Interview with ‘Good Kisser’ director Wendy Jo Carlton

Wendy Jo Carlton

Wendy Jo Carlton

Spotlight on the
award-winning
filmmaker whose
‘lesbian love triangle’
plays Siskel Center
October 25-31

Wendy Jo Carlton’s award-winning new film, Good Kisser, follows the evolution of an all-female ménage à trois over the course of a single night. Sexy and fun, no doubt; but like most of Carlton’s work, the love taps into a world of drama.

The characters are bound for intrigue from the get-go. Jenna is insecure. Kate is materialistic. And Mia is the “entrancing stranger” who joins them. Their fling generates a lot of friction, beginning with the dreadful self-awareness that creeps in on Jenna.

Good Kisser is about the visceral experience of feeling gaslit in a relationship,” says Carlton. “But you really love the person and you’re attracted to the person.”

The other topics aroused by Good Kisser include erotic tension, emotional maturity, feminine complexity, and the source of desire. According to the filmmaker, “it’s a bit of a ride that’s fun to be on.”

WENDY JO CARLTON
GOOD KISSER TRAILER

 
 

Meet Wendy Jo
A longtime Chicagoan who relocated to Seattle in 2017, Wendy Jo Carlton exudes the same funny, compelling, and down-to-earth qualities of her characters. She has earned dozens of credits and awards as a writer, director, and producer for a variety of independent projects, but the big studio deal continues to elude her.

“They’re throwing money at other writers and directors like me,” she says. “I might as well write my heart out and create stories and characters who I love and care about rather than chase after the next shiny thing.”

Kari Alison Hodge, Rachel Paulson, and Julia Eringer
Kari Alison Hodge, Rachel Paulson, and Julia Eringer

If Good Kisser performs like her other projects, it will get way more than shiny. Carlton’s web series, Easy Abby, brought an awesome circle of friends into the title character’s woman-seeking-woman adventure, and scored 50 million views along the way. It also returns to YouTube this Thanksgiving.

ALSO READ: Reel Women: Wendy Jo Carlton, filmmaker

The critics are already on board. Film Threat says that Carlton “brings this story to the screen with confidence and grace.” Eye for Film notes her ability to “strike a good balance in a film that really ought to have a lot of mainstream appeal.” And four out of four Rotten Tomatoes reviewers have certified Good Kisser as “fresh.”

Good Kisser begins a week-long run at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, October 26. Carlton will be in Chicago for Q&As at the first three evening shows. Below, in a Reel Chicago exclusive, is a Wendy Jo Carlton primer.
 
 


Carrie Allison Hodge, Julia Eringer, Rachel Paulson, and Wendy Jo Carlton at the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival

 
Where did the inspiration for ‘Good Kisser’ come from and how did it evolve? Inspiration comes from having had quite a few relationships, some with drama and some with trauma. I’m a romance person. I’m a lover. But in my own personal life, I also realize it’s about picking the wrong people.

I wanted to write a story about romantic relationships that aren’t one-dimensional, that aren’t “okay, here’s the villain.” I wanted to get into the actual visceral experience that comes from (lead character) Jenna, the trauma and the visceral experience of beginning to get a clue that you’re not being treated very well, yet you’re not trusting your own instincts. I also wanted it to be three women and I wanted to explore what is desire and what is attraction. I wanted it to be sex-positive. Here’s a woman, or women, who know what they want. Different characters communicate differently. I wanted to have one character who is more sexually open than her girlfriend. It’s about that experience in and of itself.
 

What’s the basic premise of the film? It’s a lesbian love triangle. I’m interested in threes. I’m interested in a love triangle. Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together is a triangle (J and J is Carlton’s 2011 feature that IMDb describes as “two women whose codependent, loyal friendship is fraught with erotic tension … a romantic comedy with musical numbers.”) As a writer, it’s something I’m very drawn to. It’s something you can draw from and how it plays off of one another from different angles. The three people happen to be queer, but when I write straight characters, I write in triangles too.
 

WENDY JO CARLTON
JAMIE AND JESSIE ARE NOT TOGETHER TRAILER

 

How does the story venture beyond a romcom hook-up? The through-line for Good Kisser is about the visceral experience of feeling gaslit in a relationship, but you really love the person and you’re attracted to the person. That’s why a person tends to doubt what’s best to do — ”I’m not sure, I don’t want to lose this person, maybe they’re in a bad mood, work makes them feel like shit.”
 

What will audiences like most about the lead characters? Viewers are going to like that they can probably see a little bit of themselves in each of the three main women, because they’re complex and they have interesting personalities. They’re not just one thing. There are a couple twists in the story. It’s relatable. It’s good acting. It’s a bit of a ride that’s fun to be on — visceral, erotic — but also fun ride.
 

What did you like most about the lead actors? Kari Alison Hodge, who plays the lead, Jenna, what makes her so great for the role is her acting talent, obviously, but she… it’s really hard to say. It’s such a weird thing, casting. There’s a je ne se quoi. I saw Kari’s audition and immediately knew, okay, this is Jenna. It was the chemistry and her ability to convey vulnerability and a certain naiveté and at the same time being whip smart.

Rachel Paulson, who plays Kate, is Sarah Paulson’s little sister. She’s the blonde. I met her three years ago when I started writing the script. I saw her in an LGBTQ+ genre short, and for some reason, she was in my head as the character Kate. I reached out to her and said do you want to have coffee. She was interested even after I told her it was going to be little to no money.

I cast Julia Eringer as Mia because she is a very prepared and experienced actor and she fits the chemistry. These three actors, their chemistry has to work in real life or it’s not going to be believable on screen. They all really bonded and helped each other out. Mia is also a few years older than the couple and is more world-traveled and a little more well-read and sophisticated.
 

How are relationships explored in the film? There are so many levels of emotional maturity when we deal with different people. Sometimes they will never be at the right level. Sometimes the timing is off. Sometimes a person is always a selfish jerk, and you should always stay away from them. Sometimes you love the person, but they have cheated on you. But ten years later, that would not have happened. I am interested in the timing as well as self-love and self-awareness and the boundaries and putting yourself first.
 

WENDY JO CARLTON
EASY ABBY SEASON 2 TEASER

 
What makes the film funny? The timing has this light touch, and you can kind of see the humor within the women that it’s a sexy but awkward situation. Even the actors, when they saw the finished movie, all three of them said to me, “wow, it’s got this timing and humor.” That’s what we call voice.
 

What were the greatest joys and challenges of production? The greatest joy is that we pulled it off with twelve shoot days on a movie. That, in terms of relationships and nuances, is very difficult to have. We shot everything at night last October. We did 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Shot on-location in Seattle. Small crew with a micro-budget.
 

Why Seattle? I used to live in Seattle, so I have a lot of old friends here. I came to escape the winter and distance myself from a previous relationship. I had a lot of immediate interest and support for getting Good Kisser made. Projects are weird. You gotta do what you gotta do. Seattle and Washington have good incentives, too.
 

What gear did you use? ARRI and a RED Dragon. Shot in 5K. That was my first one of those. The files are huge. I have a 4k edit and I have a 2k. The 2k is what most people are asking for because they can’t handle it on their end. Easy Abby and Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together were 1080HD.
 

What about the soundtrack? I was really, really excited to get to work with Seattle-based musician and composer Alex Guy. She plays viola and piano and writes pop songs, too. She plays in a lot of bands. I said, ‘you know what, I like strings.’ Her sensibility is broader — I know her pop songs and love songs. I knew that she would understand a complicated love story musically. There are also pop songs as well from other people I know.
 

How did you grow personally and professionally while shooting the film? With every project that I make, I’m learning tons of new things. I’m getting a little bit more confident. Growing even more confident in my instincts. Decisions have to be made on a dime. This kind of project helps me become a better director. I’m working with talented cast and crew. I think it’s really important to remain open to what I don’t know and what ideas the actors have for their characters. Sometimes they’ll suggest, “what if they say this instead of this.” I’ll say yes or no and either answer will help the actor understand the character.
 

How is the film’s reception going so far? The world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival, in late May, was really great. And then it was in Toronto. This straight guy, your age range, came out to me as straight. He’s like, you know, I’m happily married, and here’s what I love about your movie.
 

How can big studios and networks help Good Kisser and your other projects? Obviously there’s a market and a response. Teachers got bought by TV Land. That’s what I still hope for Easy Abby. It’s me who made it. I exist. You could buy my content and then remake it, and I’m a consulting producer or executive producer. TJ Fishwick (Teachers producer) is Chicago, too. That’s one scenario I would want.

But if you write your heart out rather than chasing what you think the studios want to see, I prefer that route. They’re throwing money at other writers and directors like me for that model. I might as well write my heart out and create stories and characters who I love and care about rather than chase after the next shiny thing.
 

What about the industry’s lack of gender equity? I really wish straight men would push Hollywood to give them better stories and diverse characters, and not portray them so often as one-dimensional idiots. There’s a preponderance of that model and scenario across America especially because of patriarchy, and the assembly line model for consumerism. But most men who I know personally are also not portrayed in that model! I like to write compelling male characters as well. That’s why truly independent filmmaking matters.
 

What’s next for Wendy Jo? Right now, I am writing a screenplay for a film called Yellow Belt, to be based in Seattle and featuring a female scientist who goes on an urban adventure when she gets caught in the middle of a misunderstanding. I’m also writing a book in the background right now. It’s about dealing with the unexpected death of somebody you’re really close to and you felt a kinship with and how we are affected by it and how we affected one another. That’s what I’m fascinated with: lovers, and how do we affect one another. What do we see and perceive as the essence of what we’re attracted to? How did we pay attention to what we didn’t like? I love the idea of unconditional love, and that’s what I expect and want in my next relationship. And I also have to work on it. I like to write about that experience because a lot of people have it. We can’t understand it. We’re mammals and we can look at lions and dogs and cats and see that they have relationships and kinships and survival with each other. Right? It’s infinite, the possibilities with human beings. I love writing about friendships, too.
 

WENDY JO CARLTON
WENDY JO ON ‘EASY ABBY’ CIMMFEST | 2014

 
Send your news and updates to Reel Chicago Editor Dan Patton, dan@reelchicago.com.

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