Naomi Foner and the Importance of Being Earnest

Very Good Girls
, screenwriter Naomi Foner’s directorial debut, is an earnest film. But earnest shouldn’t be an insult. Gerry and Lilly, 17-year-olds from Ditmas Park, are coming of age, not through huffing or shoplifting, but via their relationship to one another. You get the sense that they’ve been best friends all of their lives, and that history anchors them even as their temperaments diverge. “Earnest has become not a positive word,” says Foner over coffee in New York. “I think these girls are sort of earnest and the movie had to reflect that.”

Played by Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning respectively, Gerry and Lilly are killing time during the summer before college. Their lives are on hold—they’re still dealing with the same childhood problems of fighting parents (Lilly), or embarrassing, aging-hippy parents (Gerry), but freedom is close. “Whether I’m conscious of it or not, I’m always writing about family and how it’s both a positive and dangerous force,” explains Foner. “That point in your life when you’re an adolescent and you’re making the choice about how much is you and how much is them—boundaries are involved.” Gerry and Lilly fall for the same, semi-mysterious boy David, played by Boyd Holbrook, and for a while, their relationship suffers. David, however, is ultimately a footnote in their friendship. He could have been anyone.

Foner first became famous in the late ’80s as the writer of Running on Empty (1988), which, under Sidney Lumet’s direction, secured an Oscar nomination for River Phoenix. Outside of the film community, she’s known as the mother of actors Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal. At their core, Running on Empty and Very Good Girls are similar films: precise characters inhabiting that awkward, liminal space between adolescence and young adulthood.

EMMA BROWN: I read that you originally wrote the script for Very Good Girls 20 years ago.

NAOMI FONER: Yes, I did. I had been at the director’s workshop for women at the AFI, which at the time was a great thing to do. I had always meant to direct, and for a variety of reasons that are hard to explain, I never did. I produced many things—there’ll be people who tell you I directed through them—and of course I wrote. It took a divorce, a move back to New York and a kind of “now I can do anything” to say, “I really want to do this.”

BROWN: Would you ever have given the film to another director? If it made it easier to finance the film, for example.

FONER: Not this one. This one I was saving. It was the movie I should have made way back then. I needed to make it to move on. It felt like the ground I had to stand on, and it was also the size and character driven piece that I thought I could manage as a director. For many years I thought, “Well, I need to know a lot more to direct.” But I looked around and watched all the people I know directing and thought, “No. I just need to know what I want it to be.” Then there will be a lot of people to help me get it to there, especially Bobby Bukowski, he’s a brilliant cinematographer.

BROWN: The film is set and shot in Ditmas Park, correct? I didn’t know about that area at all until I saw the film. 

FONER: Yes, although we didn’t call it that all those years ago. We called it Flatbush because it was near Flatbush Avenue. All the names have gotten a lot chicer than they used to be. A lot of people watched the film and thought, “This can’t possibly be in New York.” Because we had such a low budget, it was kind of hard to show the context. It’s a little pocket of Victorian houses that has survived the ups and downs of many things. It’s starting to get re-gentrified.  One of the houses we shot in is owned by the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. People are coming and fixing the houses up because they’re extraordinary—you’re in the city, but you’re not in the city; your kids can ride their bikes on the sidewalk and get on the subway two blocks away. I think they shot Sophie’s Choice a couple of blocks from where we worked.

BROWN: Is that where you grew up?

FONER: I grew up in Ditmas Park. When I imagined shooting the film, I thought if those houses are still there, it would be great to shoot there, and they were. Many of them are so run-down you can’t really enter them. Some of them have really been fixed up and are the way they used to be. It’s that kind of neighborhood, you have to kind of isolate where you’re shooting but they’re still there so we did it.

BROWN: Did you grow up in one of those big houses?

FONER: I did. My parents were actually two doctors. The story is not totally autobiographical in that the plot is not, but the circumstances are. I drew very heavily on my own background for it.

BROWN: Was your home environment more like Lilly’s or Gerry’s?

FONER: Well, my best friend had parents a lot like the ones that I put in for Gerry. I pulled on things that were familiar historically for me to make it come alive. Her parents were politically radical and my parents didn’t much like my going to spend so much time in their house and we were great buddies anyway.

BROWN: Did you change the script in the 20 years it took to realize the film?

FONER: Yes. We updated it because it’s extremely expensive to shoot in period and I had originally written it in period—in the ’70s. It was a choice between getting it made or not getting it made because the budget had to stay below a certain number. I thought, “There are always girls like this.” There are people who’ve challenged me on that, but I think there still are. Not everybody looses their virginity when they’re 12, there are always these girls who are sort of outside the norm, who have only each other to hang with and talk to. Who are what you would call late bloomers; they don’t know it now but when they’re 25 they’re going to be pretty damn interesting. That’s who I wanted them to be. They have cellphones, they have iPods, but they’re not hipsters, they’re who they are. Time matters less than the nature of the people. So we updated it and I found not a great deal had changed. People question, “How can you get through high school and still be virgins?” And I thought, “Really? I’m sure there are.” The difference is that when I was in high school, you weren’t a good girl if you slept with somebody before you graduated from high school. Then somehow that magical boundary happened and you were free—socially free. These days that boundary has moved down several years, but when I wrote it, I was writing about that, about the fact that the door is open now and you can walk through. You can get out of the ghetto of Ditmas Park into the world and try out a bunch of stuff that you haven’t tried out and it’s okay. I think the impact of that was lessened a bit by the fact that we updated it, but that was definitely the intention.

BROWN: When, in your opinion, did that change happen?

FONER: I think by the end of the ’70s and maybe the ’80s, by the time my kids went to school, things changed in many ways. When I was in high school, it was the beginning of hippies and free love and sleeping with people was a sign of your liberation and your freedom. Then we [had to worry about] AIDS, so they started lecturing my kids in elementary school about safe sex. Sex turned from something joyful into something kind of dangerous, and it was hard to avoid that sense that it was a different world. I’m not exactly sure when it changed but I know that it became a different experience. By the time my kids were in junior high school, a lot of them were having sex. I’m not talking about mine specifically; I’m talking about the culture.

BROWN: I think there is still a certain age where if you’ve had sex, you’re a bad girl. And then it shifts quickly to if you haven’t had sex, you’re a bad girl—or at least behind.

FONER: Yes. I was very young when I went to college, but I remember my freshman year at Barnard every freshman had to take a hygiene test otherwise you’d have to take this horrible class that nobody wanted to take. One of the questions on the questionnaire was “Have you had sex?” and the joke going around was if you had you said “No,” and if you hadn’t you said “Yes.”

BROWN: People often talk about screenwriting as a thankless job: you create this thing and then you have to completely hand it over to someone else. Do you agree?

FONER: It’s very hard to be a screenwriter. I remember getting a couple of awards. I got a PEN West award a million years ago when I did Running on Empty, and I sat in the room with all these writers. They wrote everything from novels to non-fiction to children’s books to journalism—any kind of writing—and I realized that there was no one in the room who would ever read anything I’d written. It would have to stand on the basis of what somebody had done to it and that would be the basis on which it would be judged. So it’s a funny art form. You gain a great deal when you have good collaborators and sometimes people just don’t understand what you’ve done. I think a lot of people decide to direct as a defensive move, “If this is going to fail I’m going to fall on my own sword, not yours.” And I think every once in a while it gets better. Like with Sidney Lumet. There are things that got lost in Running on Empty, but he so basically understood the essence of it, and he’s such a good director, that he really added to it.

BROWN: For me, Very Good Girls had a similar tone as Running on Empty, but the films were received very differently. Do you think that’s because of the gender of the protagonists or a change in sensibility over the years?

FONER: Well, I think it was a different time; people were interested in different things. You didn’t have to hype the circumstances so much; a movie about people was interesting. These days, that’s not quite enough to get people, certainly critics, interested. I wonder how Running on Empty would be received now. I think it has a little bit to do with being a female protagonist. There was a time when I thought of making the main character in Running on Empty a woman, and I made an active choice not to do that, whether that would become the dialogue instead of what I meant it to be about. I think Sidney’s a better director than I by a mile and a half and that’s part of it. This was my first effort so when I think about it now I think of all the things I would do differently, and next time I will do differently. All of those factors play into it. Sidney was extremely talented and I will be forever grateful that he directed Running on Empty. I miss him.

BROWN: Do you have another project in mind already?

FONER: I do. I’m going to do a project about me now, or someone like me. A woman of a certain age and what life is like in this period of time that I don’t think ever existed before—this kind of third act that I don’t think other generations got where you find yourself, your family is grown, you either are reinvested in a relationship with somebody or out of it because you looked at whoever your partner was when your family left and said yes or no. Now you have maybe another third of your life and it’s almost like you just graduated from college: What am I going to do?

BROWN: Peter Sarsgaard plays Lilly’s older, sort of lecherous boss. I remember the film debuted at Sundance the same year as Lovelace, in which he plays a really horrible character.  

FONER: Yeah, he always complains about that. But if you saw him in The Killing, which is an extraordinary piece of acting, Peter is one of the best actors that I know. I asked him to [play the part] because I wanted someone who could find the vulnerability in this guy so he wasn’t just a creep. Of course Peter can do that without blinking an eye because everyone is complicated for him and he plays it like that. I was lucky enough to have him agree to do that. I just can’t say enough about what a remarkable actor I think he is. You fall into a rhythm, people think of you as the bad guy, but Peter is gorgeous and so talented that I think he’s more and more going to start taking on other kinds of roles.

BROWN: Was your daughter happy to have him involved, or was she a bit: “Do you really need to have my husband kiss a 17-year-old?”

FONER: Maggie was concerned about that. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think about it when I asked him to do it, I was just thinking about his skill level. When she brought it to my attention I thought, “Yeah, you’re right, that’s very odd. To have your mother directing your husband in a scene about those subjects…” She was right. In some ways I regret it but the outcome, for me, in terms of the movie was fantastic. I try to be careful about things like that, and this one escaped me.

BROWN: Do you think that you have a thick skin?

FONER: I do on the surface. I am, like everybody else, hurt when the thing I’ve done is misunderstood or attacked but I’ve gotten old enough to realize that if you do something, not everybody’s got to like it. And if everybody likes it, it’s probably not that interesting. I’m expecting to be attacked for this; it’s not the current flavor of the month, it’s a very specific thing. It’s a little earnest and it’s definitely old-fashioned in a way that I am totally proud of.

BROWN: What are some of the scenes that you are particularly proud of?

FONER: I love the scene where Gerry tells Lilly that she’s lost her virginity on the porch. It feels like a very real moment to me. I found that as I directed, words seemed less and less important. There were a couple of scenes in the movie, like the one in the kitchen with her father after she sees him in the office, which were written and shot [as] a four-page scene. When I got in the editing room, all of it got thrown away because it was really a moment in which probably no one would say anything. I think movies are about behavior; when people speak they often have no idea what they’re saying.