Summer 2018


Action, With Heart

Susanna Fogel's sophomore feature, The Spy Who Dumped Me, is grounded in female bonding


Director Susanna Fogel (Photo: Amanda Friedman)

Susanna Fogel has spent much of her relatively brief career as a writer-director of features torn between two impulses: creating the kinds of character-driven, independent movies that inspired her growing up in the shadow of Brown University, where her parents were academics; and making more commercial fare that would appeal to audiences beyond the art house. "It's hard to square those two," she professes.

But with the upcoming summer action comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me (Aug. 3, Lionsgate), Fogel appears to be having her cake and eating it, too. Like her feature directorial debut, Life Partners (2014), Spy is centered on the friendship between two women. But whereas her first film focused on the everyday conflict between two besties—one gay, one straight—with diverging paths in life, Spy thrusts its seemingly unexceptional protagonists, played by Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, into the outrageous world of international espionage, with hilarious results.

To be sure, the leap from Life Partners, made for $650,000 and shot in 20 days in L.A. and Minneapolis, to a $40 million-plus action movie shot over 60 days in five countries with harrowing car chases, bone-crunching fight scenes and large-scale pyrotechnics was not without its challenges.

"For me a lot of directing on this bigger scale is just knowing that if you know the what, then your crew is there to help you figure out the how," explains Fogel.

To help navigate the logistics, Fogel hired Gary Powell—who was a stunt coordinator on two Bourne movies, as well as Casino Royale (2006)—as her second unit director, and Barry Peterson, who shot such action comedies as 21 Jump Street and Central Intelligence, as her DP.

"The process of working with the second unit director and basically sharing your workload with another director is such an interesting, delicate thing," says Fogel, "and entrusting that person with your vision and making sure that you are not adding a completely different aesthetic to the mix that you don't have to contend with in editing. In meeting [Powell], I was struck by how egoless and collaborative he is and how interested he was in servicing my style."

Each action sequence, says Fogel, "ultimately felt like a ballet that involved a lot of choreography. And the three of us had a lot of meetings in prep where we talked at great length about what the tone should be and what the action sequence should feel like if we were to reference another movie. I wanted each sequence to feel in the vein of a certain genre of action movies I really loved without trying to ape them."

That approach, Fogel explains, "trickled down to how [Peterson] would light it, how much movement we had, and how elegant versus visceral the stunts felt." While Spy affectionately pokes fun at tropes associated the Bond, Bourne and Mission: Impossible movies, it remains grounded in a sisterhood dynamic that Fogel feels gives the story relatability.

"I love making movies about friendships, or where friendships are at the heart of it," explains Fogel. "Friendships have been such an important part of my life both emotionally and logistically. I really wasn't seeing that relationship represented enough [on screen]. I would feel disconnected from most movies about women to the extent that there was a best friend character [who] felt like they were there for comic relief, but I didn't feel the emotional connection. Or it was about a rivalry between women, which I also didn't connect with."

In the Hitchcockian sense, Kunis' and McKinnon's characters, Audrey and Morgan, get caught up in events beyond their control when it's revealed that the man Audrey was dating is a C.I.A. agent. A coveted thumb drive ends up in their hands, and assassins on their trail, leading to a series of wildly improbable events that help bring meaning to their unfulfilled lives.

"There is a canon of action movies involving female leads [who] are these bulletproof, very masculine women who are going through the motions and may as well be male," observes Fogel. "And probably many of these scripts were written for men, but gender-flipped for casting. [I] was trying to bring a little of that authenticity that feels more specific to what women are like in my experience with them. Whether they have to acknowledge the destruction they've caused, rather than coolly walking away from an exploding building, or apologizing for things they've done."

In the process, Fogel and her writing partner David Iserson riff on everything from cheesy pop ballads to Ivy League college name-dropping to precious artisanal cocktails. The gags, both verbal and visual—including a pixyish, ex-Olympic gymnast-turned-runway model/assassin—fly so fast and furious that keen attention is rewarded throughout.

Kate McKinnon, left, and Mila Kunis, right, discuss a scene with Fogel on the set of The Spy Who Dumped Me. (Photo: Hopper Stone/Lionsgate Entertainment)

Fogel's filmmaking experience runs deeper than her IMDb résumé suggests. She wrote and directed three shorts in her teens, including the first, For Real, shot with a Hi8 camera when she was 14, that played both in Toronto and Berlin. "It was just basically like a Warhol-esque, epic-long conversation between three girls that could be really boring and stylized," says Fogel, "but actually I just didn't know how to direct so it ended up being this long piece about three girls sitting at a table with no movement [with] the camera. More modern comparisons would be something like my version of Girls or Mean Girls."

While Toronto ended up being an edifying experience for Fogel ("I felt accepted in that there were so many interesting, iconoclastic people there and it really was a refreshing change from the New Englandness of where I was from"), Berlin turned out to be the opposite ("my first brush with bad press and nasty, vitriolic damning of my work").

The one thing Fogel learned from Berlin was that she preferred "extreme reaction" to her work over "apathetic reviews." The debacle fed into her follow-up short, Words of Wisdom, "about a young woman who makes a film that goes to a film festival that gets skewered by an unreceptive audience," Fogel admits. "But it was before I learned to not just tell my exact story but put it onto a narrative."

By the time she attended Columbia as an English major, she concentrated on writing and storytelling. "I started really idolizing people like Nicole Holofcener and Whit Stillman," Fogel recalls, "and seeing myself and my future as one of the people [who] made movies that would play at the Angelika [Film Center] and I'd get to have this fabulous New York artist life."

Instead, Fogel ended up moving in 2002 to Los Angeles, where she met Joni Lefkowitz at a Second City sketch comedy writing class. They would end up creating the ABC Family series Chasing Life (2014-15) and co-writing Life Partners, which started out as a one-act that was inspired by Nicole Holofcener's own feature debut, Walking and Talking (1996). The play was workshopped at the Sundance Lab, where one of the advisors was none other than Nicole Holofcencer. "I definitely made her very uncomfortable with my stalking," says Fogel.

One actress who made a cameo in Life Partners was Kate McKinnon, an SNL regular who was appearing in her first feature. When they reteamed for Spy, Fogel allowed McKinnon to let her freak flag fly.

"My editor makes this distinction between micro-humor and macro-humor," says Fogel, with the former text-driven and the latter performance-driven. "A lot of the micro-jokes that we'd written into the script that make it sing on the page were cut from the movie because they felt too contrived and too written," explains Fogel. "I think the macro is the really satisfying humor," which is to say that Fogel handled McKinnon's flights of fancy with a much looser rein.

"When Kate really clicked into the character, there were a ton of revised moments where she's having a crazy reaction, yelling, saying things as Morgan, doing something physical that was just her completely channeling the character. So, everything that came out of her mouth was just her, and nothing I could have scripted, because what she was actually doing was so much funnier."

Fans of Fogel's writing can appreciate it, unadorned, in the book Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters, or in shorter form in The New Yorker, such as in the story "Your Dad's Friend Who Makes You a Little Uncomfortable Thought It Was Great Seeing You," which, for those who might surmise that Fogel's strengths lie strictly within the female gaze, is an uncannily keen exploration of the middle-aged male psyche, with all of its not-so-subtle ulterior motives intact.

Having been bitten by the action bug, Fogel is working on another project with Iserson on a non-branded superhero movie "that takes our grounded, street-level characters and puts them into a heightened, world-event situation." By skirting the Marvel and DC Comics universes, where, as Fogel explains, "people start reacting to every narrative freedom that you take," the director can satisfy her enthusiasm for making a large-scale movie while maintaining authorship.

While that more ambitious scale is clearly part of Fogel's trajectory, the director adds that she'd "love to come on board and direct someone else's beautiful smaller movie at the same time. I just feel like I have an appetite for all of it. Anything that feels like good characters I am excited to do, whether I write it or not. But if I don't find it in the world, I will write it myself."

Gen Next

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