NewFest: ‘The Foxy Merkins’ Director Madeleine Olnek on Hustlers, Comedy, and Housewives

Filmmaker Madeleine Olnek's feature debut turned heads at Sundance in 2011 even before it screened due to its curious title: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. She returned to Sundance this past January with her follow-up feature, The Foxy Merkins, which has played at festivals in Seattle and San Francisco (Frameline). The film will screen as part of the 26th NewFest, New York's LGBT Film Festival, which returns to the Film Society July 24 - 29.

The Foxy Merkins centers on Margaret, a down-on-her-luck lesbian hooker-in-training. She meets Jo, a beautiful, self-assured grifter who’s a pro at picking up women, even though she considers herself a card-carrying hetero. The duo hits the streets, encountering bargain-hunting housewives, double-dealing conservatives, husky-voiced seductresses, shopaholic swingers, as well as a mumbling erotic-accessory salesman, played by Alex Karpovsky of HBO's Girls. Below she shares her thoughts on adapting male hustler movies, comedy, and catching the attention of Artforum...

The Foxy Merkins
Madeleine Olnek | USA | 2013 | 81m

Responses by Madeleine Olnek:

On riffing male-hustler pics, lesbian style...

For years I dreamed of making a lesbian-hooker picture, a riff on iconic male-hustler films. When my first feature, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, got into Sundance in 2011, two of the actors, Jackie Monahan and Lisa Haas, made a video—a "live from Sundance" sort of thing—talking about their sexual exploits, which were all fictitious, mind you, with female fans and groupies. It was very funny and tongue in cheek, but besides that they had great chemistry as a comedy team. They had barely been in a scene together in Codependent..., so it was quite a surprise. I thought, “They are so hilarious together, now is the time to make that female-hustler movie!”

We thought we could shoot it while we were on the festival circuit, and in fact did start shooting it while we were at the 2011 Provincetown Film Festival, but we soon realized the story demanded we be on the streets of New York.

On a "make-believe world" of trade and prowling housewives...

Well, my film is a comedy about lesbian hookers who are picked up by housewives and Republican women. We can safely say it’s queer from the first frame, and there’s not a scene in it that is not homosexual in some way. That said, the film is enjoyable to comedy lovers of all persuasions. We worked very hard to give the film a vérité feel, and shooting in the streets of New York added so much to that. We wanted for the purposes of comedy to believably create a world where everywhere lesbian trade walked the streets and were honked at by housewives in cars who had driven in from the suburbs.

When we screened at Sundance, some woman in the audience asked, "How common is the problem of prostitution in the lesbian community?" It is funny to us when people think it is portraying a real world, but whether or not people are in on the joke, or even understand the true gender makeup of the hooker/client landscape, they always get drawn into the story, which is about the relationship between two women (one gay, one straight).

On being singled out by Artforum and perfecting the comedy...

We had the typical challenges anyone has when they make a genuine LGBT film with LGBT performers in terms of finding resources. But our dramaturgical challenge—or task—was to think deeply about what it is that is so compelling to people about hustlers, aside from the obvious. Why is there such romance, and, why is this world forbidden to women? At one of my screenings, a former AIDS activist told me how she tried to start a lesbian hooker ring in the '90s and it failed miserably. She was still complaining about all the money she had invested in beepers to make it more convenient.  “Women just wont pay for sex," she declared. A provocative statement, but for all of us making the film, we were more interested in the assumptions and questions behind it: what might women’s emotional freedom from sexuality look like?

Lastly, with any comedy the challenge is sustaining the level of comedy throughout the movie. We had a grueling screening schedule as we were editing the film. We also shot more during the editing process, and screened it in progress to make sure we were getting all the comedy right.  We were very proud that Artforum picked us out of all the comedies—gay and straight—that recently showed at BAMcinemaFest for just that: they proclaimed that we were the only movie comedy “consistently inspired” all the way through.

On Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, I Shot Andy Warhol, Midnight Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and other influencers…

I love Gus Van Sant’s work, and also feel like David Lynch’s films are queer in a way no one acknowledges (Mullholland Drive is a great lesbian motion picture!)... And I recently hosted a Queer/Art/Film where we showed the fabulous I Shot Andy Warhol. The Foxy Merkins is specifically both an homage to and a riff on great male-hustler films like My Own Private Idaho and Midnight Cowboy—but I don’t know if the word "influence" is right, since those movies were the jumping-off point for the comedy.

There are references in the film to these and other prostitution motion pictures, which we want you to think about as you watch the movie, while at the same time, you can have seen none of these movies and still enjoy the picture! And you can watch and learn what a "merkin" is, if you don’t know yet!

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