Alethea Jones.

Alethea Jones talks Fun Mom Dinner and life as a Hollywood director

Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2007, Alethea Jones has won numerous festival awards for her short films. Ahead of the release of her debut Hollywood feature, Fun Mom Dinner, she explains where she’s at and what’s coming next.

By Paul Dalgarno

Hi Alethea, what’s your life like at the moment, ahead of the release of Fun Mom Dinner?

This week especially has been pretty hectic because I’ve been directing an episode of a TV show called American Woman that stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari and some other really brilliant actors. And they just had me come back for reshoots on other episodes that needed a little bit of help. I’ve also just started on a new feature film and I’m in the office tomorrow on that, and doing press all week for Fun Mom Dinner. It’s been very exciting.

Alethea Jones. By Alex Vaughan.

What’s your elevator pitch for Fun Mom Dinner?

It’s a broad R-rated ensemble comedy about four mothers who assume the only thing they have in common is the fact their children go to pre-school together. They embark on a night-out with varying expectations of the evening, from not wanting to be there to perhaps wanting to be there a little bit too much. They find out there’s a lot more to each other than the roles of motherhood, and they just cut loose.

As an Australian filmmaker, did you notice the differences in sensibility working on an American script? Did you bring any Australian humour to it or did you just work off the script and shoot it as it was?

The script always tells you what it wants to be and how it wants to be expressed, and I nearly passed on this one. I rang my manager and said, ‘I don’t think I should be considered for this film, it’s not me, I’m not a mother, and it’s very broad and I make very specific kooky comedies’. He explained they were looking for someone to bring something unique to the film and that they wanted a first-time female director. He said, ‘Alethea you can wait forever for your first feature to come along or you can rip off the Band-Aid and prove to people that you can do it. These are really special people to work with, and they’re probably going to get a great cast.’ And so I did it, and I had the time of my life.

Where’s your heart – in TV or feature films?

I’m more drawn to features. I haven’t consciously gone for television, because I was really nervous about it. I think my style of filmmaking is gentle, and I wasn’t sure I was robust enough for television. But I’ve done a few TV things here in America, it’s been the most delightful experience – the crews here are a joy. So I’m actually very open to doing more television as it comes up, but I also have a few features on the back-burner that seem to be stacking up quite nicely.

And you’re Hollywood-based now?

Yeah, I live in Los Angeles, even though I never meant to pursue a career here. I never thought I was good enough. My short-film Lemonade Stand won Tropfest in 2012 and part of the prize was a trip to LA, all-expenses-paid, and the opportunity to meet with industry people. I didn’t feel ready but I went, and from that point on I got an agent over here. I visited for two years, back and forth, while I was directing commercials in Australia and teaching film at Swinburne and the VCA. Eventually my agent said, ‘You’re making great progress here, but we lose it all every time you go home for three months.’ I made the move with my two dogs and, as soon as I did, booked my first episode of television with Amazon Studios. That’s when it all started happening.

When you found out you’d won Tropfest did you have a sense of that being a real career-starter?

I was incredibly naïve and overwhelmed. But I think I was most excited when my first short When the Wind Changes got into the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Accelerator Program in 2010. I cried because no-one had wanted to produce or even edit that short. We had to beg the crew to take part, and we’d entered the film in MIFF by writing on the DVD with a marker pen. And then I got a letter saying, “You’re in Accelerator,” and I lost my shit. That was the game-changer for me.

When The Wind Changes (2010). Behind the scenes with Rick Davies (left), Alethea Jones and Dave Lawson. By Veeran Naran.

What’s your next film?

I don’t know if I can say, but I think I can say I’ve just signed a development deal with Sony Pictures Studios and am developing one of their projects with them. If it’s greenlit I will direct it.

For Fun Mom Dinner, you mentioned they were looking for a woman director, the film stars four women, and the screenplay was written by a woman, Julie Rudd. Do you think there’s finally a sense of the tide turning, where we’re actually going to see more women’s stories told by women?

Yep, the tide is absolutely turning. I could sense it starting to happen about two years ago, but in this industry, like others, it takes time. A couple of years ago, when lots of articles were coming out about this issue, people were saying it was all hot air and that nothing was actually happening to really change things. But it takes a long time to get films green-lit. I’m so glad that I moved here two years ago. Back in Australia, when my shorts were winning awards and I was like, ‘I wanna work in TV,’ someone literally said to me, ‘It’s not your turn, you have to get in line’. And I thought, ‘Well, if I have to get in line, I may as well do that in America.’ I’m glad about that, because I’ve taken hundreds of meetings and many of those are coming to fruition now that I’ve proven I can do it.

I read somewhere that you’re interested in doing a musical at some point. Is that right?        

Yeah, that’s right, and in fact this studio deal with Sony has bunch of musical numbers in it. My ultimate musical would be a sort of old-school film like the Pajama Game. And I’m actually doing one like that next year in America, which is really exciting – it’s technicolour with a really kooky bent to it. I’m also developing a musical with Aquarius Pictures, with Polly Staniford, who I went to VCA with, and Angie Fielder.

As a director, is it the finished product that gets you noticed within the industry, or does that come from the process of actually making the film?

It’s 100% process. People just want to know that you can do it, that you’ve made a profit for the financiers, that you can work with big stars and not be phased by them, and that you can get good performances out of your actors. Fun Mom Dinner was shot in 19 days and the budget was extremely low. You can’t tell an audience that, but the producers and studios here in LA know what the numbers are and they all talk to each other to vet you. I booked an episode of Santa Clarita Diet starring Drew Barrymore. When I went in for my interview the show-runner said, ‘Drew’s looking forward to working with you,” and I’m like, ‘What? How?’. He goes, ‘Oh, she rang Toni Collette. We wouldn’t even be talking to you if you didn’t check out with Toni’.  I was like, ‘Wow, Jesus’.

Even if technical directing skills can be learned on the job, I’m guessing a director’s interpersonal skills have to be there at the outset? 

Yeah, that’s right, and I’m really conflicted about that in relation to film school because we weren’t taught that. You’re trying to learn every part of the craft but there’s no room given for leadership and interpersonal skills – even learning how to send a succinct email that just gets to the point to busy people who get hundreds of emails every day. I would love to go back to the VCA and talk with students about that some time. But then I think about how much I just needed to focus on the technical side of film-making and I understand why we didn’t get to that part of things. Like most industries, if you’re starting out and you’re a jerk, you probably won’t get recommended for your next job.

Fun Mom Dinner. Behind the scenes. Bridget Everett, Molly Shannon, Alethea Jones, Katie Aselton, Toni Collette. By Robb Rosenfeld.

Why did you choose to study at the VCA? 

I went there for two reasons. I saw that Robert Luketic, who directed Legally Blonde, went there, and I loved that film. And I saw that Emma Freeman, who directed Lamb, went there too. Emma came in and spoke to us one time and she told us that she was the worst student in her class. I knew I was the worst person in my class, too, so that gave me hope that I would improve one day. The more mistakes you can make at film school, the better. I felt the same with Fun Mom Dinner. Watching it, I still cringe, from what we missed or shots that I wish were wider. It was an extraordinarily fast film to make and I had to compromise every step of the way. But now that I’m looking at doing a studio film I know exactly what mistakes I don’t want to make and how determined I am to avoid that nauseous feeling again. And that’s exactly how it was at the VCA – I made really bad shorts but was able to course-correct with the three short-films that I made out of film school.

You’ve mentioned you’d like to direct science fiction movies in the future?

Oh yes, I want to really muscle-up and direct tent-poles. I’d love to do science-fiction or a superhero movie. I saw Wonder Woman three times and bought the soundtrack – I loved it. And I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming – it was just so joy-filled and well-crafted. I love Guardians of the Galaxy, too. The people at Marvel are really special and I’d love to play in that universe. But, you know, one of my all-time favourite films is Contact. And I’d love to make something like that too – a grounded and human science-fiction with a big feel.

Would you like to shoot films in Australia?

Absolutely. I was poised to come back and do a film at the end of last year. We had the money but it just wasn’t the right cast. I’m dying to come back and make something really special and punchy. I’d like to bring a big film with American money to Australia. I know it might sound strange to Australians but I love making big commercial stuff because I like the entertainment factor – that’s what spoke to me as a little girl, that’s what made me happy. If I could bring one of those films back to Australia I’d be thrilled. Everyone would get paid well and I think it would be a treat to work with my Aussie friends again.

Fun Mom Dinner is at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 11 and 13 August. Full details

Banner image: Alethea Jones. By Alex Vaughan.