WILLIAMSTOWN — It's been a long journey for filmmaker Stacy Cochran from her previous movie to her current one — almost 20 years have passed. But Cochran isn't looking back at all. Instead, she is diving into the future with a scrappy ethic.
The Williams College alumna will sit down for a public conversation about her career following a screening of her new film "Write When You Get Work," Saturday afternoon at 2 at the Clark Art Institute.
"Write When You Get Work" is a New York City-based romantic comedy revolving around a private girls school and a proposed caper, with a critical eye on the city's cross-borough class system. Shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit, acclaimed for his work on films like "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," and "There Will Be Blood," the film stars Finn Wittrock, Rachel Keller and Emily Mortimer.
Cochran's film pulls from her experience living in New York City, and of her friends who have worked at private schools. A recent ride in a taxi, and a conversation with the driver who was quizzing her about her work, crystallized for her why she wrote the script and why she tells the stories she does.
"I write about stuff that makes me really mad, but I don't want the movies to feel mad," she said, "so I write about things that I'm trying to set right and then try and make them a version of comedy. If you're writing and directing films, you're just creating a fictional universe that's an alternative to the one you live. The idea is to write something that feels as authentic as possible, but also completely under your control where you're moving the pieces around exactly as you wish you could in your real life."
The new movie is Cochran's deep dive into filmmaking after a nearly two-decades-long absence. Her 1992 debut feature, "My New Gun," starred Diane Lane. Her 1996 follow-up, "Boys," boasted Winona Ryder in the lead. Her final feature, "Drop Back," was released in 2000, and then life happened. One part of that was the birth of her third child, which added obvious complications.
But another obstruction came in the form of 9-11. Cochran's family lived near the World Trade Center and found their home inaccessible for a year. They lived in cramped quarters with another family during that time.
At the same time, a film script she had been developing had promising prospects before the attack, but the subject matter — it was a comedy about someone who sneaks onto a plane — made it a victim of bad timing. But Cochran didn't have any plan to give up on making movies.
"I kept writing things," she said. "I definitely would say that shutting it off was not what happened. Figuring out how to get anything made was the bigger problem."
Over the years Cochran wrote several scripts that she wanted to pursue. When Elswitt agreed to shoot a film with her, "Write Me When You Get Work" was the most logical choice.
"It's set in New York City so we could just do it right here," said Cochran. "We shot it very quickly, 20 days, which is not very much, on Super 16mm. We pulled the cast together quickly and just did it. Some of the things that I had written would not have been possible on that low of a budget. So this is what I did."
The experience was reminiscent of the kind of guerilla filmmaking done in film school. Cochran says that her crew was full of holes and some positions, like location manager, weren't filled until a week or so into the shooting schedule.
"A lot of the locations were very last-minute calls," she said. "And we didn't have a production designer for the first couple of days. He couldn't be there until day four. So I was Skyping with the production designer and running around trying to put stuff up. It did give a kind of excitement to getting what we really needed. I mean, priorities became very important. I knew what I needed out of a scene, so we would shoot it and run."
Cochran says that she loved working that way and appreciates the experience for reminding her of that after time away from it. But she also doesn't pretend that she wouldn't mind working on a less hectic production as well and sees the method as a result of a very real do-or-die aspect to the project.
"To some extent after being out of the game for this long, I didn't really have a choice," she said. "It was either do it this way or don't do it at all, a little bit like grab a stick and run across the field screaming. It's kind of all we had. So I did it. The point was to get back into the real movie business."
In this way, Cochran sees "Write When You Get Work" as her second first film and in contrast to her original first film experience, she realizes she's the person responsible for creating the momentum that will lead to the next film. And that's certainly her hope — she continues writing and working on short films but also strives to set her own tone to her filmmaking career this time around.
"It's a business of hurry up and wait," she said. "This time around, I'm deciding not to wait. I'm not spending any time waiting. I'm just making my own stuff and writing my own stuff. And so the waiting, it's still kind of happening, but I'm not thinking about it. I'm thinking about what is all around me, which is pretty cool."