The Arty Semite

Naomi Foner on 'Very Good Girls' and Her Famous Children

By Curt Schleier

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Photo courtesy Tribeca Film

Screenwriter Naomi Foner was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her original screenplay for “Running on Empty.” She also wrote other high-profile projects such as “Losing Isaiah” and “Bee Season.” So you’d think the Hollywood establishment would rush to sign on for “Very Good Girls,” her latest script.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

“I wrote this a long time ago, and it’s been in my drawer for many years,” she told the Forward in a telephone interview.

In some ways, it’s not surprising. The film is about two best friends, Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), who pledge to lose their virginity before they leave for college. Problems arise when they fall for the same guy and he prefers one over the other.

Though it sounds on the surface a lot like typical summer fare, it is an intelligent, affecting movie about friendship, honesty and family. Foner spoke to the Forward about getting the film made, how her grandfather used to write to the Forverts for advice on fishing and how proud she is of her children, Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Curt Schleier: I was really disappointed the other day. I went to McDonald’s and asked them for Lily and Gerry action figures. They didn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t understand. Did you actually make a summer movie without major tie-ins?

Naomi Foner: [Laughs] It really took me five years to get it made. Hollywood is only interested in gigantic movies with McDonald’s tie-ins that require us to travel to other cosmic universes. There’s not much of an appetite for independent films. It can take three or four years to get the required financing, either from a Kickstarter campaign or to find some angel who believes in the project and will pay for it, even though it has two women in the leads. It was difficult, despite the fact that I had both these great actors (Fanning and Olson).

What’s the genesis of the story?

It is based on the fact that as a young women there weren’t female characters in movies I could identify with. I always identified with guys. I thought women of this age range were interesting.

This is the first time you directed a movie. Did taking on that role make it easier to sell the project?

It made it harder. The subject was female. A first-time female director. But I’ve been in the business for a long time. I also attended the American Film Institute directing workshop for women. I should have directed before now. It’s easier to be a writer. Directing requires your total attention. I was married to a director [Stephen Gyllenhaal] and he was often away. And we couldn’t both be away from the kids at the same time.

I’m Glad you mentioned your kids. There was time they were introduced as Maggie and Jake, you know, Naomi Gyllenhaal’s kids. But with all their success, it’s turnaround time. You are probably introduced as Jake and Maggie’s mom.

[Laughs] [Their success] delighted me. I still often introduce myself as their mother and I’m totally comfortable with that. I’m delighted with the fact that they’ve done so well. As long as they’re well and happy and do what they love. We’re all only as happy as our least-happy child.

Speaking of family, can you tell me a little about your life growing up?

My grandfather used to have frequent correspondence with the fishing editor of the Forverts. He wanted to know how to catch snooks. So the Forward has long been a part of my life. My parents are both the children of immigrants. They attended public high schools and tuition-free city colleges. My mother and father both became doctors. That was the way it was back then. They had great expectations for their children. Everybody was supposed to do better than the generation before them. I think they were deeply disappointed I decided to go into the entertainment business rather than become a doctor.

What about your Jewish upbringing?

We were Reform Jews. I did go to synagogue, but we were more on the edge of a political, cultural left Jews. I still have a Seder every year and we have as many non-Jews there as Jews.

When I interviewed Maggie a couple of years ago, she mentioned fond memories of your progressive hippie Seders.

I certainly think of myself as Jewish and I tried to bring up my children think of themselves as Jews. I think of my background as kind of tikkun [olam].


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