Girls Behind The Camera: An Interview with Meera Menon

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When I met the director Meera Menon in our undergrad years at Columbia University, she was wearing an Annie Hall vest and an enigmatic smile, and I immediately wanted to know her.  We became friends while performing in a series of student-written one-act plays, and she starred in my first full-length play the next year. A long-term collaboration was born that has since spawned several short films, one late-night collage commemorating Katie Holmes’ marriage to Tom Cruise, a whole lot of Facebook activity, and newly, a feature film. I’ve been privileged to witness Meera’s transition from teen actor to full-grown woman director, and the feature comedy we co-wrote, she directed, and I produced, Farah Goes Bang, recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Drawing inspiration from our own friendship as well as other sources, FGB follows three twentysomething women who hit the road to campaign for John Kerry in 2004, one of whom, the titular Farah, is trying to lose her long-lingering virginity.  For her exceptional work on FGB, Meera was honored with the inaugural Nora Ephron Prize, and in addition to being both family and inspiration to me, she is now one of the most promising young directors to watch in independent film. In our first mutual interview, Meera and I discussed the road to, through, and beyond Farah Goes Bang.

– Laura Goode

I. The Early Years: Influences and Introductions

Laura: You are Meera. I am Laura. 

Meera: I am Meera and you are Laura.

Laura: We know each other pretty well. We’re doing this interview in a sort of knowing-each-other format. So I was trying to think of questions that have answers that I don’t already know about you. I don’t really know when you decided to be a filmmaker. Is there a moment, is there a phase, is there an event that you would connect with realizing you wanted to be a filmmaker? 

Meera: Well, I think I always did, because I would write scripts and shoot stuff with my dad’s camera with my next-door neighbor Manny, growing up, since I was like, six or seven years old. That was, like, what I did when I got home from school every day. So I think on a very clear level, it was what I always wanted to do, but I definitely have a straight-A student, immigrant parent background that made me very wary of identifying it as the thing I wanted to do for my career for a much longer time, probably well into college, until I took classes with professors that were working filmmakers that demonstrated to me that that was a career choice that was viable. 

Laura: That tension that you were kind of talking about, about wanting to be a filmmaker, but maybe being a little too achievement-oriented to admit that to yourself—what role did your parents play in that?

Meera: They definitely encouraged me to pursue the arts, because my dad is very much involved in the arts as well. But he always was very specific and was kind of advising me that it is something to approach as a hobby, because that’s how he’s approached it his entire life. He was an engineer for Verizon for thirty years and did all his movies, stage show stuff on the side all his life, until he retired and then it became something he did more full time. So he always kind of defined it for me as something that was better suited as a hobby. But I always, at a certain point, kind of embraced the fact that, Well, if I’m going to work in the industry in America, I can follow my father’s footsteps and kind of dabble in the industry that he’s been associated with; but if I wanted to create my own career in this country as a filmmaker, it was not something I could do on the side. 

Laura: Tell me about the transformation of your identity in college. Tell me about what college meant to you, how it helped realize this dream for you. What do you think was the progress you made towards this in college? 

Meera: Well, when I was in college I started taking classes in film, and I had a particular film production class that was pretty influential for me. I think realizing that I could shoot and edit my own material was a pretty revolutionary moment for me, because I didn’t realize the medium was completely within my own hands. Like I could create something just in my own dorm room, on my own. And I’d have a video that had an editing pattern, and a story, and a performance, that I was shaping just on my computer. Yeah, just the accessibility of the mechanics of it was a really kind of watershed moment for me in realizing that it was something that I enjoyed doing, just process-wise. 

Laura: Sure. And what did you like about the process? Like, what about that process appealed to you?

Meera: I think it’s having a lot of material and kind of puzzle-piecing something together to make into a statement of some sort. I think that it’s the same kind of thing that makes people attracted to collage work, or scrapbooking, or anything where you’re engaged with your hands and piecing things together from raw materials—that’s very much what editing is. And that’s what I think clicked into place, was that I enjoy doing that. And I was like, Okay, there are probably ways to eventually make money off of it. I’m still trying to figure out that part. (laughter) 

Laura: I’m remembering the first film that I remember having seen you make, a sort of mockumentary—I want to say it was sophomore year—about that guy who was in our astronomy class. And about stalking him on campus.  You were positioning yourself almost as a voyeur, almost as someone who is on the outside looking in. Can you tell me about the process of making that film? Or what you remember about it?

Meera: Yeah, that was in that film production class. At the time I think I was really connected to diaristic work, thinking about Lynn Hershman Leeson, who’s a performance artist, video artist that uses herself in a lot of her video. She created a series of video diaries in the 80s, first-person singular, that basically play with these ideas of the artist and their sense of subjectivity, while simultaneously being the kind of manipulator of how we’re presented with the story. And then there’s documentary filmmakers like Ross McElwee—a lot of female performance artist from the ‘60s and '70s were playing with this idea of putting themselves in front of the camera, putting themselves onstage, and kind of toying with audience expectations by way of subjectivity versus objectivity. And that’s all well and good, but obviously at the end of the day I just made that video because it was fucking funny to do, and I was actually stalking this guy because I had this crush him, and it was funny to document it, it made people laugh, and that’s all I was looking to do.

Laura: Okay, so now I would like to talk about our meeting. Sometime second semester, freshman year, we were both acting in this showcase of short plays. What are your memories of that time?

Meera: I remember really starting to talk to you when we both did LateNite Theater (a student-written theater group at Columbia) the second semester of freshman year, but I remember knowing who you were from the first day, because everybody knew who you were: you were the tall, beautiful girl with blue hair. And you were in my astronomy class first semester, I was like, Oh, there’s the most popular girl in our class, as far as I’m concerned. You were like, that girl.

Laura: You don’t have to suck up to me in this interview. I already like you.

Meera: Sorry, I just got an email from our landlord saying that we’re not allowed to get a dog. I’m a little sad. 

Laura: Ohhhhhhhhhh! Why?!

Meera: He said he has all these reasons about why he doesn’t want to have dogs here, and then he said I had already killed some of the plants out front, so “I can’t count on you to take care of the rest of the house.”

Laura: Boo! Maybe you should move. 

Meera: Those plants died during production. It’s like, You try taking care of plants when you’re in production.

Laura: Seriously. Oh, I’m sorry.

II. Running and Gunning: The Making of Farah Goes Bang

Laura: So we should probably talk about Farah Goes Bang. So tell me about how you view the inception of the Farah Goes Bang idea; like, what was going through your head? Where did it come from, for you?

Meera: I think, initially, my second semester project at USC was a five minute short that we had to script and direct and shoot and edit and all this stuff. And initially I had written this script called Rachel Getting Laid, like a play off of Rachel Getting Married, and it was very much a comedy about a woman losing her virginity in post-college. And that idea just more came from a personal investment I have in seeing stories in which women kind of engaging with their sexuality a little bit later in life is not treated as abnormal, or something to be judged or to be ridiculed. Because I’ve certainly felt like—I went to college and did not have the kind of sexual rollercoaster of an experience that everyone primes you for when you go to college, and I certainly felt like a weirdo for not having that experience. And I just felt like that might be because there aren’t stories out there that show that it’s very common. There’s a whole spectrum, and there’s no kind of “normal.”

Laura: Tell me about what that writing process was like for you. Had you ever collaborated with a co-writer before? You hadn’t, right? 

Meera: No, I had never co-written anything with anyone. But I had been accustomed somewhat through film school to having some other people crawl inside my brain. But I was curious at the time whether or not that’s something that you would want to engage with, because Sister Mischief and everything that I had read from you was so totally your vision, that I just wasn’t sure how you would respond to the process.

Laura: Yeah, no, it was something I was concerned about, not in terms of your capability or anything to do with you, really; it was just more about wondering if I could not be a control freak about it, really, because of what you just described about having written everything on my own up until that point. And I don’t think I would have jumped in with such enthusiasm if it hadn’t been you. But, honestly, when I look back, I think that was one of my favorite parts of the process, just this way of trading ideas, and specifically that there was this democracy in it that whatever was the funniest ended up on the page. So there was something wonderful to me about just sitting around all day trying to make you laugh. 

So, tell me a little bit about what preproduction. We formed this LLC. We planned and executed this Kickstarter campaign. What was going through your head as all of that was happening?

Meera: For me, one thing that was unique was just ingesting and memorizing the script. I say that just because that’s a necessary task of prepping as a director. I had to have every scene and the progression of everything in the script just wired into my brain, because the way it works when you’re actually in production is that you’re shooting one scene that’s at the end of the script in the morning, one scene that’s like three quarters of the way through the script for two hours in the middle of the day, and then another scene that’s somewhere in the first act of the film at the end of the day. And keeping in mind what kinds of motifs you’re shooting for, like visually, dramatically, costumes—everything. So that takes its own kind of organic phase of time to completely absorb the thing.

Laura: At that point, what I remember was kind of trying to transition personally from being a writer to being a producer; and trying to figure out what that role was going to be for me, what the hell I was supposed to be doing all of the time. And I remember one thing that was hard about that period for me was—because I wanted to be able to do this for you—was I really wanted to give you more space than we frankly were able to give you to step back and be that director, because, as you’ve said, you have this very producerial stance as a director, and you’re competent, you’re good at making calls and running down the checklist and all of that stuff too, and I remember feeling angsty at periods because you were so good at that and because I wanted to be better so you didn’t have to be. 

This is a broader question, but, as you look back on the process—since we have this new perspective of having a finished film and all that—what would you say, if you had to name one, was the single biggest challenge about Farah and about the production process?

Meera: I would say the editing process was the biggest challenge for me, because I had never edited content that long. And I had to figure out what the rhythm of on and off time was, because I just had never done that before. And now, I can say for the next thing, I know how to do it. But it took me such a long time; it took me working with Kate Hickey to really understand that what you need to do is work on the thing, step away from the thing, watch the thing, and then go back to working on the thing—as opposed to just constant tampering, which is what I have a tendency to do in the editing room. But, in terms of production, the biggest challenge … everything was a challenge. It was a constant stream of challenges on a daily basis. But I think the biggest challenge probably was for me working with Paul [Gleason], not having any lead time into certain locations. Like the days where we just had to show up and Paul had to fucking figure it out, like where to put the lights, and we had ten minutes to figure out how to do things and walk through everything. That was a huge challenge, and that caused a lot of tension between me and him, and caused a lot of tension on the day, to get the day shot out. That being said, that’s also one of the most satisfying things about the process is that we did it. 

Laura: I think that’s intrinsically a challenge of this kind of run-and-gun, micro-budget filmmaking style, is like, sure you don’t have to pay as much; sure, you can create a crew that’s small and mobile; but you also have to make some sacrifices just in terms of preparation, generally, I think. 

That lack of preparation or just every day being a kind of an adventure—how did that affect you from a camera perspective? How did that affect you in terms of trying to develop a shot list?

Meera: Well, I don’t really like shot lists. I think different scenarios call for different things. If we were shooting an action movie, I’d be all about storyboarding. I think that different genres and different scales of filmmaking require different things. Personally, even if we had had more money, I think shot lists don’t lead to very efficient collaboration. What I prefer to work with are floor plans and overhead diagrams, which was something a professor of mine, Peter Sollett, at USC really advocated for, because then you’re literally looking at the layout of the space, and drawing in where to set up camera angles, and it can be a collaborative process between me and the DP. It’s just to like, both be looking through the same diagram of the space we’re shooting in and be collaborating where to potentially set up angles. I think shot lists don’t allow for that collaboration, because it’s just a list of things you have to check off and try and get through your day. 

III. The Aftermath: Where Instincts Lead Us

Laura: So I want to talk about sort of where you’re at now. And I don’t want to ask the stereotypical questions that everybody asks in interviews, about like, "How do you feel about winning the Nora Ephron Prize?” But I guess what I want to ask is, how has your conception of yourself changed in this process? Do you feel more taken seriously by other people? Do you feel like you take yourself more seriously? What kind of personal transition has this galvanized for you?

Meera: I certainly think that the process, as every process should, makes me more confident of my instincts. I think that my intuition towards what I like and my intuition towards what makes sense to me in putting something together, rather than in the future doubting those instincts. And I think that certainly putting Farah together made me more confident in realizing that there is no right and wrong, but my instincts are there for a reason.

Laura: What do you think you learned as a director from this process, of what the best way to get people to do what you want them to do is? Or, to put another way, what do you think is your style of getting people to do what you want them to do? 

Meera: For me, the skin in which I am most comfortable as a director is one in which I am utilizing the same skills that I use in my friendships, in my relationships, which is being a good listener and being very receptive to that person’s needs and wants and kind of figuring out how that factors into the moment. And how to then, through a collaborative conversation, ultimately get what we need to get as a team. For me, being a good listener and a good director go hand in hand. And I feel like I walked into this experience with that and walked out of it feeling that much more confident that that’s the way I need to do things, because that’s how I feel comfortable. I’m not comfortable forcing direction onto people, especially onto actors, because I feel like they are artists as much as I am an artist, and the beauty of the moment will be revealed in the kind of perfect conversation we can have in that moment together. I feel that that’s an instinct in myself that I want to kind of develop and continue. 

Laura: Sure. I’ve seen that instinct develop in you, and I think it’s a really beautiful one, and I think actors really appreciate it because some directors have a lot invested in the idea that what they say is what goes, and I think that there were moments when you felt strongly about something and that was what you were going to get, but I don’t think that that’s generally your stance, right? Do you think that’s a fair statement?

Meera: Yeah. It’s completely not my stance. I really think that everyone that’s involved in that moment, including the DP and the actors, they’re all part of the same kind of formula to me, they’re all artists that are expressing something in their own point of view in the moment. Ultimately, my job is just to harness their point of view into my larger point of view in telling the story. It’s all there to enhance the story that I am trying to tell in the moment, and it’s not working against it. 

Laura: Yeah, that’s interesting.

Meera: I will say that, now that I think about it, that this is what I find to be the most enjoyable part of the whole process. It’s not just getting the best out of the people around me, but showing up on a situation—I did find it as frustrating as it was to show up places that we hadn’t scouted—it was really satisfying to show up to a strange place and look at it and break down, visually and story-wise, the floor plan of where we were at, and figure out what chunks of this place do we need to put people in and have them do something in order to tell the story. The process of breaking things down on a constant basis was very satisfying to me and very enjoyable, and I think that that’s all part of the same formula, as well.

Laura Goode is a novelist, essayist, poet, and screenwriter living in San Francisco. She produced and co-wrote the feature film FARAH GOES BANG, which premiered at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and won the Nora Ephron Prize, and her first novel for young adults, SISTER MISCHIEF, was released by Candlewick Press in 2011. Laura received her BA and MFA from Columbia University, and her poems and essays have appeared in New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe MillionsBOMBThe RumpusBoston Review, and other publications.  @lauragoode / www.lauragoode.com

(Image Credit: Elizabeth Kitchens)