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The Mary Sue Interview: Melanie Shaw On Her Female Road Comedy Shut Up and Drive

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Writer/director Melanie Shaw’s Shut Up and Drive is a female road comedy about two opposites: Veep’s Sarah Sutherland stars as Jane, a co-dependent type-A with an actor boyfriend (Morgan Krantz); and his best friend Laura, played by Zoe Worth, a messy free-spirit who wants to go to his set to finish an album with Krantz. The two decide to take an improptu trip together (largely due to Laura’s lack of a license) and get to know one another.

Shaw developed the story with actresses Worth and Kelsey McNamee (who also appears in the film). The film is Shaw’s second feature film and the second film from the actor-creator collaborative known as The Collectin. Shaw spoke about the film during its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Were you brought onto the project after Zoe and Kelsey conceived the project. or were you working on the film from the very beginning?

Melanie Shaw: There was a night when they came over with the beginning of a story, and we spent the night thinking out this story. We went from one bar to bar and then out to get some food, and we ended up just sitting in someone’s car until 3am, talking out this story. And we immediately saw we were interested in the story, considering it lead to something like a seven-hour conversation. And then we brought in Sarah to play the other lead with Zoe, and the three of us improvised a lo of scenes we ultimately used in the script.

TMS: How did you get Sarah involved in the film?

Shaw: She has known Zoe for years, because they went to school together, college and I think high school. They had the same training and went through the same NYU Tisch drama school. And Zoe and I were part of a group in Los Angeles, and Sarah had came to a few of our weekly meetings. We would do a scene night, and she would do a scene or two. They’ve always been friends.

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TMS: Is the group in LA a theater or comedy group?

Shaw: We started it in college, with the purpose of creating plays and shorts written for specific actors, and developed with the actors through improv. We borrowed from people we really admired, like John Cassavetes. And we later used that same approach with my first feature, Running Wild.

TMS: What is the appeal of having the conversations that make up the film take place during a road trip, rather than just keeping it contained in their house?

Shaw: The thing about the car is our two main characters, Jane and Laura, are essentially isolated and away from what make them comfortable in their daily lives. And you take these two main characters in a space where their essence is even more, and they get to know each other very quickly. When you’re stuck in a car with someone, by the end of the day, you know a lot about them. And when you’re going on a trip with someone, you really start to learn if they are someone you really like on a personal level. Because you see them doing things they would never usually let out. It gave them away to get to know each other quickly.

TMS: Was it difficult to film a road trip movie on this kind of budget?

Shaw: It took a lot of getting used to. We had several ways to mount the cameras, including one external car mount. The actors would drive and do the scenes, driving much slower than they normally would, on a stretch of road we knew was pretty empty. It might not be the best way to make a movie, but it is a low budget, guerrilla way of shooting this kind of movie.

TMS: Relatively early in the movie, you depict a sexual assault. Why did you feel it was important to have that scene and why place it so early in the film?

Shaw: For a lot of things in the script, once we agreed to something, I didn’t question it again or analyze it. I don’t remember us having a conversation about why it needed to be there.

TMS: Did scenes in the script which got moved around during editing or filming?

Shaw: It was more a case of things being cut. On the second night, they went to the mechanic’s and were sitting outside a motel. We had filmed originally inside a motel but felt we didn’t get what we wanted, and because we couldn’t use the location again, we staged it outside at night and just faked an exterior. Everything else was cut, but not really moved around.

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TMS: You have a good sense of how to use natural light to create a sort of etherial feeling. What were you going for with the look of the film?

Shaw: Our cinematographer Dan Chen has experience shooting documentaries, and knows how to use natural light really well. I’d also seen some of his portrai photography, and loved that too. But in terms of inspiration, we definitely looked at some ’70s films, specifically some ’70s road films, and shooting at specific times of day to get that feeling. There is Coppola film called The Rain People that’s a great road film that came out the same year as Easy Rider, and that film has a great female protagonist in it. And he shot that with almost no equipment. And another influence was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, more in the editing and script, less the cinematic look.

TMS: How would you describe the character’s personal journey?

Shaw: I think for Sarah, it isn’t that she doesn’t need to be with this boyfriend, it’s that she can be alone. She could leapfrog into being into another co-dependent friendship with Laura, just like she leapfrogs into relationships, but Jane’s journey is to be okay with herself, so she feels okay being alone. Laura has less of an arc, but in certain ways, we do get to see her grow up in certain ways. But I definitely felt this was more Jane’s journey.

TMS: The film has great indie music. How did you find the songs?

Shaw: We sent out an email, asking people what kind of bands would these characters be into, asking for recommendations. We wanted the music to replicate the experience of being in a car with these characters. Because that is such a big part of taking a road trip, the music you listen to along the way. A few people suggested bands they were friends with, and while filming, we listened to some of the music. We spoke with bands like Bordell who gave us some music, and one of my friends Joanna Samuels wrote some music for us.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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