Glenn Gers (Mad Money, Fracture) makes his directorial debut in his latest film “disFIGURED,” billed as “a movie about women and weight.” The film pairs an unlikely duo – a struggling anorexic and a morbidly obese woman – in a friendship that challenges our thoughts on weight, body image and the ways in which we view both others and ourselves. Gers now takes time to share his thoughts with readers of The-F-Word.
What inspired you to write this film?
It was a combination of two long-held passions: one for a “certain tendency of the American indie cinema,” and the other for my wife Jenn.
I love little no-budget movies that venture into topics, subcultures and experiences Hollywood can’t quite find a way to grapple with. So I was looking to do something in the tradition of early Scorsese, early Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and the two legendary Johns: Cassavettes and Sayles.
At the same time, I had become acutely conscious that all forms of media seem to have gone insane on the subject of weight, because I love a woman whose type of body is in the majority and yet unacceptable. Jenn was not particularly fat-and-proud at those times when she has been fat, but she nonetheless felt angry and frustrated when she found herself excluded, pitied, lectured or reviled for her size. Losing weight becomes a tricky project when you are offended by the advocates of weight-loss. So does still being “big” (at least, in Los Angeles) when you’ve lost it.
So I knew there was an everyday reality aching to be explored. My original idea was to write about a fat couple who walk together by the beach for exercise and become “friends with benefits.” But it felt a little tame and obvious: “fat people have feelings too!” Duh, really?
While fooling with that story, though, I made “Lydia” a member of a Fat Acceptance group, because I was looking for dramatically convincing situation in which people would talk out alternative views on weight – and I stumbled upon something even better: a dramatic action. “Darcy” asking to join the Fat Acceptance group was, at first, just a funny twist of logic. But it created that breathless engine a screenwriter prays for: what’s gonna happen?
So I got into the relationship of Lydia and Darcy, and ended up discovering that the movie (and, I must add, Jenn’s life) is not really, deep down, about weight. It’s about the need for honesty on the subject of our bodies.
You say in an interview on the bonus DVD that your aim was to probe the “emotional truth.” What kind of research did you do that allowed you to tell both Darcy and Lydia’s stories so compellingly, honestly and realistically?
I read a small pile of books, mostly clinical texts, memoirs and self-help, of which two made the strongest impression: Marianne Apostolides’ Inner Hunger: A Young Woman’s Struggle through Anorexia and Bulimia and Feeding The Hungry Heart by Geneen Roth.
But mostly, I went on-line. The internet has become the Encyclopedia Humanica, the imaginative artist’s best friend. People simply spill their guts, in blogs, on sites, in bulletin boards. It’s astonishing and awe-inspiring. I just lurked and trolled and surfed my way through all sorts of lives. Plus stuff swiped from the lives of people I know and/or am related to.
Then I looked for movies that did what I wanted this one to do. I found myself drawn (unexpectedly) to The Best Years Of Our Lives, Leaving Las Vegas, The Station Agent, and Coming Home. (I out-and-out stole the opening and closing sequences of Coming Home.) They’re all about people trying to connect with others they find truly “other” – and they all feature characters who insist: you want to care about me? Then know me. For real.
Finally, I did the basic job of writing: I put myself in the shoes or clothes or moment of the characters. What would it be like, what would I feel, what would I want to do? Half of what these two women say is really me talking about myself, in disguise: my fears, my cravings, my compulsions.
I believe those feelings (and all feelings) are part of a spectrum that lives, in full, in each of us. That’s the whole trick of narrative art, isn’t it? To indulge our desire for emotional tourism but somehow manage to end up bringing us to ourselves. So I had to find this stuff in myself. And that’s why I deliberately made the movie about characters with “functional” versions of eating disorders and body/food issues: so the audience had no excuse to step back and distance themselves.
The film is independently produced on a “no-budget” shoot and yet the cinematography and sets are stunningly and professionally shot and the actors/actresses are flawless in their roles. How did you do it?
Thanks. There’s no reason “no budget” can’t be visually rich: the world is very interesting and often beautiful. It doesn’t cost more to look for compositions, colors, and light that tell the story. You need talent and you need to care – both of which I got in abundance from our cinematographer Idit Dvir and costume/production designer Tabitha Johnson.
I gave them general guidelines, like a sense of color and kitsch when designing for Lydia or using long-lens “shallow focus” on a loose tripod head instead of the currently-fashionable “faux-documentary” wide-angle-handheld style. But from there, Idit and Tabitha created our lush visuals entirely by finding, begging, borrowing and making-it-themselves. They worked incredibly hard, so that the actors and I could just walk into a world where we could do our thing.
Regarding the acting: find talent and get out of the way. The main thing I did was know what each moment was really about, since it’s usually not what they’re saying. But exactly how it was going to be “about that” – I had to let the actors show me, in the moment. The other thing I did was always ask, no matter how they did something, if they could try it another way. I’d suggest alternate things their character could be trying to accomplish with a scene, and we’d see how it played. Just to explore. It helps keep everyone from thinking the task is to “reproduce a moment.”
I was extremely fortunate to be on the set of a movie I co-wrote, Fracture, just a few months before shooting Disfigured. The director, Gregory Hoblit, was extraordinarily generous, including me in the entire process and teaching me a huge amount about directing actors. The cast of Fracture also let me pester them about their side of the experience, so the actors in Disfigured got the benefit of having Greg Hoblit, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling and David Strathairn impress upon me the importance of protecting and supporting what actors bring instead of trying to force them to enact some preconceived version.
But, really – what kind of an idiot would I have to have been not to revel in my actors? They’re all so committed to being real and finding the emotions. While the scenes when Deidra and Staci and Ryan let us see their bodies make you conscious of their honesty, I think the overall power of their acting comes from their willingness to be “emotionally naked” all the way through. They’re also tremendously likeable, and one thing I am proud of about the movie is that it lets actors who don’t “look like movie stars” so clearly show off their star quality.
Eating disorders are a difficult and rather grim topic to tackle and the media regularly faces accusations that its coverage promotes eating disorders. Were you concerned someone might view the film and also decide to “become” anorexic?
As I understand it, people don’t decide to have an eating disorder. Disorders in general seem to be a complex combination of genetic and biochemical “vulnerabilities” responding to cultural pressures and unique personal situations. Some people experience the same influences or experiment with the same behavior and walk away unchanged. (In fact, that’s exactly what happens in the movie.)
If anyone tried to become anorexic by “copycatting” the movie – well, good luck with that. It doesn’t really portray anorexia very well; it flirts with the anorexic mind-set. Mostly it’s just trying to introduce us to the anorexic – and the fat girl – within us all, so we can stop thinking of people who are different as a freak show.
There is a real possibility that it could serve as a “trigger” for someone who is vulnerable. But ask anyone who has been triggered about anything: triggers are everywhere. I would hope that the experience of the movie as a whole serves to counteract that effect: triggers can be “defused” when they are brought to the surface of consciousness, and if there’s one thing this movie does it’s endlessly push consciousness of the emotional currents behind eating behavior.
I just believe that burying or denying or concealing ourselves rarely makes our troubles better, while seeing ourselves honestly and talking about what we see just might.
The fat acceptance group shown in the film consists largely of women. Are issues of food and weight more problematic for women? If so, why?
Biologically, I think not. Culturally, yep. I don’t dare try to sum up the socio-historic reasons for that. You know much more than I do on that topic.
We all have a troubling relationship with our physical self. We have such a limited ability to control or change our bodies – but whatever particular pleasures please us have to do so through them, so our bodies are constantly tempting and betraying and yet consoling us. Our bodies literally embody us, and yet we rarely look at them or use them and think, “Yes, that’s it, that’s me.”
Awareness of our physical self brings us face-to-face with all those things that make people crazy but no one will make movies about: aging, illness, eating, excreting, sexuality. That’s universal. So why aren’t men’s bodies the subject of an equal amount of public approbation and pressure? I honesty don’t know. Though the way the love scene in our movie has such a powerful effect on people hints that for all the talk of “health” and “beauty” much of the fear of fat is a fear of being sexually unappealing. I suspect if penis size and the ability to sustain erections were on general display the way women’s bodies are, there would be an equivalent cultural psychosis for men.
I also do think men are catching up, as we’re generally in a growing frenzy of impossible body “idealism.” They keep moving the cholesterol numbers on me. And when I was a kid, a six-pack was just beer.
Hefty heroines in films are a rarity with those few who are featured usually in a fat suit. Deidra Edwards shines in her role as Lydia, as do the rest of the genuinely fat women in the film. Do you hope this film serves as a wake-up call to other Hollywood directors of the diversity in their own casts?
Yes! Absolutely. Wake up, Hollywood! (Camryn Manheim, of course, said that first and funnier.) Wake up about what is considered “attractive” in general, and about these actors in particular.
I’m obviously not the ideal one to talk about this, but the goal would be to cast people of different sizes and not discuss it in the movie. Deidra’s actually looking to play an expert assassin. Her argument is: who would suspect her? Whereas if you see some slick muscular dude with lots of product in his hair, you just know he’s the international killer.
But to be honest, only one thing wakes up Hollywood: money. Plenty of superb actors are “not worth anything” (They actually say that! I’ll have casting discussions and people will so, “Yes, so-and-so is great, but I’m afraid he’s not worth anything.”) A star is an actor who has been in a hit. That simple. So if anyone wants to help with the diversity thing: tell everyone you know to buy this movie. And tell them to tell everyone they know. (Not that I’m hawking my movie here. It’s for Diversity.)
Sexual scenes involving one or more fat partners are unheard of in Hollywood. And yet Disfigured features a beautifully-crafted and graphic sexual scene shot between Lydia and Bob. What did you hope to accomplish or show with this scene?
First off, I wanted the audience to be increasingly aware that they were going someplace they hadn’t been before in a movie. I knew it would provoke a lot of things, and the only one I feared was laughter – so the scene calls attention to itself through technique and makes the audience self-conscious, thoughtful about their response. We also used all the classic aesthetic tricks of movie love scenes, to declare uniquivocally: this is beautiful. Plus, it actually is beautiful and Deidra and Ryan are beautiful people.
I wanted the audience to become aware of their own awareness – their discomfort and curiosity and pleasure, and all the countless personal thoughts that they came into the movie with, but hadn’t really faced. It was my hope that when the audience was that self-aware, they would be forced to ask a simple question: why? Why is this not shown? Why are these bodies objects of ridicule or contempt?
My answer – the movie’s answer – is pretty simple: it should be shown. We’re all ugly, and we’re all beautiful. Let’s not hide so much, and let’s not look away. I think the sex scene affects people so strongly because it’s not just about “them,” it’s about us.
Ultimately, Disfigured is a film of the power in talking honestly – both to others and to ourselves. How can we start the dialogue in our own lives and circles?
Start by buying lots of copies of the movie and giving them to people. You know – to help support Diversity.
But even if it’s not (for some bizarre reason) this movie, I would say it helps to have something to talk about. A book, a movie, an ad campaign, a news report. The “anorexia lessons” between Darcy and Lydia fail to “sell” anorexia, but give them concrete and specific things to talk about. You can’t be honest if you’re vague.
Beyond that, I guess I hope there are some lessons in the way Lydia and Darcy talk with each other: Ask. Listen. Joke. Try not to use your words to manipulate the other person. Don’t make resolving-everything the goal. Be willing to hear something you really don’t want to hear, and sit with it in silence a while. Together.
When can viewers expect to see Disfigured released and how can they get a copy?
It will be widely released on DVD on July 29th. I know it’ll be on-line through Amazon, Netflix, Blockbuster, Best Buy, etc. It’ll also be at Hollywood Video and other physical-reality stores. If you’re having trouble finding it, e-mail me at email@example.com and I’ll try to steer you.
Details are on our website: www.disfiguredmovie.com
And whenever or however you see it – please do let me know what you think! I’d like to do an ongoing Q&A and let people discuss the related issues on the movie’s blog, which you can get to through the website.
What are your next plans and projects?
I’m trying to find the cast/money for a romantic-comedy-thriller called The Ostrich Incident, about an elevator inspector whose efforts to reunite with his ex-wife get complicated when he becomes a pawn in a struggle between the U.S. intelligence community and some domestic terrorists. I’m also trying to find financing for an adaptation I wrote of an amazing novel by Michael Doane called The Legends Of Jesse Dark, which is about a young pot dealer trying to get himself out of the outlaw business who befriends a damaged former-rock-star looking to clash with the law. Also I have scripts for a Capra-esque zombie movie and an erotic thriller about a dominatrix and a cop. So…you know, more of the same.
I’m also becoming increasingly drawn to the internet as a way to reach an audience, and am mulling over trying to make something no-budget and serialized-through-YouTube.