A regular column, Funny Feminism features conversations with feminist-identifying artists who use humor in their creative work.
Mary Neely is a (now) 25-year-old actress, writer, feminist, filmmaker, and web-series-creator. She can do it all. Based in Los Angeles, her debut short film, “The Dresser” played at film festivals all over the world. Her web series, Wacko Smacko launched last year, and her first feature screenplay, The Dark Room was nominated for an Academy Nicholl Fellowship. I don’t just get immense joy from watching Mary’s work, I also get inspired just thinking about Mary’s work ethic. Talking to her over the phone for this interview, I caught the sort of infectious enthusiasm she has for filmmaking that made me want to jump on a plane and go and work on one of Mary’s films for free. Mary has a vision, but also the guts to set her vision free into the world. I can’t wait to see what she does next and hope you’ll feel compelled to binge-watch her web series after reading this interview.
Cathy de la Cruz: I’m wondering if first you could begin by giving me some background on yourself since I don’t really know that much about you. I’ve seen your work, but I don’t know much about you as a person. I’m interested to hear how you describe yourself i.e., do you describe yourself as an artist or as a comedian or as a filmmaker or as a performer? You do so many things.
Mary Neely: I’m 23, actually 24; I don’t know why I said 23. I feel old, right now. I grew up in Los Angeles, a lot of different parts of L.A. My parents moved around a lot of different neighborhoods, but I was always living in L.A. and I got really really into community theater when I was in elementary school and became obsessed with theater and Broadway and I wanted to move to New York and do acting, like Shakespeare and low-budget plays but I ended up going to UCLA for college and studied acting there.
While I was there I kinda started taking film history classes mainly in Scandinavian film. I got really into Danish films. It kinda became a crazy obsession where I would just be in UCLA’s video archives all the time.
I always primarily thought of myself as an actor and I studied acting and I thought that I would start auditioning as soon as I got out of school, but then I started doing more film stuff with the film students at UCLA and became really obsessed with film in general and I remember having moments on sets where I thought, “Oh, I could like do that person’s job better than them.” So once I got out of school, I was really disappointed in the kinds of roles I was going out for. I just think there’s a huge problem with the kind of roles that are written for women and for me specifically as a young woman–I was just like, “This is just really depressing,” and I wasn’t really excited about anything so I just decided, “You know, I’m just gonna do it myself.”
I’m impatient and just wanted to be doing good stuff right away and that’s why I made my short film. The experience was really hard because I had never done anything like that before and held multiple crew roles and was running around like crazy, but it was really rewarding in the end and I felt very accomplished and was really happy with the outcome so I decided to do it again for my web series.
CD: That’s great, also, I am totally struck by the fact that you are 23 and you have already made so much work. That’s amazing and really inspiring. I’m sorry… 24.
MN: Yeah, I don’t know why I said 23.
CD: Now I’m going to think you’re 23 forever… I’m curious about you short film, The Dresser? When did it come out?
MN: I finished it in July of 2014.
CD: Then after that came your web series?
MN: Yeah. I started submitting the short film to festivals and it got into a few in 2014 and I went to Iceland with it where I got to attend this awesome film festival called the Reykjavik International Film Festival and they have a talent lab that I also was accepted into and it was life changing and really supportive and everyone loved my film which was really surprising to me because the humor is really specific. I was really excited that it translated to a different kind of audience and when I came back to L.A. I had one of those weird breakdowns where I was like, “I’m gonna sell all of my stuff because I can’t handle being in Los Angeles. Why do I live here? It’s so stressful. I’m just in my car all the time. I have all these material possessions I don’t even care about.” So I started selling a bunch of my books and DVDs and was super manic and that’s when I decided to start writing my web series. I wrote it really fast. I started writing my web series in October of 2014 and was done by November and already in pre-production. We shot it in January and February of 2015. And it just came out last June. So…
CD: Did you shoot all the episodes at once and stagger their release or…?
MN: They’re all out. I decided to put them all online at once because I think people love to binge-watch now.
What I did was shoot by location over six or seven weekends so it was fifteen days total. It was all over the place. There were a lot of production hurdles like people dropping out at the last second and stressful situations and it was just a huge whirlwind.
I edited all of them from March until June of last year and there are eight episodes and they are around about ten minutes each and so it’s basically the length of a feature film. I basically made a feature film and decided to call it a web series.
CD: I’m imagining something like the web series, maybe I’m totally wrong, seems like you’re doing it completely out of self-motivation and not for the big bucks. That’s what I’m imagining, but maybe you’re making a ton of money. I have no idea. I want to hear about what motivates you because it sounds like you’re doing so much stuff purely because you’ve got the drive to do it. I would love to hear about that.
MN: I honestly have always been this way. I used to be way more OCD when I was younger. I loved scheduling and to-do lists and in high school I was really meticulous about choosing all my classes and extracurriculars and had a color-coded journal and shit like that. I was just always really into planning stuff because I couldn’t handle not knowing what I was going to be doing.
I feel lucky though because I’m really passionate about the stuff I care about. I care a lot about acting and films and filmmaking. I have this thing kinda where I’m like, “Oh I’m going to do this!” Then once it’s locked it’s really hard for me to let it go. I’m even like that with relationships and friendships.
I had this epiphany when I was in high school where I was like, “Wow, you really are the key to your success and you’re the one that’s responsible for making things happen.” I never was under the impression that things were just going to happen for me.
I’ve always had this mindset of, oh I’m gonna have to work really hard and I like working really hard. Like I get enjoyment out of setting goals and completing them. Um, it’s just, always kinda been part of my personality.
I think it’s a blessing and a curse because I’m like, “Oh I’m going do this.” Then it starts going terribly wrong and I’m like, “No, I said I was gonna do it…”
CD: That’s hilarious. It sounds like it’s not even a choice for you to do everything since you write, direct, produce, edit and act in your pieces. It sounds like it’s more of a drive to just get it done and you know you can always rely on yourself.
MN: Oh definitely. That’s a huge part of it–I know I can rely on myself because honestly I would love some line producer to just swoop in from the heavens and organize all the scheduling and that would be awesome. I could focus on other things then. But I don’t trust anyone. I don’t personally know anyone who is going to work for no money and who is also really good at their job. I feel like I’m at this weird in between where the work I want to be making–I want it to look really fucking good and I want people to be impressed by it, but I don’t have all of the resources of a professional film set, so I’m just going to make all the call sheets myself.
CD: What do you think is next? Do you think it’s a feature film since you can know you can make one or something completely different?
MN: I do. I actually have started outlining this feature that I’ve had in my head for a really long time. Doing this web series, I didn’t at all realize that it was like the length of a feature when I first started doing it. I just wrote it how I wanted it to be. Then when I was done with it and I put the episodes back-to-back and just through editing–looking at how much footage I had, I was like, “Oh my god. I did so much.” It was definitely a confidence booster in a way where I was just like, “I can totally make a feature because that’s basically what I just did.”
I really want to make a feature for sure. I’m also working on some other smaller web projects. Right now, I’m just trying to get my web series out there more and have more people see it and maybe something else will come of that because my whole way of thinking is that work begets work so…
CD: Tell me about who your creative influences are. I know you said Scandinavian film, but I’m curious to hear more.
MN: I actually ended up minoring in Scandinavian film and culture because I just took so many classes out of pure enjoyment.
My dad’s really into classic cinema. He’s a huge cinephile. It’s pretty amazing how you can almost watch any movie from the 1930s or 40s and point at a random person and he would know their biography and entire filmography. He kind of got me to watch a lot of old classic movies and foreign films. We watched a lot of foreign films because my grandmother grew up in France and my dad loves French cinema. So I’m super into foreign films.
I watched a lot of Hitchcock when I was younger. Then, like I was saying before, in college I started really getting into Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg because my brain exploded when I discovered the Dogme 95 film movement. It really changed the way I look at how movies can be made or the potential for what a movie can be. I love Lukas Moodysson. He’s just amazing–his aesthetic and then also the way that he tells a story is so incredible.
I love animated films. I’m obsessed with Sylvain Chomet who made The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist. He also made this incredible short film called, “The Old Lady and the Pigeons” that I watched once when I had a really crazy insane fever and I was freaking out and I sent it out to every single person that I know.
I also love Hayao Miyazaki. I love Spirited Away.
CD: What about other art forms? Do you have any comedians or books or music that you love or even visual art that inspires you?
MN: Definitely musicians for sure. I went through this period last year where all I did was listen to musicians do really long interviews because I feel with music, it’s awesome that a person can make a song and then just put it out there differently than you can with a film. I love Grimes. She’s my main inspiration over all because she’s kind of the DIY dream. She made one of her albums on Garageband, she designs all of her cover art, she directs a lot of her music videos, she edits her own music videos, she color corrects them–she’s incredible. And she’s so cool. Her Tumblr is like the coolest thing ever. I love looking through her Tumblr. She’s really into Miyazaki and anime, which is awesome. She’s my number 1, but I also really like Frank Ocean and Childish Gambino.
I studied a lot of art history when I was in high school and college and kind of became obsessed with Renaissance paintings.
CD: Which I’m sure was helpful to you as a filmmaker in terms of composition. I feel like so many filmmakers aren’t well-versed in other arts and I feel like it shows.
MN: Yeah–another inspiring filmmaker is Xavier Dolan, who’s really young but has made about six features or something crazy. I saw him being interviewed once and he talked a lot about looking through all these photography books to prepare for specific shots. Also he’s obsessed with the way people talk and laugh and the way their mouths move when they cry and stuff like that, which I find so poetic. He’s amazing. I just saw one of his films last night actually at a theater here in L.A. and it was like so good.
CD: I’m curious because you mentioned a lot of work that I don’t necessarily think of as the funniest thing ever and your work is so funny. I’m curious about that.
MN: [laughs] Yeah, I know. I love really intense foreign films, which is maybe surprising from watching what I make. But yeah, a really intense Swedish family drama is my jam.
I love so much comedy too. I feel like I’m talking about those other things because they really influenced the way I saw filmmaking as being more accessible to me, whereas before it was unrelatable slash unattainable.
As far as comedy goes, I love Austin Powers. Austin Powers was so important to me growing up. Zoolander and Liar Liar. Jay Roach who directed all the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies–I think Meet the Parents is one of the most genius comedy films of all time. I love watching stand up too.
CD: It’s so funny because that is night and day. You’re like. ‘I really love Lars Von Trier and then I also like Meet the Parents. It’s so funny.
MN: I know. For sure, it’s weird.
When I was young I was so obsessed with screwball comedy and I loved quoting things. I would watch The Simpsons every night and then I started watching Family Guy when I was in middle school. When I was in middle school all I would do was quote Family Guy and those references were really vital to my social interactions. I still like watching comedic stuff, but I shifted a bit for sure.
CD: I’m so sorry I haven’t watched your entire web series yet so I don’t know, but I’m imagining the rest of it continues to be comedic?
MN: Kind of. It gets pretty serious. It definitely gets deeper.
I really like how my short film ended up, but I got some notes from people wishing that it went a little deeper, which I thought was actually a great thing that people wanted to explore the story and the characters more.
My whole goal for the web series was to have an arc to the character and it starts out really fun and funny and it continues to be funny for sure, but it gets a little more serious.
CD: I’m curious if your feature screenplay will go in that more serious direction too?
MN: The feature is way more serious than my short film and web series, but with a lot of comedic elements to it.
CD: When you write are you intending to be funny or do you realize its funny when you get the actors together and start running lines? Does any of it happen through improvisation?
MN: Not a lot of improv. I took improv classes, but for me personally it’s really hard to improvise a scene.
I had such little time like on all of my shoots. We didn’t have the time to play around. We had to get the shot. Everything is pretty much the way I wrote it. Of course there’s angles or shots we came up with in the moment to make it funnier, but all the jokes–all the writing was done for both my projects beforehand. The way I write is that these moments or small kernels of ideas pop into my head. All mainly about the way people interact, like miscommunication versus understanding. Then the jokes come as I’m writing for a specific situation.
The thing about my short form is that actually happened to me. I wanted to hook up with this dude and it totally face-planted failed. The honesty of trying to connect with another person and failing is super common and isn’t necessarily depressing, but it can be rough for sure.
I just wanted to explore more honest moments. I think a lot of times honesty is the funniest thing because that’s what people relate to the most. When people are laughing it’s because they’ve been there. You know what I mean?
CD: I very much know what you mean. You short film was great. What I really liked about that that film is that it was not about a girl chasing a guy for love and romance, but instead it’s about this totally amazing woman who just really wants to have sex. It was so great because I feel like I don’t see that side of things enough. It’s a very real thing: women enjoying and wanting sex, yet it’s so rarely acknowledged.
MN: Definitely. That was a huge motivation for me too because at the time when I wrote it, I was at this breaking point where I was like so sick of people saying that I had the sex drive of a dude. I was like, “No no no. I just have a sex drive and I’m allowed to have a sex drive.”
CD: That’s amazing. That’s so great and so funny. Now I’m wondering about your thoughts on feminism, humor, self-deprecation and honesty.
MN: Self-deprecation is hard and I think it can be dangerous for women in a way. There’s an element of being able to own your flaws, but I think it’s also a really fine line where it can be dangerous really putting yourself down. Women are climbing an uphill battle all the time so it’s like, let’s be nice to ourselves, let’s be nice to each other because that’s almost rebellious at this point. Self-deprecation can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and that’s why I was confused about Amy Schumer for a while where I was just like, “You’re so intelligent and funny and good at what you do, but why do you make fun of yourself so much?” It really bothered me. She has this platform where she can talk really positively about herself and all she’s talking about is how much she look likes a walrus, which isn’t even true. Then I saw her do this stand-up show in L.A. that was really low-key and she did this amazing set where she started talking about just how many people in the industry call her fat and are really rude to her without even realizing it and then I kind of understood a lot of her comedy after that. That must be so hard to have people be that rude and terrible without even batting an eyelash. In a way I think she’s kind of reclaiming that for herself by making fun of that mentality, which is really smart. Also she was performing in this way where I didn’t even feel like I was watching a comedy show I felt like I was listening to someone who I was hanging out with, which is such awesome next level performance shit.
CD: I don’t even necessarily think your film is self-deprecating, but I think many of us are so used to seeing men covered in pizza and wishing they were getting laid in a comedy, but we rarely get to see messy women.
MN: I am a feminist for sure, you know what I’m saying.
CD: I watched the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Call Service” short and I thought that was a really good example where you were mocking this type of on-screen female self-deprecation. Here are these women who are smart and talented, but they’re acting like they’re not. I think they say, “We’re here to make you’re fantasy kinda real.” Where it’s like, they’re not even totally sure of their own abilities and I just thought that was so funny–this really great self-awareness.
MN: That was the intention: making fun of the male gaze. My whole idea behind it was that my friends and I, were sick of being an idea. It’s like, “No, I’m a complex flawed person.” The “manic pixie dream girl” trope is a huge problem in cinema and a lot of other mediums.
CD: Something that I really liked in what I watched of yours was the relationship between the female friends because it felt so nostalgic to me. I felt like I hadn’t seen that since Adventures in Babysitting or some sort of 80’s comedy where there was an important female friendship central to the plot. I don’t see that as much anymore.
MN: I get so upset watching things where two girls are being pitted against each other over a dude or being pitted against each other solely because they’re “crazy bitches.” I’m always like, “Why are they acting like that?” There’s no explanation. Audiences are taught to believe women are complete psychopaths a lot of the time and that’s terrifying.
CD: Do you have a community of like-minded artists or collaborators or colleagues, whether they’re actors or filmmakers? Something that you touch upon so much in your short film is the institutionalized sexism of Hollywood. Do you feel like you’ve got people that feel the same way as you and are trying to get their work made to change the atmosphere?
MN: To be honest, it’s hard to come by because it’s so institutionalized and ingrained. There are definitely people that I know who I talk about this stuff with a lot and they’re trying to make good work too and they’re great, but sometimes we get really upset because it feels like we are just screaming into a vortex of nothing. Did you read that Bjork interview in Pitchfork last year? She just laid it down. She’ so prolific and was like, “I’ve been working in this industry for so long and I cannot get sole producing credit. There always has to be a man on the production element of a project and it’s really shady.” She was like, “I am trying to be strong and talk about this because it’s really hard to talk about without having repercussions and I just wanted tell young women that they’re not crazy.” And I was like, “Yes, thank you!” because sometimes I feel crazy. Sometimes, I’m just like, “Wait. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this is not what’s happening.” And then I’m like, “Oh no on no. This really is intentionally what’s happening.”
When I screened my short film in Iceland I was like, “Why am I here? All the other films screening were super heavy and European.” I was like, “How is anyone going to resonate with this?” But then afterwards two Icelandic women who were my age or maybe a year younger came up to me and they were like, “We’re best friends and that is so us.” They were so excited and I was like, “Holy shit. I just made something that resonates with two people who are from a place that is so far from my familiarity.” It was so awesome and I realized how me mirroring my own reality is important and that I’m not crazy. It’s something I need to be spending my time doing.
CD: Do you have any advice to motivate people to go and tell their own stories?
MN: Just do it. Especially if you feel strongly. Feel that passion, yo.
CD: Do you have any advice for young women who want to go to film school but are maybe scared that it’s still a boys club?
MN: Know you’re probably better than a lot of the guys in film school.
CD: I went to a really progressive college, but it was still intimidating. There’s’ just a societal thing I felt my whole life. I was raised to think I couldn’t fix things or properly use tools and so how was I going to take a camera apart or carry this heavy equipment, so it was really intimidating to just start doing it.
MN: I wrote a play when I was in college that actually now that I re-read it was like, “Dang, this is kinda good.” But at the time, I didn’t tell anyone about it. It took me a really long time to be able to realize I can do this on my own. That’s also what I love about Grimes. What you’re talking about with tools and stuff–she sets up all of her own equipment before every show and breaks it down and that’s awesome. I love that mentality. Even after I made my short I was embarrassed of calling myself a writer or a director or a producer.
CD: We didn’t talk about her, but has anyone compared you to Lena Dunham?
MN: Yeah, a few times. My friend who is a writer gets the same thing too and we talk about how it’s like complex because that’s an awesome compliment because she’s so talented. I love all the stuff that she does. She’s amazing and she does so much for a lot of important causes. I’m obsessed with Lenny Letter and she’s insanely creative, but how cool would it be for someone to be like, “You remind me of Lena Dunham or Alan Ball or Linklater or Soderberg, etc.” I would love for gender to not be present in a comparison conversation because it just doesn’t need to be there. Or even someone like Mark Duplass or just people who have done the same thing, but it doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman.
CD: It’ll be a really exciting day when people are comparing an up and coming male filmmaker to an established female filmmaker like yeah, “He reminds me of a young Jane Campion.”