Kiss and tell

Wendy Jo Carlton on exploring different kinds of attraction in Good Kisser

by Jennie Kermode

Wendy Jo Carlton and Rachel Paulson discuss script changes on the set of Good Kisser
Wendy Jo Carlton and Rachel Paulson discuss script changes on the set of Good Kisser Photo: courtesy of Wendy Jo Carlton

Wendy Jo Carlton’s Good Kisser made a splash at last year’s Outfest LA and is now set to become available to the wider public through Netflix. The story of two women who try to spice up their relationship by arranging a threesome with another, it’s a witty drama which mixes comedy with some difficult emotional moments. Ahead of the release, I chatted to Wendy about the ideas underlying the film and how the story developed.

“The story in Good Kisser developed for me because of my own life experiences: relationships, romance, lust, attraction. I’m very drawn to trying to get to that visceral, sensual experience and honouring it. I think it’s very human and dramatic and exciting and universal. As a woman and as a queer woman I am of course very motivated as a storyteller to get these stories out there in a way that is accessible and relatable for anyone watching them, but I do have much more of an interest in representing lesbian and queer women.

“To me, honestly, it’s always going to be somewhat political because the world has made us political. I feel like heteronormative and patriarchal culture makes us political, so to me it’s even more important to make a film and get it out there with broad distribution, which, I’m proud to say, Good Kisser is doing, especially with Netflix running it from August 20th.

Wendy Jo Carlton and Rachel Paulson on the set of Good Kisser
Wendy Jo Carlton and Rachel Paulson on the set of Good Kisser Photo: courtesy of Wendy Jo Carlton

“So for me it’s exciting to see these female characters who are not all the same and are not predictable. To me as a writer that’s important regardless of the narrative. There’s a few different things that came into play when I was writing this narrative, one of which was how much I love being in love and falling in love, and I like to just get down into that because we don’t see a lot of that in mainstream culture, still, and we probably won’t. And that’s fine. I also feel like I am not telling the story for mainstream culture. I’m telling the story for myself, or queer woman - and for queer men as well and transgender-identified folks.”

She wants, she says, to represent “women falling in love, women enjoying sex, unapologetically,” and notes that this film also involves polyamory so doesn’t fit into the norm even within that subset of the population. “it’s radical for mainstream culture but it’s not radical for me or for a lot of men and women I know.”

“Things happen organically in real life,” she continues, “when you meet someone and you’re taken aback by the attraction you feel for them.” in the film “Jenna doesn’t have much expectation except her self-consciousness and wanting to please her girlfriend Kate. “So part of the storyline is how, in real time, she’s taken with the character of Mia – not just physically attracted to her or sexually attracted to her, but intellectually attracted to her. That’s exciting to write about. It’s hard to show that. in filmmaking you want to show things happening, not talk about it, so it was my challenge to try and convey Jenna’s experience in pretty much real time over the course of one night as she starts shifting organically to an attraction she didn’t expect to have.”

We discuss the fact that lesbian films still struggle to find funding and to get mainstream public attention.

“It was very important to me to tell a story and make a film of quality in terms of production design, sound design and everything. I’m used to working with a micro budget but because I’m used to it doesn’t mean that that’s my preference, you know?” It’s a huge accomplishment, she notes, to have succeeded in telling a queer story and a women’s story on a tiny budget and still achieved a level of quality acceptable to Netflix.

“I wanted this to be about love and sex and dishonesty and power, as well – I love writing about shifting power, which happens in a rotating way in Good Kisser.”

Kari Allison Hodge and Julie Eringer in Good Kisser
Kari Allison Hodge and Julie Eringer in Good Kisser

We talk about queer film and the fact that, whilst there is a lot of variety out there, it can take a bit of digging to find it. Wendy also feels that looking outside the US helps her to find films that are more character based and more nuanced. “My goal is to be more nuanced in how I write and direct the characters,” she says. “That’s what I like in the films I like to watch – and especially to watch the protagonist not being perfect and not being completely sure about what she wants. It’s important to me – and it will continue to be important to me – to tell stories about queer female protagonists who are anxiety-ridden, who change their minds, who make mistakes, who are selfish, ad where there’s some price to pay.

“With Kate in Good Kisser – without giving too much away – there are consequences to her self-centeredness and her immaturity. I wanted to portray her as not completely a villain. That’s part of her personality and part of where she is in her life, with some hope that this is not an experience she will forget anytime soon.”

Good Kisser features three characters who want very different things and I note that one of the things I liked about it is Jenna’s journey. As the youngest, one of the things she learns as she grows up over the course of the night is that that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s the least mature.

Wendy laughs. “I agree with that. I love trying to convey what our lived human experience is within the constraint that this is mostly happening in one home in one night. With Good Kisser there’s a lot of emotional movement packed into one night. I’m pretty proud of the actors and what they brought and how we pulled it off.”

I ask how she went about the process of casting.

Good Kisser
Good Kisser Photo: Courtesy of Outfest

“We did a few open auditions in Seattle, where we shot the film in 12 days in October 2018, and it turned out that four of the five people we see in Good Kisser had to be flown up from LA, so it didn’t quite work out to get Seattle casting. Even though some fantastic actors auditioned either they weren’t available when we needed them or they ended up changing their minds about the nudity of semi-nudity.

“So then we had to keep searching and honestly I already had Rachel Paulson, who plays Kate, in mind from meeting her in 2016 when I lived in LA for a year. I can across her through a mutual friend and saw some video of her. Basically it was her more comedic side that I was seeing but I saw something else that could work. So I asked her out for coffee and told her about the movie and she was interested. It took a couple of years for me to get the funding and then she was still on board, so Rachel was the cornerstone for the cast.

“Once we got that secured I then cast to fit Rachel because relatable, believable, sexy chemistry was super important for this movie. Once I had Rachel picked I had to make it work so that the other actors were in the same room with her to audition, so we did rotating actors in LA to read with Rachel. It got real with finding Kari Allison Hodge and Julie Eringer for Jenna and Mia.”

She talks about showing rather than telling, but there’s some cracking dialogue in Good Kisser. How did she strike a balance between making it witty and keeping it natural?

“You know, it’s just the natural way I write,” she says. “Honestly, probably 90% of what in the final movie is what I wrote, and then the rest, well, I worked with the actors ahead of time and on set. Committed, experienced actors are what you hope for and what I got here, luckily, so we just collaborate and I break it down day by day, scene by scene. I ask ‘Are there any questions you have about this scene? Anything not flowing well in your mind for this character as you know her now?’”

Good Kisser poster
Good Kisser poster

Sometimes it’s little things, she says, and sometimes it’s abut changing content. Often it’s about the balance between tone and dramatic elements.

“I walk through the world seeing things as pretty amusing a lot of the time,” she adds, “especially if it’s awkward, because part of what I traffic in is awkward, relatable, human situations, whether someone’s putting their foot in their mouth or...” she drifts off, then laugh. “Well, in Good Kisser, someone does put someone’s foot in their mouth!”

When they first saw the whole film cut together, she says, the actors told her that they found it a lot funnier than they had expected, “this rollercoaster of lighter moments and awkward moments with some serious emotional challenges going on.” She’s intrigued by the fact that she managed to surprise them, adding that most of the tone was there to begin with “but you don’t really know until you cut it together.”

She’s previously made web series as well as films. Is there another film in the future?

“There’s a couple of things I’m working on now,” she says. “I’m working on a novel and there is a lesbian character in there. It’s called Start Telling Everybody. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while to give me the freedom to write and create without having to worry about fundraising and all the other moving parts of making a film.

“Then I’m working on a couple of film scripts. One is called Slipknot and it’s a dark comedy about a middle aged queer woman, a person of colour, who’s a musician who finds herself unexpectedly, temporarily homeless... I like to write about money in a subtle way, and the lack of it, and what that means for working artists.”

Making films, she says, is getting harder – it’s “all about marketing money or the super famous person in it” – but thanks to the generosity of a lesbian woman who died and left her money to make her next film, she’s able to go doing challenging work. “It almost makes me cry with beauty.”

Good Kisser will be available on Netflix from 20 August.

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