"There are a lot of directors who don't know acting well," explained Polly Draper to No Film School, "and they don't cast the right people." Draper started her career as a standout actress, first breaking out in roles like Ellyn Warren in Thirtysomething, so she knows acting and how important it is to the story you're trying to tell. Over the years, she has added being a screenwriter and a director to her accolades, each time continuing what she learned in one craft to the other. In the past, she found using her family as actors and inspiration was a winning idea in the Nickelodeon hit The Naked Brothers Band.

Now that her sons are grown up, Draper got the band back together inStella's Last Weekend, a bittersweet comedy starring her two sons and herself as a family who reunites for a weekend to put down the family dog.

Draper sat down with No Film School to talk about juggling roles on set, creating the right kinetic visuals, and why being respectful to your crew will get you much farther than being a dictatorial snipe.

No Film School: You wrote the script for as well as acted in and directed this film. That’s a lot of responsibility. How did you prepare yourself to pull off all these roles?

Polly Draper: It’s tricky when you're directing yourself, but I've been acting for so long that I'm not a person who is desperately in need of a director's eye to tell me whether it feels authentic or not. That wasn’t a huge challenge. I had my two sons there to look at the monitor and say, “That was good” or “Maybe you should try it again” or something like that. I think the acting part was the most effortless.

The directing of my sons was ridiculously effortless because I was used to them being six and nine years old, and then 11 and 13 [the last time Draper directed them]. I was used to them needing to be wrangled and having children's hours to work. It was all a whole different kettle of fish when you're directing minors (who are your children). I remember the Director of Photography kept slipping Alex dollar bills in order to get him to do another take. They would be like, “No we don't want to come to set, we're playing ping-pong,” or something like that. But learning that kind of discipline at a young age was a huge thing that developed them as people and as actors.

By now, Nat's probably done almost 25 movies and Alex probably 10 or 15. They were pros. They were amazing. Working with them was super easy. It’s easy if you cast the right people. There are a lot of directors who don't know acting well and they don't cast the right people. People say casting is 90% of it. It is. It's 90%. If you get the right person in a part, the instinct takes off.

I was lucky enough to find Paulina Singer to play the role of Violet. She was a girl that looked perfect for both of the brothers to fall in love with at the same time. How she looked, acted, everything about her was something that both of my boys would love and admire. Even though they have very different tastes in women, they would both love this girl. It made everything make sense.

I cast the Ron character the day before we started shooting because someone had dropped out. He was perfection. He's got a certain sweetness, sexiness. He didn't go for any clichés in that character. You could see how people would start out thinking he's an asshole, and then grow to love him when he wasn't being defensive. He was just perfect for the part. The casting was taken care of and it made everything easy.

Stella-last-weekend_still_4Writer-actor-director Polly Draper with her two Alex and Nat Wolff in this still from 'Stella's Last Weekend.'

Draper: Working in New York is kind of effortless for me because it's my favorite city. It's where I feel the most comfortable. It's where I've directed before and it's where I live. I had the most incredible producers. That's another thing, if you're giving advice to No Film Schoolers, if you get a good AD, you are going to be home free. The AD I had was brilliant! She saw every schedule as a puzzle that she could fix. We had so many issues. Alex was just about to start doing Hereditary. Nat had just finished making a movie. They moved the dates of Hereditary up so we had to move our dates up, which meant Nat barely made it home before we started and Alex had to leave before we finished. But this girl managed to squeeze it all into this schedule. She was just phenomenal. That is a huge part of it.

We had a great DP and a great camera, a VariCam. You can work in very low light and it's magnificently beautiful. It saved us so much money because you could work without doing so much lighting. It's much smaller as a camera, which is good too. There's no downtime, which helped everything. It's really amazing.

NFS: What was the conversation with your director of photography like about how you wanted the film to look and feel?

Draper: I wanted to make sure this movie was about the acting. I wanted to make sure that it captured the performances as my top priority. I didn't want to get fancy with it. Because I love the look of New York deeply, I wanted New York to seem somehow nostalgic and romantic and small neighborhood-y. I wanted it to feel like the place where those brothers feel safe and at home, instead of the New York that we could see, which is the grittier New York. I wanted this New York to be nurturing to their life. I thought that was reflected in the camera work. I wanted it to be lots of Steadicam, lots of handheld, lots of kinetic energy to the camera work. But I wanted it to really enhance the brother relationship. That was my biggest priority. That was basically what I said to the DP, David Kimelman, and he brought ideas of his own.

I also told him that I wanted it to have a somewhat nostalgic feel to it. I wanted everything to be very authentic, but this was a romance and a love triangle, so I wanted the beauty of New York to be enhanced. I wanted it to be the beauty of a New York that wasn't the Upper East Side New York. It was the Queens, New York. From Queens, you'd see New York as how sparkly it looks across the way.

The thing I told the DP is, the hardest thing that we're going to have to deal with in this movie is the dog. She was a rescue. That's also something I recommend. I know all the dog trainers out there probably would be mad hearing this, but if you can use your own dog, it's so much more authentic than if you have a trained dog.

We rescued a dog that had been a homeless person's dog and she almost died on the street freezing to death. By the time we started shooting the film, she was happy and in great condition. For the film, she was supposed to be dying but after we rescued her, we were like, “Oh, shoot, she's looking too healthy.” I asked him to do whatever he could to make working with the dog easier.

Our DP is also one of the top Steadicam operators in the city. We just lucked into him because he wanted to do more Director of Photography work. So many of the scenes are on the move, that to have a Steadicam operator like him was such an added boon. He was fantastic.

Nat_in_stellas_last_weekendNat Wolff plays the role of Jack in this still from 'Stella's Last Weekend' directed by Polly Draper.

NFS: Throughout the film, there’s a really delicate balance between humor and bittersweetness. There is a lot of humor in the relationships, but also sadness remembering of the father and of course, Stella, the dog passing away. What was your strategy to keep that balance?

Draper: I think for me, it's what life is. Right in the middle of the most tragic moment is something funny. The scene where they're getting stoned, where the mother and Jack are getting stoned with the dog, she's in the middle of this very heart-wrenching talk with her son about how he reminds her of his dad. She's tearfully recounting that to him. Then she suddenly just goes off the deep end and starts talking about a reflection in a mirror and behind that he's a cardboard cutout. 

Nothing could accentuate that better than a real-life story. As a family, we were putting our dog that we loved to sleep. We were walking home and all of us were sobbing because she was just our beloved dog, who was in The Naked Brothers Band. He had just died. We were all heartbroken. We were walking home and my husband said, "Well, I guess we'll go get the ashes afterwards." Nat said, "What will we do with them?" My husband said, "We'll put them on the mantle, but I guess we'll still have to walk them three times a day." All of us went from sobbing hysterically to just burst out laughing.

Something in our makeup combines humor with pathos. I think it's very important that the balance is maintained. It's an acrobatic trick to do it, to maintain the comedy and the pathos. Because you don't want to undermine the pathos with the comedy and you don't want to make the pathos part too maudlin. I think they live hand in hand. In life and in film, they're both very important.

Stellas_last_weekend_dogStella the dog, who was adopted by Draper from the pound prior to becoming the lead canine in the show in this still from 'Stella's Last Weekend' directed by Polly Draper.

NFS: You’ve had a successful career in so many different creative roles on a film. What advice do you have for filmmakers?

Draper: I would say don't wait for the perfect time to do your movie. Don't wait for the perfect star to do your movie. Don't wait for the perfect amount of money. Just go ahead and do it because it's not going to be your last time. If you have no money and you're just out there with your iPhone making a film, like a friend of mine [Sean Baker] did on Tangerine, a brilliant movie. If all you have is that much money to do that, just do it because you're going to learn so much from the experience.

The other thing I would say is, get good sound people! No matter what you shoot it on, you can kind of fudge the picture nowadays a little bit, but the sound is vital. We had a brilliant sound person. In my experience, that can separate how people feel about your movie, whether it looks cheap or not.

The other thing is to just be kind to every person in every department, because they will give you so much if you trust them. If they're not good, you, of course, have to be on them, but you have to encourage them. In order to show your authority, you don't have to be dictatorial. I think that's something really, really huge that I would say, is that you should jump in and roll up your sleeves and do any job you have to do, but you should be very kind and respectful of everybody's who's helping you in the process.

I've worked with a lot of directors who aren't. What they get out of their crew is so superior to what the other ones get out of their crew. Those people are working these long hours and getting no credit. They need to be treated well. Give them good food. You can make a movie for no money and it's beautiful. Don’t let money be the stumbling block. I think it's true. I think other people would agree with me, directors [at least].

Check out Stella's Last Weekend, which is being distributed by The Orchard and can be found on Amazon and other streaming platforms on demand now.