Interview with Filmmakers Melissa Skirboll & Penny Jackson (MY DINNER WITH SCHWARTZEY)

MY DINNER WITH SCHWARTZEY played to rave reviews at the September 2020 WILDsound Female Film Festival.

1. What motivated you to make this film?

Melissa: Penny and I really wanted to collaborate on something – we had worked together in NY theater previously and both were starting to segue into film. When we started talking about possible projects the Weinstein case had just broken and My Dinner With Schwartzey seemed really topical. And on top of being pertinent to the #metoo moment it had such wonderful visual and aural possibilities written in to the initial story; I got really excited about bridging that moment in time to life!

Penny: I was motivated to make this film after hearing a dramatized reading of my published short story sponsored by Dixon Place Theater in downtown Manhattan. Although I had always been a playwright, I was always interested in writing a film. The Harvery Weinstein story had just been revealed and the Me Too movement was beginning to take shape. Melissa who directed that reading turned to me and said, “you know, with what’s happening right now, this could be our film” I always wanted to work with her and I admired her writing. I was very nervous about writing a screenplay and really trusted Melissa to help with the right language and images. We are both fans of the punk rock club scene of the 1989s and Alice In Wonderland. We liked to describe our film as Andy Warhol Meets Alice In Wonderland and Harvery Weinstein.

2. From the idea to the finished product, how long did it take for you to make this short?

Penny: Melissa, I don’t know this answer!

Melissa: From our first meeting to rough out what parts of the story we wanted to put into the script to our final edit took about 9-10 months.

3. How would you describe your short film in two words!?

Penny: Looking glass

Melissa: Wonderland #metoo

4. What was the biggest obstacle you faced in completing this film?

Penny: Casting a sixteen year old girl who is mature enough for the very challenging role with sexual overtones was obviously difficult. We also were limited in terms of the time for the shoot. We had to be out of our bar location by 4pm so they could open. That meant arriving at 4 in the morning (after they closed) with our actors and makeup and musicians.

Another challenge was finding a rabbit and not having to pay exorbitant rates for the rabbit handler. Not sure I’d work with animals again.

And of course there is the budget. “There’s never time and never enough money” is one popular logo for filmmakers. But overall, making the film with this dream cast and a dream director was pure joy.

Melissa: While everything Penny says was true – for me the biggest challenge was getting enough extras to actually show up. We had more than a few no shows; a few of the extras we were hoping to “feature” – triplets, a Bowie look-alike, a fortune teller – ended up not making it. At the end of the day it all worked out but getting people to come hang out at a bar at 4am to create a crowd atmosphere is not the easiest task!

5. What were your initial reactions when watching the audience talking about your film in the feedback video?

Melissa: I was thrilled! They nailed so many of the themes and metaphors that we talked about in writing the script and that were key in our pre-production meetings with the design teams. I love that they noticed and gave credit to the camera work,lighting, sound and music, editing, production and costume design – it was just great to hear people noticed all of those tiny details that went into creating this psychedelic ride.

Penny: So happy that everyone enjoyed the film and understood The Alice In Wonderland connections. Also happy that the viewers were fine with having an ambiguous ending. Thrilled that the acting and direction was so appreciated, as well as the color and the costumes. Overall, I was very impressed with the intelligence and insight of the audience in the feedback video. These are obviously men and women who love film.

Watch the Audience FEEDBACK Video:

6. How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

Penny: I wrote this story in the 1980s. I was inspired by seeing a teenage girl at a downtown rock club with a much older man. I was only a junior at Barnard College when I wrote this story! I decided to write the story in the young girl’s voice. In the original short story, Fiona, the teenage narrator, stays with Schwartzey. In the film we decided to have her leave him.

Melissa: Having directed the stage version of the short story I knew it had potential to be a really cool little film. The story itself, all Penny – it was written and published long before I met her!

7. What film have you seen the most in your life?

Penny: Rushmore by Wes Anderson. I’m a nut for films set in high school and I believe this is BIll Murray’s best role. And the music!

Melissa: It’s got to be Wizard Of Oz just because back before streaming/cable it played every year and my whole family sat down to watch it every year. There are a few others that whenever I’d be clicking through the channels I’d always stop to watch: Singin in the Rain, When Harry Met Sally are up there… Most in movie theater might be Moulin Rouge or Matrix!

8. You submitted to the festival via FilmFreeway, what are your feelings of the submission platform from a filmmaker’s perspective?

Melissa: It’s great – definitely makes it easier to find festivals around the world. It’s also a little dangerous! Very easy to submit to more fests and spend more money than you should. I learned a lot with my first short and have become better at strategizing, budgeting and choosing the better fits.

Penny: I am very happy with FilmFreeway. It’s easy to discover new and established film festivals.

9. What song have you listened to the most times in your life?

Penny: Penny Lane by The Beatles. Of course.

Melissa: Does happy birthday count? Maybe Bohemian Rhapsody/Queen.

10. What is next for you? A new film?

Penny: My next film is Greetings From Sarajevo. I adapted this from a short story into a screenplay and Melissa directed it. It’s a very tense thriller with two female leads that takes place mainly in Times Square. We were very lucky to film it in November 2019. The film has won several screenplay writing awards and has already been accepted at YoFi Film Festival, Golden Door International FIlm and the screenplay is accepted at The Austin Revolution Film Festival.

Melissa and I are also considering making My Dinner With Schwartzey into a t.v. series or a full-length feature.

Melissa: Greetings From Sarajevo is just starting to hit the festival circuit. And as Penny said we are starting to work on a series based on the characters from My Dinner With Schwartzey. I have a couple of other scripts at various stages of development and hopefully will be getting those out into the world soon!

By matthewtoffolo

Filmmaker and sports fan. CEO of the WILDsound Film and Writing Festival

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