LA Times: ‘Tanner Hall’ is a product of their differences

Filmmakers Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini are the children of famous parents and attended boarding school in England. But their film draws from their different experiences growing up.

There are many things that Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini have in common — but perhaps most particularly is the fact that they’re both the children of famous parents. Von Fürstenberg’s mother is fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg; Gregorini’s mother is onetime Bond girl Barbara Bach, who married Ringo Starr when Francesca was a teenager.

Both women were raised speaking Italian, and each attended a boarding school in England. Still, they say now, their formative years varied greatly. It was those differences as teens that led to their new film, “Tanner Hall,” a coming-of-age story that opened Friday about four girls set within the Ivy-covered walls of a boarding school.

Von Fürstenberg, 40, (officially known as Tatiana Desiree Prinzessin von Fürstenberg and whose father is the late fashion designer Prince Egon von Fürstenberg) was an attention-seeking provocateur who would flirt with nearly anyone to attract notice.

“I wanted to be a star,” she says, sitting beside Gregorini in the kitchen of her expansive home in the Los Feliz hills, where the pair’s respective dogs sauntered in and out. “When I got to middle school, I realized I could toy with my sexuality and get a lot of attention that way. I was such a tease; I would tease the gardener.”

Gregorini (whose full name is Countess Francesca McKnight Donatella Romana Gregorini di Savignano di Romagna — her father is businessman Augusto Gregorini) was far more reserved.

“I was discovering I was gay,” says the 43-year-old, who was once engaged to Portia de Rossi, before the “Ally McBeal” star left her to be with Ellen DeGeneres. “I’ve always kind of felt like an outsider, and I don’t know if I would attribute that to my sexuality, or to my parents being who they are. But I would do anything to get attention away from me. I hid behind my hair.”

Years later, after Von Fürstenberg and Gregorini met and became friends at Brown University, the duo traded stories about their high school reputations while on daily hikes with their pets. From those conversations came “Tanner Hall,” which the two co-wrote, directed and produced. The movie’s main characters embody both Gregorini’s struggle with her sexuality and Von Furstenberg’s flirtatiousness, among other characteristics. In the film, the girls rely upon and form rivalries with one another as they discover their sexuality.

Spearheading “Tanner Hall” was a challenging enterprise for the first-time filmmakers, they say. The film, which opened to tepid reviews, was shot in 2007 in Rhode Island over 27 days and was financed for less than $3 million mostly by former Nortek Chief Executive Richard Bready. Though the movie was screened at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, it was only recently acquired by the independent film distribution and production company Anchor Bay.

The filmmakers believe landing that deal has at least something to do with the rising popularity of the film’s young star, Rooney Mara, who will appear this December in the highly anticipated U.S. version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”

“‘Tanner Hall’ was certainly my first experience on a movie where I actually had something to do!” wrote Mara, whose character Fernanda gets involved with a married man, in a brief e-mail. “It was a very collaborative experience, which feels like a very long time ago now! But we all formed some really amazing friendships, and it’s an experience I will always remember very fondly.”

Gregorini, who is about to reteam with Mara on her next project, a psychological thriller that she wrote with the 26-year-old actress in mind, says not having a studio behind them “turned out to be a blessing. We had no one telling us, ‘Oh, you have to hire, like, the latest pop star.’ And now, with Rooney, we’re excited for what [her newfound popularity] brings to our film. It broadens our audience.”

Both women had embarked upon a variety of artistic pursuits before teaming on “Tanner Hall.” Von Fürstenberg, who suffers from the neuromuscular disorder myotonia, has been a pop singer and a journalist for the New York Daily News, opened the local boutique Steinberg and Sons, and directed the advertising campaign for her mother’s 2011 fall line. Gregorini, meanwhile, was one of the members of the band Mazzy Star and has sold a pilot to HBO.

It was former Beatle drummer Starr, Gregorini said, who often encouraged her to move away from music and explore work behind-the-camera.

“When I was doing both music and short films, he always encouraged my filmmaking more. I think he just genuinely thought that was where I was more gifted,” says Gregorini, who nonetheless still exudes a sort of casual rock-star vibe with her messy, long dark hair, motorcycle boots and tight tank top.

Von Fürstenberg’s iconic mother, meanwhile, said she made it a point not to weigh in too heavily on her daughter’s endeavors.

“When you grow up with a strong mother, I think it’s very important to make your identity on your own. I was cautioned about that,” Diane von Fürstenberg said recently of her daughter, via telephone from her New York office. “She was always very much her own person always.”

Indeed, while the elder Von Fürstenberg is credited with designing the school uniforms seen in the film, she was modest about her contributions to the project.

“The truth is that she did the costume design, I just applied things,” she insisted. “A lot of the clothes that are worn I think she found from my closet. We made the uniforms, but they were all conceived by her. I can take no creative credit on this movie, except for that I created her.”

Though it’s hard to tell now, the stresses of filmmaking, say Von Fürstenberg and Gregorini, nearly broke their relationship.

“At one point, I was like, ‘Francesca, our friendship is on high-risk,'” notes Von Fürstenberg, the bouncier and more talkative of the two women. “We couldn’t be codependent. It was not possible, because we had to service the project first. I just had to trust that we’d invested enough in our friendship that we could deal with everything after the production.”

Given the way they finish each other’s sentences — often laughing as they slip confidentially in and out of Italian — it’s clear they did.