Exclusive: Interview with ‘Always Woodstock’ Director Rita Merson

Debuting in select theaters today (as well as on VOD & other digital platforms), Always Woodstock is Rita Merson‘s feature directing debut. The narrative centers on Catherine Brown (Allison Miller), a neurotic (yet lovable) New Yorker who hates her job at a big time music record label and is going through the motions with her long time fiance (Jason Ritter). 

When her life does a complete turnaround, Catherine moves back to her family home in Woodstock, where a spark of romance is ignited with the town doctor (James Wolk, charming as always). Katey Sagal is Lee Ann, a semi-retired musician who helps Catherine rediscover her creative compass.

Though the movie has contains the romantic comedy tropes that we’ve all come to know and hopefully love, Always Woodstock is punctuated with engaging performances from the ensemble(Brittany Snow does an amusing turn as one of the record label’s most popular, and narcissistic stars), as well as original music from Sagal and Miller.

Rita Merson also acquits herself well as a first time director, as the picture, even amidst its comedic and dramatic beats, carries a distinct, personal touch. The chemistry between Miller and Wolk, as well as Sagal’s mentorship connection with Miller, is palpable.

I chatted with Merson, who is currently developing a TV series, about Always Woodstock and how she found her voice as a filmmaker and writer. It was an engaging talk, and the good feeling I carry for Always Woodstock continued long after the conversation.

Allison Miller does a great job as the lead. What was the decision behind her casting?

It really was a feeling she gave all of us when she auditioned. She’s a really intelligent and gentle person. She came in with a really beautiful performance, but also with an inner kind of power – even though she was probably the least experienced on film of all the girls that auditioned. But there was something about her that we all felt that she could carry the movie.

And she’s very watchable. She had all the elements of Catherine and she has all the elements of a movie star.

Casting James Wolk as a co-star was also a great choice. Their chemistry is amazing, especially when their characters are at odds with each other. Did Wolk and Miller work on that aspect of their performances?

It was interesting because they’re both really talented. James Wolk is one of the most incredible actors and he is an amazing person and a really generous actor. Everyone that’s worked with him has said the same thing about him – he’s smart, he’s talented and great to work with. So I had two wonderful people.

I think they worked on it. They had to develop the chemistry fast because we only had 20 days to shoot. We took time for them to connect on camera and (work) those moments outm but ultimately they make everyone that watches the movie want to fall in love, which is the feeling that we were after.

Having Katey Sagal, who’s an experienced musician and singer, must have been a gratifying experience as well. It also brought an extra layer to your narrative.

It’s exactly how you said it. It felt very layered. Also when I immigrated to this country I was four years old and my family moved to Bensonhurst (Brooklyn) and we lived in this tiny apartment. The train was right behind our apartment. My whole (childhood) I grew up in this small, apartment and we used to watch Married with Children.

I remember telling Katey on set that it felt that the American Dream (came) full circle. I was a child learning English from the television and I’d watch her. And now she singing beautiful music that she wrote in a film that I was directing. It felt very, very special. I am grateful not only for her performance, but for her heart on set. She was incredibly supporting and loving. I felt like I had a collaborator on set. In many ways it was layered, and it was just a beautiful part of the experience.

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The cliché is a writer will pen his or her story. I’m wondering if Catherine’s journey has a deep resonance for you?

It’s a constant battle between who you are and who you think you should be and what you want to do and what other people want from you. What someone else is doing and what is authentic to your own voice. For me, that’s the constant battle as a creative person.

I was never a writer and I never had aspirations to write, and then it becomes your career. And then suddenly there are expectations. In that sense, I do connect to Catherine and her journey. That’s such a part of our human experience. You want to find out who you really are and what you want to be. It’s hard with the millions and millions of distractions at your fingertips. So absolutely, that’s a long answer (laughs).

What tangible lessons have you learned from Always Woodstock that you will carry onto your next project? 

I’ve learned so much. Certain creative things – I (don’t want to be) boxed into the rom-com genre. My next project is kind of naughty and darker. I want to make sure that I’m growing as an artist. (Always Woodstock) is the beginning of my career and not the definition of it.

I’m learning to take risks but mostly what I’ve learned from the movie is that no matter what you’re up against in the process of creating your film, there is going to be so much opposition. There will be people pulling you in different directions no matter how big or small your project is.

I found that the closer I was to my original intention and the closer I was to chasing those feelings that I wanted to create for people and being true to myself and my instincts, the better the results.

In the moment, it feels scary to trust yourself – but it’s so right and it always pays off. Also to trust the process – everything has its perfect time and all roads lead to Rome. Eventually we all get our moment. There are a lot of distractions that I could have avoided and I try to avoid right now by letting things evolve as they should.

Catherine makes her share of bad decisions and is a pretty flawed character. Can you talk about not creating a stereotypical, cutesy, rom-com character for your movie?

Everyone’s quirky in their own way and to me those are the characters I relate to. I didn’t try to make her different from every rom-com heroine but I love Woody Allen and I love Diane Keaton – and I love characters who are flawed but they’re also embracing their flaws.

Catherine isn’t beating herself up by all the ways that she’s messing up but hopefully in some ways we’ll all find that relatable. We’re weirdos – we’re all weirdos find other weirdos who will look at us and say that it’s okay.

As far as advice on getting to make your first film. Is it all about who you know or simply penning a great script?

It’s both. It’s who you know. And it’s also who you beg (laughs). In our case, we were lucky that a number of people had connected to the script. I had never written one before and it was a little of “ignorance of bliss.”

I didn’t have any expectations. I didn’t write it to make it. I wrote it to make myself feel better. I came from a place of sharing something I made so I never sent it to anyone to be in it or finance it. But people started liking it and give it great feedback.

That’s another lesson. It wasn’t desperate. That’s another part of casting – when you get a group together, it’s like the power of numbers. When there’s enough energy and people coming in support of something, there tends to be a critical mass that happens. When it all came together, the perfect people came into place.

But again, it happened organically step by step. My agent helped a lot and certainly my producers (helped with) the financing and the movie was a “go.”

Also – speaking with actors, they just liked that it was a kind story. It was simple and it was just a happy movie.

Now venturing into TV, do you see the creative advantages of working in that creative space?

Totally. You can go further. You can take more risks, and also you’re working more. There’s a slower build and it’s an exciting, amazing platform to be able to create. I love film, but this right now has been just an incredible experience to have 10 episodes to think about. It’s really exciting.

Always Woodstock - James Wolk & Allison Miller - Gravitas Ventures
Always Woodstock – James Wolk & Allison Miller – Gravitas Ventures