Tired of your typical indie movie fare? Try Homemakers on for size. Written and directed by Colin Healey, this remarkable feature follows Irene McCabey, one of the most polarizing, frustrating, childish and compelling protagonists to grace indie screens in quite sometime. After discovering that her musician girlfriend is cheating on her, Irene flees from Austin to claim a recent inheritance from her dead uncle: a run-down house in Pittsburgh. As she works to rebuild the house with a few local derelicts and her long-lost cousins, Irene briefly enjoys a calmer, more predictable life, but soon chaos finds her again.
Newcomer Rachel McKeon is revelatory as Irene, delivering a captivating, visceral and unfiltered performance. She manages to be both repellent and compelling, and the audience can only watch agape as these petit powerhouse commands the screen. We had the opportunity to speak with both Colin Healey and McKeon about their unique collaborative process, the oddities of Pittsburgh and why running time shouldn’t matter.
Tribeca: Colin, can you talk about the impetus behind Homemakers?
Colin Healey: I think it started with Pittsburgh. I like places, and I saw the opportunity to build a great narrative there. I’ve had the character of “Irene” in my head for a few years now and knew she would be a perfect fit in that world.
Tribeca: Most filmmakers for their first film tend to stay close to NYC or gravitate to a film mecca such as Austin. Did moving the shoot to Pittsburgh alleviate some of the pressure that comes with working in New York or Austin and allow you to do what you want?
CH: I think so. Rachel and I were both living in Pittsburgh after fleeing from New York City around the time Homemakers was coming together. We did end up shooting just certain sequences in Austin. I had already seen what working in NYC would be like, and I liked the idea of Irene being exiled from Austin. I loved making the film in Pittsburgh because I didn’t want to worry about being cool [laughs]. I could just entrench myself in my work, and I felt free to make what I wanted without asking for anyone’s permission.
Tribeca: Homemakers was part of the 2013 IFP Narrative Labs, so you did have support with the project?
CH: Since I had essentially exiled myself from New York to make the movie and be an artist in Pittsburgh, I had to try and make connections. Being part of the IFP Narrative Labs was a really helpful and exciting experience. I made a lot of friends during that time.
I don’t find men that interesting in movies. Their stories have already been told.
Tribeca: You can’t help but think of movies like The Smithereens, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains and Times Square when you watch Homemakers. Did any film in particular inspire this project?
CH: Actually no! [laughs]
Rachel McKeon: It’s such an honor for Homemakers to be compared to a movie like Times Square. I think our creative spirit is certainly entwined with similar themes of youth and rebellion.
CH: I actually gave her some old Gilda Radner clips to watch for inspiration.
RM: The clip I watched the most involved her character Candy Slice, a Patti Smith-type rocker who gives her all with every performance. She can't keep it together and constantly falls all over the place. Her band has to keep picking her back up.
On my own, I watched scenes from Step Brothers [laughs]. I think if you’re going to make a movie about a rebellious woman, it’s almost a disservice to watch other movies about rebellious women. Irene’s type of rebellion was organic. I didn’t want to be tempted to copy facets of this Rebel Girl persona—I wanted to create that on my own.
Tribeca: It’s not usual to see a movie with such a strong, punk, LBGT heroine.
CH: I don’t find men that interesting in movies. Their stories have already been told.
RM: Even though Colin had written this incredibly complex female character, he never talked about her like she was a woman. I liked that. I feel like Colin identified with Irene and believed in her so much that there was no talking about Irene as a woman vs. a man. She just was Irene.
CH: I liked the idea of someone ambiguously gendered.
RM: She is ambiguous, and I felt like I—whether I liked it or not—brought a lot of womanhood to the part. However, I’m proud of that. Irene is the type of character that cannot be reduced to a stereotype.
CH: Irene is difficult to categorize. None of the descriptions we’ve written of the character quite fits. Irene is based on a real person who has to be seen to be believed, and she is the kind of person who should be the subject of a movie. If someone could be described very quickly, they shouldn’t have a movie made about them.
Tribeca: Rachel, how did you find out about the project?
RM: I saw a breakdown for the character. I knew whoever had written that breakdown was someone who was smart. Film breakdowns—especially bad ones—start off with character description like “Julie: 23, drop dead gorgeous,” a real turn off [laughs] Colin’s breakdown was funny, and the character was instantly very clear to me. The supporting characters also featured in the breakdown made sense to me as well.
I should add that I was living in this really bizarre duplex reserved for artists with 10 other roommates at the time. A bunch of the people who lived in the house already knew Colin and vouched for him.
CH: It’s a small town with a wonderfully artistic and strange community.
I don’t think any story should be shackled by a running time. Not every idea generates 90 minutes worth of material.
Tribeca: You really get a feel for the unique community in the film. For example, the Hoagie man is unforgettable.
CH: The hoagie experience actually happened to me in real life, but way crazier. [laughs] I was walking by a house that I had never noticed before on my way to a bar. The door flew open and this dude ran out and said, “hey, do you want this hoagie?” When I replied, “no, no thank you,” he then threw the hoagie in the air and a car ran over it. The next day, the house was demolished.
Tribeca: A perfect anecdote for a movie, right?
RM: It’s just something that would happen to you on the streets of Pittsburgh [laughs].
Tribeca: It was so refreshing to see a NY filmmaker escape from Williamsburg explore a different city.
RM: America is huge, vast and beautiful. While New York is obviously wonderful, mysterious, and complex, there have been a lot of movies made about NYC. People should venture outside their comfort zone and explore different parts of the country to make movies. When you’re in New York, it’s so hard to get out of that NYC mindset.
CH: People write for so many different reasons. Some want to escape from something, and others want to forget what they know and create a new world for themselves. I think New York does something to writers. It devours them, in a sense, and they end up writing fucking shit about New York however much they try to get away from the City!
Filmmakers who are abusive towards actors need to remember that actors are their collaborators.
Tribeca: Rachel, you studied at acting at NYU. Can you talk about how you approach characters? Did your approach differ with Irene?
RM: With Irene I got to do things that I learned in drama school that I never have had the opportunity to do before. I was taught how to create somebody’s walk, how to change my posture to serve the character, and how to decide what range of my voice would work best. All of those skills finally came into play with Homemakers.
Colin gave me the chance to experiment before we got to set. We met in the weeks before shooting to figure out how Irene would walk or hold herself in different situations. We took care of that before the cameras started rolling, which was extremely helpful. If we had to make all of those choices on the first day, it would’ve been really stressful in an already stressful situation.
Tribeca: If you were to describe Colin in one word as a director, what would it be?
Rachel: That’s tough [laughs] Colin is a natural at directing actors who care about art. I’m sure the rest of the cast would agree. We all spoke the same language. I don't know if the right word is compassionate, sympathetic, or understanding? When we ran into problems, we worked through it together, which is more a testament to Colin than to me. He was incredibly in touch with the artistic process of an actor. Colin didn’t want a bunch of meat-puppets on screen.
Colin: Filmmakers who are abusive towards actors need to remember that actors are their collaborators. In general, it was very important for me on the set that we are kind to each other. I made sure to listen to everyone’s ideas and perspectives.
Tribeca: The house is obviously an extension of Irene. Can you talk about the location? How did you and your production design team approach shaping the home as the movie progresses?
CH: I had an awesome production team. Seth, one of my production designers, just happens to be one of my oldest friends who runs an art studio in Pittsburgh. He had never worked on a movie before. Danielle, our other designer, was just getting out of the CMU grad program and had only done theatre work. They worked together as a team. Seth’s specialty deals with deteriorating architecture, so I knew the audience would get a wonderful feel for this smelly, rotting house.
RM: Danielle has such an eye for nostalgia.
CH: Danielle is an expert at selecting objects. She knows where to find anything. Not to take anything away from Rachel, but a lot of character building is done through set design. The production team had to interpret Irene instead of just interpreting the world that I’m telling them exists. They had to interpret what she would like. A lot of what we learn about Irene comes from the stuff that surrounds her.
RM: You realize that Danielle is making choices about the house during the course of the film. So much about Irene is mirrored in the house and in the possessions she puts in it. It’s those little details or knickknacks that really help you understand her. I’m not responsible for those things [laughs]. They were also really helpful for me! They gave me so much.
Irene is the type of character that cannot be reduced to a stereotype.
Tribeca: This is your cinematographer Ben Powell’s first feature film as well. How did you work with him to establish the look of the film? What cameras did you use?
CH: We used a Canon C300 for every shot except for one. We didn’t storyboard or anything like that. We established a set of rules. The main rules were that we couldn’t use any fake movie lighting—we used only natural lighting and the lights found in the house. The sets were entirely 360 and Ben could go anywhere with the camera within the scene. Rachel got to touch anything she wanted to in a scene, which was great for the keeping the set people on their toes. They constantly had to be thinking about what she could use in each scene. Also, we made the decision to do away with a tripod so that Irene’s world is handheld and handmade
RM: You also had an eye-line rule.
CH: We tried to stay on your level.
RM: I think that’s always really effective. It makes you feel close to Irene because you see the world as she sees it.
CH: Because our sets were so outlandish, Homemakers could have been ended up looking very cartoonish. We were actively trying to counteract that idea. We covered everything in a layer of dust and tried to shoot it like a documentary. Everything Irene did was grounded in the real world.
Tribeca: Even though Irene is a punk rocker, the mostly piano-based score is minimal, but effective. Can you talk about collaborating with Matt Bryan?
CH: Matt Bryan is the best human. He’s so sweet and weird. He loves to experiment with music. Surprisingly, he got very emotional when composing. The three people who can feel Irene’s pain the most are me, Rachel and Matt Bryan [laugh]. The song they sing together—that’s not a band—that’s just her and Matt.
RM: Matt wrote that song just before I came to Austin and played all the instruments in it. We recorded the vocals the day after I arrived.
Tribeca: Is this the first time you’ve been able to incorporate music into acting?
RM: It’s not the first time, and I hope it continues! Music is such a huge part of my life. Plus, my least favorite thing in the world is to watch a film in which somebody who is supposed to be a singer lip-syncs to someone else’s voice. It just never looks right. You want someone to get up there and belt out a torch song so that the audience believes.
CH: What’s a torch song?
RM: A torch song is the big 11 o’clock, sultry number.
Tribeca: Think Judy Garland singing The Man Who Got Away in A Star is Born.
RM: One thing that I was determined to do was to portray Irene realistically as the leader, or front woman, of a band. I wanted the audience to know that she can really let loose. I feel like I’m pretty happy about the way it looks. People keep asking us if there’s a real band.
Tribeca: I noticed that you both have written and directed short films before making Homemakers. Why do you think short filmmaking is important?
CH: When I made Homemakers, I don’t think I realize how important short filmmaking was. When you make a feature as a first-time filmmaker, nobody knows who you are, and that’s been difficult for us. If we had made a short and gotten into a few festivals, we would have been able to meet programmers and get our names out there. Maybe that would have helped us with Homemakers, and we’d be in a healthier position for distribution. Instead, we were out in Pittsburgh doing weird shit [laughs].
However, I don’t think any story should be shackled by a running time. Not every idea generates 90 minutes worth of material. There are plenty ideas that deserve to be made into a film that could be thirty seconds or four hours. I think there should be more four hour-long movies. There is something so magical about sitting down and just being stuck in a different world. I think it’s harder to achieve that feeling with a short film.