Having never directed a film until 2016, Karen Maine’s career as a filmmaker is off to a flying start with her debut feature Yes, God, Yes premiering at the 2019 SXSW festival. Having featured her short (of the same name) back in late 2017, the news of a feature adaptation was exciting, but not unexpected – the short was a huge hit online! The path from short to feature is always one that fascinates us here at Short of the Week, so we couldn’t resist the opportunity to invite Maine back to our site to discuss her journey, what important lessons she learnt from making a short film and when we can expect to see that feature:
Hi Karen, thanks for sparing the time to talk to me today. From the sounds of things, 2019 has started off pretty busy for you. I suppose first thing to say is congratulations on the feature version of Yes, God, Yes – when we featured the short on S/W, I think you were in the process of trying to secure funding for the feature version. The film now exists, so I’m assuming that this part of production was successful, but how did you find the funding process?
It’s so funny, a few months ago I would have said that was the most stressful part, but every part is very stressful when you’re making an independent feature film. I think getting the funding is probably the biggest hurdle a filmmaker has to overcome. From there, bar some crazy circumstances, you’re going to make a film and you just have to sort of push through it. If you don’t get the funding, there’s nothing you can do.
So the plan was always to make it into a feature, but did this affect how you went about making the short? Was it important to you to make it feel like a standalone piece, in the worst case scenario that the feature never materialized? Or was the aim really to show that the story could be expanded?
More the latter. It never occurred to me that the feature wouldn’t get made, which sounds very ignorant and kind of naïve of me! I co-wrote a film called Obvious Child and the short for that, which came out in 2009 and the internet wasn’t really full of short films at that time. So that got like 30,000 hits and we were like, “Oh my God, let’s make a feature.”
Right after the feature for Obvious Child came out, I had moved to London and I really wanted to tell the story that is Yes, God, Yes, which is very autobiographical. I started writing it in 2014 and I always thought I’d get a director to come and direct it, because I’d only had writing experience. But for me, after I asked a few directors, they were like, “You should direct this. This is your story,” and I was like, “Oh, I can do that?” It hadn’t even occurred to me this was an option.
“It was originally twice that long and it wasn’t getting into any of the festivals”
So the short was really made to be a proof of concept. It was important to me that narratively it could stand on its own legs, and I think it does. We did go through several different edit iterations of it before we landed on the 11-minute cut we have now. It was originally twice that long and it wasn’t getting into any of the festivals, and we were like, “Okay, what’s going on here?” So we cut it way down.
Even though it was always intended to be sort of a proof of concept and then the feature would be the big piece of work, the short really had a life of its own. It got three million views on Vimeo and then it was trending on Reddit, which was crazy! People are always like, “Reddit’s so scary,” especially if it’s your own work, but the comments were really funny and sincere, like people were debating which VHS cassette tape the sex scene in Titanic is on. They were telling me my film was wrong, and I was like, “Believe me, I know what cassette tape that is on.” So yeah, it was really fun, and I’m glad it got as much exposure as it did, because I think that helped us secure financing in the end. The short initially was supposed to be just one thing, but it turned out, I think to be so many things, which was great.
So the script for the feature already existed before you made the short? Did you try to go straight down the feature route before making the short?
The feature script was fully written, but once I decided that I was going to try to direct it, that’s when we decided to make a short. So I took the feature and fashioned a condensed script out of it. There are a few scenes in the short that are also in the feature, but almost all of them change in some way, so it’s not identical – the feature is much more in depth, of course.
And how was that process of taking the feature script and deciding what would become the short? Was it difficult to decide which scenes were the ones you really want to put into the short version?
I’m sure it was difficult. I’m trying to remember. We decided to make the short and then within like three weeks, we were shooting it, so it was a really fast process. We literally cast Natalia two days before we started shooting, which was very stressful.
I was actually in Italy on vacation and I spent the whole time writing and trying to get the short script ready to go. I plucked a few scenes from the feature that I really liked and that I felt were the strongest scenes. They also needed to contain humor and really encapsulated the tone and the style that I wanted for the feature. So I took those couple of scenes and then added other scenes that were brand new in between to kind of have them fit together in a more condensed style than they are in the feature.
It was a really organic process. I have really great producers who would read every draft and be like, “Yeah, this works…this doesn’t”. To be honest, it was so fast that it’s hard to remember how meticulous I was about it, but that’s sort of how I remember it going.
With hindsight, how important was the short, in getting the feature made? In your opinion, was it essential?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I didn’t have any directing experience, so in that sense, it was absolutely essential to show that I knew how to direct and could, at the end of the day, put something together that looked halfway decent and made sense.
So, in a way, would you say it was as much a proof of your skills, not just the story?
A bit of both, but probably mostly the fact that I could direct. I remember asking someone in the business quite early on, with just the feature script, if I could direct it, and they were like, “Well, you don’t have any experience! I would never fund that film”. I think because that’s how it was done with Obvious Child, with my friend Gillian (Robespierre – director of the Obvious Child short and feature), as well. She had never made a feature, either.
I just knew it was really important, for me as a Director, but also for the story. I think it did prove that a lot of people cared about this narrative. The short got three million hits, and from all over the world, which I found fascinating. A lot of Latin American and Filipino watchers, because of the Catholicism element, and it was so amazing to hear that even they could relate to this story of a midwestern girl in America and feel the exact same thing.
“I needed to know that I could do it and feel comfortable taking a big amount of money”
So I think it was definitely both in the end. I mean, for me and my own confidence, I needed it. I needed to know that I could do it and feel comfortable taking a big amount of money, that features need to go into production, and not feel nervous about that, to feel like I could deliver something.
You went from having not directed at all, to making a short in 2016, to making a feature in 2018. As a director, what did the process of making the short teach you?
How to talk to actors. How to delegate to the crew. I think I had a leg up just because the story was so intimate to me and I’d actually lived it. This meant it was really easy to get into the characters and discuss the roles with the actors, which I think for me, is one of the biggest parts of directing. For everything else, you can sort of work closely with your crew and learn from them, as they’re all experts in their field. Doing a shot list with with DOP, I learned so much about camera techniques, terms, all that kind of stuff that I just didn’t know. You just have to be really inquisitive and ask a lot of questions or else you’re never going to learn.
I didn’t go to film school, I read a lot of books about directing, which were very helpful, but I guess I was just sort of self-taught. The short definitely taught me a lot, but it didn’t teach me everything, and I’m definitely still learning as I go and I’m very open to continue learning. I’m still quite a young director. I directed a pilot in London before I moved back to the US, for the BBC, which was a great experience, so just hoping to keep doing it and learning more as I go.
One of my main motivations behind getting you back on Short of the Week, to talk about the feature, was because a portion of our audience are filmmakers and one of the questions they’re always interested in is how does someone go from short film to feature. So if you had one piece of advice for a filmmaker, looking to take that path, what’s the secret?
I really think it’s tenacity. Tenacity or persistence. I think you have to believe in your work, you’ll meet so many people along the way who don’t believe in your project, and you have to be the one that keeps fighting for it. It sounds kind of cliché, but you hear “no” so much, and you hear from people who are like, “This’ll never be good! No one will want to watch it!” Even if you have a short that has three million views, people were still saying that to me, “it’s a short, but is it a feature?”
“Once the film isn’t in this industry bubble anymore, it gets to be out there with the people, people connect to it and people love it”
It’s just about persevering beyond the people telling you no, because you will eventually meet someone who tells you yes, and then it’s so funny from there. Once the film isn’t in this industry bubble anymore, it gets to be out there with the people, people connect to it and people love it and people say, “This is great,” and “I relate to it.” So just remember that there are always those other people out there, those who are much more willing to embrace things and get excited about things, than people in Hollywood, who often have dollar signs in their eyes and say “no” a lot.
Okay, so let’s talk about the feature a bit. Can you tell us about the story, what we can expect from the feature version?
It’s a similar narrative to the short, but it goes more in-depth and there are more characters involved, but essentially, it’s the same idea. There’s this 16-year-old protagonist who sort of stumbles into masturbating for the first time and feels very conflicted because she loves it but she knows it’s a sin because of her Catholic upbringing.
In the feature, she decides to go on this school retreat called Kirkos, that the head priest at her high school runs. It’s a real retreat that I actually went on, and both my producers went on. When we were making the film we found out more and more people involved had been on it, including our local actors in Georgia and people at screenings. So it’s a very real retreat, that’s very creepy and kind of manipulative. But Alice goes on it to sort of rid herself of this temptation that she’s having, and ultimately discovers that the most pious people in her life aren’t really as pious as they seem.
It’s broadly about Catholicism and the hypocrisy, but it’s not Spotlight. It’s all very light and fun and easy to digest. It doesn’t veer into anything super-serious, it’s just about sexuality and self-pleasure and how that shouldn’t be a sin or something that will send you to hell, if you believe in hell.
One of the things I remember about the short online, and you mentioned this earlier, was the conversations that it inspired. We mentioned those Reddit discussions and I remember it being one of the shorts that really stimulated a lot of debate online. Has that been the same with the feature?
The feature’s only played at South By South West at the moment, so there’s only been three screenings because we’re sorting out distribution. Hopefully I’ll find out more as it gets a wider release. So far discussions have surrounded just how we often see male masturbation in film, and we have for decades and decades, with films like American Pie and even Call Me by Your Name, which is more recent, but we rarely get to see that female exploration of it.
With female coming-of-age films that tend to feature a sexual experience, it’s usually partnered sex in the backseat of a car or wherever, and it’s usually quite painful. This is a valid narrative, but I just feel that often young women are discovering their own bodies first and that’s a really relatable narrative to portray as well. Then adding the Catholic guilt element was to make the stakes a bit higher, and makes it funny also.
I’m sure when the film gets a wider release and more audiences see it, we’ll see some more Reddit conversations surrounding it, but what do you hope an audience member takes away from viewing the feature?
That female sexual pleasure isn’t scary or gross or taboo, and we can talk openly about it like we talk about male sexual pleasure. Also, that it’s a thing women should want and expect out of life, either from themselves or their partners. It’s so funny, while I was writing the script, I read this really great book by a woman named Peggy Orenstein called Girls and Sex, and she just interviews young women at college, early freshman year women, about their sexual lives and almost none of them expect pleasure. They’re usually performing for their male partner, and that’s always sort of the goal of partnered sex, is that the male gets off.
“I don’t think many people realize that masturbation is considered a sin, but it absolutely is”
I’m not expecting my film to be the one key that unlocks the store by any means, but I think it’ll be a little bit of a help and a step in the right direction of just making it more of a commonplace thing that we can discuss. So that’s what I’m hoping for, and also that Catholicism is very strange. I don’t think many people realize that masturbation is considered a sin, but it absolutely is. It’s in the Catechism, which is the list of what you can and can’t do. Cast-wise, from the short, your lead actress Natalia Dyer returns in the feature. She did such a great job in the short, I’m guessing it was always the plan to do the feature with her? What do you feel she brings to the role?
Natalia being in the short was amazing, and as soon as I worked with her and saw what she could do, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we had to get her to be in the feature. I loved her other roles, of course, and we knew about her from Stranger Things, but I just realized she hasn’t really done much comedy.
In the short, her character did call for a bit of comedy and she has really good comedic timing and she’s very good at acting without saying anything. Her expressions say so much without her having to say anything, and this role was always very much about an inward, internal conflict of the mind – a conscious, guilt-ridden conflict. So not a lot of dialogue to convey what’s going on, and I didn’t want to put in a voiceover or anything like that, and thankfully, with Natalia, I didn’t even have to consider that, because she’s an amazing talented actress. I hope she continues to get more interesting roles that allows her to show her range, because she’s truly awe-inspiring. I was blown away by her every day.
How was the process of getting her on board for the feature? In the time the short was made, she was probably getting more notoriety because of Stranger Things?
We actually cast her in the short after Stranger Things had premiered. She had told me she was a fan of Obvious Child and then liked the script, and we had her email because my producer had worked with her before, so that’s how we got her to do the short.
For the feature, I was obviously just like, “I’d love for you to come back,” and I sent her the script, and she said she loved it and she’d love to do it. So it was really sort of seamless, and I’m glad. I mean, I’m beyond thrilled, not just glad, that it worked out and that we were able to get her, because that was very important.
The film premiered at SXSW earlier in 2019, how were those screenings, was the film well received?
Great. SXSW is a great audience. They were really receptive. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of clapping. It was everything I could’ve hoped for, even though I was beyond nervous, insanely nervous. I’m really good at talking, like I get nervous before speaking in front of people, but as soon as I start talking, I’m fine. That’s why with a film premiere, it’s so excruciating for me, because you just have to sit there and observe and listen to people reacting, but once we got to the 20-minute mark, I was like, “Okay, this is going to be okay”.
It must be a nervous experience, as writer/director, watching the film back with an audience, did you sit in on every screening, all three of them?
I wasn’t in town for the third one, but I was sitting in on both one and two. I don’t know if I’ll keep doing that, but we’ll see. It is fun, though, to hear how people react and what jokes land. Sometimes jokes that you didn’t even think were funny, people laugh at, so it’s really interesting.
“Keep your shorts short people! Very important”
Did the short play SXSW as well?
It didn’t, no. The short premiered at Nashville Film Festival. As I mentioned early, the short was originally around 22-minutes long, and it wasn’t getting into the major festivals, so we were like, “What’s going on?” We cut it in half, and then it started getting in. So it was an important lesson learned. Keep your shorts short people! Very important.
Amen to that! You mentioned this earlier, and I just read an article about it, you’ve recently directed a pilot with Rose Matafeo, what can you tell us about the show and how you got involved?
I don’t know if there’s too much I can say at this point. All I know is, it is going to be produced by the BBC and a full series got picked up. We shot the pilot in February. Rose wrote it and stars in it, and she’s amazingly funny, one of those actors where you’re on set and you have to bite your lip off so you don’t blow the take because you want to laugh so hard. It was a really great experience. Rose is an amazing person to work with, and it’s going to be really great. I don’t know when the full series will be released, because it’s still being written at the moment. My agent hooked me up with it, so that’s how I got the job. I’m really glad they took a chance on me.
Anything else you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for? Any plans to return to short film?
Not at the moment, but maybe in the future. I love the short medium in film. I think you can do a lot of fun things. I know you saw this, because I think I saw it on your website, but Rob Savage’s short SALT was just like … It was so short! It’s two minutes, but it was so exciting to watch, and completely pulls you in and makes you feel a myriad of emotions in 120 seconds, which is insane. I’m constantly inspired by people like him and other filmmakers who are making shorts to keep doing them. There’s another short, I’m not going to remember the filmmaker’s name, but it was at Sundance, I think, in 2017 or 18… I think it’s called Lucia, Before and After?
Yeah! By Anu Valia – we featured that one as well
Again, what a great story to fit into a small narrative time! I’m very much keeping that in the forefront. At the moment though, I’m focused on trying to get my feature distributed, which is another fun process you get to do after you get financing and after you get a festival premiere. It just never stops. Independent film is a lot of fun! I’m going to keep writing. I’m working on a TV pilot about student loan debt, which will be a comedy, and another feature film that I’m starting to write. So hopefully more from me soon. But for now, I just want to get the feature picked up for distribution.
[update: Yes, God, Yes has now been picked up for international sales by Highland Film Group]
Well, fingers crossed. It’s a great film – I’d love to see it come to the UK, I think it would go down really well.
Thank you, yes. It’s very, very nerve wracking.
Ok, this has been great, thanks again. Wow! I’ve managed to do this whole conversation without drifting off to talk about Frasier
I forgot about that! I tell everyone I see that the callers are celebrity callers, because I didn’t know that until like a few months ago. That’s insane. Did you know that, watching it?
I didn’t. I mean I only found that out because of you and then I was just googling madly away afterwards. Seems so obvious once you know
I mean, my dad has pretty much disowned me because I told him that Frasier was better than Cheers.
Oh, well, it is. It is, I agree.
Yeah..OK…on that note, again, thank you so much.