Michelle Ehlen is a cinematic jack (or should we say jill?)
of all trades. For her debut feature, Butch Jamie, she wrote, directed, produced,
starred and edited the film, which centers on the adventures of a struggling
butch lesbian actress in L.A.
who lands a male role and runs with it. Shot on a shoestring budget in upstate
New York, the film landed Ehlen Best Actress accolades at the 2007 Outfest film
festival in L.A., and the laughter of just about everyone in queer festival
audiences around the country.
We had a chance to chat with the talented filmmaker about
the finicky nature of the creative process, how butch vs. femme lesbians are
represented onscreen, and how she found the greatest cat actor this side of Homeward Bound.
can you give me a little background: How did you go from your initial interest
in film to making your first feature, Butch
Michelle Ehlen: OK,
well, a few years ago, I went to the L.A.
and made some short films, and studied directing and writing. The next thing I
wanted to do in terms of my filmmaking career was to write a feature film. So,
basically, I took a bunch of ideas — I actually wrote another script first that
was a period piece, and that was way too expensive to do on my own.
So, I was trying to think of a concept that I could
basically do for a limited amount of money that would be a good sort of first
project to start with. I did a short film a little while ago called Ballet Diesel, which was a comedy. I’ve
done both comedies and dramas, but when I was thinking about my first feature,
I really wanted to do a comedy because I just think they’re a lot of fun. What
I ended up doing with the project was I just pulled from different aspects of
my life as a butch lesbian and struggling with my career, even though I’m not
pursuing an acting career like Jamie — I’m more pursuing a writing/directing
career — but I was acting a little bit and dealing with some gender biases in
AE: So you wrote,
produced, directed, starred in — and edited the movie. Must’ve been exhausting.
What was the hardest part out of all those roles?
ME: I think
writing is the hardest, just because I find it really difficult, even when you
have a good idea, and you see in your mind how it could work and be good — I
find it a very hard process to actually put it down on paper in a way that
makes sense for people. You’ll get it all down on paper and look at it and say,
“This is total crap.” You know what I mean? [laughs]
You have to be over that plateau and that’s not always easy.
I’m working on another script right now… I was
kind of hoping that the writing process would get easier, and maybe it will,
but I think it’s one of the hardest things. Because with editing, for example,
you have the script to work with. And with editing, you have the footage to
work with. With writing, it’s just like, out in the air; it can be anything or
nothing, you know? So, I find that the most difficult part.
AE: The movie’s been
described as the butch lesbian version of Tootsie—
were those nods to the earlier movie intentional?
ME: It wasn’t a
very strong influence. I knew it was similar — just like the basic idea of
acting and dressing as somebody else. I didn’t approach a project saying, “Oh,
I’m going to make the butch lesbian version of Tootsie” — it wasn’t any kind of guiding motivator. A lot of
reviewers saw that, but I guess from my standpoint … it had
some similarities, but it was also very different. In terms of the basic
premise and idea, how gender and how people perceive her and categorize her and
put her in these boxes — and she’s not making the choice, whereas Dustin
Hoffman’s character chose to cross-dress to get work.
Also, I put a lot of my own experiences into the film, being
a butch lesbian, and people perceiving me a certain way, or thinking I should
be a certain way, and struggling with that sort of gender issue. So for me,
it’s almost a very personal story.
AE: How did you ever
find Howard the Cat? He was fantastic.
ME: [laughs] We
were actually really lucky. Howard was my cat — my girlfriend at the time and I
[shared the] cat, and Jamie and Lola’s apartment was where we lived with him.
So, 90 percent of the cat’s scenes were shot where he lived, in his home, and
that really made it work. I mean, it was a really low-budget film: We shot in
upstate New York,
we weren’t by a major city, we had our friends help out on the production, so
it wasn’t like a production where we would get a professional cat actor with an
animal trainer, you know what I mean?
But it worked out really well, because the cat was in his
own home, so he was really comfortable. He wasn’t so much comfortable with Lola
— we tried, but he didn’t like Lola holding him a whole lot. Some things were
easy, some things worked, sometimes we had to try things with catnip, but for
the most part, he was pretty good. The only scene [with the cat] that we didn’t
shoot at the house was the audition scene with Jamie and Howard, and we knew it
would work because in the audition scene, the cat is supposed to be
uncomfortable and not know what was going on, and running away. And because I
was acting in the scene with him, and he’s so comfortable with me, he let me
really kind of toss him around — and he would never have let anyone else do
that with him… He
actually has a pretty big part. [laughs] You never see cats in that big of a
AE: Especially with
the demo reel — that was amazing!
ME: [laughs] Oh,