In her directorial debut, Karen Maine (co-writer of 2014’s Obvious Child) draws from her real-life experience attending Catholic school in Yes, God, Yes, winner of SXSW’s Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble. Starring Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things, who Maine teamed up with in a 2017 short film version of the now feature-length comedy, Yes, God, Yes was met with critical acclaim – currently at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Maine’s divine comedy sees Dyer’s character, Alice, navigate her growing adolescent sexual identity through the rigmarole of a conservative Catholic upbringing and the sex-negativity forced upon her by her peers. Resulting in her decision to attend a Christian teen camp, an experience that goes hilariously awry, Maine’s tender and light-hearted look at adolescence is an inspiring coming-of-age story that resonates twenty years after the film’s setting.
Screen Queens’ Bethany Gemmell chatted with Maine on early 2000’s television, arm hair, lesbian bars and more….
Bethany Gemmell: Film fans may be familiar with your work before watching Yes, God, Yes, in the film Obvious Child, a film that centres, and aims to ease societal stigmas over abortion. Did your experience in co-writing Obvious Child help with directing sex positivity in Yes, God, Yes?
Karen Maine: Yeah, a bit! With Obvious Child, I wasn’t on set every day because I had a full-time job, but I definitely learned from Gillian [Robespierre, the film’s director] how to do a lot of work on my own. I read a lot, I listened to a lot of podcasts. I didn’t go to film school so I did a lot of stuff learning how to direct. I made a short version of YGY and that helped quite a bit in terms of figuring out how to workshop a full-length feature.
That leads into my next question, YGY was originally a short film released in 2017. I believe this was supposed to be a standalone film, correct?
I had written the short film for YGY in 2014, shortly after I was done with Obvious Child, and the plan had always been to get someone else to direct it because I didn’t have any directing experience. A friend of mine suggested, “you should direct this yourself”, and I hadn’t really thought about it. My producers and I, we made the short film as a pre-concept for the feature to prove that I could direct. It was never intended to be a short. It certainly got a lot of attention online when we released it. We partially wanted some hype because that would help us get funding for the feature, so we didn’t really expect at that point that big of the hype of the film.
It’s funny, sometimes people in reviews are like “this feels like this was a feature that was expanded from a short”, and the truth is that is completely false. The feature existed long, long before the short.
Were there any experiences, or lessons learned from directing a 20-minute version of this film? Is there anything that you brought into the feature length that helped ease your confidence?
I mean, literally everything, because the short was my first time directing anything. I thankfully had the same cinematographer, the same first AD, the same producers, and the same lead actors. That also helped build my confidence, because I knew what it was like working with them and I could trust them to do a good job. I mean, if you’ve never directed before, I would definitely recommend. You get a sense of what it’s like before you do a big-budget feature — well, it wasn’t a big-budget feature, but all features are big-budget features compared to shorts.
You worked with Natalia Dyer on both projects, and of course, directing an actor in what must be quite vulnerable positions regarding sexuality requires a lot of trust between the actor and director. What was your working relationship like with Natalia?
Natalia is wonderful. She’s very collaborative, she’s very hardworking, and she’s just really talented and fun to be around. She’s a first-time director’s dream, really. We had a chat early on where I was very upfront with her about what I wanted and what I’d experienced, and what I wanted for the tone and what I wanted for the characters — the arc, what she’s feeling. I think because I was so open and communicative with her — it sort of opened the door for her to do that back to me. In terms of sex, the film’s all about female masturbation, it’s very light on the sex — especially from an actor’s point of view, it’s better to pretend to have sex with yourself than to pretend to have sex with another actor. It seems less awkward.
How did you come across Natalia? Had you seen her work before?
Yes! But not a lot. When we chatted for the short, the first series of Stranger Things had just come out. One of my producers, Colleen, suggested her and I hadn’t seen Stranger Things, so I watched the first episode and watched a couple of her scenes. I thought “she’s wonderful! She’s great!”, so we called and emailed her the script, and she got back to us and said yes. She was happy to be in New York, and all the pieces just fell together. We just got kind of lucky that we had her email and she liked the script.
From your social media, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re a fan of shows such as Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City — which, like YGY, feature young women navigating and constructing their own sexual identity in the early 2000s. Was there, if any, inspiration taken from these shows, or did they perhaps highlight a gap in how female sexuality is portrayed on screen?
[Laughs] I’ve probably watched Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls way, way too many times, I find that they’re like comfort food to me, like a bowl of mac and cheese. Sex and the City, I think, for its time, was really progressive and wonderful. I think Gilmore Girls, for me, it’s the writing. It’s really witty. I’m sure because I’ve watched those shows so much that in some unconscious ways they inspired me, but I don’t think any particular aspect of sexuality in that film. I think bigger references for me were Fleabag, or Call Me by Your Name —but like from a female perspective, or Diary of a Teenage Girl, things like that.
What I especially loved about Yes, God, Yes was your attempt to create a sort of female gaze, most notably when Alice fantasises about stroking Chris’ arm hair. Now, we know there’s a male gaze that exists quite strongly in films, what was your technique, as a director, of developing a female version? Arm hair is quite specific.
It’s so funny because I definitely wanted to show a feminist twist on something that’s often male dominated. At the same time, I was doing what I remember from being that age, and I think the thing is it’s not that it hasn’t been around, it’s just that it hasn’t been shown in cinema. So it wasn’t so much that I was trying to show the female gaze, but that I was just being true to what I knew growing up. For other people that I’ve talked to — for them it was an adam’s apple, I feel like it’s different for everyone. I just wanted to find, like, there was also one point where [Alice] is obsessed with his eyebrows, but that didn’t make it to the final cut.
I’ve attended Christian camp myself and I was really taken aback at how accurately they were portrayed in your film, especially the speech Nina (played by Alisha Boe) makes where she uses a personal tragedy as a recruitment strategy. Was that autobiographical? Have you attended these camps, or Catholic school, yourself?
Oh, yes. Yes yes yes! Yeah, it was based on a real religious retreat I went on called Kairos. The whole idea is sort of forced trauma sharing, the leaders, these student leaders, they ask you to give them. As a child, being on them, I was like “this is wonderful!” but now, looking back on it, it was very manipulative. They deprive you of your cell phone, and they don’t let you socialise very often, and they’ll be like “Jesus!” when you’re desperate for something or someone to turn to. I fell right through it, so from the beginning, I wanted to show aspects of Catholicism, and I just thought, self-pleasure and masturbation set up a good conflict for the film.
There’s a great scene towards the end of the film where our main character escapes the camp to a lesbian bar and is given advice by an older, formerly Catholic patron. Hearing you say that this film was semi-autobiographical, I couldn’t help but wonder if that character was in any way your way of speaking to younger self?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, that character is sharing lots of values I share in real life. She’s also a compilation of all the people in my life that gave me the knowledge to start thinking differently. Growing up, like in high school, when you start going to normal bars as a young woman, you can feel very vulnerable as there are a lot of men around. I just felt like, sending her to a lesbian bar, felt like a really safe space for her, sort of like her Heaven or whatever. She gets the information she needs to sort of go back into the real world. It’s a really sweet exchange.
Yes God Yes is available now on Digital
by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter.