Yes, it’s Leighton Meester in Life Partners. The actress, her co-star Gillian Jacobs, and director/co-writer Susanna Fogel talk about how they achieved such an accurate, yet incidental, portrayal of a gay twentysomething woman.
In Hollywood, queer women tend to fall into a few stereotypical categories: the woman who falls in love with her best friend (Glee’s Santana Lopez), the manipulative lady-killer (Orange Is The New Black’s Alex Vause), the woman whose sexuality is depicted as a result of being mistreated by men (Masters of Sex’s Betty DeMillo), and the ultra-feminine woman who makes every male fantasy come true (Chicago Fire’s Leslie Shay).
And while there are certainly exceptions to these general tropes, filmmakers and television creators often struggle to portray a realistically rendered young lesbian or bisexual woman without defaulting to the aforementioned stereotypes or having the character talk about her sexuality so much that she might as well be wearing a flashing neon sign.
Susanna Fogel’s Life Partners, however, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, depicts a twentysomething lesbian whose sexual orientation is neither ignored nor belabored, but incidental.
The movie, which has yet to be picked up for distribution, centers on Sasha (Leighton Meester), an aspiring musician working as a receptionist by day and dating all the wrong girls, and her best friend Paige (Gillian Jacobs) — after whom Sasha does not secretly pine — a well-established environmental lawyer who finds herself falling for a nerdy hippie of a dermatologist, Tim (Adam Brody). Both characters are fully fleshed out women who have relationships, flaws, and strengths that aren’t specific to their sexualities. And that’s something that came naturally for first-time feature director Fogel, who co-wrote the script with her longtime best friend Joni Lefkowitz.
Meester couldn’t be further from her headband-wearing, uptight, overly romantic Blair Waldorf days on Gossip Girl with Sasha, and though there is a bit of Britta’s caustic nature that Jacobs has played on Community for five seasons in Paige, it’s new territory for the two actresses, both of whom have largely been associated with their television roles.
Meester said she had a lot in common with Sasha, including her “weird sense of humor” and “resistance to change,” and Jacobs, who said she cringed (“in a good way”) when she first read the script because of how relatable she found it, said she had some Sasha in her as well. “I definitely had a period in my life where, before I started working a lot as an actor, I was dead broke and all my friends were more successful than I was. I always say I was like Ray in Season 1 of Girls where I was sleeping on other people’s floors,” Jacobs said with a laugh. “You do have this moment of wondering, Is it ever actually going to work out for me or am I going to be that person that wanted to be an actor and all my friends are moving along career-wise in their respective paths? So yeah, I’ve been there and I’ve felt stuck and I’ve been like, I went to drama school. I don’t really have an education and I don’t have a lot of other options.”
But the actress admitted she can relate to one of Paige’s less favorable qualities. “I try to be less uptight than she is,” Jacobs said, sighing. “It’s so funny because when I was little, I wanted to be a lawyer, and my mom said that she could never win an argument with me because I would always be like, ‘Well, actually, on June 3 at 3:15, you said…’”
Although Meester and Jacobs had the benefit of directly working with their source material — Fogel and Lefkowitz — on a daily basis on the Life Partners set, Sasha and Paige don’t directly correlate to the screenwriters, who’ve known each other since high school. “We really tried to make the characters just amalgamations of us,” Fogel said. “We don’t have the exact issues that Sasha and Paige have in a one-to-one way, like Joni’s a lesbian and she’s the married one. I’m the unmarried straight one. She was sort of always the optimist when it came to relationships and she sort of wanted to find reasons that it could be the love of her life, whereas I was always looking for flaws in people and being really picky and awful. We brought all of that.”
More relatable than its sympathetic, if imperfect characters, however, is the way Life Partners portrays the complexities of female friendship. The film channels the more sentimental scenes of the 2011 comedic hit Bridesmaids, which saw Kristen Wiig’s Annie feel her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) slipping away as she prepares to walk down the aisle. The script that Fogel and Lefkowitz (who saw Bridesmaids together with 10 other women and thought about it quite a bit) wrote dives into far deeper waters with those very specific elements of late-twentysomething/early thirtysomething relationships, where best friends suddenly find themselves drifting apart as they approach new milestones. As minor as it may seem, when someone’s significant other joins a longstanding friendship TV date of watching America’s Next Top Model over pink wine, or when a nostalgic game of Girl Talk gets interrupted by a call from one friend’s new so-called “life partner,” that’s when the rifts in a friendship become most glaring.
Those moments mimic universal situations young women find themselves faced with; none of the elements of Sasha and Paige’s friendship depend on either’s sexual orientation. And in making their sexualities so tertiary to everything else in the film, Fogel and Lefkowitz were able to create a truly realistic young queer female character. But that wasn’t necessarily the way they first set out to make Life Partners three years ago.
“Our producer Jordana [Mollick] had a bunch of friends who were all frustrated female screenwriters who didn’t ever get their work produced,” said Fogel. “We were all sort of working writers, but never got to see our stuff get made in the system. And she encouraged us all to develop these short plays and direct them and actually see our work up and be able to invite our parents to something and prove to them that we’re actually real writers. We just wanted to do a short personal one-act play, concept-driven little study of a friendship.”
Fogel and Lefkowitz unveiled Life Partners on stage in 2011 as the final installment of Unscreened, a Hollywood showcase of four short plays, with Shannon Woodward (Raising Hope) playing Sasha and Amanda Walsh (These Girls) playing Paige. It opened at the L.A. Pride Parade, with Paige drunkenly promising Sasha she wouldn’t get married until gay marriage was legal… until, of course, she meets Tim. “We sort of wanted the framing device of a promise that one friend makes to another about gay marriage, which was, at the time, something we talked about a lot because Joni’s a lesbian and we would talk about the ironies of people making marriage pacts with each other and promising this and that and then breaking those promises or looking for loopholes and all of the funny stuff that was happening at the time,” Fogel said.
“That was sort of the little twist of the play and when we developed it as a feature, that was the hook going on,” she continued. But when the screenwriters brought Life Partners to the Sundance Lab to develop it into a film, that changed. “We met with all these wonderful writers and part of that development process is they make you answer really tough questions like, What is this really about? and Why do you need to tell this story? And what seemed least interesting to them was that hook. Even though it was compelling and thought-provoking in an abstract way, the most personal thing was the relationship between the friends. And so they kept delving into that more and more and more and more, and, in fact, encouraging us to pitch the story as a story about two friends and the guy that comes between them.”
At the same time, there was a major shift in the country’s collective consciousness about gay marriage, which Fogel said was happening as they were readying to shoot the film, with a certain political element intact. Production began in the spring of 2013, just before the Supreme Court was set to vote on the Defense of Marriage Act.
“The first step in evolving it, knowing that we were going to shoot it like right before the DOMA verdict came in, was to rewrite a couple scenes at the end to sort of account for whatever the outcome would be. But at the same time, the political layer was so specific to the state that they lived in and what was going on there, and then it started to be like all the states’ laws were changing,” said Fogel. “We started to worry that by just being specific to that state, it would start to become a period piece overnight, which would be interesting as a document of a time, but what we didn’t want was for it to be so specific to that that people would not know that it was a more universal friendship story and think it was more of an issue movie, which isn’t inherently a bad thing. But we just didn’t want to limit our audience to people who see movies that are overly political in that way.”
As a result, gay marriage and Paige’s drunken promise to Sasha were removed from the final cut of Life Partners, allowing the movie to exist without politics, which is partly how Fogel and Lefkowitz are able to introduce a queer female character who feels so natural — she’s not coming out, getting married, having children, or dealing with some other issues where her sexual orientation would be an obvious plot point. She’s exactly like any other twentysomething who dates and/or sleeps with the wrong people sometimes, is struggling to overcome her fears and do what she dreams of doing, does some selfish things, and cherishes weekly TV nights with her friend. And because of that, the few references to her sexual orientation actually feel genuinely earned.
“It just worked out that way,” Fogel said. “Because Joni and I have been friends for so long, since before she was out, and it’s so much in the fabric of our friendship and in the backdrop, like, Oh yeah, she dates people and the people she dates are women. She has good and bad relationships with women and I have good and bad relationships with men; it’s not something we talk about in terms of politics.”
Meester said she was particularly careful about making sure Sasha didn’t become a stereotype. “I had a lot of support from our writer-director team,” she said. “I felt free to move within the parameters of our story without ever fearing I’d develop a caricature. That, and the fact that Sasha’s sexual identity is incidental to the story and not a plot point, gave me freedom.”
For Meester, the most challenging scene in the film was one in which Sasha and Paige celebrate Sasha’s birthday (sans Tim) with nostalgic ’90s games and late-night swimming. At one point, Sasha tries to tell Paige how much she misses her as their lives seem to grow further and further apart. “It’s the first time Sasha admits her feelings, but there’s no major resolution for her,” Meester said. “It’s so close to real life in that real confrontation doesn’t always lead to resolution; real life isn’t clean cut.”
Eventually, Sasha and Paige come to blows in the film’s climax when Paige tries to set Sasha up with her co-worker and the fact that their lives are going in disparate directions can no longer be ignored. “They’re just two good, but kind of flawed people, who are, probably for the first time in their relationship, having major tension,” said Jacobs. “That’s also a crazy thing when you have your first big fight with a friend that you’ve never fought with before. Because you’re kind of conditioned to have relationship fights, but when it’s a friend fight, that’s rugged.”
“That [fight scene] was a hard one just tonally to get it right so it wasn’t too harsh or too soft,” she continued. “I remember we did a lot of takes of that. But I feel like both people in that scene are feeling what they’re saying so strongly and all the feelings are there. It’s just you don’t want to swing too far in either direction and blow it up so there’s no coming back from it or if it’s too soft and mild, it’s not really a big rift.”
Still, the scene required quite a bit of editing to reach that middle ground and to do so without the use of a political angle. “The fight scene specifically was interesting because where the scene progressed to when we shot it was a place of talking about the politics and how that was a promise that Paige never really intended to keep,” said Fogel. “The promise was framed in terms of Paige’s inability to admit that she’s wrong. So she makes this promise and then she tries to weasel around it and kind of sort of break it without feeling like a bad person, and the guilt that comes along with that. The best moments in that fight are the moments that ended up in the movie and yet, it was something that we did have to synthetize in the editing room because we did have to work around this other crescendo of the fight that was political.”
As they talk about the script’s evolution, it’s clear the women agree the change was for the better. “You know, it was really great that all these states started to legalize gay marriage after we had shot, but it kind of changed the temperature of the issues, so it made the movie less political because it wasn’t as much of an issue. I mean, thankfully!” Jacobs said. “We were able to make a movie where there wasn’t an exclamation point ever on the fact that Sasha was gay. And I like that. I like that a lot.”