Back in 2008, we posted episodes of Joni & Susanna, the WB web series written by and starring real life BFFs Joni Lefkowitz and Susana Fogel. After that introduction, the two have moved on to work on several projects together, including the upcoming ABC Family series Chasing Life and the play-turned-film Life Partners, which has had some exciting developments since we last spoke with Joni in 2011.
Two years ago, Amanda Walsh and Shannon Woodward starred in the stage version of Life Partners. From our review:
In the opening scene the two are at a pride parade, where Paige (not a lesbian) drunkenly declares that she will not get married until Sasha can too. This is all hypothetical of course, as neither woman is in a relationship. Years pass and Paige falls in love with a man. When he pops the question she says “yes,” and then remembers her pledge. When she told her fiance they will have to wait for Prop 8 to be overturned before they can wed, the whole audience laughed, possibly not for the same reasons. So they wait. And wait. Sound familiar? Finally the man can wait no more and Paige is forced to tell Sasha it’s go time. Instead of apologizing, she rationalizes the decision, saying her marriage has no effect on Sasha’s rights, or lack thereof.
The film version took a while to get going but had some help from Sundance’s writing and producing labs, which Joni and Susanna applied for along with producer Jordana Mollick.
(From L to R) Joni, Susanna and stars Gillian Jacobs and Leighton Meester
“We’ve had a lot of Sundance support to try to get financing,” Joni said, and after attending an independent film convention they were able to secure the money to get it made. “It all came together, for once in our lives.”
Initially they were interested in Kristen Bell for the role of Sasha, and had a table read with her in December, but then she got pregnant. “And we were also interested in Evan Rachel Wood who has been awesome to us and been attached to our projects for years even though they haven’t gotten made,” Joni said. “She was interested in the lesbian role but she also got pregnant.”
Kristen Bell and Lizzy Caplan doing a Sundance reading of “Life Partners”
Because it is a smaller film, Joni said they wanted to find people “who really loved and were into the parts.” “For the characters it’s important to have people that are enthusiastic about it so it feels real,” she said. “And then we found out Leighton Meester was interested and we love her, and we had no idea she would be interested in this kind of movie. She was ready to do something way more down to earth than Gossip Girl and she’s been incredible. I think she’s going to be a real revelation in this movie.”
Leighton plays the lesbian character, Sasha, and Joni said “She’s the cutest little lesbian ever!” On set Leighton joked she was ready to play a lesbian after having to wear uncomfortable stilettos on Gossip Girl for years.
Gillian Jacobs plays Leighton’s engaged BFF, and Adam Brody is her fiancee. Also in the film are Gabourey Sideibe and Beth Dover, both playing gay.
“Sasha has two best friends named Jen and Jenn, because there’s so many lesbians named Jen for so many inexplicable reasons. Gabourey is playing Jen with one n and Beth Dover is playing the other Jenn.”
Out lesbian Kate McKinnon has a cameo, too, playing someone from Joni’s real life dating follies.
“When I was single I dated online and had some really funny stories of girls I’d meet online,” Joni said, “and the most notorious one is played by Kate McKinnon.”
Life Partners is based on Joni and Susanna’s friendship after Joni met her partner and got married. But for the film, they switched it up a little bit.
“The whole movie is kind of inspired by my friendship with Susana and how you have a romantic relationship with your best friend before you meet your romantic partner and how that really can’t coexist with your other relationship and how it feels like a sad break up,” Joni said. “A lot of people reading it found they relate to it and had that same experience. It made us feel less depressed about that. It’s just part of growing up and you just have to redefine your friendship and it doesn’t make it any less important. Things change. It’s kind of a sad thing and what a lot of people experience.”
To be more “movie-like,” the straight friend is the one getting hitched, which also brings in some politically-tinged ideas about hetero couples who say they won’t get married until their LGBT friends can, as Paige promises Sasha early on. But Joni said that’s not really a part of the film.
“We sort of de-emphasize any political angle to the movie. It’s not really the point. It’s a catalyst for the ultimate fight between the two friends. We’re not making a statement whether people should be doing this or not,” she said.
Filming is not quite done yet, though, as the last sequence will be shot during Long Beach Pride this month. Like the play, the film opens with a Gay Pride scene. And after its completed, Joni hopes a Sundance premiere is in the film’s future.
“There are no guarantees, but they’re more inclined to accept us, hopefully,” Joni said. If that happens, Joni and Susanna will be busy in January with both the opening of Life Partners and the premiere of Chasing Life on ABC Family. Sounds like their romantic partnership is only going to get better.