When Carrie Preston makes a movie “about” men, the gloves come off and the artistic collaborations come out. Sex—and anything that might complicate or confuse the experience, is the subject of her second feature film, That’s What She Said. However, sex and men are subjects both veiled and unveiled, as the Trueblood actress takes a unique approach to filmmaking, setting herself apart from other directors. Her subjects exist only through the lens of the women on screen, rendering them more object-like, except that their very existence (and their collision or collaboration with the main characters) is paramount to the film.
As a result, Preston’s main characters (played with fantastic aplomb by Anne Heche, Marcia DeBonis and Alia Shawkat) come to life in bizarre and beautiful ways. Her presentation of men (and sex) in this peripheral manner has resulted in a fresh new style of film where women are centralized and men are ever-present yet quasi-invisible. That Preston uses sex (or sexual dialogue) as the primary liaison between the men and women of That’s What She Said suggests that little Miss Bradshaw isn’t the only “Carrie” who knows good sex.
Over the phone, Preston laughs as we recall the unforgettable scene where one character’s use of pineapple juice has devastating effects on a lover with severe allergies. Preston explains that no men (including this unfortunate man) speak in her film, and that she “deliberately shot them in profile.” Women drive the comedy, but not in the traditional sense of the so-called “female comedy,” where much of the humor stems from interaction with or around men.
“I really wanted to maintain the genesis of it,” she says of her raunchy comedy, based on the stage play Girl Talk (written by her friend and fellow actress, Kellie Overbey), titled . Marcia DeBonis (who was in a play with both women when Overbey first showed the script to Preston) played the lead, and her performance encouraged the colleagues to turn the play into a film. Preston goes on to say that the play was ultimately about “how women relate to each other by talking about men and relationships in general.” Now, if there is one thing that’s been done before in media, it’s women talking. And thanks to series like Sex And The City, we have also gotten accustomed to women talking about sex. But Preston, by embracing an overarching theory of beauty in collaboration, has created a film that conveys an authentic glimpse of women, music and New York City.
“I love that you’re singing that song!” Preston exclaims as we start to talk about the film’s amazing score. The song is called “Hot & Hazy,” and anyone who watches the opening scene to That’s What She Said will most likely be singing it all day, even at the beginning of phone interviews with directors. And since Carrie Preston’s vinyl collection has garnered a reputation of its own, we had to talk about the music in the film.
“Mike Viola and Tim Adams wrote almost every song that you hear in the film. They would collaborate with the vocalists. [Mike] has done a lot of movie scores, like plot-based movie scores. I’m kind of allergic to scoring action—you can’t watch anything without music telling you what you’re supposed to think and feel!—so I wanted a lot of the music to be organic and authentic. I wanted the music to be the journey of the women, as well. So, in the beginning we had this kinda pop song [Hot & Hazy] about wanting it, and wanting sex, and wanting to be with this person, but you haven’t really decided [laughs].
“By the end of the movie, there’s a song called ‘Crotch Punch Mountain,’” she continues, “so I feel like the music is definitely another character. I wanted people to feel like it was the heartbeat that was driving the film.”
The original music for That’s What She Said was the result of some serious collaboration between musicians, and the soundtrack also works closely with the city of New York itself. The music and the setting created the perfect atmosphere for this crew of friends making their way though the East Village.
“If you really want to portray New York City in a realistic way, you put the women in boots and tennis shoes because that’s how we’re clawing our way and fighting our way through the city. Because something like Sex & The City exists—and I loved that show—I was able to create something opposite. I was able to say, ‘We’re doing the East Village now; we’re not doing the Upper East Side!’”
Preston was hyper-sensitive to the particular class many of the leading women in television and on film occupy. While she could appreciate that glammed-up (or at least, classed-up) version of female-driven comedy that we usually see, she was not interested in making a film like that: “They wear fabulous clothes and high heels all the time and it’s like … no! Not the women I know! Not in this city!”
Of course, New York City rarely settles for being merely a backdrop, and in Preston’s film it quickly becomes another collaborator.
“I really wanted New York City and all its challenges to be another faction of the story,” Preston says. “And it’s really kind of the enemy of the story [laughs]. They’re battling the city—the city keeps having its rainstorms, and bad traffic and throwing as many obstacles in the way of women as it can.”
Thanks to the city’s role as antagonist, That’s What She Said is an ode to a very specific New York City. Even with the perfect soundtrack, the story of these women (and their peripheral men) would be incomplete without the East Village atmosphere.
As our conversation comes to a close, we find ourselves discussing the final scene of the movie: a group of women sit around toasting to sex, and more sex and to other things simply by murmuring their names. Without actually having the intense, dramatic, feminine or feminist (or anti-feminist) conversation about intimacy (which, you could argue, the rest of the film has already addressed), they finally have the “conversation” about intimacy. It’s almost a moment of conjuring, rather than conversing.
“At the end of this crazy, epic day, they find a way to reduce things down, and everybody in the audience is going to relate to one of the phrases—whether it’s “sex” or “a safe place” or “friendship.’”
The opening song for That’s What She Said reminds us that sometimes we know we want something, and we know we want it now, but defining the “it” is more difficult. And just when Preston’s film convinces you that what you’ve always wanted is a blatant, unapologetic depiction of women really talking sex, it suddenly becomes something more. Preston casually and incidentally reminds us that if we think we want a female-centered comedy with more dirty jokes (the dirtiest) and more naughty behavior (the naughtiest), and more dildos (the dildo-est?), she can certainly give us that. But she can also give us something else—amidst evocative music, a hostile city, invisible men, and sexual acts gone horribly awry—there’s a portrait of true women. And that’s probably what we wanted all along.