Writer/director Drew Tobia’s “See You Next Tuesday” is in-your-face in all the right ways. It’s a mature film about immature people who are unapologetically themselves and we can’t help loving them for it even as we cringe—partly out of recognition. Eleanore Pienta plays Mona, a pregnant woman who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She faces endless ridicule at her supermarket job, potential eviction from her apartment and a ticking clock ceaselessly counting down to the inevitable moment when her water breaks. This is the sort of time that brings families together—unless your family consists of an alcoholic mother, May (Dana Eskelson), and an estranged sister, Jordan (Molly Plunk), clinging to an unhealthy relationship (her girlfriend, Sylve, is played with deadpan deftness by Keisha Zollar). The performances are extraordinary, the dialogue is stingingly acute, the direction is sublime. This is quite simply one of the best films of the year.
I loved the film so much, in fact, that I couldn’t do just one interview for Indie Outlook. I had to do three. So in honor of the film’s upcoming run at Chicago’s Facets Cinémathèque, Indie Outlook spoke separately with Pienta, Plunk and Tobia for this exclusive three-part interview.
How did you give birth to the original concept for Mona?
I would make characters and play around with them. I’d basically dress up as different people and photograph them, and I’d often make a video of them as well. A lot of times, the characters just came from small, stupid ideas. I came up with the idea for Mona when I was home upstate at my parents’ place. She was this pregnant woman who was afraid of flies infecting her unborn baby. I had planned to make a video of her but never got around to it. Drew saw that photo and said, “I want to work with you on something where you play this character,” and I was like, “Okay, whatever.” He took the idea and ran with it. The baseline of Mona still has that little bit of oddness, though Drew clearly made her three-dimensional. She’s just a touch off but also kind of makes sense. With any character I make, as strange as they are, there is a lot of empathy felt towards them. It’s never mocking, it’s an understanding. There’s no judgment.
It’s interesting that the opening shot of your face resembles a still image, considering that your character was inspired by a photograph.
I didn’t even think about how that scene is like a still image until you just said it. It’s so beautiful in that way. That was all Drew Tobia and Andrew J. Whittaker, the DP. They worked brilliantly together. I have to say, now that you bring it up, that Mona’s slack-jawed [expression] is kind of similar to one of the stills that I took back in 2009 or 2010. It was a black and white photograph and there’s definitely a bit of that character in the Mona that Drew and I created.
How were you able to form strong bonds with your fellow actors in such a small span of time?
It all just happened. I had known about Molly for a long time because Drew had kept bringing her up. At one point, Jordan was Mona’s brother and was going to be played by this guy that we both knew. It’s funny because Molly is so similar to that guy, so it was as if I had known Molly my whole life. It was uncanny. I had already known Keisha through the comedy scene because she’s a comedian and I’m in a dance comedy troupe. We had been in shows together and I was so excited when Drew told me that she was our Sylve. Drew got us all pumped and excited about the project.
When did Dana become attached to the film?
Philip Seymour Hoffman read the script while he was working on “Death of a Salesman,” and he was working with this woman who he passed along the script to. She was really into the script but because of scheduling conflicts, she couldn’t do the film, so she gave it to another guy who knew Dana and he passed it along to her. She auditioned for May about a week or two before we started shooting. I was there when she came in to read her scene, and she had this crazy energy. She was just so present and she was going through a lot in that moment and at that period in her life. As soon as she left, Drew and I just looked at each other and went, “Yeah, okay, that’s her.”
You can sense Mona and May’s history in all the little details, such as the in-jokes that you both chuckle at in the midst of otherwise tense moments.
Yeah, and that just happened naturally. Drew kept saying, “This is a comedy,” and then I would come home and talk to my boyfriend about the scene I just shot, and he’d say, “Uh, it doesn’t sound that funny.” [laughs] Dana was always trying to be a little bit lighter and joke around where it was called for. Of course, it was called for in the scenes between her and I because Mona was most comfortable around May. She was able to be light and goofy with her mom, and Dana and I hit it off right away. Those were genuine moments where her and I would really connect.
What was it like shooting that incredibly intense scene where your character lashes out at everyone in the supermarket—her bullying co-workers, boss and customers?
Sirita Wright, who played [Mona’s co-worker] Shondra, and her sidekicks were so good. Prior to shooting those scenes, most of the footage we shot had centered on Mona, so Drew’s attention had been on me. But from the moment we started shooting the supermarket scenes, Drew was focusing on these three women, and I was like, “Uh oh,” because they were SO good. I was like, “Oh no, am I still relevant?” [laughs] I found that I couldn’t be Eleanore around them between takes because they were so on their game and I could just feel it. I very much felt Mona’s isolation in that moment.
How do you interpret the film’s title?
Producer Rachel Wolther came up with the title. It’s [appropriate] because Mona is going to have her baby on a Tuesday. The title also means “c—t,” which I was unaware of until Drew told me. That word could be applied to many characters at certain moments in the film, particularly the three family members. [laughs]
Check out Eleanore Pienta’s performances with the Cocoon Central Dance Team by visiting their official site.
How did you and Drew first meet?
I auditioned for a film called “Schizcago” that Ben Kolak directed and Rachel Wolther produced. Drew was visiting in Chicago and he was editing another project. We sent each other funny pictures back and forth online, and then eventually he said, “I wrote this part for you, and I was thinking of you the whole time, so if you want it, you can have it.” I read the script and was like, “This scares the s—t out of me, but it’s hilarious and beautiful and I want to do it.” I was excited to do something that was scary.
What scared you the most?
I was like, “I can’t call this person the N-word!” [laughs] I was having a white guilt crisis.
You’re referring to the racial slurs that Jordan uses when talking to Sylve in the bar and in the bedroom. How did you interpret that dialogue?
That was our sex game. Once those characters had agreed upon the sex game, that’s the way they had sex. It’s the emotional undercurrent beneath the words that’s more important than what we’re actually saying. Race and gender are things that people don’t want to talk about and this film makes audiences have to talk about them.
How do you view Jordan and Sylve’s relationship?
It’s a destructive relationship for both of them, I think. It allows Jordan to continue to tell herself this negative narrative of her life where she says, “I’m this monster and out of control,” but Sylve will stick around and pick up the pieces. It’s heartbreaking because it feels like the relationship isn’t going to work anymore, and my character is coming to terms with that. Jordan forms codependent relationships because she’s looking for her mother.
What was it like shooting the film in the middle of winter?
It was really cold. I was doing tightwire training at the Circus Warehouse in New York and I was staying in a tiny studio apartment of a friend who wasn’t in town. I was packing my clothes up, twisted the wrong way and my right shoulder just tightened up as it does when I get anxiety. And then I couldn’t breathe. I had to shoot the coffee shop scene that day and I had to push the door open and [groaned]. This was one of the first days shooting, and I was like, “Ugh, I must sound like such a f—king diva.” I thought I had acid indigestion, so Rachel was giving me Tums. Then I was like, “I need a massage!” [laughs] I went twice for a 20-minute massage and that worked it out.
That may have actually enhanced your performance, considering that Jordan is very closed off from Mona in that scene.
[laughs] Yeah I think my body was literally closed off.
What makes you want to take on something as challenging as the tightwire?
There’s a certain thing that your body learns from a failure that it can never learn from never failing at all. It’s an ability to rise to a new situation and flow into a new current of your experience. I think there’s something beautiful and poetic in that and once you’ve mastered it, it’s so beautiful. If I have tension in my body that I’m not aware of, then my whole center of balance is thrown off and I have to be super-calm and super-focused so that I can flow into the performance and stay on the wire. When I feel like my body is restricted in any way, I can’t get into the flow of the character or the performance. Performing is very much about comfortability and where you’re willing to go.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is your encounter with May. So much is conveyed purely through your body language.
That scene was very interesting because Dana has a very specific method of acting that’s really intense and you kind of have to go into her world. It was a very prolonged and intense experience. I would go into the hall and be alone and I would come in and do the scene with Dana and then I would go back and do it again. It was close to my last day of the shoot, and there were still scenes that had to be shot between Dana and Eleanore after my scene was done. So I left but then I had to go back—maybe I had forgotten something there or had to pick something up—and they were like, “What are you doing here?” [laughs] It felt very in line with what had happened in the film, since Jordan had left and then came back.
What does the film leave you with after seeing it?
What I take away from it is that life is not always so graceful. We tend to think of cinema as this beautiful catered dreamy image and it’s a fantasy. Drew’s movie is that as well, of course, but it’s also gross and sad and funny and pathetic and all of the ugly things in life that are actually really beautiful if we look at them in the right way.
Chicagoans can check out Molly’s performances with El Circo Cheapo each month. She’s also planning to remount The Ruffians’ annual holiday show, “Burning Bluebeard,” which she hopes will become “the new Nutcracker.”
What movies do you remember watching as a kid?
My mom would always introduce me to the weird movies that I never would’ve heard of otherwise. I remember discovering “Welcome to the Dollhouse” with my mom. I watched that with her as well as “Chuck & Buck.” I was always watching these indie movies that would get reviewed in The New York Times and I’d wait until they would hit Blockbuster. She’d show me the old stuff too. She showed me “Blow Up” when I was a kid and “Rocky Horror.” I had a very eclectic taste and loved old black and white movies like “The Nanny” with Bette Davis. I’d watch that one on repeat. I was very well versed in film history and contemporary independent cinema when I was little. You see what you like, you develop tastes and you go from there.
Tell me about your early collaborations with Eleanore.
We knew each other for a zillion years, well I guess not really a zillion—ten to be exact. We were in the same college dorm together and we would make super low budget movies. I made a movie with her where she plays the evil twin sister of a gay heroin addict and she locks him up in a bedroom. That was the first thing that we ever did together. I was probably just permanently stoned at that point in my life. We got along really well and she has an amazing energy about her that makes you want to be around her. She just vibrates life and positivity, so she’s a good person to have around as a muse.
How did you want Mona to come off in the film?
She’s going around and around and she’s not making any progress. But it was important to us that she never felt like a victim. There are these poverty porn movies that come out and everybody goes, “These people are so sad.” I don’t think any of my characters are like that. Clearly they have a lot of emotional trauma but none of them wander around moping about how awful they feel about it. My characters don’t think about the desperation of their situation. They’re just like, “Well, here I am.” I like people who take action in their own hands even if it’s not positive or if it’s just to get reactions out of people. Audiences can certainly pathologize my characters as much as they want, but they’re not presented in a way that’s begging people to do that. Mona still wants to have a connection with people, it’s just hard.
Her meltdown in the supermarket is just astonishing.
I just wanted her to not be able to take it anymore. It’s a breakdown of what happens when she doesn’t have her mommy anymore, so she’s lashing out at anything and anyone. I wanted there to be this undercurrent of rage that runs throughout the whole thing. You never know the next time she’s going to erupt, so it kind of feels like a horror movie in that sense. I’m really happy with the way that scene turned out. We filmed at a supermarket and didn’t have a lot of time to use the location. It’s a testament to the crew and to the actors that we got all the footage we needed. That was the last thing we shot at about 5 or 6 in the morning and we were all exhausted. It was just one of those experiences that brings you right back up and makes you go, “Oh right, I can feel s—t, I can get angry!” Shooting that scene was a lot of fun.
What was your collaboration like with editor Sofi Marshall? The film has various moments—such as the very end—where the addition or subtraction of a single frame would’ve altered everything.
I did a rough cut a couple months before I brought Sofi on. I think I am a pretty decent editor but they needed another pair of eyes. Sofi came in and she completely smoothed out my edit. She really did a f—king amazing job. There were big subplots of the movie that ended up getting cut out—about twenty or thirty minutes worth of footage—because they slowed down the pace. We were incredibly collaborative and we talked about many of the scenes, including the last scene with the mother and daughter. That was one of those scenes where—as you said—one frame makes all the difference. I am incredibly proud of the edit, and I never would’ve been able to do it without Sofi.
What has the audience reaction been like to the film’s more “shocking” content?
Uhhh—they’re usually pretty understanding. [laughs] Not really. We haven’t had a lot of walkouts but when they happen, it’s usually during the bar scene. There’s stuff in the movie that, personally, I don’t find all that shocking. I always thought that the shock value was more of an undercurrent than the point. It’s the undercurrent and not the wave. The wave is the performances and the story and underneath everything there’s this layer of dirt that is gross and mean. I don’t feel that any of our main characters are mean, they’re just misguided. I don’t think of the movie as that shocking. I just saw “Pink Flamingos” at a John Waters retrospective. For me, “See You Next Tuesday” is pretty tame. I used to make movies about people f—king lepers.
This Facets run will be the film’s theatrical premiere in Chicago. When did it first screen at festivals?
It premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in March of last year, and it has been touring the festival circuit ever since. We had a really difficult time with distributors. I love that people still care about the film. I think it’s great to have a second and third wind. I understand that it’s very hard to program a film festival, especially one that’s very popular like Sundance or SXSW. The movie slipped through the cracks at a lot of the film festivals and I don’t think that’s anybody’s fault. We didn’t have money from any big grants and we didn’t have any celebrities and we didn’t have any friends in the independent film world that could’ve connected us with the big programmers when I first started out. Hopefully the next film will find a bigger audience.
It’s a more honest film than practically anything I’ve seen all year.
That’s why we scared the festival circuit off, man! Because we’re too f—king honest! [laughs]
“See You Next Tuesday” screens from Monday, September 22nd, to Thursday, September 25th, at Facets Cinémathèque. For tickets and showtimes, visit the official Facets site.