Deb Shoval on writing and directing “AWOL”

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After gushing about AWOL in a recent review, I was thrilled to speak with the movie’s out writer-director, Deb Shoval, ahead of her appearance at Frameline for the movie’s screening in San Francisco.

Tribeca Film Festival 2016 Portrait Studio - Day 2 Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival 

AWOL sees recent high school grad Joey (Lola Kirke) falling in love with the lively but married Rayna (Breeda Wool) in rural Pennsylvania. I asked Deb about the importance of small town Pennsylvania to this story, what these characters’ motivations were, what’s next for her and more.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

AfterEllen.com: This film started off as a very well-received short. Can you tell me about the journey from short to feature?

Deb Shoval: We made AWOL the short film in January 2010 in a very, very snowy couple of days in northeast Pennsylvania, which is where I grew up. It was really just a small little project. At that time, it was not intended to be like a calling card for a feature film. It was just its own little story. And then that short film got into Sundance. So I started sort of playing with what it would be like to really expand it. Because the short film really feels to me like act two and act three of a feature kind of condensed. But it was missing all of the act one. How did Rayna and Joey fall in love? What was happening in Joey’s life before that? Why does Joey join the army? It sort of didn’t answer any of those beginning of the story questions. So Karolina Waclawiak and I got together and wrote a script for the feature, which was also a great opportunity to really expand on the characters. So the mother became much more of a three-dimensional character. I kind of played with Joey’s stepfather, which became actually her brother-in-law and became a real character and someone she’s very close with. And so that was the beginning of it, was just writing a longer script that I felt answered a lot more questions.

AE: You not only chose to tell a small town love story, but you paid special attention to getting the details right. You now telling me you’re from that part of the U.S. makes a lot of sense. But as you probably know, we don’t often see small towns at the center of queer cinema. When we do, they’re not usually as important to the overall feel of the movie as is the case with yours. As a storyteller, why was small town America so vital to your vision for the film?

DS: I’m from that area, as I said, and it’s an old coal area. The coal industry actually has not been around for decades, but it’s very much still what the identity of the area is. I think post-industrial America, in general, is very interesting because we have so many things happening in this country at the same time. There are places like San Francisco, where there’s so much prosperity, and then there are these post-industrial parts of the Northeast where people have really been struggling for generations at this point, without any new industry. So Joey’s very much from this working class family and Rayna is really from nearby but this more rural, Appalachian poverty. Those kinds of nuances were interesting to me to share because it’s where I’m from. I wanted the landscape and the place to really be a character of its own, which I think comes through. From what I’m hearing from audiences, it really does come through.

Deb and Breeda Wool at Sundance in 2011Shorts Program V - 2011 Sundance Film Festivalvia Getty 

AE: Joey is so young and does have some options ahead of her in terms of an education and a career, yet she wants to take care of this woman and her kids. What’s that come down to for her?

DS: I think through and through Joey is a good girl. She wants her mother to be happy. She wants to please everyone. And when she falls for Rayna, Rayna becomes the person that she’s trying to please. It’s very much, I think, about first love and the way we’ll sort of do anything for the person we’re in love with. And also I think it’s about how do we make decisions. In a broader sense, it’s about what are the choices that young people in this country have and don’t have and what decisions do they make as a result. But definitely, Joey is very much affected not only by her class background and the opportunities she has as a result, but also by just being madly in love.

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