The opening line in the trailer for her new film reads, “In 2018, women are killing it.” Writer-director Susanna Fogel is no-doubt one of these women, breaking barriers left and right. Her latest film, The Spy Who Dumped Me, is an action-comedy starring Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis as best friends who become involved in an “international conspiracy when one of the women discovers the boyfriend who dumped her was actually a spy.”
For Fogel, the foundation of her art has always come down to the writing. As a leather jacket wearing, Liz Phair listening teenager, Fogel didn’t quite fit in at her New England prep high school. She found a passion in writing sketches and satires about people in her classes, and in her life. “The only way that I knew how to process my own feelings and angst was to write comedy about people and observe people in my life,” she said. She later called the Rhode Island Film Commission and asked for someone to help her make her first film while still in high school.
Fogel went on to study English Literature at Columbia University. “I really just wanted to learn how to tell good stories, write good stories, and read a lot. That seemed like the root of a good movie to me, no matter what,” she said. “The technical stuff seemed like it would be easier to learn and pick up along the way, but you can never really get that time back where you’re just reading all the time and writing.”
At Columbia, Fogel wrote for the comedy musical, The Varsity Show, where she began collaborating in her writing – a practice she’d later employ in both her films, Life Partners and The Spy Who Dumped Me. “That was the first time I collaborated with someone, and I found that it brought a lot of joy to what is otherwise a very stressful, internal process… If I have someone always to talk about the ideas with and plan things out, I can do some of the writing on my own.” She’s not only written with others, though; She released a book in July of 2017 called Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters.
Just as Fogel has fluctuated between writing by herself and with a partner, her writing process itself has also evolved throughout the years. “I used to write very character driven, very small indie movies that were like, un-producible, but had really well developed characters… [I] wasn’t really thinking about the form, or the plot, or the structure, so I would end up with a meandering, slow, moody, introspective piece of writing that wasn’t necessarily that compelling as a movie… But now I think it’s come to be more plot driven – where, if that’s the foundation – I know I can think deeply about the characters and fill those blanks in later,” she said confidently.
Both Life Partners and The Spy Who Dumped Me are centered around strong, real, and layered female friendships. In this age, more and more people have been pushing for representation in the media, and – at times – the comedy writer has felt pressure to ensure that her female characters do not fall into stereotypes. “I think the bummer of under-representation is that each piece of work has so much pressure on it’s shoulders to represent everything, and I don’t think that my movie represents all women, all feminists, all funny women. It’s impossible, and I feel like the problem is when that these movies go under a microscope that they can’t possibly live up to and by making them sort of check every box politically, you end up with a safer, more sanitized movie that can feel dated at the end. So, it’s a challenge,” she said.
It seems as though The Spy Who Dumped Me’s trailer has already been put under this microscope. One critic deemed the film as not being feminist due to its portrayal of two American women in Europe who do not know how to drive a stick-shift. “If that movie were about guys going to Europe – if that movie were Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd going to Europe and not knowing how to drive a stick shift, no one would say anything about what it says about men. It would just be like, ‘this is a comedy about Americans who don’t know how to handle Europe,’” she said. “But if you do that with women, it suddenly stokes a lot of annoyed, political fire.”
“I hope that there are enough movies about women [so] that no one movie has to bear all of that weight. And there can be movies about women who are smart, women who are stupid, women who are funny, women who are too serious, there can just be everything. I’m hoping that is just the positive outcome of this push to tell more women’s stories.”
Only two of nearly 50 films slated to receive wide-releases this summer are directed by women, and The Spy Who Dumped Me is one of them.“Obviously, it feels bittersweet. I’m glad to be one of them, and I’m excited to make a big wide-release movie,” Fogel told me. “There’s more at play than just underestimating women because they’re women, and I’m happy to be participating in the economy of bigger movies. Only by doing that and proving that they’re marketable can we kind of change some of the biases.”
Early on in the shoot, Fogel realized that Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis had a natural chemistry that would easily translate on screen. “The first day of the costume fitting, we were trying to figure out what Kate’s character was going to wear,” she said. According to Fogel, Kunis is the “queen of linen one pieces,” and can frequently be found wearing comfy jumpers.“So we were trying to figure out what Kate was going to wear, and Kate was really fretting over it. We went into Mila’s trailer, and Kate was like ‘Oh I really like your jumper.’ and Mila just took it off and gave it to her! They just traded clothes the very first day. It was such an authentic moment, and I [thought] ‘oh you both are girls who have girlfriends and this chemistry will work well in the movie.’ That was a really good memory, just Mila giving Kate the clothes off her back. And we had a lot of moments throughout the summer… They’re two really nice, well-rounded women.”
The Spy Who Dumped Me will be in theaters on August 3rd, and Fogel will still be fighting for equality in Hollywood. “We just want more representation. We want to get to a place where we are just considered directors, and not only belong to a community of female directors, but we are also accepted into a community of directors at large,” she said.
Featured Image: From L to R: Kate McKinnon, Director Susanna Fogel and Mila Kunis on the set of THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone/SMPSP.