Greg King talks with Alex Sichel, director of All Over Me.
©Greg King February 1998 Melbourne Australia
“I’m very interested in exploring women’s lives – stories that you haven’t seen on the screen before. I’m very interested in a more personal kind of film making, which is hard to do nowadays. For me, it’s very much about exploring things that I’m trying to work out in my own life, or parts of my personal life or family history. It is a different approach because its not really about genre.”
Film director Alex Sichel was born and raised in New York. The Sichel family was sort of a cultural melting pot, with a Greek mother and a German Jew father. While her sister Sylvia went on to become a playwright, who has had several plays produced in New York, Alex has worked in the independent film industry for many years.
Alex first became interested in film making after her mother took her to see a movie by Fassbinder. “I had never seen anything like it. I became obsessed with him, and that’s why I ended up learning German and going to Berlin. That was the first person who made me want to make movies.”
“I came to film making more from the visual side. It’s always been from the camera that I was interested. I had to go back and learn how to write and kind of slow down enough to be interested in scripts. There’s lots of ideas visually that I’m interested in in terms of form and experimenting with form and the camera.” It was while in college that Sichel made her first experimental video. “It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done!” she recalls. She decided that she wanted to do more, and made some experimental super 8 films, and even a documentary.
In 1987 she was managing the band Tangerine Dream and living in Berlin. The band was working on the soundtrack for Kathyrn Bigelow‘s stylish modern vampire film Near Dark. Bigelow, the producer and the music supervisor flew to Berlin for a week. Along with Jane Campion, Bigelow was a major influence on Sichel‘s career. “I think she was probably the first female director I’d ever met. She was very inspiring even though her film making style is different from the films I’m interested in making.”
“I wasn’t really thinking of features or going into directing as a kind of career choice. I was definitely interested in film. I spent a lot of time with her and we talked about a lot of ideas for scripts, and it was very inspiring because I could relate to her. We spoke the same language, and she went to Columbia, which is where I ended up going.”
After completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia, Sichel turned to film making with some success. Her first short film Amnesia (1993) premeiered at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win several awards. She makes her feature film debut with All Over Me, a grimly realistic coming of age tale, set on the mean streets of Hells Kitchen. The film explores the troubled emotional minefield of adolescence, a time when many teenagers are discovering their own sexuality and beginning to take responsibility for their own actions.
The central character is Claudia (played by Alison Folland), a plain looking tomboy known simply as Claude, who is slowly coming to terms with her own latent homosexual tendencies. All Over Me captures with honesty and frightening clarity the gritty reality of life on the streets of contemporary New York, and seems to have something of an autobiographical ring to it.
However, Sichel argues that this is not the case. “I feel that the film is more personal than autobiographical,” she says. “The emotions in the film are very autobiographical, but the characters aren’t. Sylvia and I talked a lot about our best friends. Both of us had intense relationships with another girl at that age, and both of those relationships ended cataclysmically. I mean it was like a divorce when we ended our friendships. We talked a lot about that. Why was it so intense? Why was it so extreme?”
“We talked a lot about our own experiences, but the characters we developed were fictional, because it’s very much a present day story. I think that the emotions of these characters are very true, they are things that we both experienced. The drinks, the drugs – I went through a lot of that as a teenager. That’s very close to me. Claude is the type of person that I wish I was, because she is so true to herself and so brave.”
All Over Me offers some quite sympathetic portrayals of gay characters. The independent film scene still seems ready to tackle gay issues and gay themed dramas in sympathetic and compassionate fashion, while mainstream Hollywood still seems reluctant to explore gay themes and gay characters honestly on film. The only place where that attitude seems to have changed is on television, especially with the recent controversial coming out episode of Ellen. “I think what she’s done on television is quite remarkable, and quite exciting,” admits Sichel. “I think it’s quite extreme what she’s done. It’s very mainstream, but it’s also quite honest to the character. The type of film making I’m interested in is so much closer to shooting from the hip in some way. Hollywood films are more about acting gay – it’s almost like actors acting gay characters, and you have no sense that there’s any reality there. Like that film The Birdcage. I found that quite offensive.”
All Over Me took nearly four months to cast, which is unusual for a low budget film. Alex was deliberately looking for specific types to play the characters. From the very beginning she wanted audiences to feel like they had been thrown down onto the streets of Hell’s Kitchen. Sichel wasn’t sure whether she wanted to do something like Kids, and go with non actors to give the film that sense of heightened reality. She did open casting calls, and on one day some 450 girls turned up to audition. Sichel also approached people on the subways and visited a number of clubs where girls hung out looking for the right people. “Somehow the non actors couldn’t really handle the emotional weight of the material, and the actors were trying too hard to act in a style that I wasn’t really going for.”
It was than that a friend, who worked in the editing room on Gus Van Sant‘s black comedy To Die For, first told her about Alison Folland, who played one of the three teenagers exploited by Nicole Kidman. Sichel was able to get hold of a copy of the rough cut and was really impressed by the performance of the 17 year old. She talked to her agent, who flatly refused to let Folland do the film because she was still in school. Sichel covertly arranged to send Folland a copy of the script. Folland liked what she read, felt that the movie was important to her personally, and hopped on a bus to meet with the director.
“She’s amazing!” enthuses the director. “We really got the best of both worlds in a sense, because she’s not a trained actor but she’s had the experience of having quite a big role in a major film. She’s completely honest and she won’t do anything that’s not true. She just won’t bullshit.” Folland is in nearly every scene in the film and her performance virtually carries the film. Folland brings a maturity, depth and an awkward honesty to her role that adds strength and credibility to this down beat tale. But she also had to juggle her commitments on the film schedule with attending school.
“It was quite a challenge for her, at 17, to carry a whole film. There was a point about half way through the film that I relaised she knew Claude better than any of us. She had really taken on the whole character. She’s hugely talented and I have so much faith in her. There was one point where Alison said to me: ‘Listen let me do it for you, and then if you don’t like it then we can talk. Like, Gus Van Sant never gave any direction.’ Which I found very funny. It taught me a lot, it taught me to kind of trust a little bit more. When you’re working with good actors they bring so much that your job is easier.”
“I think I learned to be more collaborative on this movie. I had very firm ideas and I would tell them exactly what I wanted. In the rehearsal process I was collaborative and I heard their ideas. But once you get on the set you have so little time on this sort of low budget movie, so I would tell them exactly what I wanted.”
The casting of the other roles was also a time consuming job, and some of the final choices came via a very circuitous and unexpected route. Leisha Hailey, from the band The Murmurs, was suggested by the hairdresser that they both had in common. Sichel first spotted Pat Briggs, the lead singer from Psychotica, in a photograph at the back of Interview magazine, and sent him a copy of the script. At the time, Briggs was on tour across America with the Lollapalooza festival, and Sichel remembers spending a lot of time on the phone with him discussing the film.
Although it seems rather eclectic casting, Sichel is happy with the final result. She says that they were all strong and brought something special to the film. And even more surprising was that they were all trained actors – even Briggs and Hailey had taken acting lessons. “It was very hard to work with young and inexperienced actors because there was a lot of fear involved. I didn’t really realise that because they were carrying the whole film. There was a lot of fear, and also a lot of the vocabulary that you’re used to with trained actors didn’t hold up in this situation.”
“The other thing that was hard was that most of them were actors of the method variety, and they all believed in becoming the characters. That made for a very emotional set, because these characters are not the happiest of people at this point in their lives. These are all teenagers in the throes of angst, so it was very difficult if you have all these people who are in hell during the movie. But on that set I felt very lucky because I felt we ended up with some very strong performers who really gave so much to the film. They were very brave emotionally.”
All Over Me is the first time that Alex and Sylvia have collaborated on a movie, although they had often talked about working together and they had always supported one another’s work on their individual projects. They started working together, prepared to give the collaboration a week to see if they could continue to work together of if they would kill each other.
“We actually wrote the first draft together, and the whole process was continually interesting for us. What was interesting was that, from the viewpoint of our relationship as sisters, we had to work so much out, all those positions within the family and all that stuff. So we fought about a lot of things, but we never fought about the material, which was very curious. It was almost as if one person felt very strongly that the film should go in one direction, the other person trusted that it was right. The collaborative process was really very exciting and very creative. And the other process was that we were in kind of family therapy for free. And that was also very rewarding because it brought us closer together.”
Sylvia was also on the set of the film the whole time. Even though their roles were quite clear it was a collaboration in the true sense of the word. “I was completely involved in the story and the characters as we were developing the script, and she was with me as I worked with the actors.”
“We’d like to work together again. We’re not working together right now because we thought that we were forcing that collaboration. We’ve started different scripts right now. I guess with All Over Me we were lucky that we found a film that we both felt so strongly about that we could devote a lot of our time to it. Making a film you have to devote so many years of your life to one piece of material. It was important to both of us.”
“Our parents were not supportive in our career choices,” Alex confesses, “but they’ve been very supportive of the film. They were scared, and they still are very scared. They feel these are insecure careers, and they’re probably right. But they are very supportive of the film and very excited about it. When it had a big release for a small movie like this in the States I think they felt like maybe there is something to all this, which was nice. I don’t know if I have a career, so how are they supposed to know? Making films is a very weird thing.”
All Over Me commences at the George and Lumiere cinemas on February 19.