The writer-director team make their directorial debut with this boarding school drama, available on Blu-ray and DVD December 13.
Filmmakers Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg made their writing and directing debuts with Tanner Hall, which arrives on Blu-ray and DVD December 13. The film also marks the feature debut of Rooney Mara, who starred as Fernanda long before her roles in A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I recently had the chance to speak with Francesca Gregorini and Tatiana von Furstenberg over the phone about their directorial debut. Here’s what they had to say below.
It seems like this had quite a road from inception to completion. Can you talk about the first kernel of an idea you had for this, and when you started writing it?
Francesca Gregorini: Well, Tatiana and I are best friends, and we have been ever since we met at Brown. Tatiana was 16 when she arrived, so it’s been a long journey. We share a similar background. Both of our fathers are Italian, we both went to boarding school in England, so we both have the same sort of background. The actual inception came with, Tatiana is very much a storyteller, probably the best storyteller I know. We walk our dogs together every day, and I think on one of our hikes, Tatiana was telling me, probably for the 14th time, some tale from boarding school. It just occurred to me that we should write a screenplay together, because we had shot so many short films together already, I just thought let’s take it to the next level, and write a feature. That was the inception. We went away together the next weekend, and basically did the outline, and became what our friends referred to as ‘writers on bed-rest.’ We spent, basically, the next three or four months in Tatiana’s huge bed, with the computers going back and forth between us. There you pretty much have Tanner Hall.
I’m always interested to hear about the process for writing partners. I’m always curious how that process works for different people.
Tatiana von Furstenberg: If Francesca and I were just writing partners, and we just met to become writing partners, it would’ve been very, very different. I think because we’ve experienced decades of life together, our shorthand and point of view, what we’ve seen, the people we know, the journey that each of us have watched each other go through, it’s just so automatic.
Rooney is becoming this huge star now, but she was very much an unknown then. Can you talk a bit about discovering her, and what you saw in her that made you feel she was right to play Fernanda?
Francesca Gregorini: She originally came in to play Lucasta, which is a smaller role in the film, and she totally nailed it, so we were like, ‘OK, she definitely has that.’ Then we kept hunting for Fernanda, which is the main focal point, or the character through which the tale is told. It’s an important part and it kind of carries the whole film. We just couldn’t find that girl, and it just occurred to us that we should look at Rooney for that. We called her back in for the role of Fernanda, and there’s just something quite magical about her, and she has such a rich internal life, and so much going on behind her eyes. She’s talking to you and saying one thing, but you’re seeing a whole world going on inside of her. I think it just occurred to us that’s really what we needed in the character Fernanda, because she has so much going on internally. Rooney was just the right choice for that, and I think she was quite nervous about taking on that role, because she was never the lead in any film. I don’t know if she’d ever done a film before. It was quite challenging for her, but she’s such a natural. We took a chance on her, and her on us, and it really paid off.
When she was on board, were you telling her stories about your own experiences, to get her into the character? Can you talk about how you helped her craft this character Fernanda?
Tatiana von Furstenberg: I feel like Francesca and I were very, very in touch with the universe. When we saw Amy Ferguson, we knew we had Lucasta. You have to be flexible. Rooney, in terms of directing her, I think that because we included the characters in every decision. I could tell that she was as equally inspired by us as we were by her, and I could tell it was very, very important that the adjectives we chose, and even when we were on set, I could tell that she was being a conduit to our friendship and our past and our stories and the world we were trying to create. She was always watching, like what color I was going to choose for her room, what kind of animal cut-outs, all of it. She was very much a conduit because, the thing with her, she’s not attention-starved at all. She has a natural poise and reserve. She gives very little, but you can tell that she’s growing and transforming and she’s inspired, and she reflects it back to you, in a restrained, but very deep and courageous way.
I also read that her wardrobe was kind of modeled after yours, Tatiana, and your sense of style. Was that planned from the beginning, or did it just kind of evolve as you were going through the production?
Francesca Gregorini: We didn’t have much money in our budget for costumes, so I think necessity dictated some of that. Also, Tatiana has such amazing style, and it’s not contemporary, store-bought. It’s really pieced together from her travels and her grandmother. We wanted to make a world that was timeless, so the clothing and the hairstyles and the furniture and the music is from five different decades. Tatiana’s wardrobe, in particular, really came in handy for that, because it naturally encompasses all her hand-me-downs, and it’s so beautiful. We were really quite lucky.
Tatiana von Furstenberg: I think Francesca and I both share point of view. When you’re creating a world, and you need it to be unified, we definitely knew we wanted the story to be folkloric. By making it folkloric, then we could make the story about anyone, anywhere. Sometimes I’d look through the monitor and I’d be like, ‘Oh my God. This could be set in Russia like 40 years ago.’ I think because I’m not a consumer, I’ve never been a consumer, I feel like even the color palate was so true to us. It was so organic and everybody already belonged to us. It already had a history. You have to honor the wear and the imperfections and the history of these things, and use them to express your point of view. We hope that the costumes express the internal lives of the characters as well.
Can you talk a bit about your journey through the festival circuit, and how it finally came to this release by Anchor Bay. Were you approached by people who wanted to change the movie at all?
Tatiana von Furstenberg: We were really lucky. We took a long time with this movie. We had three weeks of pre-production, and we shot it in 24 days. Then we just made it during the editing process, because we really wanted to step back and find our story. Then we took a lot of time with the musical elements, because we didn’t have a production company or a studio supporting us, we were learning how to do it as we went. It was all coming from within us, and within our partnership. I think when we got accepted to Toronto in competition, it was the first time that we were validated. That was huge for us. The cast was amazing and, like I said, we didn’t have a production company, so everyone literally flew themselves out, Tom Everett Scott, Chris Kattan, Amy Sedaris, all of our girls, everybody just paid for themselves. Toronto was amazing. We had the entire cast, and we were in front of 1,500 people in that amazing theater. It was great. Then, after that, it was a year where not many sales were made. I don’t think any sales were made in Toronto, but it was OK because we got to hang on to our equity. It was ours to cherish and ours to make every decision about.
Francesca Gregorini: I think because we didn’t have a studio pushing us, the great part about that is, creatively, we got to make our decisions, including casting all virtually unknowns for the girls, decisions which really behooved the film and the story we wanted to tell. There were a lot of first-timers, behind-the-scenes as well, so we were all learning as we went, so it took a lot longer. It also happened upon a year when the economy took a total nose-dive and nothing sold. So it took us a little bit longer, but I wouldn’t trade that time, that extra time that it took, for anything.
Tatiana von Furstenberg: It’s not only that, but Tanner Hall is literally the movie that could. We made every single decision for who to play what, not based on any business strategy, but who truly and authentically would be the right person for this. We were frugal, we had to stretch every dollar, but in the end, it paid off because we still had our movie when Rooney was cast in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Anchor Bay turned out to be the perfect distributor for us. Now we had an asset that wasn’t just viable, which we knew to some degree because it had been in competition in Toronto, but we were always told when we were trying to see it that we had a commercial movie, but we didn’t have a star in our leading role. Suddenly, almost as if it was magic, we had a star in our leading role. It was incredible. We had a great cast, and they gave us their time for so little, and Francesca and I wanted to honor all of that. We have to honor their performances, even through the music and all other aspects. It was like a miracle, but there were a lot of miracles on this production. Our budget was so small, but the production value of the movie makes it look so rich.
What would you like to say to anyone who’s curious about Tanner Hall about why they should pick it up on Blu-ray or DVD?
Tatiana von Furstenberg: I think that what Francesca and I really wanted to do was create an artful movie. I think the things to look out for, to really pay attention to the elements like the music, the performances, the cast, the location, the costume design, the photography, we tried so hard to keep all of those elements artful. I think this is also a movie that doesn’t submit to any of the teen stereotypes. There’s no materialism, there’s no trends. They are actually all really strong and they all find their own way and emerge as strong women. It’s from within. They’re not reactive. They’re very internal and strong and they’re all quite different from within. I think that’s an important thing to communicate. I have a 12-year-old daughter, and I can watch this with her and reflect those values and what I hope for her, which is that she’ll be adventurous, but she’ll look within to know what’s right and wrong.
Francesca Gregorini: I think, from what we’ve seen, this film has appealed to a large audience, but I really hope that young girls or young women get a chance to see it. I think there are few female filmmakers, writer-directors, and movies written by women, about women. I think it’s genuine and Tatiana and I had, in one incarnation or another, many of those experiences. I think it’s a genuine piece, I think it has a lot of heart, and I hope it’s inspiring to girls.
Tatiana von Furstenberg: I think the relationship we had with the girls, the fact that we are two directors and friends, I think the trust from them that we got comes through in their performances. I think it’s interesting to watch.
Excellent. Well, that’s my time. Thanks so much for talking to me. It was a real pleasure.
Tatiana von Furstenberg: Thank you so much.
Francesca Gregorini: Thank you.