Director Susan Johnson discusses her female Holden Caulfield film, Carrie Pilby, one of the highlights of TIFF 2016, and working with her star Bel Powley. The film will be available on VOD 3/31.
Carrie Pilby is like a more wholesome, less dysfunctional, female version of Igby Goes Down,, and I mean that as a high compliment. It’s the rare film in which not only is the precocious protagonist a young woman, but she talks and behaves in a credible way for someone with such a high intellect.
At 19, Carrie Pilby (Bel Powley) is living in New York City — in bed, mostly — bemoaning the fact that skipping several grades and already graduating from Harvard has put her so far ahead of her peer group that she’s completely alienated and alone. Of course, her prickly personality and quickness to judge is also part of why she hasn’t made many friends. When her psychiatrist gives her a list of things to do, like buying a pet and going on a date, she starts to unexpectedly form connections with others, despite her best efforts to keep herself from opening up.
Bel Powley gives a remarkable performance as a wise-beyond-her-years young woman who is too sophisticated for most of her peers while constantly underestimating the wider world. Full of quippy one-liners and some emotional moments that earn their pull on your heartstrings (and a few that don’t), it’s one of the most fun and relatable coming-of-age stories to hit the screen since Diary of a Teenage Girl.
After the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I talked to director Susan Johnson about putting together this delightful film and working with Bel Powley.
Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in directing this particular story?
Susan Johnson (SJ): I’ve always loved Catcher in the Rye. For me, she’s very much a female version of Holden Caulfield. [My producer] Suzanne Farwell had read the book years earlier, and we’d been trying to find a project to do together. After reading script after script after script, for me to direct and Suzanne to produce, we finally decided we needed to look at books. She remembered having read Carrie Pilby when it came out. I read it over a weekend, and by the next week, we had optioned the rights, the two of us.
We were really thrilled to find it available and get started with [the book’s author] Caren Lissner who is an amazing author. She was supportive of Kara Holden writing the script. She read every draft because I asked her to, not because she wanted to or demanded to. We wanted to keep it as close as we could to the book. The things we had to take creative license to leave out, I wanted to have her blessing, and we did. I think we’ve made a movie that the book fans will be proud of.
Read more: Breaking boundaries in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women >>
7R: What was your collaboration like with the production designer, costume designer, and cinematographer to create the look and feel of the film?
SJ: The cinematographer is Gonzalo Amat. We both went to American Film Institute, but a couple of years apart. He and I sat down for three weeks prior to shooting the movie to design the overall look and what we wanted to accomplish in each scene: how each character should have a colour palette, and how the film overall should have a colour palette.Each character should have a colour palette, and the film overall should have a colour palette.Click To Tweet
The whole book takes place in Carrie’s head. We had to figure out how to get it out of her head and make a movie. That’s one of the devices we found ourselves having to use.