“Idle Thoughts” and the Future of Film

Now streaming on Amazon Prime is a glimpse of a potential future for lesbian-themed independent films. The movie is “Idle Thoughts,” and what it may represent is the next evolution in content creation. Just as sites like Wattpad, Fanfiction.net, and Archive of Our Own allow writers to upload their content to share it around the world and Uber and Lyft empower individuals to turn their personally owned vehicles into taxis, streaming on Amazon Prime may allow new voices to be heard by lowering the bar for distribution.

“Idle Thoughts” is the story of suspiciously affluent Poppy, who complains about being poor while pouring herself white wine in a silk kimono and lounging around her apartment. Poppy’s problem is that she owes her publisher another book, but she can’t think of anything to write. She goes through women like Kleenex until she meets Elaine and realizes that she can write about faking being invested in a relationship with her. What follows is a romantic comedy in which, per the tagline, Poppy has to “fake it ’til she makes it.”

We talked to Andrew Willig, the film’s creator, to find out more about the movie and about what a lowered distribution bar means for aspiring filmmakers. Willig’s thoughtful and insightful answers also shed light on what it takes to make a micro-budget film.

Andrew, you wrote, directed, filmed, edited, and produced “Idle Thoughts,” but it’s (loosely) based on a book by Jerome K. Jerome called “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow,” written in 1886. What was your inspiration to build off that collection of humour essays and why, in particular, make the protagonist of your film a lesbian?

I discovered “Idle Thoughts” when I was researching material from famous writers of the past, and the essays immediately spoke to me. The celebration of laziness really resonated with me! But of course the stories in the book touch on pride, egotism, and everything else we enjoy laughing at in other people (but never ourselves). And finally it covers love, and lost love, particularly the loss of a first overwhelming love. This really endeared it to me, and I think the emotions really speak to you across 140 years, I love them because they are still fresh and recognizable on the page.

I think the decision to explore a lesbian relationship, which puts two female leads front and center, honestly comes in part from the current zeitgeist and partly from doing something I hadn’t seen much as I think I should have before. My Facebook feed is full of things like casting call woe and discussions of the Bechdel test and how many films fail it. And recently there was a graph that showed that in Oscar winning movies, men were speaking on screen on average five times more than women. With the allegations/revelations about Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, etc.–not to mention Donald Trump–I just think now is a time to look at what the past has been like and try to break new ground. There seems to be a big gap in fairness, and maybe this was my little effort to make change. To put interesting, deep, multi-leveled characters on screen. I would like to be seen as an ally to equality.

You’ve described this movie as a micro-budget movie that was done as a labor of love. Tell me about the entire process. How did you get funding, how did you find the cast, how long did it take to shoot, etc.?

Funding came from the fact I have a solid day job, which is just as well because my crowdfunding campaign died on its ass. Making my first film has been something of an obsession my mine, and I am glad to say I achieved it. For “Idle Thoughts,” we shot for 23 days, but a few of them were barely half days. Movie days are typically 12-14 hours, and I don’t think we ever did more than 10 hours. We shot for a solid week in the apartment that was our main location, and then shot on weekends for the remainder of the time. This allowed me and everyone else time and opportunity to juggle all our other commitments. Then it took around 4-6 months of post-production work to get finished, and another 4-6 months to find the best form of distribution.

In terms of casting, Vancouver is such a big production center for films that it’s not too hard to find actors. But it has to be said, auditioning is very interesting if you haven’t done it before. You really get to find out who’s good and who isn’t. Alex (Alexandra Voicu, Poppy) and Nathalie (Nathalie Cerny, Elaine) immediately stood out as great and exceptional actors, and it was a huge relief to book them.

In some ways, “Idle Thoughts” is like an inverse version of “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.” But whereas in the latter film the characters played by Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey are portrayed sympathetically and for laughs, the protagonist of “Idle Thoughts,” Poppy, can be much harder to identify with. Instead of Hudson’s bemusement for why she can’t shake McConaughey, Poppy comes off as petulant and immature. Is that intentional, or are there good qualities to Poppy that viewers should see that redeem her well before the ending?

I think we all have ideas in our head about who we are, and what we want, and so does Poppy. But if these ideas were all correct and healthy, it wouldn’t make much of a movie! So Poppy, who lost her parents as a teenager, and was badly burned by a first love, has a warped attitude to life. But a warped attitude that is eventually overcome by her love for Elaine. It really is the journey that’s the interesting part. Is this person worth saving? Can they do it themselves, or will they fail?

Point of view is interesting in this movie. Rather unusually, “Idle Thoughts” has Poppy break the fourth wall throughout the movie, and then Elaine right at the end. How does this change the viewers’ relationship with the story? Are we a passive audience, or are we complicit co- conspirators in Poppy’s ruse?

I totally want to draw the audience in as far as I can to Poppy. I want you to feel like you know her inside and out, especially as she admits to things that she would never talk about openly. So yes, if you feel complicit, that’s great. And with Elaine breaking the fourth wall at the end, I wanted to give her some power back, I want the audience to wonder, how much she understood throughout the story, and how much she didn’t. And also, the way the original “Idle Thoughts” (book)  is written, all in the first person, also makes using asides to camera a natural way to include the original writing as closely as possible.

The audience is privy to Poppy’s thoughts and actions because of this fourth wall break. However, the thoughts and feelings of Elaine, Poppy’s love interest, are largely unknown to us. Does this mimic an actual relationship, where we’re in some ways left to interpret the feelings of our partners based on limited verbal and visual cues? Why don’t we learn more about Elaine and why she puts up with Poppy’s behavior?

No relationship is ever perfect, we never tell the absolute truth, and we all accept something about our significant other that we don’t like. And I think it is easy for us to feel the anxiety that the things our other halves do that annoy us are part of some deeper conspiracy against us. I think this is what I wanted to explore in the script, but as I mentioned, at the end, I wanted to give Elaine all the power back. And who knows, if we can make a sequel, maybe the shoe will be on the other foot!

With the exception of a plaid shirt or two, lesbian culture plays no role in this film. There are no inside nods to jokes about U-Hauling, cats, Ellen DeGeneres, etc. (Maybe these are just American inside jokes?) Was this a conscious decision, and what was the degree of lesbian involvement in shaping this film?

It was intentional. LGBT people made a huge contribution to my film, and I am hugely grateful for that. Because I want to be cautious about outing anyone, I won’t talk about specific roles in the crew, but I think that at least 30% of my cast and crew were lesbian, gay or bi, including senior positions in production. And they all got to read the script, and as needed give input on how each characters should be. I think I fostered an environment where if anyone had an issue with anything they could speak up, and so I hope to have created something that tells the story of a lesbian relationship, without pigeonholing it into any kind of cliche.

“Idle Thoughts” is micro-budget, but is available on Amazon Prime. How do you see the future of independent filmmaking if filmmakers can more easily get their products onto streaming platforms? Does this create a niche for low-budget films that otherwise would struggle to achieve wider distribution?

It’s definitely better than it was. I think before if you made an independent film you would try and get it into a festival, and if you failed that would be almost it. If you were lucky you might make it onto a DVD multipack of films from a low end distributor. I think what is different now, with all the options available to film makers, is that there is almost no barrier to being somewhere where an audience can find you, but that doesn’t mean they will find you. There are a lot more films now, there are a lot more people doing this, and they have to find an audience if they’re going to make their money back. And it’s a lot harder to rise above the clamor and be heard.

I myself am waiting to find out if “Idle Thoughts” is an on-line success. At my low budget level, there is no one who will pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising the film, and dealing with the expense of having a mainstream Hollywood theater run. Indeed, with basic on-line distribution the results vary wildly for independent films, depending on their quality, what media coverage they get, and whether they get powerful supporters. I feel I was lucky to find Linda Nelson at Indie Rights, who was willing to guide the film through on-line distribution and hopefully create a success that will enable me to make more films.

It is a recurrent complaint in the lesbian community that there aren’t enough “lesbian” movies— movies with lesbian protagonists. Why do you think more filmmakers aren’t pursuing movies with sexually diverse characters? Are there negative incentives, such as a lower chance of getting funding if the characters are not all straight?

So it’s hard for me to speak for funding in general because I self-financed this film. I have recently seen Canadian films with lesbian supporting characters that were commercially financed, but I couldn’t tell you how hard or otherwise it is to fund films here with or without LGBT characters. But this film was made for less than 40k Canadian dollars. So if you can, grab a camera and get shooting yourself. In fact the traditional model is to write a kick ass script, get it to a major star, get a letter from them expressing interest, then go looking for money. So if you can get a really great lesbian script in the hands of Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Watson, or Gal Gadot, maybe it’ll really go somewhere. But the script would have to be great. Another option might be to contact the Blacklist, a script rating service, and if they don’t have it already, look for a list of great LGBT scripts, and have a go at producing for yourself. And of course support the films that are out there, I can tell you that if your readers watch and rate “Idle Thoughts,” the internet pixies will notice, and we will get more exposure as a result.

From the outside, Canada seems to have a more tolerant attitude towards sexual orientation than the United States. The lesbian characters on “Wynonna Earp” and “Orphan Black” are wildly popular, for example, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marched in the pride parades for Toronto, Halifax, and Montreal last summer. How do you think that attitude influences telling LGBT stories in Canadian- made films versus American-made films?

I think that maybe political leadership does make a difference. When all the major political parties line up to be seen at Pride events, that says LGBT interests have been recognized at the highest level. It means there will be laws to prevent discrimination and hate. And at a lower level maybe it says, if you attack someone of this group, the police will now have to take it seriously, if they ever didn’t. But I can’t paint Canada as all unicorns and rainbows though; I have a lesbian colleague who told me she was spat at in the street in her small home town. This wasn’t recent, but still there is work to be done everywhere. Although I think anyone visiting Vancouver would find it a hugely safe and welcoming place.

There’s a common saying in Hollywood that you should never work with children or animals. “Idle Thoughts” has a very adorable, very well-behaved dog. Does the adage about animals hold true, or are some animals alright to work with?

Zeus is Alex’s dog in real life, and that is why he remains so totally in tune with Alex in every scene. Every response you see is his spontaneous reaction to Alex’s emotional state. All I can tell you is that if you want amazing interplay with an actor and a dog, hire an actor who already has a close relationship with her dog! I think there was only one outtake because of Zeus, and that’s because we made the mistake of giving him a squeaky toy and we couldn’t hear the actors! He was wonderful.

What do you want viewers to take away from “Idle Thoughts”?

Screen writing is all about taking flawed characters and slamming them into situations that challenge that flaw in the most fundamental way possible. I want viewers to take away the satisfaction of seeing characters develop, of them experiencing the most important period of their life. I want viewers to recognize that we all have a similar set of flaws, but that we can overcome them. And that someone who has totally given up on love, can find it again.