It’s been said that virtually everyone has wanted to switch families at some point in their lives, but if everyone’s dirty laundry and closeted skeletons were dragged out into the light of day and put in the middle of a room, how quickly most of us would snatch back our own little bundle of dysfunction. That maxim is on rich display in “The Perfect Family,” a comedy about a mother forced to choose between her engrained religious beliefs and her family. Director Anne Renton’s film stars Kathleen Turner as a devoutly Catholic suburban mother, Eileen Cleary, who — when running for the “Catholic Woman of the Year” title at her local parish, an award she’s coveted for years — is forced to cope with an unhappily married son, a gay daughter’s impending nuptials, and the strains of her own marriage. ShockYa recently had a chance to speak one-on-one to the Australian-born Renton, about religion, Turner and the state and struggles of independent filmmaking. The conversation is excerpted below.
Shockya: Going broad-picture first, what drew you to filmmaking?
Anne Renton: When I was living in new York, which was probably about 10 years ago, I was studying acting, and did a little bit at school. It was something that I was interested in but it wasn’t something that at the time felt like a reasonable dream to pursue. So it was several years later that I started studying the craft of filmmaking more so than the actual performing. And I did some voice acting, too, actually. But when I was studying and realized how much I loved script analysis and story and that kind of stuff, I realized that directing would really make sense. As an actor I was going out (to audition) for things that I just didn’t really care about, to be honest. And I thought that if you created your own material and projects you could be in charge of the stories that you told. …I did a little bit of art showcases in New York, and things that people in my class were in, but it wasn’t until I came to L.A. about eight years ago that I started studying the directing craft.
ShockYa: Every working actor has to make some concessions, of course, but I’m wondering if as an indie filmmaker you feel any of that undiscussed pressure of marketplace consideration. Having said that acting wasn’t for you because you didn’t feel that passion for what you were having a chance to work on, do you feel an onus and impetus to try to only make films [to which] you have an intensely personal connection, or that have some social or political resonance?
AR: That’s a great question. I know exactly what you’re saying. In an ideal world, I would like to never be making a film that didn’t speak to me in some way. It may not be something that I deeply personally relate to, but it would have to be something I felt was an important thing to put out into the world for whatever reason. That being said, as I’m looking at projects, it’s not to say that I wouldn’t do something based on its commercial ability. I think I would ask, “How can this project still maintain its integrity, but still speak to a lot of people?” In the independent world you have to have somewhat of a producer’s eye, and the thing is that if you make something that no one sees then that doesn’t feel very fulfilling either. So that’s a good question, and I think [it’s] about finding a balance — it’s about telling these stories that perhaps wouldn’t get told in the studio system, but [telling] them in a way that they can speak to a wide enough audience.
ShockYa: You embarked upon a re-write or polish of the script after your first contact with the script, but was Kathleen Turner someone who came to mind during that time, in kind of honing the voice of the material?
AR: Yes, absolutely. I mean, we knew it was important that we had a name in this lead role, and we also felt we could attract that (with the material). Our casting director had a relationship with Kathleen’s agent and got the script to her, and we found out she was interested. She was willing to get on the phone with me and have a conversation about the script, and she told me that she liked the story but felt that there were certain things that were missing. And they really made sense — they weren’t left-field, they aligned with our intentions for the script. She’s super-intelligent and gave incredible notes, actually. So then we went into another re-write, which took probably two or three months. But this was now based specifically for her, and (focusing on) her character’s relationship with the other characters. Then we got the script back to her and she said yes. And once she had said yes, I think it was the catalyst for everyone coming on board. I mean, they all liked the script — all the actors who met with me told me how much they liked the script — but I know Emily (Deschanel) wanted to work with Kathleen, and I think Jason (Ritter) was interested too. So she brought the whole cast together, she and the screenplay.
ShockYa: They say religion and politics are the two great things to avoid in conversations, with family but especially strangers. Were you mindful and/or especially concerned about juggling the various tonalities in the screenplay, given how integral a role religion plays in the material?
AR: Absolutely. It’s certainly something that I thought a lot about in reading the script. But I see it as Catholicism being a backdrop, and the story being about the family. In the re-writing, we worked to make sure that our intentions came through — which was never to vilify the Catholic Church or religion or anything like that, but to tell this protagonist’s story, let it be hers, and not have anything overlaid on top of that that didn’t make sense.
ShockYa: Have you had feedback or response, either positive or negative, from religious groups?
AR: We have not heard specifically from the Catholic Church or anything, but certainly people who have grown up very religious have seen the movie, and most people have enjoyed it. They have their own viewpoints on certain aspects of the story, of course, but when we screened one time in New York this Jewish couple came up and asked a couple questions about the Catholicism and said they totally related to it. And so I feel like it’s really speaking to any kind of organized religion that doesn’t give you the space to have that individual thought as well. That’s what I feel like the film is about. Catholicism is a religion that’s very well known, so that works — people get the tenets of it.
ShockYa: Take me through the process of finally getting this film out into the world at large. You had your premiere Tribeca presentation last year, but how did you settle on releasing the movie via Variance Films?
AR: At Tribeca we had four screenings that were sold out, and put on another screening that sold it. That was a beautiful experience, and we were so happy. I saw the film with an audience and it was a great experience. We sort of felt like this film had a 50/50 chance of getting picked up by a bigger distributor, [but] did we really want to take the reigns and make sure it was done in a way that made sense to us? We chose the latter, and chose to work with Variance, and my producers and I are working side by side with them to release it. I feel like with independent films it’s important to stay involved, because they’re smaller and potentially they’re not going to get as much focus, I guess. So this way we have someone who really knows how to work with indie films and does a great job, and we (still) get to be involved and give input and get it out there in the best possible way with our budget.
ShockYa: With the rise of alternate modes of distribution, is theatrical distribution still the holy grail for independent filmmakers?
AR: Well, we’re having our theatrical release (in New York and L.A.) and our VOD release on the same date, May 4. I think you really have to look at a film and the elements that have gone into its make up to see whether a theatrical release is appropriate. I think you have to be realistic about that. We felt that with the level of cast that we had, and the response we had from the festivals where we played, it was a film that could have a theatrical release that would have success and help get the word out. I know often in independent films theatrical can be a loss leader, but we’re hoping that if it is (here) that it’s not too much of that. Theatrical isn’t the only way to go these days, you just have to be smart about it and consider what’s really right for the film.
ShockYa: What’s in store for you next?
AR: We’ve been working really hard on this release so that’s been a lot of my focus, but I am in the process of optioning a book and also in talks with a writer on another project that we’re working together on. So I don’t have something that’s literally ready to go, but I have things in the works that need a bit of development. I’m very excited. And also ABC Television has this directing fellowship, and I found out that I’m a finalist for that. So I don’t know if I’m in yet, I think 50 percent of the finalists get in, but I’m hopeful, because it’s a really cool program where you get to shadow veteran directors, with a view of ultimately being able to direct television. That’s not to say that I don’t want to direct film; I’d love to do both, that would be great. But there’s so much time in between when you direct films, especially in the independent world, so to keep working with the craft as a director and keep working that muscle in between films would be amazing. I think I find out soon, in the next week or so.
For more information on the movie and its release, visit www.ThePerfectFamilyMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon