Screenwriter ‘Judy White’ recalls family trip in Dramedy Lies I Told My Little Sister starring Lucy Waters (Starz TV Series Power), with a special appearance by Alicia Minshew (All My Children).
Your writing career began at Seventeen Magazine. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
My first published article was actually for a scientific journal, on my college research in neurobiology. But on the side, I was writing humor essays. I sent the first one to Seventeen Magazine – how I used to drop library books in the bathtub while reading and make my little sister return them so she’d endure the librarian’s wrath instead of me. If I’d known then how hard it is to be published in major magazines, I probably wouldn’t have had the audacity. But Seventeen bought the very first piece and asked for more, and I did a half-dozen funny columns. The second was called Lies I Told My Little Sister. So many of us either tortured our younger siblings, or got tortured, or (in the case of middle children) got to be on both ends. Childhood patterns fascinate me because we are set in cement so early on, which is why I returned to that idea for my first screenplay. Most of my career has been writing non-fiction books and articles, usually technical, but my trademark was to infuse humor wherever possible. So in Lies, there is a serious theme of dealing with grief, and a more humorous theme about trying to recover from being a sibling, and about integrating both into your adult life.
Lies evokes nostalgia, the older sister who tortures her little sister with myths. Is the script loosely based on your family?
Yes, definitely. I don’t know why my little sister always would believe the ridiculous things I would tell her, but she kinda still does. And we had an older sister who died of cancer. So those two realities became the backbone of the script. The reason I even wrote it was that my nephew, Jonathan Weisbrod, who is the son of my tortured little sister, ended up at NYU majoring in film & television, and he said, “You’re a writer; write a screenplay,” and eventually he became co-writer. So here we were, writing a story about a family trip with a little kid in it, and that little kid is now grown and in college, helping me write the screenplay based on our family. When you write fiction about your own life, you have to toss out a lot of actualities in order to drive the plot, but there are things in the film that really happened. Including my mother with that porn magazine!
Lies I Told My Little Sister was your first feature-length film. Did you find any difficulty with securing funds?
After helping me co-write Lies, Jonathan decided to produce it himself. He recruited the most talented of his NYU colleagues, with whom he’d already been making award-winning short films. He put together a SAG-ULB budget that was funded entirely by equity investors in first-position, allowing a lot of people to have a piece of the film for very little money. It was the crew’s first feature film, but because these were kids clearly at the beginning of promising careers, there were a lot of people who wanted to invest.
Backdrop was set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. How did you locate that beautiful beach house?
Lies follows a NJ family who travel to Cape Cod (which we used to do), and so of course a lot of the film was shot on iconic spots on the Cape, but that beach house was actually in Sea Bright, New Jersey. We used our home state as much as possible to keep costs down. As co-producer, I found the house on a vacation rental site, and not only was it used as location, a lot of the cast and crew lived in it during filming. Four months afterwards, Sea Bright was decimated by Superstorm Sandy. That beautiful house was flooded, though it is still standing.
Lucy Walters portrayed Cory brilliantly. You mentioned this was her first lead role?
Lucy is astonishing in Lies, a perfect combination of tough and sexy and vulnerable and broken. She essentially plays “me” as the middle child. Lucy first got noticed in director Steve McQueen’s Shame – stunning in two sex-charged scenes opposite Michael Fassbender. Now she is in 50 Cent’s STARZ drama series, Power, playing the ‘hot white chick’ – which has just been picked up for a second season. Lucy wowed us at the Lies audition. It was obvious how good she is, and also how completely she got the humor as well as the agony. Besides being incredibly intelligent and beautiful, she has an older sister and two younger brothers, and knows all the sibling tricks. Lucy Walters. Remember that name, for she is definitely a rising star. I adore her.
Lies deals with loss in the family. What has been the audience reaction thus far?
There’s been wonderful word-of-mouth because the film is funny as well as touching. People who have had a family loss really relate, especially if they also have siblings. I love the story of one viewer who said that she had been a little afraid to come see it because she’d recently lost her sister, but came anyway, lugging a box of tissues – and she never had to use any of them, because every time she’d start to tear up, something funny would happen. I tried for a good blend so that you never feel like you are wallowing. Because life keeps happening all around you, and some of it makes you laugh out loud even when you are terribly sad. The older you are, the more likely you are to have gone through some hard stuff. I am always amazed, for example, at how much older men like this film. It’s kind of a litmus test of how much you’ve personally been through, because if you’ve been touched by grief, no matter what your age, you appreciate that you can keep going, and that you are allowed to be happy. It’s a very hopeful film.
Alicia Minshew from All My Children makes a special appearance. How did you casting such a notable actress?
We were so lucky in the timing, because All My Children was ending after 41 years. We needed someone gorgeous and fabulous as the oldest, favorite sister who dies, so we sent the script to two-time Emmy nominee Alicia Minshew (10 years on AMC as ‘Kendall Hart’). Alicia reads lots of scripts, and said most are pretty terrible, but she thought Lies was really special. We only see her in flashbacks, but she is the heart of the family, whose loss causes such a hole that it triggers the entire plot of everyone trying, badly, to go on without her. At one point Lish was made up as ghastly sick, and I said, “Oh my God, you look awful!” She laughed and said, “This is my third coma!” Being a soap opera star means you love getting your teeth into a good coma.
How did William J. Stribling approach directing Lies?
Because on first glance this is a “female-driven” film, William confessed he was a bit intimidated going in. But the lead character’s choices made sense to him on both an intellectual and emotional level, regardless of gender, connecting to the universal struggle between order and chaos. He definitely didn’t want to hit the sad stuff too hard, and the ultimate takeaway is a peaceful, spiritual one. William is inspired by music, and he compared Lies to a Beach Boys song, one from Pet Sounds or Surf’s Up – melodic and catchy and complex, definitely pleasurable to listen to, but with something darker and unsettling going on under the surface. “And that’s where the honesty is,” he says, “because that’s life; often happy and upbeat on the surface, but underneath there’s something you’re trying to work out.”
Are you currently developing any new scripts?
I’m working on two new scripts. One is a romantic comedy (Nora Ephron is my hero), and the other is another comedy-drama, about trying to fit in where you just don’t fit in. I want to keep working on stories that touch universal real feelings – and to keep interweaving sad with humor, because even amid grief, even amid hard stuff, life is still funny, if you just let it.
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