(L-R) Mila Kunis, Susanna Fogel, and Kate McKinnon.
By Emma McIntyre/Getty Images.
After Susanna Fogel had co-written the script for The Spy Who Dumped Me; convinced Lionsgate she was ready to direct her first studio film; and cast her leads, Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, the filmmaker had to psych herself up again.
She was preparing to talk stunts with Gary Powell, the coordinator who has choreographed millions of dollars’ worth of action sequences for movies like Casino Royale, Jason Bourne, and Mission Impossible and directors like Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), Michael Bay (The Island), and James Cameron (Titanic). Fogel’s résumé looked different—she began writing and directing short films as a teenager, with two premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. Before The Spy Who Dumped Me, Fogel had directed one other feature, the 2014 indie Life Partners, and television episodes; she also nurtured another writing career, publishing pieces for The New Yorker, Time, and her first novel last year, Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters.
With The Spy Who Dumped Me, Fogel and co-writer David Iserson created a movie that was different from what they had seen before: their comedy featured funny, flawed females in the vein of Nicole Holofcener’s characters against the kind of high-octane, action backdrop usually reserved for guys like Vin Diesel or Tom Cruise.
“I had presented myself as a completely capable director of this genre that I had never worked in before,” Fogel said. She steeled herself for negotiations by thinking, “A man would just say, ‘I can do this,’ and then figure it out later. So I had gotten [this job], and now I had to deliver the thing I had promised and gotten people to believe I could do. When I met Gary, I was relieved that he felt like a person I could ask questions of, and a person who would not judge me for not knowing something. It gave me the space to learn from him.”
Fogel said it took her awhile to feign the confidence so many of her male peers seemed to easily summon.
“For many years, I was thinking, ‘Well, I can’t act that way if I don’t know everything. . .I have to learn all the things, so I can really mean it when I say I know what I’m doing.’ I think that [logic] comes from a good place, but if you have bolder, more id-driven, impulsive men coming up and just being like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I got it,’ then they’re going to get your job. You’re practicing and obsessing for the years that they’re just jumping in and getting experience that you can’t actually get until you do it.” The fake-it-until-you-make-it strategy is “uncomfortable and not something that feels good.” Eventually, though, “I felt like I had nothing to lose because the other route hadn’t led me to the kind of career I wanted.”
Once she was in the director’s chair, Fogel was able to follow through on the decisions she and Iserson made for their protagonists, Audrey (Kunis) and Morgan (McKinnon)—like featuring a female friendship that is not competitive, driven, or derailed by a man; and dressing the leads in practical wardrobes that don’t require stilettos or push-up bras for action sequences.
“I just made the choices that I wanted to make that felt true to me. Now, in talking about the movie, I’m realizing that it feels like a female director choice. . . with Mila, I wanted her to just feel as relatable as possible. It wasn’t as much a deliberate act of resistance as it was just wanting to see and create something new.”
There were a few split seconds on set where, Fogel said, “I would zoom way out and take a 30,000-foot view of what I was doing and totally freak, like, ‘Oh my god. I’m on the set of this huge movie, and this is how much money people are putting into it, and there are movie stars here, and there are trailers, and all these people are going to look to me to lead the way.’” But she stopped herself from zooming out, focused on the task at hand, and executed what she told the studio she could do.
“As women, I think we’re used to looking around to see what people think about this, who’s approving of us, who’s criticizing us, and whether we have to internalize their thoughts on us,” said Fogel on Thursday, as her film was racking up positive reviews. “I think it’s just harder for us to go forward, and confidently present yourself like this badass that people should follow.”
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