September 18, 2014

SCA Family Stories: Jen McGowan

The director of Kelly and Cal sits down with SCA

Jen McGowan is an up and coming director in indie features. Her debut feature Kelly and Cal is premiering at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood and on VOD this week. SCA Family Stories caught up with her to chat about the transition to professional filmmaking, what she learned in her time as a Trojan, and how sometimes the “extra” things you do in college prepare you just as much as your courses.

For more information on Kelly and Cal, please visit - http://www.ifcfilms.com/films/kelly-cal.

Let’s start with your name and profession. My name is Jen McGowan. I was at the Cinema School in the Production Division focusing on directing until 2005.

Tell me about your film. It’s called Kelly and Cal. It stars Juliette Lewis, Cybill Shepherd, Josh Hopkins, and Jonny Weston. It’s about a woman in her late thirties who was a riot grrrl who has settled down in the suburbs with a new husband and baby.

It’s not working out for her. She’s not connecting. She strikes up a friendship with a seventeen year old boy in her neighborhood. It’s about their relationship.

How did the film come about? It came through a program that a few alumni put together — Kam Miller, Barbara Stepansky, and Henry Lowenfels — called USC First Team. It’s a great program that fosters feature film production amongst alumni. Being part of it was amazing. I met the writer, Amy Lowe Starbin, there and we developed the film through that program. Once we finished, we took it to producers.

What was it about the story that attracted you to it? The first thing that attracted me to the project was Amy because she and I connected a lot. I liked her. I wanted to work with her. She has an interesting perspective. When I read the script, I knew she was a great writer. The things that I like about her were reflected in the script, so it was a very unique perspective. Contemporary. It was something that I hadn’t really seen before. I loved the comedy in it — so fresh and interesting.

What were some of the challenges of making a lower budget, grassroots film? You know, the challenges really came at the end. Honestly, getting the word out about an independent film is incredibly difficult. We were lucky. We went to a great festival. We won a great award. We got great reviews. We got great distribution, but there is no money for marketing. Getting the word out is impossible.

It’s heartbreaking because we know we have this great little gem of a film that we worked so hard on and that people love. The audiences that have seen it are so into it, but it’s still hard to rise above the noise.

How can people support your film? We open in Los Angeles theatrically at Arena Cinema in Hollywood on September 19th. That’s this Friday. We are also on demand. We did a day-and-date distribution for the film which means you can also find us on iTunes, Amazon, XBox and Cable-on-demand.

We’ll be on those digital platforms until Thanksgiving.

What were some of the lessons from your time at USC that you found yourself going back to when you were making this film? I liked the ideas that I learned from Bruce Block about staying consistent. But when you’re doing an indie film, you don’t get the luxury of time, money, or anything, really. The film isn’t going to be exactly as you intend. You have to pick the top one, two, or five things that you can control and really control them.

Of course, there are all of the wonderful things that you get from the supporting class, as well. I learned how to work with composers. All of that experience.

The biggest thing to me that I’ve found to be the most important about going to USC was experiencing the process of making a film. Over and over and over. Even if they were crappy little exercises, it doesn’t matter, because it still gives you the emotional experience of going through a film. You know what casting is going to feel like. What getting to your rough cut feels like. These are difficult things, but when you go to USC, you’ve already been there. You can keep calm through the storm.

If you could give advice to our current students. What would you tell them? You’re only there for a short time. You will only have these tools and assets for a short time. You might never get them again in your career. Make the best of it. Do everything you can to take advantage of it.

I found that I learned more from the things that I did which were extra. The volunteering on people’s projects during vacation. The organizations I ran. The internships. I’m currently working with people that I met at my internships. They are executives now.

So again, it’s all in the extra. Do the best you can. And then do more.

If someone wants to get in touch with you via social media, where can they find you? I’m on Twitter. @iamjenmcg. The project is @kellyandcal.