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Annabelle Attanasio On The Making Of 'Mickey And The Bear'

If you don’t know her name yet, you will soon. Annabelle Attanasio, writer, director, and the ultimate mid-twenties girl power inspiration, sat down with Milk at Ivy Film Festival to discuss her new film Mickey and the Bear, which premiered at SXSW last month and is headed to Cannes next month, along with a whole host of other festivals. The feature film, which takes place in the small town of Anaconda, Montana, stars Camila Morrone and James Badge Dale, and details the complicated relationship of a demanding addict father and his teenage daughter. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry (probably in the same scene), and as a bonus, every still is beautiful enough to be framed. Annie and her producer Lizzie Shapiro, who make up 2/3 of their production company Thick Media, talk shop about how Mickey came to be, their time during undergrad at NYU, and the best parts of working with your friends.

Can you walk us through how you started this project, and how the film got off the ground?

Annie: I got a development grant from NYU Gallatin to do ethnographic visual research on any group that I wanted. I was very interested in veteran culture and how PTSD and addiction and how different traumas can affect the family, because I think that that’s a story that’s just not really told. So in 2014 I went out to Montana with a small group of friends and we shot a lot of footage and talked to a lot of people, and I established the bond with the town that made it very clear that I wanted to set a film there. So after that I just started crafting a story. I thought that a father daughter story from the girl’s perspective would be really interesting and something that I hadn’t seen very much of. Then in 2016 Lizzie and I teamed up developing the script together.

Lizzie: I joined the project around early 2016 and we developed a script. The project went through a series of labs that independent film institutions host. One was a producing lab, one was a writer’s lab for Annie, and a few were for general market stuff. And then we shot last summer in August and September of 2018, and we premiered at SXSW in March! We finished the movie a week before we premiered — it was a race.

How do you think undergrad in New York affected your storytelling?

Annie: The exposure to theater has been the most influential part. As an undergrad I would see a play a week with student discounts and rush tickets. I was obsessed. I also started taking this acting class taught by Bob Krakower, who is an on-camera acting teacher. He draws a really diverse array of actors, from people in musical ensembles and Tony award winners to models and musicians with no training. Apprenticing for him gave me great exposure to the New York acting scene, and workshopping with actors has been integral to my process. I was exposed to people like Ben Rosenfield and Rebecca Henderson, who are both New York theater actors who I wanted to work with forever and are in the film.

You all were awarded a ReFrame Stamp, meaning that you had a crew that was at least 50% women, but I recently found out that you had a 70% on the ground female crew. Was that a deliberate choice, and how did that affect the on-set environment?

Annie: I think it was in part deliberate because that is something that Lizzie and I are both really passionate about and we support inclusive sets. And I think part of it was just that most of the people in roles of department head or producer were women, so there was this sense that we wanted to hire women.

Lizzie: One thing that was very deliberate was that in addition to having women, we had women that spanned five decades of ages. There’s this thing that happens with women that when they get toward the middle of their careers they fall off. I think young women are exciting and new careers are exciting, and then this thing happens in the middle. That’s a big conversation in the industry, and something that we thought was really important to intentionally prioritize.

Annie, you did a lot of theater throughout college and after, and you often refer to yourself as a “tired ass showgirl.” How does your theater background inform your work?

Annie: My theater background makes me really passionate and excited about actors. You can definitely be a director who casts people more visually and tell them where to stand, but no one is as intelligent or well versed in a character as the actor playing that character. An actor may have come up with this elaborate backstory, and may tell me that something that I’m telling them to do doesn’t fit with that character. And I can’t really argue with them because they have done such extensive work. That to me is where a lot of the magic comes from — when an actor feels ownership over their part. I think my experience acting at times felt like I was a puppet, and like who I was playing didn’t really matter. It’s really important to me as a writer and director to empower the people who I’m working with to bring their own taste and experience to the board.

In terms of both writing and directing, how do you think one influenced the other, and would you do them again at the same time?

Annie: I’m grappling with that right now. I get so invested in my characters and my stories where I really do eat sleep and breathe that world, and I begin to feel like the characters are real people in my life. So not doing both in tandem would be very foreign to me, and it would have to be something really special for me to give up directing or writing a project.

You all have worked together since undergrad, and now you’re running a production company together. How has your working relationship evolved, and what have been the benefits and drawbacks of working with a close friend?

Lizzie: Annie and I first became close while working on my thesis film at NYU where I was directing and she was acting. That started this amorphous way that we collaborate that’s purely creative. We definitely both do our roles, but we let the lines cross in ways that aren’t as traditional, but allow us to have a more open dynamic. We see ourselves as creative partners. It’s hard though. Open communication is a huge part of it.

Annie: That’s been a big thing with us, because Lizzie and I are both highly emotional and sensitive people. We have to have a sort of undying honesty about feelings. You have to be able to dish it and take it. I remember that there was this really challenging moment in the sound mix. We were all there, which, by the way, is really atypical, for a film to have the producer and editor there, and I was getting super anxious and uptight and trying to control the moment. I remember Lizzie and Henry [Hayes], the third member of Thick Media, gave me honest advice and some tough love. They were like “this isn’t you.” I had a complete cry fest, and it was okay, and the day went so much better because I had people there to be honest with me. And that’s one of the best things about working with your friends — that they will provide that.

Lizzie: You know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, but you have to also know your own to better each other.

I’d imagine that being young and a woman, you’ve probably had pushback in the field. Have you, and could you speak to that?

Annie: Yeah but I’ve never let pushback get to me, and if anything I let it fuel me more. Whenever anything doesn’t go my way, or if anyone doesn’t believe in me or undermines my abilities, I just think “I’ll show you” and keep going. Any doubts have only made me more ambitious I guess. It’s a great time to be a woman in film, but there’s still such a lack of women and queer women and women of color represented in film. I hope to change that with my work one day.

Annie, what advice do you have for young filmmakers who aspire to be you?

Annie: [Laughing] I don’t know. It’s really important to establish a community of people who you can trust. Not only people who give to your projects, but whom you can give to as well, and where there’s a reciprocity. That’s what I have with Lizzie and Henry. That symbiosis has been everything to me. I also live with two filmmakers, and all of us are on our own tracks, but one of my roommates, Matthew, his film recently premiered at Sundance, and my roommate Renee’s commercials are Vimeo staff picks. We all had day jobs when we first moved in together. The best advice I can give is being around people whose talent you believe in, and who will push you to be your best creator and your most compassionate creator. Because the other stuff comes and goes. I have no idea when I’ll have another feature going, but I can control getting excited about an idea and sending Lizzie pages, and reading stuff of Henry’s, and constantly staying in that flow. That’s all you can really ask for in this crazy world.

Images courtesy of Annabelle Attanasio

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