Independent American filmmaker Wendy Jo Carlton has been an queer cinema mainstay since roughly the turn of the century, and her latest film, Good Kisser – which was selected to make its International Premiere in the prestigious Women’s Gala slot at this year’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival in Toronto (on Saturday, May 25 at 7:15pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox) – is another example of an artist writing about what she knows when it comes to matters of the heart. Good Kisser also comes with a message of self-discovery that Carlton hopes will extend beyond the film’s both correct and somewhat stifling label as a piece of LGBT cinema.
For Good Kisser, Carlton, who divides her time primarily between Seattle (where the film takes place and where it made its world premiere last week) and Los Angeles, tells the story of Jenna (played wonderfully by Kari Alison Hodge), a young woman who’s nervous about the date night ahead, planned by her bartender girlfriend, Kate (Rachel Paulson). Fearing that their relationship is growing stale in the bedroom, Kate convinces Jenna to follow her to the house of the tempting and sexually irrepressible Mia (Julia Eringer) for a three way hook-up. Jenna, Carlton’s overall protagonist, is understandably hesitant, but Kate is visibly eager at the possibility of the arrangement, so they agree to proceed with a night full of drinking, sex, awkwardness, and unspoken truths suddenly coming to light.
Good Kisser is a stripped down story told exclusively from the viewpoints of its three main characters (in a film that has only five characters in total), and it takes place over the course of a single evening, meaning character details about Kate and Jenna’s relationship have to be meted out in a careful, methodical way to clue the audience into their motivations and give the situation at hand a significant amount of dramatic weight. As a veteran of low budget independent projects, Carlton (who most notably directed 2009’s Hannah Free and 2011’s Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together) is no stranger to shooting hard, fast, and intimate stories with a limited amount of money and not a lot of time, but Good Kisser still presented her with some unique problems.
“When you’re a true indie filmmaker – meaning you don’t have a lot of money for mistakes – you’re limited to what you know you can do and what you’ve discussed with the cast and crew beforehand,” Carlton says over the phone from Chicago. “We shot Good Kisser in twelve days because financially that’s what we could afford and what it had to be. And we shot mostly nights. Most of our shoot days were a 5pm start until a 5am finish. We shot night for night, just to give the movie that similar feel and depth of the real look of the sky and the moon. That will wear pretty much anyone down if they aren’t prepared for it, because our systems aren’t naturally prepared to deal with those kind of long, overnight hours. It’s also a film where the characters have to worry about how they look and constantly make it seem like they got a good night’s sleep the night before. It’s a film where some of the characters have to naturally be put under a great deal of stress, but you also have to ask if it’s healthy to put actors under that kind of stress. Personally, I don’t think being put under stress is a great thing, but in some ways it works for this kind of story. (laughs) Ideally, you always want more money to spread twelve days into twenty days, but this is also a film about three people having a long night together with draining conversations, suspicion, and multiple rounds of drinks and sex. Ultimately, I think it was the right artistic decision, but it always comes at the expense of the people actually tasked with making the movie.”
Without a lot of time to work, it was up to Carlton’s actors to share in a give and take with their director; bringing new layers and backstories to their character that weren’t immediately apparent on the page. It’s a part of collaborating that Carton finds vital to the filmmaking process.
“I don’t like to give too much backstory, but I think once I find the right actors for the characters, I definitely let them chew on the script,” Carlton says about refining Good Kisser once her stars were cast based on their on screen chemistry and eagerness to engage with the material. “We then circle back to everything so they can ask me about the scenes and the characters. I want to hear from them about what they found in the material organically before they ask me about any backstory that I might’ve had in mind. If it’s not already on the page, it’s more interesting to find those things out in the conversations we have. It’s always fascinating to write something like this and just see what actors are more inclined to lean into and learn more about in their characters. It’s really something that happens on a case by case basis, because not every actor has the exact same process or agenda when it comes to their characters. The questions they ask help me learn more about them, which I think incredibly helpful for me as a writer because it shows me how these characters look through fresh eyes. The hardest job is actually making the film, so having these conversations always makes that part easier.”
Good Kisser is a unique sort of relationship drama because it takes the “hook-up” or “one night stand” narrative to another level of emotional complexity. Kate desperately wants to hook up with Mia, but she doesn’t want to lose Jenna, who’s just as nervous and apprehensive about the three-way arrangement as she is enticed by it. The story, partially born from Carlton’s own experiences and emotions, highlights some of the complicated feelings that she likes to highlight in her films.
“I personally love writing about gray areas when it comes to love and making that relatable, especially when it comes to second guessing things and self-doubt,” she says about the arc of the characters in Good Kisser. “I don’t see that a lot in films, and I wrote characters that I wanted to see. I think these feelings are close to ones that a lot of people experience, and I know I’ve experienced them. Jenna and Kate are both insecure characters, but Kate is overcompensating by being myopic and self-centred. It’s a story of a power imbalance in a couple. I wanted that imbalance to shift throughout the night through the different couplings depicted. While that’s going on throughout the movie, the soul of the story, to me, is watching Jenna coming into herself and realizing what she’s been allowing to go on unspoken for longer than just this one night. The dynamic of the relationship isn’t healthy for Jenna, and it’s about someone coming to that realization and finding the strength to finally deal with it. I wanted to plant that seed right away early in the film, and I hope people realize that and follow along as it grows throughout the story.”
Sexual insecurity is a topic that’s rarely tackled in mainstream, predominantly straight and white cinema without taking a comedic approach. There are moments of levity throughout Good Kisser, but Jenna’s insecurities (and Kate’s, too, for that matter) aren’t treated in a joking manner. It’s an adult film with adult situations made for adult audiences, and yet Carlton knows that Good Kisser will likely still be viewed by the world at large as an LGBTQ film. She’s perfectly fine with that, but she also knows that there’s a certain segment of the filmgoing populace beyond those labels and boundaries that are craving original stories. In some ways, Carlton’s lack of resources and funds empowers and emboldens her work.
“I think a lot of that comes through the female perspective I put into my films. But that’s also just me. That’s who I am. That’s what I know,” Carlton muses about the kinds of films she likes to make and the corner of the cinematic marketplace to which they’re usually relegated. “It’s so weird being a filmmaker sometimes because you’re always told to be aware of your niches and know of every way possible to get the largest amount of people to see your movie. At the same time, sometimes I feel that those labels and things you’re told that you have to know put limits on me as a maker and a writer. Even though I’m choosing to write about three women and even through I’m a queer, lesbian woman, I want to talk about things that are more complex and nuanced than a lot of the categories a film like this tends to get put into. It can be frustrating, because I want to write things that are often subversive to the very things that put my films into a specific category in the first place.”
“That’s why I love talking to people who love films in general, because they can generally see these concentric circles where different kinds of stories overlap and evolve with each other over time. I think viewers are getting smarter in a lot of ways, and not wanting to see the same homogenized stories anymore. I was saying to my film’s producer the other day, who’s also queer, that I would kind of be pissed – but not in a whiny way – if my culture was represented in the same homogenized way that straight white men are often portrayed in movies and in the media, particularly in North American culture. I think people see a lot of these depictions of say a frat boy type, an intellectual, or a sensitive kind of guy and think,’Who the fuck is that? That’s not me. I’ve never had those problems.’ I think there’s been this dumbing down of how people are portrayed in Hollywood versions of these same kinds of stories, and I think that’s why people who love movies are moving further and further away from studio dramas and comedies that employ the same kinds of characters time and again. Studios have this belief that they have to make films with average heroes in order to make the most money and relate to people, but that flies in the face of the fact that no one – male, female, queer, straight, you name it – is average in any way. That’s not how any of us walk around, even if we’re trying to be the heroes of our own lives.”
“I think, then, that there’s so much less to lose when making stories like this when you’re already marginalized by being a queer, female filmmaker. If you don’t have much money on top of that, you don’t have the time or luxury to think about how every individual subset of potential viewers will react to every little detail in the film. At that point, you can’t even think about making money or pleasing some sort of corporate boss. People who keep spending millions of dollars on movies will eventually want to take fewer and fewer risks over time. They’re not going to be making films with the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Derek Jarman, or even someone like Jane Campion, who’s one of my favourite filmmakers. I’m inspired by filmmakers like that because they provide a frame of reference for my own voice. I come back to filmmakers like them when I’m feeling lost or I’m worried about how I’m going to pay my rent through the stories that I want to tell. How does a filmmaker in the United States – where basically every funding program available was dismantled back during the Reagan era, and especially when you’re a woman and you’re queer – tell their stories while sustaining a life. People have asked me how I was able to finish a film like Good Kisser so quickly and such a low budget – because that’s not the norm – and the answer is that it’s the only way I can make something truthful and honest and still be able to make a living.”