One of the great pleasures of the moviegoing experience is encountering a character unlike any you have seen before onscreen. Irene (Rachel McKeon), the anti-heroine of Colin Healey’s superb directorial debut, “Homemakers,” would certainly be included in that category. She’s a singer in Austin with an anarchic, childlike spirit that leaves a trail of physical and emotional debris in its wake. When she learns of her grandfather’s death, she travels down to his abandoned house in Pittsburgh, and with the help of her cousin, Cam (Jack Culbertson), she aims to restore the building while attempting to realize her dream of finding a home all her own. McKeon’s performance is a knockout—by turns funny and unsettling, off-putting and endearing, and ultimately moving. In many ways, Healey’s film is as much a handcrafted labor of love as Irene’s reconstructed house, a stellar example of modern independent cinema at its most personal.
Prior to visiting Chicago for screenings of the film at Facets Cinémathèque, where it premieres Friday, October 9th, Healey chatted with Indie Outlook about the appeal of Pittsburgh, the influence of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and the man whose key contributions made it all possible.
Prior to making your first feature, you founded the Animation program at the Deerfield Academy Summer Arts Camp in Massachusetts. How has animation played a role in influencing your work as a filmmaker?
I grew up in the woods in western Massachusetts and I didn’t get out that much. I wasn’t that well-socialized, so I was a very fearful kid who worked on art all the time. My mom sent me to that art camp and it kind of saved my life. It taught me how to make friends in the context of the things that I was very good at, and I ended up working at the camp for years while I was in college. I was the video teacher, and it was this great, multidisciplinary camp where you sign up for different stuff every day, and I would always end up in video, and that would include animation classes.
That led to me going off to the Rhode Island School of Design, which was a very similar set-up to the camp, and I took an experimental film and video program that had a lot of animation. I brought what I learned back to the camp and spun Animation off from their old video program. I really came to filmmaking through visual art. I think there should be a lot onscreen because it’s a visual medium. It’s nice that we have dialogue, and it’s nice that we carry some things from the theatre tradition, but I think it’s really important that we also recognize the things that we can do on film without words and with visuals and sets and plastic and all this stuff that I really get into.
I probably would be an animator if I didn’t love working with people so much. That’s why I write things that are sort of out there and then try and make them real. My favorite movie ever, when I was a kid, was the first “Ninja Turtles” movie. It came out in 1990 when I was 4. I had seen the characters in cartoons and had read the comics, and the magic of seeing something that had been a cartoon in this gritty New York City setting was huge for me. I have been constantly influenced by it. How absurd can I go as a writer, and how real can my team and I make it during production?
Those “Ninja Turtles” films were truly live-action cartoons, since they relied on puppetry and animatronics rather than CGI.
I had a wonderful puppetry teacher at the camp, and the first videos that I liked making as a kid were puppet stuff.
Pittsburgh also seems to have played a key element in the formation of this story.
Yeah, I’m tremendously influenced by place. That’s always where I start. The Pittsburgh community is very distinct from Philadelphia. Because of the geography of that state, Pittsburgh is more linked to Cleveland and those folks look more toward Chicago than New York as the bigger city that’s close by. I visited Pittsburgh when I was 23. I was living in New York City at the time, and my friends were much smarter than me. They moved to Pittsburgh and lived in a house—it wasn’t huge, but it was much bigger than anything I knew people had in New York. It was much cheaper and there were more jobs, so I moved out there. I didn’t realize that it was such a hilly place.
You’d never want to put a city on top of this landscape, except for the fact that there are rivers that meet there, and they happen to be near all the components that you need for steel. It’s a ludicrous place with these little neighborhoods teetering on top of hills, and I was very attracted to the idea that a city could be there, period. The values of the place are militantly working class. In New York, when it gets down to it, it always feels like the most valued person is the one making the most money. In Pittsburgh, the people who are the most valued are the ones working the most hours. That’s what people brag about at a bar.
The steel collapse that left many of the city’s houses abandoned is certainly reflected in the film.
The city used to have 600,000 people, and now it has 300,000 people, but still has all the same buildings. It’s not one of those cities where you always hear the sound of cranes. You hear people banging hammers inside an old house, and I began to wonder, ‘Who is coming back into these houses? Who left them and where did they go?’ Largely it’s the Sun Belt. People who filled up cities in Arizona and Florida are the same people who left Pittsburgh and Detroit and the other northern cities that fell apart. Many of their families got split in half, and mine was one of them. The economic divides in families are really obvious, and telling the story of a family like that was really interesting to me. Some people would’ve preferred if I had told the story more from the perspective of a poorer family member, but I wanted to focus on a person who had grown up with a different values system in a richer community. I wanted to see what happened when they came back to Pittsburgh and learned some of the neighborhood family values.
Rachel McKeon’s performance draws you in with its no-holds-barred unpredictability.
When you read the script, you look at Irene and think, “God, she is such an a—hole.” [laughs] With Rachel, she didn’t make Irene any less of an a—hole, but she made that a—holism compelling, and sort of sympathetic by the end. A lot of people find the first half of the film difficult, but I think a lot of that comes from Rachel’s commitment to her character. In so many ways, Irene is completely authentic to herself, and has such a great sense of herself. She’s gay but she’s never politically gay. She doesn’t care about that and she doesn’t understand why it’s an issue. She’s just trying to move on with that part of her life and the things that she wants. But in the meantime, she’s also incredibly sensitive and is continuously putting on characters. That was a really tricky thing for an actor to play. I don’t really know if anybody else could’ve played it—it’s amazing that we came upon Rachel because I didn’t write the role for her. I wrote it for another actress who couldn’t do it, and I’m so glad that Rachel came along because I think it turned out better this way.
Irene’s haircut and tomboyish demeanor caused her to resemble, for me, a grown version of Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Oh wow. I haven’t read that book in so long, but I’m sure that Scout stuck in my head. A lot of Irene is based on my mother, who remembers being a sort of tomboyish kid. I definitely connect Scout’s personality with that of my mother when she was young. Irene is a very, very distorted version of my parents, and myself, and some other people I’ve met along the way. The tomboy who’s had a tough time of it, and wasn’t supposed to be a tomboy, is an important character for me, and that was at the heart of Irene. I had a student at one point who I think was a proto-Irene. She was a bit gender-fluid and favored an androgynous style. She was the coolest kid but had clearly gotten so much s—t that she was dishing it out everywhere, so I think all of those characters are balled up in Irene. Structurally, I think “Homemakers” is similar to a lot of coming-of-age films, but it’s about someone who probably shouldn’t be coming of age anymore.
What inspired the film’s elaborate production design?
“Ninja Turtles” was definitely an aspect of it. Seth Clark, who’s a collagist, and Danielle Laubach came in and they were like, “Okay, we’re going to create these cartoonish environments, but we’re also going to show how the house is falling apart.” They really wanted it to be tangible and touchable and sort of gross and nauseating, while keeping in mind that the design is coming from a place of hope and frivolity within the characters. I think they really nailed it.
There are so many memorable images, such as the door that leads to the “space room,” and the cat umbrella Irene holds near the pool.
I remember the first time I saw that door, I almost cried. Our props master, Travis Rohrbaugh, is a glass blower and he contributed a lot to the look of the film. Same with our costume designer, Christine Casaus, who sprinkled cats throughout Irene’s life. There’s a line early in the movie where Irene says that she’s never had a pet, and Christine decided that she would insert images of pets throughout the film, signifying Irene’s desperate yearning for one. The cat T-shirt Irene wears during a few scenes actually belonged to our sound recordist. Christine took it off his body and put it on Rachel. [laughs]
I was moved by the late scene of Rachel’s onstage performance, and liked how the sound was muted, inviting us to focus purely on her expressions.
That scene really came about in editing. Our editor, Dave Schachter, was trying to figure out ways to wrap up the film slightly earlier than it was scripted, and there was a song that our composer, Matt Bryan, and his partner, Eva Avenue, had come up with for our trailer. We just loved this song so much, but we hadn’t quite found the spot for it. Then suddenly we realized that this would be the perfect place for it. It was so powerful, even though we can’t hear what she’s saying. It’s the only time she ever seems truly happy in the movie, and that’s when we realized that it had to end there. The people in the audience f—king loved it. They were actual fans of the polka band playing onstage alongside Irene. The band insisted that they could fill the bar with extras, and we figured that whoever they bring will be the people that would be at a polka show at a bar.
In the credits, you give special thanks to Steve Frankowski, whose contributions “were essential” in the making of the film. How so?
Steve owns that bar, and my friends Seth and Travis—whom I moved in with in Pittsburgh—had worked there. They had become friends with Steve, and his bar was the living room of that neighborhood. It was the place where we could go and absolutely know that someone would be there that was our friend. It’s what bars should be like and it’s what neighborhoods should be like. Steve happened to have a house just behind the bar that was empty. I didn’t really think that it would be a possibility to use it, but Steve had so much trust in Seth that he said we could have it for a dollar a month. That would be our lease on the place, and the stipulation was that nobody could get hurt—we had to have our own insurance—and he wanted the art department to stay on afterwards and gut the house. So they built all these wonderful sets, watched them “get destroyed” in the movie, and then they had to actually destroy them while we were shooting in Texas, so we could never reshoot anything in Pittsburgh. But Steve was just so wonderful. He had an apartment at another house where we put crew members from out of town. Steve’s bar is called the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, and it’s great. The best pierogies I’ve ever had at a bar I’ve had there.
What are your thoughts regarding the modern distribution of independent films?
The situation is that people seem to be watching less movies, which I think is a mistake on people’s parts, and they seem to be making more of them, which I think is okay. Some of these movies are very good. When you look at the quality of Sundance movies right now, they are a lot better than they were when I was a kid. I do think that there have been improvements artistically, but it’s tough. We’ve got a system that’s built for less movies in terms of how many curatorial standard-bearers we have in the states. We really just have Tribeca and SXSW, and then things kind of fall from there, in terms of regard. We premiered at the independent film festival in Boston, which was fantastic, and we played lots of other great film festivals. We played Cleveland, where they were incredibly classy, and New Orleans, which is the most fun film festival I’ve ever been to. Any film that I saw at any of those festivals was absolutely top-notch.
I think it’s time for us to expand our ideas of where we find our great films in America, but that said, it’s a real hustle. Premiering at IFFBoston was great, but it doesn’t come with the brand of Sundance. We needed to make up for that by meeting people, doing a PR push and stuff like that. I’m so happy that Factory 25 exists. If it didn’t exist, there would be so many movies that wouldn’t ever get distributed because [founder] Matt Grady is the only person who has seen the commercial potential in them. I think that he’s preserving a very special moment in independent film history that the commercial system is not going to be preserving. He’s figuring out how to make enough money on it to save these films and get them onto people’s shelves.
What’s up next for you?
I’ve written a script for a larger budgeted project that is set in the Yukon and would be completely wild. [laughs] No one has ever seen this movie before. Putting your art in other people’s hands is right for some projects and not for others. This is a project that’s going to take years to happen or it might happen quickly. In the meantime, I’m going to make a smaller film on the scale of “Homemakers” and get my team back together. It’s probably going to take place in New York where I live now, and I’m really excited about it because I love being onset. The best thing about being a filmmaker is that you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Colin Healey will participate in Q&As (with prizes) following the 7:30pm screening on Friday, October 9th, and the 5:45pm & 7:45pm screenings on Saturday, October 10th, of “Homemakers” at Chicago’s Facets Cinémathèque, where the film runs through Thursday, October 15th. For tickets, click here, and for more info on the film, visit its official site.