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Spotlight: An interview with Gene Pope ("Queen of Knives")

Please tell us a bit about your background, how did you get into filmmaking?

I started out in the 1970's working as a producer at Doyle, Dane, Bernbach, one of the most creative ad agencies at the time. I learned a lot about marketing and production there. Years later, in the 1980's, I became a bi-coastal DGA director (commercials and documentaries) working for a major production company called Levinson, Israelson and Bell. I actually directed a very young Bryan Cranston for a Benadryl commercial. He was by far the best in his casting session. Also in the 1980's I won a Grand Award for Directing at the New York International Film Festival for a groundbreaking short film called "The Mad Ave Wizard", in which I created a new technique to combine the "look" of film with the "efficiency" of video post production, similar to what was then used for TV shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation. I attempted to generate interest in several feature film concepts but the West Coast was a bit more closed back then, so I moved on to the next stage, which was acting. I attended the Maggie Flanigan Studios' 2-year conservatory and it was like getting my soul pried open with a can opener. The first lesson I learned was: "Gene, you've got to shut off that part of your director's brain and stop trying to direct yourself." It worked and I continued to take three Master Classes with Maggie herself before she retired, and it was solid gold for me. I couldn't get enough. I did a series of short films, to cut my teeth. Then I met the most extraordinary playwright, Lindsay Joy, who I feel to this day, is a master of dialogue. I suggested she and I put together a full-length movie script and thus was born first "King of Knives" and now, four years later, "Queen of Knives".

What makes you passionate about acting?

When I was in High School, I was insanely shy. I was "one of those" that had to write down what I was going to say to a girl on the phone. I felt attracted to the school plays, which it turned out were very well produced and directed and I suddenly realized that I could be anyone I wanted to be. I could try on different "skins" and it was safe because I was "just acting". That was where it started and I still love dropping into a character so completely.

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers and what are some of your favorite films that inspire you?

My list is pretty long, but relevant to "Queen of Knives," I was quite the fan of films directed by Robert Altman, because he would always lead the audience one way, then drop a twist or a truck or add something explosive, and suddenly the whole tenor of the film was changed. His films were often a humorous statement about human beings in general. One example is a film that's very hard to find now called "A Wedding". It was a star-studded comedy about an "Oh so lovely wealthy wedding" which you think is just full of pure ironic humor, until near the end where, (spoiler alert), the audience thinks the bride and groom have taken off in their honeymoon convertible without telling anyone, so another car goes to follow them, only to come upon this absolutely horrific scene of their convertible squashed under a gasoline tanker truck fully engulfed in flames. You could almost feel the heat. So now damn, it's a tragedy, and then it turns out, it wasn't. "You got me Robert, again."

What are some of the most memorable moments of your career so far?

1) When casting for a film, I have always loved watching from the back of the room for every single session. What I loved to see was a person I would not have thought was right for our "preconceived" notion for the character to come in and make me completely rethink how much better the part would be with them playing it. It's my favorite surprise.

2) I adore working with actors who are also the nicest people off-camera.

3) When it's appropriate, I love to improvise with other actors who love to do it too. In Queen of Knives, there were several moments when a scene was supposed to end at a specific point, and then suddenly it veered off into a short improv "button" that was really funny. So we kept it.

4) Right now, I'm totally blown over by the reception of this film. I freely admit it brings tears to my eyes because we were anything but sure if it would work.

Let's focus on Queen of Knives, your latest film! Please take us through your writing process with co-writer Lindsay Joy. What were some of the challenges in writing this film?

The biggest challenge by far, was creating a stand-alone film that, while it continued an existing story from its prequel, it would have to be a complete and independent story on its own. In addition, we were creating and writing during Covid. There was a lot of trauma and drama all around us. It was not the easiest thing to do while wondering if we would survive or get deathly ill. But we were still able to find the humor and life lessons somehow.

The film tells the story of Frank, a man whose wife recently divorced him after falling in love with a woman. Through meeting a woman who is 26 years younger than him, he will learn to open up and fall in love again. Between all the comedic moments and the fine drama, what message did you want to convey?

That we sometimes need to be reminded what life is... It is neither just a drama nor just a comedy... it is both intertwined at the same time, and we need to remind ourselves of that, lest we become too bitter or too shallow. There are times for tears and there are times for smiles and it's endlessly amazing to me how the two come together and co-exist in our lives.

Your ensemble cast consists mostly of women. Can you share with us experiences from the set? How was the chemistry between them all?

Right until we started shooting, the film title was: Queens of Knives, as it was the women's turn to shine and bump into things. But in the end, I decided that it didn't quite roll off the tongue enough so I took the plunge and lopped off the "s". Now, at this point, with your grace, I'd like to dispel a possible assumption in your question, that somehow the chemistry would be different between actors of a different sexual orientation. One of the most important parts of casting, in my book, is to answer the question: How well will these people (as people) work together in our film? So most of that question is answered in casting. The quick answer is that the chemistry was incredibly great; really awesome. I often heard one actor compliment another after a take or a scene. One of many great experiences I had shooting, came during the first two days, which included all the scenes by the beach between Frank and Masha (Barbara Tirrell). What a way to start the film. We had so much fun together, being totally unpredictable and reacting to each other's eccentricities. It was like our own private actors' volleyball court. The dinner party scene was also insane fun. The Rave (inside and out) was so much fun.

We don't want to embarrass you, but watching the movie knowing that it was based on your and Lindsey's personal experiences, we couldn't help but fall in love with Frank's character even more. How similar is Frank to you? Were there moments during the shoot that gave you flashbacks to things you've been through in life?

OK, let me just spill the beans... I got married at 19. I've been married three times. This last time is by far my longest and happiest. But yes, I've been there. Lindsay and I, before the prequel, would literally meet at a restaurant in the city and talk and take notes until the seats were turned upside down. We spent so many days going over our lives, our parents' lives, how our parents coped with a new generation, as well as ourselves. When you say a flashback, I'll say it was more of a chuckle after some scenes were completely done. I think once or twice, I said something like, "Yup, that used to be me." My actual method to prepare for the role was partially by thinking back at how I was and how I felt in the "bad old days" and re-implanting that in my character. But the process of building a "Frank", especially a "Frank", can take a while and that can get modified moment-to-moment while on set. The pure joy for me was in having all the actors working that way.

After the big crisis he experiences, Frank meets a young woman, Autumn, (played by Alexandra Renzo) who is about the age of his oldest daughter. Their relationship is criticized by his family, but it seems that Autumn is exactly what he needs to overcome the crisis and return to life. Was there a fear that the viewers would also criticize this relationship? And how was the fascinating character of Autumn built?

Being totally honest, I had fears about a lot of elements of this film, all the way until the test audience reactions, which were wholeheartedly positive. Let's just leave it as: We live in interesting times today. And trying to predict how prickly a person will get or what people find not funny is a bit of anybody's guess. Now, having said that, I also knew that Queen of Knives is an urban film. It's designed for a specific audience and by that I mean, it tends to not be, for instance, for those that are religious, or for young couples with young children (we think differently at that time in our lives). It definitely is great for people who have experienced life fully, who know the score and who know what life in total is really like. The biggest purpose of a story like Queen of Knives is to show how different generations can still go through similar angst and laughs and that there is more in common between generations than one would expect.

As for how the character of Autumn was built, you have to thank Alexandra Renzo. We didn't have the budget this time for rehearsals, so we just came on set with our characters and I was just so knocked out at the depth of the character she created.

What was it like playing with Alexandra Renzo as your partner? The connection between the characters was so magical that it made us wonder if you knew each other before.

You know what? You are correct! After performing a one-act play called "Hand Over Hand" years ago, where I met Alexandra, Padraic Lillis, and Lindsay Joy, I scooped up some of the actors, including Renzo and said, let's do Padraic's One Act play as a short film. Padraic directed it. And so yes, we were definitely comfortable with each other. And in the back of my mind I promised myself that she would be in a feature one day. After a bunch of years, she moved to Santa Fe and I stayed in New York. And as Lindsay was writing the dialogue, she came into our minds almost immediately. I cast her about a year before we started shooting. I knew what she could do. In fact, we were comfortable enough that we'd often riff at the end of certain scenes. For instance, as we get set to leave the outside of the Rave party, the lines you hear as we walk off were not in the script at all. It just happened that way, effortlessly. These are the moments I love to see happen on occasion.

Assuming that Roxi Pope who plays your daughter Kaitlin is also your daughter in real life, what was it like working with her on set? There's a scene where she gets really mad at you, and we must admit, it felt real. :)

So... when I was at the two-year Maggie Flanigan Conservatory, Roxi was attending the two-year William Esper Conservatory. So we tracked each other. The one thing you learn at these schools is to ignore who the other person really is and pay attention to the character. Roxi and I did some short films together after graduation and found that we could do just about anything together without the "real" father/child relationship getting in the way. If we had not both been similarly trained as actors, I don't think it could have worked. But yes, we've heard often that there's an "ease" between us. And truthfully, we do cut up a lot in real life.

Without making any spoilers, in the middle of the movie, in the same conversation between Frank and Kaitlin, where she yells at him, we find out that the family's story is a little more complex than we thought. More secrets are revealed little by little, which makes us appreciate the script even more. Can you take us into your and Lindsey's writing process? How was the joint work, and what moments do you particularly remember?

In terms of moments, the script kind of developed from the inside out. The entire dinner sequence was the first part written and it was perfect the moment I read it. Then the big question was, "How do we get to this point, and how do we get to the end of the movie?" That was what took a lot of time and re-writing to figure out. But that moment when I read that dinner scene I just exploded to tell Lindsay how brilliant it was.

If I had to put a more accurate title to my role in these movies it would be "Creator". Now that covers a lot of ground. It covers all my past experiences. It covers my "Story by" moniker. It covers the "Producer" moniker. Here's a mantra I've used ever since I became a director myself, "Make sure you hire a crew that knows their roles ten times better than you know it." So, Lindsay writes the script. I visualize it as if it's projected in my head. I see it play out in real time as I read it. "Is it sagging here?" "Will the audience find this impossible to believe?" "Will this joke offend too many people or do we take a chance?" "Does this character need something more?" Then Lindsay and I converse and solve the issues. I'm big on asking "What about...?" You name it, I'm constantly trading questions in my mind right up until about a week before I have to walk on set and act. Then all I think about is the character for the duration of shooting.

At what point did you know this movie was going to be produced, no matter what?

The point occurred once Lindsay and I got back together again *remotely" to put the story together. I don't waste time on "maybe" projects. There's too much effort to go through for so much time to count for nothing. Life is too short. Either I'm 100% excited and committed or I'm lukewarm. And why deal with lukewarm? If there was a moment when I decided "This is going to be one cool movie"... it was when I read the dinner scene.

When Frank opens up to Autumn, the relationship between them grows stronger, and the viewers also learn to appreciate the journey he went through, with all the difficulties. How do you see Frank's transformation, and what is Autumn's role for you in this development?

To answer that, I'll share with you a bit of my process. As I created Frank, I felt he was ready to get past the point in his life where he just wanted "to get laid". When we first see him, he is in a repetitive, kind of boring world of his own making. He is also lost and doesn't understand why for the reasons we find out about later. And the deepest relationship he can deal with is Tinder. When he and Autumn "meet", he's still a cranky bastard, but Autumn is this younger, more immediate devil-may-care personality (which reminded me of my second wife). Frank realizes at some point that she's a lot of fun, and he craves having "fun" again. And because he's still a bit old fashioned, it's not all about a romp in the hay. This relationship is different and he doesn't want to mess it up. And she gives him something more that's been missing, his laughter, his curiosity of new things. It turns out Frank is more open than even he knows, and he still has this charming, old world sense of being with a lady. So it's not creepy at all. In the end, Frank finds himself again, and he doesn't hate it anymore. And that's what we all want in our later years don't we?

You have already acted in quite a few films in the past. How different is it to play a role that you wrote for yourself, and that is based on your life story? For you, does this make the work more complex or simpler?

Simpler. I might call myself an "expert" when it comes to the internals of people like Frank. My job, when we start to shoot, is to keep a distance from the story outside of the scene, regardless of what had triggered the ideas or the endless conversations Lindsay and I shared. I'm not assuming anything, I'm inhaling and feeling what it tastes like. Does it resonate with me? Do I feel, with all my experience in life, that it will resonate with an audience? I've seen many directors or writers work with life elements that they are more familiar with.

This isn't your first rodeo with Jon Delgado - he also directed King of Knives. In your opinion, what makes a good director-producer team?

As I mentioned, when I'm on set, I'm only concentrating on one thing, Jon's running the show. I have to trust him implicitly. I do not watch dailies every day. I didn't see any of the footage until shooting was finished. It would be a terrible distraction if I did. There can be only one director on set. You hand them your script and work together with casting and then trust in your decisions. So Jon and I were a good team here. He's got a great eye for locations and movement and framing.

What was your favorite part of the production process?

The editing. It's when the real story becomes clear. The original length of the movie was a bit under 2 hours. It got cut to 1:43 because of all the decisions made in editing. Some scenes were cut altogether as redundant, some cuts were opened up because there were wonderful little chestnuts hidden in the performances. After that, the composing and music licensing and mixing is my next favorite as it amplifies the emotions so much. For instance, in one scene, which I won't spoil, a conversation turns serious, and a deep bass note, almost subsonic, begins to grow left of screen and grows subconsciously into the soundtrack and then resolves into music. Watching the audience react to that amplification of what's going on in the screen is amazing to behold.

What's your biggest takeaway from working on this film?

I am 100% convinced that the world of entertaining films that really reach a theatrical audience does not have to ignore drama mixed with humor. One strong opinion I had after viewing the finished film both on a big flatscreen and in a theater with a big screen was how deeply sucked into the screen you get in a theater (when a film is shot correctly). Whereas on a flatscreen, it always feels like you're looking in a box. It limits your experience. By that I mean those moments of recognition that everyone has when we recognize something in the dialogue that triggers a "whoops, I know how that goes" moment. What I found fascinating in every test screening so far, was that the audience rarely laughed all at once. The laughter was very personal and hopped around the theater as people recognized different elements of their own story and "had to laugh". That my friends, is something to hold onto.

What's next for you, and what's next for Queen of Knives?

This is a direct quote from my co-producer Jenn Gomez, who has been with me since my short films: "Gene, if you don't direct your next movie I'm going to kill you." (Note: That laughing over in the far corner of the theater is me sniggering.) As for "Queen of Knives", we're about to sign with a great distributor and I'm really enjoying the challenge of today's film distribution markets. I have a lot of ideas we're discussing to get eyeballs on this film because I'm convinced that once it reaches a certain point, it could become quite the hit.

Is there anything you'd like to add, or anyone you wish to thank?

I thank my father, who died way too young. He was kind of a stern guy, and not one to give compliments easily. He came to one of my plays in high school (where I played completely against type as Algernon in "The Importance of Being Earnest"). I saw him standing in the hallway after my show and as I walked towards him, he had this huge smile on his face and he said, "Well it doesn't get any better than that!" I will never forget that moment.

Where can our readers follow more of your work?

Well, "King of Knives" is on just about any site out there. You don't have to see it first at all, but you will notice some fun "Easter Eggs" in "Queen of Knives" because of it.


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