Vol. 8 of the rePRO Periodical Podcast features an interview with “Marcy Learns Something New” director Julia Kennelly.
“(The film) is something you can relate to, even if you are younger, if you feel kind of behind in your journey with sexuality or you feel like there was this expectation that you would know everything about yourself and everything about what you wanted out of sex when actually the culture didn’t ever provide that for you.”
— Julia Kennelly
If you haven’t already, subscribe to our monthly newsletter where you will get each episode of the pod straight to your inbox. Learn more at reprofilm.org or at @reprofilm The rePROFilm Podcast is executive produced by mamafilm. Looking forward to bringing you our next conversation!
Asha Dahya 13:12
Hello lovely listeners. Welcome to another episode of the Repro Film podcast series, as part of the monthly Repro Periodical where we send lots of repro goodness straight to your inbox, including links to current and relevant articles, important organizations to support, a short film to watch, and conversations like this with filmmakers and artists.
This month’s theme is pleasure - something that I KNOW will make people squirm uncomfortably at the thought of talking about sex in a way that is enjoyable, safe and pleasurable. Chalk it up to generations of patriarchal and conservative ideas around especially cis-gender women’s bodies and our ability to make our own, autonomous decisions.
But imagine the type of world we would see if sexual pleasure wasn’t so taboo or seen as something negative! I think we would see some radical shifts in how people of all genders are allowed to live and experience life. It would be a whole new take on freedom, something which we talk up a lot here in the United States. So in the interest of furthering the conversation about pleasure, sex and freedom, this episode will be all about this.
Our featured short film is called ‘Marcy Learns Something New’, starring Saturday Night Live alum and all round comedic genius, Rachel Dratch. The film was written and directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Julia Kennelly who is based in both New York City and Los Angeles. Her producing career is something that I would label as hashtag goals, especially as a producer and storyteller myself. Julia was a producer on the HBO documentary series THE VOW, all about the survivors and victims of the NXIVM cult. She has a passion for narrative film, and has produced over twenty short films, including THE NEIGHBORS’ WINDOW (directed by Marshall Curry), which won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short at the 2020 Academy Awards.
As a director, MARCY LEARNS SOMETHING NEW is only her second film, and it won a Special Jury Mention in Comedy at Aspen Shortsfest in 2020.
In a nutshell, the film is about a widow who goes to a dominatrix class. Feeling run down by the usual cycle of self-improvement programs, the widow played by Rachel Dratch tries going to a dominatrix workshop. Inspired by success in the class, she meets a younger man online and embarks on a first dominant experience with him. The film is funny, heartwarming, sweet, and empowering. It is a reminder that there are so many aspects of sexuality and pleasure that need to be destigmatized, which we will chat about.
It is a reminder that there are so many aspects of sexuality and pleasure that need to be destigmatized, which we will chat about. So enough solo talk from me, here is Julia Kennelly!
Asha Dahya 03:02
Julia thank you for joining me today! Before we dive into your short film ‘Marcy Learns Something New’, I’d love to chat a bit about your filmmaking background and find out how you got into this industry.
Julia Kennelly 03:15
So I was a theater kid and I went to college for theater and sort of like I guess I didn't... Where I was growing up, I didn't really know much about film or what that that would kind of be an option for me. And I thought sort of, Oh, I'm not qualified to do that, you know? But I always loved movies and I when I was doing theater in college with my friends, we sort of decided to start doing little videos and web series and that sort of thing. And I was really into sketch comedy. So we started doing that just sort of collaboratively, collaboratively as a group. And it made me realize that I really loved film and also that I didn't know anything about how to make it in a way that was good.
So I decided I need to sort of pivot and figure out how to actually make good films. So I sort of started producing because it was something that other people, you know, that I was around weren't as interested in, cause it didn't seem like a very creative job, I think. But I was like, Well, I'll do it, you know, I want to learn what this is. So I just sort of agreed to do whatever people were doing. And that was, you know, starting with some short films and people sort of passion projects and then eventually made my way into commercial producing, which was how I actually was able to be paid and learn about professional filmmaking. And so while I was doing that, I was continuing to, you know, just work honestly with my friends that I had made in school after school, this really great artistic community in New York, that we were making these passion project films in order to learn how to actually write and direct my own work in addition to producing.
Asha Dahya 05:08
Yeah, was definitely a lot of passion projects and unpaid hours that go into a pathway like yours. And of course, so far it's led you to work on an Oscar winning film. No big deal. just in the intro. How did the idea for Marcy first come about, and what made you want to explore a sex-positive theme with an older woman as the protagonist?
Julia Kennelly 05:30
So I had first sort of came into contact with the idea of workshops for BDSM at this live storytelling event in Brooklyn, where this woman told a story about going to a dominatrix class. And I knew a little bit about the BDSM scene, but I had no idea that you could just kind of show up to a beginner level class where yeah, and I was intrigued by this. I was like, Oh, you can just show up and like find them online. So I thought her story is really interesting. And she, although she was, I guess in college, which had this experience.
And so I was like, I mean, the environment was interesting to me, but I when I was thinking about trying to adapt it into my own story, I just felt like someone who is older, you get that journey much more dramatically in some ways of like discovering yourself in a very or not more dramatically, but in a very different way than when you're young. And I think also it's something that for some women, I feel like you can relate to, even if you are younger, if you feel kind of behind in your journey with sexuality or you feel like there was this expectation that you would be totally, you know, know everything about yourself and everything about what you wanted out of sex when actually the culture didn't ever provide that for you, you know, like that. Everything, especially when I was growing up, was very, you know, male centric in terms of what we learned from pop culture about sex.So I think it was sort of something that was relatable to people who are younger, even though it's a story about someone who is older. And so, yeah, so then I went, you know, of course I signed up. I was like, Well, I've got to go check out these classes and find out what they're like. And also just the types of people who are there was like every kind of person from every walk of life who is just checking it out and and it's just a very like positive, supportive environment too, because, you know, it's something like kind of like an improv class, I would say, like you have to kind of be willing to do something potentially really embarrassing in front of this group of people who you don't even know.
And also in the class that I was going to, they're not you know, it's not really about like the sexual aspects, if you will, like it's more about learning power dynamics, learning how to properly paddle someone. And so you don't injure them. You know, like there's a lot of really technical details that go into it and safety and and so, yes, I just watch all these people. Like there were plenty of women who were older, who were there and people of all genders and races and identities. So it was a really wonderful experience.
Asha Dahya 08:12
I love that you talk about power dynamics. I feel like that's something more people and everyone in society needs to learn about. And so maybe some classes need to be mandatory. I don't know. But your power dynamics are so universal that I love that that's part of that the subculture and of your film as well. And you know, because sex and pleasure on screen is so limited when it comes to accurate portrayals among a diverse range of women especially, and it's often from the male gaze. So as a director, writer and producer, can you tell us why it's important we see more realistic stories of women, quote unquote, over a certain age, being allowed to enjoy pleasure and own their own sexuality.
Julia Kennelly 08:51
I guess primarily because it reflects reality. You know, I think it's like, what is the purpose of filmmaking should be to show a truth about the world? And I think sort of only portraying sex in this very limited sort of pornographic, sexualized or not sexual, transactional way.
Asha Dahya 09:10
Julia Kennelly 9:11
Yeah, it's not what reality is, right? And so I think in terms of older women, just literally being visible on screen is huge. And I and I think part of that change is coming about just because there are more women filmmakers now, I mean, it's still not you know, it's not equal, but it is it definitely has improved. And I think that's significant, certainly. And it does. I mean, I do believe that all of this, as we're talking about in multiple areas, the representation truly does does matter, because otherwise it feels like, oh, this type of person just doesn't exist, you know, if we don't see them on screen.
Julia Kennelly 09:51
So I think that is very importan and it also is like to just kind of completely erase that part of yourself, especially when women were younger, so sexualized, and sort of like that's kind of how you're valued by society in a certain way to then be okay. Well, as soon as you're, you know, whatever, 40 it's like now that the thing that we decided was a big part of your value actually doesn't exist anymore. So therefore you should sort of like step to the side
Asha Dahya 10:16
Put out to pasture.
Julia Kennelly 10:17
Asha Dahya 10:19
It's so bizarre. Yeah, it's really weird. But I'm glad that there were films like this and people like you breaking down that stigma. So it's really great. Rachel Dratch is phenomenal in this role as she is in everything she does. How did she get involved in this film? And how did it help the film having a no-named actress in L.A.? Like how does that work when you're submitting to festivals or getting funding? I'd love to learn a little about that.
Julia Kennelly 10:42
So Rachel came about. We had a wonderful casting director in L.A. Who cast high maintenance. And I thought, you know, high maintenance is sort of the perfect type of project. I felt that would be as a comp for this because you get so many wonderful New York actors who worked on that show, and I thought that they would really know who would be game for this sort of thing. They have a really great eye for this, the tone, and they had a good relationship with Rachel's agent. And so when I first was working with them, you know, they suggested her and I was like, absolutely, I would love for her to be part of it
And we, you know, we basically just went out to them. I wrote a letter about why I really wanted her for the role. We had a phone call, you know, before she agreed to do it, in which the agent described it as just to know that the director isn't a total loon. I thought, well, I guess we'll know if she does know after this what impression was me. But yeah, so that was really wonderful. And she was just, I mean, so kind and generous with their time and so game and like I just everything about it was really wonderful working with her.
And then yeah, I mean, as I'm sure you're aware and your listeners are aware, the short film market is very saturated. So it's hard. It's very hard to get into festivals and to get something. And I think having a name actor, you know, it's one obviously just valuable because she's an incredible actor. But also. Yeah, absolutely. It helps, you know, I mean, I think I think festivals also need to make money to survive. And so they do need some things that are going to draw people into the programing. And I think, you know, the same way that it works with features, it's really helpful.
That said, I don't want to give the impression like you can't make a short film without someone of mind. But yeah, but yeah, I mean, I completely I would say that was a huge help in terms of the film's visibility. And and also Rachel specifically has a very loyal following. And, you know, she doesn't get seen in this type of role. So people were really excited. Like when I put the film online, there were so many comments and people were saying like, Oh, she's that great. We don't see enough of her. It's so fun to see her in this type of role. So that was certainly helpful for the film as well.
Asha Dahya 13:11
How long was the shoot altogether like? How many days did you have her on set? How many days were you filming?
Julia Kennelly 13:17
We shot for four days and she was on every day because she's in every scene.
Asha Dahya 13:22
Right? That's amazing. Yeah. I love to hear that there are celebs celebrity out there who want to do passion project. Some filmmakers out there do not be discouraged. Reach out to celebrities. You never know. They may say yes so especially if it's like within their wheelhouse and something that would appeal to, you know, their repertoire.
So that's really good to know. We have seen a handful of recent major Hollywood films that portray women over a certain age, which, again, I really hate saying that. Yeah. I mean, I feel like for the sake of society, until we change, I just have to say. But you know, seeing these women owning and exploring their sexuality such as Emma Thompson in 'Good Luck To You, Leo Grande.' I think I said that right, Grande, Leo Grande, Ariana Grande. Sally Phillips in the Australian film 'How to Please a Woman.'
What do you make of this recent shift? In the types of stories we see on screen and why has this shift happened, do you think?
Julia Kennelly 14:17
Well, I think, again, I think a large part of it is, yeah, having more women writing and directing these stories and not, you know, 100%, because obviously there are wonderful movies about women made by men. But I, you know, in general, I think that's definitely a big part of it is like, yeah, we tend to think about , oh, this is me. You know, I think like, you know, when I think about myself, I'm like, yeah, I would like to be older. I'd like to make it, yeah, let's keep living. And I would like to think of myself as a complete person, you know, who deserves their own story to be told. So, you know, I think. It is just a different relationship to sexuality when it's something that you either have experienced or are going to experience yourself instead of an idea of someone else. So I certainly think that's a large part of it.
And I guess in general, culturally, there's just been a big shift in the past, I don't know, 20 years about what sexuality is. And is it this really narrow definition of like certain people are acceptable, certain bodies are acceptable to be sexual? Or is it that that's something for everyone and that it looks different for different people? So that seems like a very positive shift in the culture that I think people are more open to.
Asha Dahya 15:39
I want to talk about that shift and get back to that in a second. But first, I want to talk about the way that Marcy decides to try a BDSM class in her newfound exploration and your research into this area you portray portrayed in such a positive and welcoming light, like you mentioned earlier. And you know, it often becomes stigmatized in movie portrayals or media in general, and often that's down to just a lack of awareness. Can you tell me more about I know you mentioned before you did the class and you learned about it, but I'd love to learn more about, you know, the BDSM world as you learned and put the research into this film.
Julia Kennelly 16:15
Yeah, certainly. I mean, yeah, I think that the media portrayal is generally terrible. It's kind of like either pathologize, you know, as an explanation for, you know, someone's abuse or psychopath or whatever, you know, or it's a joke. Like it's like, oh, this person is ridiculous because they're into this thing sexually, which is can't be taken seriously. When, you know, as you're talking about earlier, the power dynamics thing, it's externalizing something that already exists, right? So it's like there is there are power dynamics present in sex and in the world.
And by actually talking about it and gamifying it in a way, you're then controlling what you actually want out of the experience instead of just allowing this power dynamic to sort of railroad you into whatever you think that sort of generic script is supposed to be. And so, yeah, my experience learning about it is like it's actually. You know, I think people think of it as being very dark or violent or, again, a symptom of abuse when the reality is I think it's actually a reaction to a society and a narrative around sex that's really toxic that we've just accepted.
So people in the BDSM community are very aware of taking care of each other, being really thoughtful about what the other person actually wants and what's going to make them happy. And often actually in this very silly, light hearted way, you know, like I think people part of the reason people like it is because they're like, oh , how could you take yourself seriously doing these kinds of things? And it's like, you don't necessarily have to do it in a serious way. You know, people are having fun and people are laughing like that's also a part of sex or just relationships in general, is being able to have fun and play with each other. That was the thing that I wanted to show about that community in the film is that it's not always like dark, serious, you know, a sign that something is wrong with you. It's like it's fine and it's empowering.
Asha Dahya 18:19
So going back to the sex positivity and pleasure positivity of your film and talking about what is happening socially and politically right now, i.e. a steep regression in bodily autonomy in the United States. For people with uteruses, with overturning Roe v Wade, trans kids and athletes being attacked, and accusations of, quote unquote, grooming from the far right when it comes to teaching sex ed in schools, which, by the way, we need more of and it's so bad in the U.S., it is depressing to see. But how can films like yours play a role in changing hearts and minds? And how can storytelling be a powerful tool for change?
Julia Kennelly 18:56
Yeah, well, I think I when I gravitate towards making films, it's like very much about sort of. A relatable character journey, that the political achievements are sort of secondary to that. Like, I think that there's two there's sort of two ways of going about it, right? And some films that are like really specifically political. And the point is to say, you know, this is what this issue is. This is why it's really important. And they just dramatize it. And I think for me, I kind of I prefer the films that I like to make are more.
It's more like you just actually see something from someone's perspective and perhaps that would make you think differently about it. You know what I mean? And so I think when it comes to all of these issues of gender and sexuality discrimination, sometimes it is about just showing people in a human way that hopefully, you know, eventually over time is trying that with representation does actually make people see them as real people. And. I think there's evidence for this, obviously, and in the past, especially with like, you know, sitcoms and stuff in these ways that you think, oh, that seems so basic or like, oh, that wasn't it was a very flawed portrayal of a queer character or whatever, but that people who thought they didn't know any queer people and then, you know, they liked Will and Grace or whatever actually did change their minds about it.
And I think today it's easy to sort of look down on that and say, like, well, that was it, you know, maybe the best portrayal of it . So but the reality is, I think it's like it's all it all works together, right? And you have these really strong political films that are really, you know, going at it in a way that is really direct and is important. And then there's also sort of room for what's a story that can kind of bring people in, in a way that they're not feeling alienated by it. And then they maybe think, oh, interesting. I didn't feel alienated by that.
I do actually kind of relate to that character. Perhaps they feel differently about this. So, you know, it's it's hard because obviously there's just an incredible amount of hatred and division that you can't. Change overnight, whether it's through film or through activism or anything. I mean, it's a really hard time to be in this country or in the world. But my hope is that there are people who are affected by seeing characters that they perhaps didn't think that they would have related to.
Asha Dahya 21:31
Yeah, I mean, when you read the logline, a widow tries a BDSM class,, it's like, I want to see that film. Really? What is this about? Who is this widow? Why is she trying to be in class? So I thought that was brilliant. What is next for Marcy Learns Something New? I hear a rumor that the short film may not be the last or the final iteration of this story. Tell us more.
Julia Kennelly 21:53
Yeah. So I'm working on a feature version of it which will see what what that turns into, but hopefully, hopefully something that people will be able to see in the near future. Obviously, it takes a long time, but I would love to explore this in a longer form. And I think. It seems like it's something people would want to see. So that's my hope.
Asha Dahya 22:17
Why did you decide to do a feature film? Was it because of the reaction you've been getting? Was it the feedback? Tell me about how that decision came about.
Julia Kennelly 22:25
Yes, actually, it is that because originally I didn't think that was worth going to do. And, you know, the shorter feature pipeline is sort of fraught with mistakes. I think for a lot of people and initially I was like, no, this is kind of a calling card for the type of filmmaker that I am, and it's not specifically a proof of concept for anything. I also thought it was difficult to maintain as well maintain the tone because. I think there's a there's a trap in this kind of story where it's like, oh, and then every week Marcy tries a more extreme type of thesis, you know, which is not really.
So I had to think about what is a larger context for the story that makes sense and gives her the full journey that she should, that she deserves, and also doesn't take it into totally, really different place or into a place that is ultimately shock value or that sort of things. It's really not. It should be as sweet as the point. But I think I did I think I did solve that problem, hopefully. So, yeah, so it's a work in progress and I hope that it's something that people can see, maybe even in a theater. Who knows?
Asha Dahya 23:42
Well, you're going to keep us posted, because I am definitely going to be watching the feature version of this, and we'll definitely share it with our audience. So if there's one thing you'd like people to remember or love most about watching 'Marcy Learns Something New' after they watch it on the rePROFilm Periodical, what would it be?
Julia Kennelly 24:03
I think that's something that her character has that I really admire is just like a willingness to try something new. Right. But. I think there are times, especially right now, where it can feel like shutting down is the only way to react to difficult circumstances but that ultimately is not really the solution. Right and I think seeking out. Seeking out things and people that bring you joy, even if it's something that feels like maybe potentially incredibly embarrassing or like something that you never thought that would be for you is really the only way forward, you know, and I think this film hopefully invites people to perhaps try something new themselves, even if it's a pottery class.
Asha Dahya 25:01
And I love that. That's the way. Yeah, yeah. People do try something new just like, yeah, there was Buddhism class or anything. I think, yeah, we live in such a state of fear right now and there's so much going on that to find even the smallest sliver of joy is something that's necessary. So yeah, I love that message. Really great. And finally, where can people follow you and see more of your work?
Julia Kennelly 25:27
So I have a website which is just JuliaKennelly.com and I'm on Instagram @JMKennelly. Currently I have no other social media, but maybe, who knows, maybe I'll have more someday.
Asha Dahya 25:40
You might have to. Listen, once you make the feature version of Marcy, I think you might have a cult following. So I'm just going to throw that out there. Manifest it for you.
Julia Kennelly 25:49
Asha Dahya 25:51
Julia Kennelly, thank you so much for joining me today.
Julia Kennelly 25:53
Asha Dahya 25:55
I feel so light hearted and hopeful after this conversation with Julia. We need more joy and pleasure in our lives right now in this bleak, bleak world. So if you haven’t yet seen the film, head to reprofilm.org to subscribe to our monthly periodical and get the link to watch ‘Marcy Learns Something New’.
As always, thank you for listening to this episode of the rePROFilm Podcast, and let me give my regular shoutouts to our crew who make the periodical happen each month:
The rePROFilm podcast is executive produced by mamafilm
Hosted and produced by me, Asha Dahya,
Edited by Kylie Brown,
With original music by ParisJane and Marrice Anthony.
The periodical is programmed by Neha Aziz and written by Emily Christensen
Alex Sgambati is our Social Media Manager and
Rebecca Sosa is our Distribution & Impact Strategist.
You can find us on social media @reprofilmofficial on Instagram and Facebook, and @reprofilmfest on Twitter. I look forward to bringing you our next conversation, next month. Bye for now!