How to Make Comedy Cinematic: Ingrid Jungermann's 'Women Who Kill'
This is probably the world’s first lesbian-romantic-comedy-murder-mystery.
Ingrid Jungermann’s feature debut smacks of 90’s lo-fi comedies like Spanking the Monkey, but the film is wholly unique. With self-deprecating humor laced throughout— Brooklynites will appreciate references to holier-than-thou co-op volunteers—Women Who Kill is a love triangle between two ex-girlfriends who podcast about female serial killers.
Jungermann plays Morgan, who is the point on the triangle between timid Jean (Ann Carr) and sultry Simone (Sheila Vand). The director's foray into features follows a successful run in web series as the creator of The Slope and F to 7th, which has recently been picked up for pilot development.
No Film School sat down with Jungermann during the film’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere to talk about making the transition from web series to feature filmmaking, the challenges of directing oneself, and more.
"People are a little short-sighted on how you can shoot a comedy."
NFS: You made this transition from doing online short form work to feature. It has been a launching pad for you, but there's so much debate about it in the filmmaking community. Is it film? Is it art? Does it even count?
Jungermann: I think what web series have done is shown both the TV and the film community that diversity actually sells because the people that were making early web series were not the status quo. They were people of color, queer, or just people that were a little bit different than the norm. I think they recognized that they weren't seeing themselves in other shows or other films. They had a voice that they wanted to be heard.
NFS: How did you have to think differently as a director from one medium to the other?
Jungermann: It's totally different because web series are fast and furious. They've got a lot of energy. We shot two episodes a day and it was a five-person crew. It's super low-budget. I think it kind of appeals to that part of my brain that is not precious about my work; it’s like I'm just practicing. That way there can be a purity of voice.
With a feature, it's much more long term, so you have to relax a little bit. Slow down and realize that you have to save your energy and see it as a whole rather than small parts.
Basically, web series are making scenes, and a feature is making an entire story. It's totally different parts of your brain.
"Writing is about practice. You have to do it pretty much every day or you're going to quickly get out of practice."
NFS: What about differences in the writing process?
Jungermann: Structurally, what I tried to do with the web series is practice. In the second season, I was playing. I wanted to see if I could do it as a TV arc, and I literally practiced structure by breaking down the scripts.
The web series script is very short and you can see the problems very clearly. With the feature script, you’re a hundred pages in and not only are you breaking down story, but also breaking down each character and world and tone. It's kind of an animal compared to web series.
NFS: What was your actual process in writing the script? Did you set rigid hours?
Jungermann: When I first started writing the feature, I'd rented an office space, and I would go in at a certain time every morning and then kind of check out. I think I learned that, even if you're spending six to eight hours a day sitting there and not accomplishing much, you're checking in.
It was Women Who Kill who definitely taught me that writing is about practice. You have to do it pretty much every day or you're going to quickly get out of practice. It's kind of the same as exercise. You can't just run five miles. You have to work at it.
"I knew going into it that I wanted to grow cinematically. I wanted to pair myself with someone who was more of a visual artist."
NFS: Women Who Kill kind of sneaks up on you because it doesn't utilize the conventions of a typical murder mystery in terms of how it was shot. How did you collaborate with your DP (Rob Leitzell)?
Jungermann: A lot of times with these low-budget indies, you don't have that much time to work together ahead of time. But he and I met early. He's a pure artist. I knew going into it that I wanted to grow cinematically. I wanted to pair myself with someone who was more a visual artist because I knew that I could take care of the minutiae of the characters, but I needed to team up with someone who would make me grow as a filmmaker.
People are a little short-sighted on how you can shoot a comedy. For some reason, they're just paying attention to the dialogue and the funny stuff. We wanted to make a cinematic experience.
One of the interesting things that we decided early on was that there was a “Jean” film and a “Simone” film—which was pretty much day and night. We could use different methods in those two pieces of the film. I remember writing Jean as day, Simone as night, in that there are two parts of Morgan's personality. She's kind of going in between those two things, and [Leitzell] took that and ran with it.
We went very bright—very much natural light—in Jean's world, like white walls and primary colors. In Simone's world, it's much more sensual. It's mostly night. More noir-y and it got more into the mystery feel. It was fun to play with those two worlds.
"A plus of directing yourself is that you're in the mix with the actors, so you can feel if the scene's working."
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers about how to approach directing oneself?
Jungermann: A plus of directing yourself is that you're in the mix with the actors, so you can feel if the scene's working. It's very real. It's like you're talking to someone in a room and you connect with them; that's when you know you get it.
I'm watching their performance and taking care of things, but mostly I'm trying to connect with them and from that you can get really open performances. I think that they feel understood as actors because they know that I understand what they're going through.
The challenge is that, especially on a low budget, you don't have a stand-in. Everybody has four jobs. There's not really the one person that [acts as] your eyes at the monitor. You're depending upon your team.
My team is amazing. They're highly talented artists but they've got many jobs. If you don't have time to watch playback, you're handing the film over to other people. That's where it can be a little bit challenging. I think being a lead actor in your film can either affect your performance or affect your directing.
NFS: It's almost like a documentary in that way. Certain things are just going to be out of your control.
Jungermann: Yeah, totally. I think that's kind of cool because you learn to trust your team. But in another way, you lose out on some of the parts of directing that I love. My favorite days on set were the two scenes that I wasn't in. That was kind of telling for me.
"Film Fatales has been a continuation of understanding that if we all come together, it's limitless what we can do."
NFS: You and I met through Film Fatales (a collective of female directors). How did being part of that group, and the women's film community in general, contribute to the project?
Jungermann: I just came from the Tribeca lunch for female filmmakers and it was so cool to be in a room full of women artists. You know that feeling. It's just inspiring when we support each other. To seem sort of cliché, there's a sisterhood.
I feel like I've always kind of been just innately interested in that connection. When I was very young I had a theater company of all women. Film Fatales has been a continuation of understanding that if we all come together, it's limitless what we can do.
I always want to speak to the fact that the diversity conversation is super important. There tends to be a lack of conversation about diversity as far as socio-economic status. When you're making films, you realize that many people who are able to make feature films have either access to money or come from money, and I think that's a problem because it means that a very small percentage of the world’s voices are being heard.
"You don't have to make expensive work. Write your scripts to be very cheap; then you can focus on the writing."
NFS: What would you say to someone who feels like they really want to make a film but don't have access to money?
Jungermann: For me, because I didn't have access to money, I was motivated by the need to be heard. I felt like I had something important to say. I believed in myself. I was lucky enough to have teachers who did. My mother believed in me. I think mentors are really important and so is building a community of people that can help you out that, which could translate into money, as far as film production is concerned.
I took out a bunch of student loans just so that I could write. I think the NYU grad film program is really helpful because it builds a community. You work on other people’s projects and they work on yours, so it's a give and take, which Film Fatales also does.
Also, you don't have to make expensive work. Write your scripts to be very cheap; then you can focus on the writing. My web series were two people who are in a room talking. Write for what you have and just continue to make work that you can afford. Just keep doing it.