“The Foxy Merkins” director Madeleine Olnek on making a lesbian comedy

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Comedies are some of the highest grossing films each year, so why aren’t more lesbian-themed films funny? Our stories are most often presented as dramas, and sometimes humorous elements creep in, but the central theme is one of longing, love lost or sweeping romance. Which is great, of course, but our lives are not serious, all the time. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, many of us enjoy laughing, even at ourselves.

Director Madeleine Olnek is one of those women, and she knows that we are looking for some comic relief. In her second feature film, The Foxy Merkins, the premise itself is hilarious. Inspired by years of male hustler films like My Private Idaho and Romantic Cowboy, she wanted to make a buddy film about lesbian hookers.

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“Seeing these very romantic, very beautiful male hustler stories in movies and how adventurous they were and just feeling very excluded from that experience,” she said. “So I always thought it would be funny to have a female world where these lesbian hookers were picked up by housewives and republican women and it was presented like it really happened.”

In The Foxy Merkins, Lisa Haas stars as Margaret, a shy new woman on the block who meets Jo, an experienced straight hooker who sleeps with women for the cash. The actors were part of Madeleine’s first feature, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, and while at Sundance for the premiere, Madeleine got the idea they would be the perfect combo for her lesbian hooker buddy comedy.

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“[They] were making a really funny video-cast, Live from Sundance!, and they were sitting outside the venue on main street in Park City and they were being so funny talking about how much sex they had at Sundance while they were on the shuttle’s between the cinema venues,” Madeleine said. “And they really didn’t know each other and they hadn’t been in scenes together but to see them working together, even though it was silly circumstance, I thought they’d be a perfect odd-couple, and they seem to have this natural chemistry.”

The chemistry is part of what makes The Foxy Merkins so enjoyable. Margaret is lovable and naive while Jo is blunt and fearless. Together they work the streets of New York City and find shelter in a bathroom where Jo hides tequila and Margaret sleeps on the floor under a sheet of plastic.

In a case of interesting timing, another lesbian hooker film was being made at the same time as The Foxy Merkins. Concussion, from out director Stacie Passon, was also set and filmed in 2013 in New York.

“That was very weird, to be honest,” Madeleine said. “At our Q&As when people ask us, ‘What are you working on?’ and we said, ‘Normally people don’t talk about it, but we’re working on a lesbian hooker film because no one would ever steal this idea because they would have to actually make the film.’ And meanwhile, all along people were making their idea, their film.”

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The only overlap, though, is a tiny tidbit about former first lady and noted lesbian icon Eleanor Roosevelt. “We have a joke about Eleanor Roosevelt, and I saw that their Sundance website description and their lead was [named] Eleanor,” Madeleine said. “I was like, ‘I’m not gonna cut that joke from my movie!’ But there’s a legal term, I can’t remember, it’s basically when people are working in the world of the same idea, there might be crossover. You think about a prostitute and someone who is sexy, like the last person [you think of ] is Eleanor Roosevelt.”

Despite the odd coincidence of two lesbian hooker films coming out around the same time, Concussion and The Foxy Merkins couldn’t be more different.

“I do think drama and comedy couldn’t be farther from each other,” Madeleine said. “They’re two different views on the world. So we would have been in trouble if they were doing a lesbian comedy about an unusual friendship. … I think [Concussion] is more about the challenges of being in a long term relationship and keeping passion alive. Ours is about how women are socialized to express their sexuality. And thats where the comedy come from. It’s hilarious to see women buying sex from other women on the streets. It’s funny because we’re trained not to express ourselves that way and that where the comedy come from knowing the differences between things that men are given and women are denied.”

Stars Lisa and Jackie co-wrote the film with Madeleine, and Lisa commits to the comedy fully, even getting accosted by the police while in the nude, twice. The camera is focused on her naked body for at least two minutes both times. It isn’t gratuitous at all and proves to be some of the funniest moments in the film.

“Well as soon as I had the idea for [the] scenes, I talked to Lisa. I said, ‘Look Lisa, I want to ask if you’ll be naked in the movie. It’s a giant wide shot and you’ll be totally naked. Will you do it?’ and she was just sort of like, “Yeah, OK…’ in a way where she thought, ‘Oh my life has come to this,'” Madeleine said. “But Lisa is a great actor and she is so present. It’s such an important scene. …As a writer, she didn’t say no either.”

One thing Madeleine finds annoying is when people say how “brave” Lisa is for performing the scenes. “We find it insulting,” Madeleine said. “Like when Charlize Theron takes off her clothes no one talks about how ‘brave’ she is. So that whole idea of presenting an alternative to showing different kinds of women bodies and its seen as, its shocking in a way how limited the presentations of women we see on screen are and one of the things that’s great about The Foxy Merkins is that we have all these kick ass downtown actresses in it that are so great. They have a skill set that are really finely honed and the kind of actress that you don’t even see in a lot of independent films, which are leaning on television actors now.”

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The Foxy Merkins has so many great lines and situations and the talent to carry them that anyone could enjoy the film, LGBT or otherwise. In a time when people are still asking if women are funny, it’s proof that yes, there are some truly dumb questions.

“The thing that I know is how funny lesbians are,” Madeleine said. “When I started doing women’s theater at the WOW Cafe (in the downtown NY theater scene), the main expression was comedy and people were really, really funny. I couldn’t keep up. It was shocking to me the level of humor, and when Ellen DeGeneres went on TV, I felt like she was as funny as so many women who I knew. I think that statement, when someone says something like that—anyone—what they’re saying is that they’re expressing a combination of hatred and guilt.

“I think that the only other thing I would say is that joke, ‘How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? That’s not funny!’ —that joke is talking about how having women, feminists and lesbians point out something offensive that [someone] said, and because so many people have no idea about how much misogyny is embedded in our daily language. That’s why when someone says, ‘That’s not funny’ it comes out of nowhere, because they don’t understand what it’s in reference to. So thats the stereotypes of lesbians being hostile people but it’s not hostile if you understand what people are talking about, then its interesting. Then you can have real conversations, and it’s not hostility coming out of nowhere, it’s better understanding.”

The Foxy Merkins was an official selection of Sundance 2014 and an Independent Spirit Award nominee. It will be available on  iTunes and Hulu in 2015.

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