Meet the Filmmaker: Madeleine Olnek (“Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same”)

Above: Director Madeleine Olnek (Front Right) with the Cast of Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.

Get your tickets now for TONIGHT’S NY Premiere of Madeleine Olnek’s Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same!

Tonight, as Gay Pride weekend kicks off in New York City, we present the New York premiere of Madeleine Olnek’s Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. Hailed as “a  hilarious date movie for couples of all orientations” by the Hollywood Reporter, the film is a delightfully campy send-up of 50’s sci-fi b-movies. We spoke to Madeleine about what lesbian space aliens have to teach us all about our romantic lives, and the value of a funny title.

Rooftop Films: Describe the film for someone who hasn’t seen it.

Madeleine Olnek: At Sundance, Programmer Trevor Groth described it as “low-fi sci-fi;” its a black and white b-movie spoof that’s also a contemporary downtown New York romantic comedy.

RF: That’s quite a title: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. We hear from Rooftop Alum Emily Carmichael that you’re especially good at coming up with titles. How did you come up with it and why did you settle on it for this film?

MO: I’m a big fan of funny titles. If you are trying to entice an audience to come see a comedy, what better way than giving them a sample of the humor in the title? I’ve always tried to have funny titles for my shows and movies– in some instances, if you are too low-budget to have a publicist, a title can do the work of both exciting the audience and interesting them in coming to see the movie, since most papers and magazines will at least list the title at no cost to the filmmaker. And ideally, the title is an additional piece of information which helps frame the action for the audience– I think the title of “Codependent…” delivers the story it promises.

RF: In the film, the aliens behave strangely and the way they react to human culture is hilarious. And yet, their perspective also is the perfect chance for us to laugh at ourselves. What aspects of humanity and human relationships are you trying to put under a spotlight and critique?

MO: Heartbreak feels like the worst thing in the world when you are going through it, but truthfully, it’s laugh out-loud funny. After all, it’s not an inescapable fate like death or illness, it’s more like a man-made lake. We’ve created it for ourselves through our own thoughts and feelings. The fear of feelings, the suffering caused by feelings, or of the damage that could be caused by being overwhelmed by our own feelings is perfectly yet oddly at home in metaphor-laden, campy sci-fi. Secondly, it’s true, the perspective of the aliens gives us a lens to look at the oddity of certain prescribed courtship rituals. Who hasn’t felt like a lesbian space alien on their first date? It’s just a weird situation!

RF: Why did you want to make this film?

MO: I make films because I love comedy, and I made this film because there was too much to make fun of in this department. I wanted to parody my own feelings of loneliness when I was single and also to write a gay movie with a happy ending, which of course would involve a trip to outer-space.

RF: How did you choose the appearance and behaviors of the aliens?

MO: The movie is a reference to b-movies from the 1950’s– a slate of low-budget movies that were produced every year. B-movies specialized in genres, and of all the b-movie genres, the sci-fi genre was the one that was the most financially successful. There emerged a certain character from these films, the space alien who was inevitably bald and spoke in a monotone. The nature of this character expressed the collective fears in the American unconscious: about atomic war (with radioactive damage creating the hairlessness condition, informed by images of Hiroshima survivors) and foreign invasion (the monotone expressed fears that the Soviets would take over and make us all the same). For the sake of comedy, I wanted all the aliens to refer to that stock image (rather than making up some kind of wacky Kevin Spacey-like character of my own), and additionally, I thought it would be funny looking that way– bald heads, pointy collars, flight suits– they blended right in, unnoticed by jaded New Yorkers. Ironically, that is what happened for us, shooting on open locations in NYC– no one gave the aliens a second look.

RF: Making a film in New York City can be difficult, especially for a science fiction film that might require big budget special effects. Your film pulls off charming outer space effects on a low budget. How did you accomplish this and how did it affect your filmmaking?

MO: Remember that this isn’t a Steven Spielberg picture; B-movies were low-budget films and the effects were charming because they were home-made. We tried to do as much as we could live action, including using actual spaceships that were created for the movie by the artist Bryan Heyboer. In addition, we were lucky that special effects supervisor Eugene Lehnert donated his considerable talents to the movie– we really didn’t know what we were doing with the greenscreen, the shots were so moody and dark that when we chroma-keyed it (removed the green) it took out half the image since the green had reflected on the roast beef tins that comprised our spaceship! But Eugene thankfully was able to restore all of that for us. Plus, I don’t know how this happened, but one day I opened my email and I was offered a “free comet download.” So that was a stroke of luck too. The editor Curtis Grout was wonderful, and along with highly dedicated associate editor Dave Miller we spent the better part of a year on it. Additionally we were helped by associate editor Kirsten Stoffa (who brought in the wonderful colorist Lee Eaton) & Paul Kondo who all worked on melding the sci-fi. The outstanding cinematography in black and white, by Nat Bouman, also adds to the believability of the effects and the sci-fi b-movie feel. And then lastly, sound designer Allan Gus added some very inventive sound effects to create the ozone in outer-space. The budget aspect of it meant that the editing was spread out and took a long time, and it was painstaking work to create those charmingly cheesy effects.

RF: Can you explain your choice of music for the film?

MO: Yes, it is primarily the oeuvre of the song-stylist and DJ Clay Drinko, who wrote the music and plays the alien newscaster in the film. We wanted something B-52-ish and also very urban club-music-y and Clay’s music was great for that. There’s a dance scene where I wanted the experience to be especially humiliating, and Clay’s single “Sexy Bee” has a techno- Germanic edge that works wonderfully for that.

RF: You are also an established playwright. How does  your theatre background influence your work in film work?

MO: My theater background comes to play in my focus on working with actors. Everything I loved about live performance I found to be even better in film– in the editing room you can really chose and immortalize forever the best parts of the acting. I try to focus on the acting while directing since I believe that truthfulness heightens the comedy and honest performances are so central to an audience investing emotionally in the story.

RF: Your film is one of the only 2011 Sundance films that deals with lesbian themes. What do you see as the place of LGBTQ cinema in mainstream culture?

MO: Personally, I think it’s too bad that we remain so culturally segregated. Why don’t people feel they can see a lesbian film?  As I like to say about my film, “It’s lesbian space aliens for the entire family.” We’ve had wonderful responses as we have traveled to festivals across the country and internationally, everyone from young sci-fi guys to senior citizens have enjoyed the picture. The mainstream is more than ready for authentic LGBTQ cinema– it’s just too bad that the opportunities for people to see these movies are so few and far between. The movies are out there at festivals and they are great, it’s just that some of the bigger distribution companies can be afraid to release them, thinking that the audiences are not there. But they are there, I believe, especially for comedy, which is a universal language.

RF: Interwoven in the alien-earthling romance story is a subplot: two agents, in charge of covering up UFO sightings survey the film’s budding alien-human romance. What was the purpose of this subplot in the film?

MO: In making a genre film, you have an obligation to include stock conventions of the form. In reading about UFO culture I read a lot about the “Men in Black” and their presence as a part of alien lore– starting in the 1950’s stories began spreading that when you witnessed a UFO visitation, figures in black suits from the government would show up to try to intimidate you into silence. I came across an interesting statistic that said that while most Americans don’t believe in UFO’s, they do believe that there is a secret government agency set up to cover up UFO visits. This contradiction amused me and made me think about another contradiction: how Americans who are suspicious of the government and want no government are the same Americans who want government to intrude on gay life. The government agents in the film are closely tracking the character Jane’s romance with the alien, and that’s ultimately a very weird experience– for Jane, who suddenly becomes aware of this unwanted scrutiny, and for the government agents, one of whom has his own unresolved issues. I wanted this part of the story to feel the way it does for us, when after finally becoming completely comfortable with our sexuality and thinking it’s no big deal, we suddenly find ourselves unduly scrutinized– we are suddenly objects of a vote or a new negative law related to our relationships. I think there’s a way in which this day and age feels just like 50’s sci-fi, in the sense that homophobia is a retro experience that’s scary and ridiculous at the same time.

RF: What’s your next project?
MO: I’m working on several projects, but I don’t like to talk about them, in order to maintain my mystique.