(Spoiler Alert) – The film tells the story of a dysfunctional family who is gathering to hear the last will and testament of their dying Aunt Irene. Irene, played by Marion Ross, is a domineering, judgmental, old fashioned woman who values appearances more than the love of her own family. The fear that the nieces and nephews feel towards their aunt sets the tone for the direction of the movie. Serena, played by Magda Apanowicz, is the young lesbian counterpart to Aunt Irene. Their strong assertive personalities clash while trying to fully understand each other. Nathan, played by Nick Eversman, is the controlling, manipulative brother to Serena who uses her struggles with depression and self deprecation to advance his financial aspirations within Aunt Irene’s Will. Chris (Ron Melendez) is the older half brother to Serena and takes care to ensure that everyone is getting along, he’s the peacemaker, but inside is hiding his own failings as a husband and a brother. Bianca (Madeleine Falk) is Chris’s wife whom Nathan and Serena have had clashes with throughout the years and do not get along, throughout the movie you find out that Bianca is going through issues of her own and that her and Serena have much more in common than they once thought.
Aunt Irene was a tough character to like and that was the point, Ross played Aunt Irene as the overbearing domineering judgmental old bitter woman that she was and she did it with undying class. As the movie went on you actually felt yourself feeling sorry for the woman and in a way able to relate to her losing her youth and facing down death for the first time in her life. Irene’s idea of mending fences is that everyone should agree with her and call it a day, but her daughter Annabelle played by Hart had other ideas. Annabelle married Serena’s father, a man that Irene did not approve of and Irene has since disowned her daughter and treated Serena as if she were trash. Seeing the broken relationship between the two was a gut wrenching experience, Serena was carrying so much weight you could understand her fragile emotional state and how she could contemplate suicide.
Schilling is fantastic at capturing a scene — she used the location as another character in the movie, the house that belonged to Irene was as old fashioned as the woman herself. It’s as if she’d been living in a time capsule and someone forgot to tell her that life had moved on without her. Everything had its place just as Irene liked it and where she wanted it and her family was the same, they were like statues on her mantel. Dominique was born into a family of creativity, received her BA in English/Writing, Summa Cum Laude and eventually went to film school at the New York Film Academy. She’s traveled all over the world and used her experiences to develop her stories. Schilling has written 6 feature-length screenplays and has directed 3 short films, a documentary and a feature film. Her films “Business As Usual”, “Breaking with Tradition”, and “A Black Lie” have screened in festivals all over the globe, receiving best documentary and best director nominations. She won the award for “Best Feature Writer” for her feature film “A Reason” at the LA Femme Film Festival in 2014. She also directs international commercials and music videos. Her next feature film “Little Girl, Big Eyes” is currently in development under Risberg Schilling Productions, with Caroline Risberg as producer, which she is set to direct in 2015.
I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with these two powerful and talented women and being a big fan of Happy Days and being named after Erin Moran it was an honor to be able to speak with Marion Ross.
Interview with Dominique Schilling
Erin P. Capuano: I guess my first and main question is where did the inspiration come from to write this script?
Dominique Schilling: A friend of mine who is an architect, told me about a villa in the Pacific Palisades that was going to be torn down and that would present itself as a great location to shoot a film. When I walked through the house, the story just came to me. In my personal life I was fed up at the time with behavioral patterns that repeated themselves. The film was therapeutic for me, even though it’s complete fiction.
Erin P. Capuano: Marion seemed like the perfect fit for this part, did you see her as Aunt Irene from the start and if so how did you go about getting her on the project?
Dominique Schilling: I didn’t have anyone specific in mind for the role of Aunt Irene. Marion Ross was the idea of casting director Michael Sanford and casting associate Alex Christopoulos. My producer Caroline Risberg and I really loved the idea, so her agent gave her the script, she read it, said yes and signed. We feel very fortunate. She was amazing as Aunt Irene.
Erin P. Capuano: Magda Apanowicz was excellent as Serena and to see her character develop as the movie progressed I thought was a powerful message, she and Irene mirrored one another in a lot of ways. Both characters began one way, but strongly developed throughout the story, was this planned or like most stories did it happen organically as you were writing?
Dominique Schilling: A lot of the story developed as I was writing, however the characters were very clear to me from the beginning on. In the film, I deal with the topic of prejudices against the elderly and against gay teens. Since Aunt Irene is dying from cancer and young Serena has tried to commit suicide, they could both give each other hope. Both have or are facing death. A topic many people don’t like to talk about. It is somewhat of an irony. On one hand we have Aunt Irene who would give anything to live and on the other hand we have young Serena, who wanted to die, even though she has her whole life ahead of her. I believe that we can learn a lot from the elderly, but we can also empower the young, if we just listen to them. Sometimes that’s all they need, someone who listens, takes them seriously and understands the reality of their depression. It’s the first step towards life and healing.
Erin P. Capuano: The character of Serena was gay, but it was secondary to her as a person and wasn’t stressed all that much in the movie; however do you think it was part of why she was as lost and depressed as she was?
Dominique Schilling: In my mind, Serena is cracking under the pressure and mental abuse her brother subjects her to. Abusive relationships happen in families as well as in romantic settings. When there is someone who is close to you and whose opinion you value, you basically give them a sense of power over you. This can be a very positive thing, but it can also be emotionally damaging in the moment that person abuses that closeness and influence they have on you. In the story, Nathan puts Serena down until she feels worthless. It happens a lot to teenagers who feel different and who are still trying to find their place in the world. Her being gay is not the reason for her suicide attempt, but it might contribute to her feeling of being “different”. I wanted to tell a story that has a Lesbian main character, without making that aspect of her the main focus of the film. People are gay, straight, etc, but it’s not our sole identity. We are more than our sexuality and should not be reduced to it by society.
Erin P. Capuano: Do you see Serena as sending a message to gay youth, the scene between Serena and her mother when her mother says she’s proud of her was very emotional.
Dominique Schilling: Oh absolutely! I want LGBT teens to know that they are loved. There’s a whole world out there for them. A future. A bright future. They are in charge of it, if they learn to accept themselves and take life by the horns. Whether society accepts them or not, there’s a whole community for them that will embrace them and be proud of them. They are not alone. I believe in our next generation. It breaks my heart every time I hear that a young gay teen committed suicide or was rejected by their families. The scene between Serena and her mother is also sending a message to LGBT parents. The mother tells Serena in the scene that she is proud of her daughter. It’s an example of all the great parents that do accept their kids no matter their sexual or gender identity. I applaud those parents. My parents are very accepting of me and it means the world to me. I wanted to pass on that gift of love.
Erin P. Capuano: What was it that you wanted to expose first and foremost about this family?
Dominique Schilling: The lack of love. So often in families we lose sight of what’s really important and get caught up in little games and judgments. The people closest to you sometimes can hurt you the most, because they know how to. It’s a destructive family pattern that repeats itself from generation to generation. I wanted to break that cycle, at least for this imaginary family and bring them to a place of hope and a new beginning.
Erin P. Capuano: You touched upon a couple of issues that people face that aren’t talked about much like mental illness and post partum depression, were these issues you wanted to shed light on if so why?
Dominique Schilling: I don’t shy away from taboos. Never have. I’m the one that likes to dig deep, because I have a desire to understand people, their motivations, and history. So often we judge, but we don’t consider what has happened to the person beforehand. We’re lacking the bigger picture. No one makes themselves. We are all a product of our life history. Especially women, who suffer from post partum depression, suffer in silence, because either society doesn’t take them seriously or they judge them. Post partum depression is very real. Shaming it, like so many other imbalances, be they hormonal or chemical, doesn’t help anyone, but only contributes to more suffering. There’s no reason to judge. There’s only reason to help and listen.
Erin P. Capuano: What gives you inspiration in your projects, where do you get your ideas from?
Dominique Schilling: They come to me through music, walks at the beach and are not necessarily mirrors of my own life. The characters I create are mostly from my imagination and might share aspects of people I know or even myself, but I never tell true stories or things that really happened. It’s fiction. I’ve always had a very vivid imagination. I’m a daydreamer. It got me in a lot of trouble when I was kid. Today it’s a blessing in my profession.
Erin P. Capuano: Was there a particular moment in your life when you knew this was what you wanted to do?
Dominique Schilling: I honestly didn’t know that it was an option for me to direct. I always described what I wanted to do, without having a name for it. I think it’s because in my mind, directors were male, which makes me cringe, when I think about it today. It wasn’t until I studied writing at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, that my coaches Rob Brownstein and Gary Grossman encouraged me to direct. They tricked me into working with the actors by giving “writer’s notes” during a rehearsal of a piece that I had written. Then after the rehearsal was done, the actors thanked me for “directing” them. I realized what had happened and when I walked back to my car, it was like puzzle pieces just coming together and I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It was a key moment for me and I enrolled in film school a week later. I’m very grateful to them for believing in me.
Erin P. Capuano: What is coming up next for you career wise, what can we look out for?
Dominique Schilling: My next project is a feature film I wrote and will be directing, called “Little Girl, Big Eyes”. Caroline Risberg is producing again through our production company Risberg Schilling Productions. I’m very interested in furthering the position of women in film, which includes female main characters. The idea behind this film is: If you could rescue a child, but you would have to break the law to do it, would you do it? It’s gonna be quite punk rock, with kick ass women. We are very excited.
Marion Ross is the iconic face of family friendly television as Mrs. Cunningham on the classic sitcom Happy Days. Ross grew up in Minnesota and worked as a teenage au pair to pay for her drama lessons, her family eventually relocated to San Diego and Ross followed. Marion attended San Diego University and appeared in the theatre departments productions. Once Marion graduated she jumped right into the theatre scene and landed roles in productions at the Old Globe Theatre. Paramount films contracted her for The Glenn Miller Story, Secret of the Incas, Sabrina and Pushover. As if her film credits weren’t enough, she added Broadway to the mix in 1958 with her role in “Edwin Booth” starring Jose Ferrer. Ross continued her work on TV in Father Knows Best, Rawhide, Route 66, The Outer Limits, Felony Squad and The Brady Bunch. It was the little sitcom that could that Ross is most recognized for and that is her role as Marion Cunningham (Mrs. C) on Happy Days, she received two Emmy’s for her portrayal of the upbeat good hearted housewife and mother to Chuck, Richie and Joanie and honorary mother to Fonzie. Throughout all these years Marion has continued to work on movies, Broadway, television and plays constantly showing off her broad range of talent. Ross was recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the LA Femme Film Festival.
Interview with Marion Ross
Erin P. Capuano: When you first took on the role of Marion Cunningham on Happy Days did you ever think it would become the sensation that it was?
Marion Ross: No, we had no idea. When we started it was just another sitcom. One reason I think it went on so long is because we had a softball team and all the writers and boys in the cast did not want to give the team up. The team became very important and I think that might be one of the reasons we kept it all going past eight seasons, how long sitcoms back then would last. We went at one point to the East German Border and played with the 3rd Infantry and then after the last day of shooting the very next day we got up at 5am and took a plane to Okinawa and played with the U.S. Marines. I played Rover and could hit pretty well. The players would always overthrow first base after I hit because they would never want to accidentally hit me with the ball.
Erin P. Capuano: What made you take this role on it’s a huge departure from the role of the sweet and loving Mrs. Cunningham that you are so well known for.
Marion Ross: They called me up and I thought it would be fun. I like to play someone who is difficult. It’s much more challenging for me.
Erin P. Capuano: You’ve lived quite the life, did you see any of yourself in Irene, her fears her regrets?
Marion Ross: No, other than the humanness of it all. We sometimes expect too much out of people and get disappointed. She was not able to accept love was her problem. She was rejecting people so there was no part of her in me.
Erin P. Capuano: What was the hardest part about playing Irene?
Marion Ross: The hardest part about playing Irene was the fact that she was not very likeable and always a little angry.
Erin P. Capuano: You had a few very emotionally draining scenes in A Reason, how did you prepare for them?
Marion Ross: They were easy for me because I am an actress. It’s not hard because I’m filled with emotions. I was always like this, even as a child. Early on I knew what affect I had on people and what to do to make them watch me. (laughs)
Erin P. Capuano: As an actress who has lived through many technological advances in the entertainment industry, how do you feel about social media, (Twitter & Facebook) and marketing movies and shows via the internet and crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo.com?
Marion Ross: It’s not my generation. I don’t like going there. I just don’t like doing it. I pay someone to do it for me. I’m sure I could learn it though. Everyone who is my age I don’t think really likes it. The nerd types love it though and spend hours on it. I still go to look in the Encyclopedia.
Erin P. Capuano: Do you think your younger co-stars teach you as much as you can teach them?
Marion Ross: I doubt it. (laughs) I’m pretty seasoned and at my age had so many experiences. I think I’ve been in this mess before, this is not going to startle or impress me too much. It’s wonderful to be comfortable on this planet right now.
Erin P. Capuano: How was Dominique to work with she seems so focused and very deeply ingrained in her work, was she that focused on set?
Marion Ross: It was wonderful to look over and have her always be in the scene and moment with me. It was very approving. She was always smiling which was wonderful because we really didn’t know each other at first. I also became good friends with the Producer Caroline Risberg because she would always pick me up and drive me to set. Overall, it was a great experience. These girls are my friends for life and you don’t have that every time.
Dominique Schilling: What do you think is your secret to working all these years and playing meaningful roles that people relate to?
Marion Ross: I’m very professional and easy to work. Sometimes I wish that I were a little more difficult. Someone once told me years ago at CBS I was too nice and I would never get anywhere in the business. What’s funny about that is he is not working anymore. I would think people like Meryl Streep are the same way, professional and there to get the job done.
Erin P. Capuano: Finally Marion, do you think you’ll ever slow down retire and be lazy for a while?
Marion Ross: No I don’t think so. I don’t want to. So I say yes to a lot of projects.
Marion Ross shows us again that her professionalism and talent knows no bounds, she embraces Aunt Irene and truly makes her character hated and yet empathized with by the end of the movie. You not only see the growth in her character but you feel it as she’s going through it.
If you have no plans if you feel like streaming a movie, or going to see a movie please go see A Reason, the message it brings to its audience is one of struggle, self reflection, love and acceptance. The cast is wonderful and each brings something completely different to their roles, Apanowicz is outstanding and the message to the LGBT community while subtle is one that should be heard. Dominique Schilling’s writing shines brightly in this film she brings her characters to life while still allowing the story to grow and take on a life of its own. It’s one film you should definitely see before the holiday season.