Natalie Gee/NYC Indie Film Fest narrative curator interviews John Helde

Re-posting this interview with Natalie Gee about the origins of PHOEBE’S FATHER…

NG: What gave you the idea for the script and why did you want to explore a broken relationship between a daughter and a father?

JH: Phoebe’s Father is about a young woman cyclist who has to face her past when her father comes back into her life. The very first image I had for the story was of Phoebe living a kind of isolated life, and then having to suddenly deal with her father, and issues she thought she had left behind her. Honestly I’m not sure where this image came from. I wanted to do a film that revolved around a family relationship, instead of a romantic one, as many of my previous scripts had. And although it’s never happened to me, I know people who have experienced major breaks with family. I wanted to explore the complexity of the family bond – our conflicting desires for isolation and connection.

What gave you the idea for the cycling to be a major theme in the movie?

Marie Lazzaro, who plays Phoebe, was a friend of mine and she was commuting by bike to her job at REI in Seattle. I’m a runner and cyclist myself, and I love that feeling of propelling yourself forward. We have a thriving cycling community in Seattle (as you do in NYC), and lots of women cyclists. I was a big fan of Breaking Away, but that was a long time ago, and it occurred to me I’d never seen a movie with a woman cyclist at the heart of it. Because I knew Marie was already cycling, it seemed like she would be up for that, and it would be fun to explore a character for whom cycling becomes catharsis.

What was your biggest challenge with the movie?

One of my producer Lisa Glaze’s biggest challenges was locating a pedicab for a crucial scene late in the movie when Phoebe takes Meg for a ride. This was probably the only element of the script I had no idea how it was going to happen, and it turned out to be really tough to find a pedicab when it’s not tourist season. But Lisa’s tenacity paid off when she discovered a beautifully preserved pedicab from India owned by bike collector Jeff Groman. He brought it out from Bainbridge Island and it was more amazing than we could ever have imagined!

How did you and the actors develop character relationships? Did you rehearse?

When I had the idea for the movie, I kept thinking, I know a lot of really great actors in Seattle, how can we do something where we get to work together intensively? I wanted to try developing character and story through improvisation, inspired by the way the director Mike Leigh works, and fortunately the actors were excited by this as well! The four lead actors – Marie Lazzaro, Lawrie Driscoll, Eric Jordan, and Betty Campbell – and I worked together for about five months before I wrote the script. I started with a framework of relationships, but all the details of who these characters are, and what their lives have been, both together and individually, came from the work we did in improvisation. Almost all of the script, except for the supporting characters, is a version of something that first happened in improvisation. It’s very exciting – the characters become very real to all of us, long before anything’s written down. Then it was my job to shape this material into script form. There was flexibility and some improvisation on set, tweaking lines, that kind of thing, but mostly we worked from the script when we shot.

What scares you the most about filmmaking?

In general, and I’m sure this is true for most filmmakers, it’s the anticipation of getting all the pieces to come together – people, locations, equipment, story, weather. There are so many moving parts. That said, what I absolutely love about filmmaking is seeing so many different people bring their talents to bear on the story. For Phoebe’s Father, one of the most scary things for me was how short the writing period was between the improvisations and when we started shooting – only about six weeks. The good news was I didn’t have time to overthink it!

What’s your favorite scene / moment in the film?

So hard to answer because there are so many scenes I love, especially since I first saw them occur in improvisation. I’d have to say my favorite big scene is when Whit, Phoebe’s brother, brings Phoebe to her father’s house and the family sits down and tries to have a meal together for the first time in years. The actors did an incredible job and there are so many subtle dynamics going on. Of course, things do not go so well! I also really love the moment near the end of the film when Phoebe returns to racing – in a pretty dialog-driven movie, it’s totally visual.

Describe filmmaking in 3 words

I’m trying to adopt a philosophy of “Love what is”.

What excites you about family dynamics that you like to explore?

I think there’s such richness in family relationships. It’s something we all know and can relate to. The movie revolves around the fact that Phoebe can’t escape her relationship with her father, even though at one point she thought she could. And so much of the tension between them is really because of her mother, who left the family when Phoebe was ten. Events happen that color the dynamics and affect families for years. There’s a lot of emotion – and humor – to explore there.


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