Laura Terruso worked below-the-line for years before taking the helm on her satirical debut feature.
Laura Terruso has held nearly every position on an indie film set: producer, AD, and DP. Having first proved her writing chops as a screenwriter on the SXSW crowdpleaser Hello, My Name Is Doris, Terruso now directs her first film, Fits and Starts, a comedic look at two writers (played by Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee) whose disparate successes wreak havoc on their marriage.
"I remember trying to hook up a clip light to a car battery and almost electrocuting myself in the dead of winter in New York City," Terruso recalled of her career beginnings. "Alex Karpovsky's in the car, and he's like, ‘Maybe you should just, like, ask the people in that deli if you can pay them to plug in.’" She added, "I remember sneaking onto rooftops, recording sound in bathroom stalls, and just doing crazy shit in the name of making art." Somewhere along the journey, Terruso realized her filmmaking voice was comedic, satire was her bag, and the colorful characters she'd met through independent film would weave themselves into her first feature.
Fits and Starts is now available on demand, but Terruso first sat down with No Film School on the eve of the film’s premiere at SXSW. In our conversation below, the director discusses everything from writing grounded characters to the Jenga of directing and how you should just say yes to everything.
No Film School: In Fits and Starts, there are two main characters surrounded by an ensemble who make up this funny world of the story. What is your process for writing characters for this type of comedy?
Laura Terruso: I tend towards satire. I really gravitate towards it, and it's something that comes easily to me. But when I sit down to write satire, the most important part of the equation is starting with a central protagonist that we identify with as an audience—a character who is grounding us in the world. In Hello, My Name is Doris, it was Doris grounding us in this world of hipsters, satirizing hipsters. And in Fits and Starts it's this character Wyatt Cenac plays who's grounding us in this pretentious art world. Then the rest of characters emerge on the page.
What I love about directing is that the writing process continues. So you're not just stopping with the written word. You are then casting, which is a form of writing. And directing, you're still writing. For this film, it was really a wonderful opportunity to have a vision from the very beginning and see it through to the end.
"Every single decision you make has the potential to unravel the whole."
Terruso: I cast a lot of people that I knew from New York where I’m from. In the film there are downtown performance artists like Justin Keckler and Erin Markey who are very well known in the performance art community, which is essentially an alt-comedy scene. Performance art and comedy are kind of the same thing in New York. It's not like what people think of people running into walls and stuff.
I worked for years in the indie film community as a producer, an AD, and a DP. So in working in that community I was able to meet a lot of wonderful performers, and had this bank in my head of I want to work with this person or that person. I worked on High Maintenance as a cinematographer, and that's how I met Greta Lee. I worked as an AD on this film Gayby and from that I met Louis Cancelmi and Jenn Harris and Matt Wilkis. Alex Karpovsky and Onur Tukel I met on the film festival circuit. I tend to cast people that I know or have worked with because I have witnessed their essence and I know how I can use them to the best of my ability. It was really fun to be able to put together this ensemble around the two protagonists.
NFS: What was the process on set with the actors playing these grounded protagonists? Did you rehearse ahead of time?
Terruso: We had a dinner where Wyatt and Greta met, right before the shoot. And then we dove in. Of course, I met with each of them and we discussed the characters, especially with Wyatt. Wyatt and Greta both intuitively understood the characters and what I was going for. It was never like oh no this is wrong. They just nailed it from the very beginning. We discussed the characters and they understood who they were, going in. They brought so much to them, made them come to life.
It's pretty exciting when you sit down and write something, and then you're on set and your words are being performed by brilliant actors. It's the best feeling. There's nothing like it. Everything I write is personal, and so it feels so incredible to have someone talented perform it. It's like you get to do things right in the film that maybe you didn't do right in life.
"It's like you get to do things right in the film that maybe you didn't do right in life."
NFS: How much of the comedy did you have an ear for on set? Or does the comedic timing come out in the edit room?
Terruso: It starts in the writing, and then it moves to the casting. Filmmaking is like playing Jenga. Every single decision you make has the potential to unravel the whole, to make the whole thing topple. Wrong casting, the whole thing topples. Wrong DP, whole thing topples. Every single decision could destroy you. You could have a great script and make a terrible movie. Or you could have a bad script and make a great movie because the director decides, let’s throw a lot of this away and improv. Every little thing has the potential to make or break your film. As a director, your job is to hold that vision and know what is it you're trying to say. And hold true to that.
NFS: What advice would you give to filmmakers?
Terruso: Say yes.
NFS: Say yes?
Terruso: Say yes, say yes, say yes to everything. Do stuff. You know, for years I took jobs working on films for low or no pay. And in that time I got to meet incredible performers, I got to work with people like Ben and Katja from High Maintenance and Alex Karpovsky and Madeline Olnek and Jonny Lisecki and all these wonderful people. And I got to go to festivals and I got to meet other filmmakers.
I feel like in independent film, there's such an incredible community of people. It's a very open and generous community of people, and I'm really proud to be a part of that. Just say yes. Do stuff. Record sound on a no budget project, 'cause even if it sucks you'll learn something.