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In writer-director Andrew Durham’s feature directorial debut, Fairyland, Emilia Jones plays Alysia Abbott, a young girl being raised by her single father in the ‘70s. Based on the memoir of the same title, and author and real-life Alysia, Fairyland tells a “parallel coming-of-age story,” as Durham describes it, of the father-daughter relationship between Alysia and Steve Abbott (Scoot McNairy), a man navigating the queer community of ‘70s San Francisco, and all the new freedoms it has to offer. While simultaneously raising his daughter and attempting to experience his new life, Steve encourages Alysia to embrace her passions, while doing the same.
Though her childhood was filled with love from her father, as Alysia gets older she begins to feel her family’s otherness. Wanting desperately to fit in and carve her own life for herself, Alysia heads off to college, first in NYC and then abroad in France. It’s during this time in the ‘80s, when AIDS tragically swept through the gay community, that Steve calls on his daughter following his diagnosis. Alysia must now face the decision to continue living her life or return home to care for her father. In addition to McNairy and Jones, Fairyland also stars Cody Fern, Adam Lambert, Geena Davis, Nessa Doughtery, Maria Bakalova, and more.
After Fairyland’s Sundance screening, Durham, Jones, McNairy, Lambert, and Fern visited the Collider Studio in Park City. During their interview with Collider’s Steve Weintraub, they each share what about the script resonated with them, discuss the “whirlwind” of making an independent film, and talk about why this heartbreaking story is imperative to tell, and continue telling. They open up about the ripple effect AIDS has on the queer community, and all of those affected by it, and discuss emotional scenes in the film. Durham also reveals the ways the movie almost changed drastically during the editing process, and explains the intentional camerawork as it matures with each act. You can watch the interview in the player above, or read the full transcript below.
COLLIDER: Andrew you worked at the very beginning of your career as an office PA or something on the first Scream movie, if I’m not mistaken.
DURHAM: Wow. Yeah, I was assistant production coordinator on the original Scream.
When you were making that, did you have any idea that movie was going to go on to become what it’s become?
DURHAM: I had no idea, but I think that the people at Dimension must have had some idea because they put Drew Barrymore in it at the beginning, and she was a hot deal. Well, she still is, but she was a big deal. But I thought it was a gig for me. I was working freelance in production. I’d been out of film school for a few years and this was a great job. I got to be up in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, and we would drink wine on the weekends. I made some wonderful friends on that. We just thought it was a blast. We did not know it was going to turn into the franchise that it became, but I have a feeling that some people had an idea, perhaps.
I’m curious for you Emilia, when did you decide you wanted to take over Sundance this year with two films?
EMILIA JONES: Honestly, I’m so excited to be here because [with] CODA we didn’t actually get to come to Sundance, and so everything was online. So then when I found out that Fairyland and Cat Person were trying, I was like, “Oh, I really hope that at least one of them could get in so I could finally go to Sundance.” I did not think it would be both, so I’m on cloud nine. I’m very shocked.
Let’s jump in. Your movie’s fantastic. It’s also such an important movie, and it’s beautifully told, but no one here has seen it yet. How have you been describing the film to friends and family?
DURHAM: Well, friends and family have been listening to me describe it for the last eight years, so they all know it very well. It’s been a long time in the making. I would say to somebody – if like an elevator pitch type of thing – I would say this is a father-daughter love story set during a period in America that was on the cusp of changing in so many ways. We watch them evolve with the times.
It’s a parallel coming-of-age story. This is a story of a daughter, or a young girl, raised by her gay father. If you know anything about that sort of community back then, a lot of those men that came out of the closet in the 1970s during the gay lib movement were going through a second adolescence because they had suppressed that initial adolescence. It just so happens that his daughter is coming of age as he is coming of age again. So we’re watching these two worlds collide and also connect.
I think you’ve done this before.
DURHAM: This is the first time anyone’s asked me that question, so thank you.
For all four of you, what was it like reading the script for the first time, and what made you say, “Oh, my God, I have to be a part of this?”
SCOOT MCNAIRY: When I initially read the script the first time, it resonated with me. The first time I read it, it resonated with me just as much the 50th time I read it. And even seeing it today, it still resonates. Andrew wrote an incredibly beautiful script. I know that he had it for a really long time, but the script spoke for itself. It was a really beautiful story about a father-daughter love story set during the AIDS epidemic, but more so, it’s about these two figuring it out and trying to do better, and be better, and figure out who they are as people. It’s just a story that you hear about, but it’s not a movie I’ve seen or a story that I’ve seen in the cinema before. It was original. It was a beautiful story he had written. The cast was incredible. It was a no-brainer. It was a small movie, but I think we all cleared our schedules to come do this thing. We are all really, really passionate and wanted to do it.
FERN: I’ve been attached for six years. I think it’s six years.
DURHAM: Cody was the very first person attached to the movie.
FERN: Don’t you forget it. I was so enamored of the script and so wanted it to happen. Years went by when it wasn’t happening, and I just assumed, “Well, I’m not going to get to do this.” Andrew and I stayed in touch and I would hound him every December, I think, like, “What’s happening?” Then it all came together it seemed like within the space of a week.
I found out that Scoot was doing it, and I instantly became terrified because I’ve always seen him as such a phenomenal artist, the kind of actor that you’re like, “Okay, I’ve really got to bring my A-game.” [To Jones] I was at an Oscars party when you and I met, and you were like, “Fairyland.” I was like, “What about it?” And you were like, “I’m Alysia” and I was like, “What?!” Then it was all happening. It all came together within the space of two weeks, and we were off to San Francisco and shooting. It was such an extraordinary experience the whole time. So that’s my experience of it.
DURHAM: The whole 21 days that we shot the movie in.
JONES: Yeah, it was a whirlwind. But I think that’s what’s so exciting about independent moviemaking. It brings out such a rawness onscreen. And it is, it’s 21 days, and you’ve got to film young Alysia [and] old Alysia through loads of years. It was tough, but everybody just worked so hard together, and it really was a team effort. I loved every second of it. Even though it was hard, and we were up against it with time, yeah, I loved it. And the story, it was so beautiful. I read the memoir and I read the script and I fell in love with it. I did actually audition for Andrew before the Pandemic, and then I didn’t hear. We had a Zoom.
DURHAM: We had a Zoom the first week of the pandemic, didn’t we? We were both at our homes. It wasn’t called Zoom then. It was called Skype.
JONES: It was Skype, yeah. Then I didn’t hear anything and I thought, “Oh, I didn’t get it.” Then I got a call months later, and I was so excited to be doing it. It’s a really beautiful story.
Adam, you have a small but important part in the film, but you haven’t talked about what drew you to the project, and I’m curious.
ADAM LAMBERT: Well, Andrew reached out, and we had a great conversation, and he told me about the memoir. I read it and I thought it was beautiful. I’ve always loved San Francisco in the ’70s, particularly in the Castro, the gay liberation movement. My mom’s side of the family, they lived there in the Castro during that time. It hits home for me. That was a very nostalgic era based on stories I’ve heard.
There are lots of queer stories being told right now, and it’s really important, and it’s something that’s long overdue. [There are] more and more characters coming out. [There are] more and more stories. I feel like we’re at a time when queer stories and visibility are more important than ever, and they’re the reason why we have been able to move the needle in the first place. I think the media, TV, film, music, we’re the ones actually helping get people comfortable with the queer experience.
But this movie in particular was just so interesting because you’re colliding the gay lib movement with a single father raising a child. I thought it was so interesting to see those things mash together in such a beautiful way.
You mentioned you had a tight schedule to make this. I’m curious, when you were looking at the schedule, what was the day that you had circled like, “How are we going to pull this off?” And also for the actors, was there a day on the schedule that you were a little bit concerned or nervous about?
DURHAM: I’m trying to think of a day that wasn’t that day. Do you understand that when you have a seven-year-old, they can only work five hours a day? What we did was we would shoot Nessa Dougherty – who was the wonderful little girl that plays young Alysia – in the mornings, and then she would leave at lunch, and then Emilia would come, and we would shoot her scenes. Now, remember, Scoot has to go from ’70s to ‘80s at lunchtime, so he would have to switch his hair and makeup, and everything. Our company moves are minor. We shot most of the movie in two large homes, two big old houses for our interiors. So the company moves are easy, but we would shoot young Alysia in the morning, older Alysia at night. The morning was on 16 millimeter, [in] the evening the camera department switched to digital. It was like shooting two films, and we always said that. When you asked that question if there was one day that was crazy, the day that we shot the Gay Pride parade in the ’70s. Well, it was a heat wave, but also, it was day two or three of shooting.
Scoot: Three company moves.
DURHAM: Yeah. There were three company moves, which was a lot for a movie on our schedule. That might have been a tough one because we had a couple different locations, and it was a complicated shoot to do.
FERN: But you wouldn’t have known it. Andrew handled it so deftly. It was such a punk experience shooting. I remember coming in the makeup room, I’d be in character, and I’d come in and there would be Emilia getting her hair done. We’d go off and do something and then Nessa would be going in. The entire time, Andrew was so calm, and he’d come in with his little screen and his direction was, “So how are you feeling?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s good.” He’s like, “Okay. Yeah. All right then.” Out of the room. You never knew that anything was a problem. He was like, “Okay. Well, yeah, we got to get this, so let’s do it.” It felt like indie filmmaking in the best possible sense, a collaboration with a leader who knew what he wanted and who delivered.
JONES: Yeah, no matter how stressful it was, it never showed, ever.
LAMBERT: And I have to say, this is my first film. I’ve been in the entertainment industry for a long time in theater and music, and stuff, but I was a little apprehensive. I was like, “Well, I hope that I know what I’m doing, and I hope that they like me and that I don’t fuck things up.” I have to say it was such a breeze. It was so comfortable right away. Andrew just made me feel like everything was going to be fine. I walked onto set and met Scoot. He gave me a big hug, and he was like, “I’m so excited.” I instantly felt like, “Okay, this is going to be great.” I met Emilia. It felt very relaxed and that the family had already been formed, but I didn’t feel like an outsider when I walked onto set. I thought that was really wonderful. I’ve seen it the other way.
MCNAIRY: I’ve done a couple of films and Andrew is a light in a bottle. He’s just so wonderful to work with, but also, he’s wonderful to be around. You want to go get drinks or a dinner with him afterwards. He’s very, very magnetic. So it trickles down from the top. Obviously, we all know that. When you have a leader that keeps their composure and keeps their creative vision going, and their composure, it’s rare. Andrew did it gracefully.
FERN: And an extraordinary team of producers as well. You have Sofia Coppola and you have Megan Carlson. They were real leaders on this film. Everything just felt like a family experience. It was just, as a team, you don’t get this often. It was such a love fest. It was just so easy and gentle and humorous and light, and at the same time, obviously tackling such intense issues. Kudos to Andrew.
One of the reasons I’m so happy this film was made is there are a lot of younger people that are not familiar with that era. Anytime I think about the late ’70s, well, early ’80s of San Francisco and the mid-’80s, I think about all the people that were lost to AIDS and who just never had a chance. It’s a generation of people. This film shines a light on that story. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect?
DURHAM: It’s a little emotional for me. I’m going to pass that on to someone else.
DURHAM: No, it’s okay. It’s a tough one.
MCNAIRY: I knew a little bit about it, but not to the extent that I know [now]. The tragedy that came across this community was totally sidelined. After going through a COVID pandemic that doesn’t even ring close to what AIDS… It’s like one of the saddest things in the world to know that what if you went through the COVID pandemic and you had nobody? And this small community had a lot of pride, had gained a lot of ground with their movement only to be…
It’s just a tragedy. It’s so sad. It’s just so sad. And that was the one thing that hit me in doing the research for this. I didn’t know much about AIDS. I always grew up in Texas. I was sheltered from it. Having learned a lot about this, I didn’t understand. I now realize the tragedy that this community went through and no one was sticking their hands out to help.
It’s a shameful time in America’s history. But one of the reasons why I’m so happy this film was made is because we have to talk about it, and we can’t bury these things under the rug. That’s one of the many reasons why I thought you did such a fantastic job.
DURHAM: Well, that’s also why I made the film. I didn’t mean to not answer your question, but I probably, like so many of us, have a little PTSD from that era, so it’s hard for us to go there. That’s why the film is here.
LAMBERT: I will say, too, I missed that era by 10 years or so, but growing up in the shadow of it, the aftermath of it, the fear that was around sex and homosexuality permeated the ’90s. I was a kid in the ’90s, but you could feel it. Anything that you saw on TV about anything gay was like everyone was freaked out because of what had happened. I think looking at today’s community, the LGBTQ community today, especially young people coming up, there’s a lot of the history that we haven’t passed on to our community. There’s a lot of it that’s been lost. A lot of our teachers were taken away from us. A lot of the people that would now be our elders don’t exist anymore. The history that the queer community has been through is really important now, more than ever, considering what’s going on in the country, considering that, like I said earlier, we’re under attack again.
We [have] got to make sure everyone knows what’s happened already so that we cannot repeat our mistakes, and we can build upon what we can learn from it and come out stronger, and more unified.
You two have some very emotional scenes in the third act. I’m curious if we could talk a little bit about playing those scenes and making them as authentic as you can. I felt like I was watching real people who are just flawed, but trying to make the best of it. I thought you both did such an amazing job.
JONES: Well, luckily for us, by the time we came to the third act and those really, really emotional scenes, they were at the very end of the shoot. So by that point, I had become really close with Scoot. I’d become close with Andrew. We’d all become really, really close, and we developed our characters. So when it came to those really, really emotional scenes, I was really sad. I fell in love with Scoot’s Steve, and we also were coming to an end of the shoot, and it was emotional. I’d learned so much about that time. It was kind of no acting required.
Andrew did really long takes, which I loved because I felt like I was living as Alysia, and I was in that moment. It never felt like acting. I never noticed the camera around, especially (cinematographer) Greta [Zozula], the way Greta shot those scenes as well. She just let us be. It wasn’t like, “Okay, now we’re going to go close. So now we’re going to go close. Now we’re going to do a wide. Now we’re going to do this shot.” It was just me and Scoot in that moment, and we didn’t do it many, many times, which helped, I think, and made it more emotional.
MCNAIRY: For me, working with a talent like Emilia, you just have to listen. When you work with really talented people, there’s less work for you to do, especially in acting. So just to be present and listen, that’s it. Even with Nessa, the little girl, you really listen to them, and they’re rock stars. They will get you there. You know what I mean? If you stay focused and listen to them because they’re both… Nessa did an incredible job. It was her first movie, but Emilia’s a pro. So when you work with somebody like that, it’s not work. It’s play.
I was going to say, you have a fun scene with Nessa. I don’t want to spoil it here, but I’m curious about what it was like filming a certain scene that is dealing with adult stuff.
FERN: What was really great about – just as an aside – indie filmmaking [was], I got into that bath, and it was freezing cold. Do you remember that? They were like, “The water’s warm. It’ll be great.”
DURHAM: Well, there was no running water in that house, so we had to just fill a bathtub with water that was from the hose.
FERN: So they were like, “Jump into the bath, it’s going to be great,” and I was like, “This is minus 10 degrees.”
Okay, I’ll say something about that. I remember early on, Scoot and I looking at each other at the start of the film because Andrew was so gentle that the camera would be off in the distance or something, and we’d be doing our thing. He knew what he wanted, and we were like, “We’ve got all these ideas, and we’ve got all these…” and he was just like, “Well, no, I want you to be in the distance.” It was the same with the bath scene. He put the camera in a certain place, and I was thinking, “There’s going to be coverage. There’s going to be a closeup.” I was going to make all these choices, and he said, “No, no. Just sit in the bathroom. We’re just going to do it,” and it feels like it was the first take.
DURHAM: It might have been.
FERN: When the ashtray fell in.
DURHAM: We didn’t have many takes on this movie because we didn’t have time. Oh, the ashtray did fall in. That was the first take. Yeah, you’re right.
FERN: It was the first take, so it was the shock of, you’re dealing with that situation as it’s unraveling, and everything just felt so authentic. Nessa is such a special little soul. She’s so vibrant and curious and fun. Again, it’s like Scoot said, you just need to lock in and go.
Andrew, one of the things that I commend you on, and you touched on it a little bit earlier in the interview, is the aesthetic of the film, and how you used 16 millimeter for the ’70s, and then you shot it completely differently once it became the ’80s. Can you talk about the choices you made, and why you wanted to do it like that?
DURHAM: It was a very, very conscious decision. Greta, our DP, is just incredible. She’s amazing. She was one of the most agile, intelligent… Her aesthetic is incredible. We decided we wanted to make sure that this film matured as our characters matured if that makes sense. The first half, everything with Nessa, is on 16 millimeter. The camera work, it’s just a little bit more fluid and more vérité. We shoot up a lot. We’re looking up at Steve for most of that part, most of Nessa’s scenes. Then, when we get to those teenage scenes, the 1980s, and we introduce Emilia, we transition to digital, and we’re looking a little bit more eye-line with Steve at this point. Our shots are still a little messy and playful, but it isn’t until we get to the third act where now, we’re looking down at Steve, and the shots are a lot more stable. They’re more conservative compositions.
That was just really important to me because this story is told through Alysia’s eyes. It was very important to me that when you get to the end of the film, those early scenes that were shot on 16 should feel like distant memories. That was really, really important to me because I was really inspired by looking through my parents’ photo albums, and also being a photographer. I love looking at old images.
This film covers a lot of ground. It’s 15 years. It’s two actors playing Alysia. It’s a lot to ask of your audience, so I decided I was just going to lean into that. And I want, like I said, by the end of the film when you’re at the end of that third act, all of those memories of the beginning of the movie should feel very distant like faded photographs, and that was the intent.
I like talking about the editing process because it’s where it all comes together. Even though you had a limited shoot, and I’m sure limited takes, I’m curious how the film changed in the editing room in ways you were not expecting.
DURHAM: Oh, I had two editors, Peter [CabadaHagen] and Larry [Klein], and they were just incredible. They put together a beautiful editor’s cut, or what you call a rough assembly. As soon as we got back from France, I had the movie mapped out, and they did it exactly like this script. This is my first film, so it seemed heavy and long, and weird. I was just like, “Oh, my god.” Sofia’s the best person to give you advice. She’s so great at telling you, “Calm down. It’s not the end of the world. You’ve got the movie there. That’s what they all look like” even though my editors are telling me, “No, this story is solid. It’s there.” What happened is that I decided at one point I wanted to tell this non-linear, and I wanted the whole movie to be a flashback.
I went to dinner with Scoot, and he said, “How’s the editing going?” I go, “You know what? I need to start with Emilia, and she needs to be looking through boxes and letters, and we need to start going back on her childhood, and we need to do all this.” We played around with that for weeks. This is the luxury I had because when you have such a low-budget movie, and you’re editing in somebody’s living room, we did have a little bit more flexibility. But my editors let me do that, and they let me work that exercise and get that out of my system. Sofia kept telling me, “People gravitated to the story because of your script. You need to stick with the script. That’s what worked.” And I said, “No, no, no, no. I think it has to be non-linear.”
And we tried it. When you don’t shoot something non-linear, and you don’t write something non-linear, it’s really hard to try and put those puzzle pieces together. I spoke to an editor that had to do that once on a movie, and she said, “Well, get prepared for reshoots and focus groups, and all sorts of stuff.” You know what? I went back to what the original assembly was, and we just fine-tuned that, and I think it really worked. But like I said, I was lucky that I had the time. I could experiment with that. But I think we’re much better off.
You know something? I’ve spoken to a lot of directors, and they do sometimes do some real experimental editing, and sometimes it works, but it’s good to have that freedom. So at least you tried it.
MCNAIRY: Or to know that it doesn’t work, so you can move on from it.
FERN: But even with that, the editing in this film, I saw it for the first time in theaters today. I decided that I would wait. It’s extraordinary how it moves time periods so seamlessly. Like that scene where Alysia is getting off the bus. I had a moment in the film where I went like, “Oh, my god, he’s so clever.” Just appreciating this is really moving along. It’s extraordinarily well-paced.
MCNAIRY: Yeah. You don’t understand how clever it was because constantly, you’re getting off of a bus, and then you’re in a whole other city where she’s walking, and then you’re in a whole another city, or another place, of them talking to the guy. Andrew did an insanely good job at being able to put these locations and be able to utilize all these different two-dimensional walls or spaces, and stuff, and then sew this thing together. You had to have been there to see how impressive it is on an independent film, and also the producing team to be able to structure that. It really is, for me, it was phenomenal to be like, “Wow, you really stitched that thing together seamlessly.”
LAMBERT: And the stock footage is so cool, too, because that blends in seamlessly, too, and it puts you there.
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.
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