“I’m not cut out to be a writer,” says Naomi Foner, the Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe–winning screenwriter of half a dozen films, including “Running on Empty” and this month’s “Very Good Girls,” Foner’s directing debut. When asked why she wanted to take on all the stress and responsibility of helming a movie in the fifth decade of her career, she says, “I should have done it 20 years ago! I’m not a person who loves sitting alone in my room, inventing things and handing them off. I often felt as a writer that everybody else got to go to summer camp and I had to stay home.”
In the film, Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen play best friends Lilly and Gerry, the privileged daughters of Brooklyn parents (Clark Gregg and Ellen Barkin; Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore). When the film begins, it’s the summer before college and the girls share a secret: They’re both virgins. Their summer project: to have sex. The problem: They fall for the same guy. “There are girls like this, always,” says Foner, who, like her characters, grew up in Brooklyn. “I think they’re a forgotten group. Nobody’s saying we should feel sorry for them, but there hasn’t been a great deal of art made about them and they constitute a fairly significant part of our population. It’s hard for them too, to make that transition into adulthood; it’s hard for everybody.”
Coming-of-age tales often arrive covered in a sugary sheen of nostalgia. In an effort to avoid looking back through rose-tinted glasses, Foner brought in Jenny Lewis, of the L.A. band Rilo Kiley, to write a song score that could provide a subtle commentary on the girls from a more distant, honest perspective. “Nostalgia cuts out what was difficult, painful, or complicated,” says Foner. “The movie’s about truth. You can’t have relationships without truth—not with your parents, your best friend, your lover. As soon as the truth is violated, it’s impossible.”
Like many directors, Foner has great respect for actors and cites casting as one of the most important decisions that can be made on a film. Though new to directing, Foner has written movies that have been cast with some of the greatest actors of our time, including Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey, and Jessica Lange. Foner has also raised two highly respected actors—Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal—who, she says, have helped her “understand that actors have to inhabit” the characters that screenwriters create. “Once they have, they know things about them that nobody else knows. It’s remarkable to watch.”
Foner first saw this happen on the set of “Running on Empty,” another complicated coming-of-age film in which the late River Phoenix played the adolescent son of fugitives hiding from the long arm of the law. Foner had written Phoenix a big speech for a pivotal scene, but the moment she saw the actor’s face, she cut every word. “You could see everything I’d written,” she recalls. Twenty-five years later, the same thing happened on “Very Good Girls.” When shooting an emotionally wrenching scene between Lilly and her father, Foner was “surprised by the stillness of Dakota’s performance.” Like Phoenix, Fanning silently conveyed a range of emotion more complex and powerful than a whole page of dialogue. Again, Foner got rid of all the words. “I was renewed in my amazement at how film can detect and transmit subtext,” she says. “It’s really very different than any other form of writing.”
Foner shot “Very Good Girls” over three weeks around New York, a short, tough schedule for even a seasoned filmmaker. Though she wishes she’d had “just a few more days” of shooting, she found the director’s chair a very good fit. “There will be people who would tell you that I’ve been a back-seat director for many years,” she says. “Sometimes you want to fall on your own sword.”
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