Gina O’Brien thinks that, ironically, quarantine “couldn’t be better” for her film’s release, coming to Amazon Prime on September 8th. “Everyone’s home, looking for stuff to stream”, she explains to Screen Queens’ Bethany Gemmell. To make the timing even better, “we’re premiering during the US Open and, and I want to think that that means nothing, but you know, I think this film’s going to appeal to a certain type of tennis player”. That certain type, based on O’Brien’s own description of her tennis skills, is one of an enthusiastic amateur, “only a little better than sucking”.
This is the situation the protagonist Madi Cooke finds herself in in O’Brien’s directorial debut First One In, a gleefully chaotic underdog story revolving around the class divisions and high stakes in the game of tennis. After accidentally wiping out an endangered species on a reality show, Cooke (played by Kat Foster) returns home to find herself jobless. Finding potential resolve under the employment of Bobbi Mason (Georgia King), a shrill, overachieving tennis obsessive that only hires tennis pros, Madi’s future rests on her ability to play the game.
Bethany Gemmell: I read that you were once a journalist and magazine editor. Did that, in any way, prepare you for film-making?
Gina O’Brien: It absolutely didn’t prepare me for film-making. It was such an incredibly great job as a magazine editor, it was for a travel magazine, and my beat was hotels and resorts around the world, and that was great for, you know, a kid in her 20s, to travel and write about it. I’ve been to some amazing places.
That was great, until I settled down to have kids and couldn’t travel the way I had been. I wanted to be home with them, so that job ended, and then I was doing just a little bit of freelance here and there, for a couple of newspapers and other magazines. I just always loved to listen to dialogue — to hear people speak, so I just started to write down conversations and think about them.
It was at a time when indie film was probably around its prime, and I thought, “Oh, you know, maybe somehow I could, you know, write a screenplay and somebody would want to make it” and that’s how I started screenwriting.
I wrote a couple of screenplays in-between raising kids and those films were made so that was exciting. It was really exciting, I’m so thankful that they were made. But at the same time, of course, you know, you hand it over to a director and a production team and it’s gone. You say goodbye to it, and it’s, you know, you try not to watch it the same.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, that it becomes somebody else’s, and I really didn’t want that to happen this time around so I bit the bullet and I had a lot of support and so I directed.
Viewers may already be familiar with your work, with writing credits for 2015’s Fan Girl and 2009’s Once More with Feeling. Were there any lessons you learned from screenplay writing that came in useful when directing for the first time?
Oh, sure. I was lucky enough to be welcome on set and really be a part of watching everything. Also, I have my daughter — who is 23 — she is a filmmaker. Almost two years ago, she graduated from Chapman University in LA, so I would go to her and ask her a lot of questions as well.
In fact, she was super helpful making this film because, you know, besides asking her very basic questions, I had her play a very small role of “Front Desk Debbie”. As a mom and daughter, we had a lot of fun making this, so she was very helpful.
That first day when I stepped on set, I said, “okay, I have prepared as much as possible”, but it felt good to have somebody near me that I could just ask really stupid questions to [laughs]. We did prepare, we shot list every scene. It was a very wonderful experience, I really think a lot of people on set had a good time, and it’s a comedy, so it was easy to have fun.
You’ve stated that you are an avid tennis player. What made you decide that the sport was an ideal centrepiece for a film?
Oh my gosh, there’s so many answers to that! First of all, I’m a lousy tennis player. I’m so bad at it, and I have been trying for a very long time to get better. I started playing in my early 40s, and I started with some women my age, and we did have a lot of laughs. It was the tennis, the tennis tropes, that the things we say to each other, the way we compete. You would think, as we age, we would become more mature. The competition is still there, and it was just fun to observe.
We’ve seen a lot of comedies in the past that centre around sports, but what makes First One In different, is that it is an ensemble cast that is almost entirely women. Did that influence your approach to directing? Did you feel a need to represent women in a certain way?
Yes! I think that there was an unspoken feeling of support for each other on this film.
It’s not like we’re [going] “Rah rah rah! Women! We’re doing this!” It was more, “of course we got this!” [laughs]. It was really, really fun for me to watch all of these women. I mean, we were a cast of thirty-three, and on any given day, that was like two teams of six female players each, so it was fun to observe how everybody was thrown together and got along. It was like, this unspoken support for each other, and some great friendships were made.
I’m still hearing from Catherine Curtin, Emy Coligado, Aneesh Sheth, and Karina Arroyave. The four of them were so much fun. They sort of became the funny group on set and they were always together, and it was great to watch that. There were a couple of other women, Betsy Wolfe and Margaret Anne Florence, who play, Mary Beth and Grace. They were hysterical. They had never met each other and they just worked out so well, and now they’re best friends. So that was great to see. All along, we had a feeling of “we got this! This is our movie! We can do this!”
What I thought was really fun about First One In is seeing all the different approaches to comedy the actors used. Georgia King was really excellent in delivering physical comedy, and Kat Foster has this great comedic line delivery. What was your approach to directing comedy and incorporating all these different approaches from the cast?
With Kat and Georgia, I was looking for a yin-and-yang and I certainly got it with both of them. They knew their roles immediately. I spent time with each of them individually and then together and we spoke about certain scenes. They’re super professional and versatile.
I approached this film as “I want it to be really funny and there are funny people out there, I want to find them and I’d really like to use them and have them feel free to elevate the material if possible”. I got exactly what I was looking for. I went to the UCB improv group website and I just started looking at every video that was up there and that’s where I saw Jeff Hiller and Cathryn Mudon. We went out for those two and I’m so happy they were available and came on the set, and were just so funny and I felt comfortable enough to just bring the material to another level. I encouraged improv, not just from them, but from everybody, because funny people say funny things!
It definitely felt to me like improv. Especially in the more ensemble scenes, it seemed very much in the moment, like they were bouncing off each other. I was wondering, did you go particularly off-script for this, or were you kind of trying to direct the kind of comedy in a certain way?
We would always get a take from the script, so we would always have that in our pocket, and then we would just let them go… let them continue on speaking and see if there was anything we could grab. And that’s it. That’s what they did — all of them.
What were your comedic inspirations?
Oh my gosh, well, I’m really very immature with my comedy. I loved the movie Dodgeball, and so that was an inspiration. I do love Mel Brooks, and I would actually take snippets from different movies before we would start a scene. If it was an idea that I loved and that I wanted to maybe emulate in some way, I would show the actor, and say “Do you see this? We won’t do quite that, but this is the feeling that I’m trying to get”. So that definitely was helpful. I watched and read as much as possible, because I don’t have that film-making background.
First One In is ultimately an underdog story. We have this kind of David-and-Goliath dynamic between these two groups of women, largely separated by social class, and the audience roots for Maddie and her rag-tag team of misfit tennis players. What do you want audiences to take away from the film and its characters? From what you’ve told me, it seems like Maddie and her friends are inspired by your experiences of taking up tennis.
You know what, I want people to have more fun! I know that sounds a little ridiculous, but wow. What a crazy world this is right now, for so many reasons. This is nothing more than a light comedy, that hopefully, will make some people laugh. Hopefully in my next project, maybe I’ll dive deep and it’ll be a little more dramatic, but this isn’t that. This is just have a laugh.
Well, there’s nothing wrong with just wanting to have fun, that’s a good thing. I’s important to have relief right now. I certainly felt that when I watched it.
*This interview was edited for clarity and length*
First One In is available to stream on Amazon Prime from September 8th
by Bethany Gemmell
Bethany graduated from 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.