There Are Still So Many Barriers to Break: Zoe Lister-Jones On 'Band Aid' and Women In Film
Zoe Lister-Jones writes, directs, and stars in her feature debut, Band Aid, a heartfelt relationship comedy that, unlike the epically popular Wonder Woman, boasts an all-female crew.
The drip, drip, drip of a leaky kitchen faucet serves as the driving metaphor behind Zoe Lister-Jones’ feature debut, Band Aid, a domestic relationship comedy about a couple who attempt to buoy their sinking marriage by writing songs about their daily disputes and starting a garage band. Lister-Jones stars opposite Adam Pally as the lovers on the mend, with the cast rounded out by SNL great Fred Armisen, Brooklyn Decker, and Colin Hanks, Lister-Jones’ TV costar on CBS’ Life in Pieces.
When we sat down for an interview with Lister-Jones in San Francisco, she expressed that she was excited to be involved in the women-in-film conversation surrounding Wonder Woman, which happened to share the same opening weekend. But, in a significant way, her film has a leg up on the DC blockbuster as far as progressing the industry toward gender equality: Lister-Jones’ film crew was comprised entirely of women, a rare occurrence.
In her interview with PopMatters, Lister-Jones discusses the state of women in Hollywood, the influence of John Cassavetes, the unique challenges of working with Fred Armisen, and what direction her career will take after directing her first feature.
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Your movie just happens to be releasing around the same time as Wonder Woman, a movie that’s been lauded as a breakthrough for female presence and visibility in Hollywood. I’m thrilled that that movie has been making so many waves, but I think your movie is just as progressive, if not more so. Wonder Woman is about the most beautiful, kick-ass woman ever, which is fantastic, but your movie is about female vulnerability, a subject I think deserves just as big of an audience.
When we scheduled the release date of the movie, none of us knew the conversation we’d be in about female filmmakers this box office weekend. It’s obviously really exciting to be a small part of that conversation. I think Wonder Woman is really exciting because I think the hope is that it will shatter the glass ceiling. But I do agree that there are limitations to the characterization of a female superhero.
I think the more female filmmakers are inspired to tell female-driven stories where women are complex and complicated and imperfect, the better off the world will be. The message of Wonder Woman was great, which is that we should lead with love. The world can really use that message right now, and I think it comes from a core female energy.
I was looking at the credits at the end of Wonder Woman, which I do much more specifically now after making Band Aid. I noticed how few women were actually making the movie underneath Patty Jenkins. For her to be at the helm is a huge deal, and I’m so excited about it. But there are still so many barriers to break.
Definitely. If the goal is gender equality in the film industry, surely the average movie set should be comprised of 50 percent women. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think your movie helps move us forward. You mentioned imperfection, and when I’ve seen great movies in the same vein as yours, what seems to make them special are the wrinkles, the blemishes, and the messiness in the dialogue and world-building. These details really ground these stories and make them feel real, and I think your movie has a lot of little touches like this.
I think I set out to see what it would look like if (John) Cassavetes made a comedy, which is a tall order. [laughs] I don’t mean to compare my film to Cassavetes’ films, but as an intention, that was something that was important to me. As a writer, I’m always pushing myself to write the most authentic and lived-in dialogue that allows for nuance. I think I was now given the opportunity to shape the performance that goes hand-in-hand with that dialogue.
My favorite movies are ones where you might not know if they were written or improvised. I think, in the best movies, you think they’re improvised but they’re actually written. That was my intention with this film, and to really portray a relationship as authentically as I knew how to. That meant not restricting myself to one tone or to one sensibility. I think relationship comedies can sometimes get stuck in glossing over some of the messy, raw, intense stuff that is so much of what it is to be in a relationship.
You were being humble there when you mentioned Cassavetes, but I could feel that touch in the movie for sure. I’m a big fan of kitchen-sink dramas, which Cassavetes was great at. Your movie is sort of the ultimate kitchen-sink drama because the drippy kitchen sink is actually emblematic of your story. Talk about those verbal fights you have with Adam by the sink and around the house and the dynamic you two shared not just as co-stars, but as director and actor.
I was really fortunate to work with wonderful actors. Adam Pally and I had never worked together. We didn’t really know each other -- we had just met a couple of times. But I think that in the times that we had met, there was an inexplicable ease to the way that we related to one another. When I saw that, I thought it seemed like the right fit to play opposite me in this role.
In terms of setting a tone on set as a director, it was about creating a really intimate space where it could feel like we were just being alternate versions of ourselves so the scenes would feel really lived-in and almost voyeuristic. I think it was an asset that I was both directing and performing because I was directing from within the scenes rather than having someone come in and interrupt from the monitor. We were very much living in our own world even as I was directing.
One of the things I find fascinating about Fred Armisen is that he’s so extraordinarily funny, he’ll sometimes say something that’s not a joke, but people will perceive it as a joke because of who he is. What was it like working with him, and did he have that effect on you?
Fred is probably the funniest person I’ve ever met. I’m pretty good at not breaking character on set, and I had a really hard time not breaking around him. He is the kind of person that is so deadpan that sometimes he’s being genuine and you think he’s joking. And other times, he’s joking and you think he’s being genuine. You’re kind of always on your toes around him, which is an amazing way to interact. I’m so honored that he is in this movie. He’s such an icon to me, so the fact that he signed on is a really big deal.
I played in garage bands when I was a kid, so I do notice when a music scene is lip-synced in a movie. I love that you guys performed the songs live in your movie.
I also always notice when someone is lip-syncing to playback, and it always takes me out of a scene. As a music lover, I always think, why wouldn’t they try to go for that for real? These people can obviously sing. We’re hearing them actually sing -- it’s just pre-recorded. There’s such an electricity to live performance, so it always feels like missed opportunity to not perform songs live.
I remember watching Postcards From the Edge years ago in my early 20s and seeing that scene where Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine sing live at the piano. It just captivated me in a way that I had never been captivated before, and I think from that point on I thought I one day wanted to shoot something that involved live performance of songs.
People were very scared on this production about that because it is so rarely done and it is risky. But it was so fun, and for me, it was okay because I wanted to showcase our imperfections. That was part of the storytelling. It enlivened those scenes in a way that we could never have captured if we weren’t actually playing.
If you were to screen your movie in a double feature, what would you pair it with?
Oh gosh. Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives was pretty inspirational. I think it would be an interesting double bill, [laughs] but I think that film does tread similar territory in terms of navigating different tones and the voyeuristic quality of the cinematography. Those were really influential to me.
What direction do you think you’ll go if you continue to direct?
I would like to continue to write and direct and star.
So you’re comfortable in that space?
I love it. Oh my god, I love it. It’s all I want to do. [laughs] I think they’re such complementary art forms, and for me, their intersection is one of the most exciting creative experiences I’ve ever had. That’s not to say I’d limit myself and say no to a script written by somebody else, but my goal for my next hiatus when I’m done with the next season of my TV show is to write, direct, and star.
Fred Armisen, Adam Pally, and Zoe Lister-Jones at an event for Band Aid (Photo: IMDB)