think about is contained on this one block [laughs]. But now there’s way more, like, clothing for pregnant women, which I have zero interest in.
GUM: And finally, since we’re talking on behalf of a studio, we like to ask – what kinds of things do you look for in a studio?
IJ: Friendly, organized staff, an online gallery and a streamlined procedure so it's easy to see what's available and book.
interview by Shawn Setaro