The host of The Guilty Feminist sits down with Lisa Brenner, the star and producer of her first movie, to talk ageism, Hamilton and why women really love rom-coms.
At this point in her career, it’s difficult to know exactly how to describe Deborah Frances-White. Polymath, maybe. Renaissance woman. One-woman supergroup. A comedian, actor, corporate coach, broadcaster, author and the host of smash-hit podcast The Guilty Feminist, Frances-White is now adding another string to her (already very well-strung) bow: screenwriter.
Frances-White’s first feature film, Say My Name, is a screwball comedy that tells the story of Mary Page, a fast-talking enigma whose one-night stand with gentle divorcee Statton gets cut short by an armed robbery. As Mary and her comically mismatched conquest careen around a fictional Welsh island called South Mouse attempting to retrieve their stolen belongings, they’re forced to reckon with each other – and themselves.
Filmed on location in Wales, the movie is raucous, hilarious and unexpectedly poignant. Much of this comes down to Frances-White’s fast-paced, razor-sharp script, but it is Lisa Brenner’s performance as charismatic, clever Mary that makes the film sing. Brenner also produced the film, temporarily relocating from her home in Los Angeles to Wales for the duration of the shoot.
On a Monday afternoon in late March, Stylist sat down with Frances-White and Brenner in a London hotel room as they discussed the making of Say My Name, Hollywood ageism and why most women don’t karate-chop their way out of trouble.
Deborah: We should probably start by talking about how we met. You know, if I hadn’t been running late for Hamilton, I would never have met you.
Lisa: I didn’t know this!
Deborah: Yeah. So I first saw Hamilton thanks to a friend who went to school with Leslie Odom Jr [who played Aaron Burr in the musical’s original Broadway production]. I went along thinking: this is a hip-hop musical about the founding fathers, it sounds like something you’d see a group of schoolkids do at the Edinburgh Festival. Obviously I was blown away, and the next time I was in New York, I was desperate to see it again.
The problem was, we could only get tickets for a performance on the same day we were meant to fly back to the UK. So my friend Meg, who is married to Jay Stern [the director of Say My Name], offered to sit with our suitcases in a café near the theatre so we could see Hamilton, run out, grab our bags and get a taxi to the airport.
When we were in the taxi, Meg told me Jay was looking for a script to direct. If we hadn’t had that conversation I wouldn’t have sent him the script for Say My Name, and the film wouldn’t have happened.
Lisa: That’s amazing. Oddly enough, Hamilton is why I wanted to produce this movie too.
Deborah: What?! This is crazy. Tell me more…
Lisa: I saw Hamilton too, and afterwards I went into a serious depression [laughs]. I went to dinner with my mum and said, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ You know, I’m a working actress in the States, but at my age…
Deborah: It’s like, what am I making? What am I creating?
Lisa: Exactly. I could never make something like Hamilton, and the artistry of the show made me really question what I was doing with my life.
Deborah: I had been trying to make a movie for honestly a decade in the UK before Say My Name. I sold a script that I wrote with two other brilliant women writers to Fox Searchlight over 10 years ago. The other writers told me it usually takes 10 years to see a script on screen after selling it, and I was like, ‘Pssh.’ But there were 11 years, almost to the day, between selling that script and making Say My Name.
It taught me that you have to keep going. You have to keep writing, you have to keep reinventing the same scripts over and over. This is the first script I wrote on my own, and so many men promised to make it over the years. They… did not make it.
Lisa: Empty promises.
Deborah: You were the first women to come on board as a producer. I think there’s a new wave of female-driven cinema, because women in Hollywood are just sick of playing victims or mums or mums who are victims.
Lisa: For actresses in Hollywood, unless you’re a huge star like Meryl Streep, all the roles go away when you reach 40. The only parts left are the friends or the crying mother. I auditioned for a huge movie that’s shooting now, and in each scene all I had to say to my daughter was: “Are you OK? Are you sure you’re OK? I’m worried about you.” That’s all the male writer could think a mother in her 40s would have to say.
It got to the point where I had to take the script to my acting coach and ask them to help me say it without laughing, because it was just ridiculous.
Deborah: I always say that if people listened to the woman in most films, there’d be no plot, because she’s always trying to kill the story. The classic wife or girlfriend character is like, ‘Don’t go out, Jeff, there’s a plot outside! There’s no need for a plot in here, it’s nice and warm and safe.’
Even in sitcoms like Family Guy, the mum’s always like, ‘No, we can’t have a petting zoo and a trampoline and fireworks for the kid’s birthday, THINGS will happen!’ And the father’s like [puts on dopey voice]: ‘But I’ve already booked the trampoline.’
So Lisa, you were looking for a proactive female hero. And I was really fascinated by your approach. You said, ‘I’d like to start shooting 1 August.’ Now, I’ve had a lot of movies nearly made, so when I heard that, I thought: OK, we’ll start in January or never. But then you actually started shooting on 1 August. I was amazed by that. I thought, it takes a proactive female hero to make a film with a proactive female hero.
Lisa: Oh, thank you. I’ve found with producing that if you start waiting for people, it never happens. But it was also because I’m a mother of two girls, and they’re on their summer holiday in August.
Deborah: What was your first impression of the script?
Lisa: My first impression was: this is going to be so much fun on set. It was laugh-out-loud funny and action-packed and I couldn’t put it down. To me, that’s the number one thing you want in a script. I also loved the fact that the movie opens with a sex scene. To be able to play the romantic lead – and the lead, full stop – as an actress in her 40s was special.
Deborah: It’s like an old-fashioned screwball comedy, I think. Do you remember those movies from the Forties, where Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn would be, like, working at a newspaper, going: ‘I could run a newspaper as well as any man! Now kiss me, but don’t, but do, but don’t!’ What happened to those films, where the woman was the beating heart of the story?
The lovely thing about your character Mary is that she gets the male character into trouble and out of trouble, and that’s what makes it exciting. Even in more recent Seth Rogen-esque films, the woman always has to be the voice of reason. But in Say My Name, Mary is the driving force of chaos. She’s not running behind the man and asking him to stop.
Lisa: Mary’s strong, but not in the way Hollywood thinks a woman should be strong. You talk about this a lot and it’s something that’s always bothered me, too – this idea that to be strong a woman has to be an ass-kicking karate expert. It’s not realistic!
Deborah: It doesn’t reflect reality for many women. It used to be that the man would save the women from the bad guy in films, but then they decided that wasn’t feminist. So now women karate-chop their way out of danger. But I’m like, I know hardly any women – if any women at all – who could punch a man in the face, then make a wisecrack and saunter off. Obviously some women could beat up some men, but if that’s your only representation of how women get themselves out of bad situations, it’s quite alienating.
The reality is that women are quite good at keeping ourselves alive. I was recently in a situation in LA that seemed really dangerous. I was in an Uber but my app had stopped working, so no one knew I’d actually got in this guy’s car. And there were so many red flags. He showed me these YouTube videos he’d made that were very violent and misogynistic, depicting horrible things like women getting thrown into the trunks of cars. He kept saying that women can’t be trusted, and telling me I smelt nice. And I thought, I don’t trust that this man is taking me where I’ve asked him to. What am I going to do?
So I started bonding with him. He wanted to be an actor, so I said I knew someone who might be interested in his videos, and I could call her the following day – the implication being, ‘If I’m able to’. And he totally changed. He was like, ‘Oh, that’d be great!’, and took me to my friend’s house. Another woman told me about a situation where she was at a guy’s house and he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so she pretended she had to go to the shop for cigarettes and left her coat there so he would think she was coming back. Another friend told a creepy taxi driver that she was pregnant and her husband was waiting for her. Women protect ourselves by building story, by building rapport.
In this movie, when Mary gets into situations with threatening men, she bonds with them. She creates relationships, she outsmarts, she makes jokes, she undermines. She plays them like cellos, and that’s what I know of how women get out of danger. Sometimes I watch films where a woman is shouting ‘fuck you, buddy!’ at a man, and I’m like, most women wouldn’t do that unless there were evident safety routes. A lot of male writers don’t quite seem to get the danger that women live with all the time. They don’t understand how alert we always are, how much we use our peripheral vision. That’s what Mary’s class at.
Lisa: I actually did once have to learn karate for a movie directed by a man [laughs]. I was being trained by this two-time black belt karate champion and he was like, ‘You could drop me anywhere in the world and I could survive and fight my way out.’ I was like, erm, I couldn’t.
I think all women do what you’re describing, subconsciously or consciously. If I find myself in a dangerous situation, I’ll bring up my children and ask the man if he has kids. And suddenly he’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I do have children!’ Now he’s in father mode, and he sees me as a mother instead of as – you know, as a victim or whatever.
Deborah: This movie is a comedy, but it’s been amazing to be able to explore these issues within that. I feel like all my work has that aspect to it. The Guilty Feminist will be funny-funny-funny and then it’s like, now we’re going to talk about something very serious and dark. And then someone will make a joke to break the tension – but a joke that still plays into the values of comradery and female power. I feel like that’s why Guilty Feminist listeners will really enjoy this film, because it’s a playful space, it’s a joyful space, but then we shift gears.
Lisa: I believe change happens through comedy. If you can make someone laugh, you’ve connected with them, and then you can bring in another message. I actually had a little argument with a feminist film festival who weren’t interested in the movie because they didn’t think a romantic comedy could be feminist.
Deborah: I’m just like, is romance not feminist? Is comedy not feminist? Are we not allowed to laugh? Holy hell, are we not human beings? The whole point of feminism is that women are allowed into all the spaces that humanity inhabits, and that includes the comedic space.
In The Guilty Feminist book, I actually make the argument that women like romantic comedies because they’re one of the only film genres where we can reliably see autonomous powerful women getting what they want. We don’t love romance more than anything else, we just don’t get to see powerful women in other genres very often.
Lisa: What do you hope people will get out of watching this movie?
Deborah: I want it to raise their inner mischief-maker a bit. I think it’s a hopeful film, and a bit of a film for rebels. It encourages you to be a bit naughty, to find your inner joy.
Lisa: The characters are drawn so beautifully, and – without giving away too much – it shows that everyone has another side to them. I’d like people to realise that people have depth. Women can be strong and vulnerable, and men can be timid but also have a lot of inner strength.
The biggest compliment I’ve received about this film was from a friend. She said that it’s the kind of movie where if she woke up in the middle of the night and saw it was on, she could start watching it at any point and love it. I thought that was the height of praise.
Say My Name will be screened at Odeon Birmingham on 7 April. There will also be screenings later in April in Oxford and London. Find out more here.
The above interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Images: Linda Cooper / Getty Images / Chris Floyd for Stylist