• Rahul Patel

“Support the Girls” director on the pitfalls of optimism and the underrated Regina Hall

In Support the Girls, Lisa is a manager of a sports bar similar to Hooters where a particular type of service is expected from the all-female wait staff. Lisa has a continuous strength and inexplicable optimism. Her employees are her family and she makes herself responsible for the well-being of all those around her which becomes particularly important in the context of scantily clad waitresses and inappropriate customers. Support the Girls is an amusing and affectionate snapshot of Lisa’s life, during which she must contend with relationship problems, bad friends, and the complicated responsibilities of a manager.

Although yet to receive a UK release date, Support the Girls is receiving well-deserved recognition in America. At this early stage in the awards cycle, the film has been nominated at the Gotham Awards and Independent Spirit Awards. Andrew Bujalski is gaining attention for his poignant and emotionally efficient screenplay.

However, most noteworthy is Regina Hall’s performance as Lisa, which recently made her the first African-American woman to win the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress. Hall may be most recognisable for starring in the Scary Movie franchise, but her career is in a renaissance. Within the last two years, Hall has starred in Girls Trip and The Hate U Give as well as Emmy-nominated shows Black-ish and Insecure.

Whilst Support the Girls was showing at the London Film Festival, writer-director Andrew Bujalski joined us to talk about his inspirations for the setting and characters and how this film is specific to his outlook.

Where did the idea for this film come from?

“I live in Texas and there’s a number of these types of bars within a few miles of me. I walked into one of them maybe a decade ago and I didn’t know what to expect, but something about it surprised me and stuck with me. I certainly think they are uniquely American. There’s a raunchiness to it that’s wrapped in comfort and a sense of belonging. And I thought that was such an odd and American concept. There are so many contradictions built into that, that I found in some ways funny and in some ways sad.”

Is there any real-life experience that made you shape Lisa’s maternal character?

“I knew if I was going to write about this kind of place, I needed my way in. And for better or worse I was an outsider in these places. I couldn’t have the experience that a young woman working there would have. For that matter I couldn’t really have the experience of a regular customer would have because that’s not quite me either. I would love to see either of those people’s versions of this movie. It helped me come up with a character who was also something of an outsider because it’s not hers culturally.

“The maternal instincts and the nurturing she does is a type of character I’m always attracted to: the eternal optimist and the wilful optimist, even as everything crashes around them. Even as they create trouble by being optimistic, which ultimately ended up being a narrative drive of the whole movie.”

What was it like bringing Regina Hall onto the project and working with her?

“It was thrilling. Hers was a name that had come up early and I was certainly intrigued by her. Not everyone knows her yet and that’s changing. I met with her for the first time when she was just wrapping Girls Trip and she generously invited me along to the wrap party which I’m sure I’ll tell my grandchildren I was at.

“A director is always doing these calculations in the back of their minds. You’re projecting the character on to them and vice versa, and just in the course of having coffee with her I started getting very excited about what she would bring to Lisa. I think there are certain actors who are hard workers and technically great. And there are certain actors you know are going to bring the right spirit to it. With Regina it was the tone that it needed to be. I couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator.”

How was directing and shooting Support the Girls different to the experience of working on your previous films?

“There were very few, what I consider, scenes in the movie. There were so many things you had to do in one take and there was a lot of choreography: you walk over here, he says this to you, just as you’re about to answer this person comes in from here and says this, because Lisa hardly gets a moment to breathe. In some ways it was much more technical to shoot, which made me nervous.”

Did all these story details come from your imagination? Or did you meet any of these types of women?

“I talked to them. When there was a good detail, I stole it. But a lot of it is from imagination. A place like this works by unspoken social agreement. A lot of the story came from imagining little places where that contract could break down, places where one waitress approaches her job differently than another. One customer has a different idea about what kind of service they’re supposed to be getting.”

You wouldn’t have been interested in them playing themselves?

“I would have. It would have been a very different movie. And that’s another movie I would love to see. By bizarre coincidence the closed-down restaurant we shot in was next door to an actual functioning Twin Peaks, which is a big chain of these types of restaurants in the States. That was very daunting because we only had to walk a few feet across the parking lot to see the real thing. There was also this awareness that we’re through the looking glass. It pains me a bit to say this but a part of me wishes I were just making a documentary across the parking lot. But this was a different kind of film with different motivations and goals.”

My take on the movie was that this is like a very subdued and very restrained comedy. I wonder if the cinematographic choices reflected that tone.

“I think so. The cinematographer is Matthias Grunsky, who I’ve done six movies with. We certainly know each other very well now and we communicate mostly by grunting. So, at this point I think of him as my eyes. I think ‘subdued and restrained comedy’ is how I would define my time one earth.”

There is a sense of family between the female employees of this film. As a director on set, do you feel a responsibility to make sure that the atmosphere amongst the cast and crew made the women feel safe?

“Personally, I have a low threshold for stress and anxiety and the sorts of people that create stress and anxiety. The producers I work with have a good instinct for trying to bring in people who are going to be good to other people. That said, it’s a stressful environment by its nature. You’re always working long hours. There is this kind of summer camp family environment and you hope everyone is having a fun experience. But we just did our best to look everyone in the eye and let them know what we were here to do and what kind of behaviours would and wouldn’t be tolerated.”

How do you keep motivation consistent throughout the whole project?

“My wife is a novelist and every day she goes and sits in her office and it’s just her versus the page. I don’t know how she does it. I go through a very brief period of that as a screenwriter and from then on I’m surrounded by people. And that’s what keeps me going, drawing from the energy of the people. And you try to remember the original inspiration, but if you have Regina Hall standing in front of you giving you so much, that builds a momentum.

“You have to love what you’re doing. Even if it’s just through love of watching and making movies. What scares me as I get older is that I have to think of this as more as a career. I started doing this just because I was a very enthusiastic young man who really loved movies. And there’s always the fear that as you get older you have to make decisions to keep paying your mortgage. But what if some day you have to do something that isn’t motivated by love? But I’m not there yet.”

This article was originally published at beaveronline.co.uk.

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