I’ve mentioned several times that my favorite parts about covering Twin Cities Film Fest is about discovering new films, filmmakers and talents. Well, one of my favorite discoveries in all three fronts comes courtesy of this coming-of-age drama, DARCY.
Gus Birney, the young starlet of TV’s “The Mist” (based on a story by Stephen King) is making her feature film debut in the independent narrative feature DARCY. DARCY marks the first narrative feature film debut for co-directors Heidi Philipsen-Meissner and Jon Russell Cring. In co-directing DARCY, both John and Heidi made it a priority to consider both gender viewpoints when interpreting the script and its characters’ behaviors, another factor not lost by the film’s cast. Most of the production’s crew was carried by women below and above the line. The film’s ensemble cast includes: Johnathan Tchaikovsky (“Keep The Change”), Paulina Singer (“The Intern”), David Thornton (“The Notebook”) and Bernadette Quigley (TV’s “Mr. Robot”). The 17-year-old newcomer is the daughter of veteran New York actors Reed Birney (Netflix’s “House of Cards”) and Constance Shulman (Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”).
My review of the film:
Billed as “A girl’s awakening in the sunlight of harsh reality,” DARCY is a coming-of-age tale about an innocent teenage girl living with her parents in a seedy motel on the edge town who meets a stranger that changes her world.
The film presented the contrast between the unwholesome surrounding of her family business and Darcy’s innocence and being so sexually ‘green.’ Casting is so important in any film, but especially a film like this where it hinges on the believability of the protagonist. Fortunately Gus Birney did a fine job and you’re immediately taken with her as she attempts to navigate her life without much guidance from her parents. We see the world through Darcy’s eyes, and frankly in this world there’s really no good role model for a young woman. Even her mother at times behaves inappropriately with seductive male costumers coming to her motel. One thing her mom said to her is one every teen should take to heart however… “Don’t be in such a rush to be grown up. It’s not what you think it’ll be.”
The film gets more interesting with the arrival of a stranger… a brooding young writer Luke whom Darcy takes an immediate liking to. I like the moment of their meet-up, innocently enough when she was working the front desk and he came down to borrow a pencil sharpener. The chemistry between the two leads, Birney and Johnathan Tchaikovsky, is palpable. It’s fun to watch them being drawn to each other but each hesitate to get too close. The film takes its time to reveal just what’s really going on with Luke, which adds to the mystery.
Sustaining the motel is the practice of taking in occupants who have until only recently been incarcerated, an arrangement that Darcy’s parents have arranged with the Department of Corrections for a price. Naturally there are unsavory scenes in this seedy operation, but they’re not gratuitous. I have to say I’m not fond of those scenes but they’re there to serve a purpose, to fully understand the world Darcy lives in. Kudos to co-director Heidi Philipsen-Meissner who had to wear multiple hats as a performer as well in the role of Toni. I also think the scenes between Darcy and Luke, the heart of the story, is beautifully-shot and acted.
The film takes place over one Summer. It’s an honest, realistic portrait of an innocent young woman on the brink of adulthood. Don’t expect a neat resolution tied with a big red bow, because often times, life just doesn’t turn out that way either.
Q: Congrats on your debut feature film! What’s the inspiration behind this project and how much of the story was inspired by real life?
JON: I think when you start from real life and then expand upon it you can find a really cool alchemy in writing. I lived in a motel for over a year and my wife and co-writer has brought a lot of her personal family experiences. Then you stop judging your characters and see where they take you.
Q: Looks like you changed the name from This Is Nowhere to Darcy, what’s the reasoning for the title change?
HEIDI: I think it was just part of our journey along the way. When I started making this first feature, it was with the idea of making it for a super micro budget on a weekend with friends in the biz… and, thus, the title THIS IS NOWHERE felt especially real… almost like a rallying cry… and had to do with the location of where our main character, Darcy, lived and the place that she was in the world: Nowhere. But as the journey of making this film continued, and I worked with one of my mentors Larry Jackson (Mystic Pizza) and Jeff Dowd (aka The Dude) in getting it out there to test audiences prior to completing the final edit, it became evident that the title THIS IS NOWHERE, did not fully encompass the center of the story. Darcy may have felt like she was “nowhere,” and we wanted to take the audiences on that journey through “nowhere,” but, truly, in the end, it was about DARCY… this girl on the cusp of womanhood, who would most definitely not stay “nowhere” in her life.
Q: What makes DARCY different than other coming-of-age films or those dealing with youth growing up?
JON: I grew up on great coming of age films but there always seemed to be this escapism of trying to create your own world outside of adult influence. Sort of the Charlie Brown syndrome. My experience growing up is that your life and decisions are dominated by those older than you. Everybody in this film is trying to get by, but it all comes from a self-centered place. That tends to lead to dark conclusions. Darcy isn’t a simple story, but neither is life.
HEIDI: The majority of coming-of-age that I have seen, i.e. Stand By Me, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Anne of Green Gables…. Have either been more about the coming of a young male’s life, or very rose-colored and about the coming-of-age about a young female as directed, editing and created by a male. Those are very different eyes and things you focus on… the male gaze versus the female gaze. And, honestly, in many ways, I often most thought about the story of “Lolita,” only we’ve completely turned Lolita on its head and made it about seeing the world through Lolita’s eyes if we could.
Further, this film does not steer clear of those unfortunate experiences that youth sometimes witnesses when the responsible adult is nowhere to be found. (If anything, it’s a wake-up call to our society that we are not connecting to our young ones and losing our sense of connection to those in our communities who don’t necessarily “fit in.”)
Many films try to do the opposite – pretend that all is perfect in the world in spite of life’s hardships. But this one looks at the resiliency of a girl who refuses to be a passive bystander in her own life, even though she has to behave like one to keep the adults in her world from getting on her case even more.
Q: How did you end up collaborating together as directors and what has the experience been like?
JON: We admired each other’s singular creative projects so collaboration made sense. It also is a story that needs multiple voices, male and female, to tell it. It has been a fabulous process.
HEIDI: In what the big film industry meccas of NYC and LA consider “nowhere” – upstate NY – Jon and I saw talent in each other and the drive and passion to want to do more. Though we are both Type A personalities in our own ways, we found that the fact that we were bringing two different genders together as directors to create the fully equal perspective in our film made the collaboration all the more exciting, fulfilling and eye-opening, while allowing both of our voices to be heard.
Q: Heidi, you also had a supporting role in the film. How does acting in the film help you tell the story as a filmmaker?
HEIDI: When you get into the skin of one of a complex character like, TONI, who is, in effect, both a prostitute, but also a mother and wife, you have to do a lot of research grounded in reality to understand her. You just get so much closer to the creative, evolutionary process of exploring the emotions, the forces driving her, as well as what is holding her back.
You can’t fake those emotions – at least, I can’t. And understanding TONI –who was, in essence, a “Darcy” without a safety net who never left “nowhere,” but fell in through hard times, sex abuse, violence, drug use, probably mental illness, desperation and, ultimately, only had one thing keeping her going: the love for her child, Peanut—was a huge part of unlocking the key to the rest of the characters for me as a director.
When I act and direct, this experience does two things for me: First, it keeps me grounded in what my fellow actors have to go through and ensures that I respect their process (because I am going through the same thing), it bonds me closer to them, and, second, it gets my head in the game as a director as to what the story is all about… grounding me in the truth of the imaginary circumstances.
And – okay, I lied – there are three reasons – lastly, it enables me to do something with all of that emotion and energy I am processing as a director. When you are a director, it is more of an analytical process than emotional… and I love being able to go through the full journey to bond with my fellow actors, while steering the “directorial ship” as well.
Q: I’m really drawn by the relationship between Darcy and Luke. Could you tell us a bit about casting Gus and Johnathan specifically?
HEIDI: First off, I have to give props to our Casting Director Caroline Sinclair – I met her while coordinating and working with her on several features prior to producing and directing my own and I never dreamed that she would say “yes.” But when I approached her with the script, she loved it from the beginning and was one of my biggest supporters as both a producer and director.
Caroline is the one who said, “I think you REALLY have a special script, here. Don’t rush this. Give it time and when you are ready, let’s cast it with some great actors.” And she did just that.
Finding “Darcy,” was no easy task. She had to be able to portray that very special age of 15… you know, we are different, much different, developmentally at 15 than we are… even a year later..
And even when my Executive Producer Kathryn McDermott was urging me, “Don’t cast a child. It’ll be brutal on our schedule, our budget and the expectations of working with child labor laws,” I couldn’t help but see something in Gus that we hadn’t seen in the 18-year-olds coming in. It was that naïve innocence, but also that “I’m becoming an adult and I will conquer the world!”
We girls do think that way – you know—until, unfortunately, as we get older and we are told that we are only special in how we help to define a man in our lives.
I also want to give props to Tracy Nicole Cring… she is the Co-Writer, Director of Photography and Muse of Darcy. I believe, deep down, that she is the original Darcy… Tracy, Jon and I had gone over and over in our creative visualization of art works and styles of the way we saw Darcy.
And so, when Gus walked in, tall, lanky, a bit like a dear-in-headlights, on the one hand, somehow evoking an old English painting, like John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott, yet fully modern with an undercurrent of tough-girl faith in her dreams, maybe it was subconscious from all the prep we had done, but something just “clicked.” That was it. She WAS Darcy.
As an aside, Kathryn McDermott, who teaches Production Management at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan, and was my teacher and mentor in film school, tells me that she now has a “caveat” when it comes to teaching her students. The case of Gus Birney and “Darcy” is the only one, she says, where it went “right;” otherwise, she still advises against hiring children on your first feature on a low budget.
In the case of Johnathan Tchaikovsky, who plays “Luke,” that was truly magically, as well. We had done several castings by that time and were, originally, looking for a character with a southern accent, most likely from Tennessee, and the rest of the look – i.e. cowboy hat, boots, torn jeans….
And then, right at the very end, one of the last to be seen, in walks this guy from the Bronx, who reminded me of a young Robert DeNiro, yet had something very zen like Richard Gere in “A Master and a Gentleman.” I’ve never experienced it until that day – this actor literally came in and TOOK that role. He owned it. There was no one else who could do it or WANTED it as much as he did.
And I’m happy to report that both actors were so committed from day ONE. They never backed down or gave us any reason to regret casting them.
JON: Gus Birney is a star. When she came in we knew there was something truly special there. Jonathan reminds of me of a young Brando and their chemistry together was palpable. These characters are struggling with appetites and they break your heart. Their relationship is complicated and evolves and I am also struck by the depth these actors brought.
Q: The nature photography is really beautiful, it’s as if it’s a deliberate juxtaposition to the seedy motel setting. Where’s the filming location?
HEIDI: Again, that was a deliberate action. In partnering with Tracy, our Director of Photography, and all of the creative visuals that we had accumulated to emulate a certain look, we came up with this idea of making the interiors feel so uninviting, cramped, crowded, dreary, lonely, even a bit frightening… while the outdoors would be the opposite: inviting, free, full of life, hope, peace of mind. I have to give kudos to the entire team for making that happen.
We shot the film on location at the Catskill Mountain Lodge in Palenville, NY and in downtown Catskill, NY. Gorgeous – gorgeous countryside there.
JON: We shot in the Catskill region of New York. Tracy Cring as Cinematographer wanted that feeling of two worlds. Where Darcy lives is so completely different from the beauty once you exit the motel. The grass is definitely greener outside.
Q: Lastly, this film is brutally honest and doesn’t have a perfect ending tied w/ a big red bow. What is the main thing you like people to take away from the film?
HEIDI: Not sure if you read my blog in the Huffington Post this past week, but that pretty much sums it up. For me, as a women director, I did not want a “happy bow” ending – and that’s certainly not what Jon and Tracy wrote as co-writers.
As an aside, I will admit that we DID try it after being advised from outside sources – re-edited the entire ending and made it “happy,” –but it didn’t work; our test audiences were too smart and knew that it just didn’t feel right. They rejected it.
And these days, in the wake of the Weinstein sexual harassment cases, I guess you could call it a disruptive innovation statement very true to current times: We women are not going to pretend that our world is rosy when it is not. And the men who respect and love us don’t want us to. At some point, something needs to be said about how we are forced to keep a smile on our face while enduring harassment and abuse and discrimination. But that means facing the flaws and the struggle NOW.
Darcy’s future may very well be rosy – but not just yet.
JON: I really believe it’s a message of empathy. Caring is a political act nowadays. When you live with these extremely flawed people I hope you can feel something for someone who is struggling. It’s easy to box people up and say this is all they will ever be. This film turns those conventions around. As far as the ending, I find tragedy doesn’t come obviously. We survive our own mistakes.
It was so much fun meeting Heidi, Jon and Johnathan at their hotel. It’s palpable Heidi and John had an effortless rapport as they could practically finish each other’s sentences. As we’re about to wrap up on our interview, Johnathan arrived from the airport! What a lovely bunch, definitely one of the highlights covering TCFF for me this year.
Thanks Heidi & Jon for chatting with me!
For more info about the film, visit