Frameline 46 Interview: “Maybe Someday” Director Michelle Ehlen

Maybe Someday will have its first in-person screening at the Frameline Film Festival June 24th at the Castro Theatre. An LGBTQ feature film highlighting different aspects of love and heartbreak, Maybe Someday is a nostalgic and moving journey written and directed by Michelle Ehlen. The film is Ehlen’s fifth feature and first dramedy, her prior films most notably being the first lesbian comedy trilogy – Butch JamieHeterosexual Jill, and S&M SallyMaybe Someday stars Ehlen along with Shaela Cook from Heterosexual Jill and S&M Sally, and Charlie Steers.

The story follows the character of Jay (Ehlen), a non-binary photographer in her 40s, battling a mixture of denial and depression as she attempts to move across the country in the midst of separating from her wife (Jeneen Robinson). Along the way, she takes a detour to stay with her high school best friend (Cook) who Jay used to be secretly in love with before she came out as a lesbian, and befriends a charismatic but complicated gay man (Steers) who has long given up on love. Struggling to move forward with the next chapter of her life, memories of the past resurface as Jay grapples with the inevitable cycles of love, loss, and letting go.

Ehlen’s past films have collectively screened at over 100 festivals around the world and have won 20 awards including Best Feature from the Chicago LGBTQ Film Festival, Best Director from the Connecticut LGBTQ Film Festival, and Best Actress from Outfest Los Angeles for her first starring role in Butch Jamie. The films have gone on to wide releases on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon.

In addition to Frameline 46 hosting an in-person festival, this year there will be a virtual Streaming Encore, where Maybe Someday will be available to watch nationally June 24-30.

Gaysonoma’s Gary Carnivele interviewed Maybe Someday’s director Michelle Ehlen recently.

Gary Carnivele:  Tell us a bit about your educational and professional background.

Michelle Ehlen:  I studied acting and video production when I was younger and while at Smith College, then moved to Los Angeles after graduation to work as an editor. After a couple of years, I decided to go to the LA Film School to study writing and directing. Eventually I got a job at a production and distribution company where I learned how to produce along with everything that happens after you make a film – marketing, contracts, and distribution. So I have experience in all parts of the process, and I love to wear a lot of different hats when I make a film. 

GC:  What directors would you cite as heroes or as inspirational? 

ME:  Christopher Guest was a big inspiration to me when I was getting started. After I saw “Best in Show” 20 years ago, I was inspired to try comedy for the first time, leading to my first short film “Ballet Diesel”, which screened at Frameline in 2003. My first four features were all comedies as well, and I think it all traced back to watching “Best in Show” and feeling like I could approach comedy in a similar way, with a deadpan and grounded style of humor and quirky characters.

GC:  Maybe Someday is your fifth feature film. Do you see your latest as an extension of your previous work or as a stand alone?

ME:  I definitely see “Maybe Someday” as a standalone. It’s a lot more serious than the other films, which leads to a more nuanced and layered approach in the writing, directing, and cinematography. People love to say that comedy is harder than drama, but in my case, doing something dramatic was definitely more challenging. With a comedy, if you can keep people laughing then you feel like you’ve done your job, but for a film like this, you have to engage the audience emotionally in a deeper way. You want the character to elicit empathy but not be too pathetic, the plotto be realistic but not boring, the drama to be compelling but not over-the-top, and the themes clearly communicated but not trite. It’s also a lot easier to shoot a microbudget film as a comedy, as it’s generally quicker to shoot; we had twice as many shoot days as my last comedy feature,”S&M Sally”, and it still felt like we were rushed with having 17 days.

GC:  Your ambitious lesbian comedy triology – Butch Jamie, Heterosexual Jill, and S&M Sally – was a success and a first.  How tough was it for you to come up with a new idea for your next feature?

WE:  The idea came to me over time, first as an idea of focusing on a friendship story between a gay man and a lesbian, and then branching out more to delve into heartbreak and unrequited love in both the past and present. The most challenging part was writing the script after I had the idea formulated, as I wanted to tell the story about a protagonist who was stuck in her life. It’s a very universal experience, of a relationship ending and trying to not only heal from the heartbreak but to decide where to go from here. However, it’s not something that’s often depicted in movies because it’s difficult to write a story about a character who’s stuck. So finding a way to keep the story moving forward while Jay was stuck in her own life was challenging. That’s where Tommy’s character comes in (Jay’s new gay best friend) – he ends up being the active voice for a lot of it.

GC:  Just how personal is this film for you?

ME:  The film is personal in that the main relationships that are depicted are based on real relationships I’ve had, but the plot itself is mostly fictional. When my partner and I separated many years ago, I also moved from the east coast to the west coast in an attempt to start a new life, but the ways that I was stuck following my separation and the ways that Jay is stuck looked very different. I was actually on the festival circuit that year with my first feature “Butch Jamie,” and so many wonderful things happened during what was otherwise one of the most difficult times of my life.Even though our underlying emotional experiences are similar, Jay’s journey is more clear, concise, and relatable on screen.

GC:  Maybe Someday is a delightful and poignant dramady.  Talk about your writing process

I’m glad you enjoyed it. It took a while to write, about three years off and on to really find the story. The film is supposed to take place somewhere in the middle of the country, partly in the fall. My family lives in southern Missouri, so when I was first starting to write the script, I’d go explore the area, road trip down to Arkansas by myself during the fall and call it my “autumn inspiration trip,” as a way to find inspiration for the story and to get a sense of the landscape and vibe. I also think exploring that area gave me a sense of passion and excitement for the film that I was able to maintain throughout the process.

Aside from that, I tried to tap in to a more emotional space when I wrote, so I played certain music that was nostalgic for me, or would write by candlelight. After I had a solid draft, I’d send it to colleagues for feedback, and toward the end of the process we did a couple of readings where we would discuss the script afterward as well.

GC:  Your dialogue is always spot on.  Tell us about the characters created and how you give them voice.

ME:  That’s great to hear. I really enjoy writing dialogue and feel like it comes to me easier than many other parts of the writing process. In earlier drafts of the script, there was a lot of dialogue that I had to pare down because it was too “on the nose,” or patronizing, or tangential. When I start writing, oftentimes I’ll start with a theme – in this case, moving forward after heartbreak, and then come up with the characters and plot to help support that theme, and the dialogue flows from there. I sort of act out the characters in my head and feel their energy and way of speaking. For Jess’ role in the story, helping Jay move forward after heartbreak, she was supposed to be wise and kind, but not too patronizing. Tommy also helped Jay move forward but unknowingly, so he was brash and enthusiastic enough to coax Jay into his ideas and plans, helping her out of her shell and out of her head. Jay’s character was stuck and withdrawn, so her dialogue was shorter and to the point, but flowed more after her character opened up more. I think creating distinct personalities for each character not only creates a compelling story, but also lays the foundation for creating unique voices for each of their dialogue as well.

GC:  During the writing process did surprises arise that you never saw coming?

ME:  I didn’t foresee adding flashbacks to the script, which turned out to be some of the most important and rewarding scenes. The first draft of the script took place entirely in present day, and most of that draft focused on the unfolding friendship of Jay and Tommy and how Jay attempts to move forward after her separation with Lily. However, my producer commented that Jay’s relationship with Lily and her past with Jess were as equally important to the emotional life of the story, and suggested we flesh things out with flashbacks. And I’m so glad we did – it opened up the story tremendously, and it added a lot of emotional subtext to the present day scenes as well. When you take screenwriting classes, they constantly tell you not to use flashbacks which is a shame because many great movies do. It’s just that a lot of beginning writers use them as a crutch. So I avoided them for many years but in this case felt that they were done intentionally and for all the right reasons.

GC:  Maybe Someday is full of wonderful performances – yours included, of course.  Tell me about your cast and how as a director you elicit great performances.

ME:  Thank you – I felt really lucky to find such a wonderful cast for this project. I worked with Shaela Cook, who played Jess, in a couple of my other films, and the other actors we all found through an open audition process, including my co-star Charlie Steers who played Tommy. Tommy was one of the more challenging roles to cast since he’s such a complex character, and we magically found someone who felt as though the part was written for him. In terms of getting great performances, I think the casting process is a big part of it, and prioritizing the acting first and foremost in an audition helps set us off on the right foot. Beyond that, I meet with the actors to discuss the scenes so they understand the character, backstory, and subtext, but I don’t like to over-rehearse the scenes themselves, so there’s still a freshness and spontaneity to it. On set, I’m generally open to spontaneity and even improvisation of some moments as well. For the two actors who played younger versions of Jay and Jess in the film, Eliza Blair and Cameron Norman, they had the added benefit of being able to watch some of the footage we had already shot with their older counterparts. People have told me they see so much of my mannerisms and facial expressions as Jay in Eliza’s performance – it was really remarkable how Eliza was able to incorporate all of that but still make the part their own. All in all, I think the cast as a whole found parts of themselves in the characters they were playing, and that always makes a big difference. 

GC:  How do you go about simultaneously acting in and directing a film?

ME:  I think a lot of my acting prep happens simultaneously to the writing process, so I feel like I’m embodying the character as I’m creating the story, writing the dialogue, and deciding on the choices they’d make. So by the time we start shooting, the main thing for me as an actor, other than connecting with my scene partner, is maintaining focus and switching focus back and forth quickly from director mind to actor mind so they can complement each other but not undermine each other. We would sometimes watch playback on set, but that was more for me to see how the shot played out as opposed to assessing the performance, which is more of an intuitive process. 

GC:  What do you hope audiences take away from Maybe Someday?

ME:  I hope they see how sometimes we prolong our own grief. That we need to be active participants in our healing process, and that moving on can be difficult and scary but refusing to do so delays the inevitable. The one thing I wish I would have learned many years ago – to let go sooner, and more gracefully. 

GC:  You’re practically a regular at Frameline.  What does it feel like having your films shown as part of Frameline46?

ME:  I love screening at Frameline. It was the first festival I attended with my first short film back in 2003, which screened in their Fun Shorts collection at the Castro, and the audience was so receptive that it encouraged me to keep going. When I screened there in 2008 with “Butch Jamie”, I had already spent a year touring around various festivals with it, but the Frameline screening of the film is still to date the best screening I’ve ever had in terms of how engaged the audience was. After that experience, I made a point to put Frameline toward the beginning of my festival run instead of toward the end. I find the audience there to be very enthusiastic and passionate about queer film, and it’s always a joy to attend.

GC:  Will you be at the Frameline screening and how valuable it is to get quick feedback from an audience? 

ME:  Yes, I plan to be there with my producer David Au and co-producer Hayden Harris. It’ll be our first in-person screening, and the test screenings we did for feedback during the editing process were remote because of Covid, so I’m looking forward to seeing it with an audience. The feedback you get from a live audience is always really valuable – I love doing the Q&As and hearing their questions and comments, and the best parts are when they laugh or respond to something during the screening in a way you didn’t foresee. It allows you for a moment to experience vicariously what it’s like watching the movie for the first time. The funny thing about creating a film from the ground up is you never get to watch the final movie for the first time – it’s always in process and when it’s finished, there are no longer any surprises. It’s very elusive that way; you know the movie inside out except for that one crucial part – how it feels to discover it not over years, but over minutes.

GC:  What are you working on now?

ME:  Right now I’m in pre-production on a documentary with my partner Hayden Harris called “Queering the Binary,” which is a large-scale research project and docuseries about non-binary identities and experiences. Hayden and I are both non-binary and would love to see more content about the community, so we’re excited to start shooting in a couple of months.

GC:  What advice would you offer budding filmmakers? 

ME:  Learn as much as you can, create something meaningful to you and not what you think people will want to see, make things happen for yourself instead of waiting for approval or permission, not burning yourself out should be one of your highest priorities, and question all advice you are given.