Being Vulnerable on the Page with 'Punch Drunk' Filmmaker Emily Lerer
By Sadie Dean • October 21, 2021
Script's Editor Sadie Dean interviews 'Punch Drunk' filmmaker Emily Lerer about her very personal connection to the story, her collaboration with her key team, casting, and why she writes to direct.
Punch Drunk is a dramatic short film addressing a taboo, women-centric experience in a comedic, gritty way. We meet Nora, a bartender in rural Kentucky working a routine shift filled with interesting faces and even darker memories. While the warm ambience of the bar feels like home, traumatic experiences in tandem with a recent precancerous uterine surgery begin to bleed into her psyche and quite literally her place of business. Tucked-away agony aligns with present-day anguish as Nora endeavors to survive the mental and material challenges before her.
It's very rare that a short film immediately pulls you into a character's psyche, and plays to their vulnerabilities and fears, all the while tugging at your heartstrings. Punch Drunk filmmaker Emily Lerer does just that with her short film that has been making the rounds at notable film festivals. I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Emily about her very personal connection to the story, her collaboration with her key team, casting, and why she writes to direct.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the kernel of this story for you?
Emily Lerer: I went to my regular OB-GYN appointment as one should do annually. And I keep telling all my friends they should too. Got my Pap smear, got a phone call, it was like, 'Hey, this is abnormal. It's beyond the threshold, we're gonna watch it, we're gonna have to do something about this.' And there's something they had to do - a LEEP procedure. And so I got a lot of warning, 'with your health insurance the way it is, we can either put you under and it'll be this much money, or we can keep you awake, and it'll be this much money.' And for me, and the position I was in, well, that's not really much of a choice, so we're going to keep me awake. And no one really prepared me for how invasive that would feel to watch parts of my cervix come out into a bin in front of me. Even knowing that they were the cancerous parts.
And I thought, OK, that's it, I'm done. I'm gonna move on. And then I noticed a couple of weeks later, I was going into the restroom at a restaurant that I loved, and they had a coed bathroom, it had a urinal, and I kept kind of feeling like PTSD from 10 years ago, and I went deep into the internet rabbit hole, and discovered that I wasn't alone. And no one including my female OB-GYN, colleagues, friends, anyone had said, like, 'hey, this can be traumatizing.' And even though it's a very healthy and important thing to do, like this is something you need to be prepared for. And so having lived with that, I sat with the idea that it would be interesting to explore as an advocacy piece and did a couple of other projects that I finally just had this itch to come back to it. So my partner and I sat down and wrote it. And it's probably one of those goofy things where they say when you're a writer, you're kind of exposing yourself in this very vulnerable way. And this is me. You know, I wasn't a bartender and I didn't go through it in that circumstance. But I was in a male-dominated environment at the time that I was a woman going through this experience and felt like it had to kind of stay inside of me, while I survived.
Sadie: Tapping into that trauma, it's super vulnerable, especially for a writer to, not to be punny, but bleed on the page. How long was that writing process for you? And then that collaboration with your writing partner, who is a male who may not fully understand what you're going through?
Emily: I want to say we set out to write it together in November of 2019ish, maybe a little bit earlier. And I think I did a first draft all the way through, and he's actually my romantic partner as well, we've co-written together before so while he didn't viscerally go through the experience from my point of view, he went through from his point of view while it was all happening and was very much my emotional support system. I had to go a little bit back and forth, especially in the writing of it to make sure that it translated to someone who didn't go through that experience. I think having him come at it with, 'No, you need to explain this a little bit more, no one inherently knows what a LEEP procedure is. These are things that are foreign to the other half of the population that you are trying to bring in.' I want to say that collaboration was about a three-month process over weekends and evenings because we both work day jobs as well. And it had its final pass a couple of weeks before we shot.
Sadie: I'd love to learn more about the casting process, especially for a short film, and especially with something that's so heavy and topical like this, what were you looking for in an actor and hoping for them to bring to this character for you?
Emily: We were really open to any race and any body type. And I got submissions from lots of different folks. The biggest thing for me was someone who was willing to be vulnerable in that position, and someone who seems to get the material and the quipiness of the dialogue so that it could have those moments of humor. And it ended up like three degrees of separation referral, that is how I ended up finding Danielle, who was our lead. And the first time she did the read, it had the right pacing, and then I realized I could actually work with her when we met up for coffee. Her audition was completely remote. I just wanted to make sure that we could be in the same room and understood each other, which I think is huge as a director to know that your cast is enjoyable to be on set with and personable and connects to the material. And she did.
Sadie: Yeah, it's important. You shot this I assume during COVID?
Emily: Right before actually.
Sadie: You lucked out.
Emily: Yeah, we really did. We were a little, like right up to that moment. So March first and second of 2020, were our shoot dates. And if you remember that infamous Friday the 13th - while I was working my co-supervision job, we were like, 'we're gonna be gone for two weeks.' It turned into a lot more than that and I'm really grateful because we shot in a dive bar with fifty cast and crew and extras, and no real holding space. It was a very not COVID safe world. And I don't know that we could have done what we did.
Sadie: I feel like this is a great moment for writers to shine and to actually make things of their own. Was that kind of something that you were going through, 'I'm just going to make this thing because I have to make it,' especially as a storyteller?
Emily: Yeah, I think it's a little cliche, but for a reason, write the thing that you're the only person who can tell this story. Write the thing that's your voice. And this is very much, though collaborative, it's my voice, and it's his voice. It's our experience. And though you can absolutely write what you know, and set it in a sci-fi world, I think, for me, writing what I know, and setting it at a grungy dive bar was really not only therapeutic but inclusive. And I think in the world that we're in right now, we're finally seeing a lot more openness around the human experience which comes from the female experience. And so it felt like the right time, and I'm so grateful that we did it in the time that we did it, because jeez, if we had waited. [laughs] Also, I see myself as a director-writer, in that order, because I came from a directing background. So, writing something to direct has always been the goal as far as my writing goes.
Sadie: What inspired you to become a filmmaker and what you're doing now professionally in your career?
Emily: I started out as an actor and went to after-school acting programs and all that kind of stuff in high school and then went to college and did the same thing. And over and over again, colleagues would say, 'Hey, look at my monologue. You're so good at giving notes. You're so good at figuring out what's going on here.' By year three in my BFA program, I went to my professor, I sat down in his office and I said, 'Hey, um, I think I want to be a director.' And he kind of went, 'Yep.' [laughs] 'I think that's the right move for you.' And I did a very giant bite off of my next project as a director, my first directorial debut in theater was an adaptation of Julius Caesar. It was outside, and it was exploring the rise and fall of dictatorship. And it was quite a monster. But it was really fun. And I just sunk my teeth into that and really wanted to move to New York to direct theatre. So, I moved to New York, I worked in the off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway circuit with old works reimagined. And then new playwrights - anyone who had a script that was still in development, I helped out with that and dug into fresh material. The platform for theater is amazing. And you're in a room, and it's very visceral, and it has its own kind of experience that can't be recreated. but on the same token, it felt like the scope was so small, compared to the scope of film, which, after making this, I can send it into the world, and it can live on and there was something about that, that was enticing. So, I moved to Los Angeles about seven years ago. And in the pursuit of just figuring out all the other pieces of television, I didn't know, so post-production and editing and cameras, because working with actors was always very natural to me with my background in that kind of situation.
Sadie: In terms of collaboration with your key team, like your DP, and your editor, which, this whole film is visually beautiful from start to finish, what were you looking for in those key roles to be on your team?
Emily: Yeah, I really lucked out with my cinematographer. I saw her reel, she was a friend of a friend, and I looked at it and I was like, 'I need to work with this DP,' and she's very gifted. I met her for coffee, and I was like, 'I can talk to you. You get me, this is great.' And she also had a really deep connection and passion for the script. I was absolutely looking for a woman for this project. That was one of the requirements. I did get a lot of men who were interested, but it was really important to me, for this piece, that as much of my team as possible were women. And so she came into it. And Carrie's been great. We've worked on a lot of projects together since and plan to continue that partnership. She has the ability to read the script, see her own vision, hear my vision, hear me say something that is like here not in the budget, and then go, 'You're telling me something that's a $10,000 shot, you got $500 bucks in gear, let's figure this out together,' and then we'll go, 'OK, here's the theme. And here's the perspective of what I want to be feeling at this moment. And here's a shot deck of three different samples of where I think it lives,' and we go back and forth very collaboratively. That was huge. And we made sure in all of those bathroom assault scenes that it was an entirely female crew. So, that was just my DP. My sound person was a man and he ended up putting his boom up and leaving the lav on and it was kind of amazing to see a roomful of women outside of my male actor do this piece. Just putting the gear together and doing it.
And then post is really important to me, given my additional background, and my editor is someone I've known since college. She's amazing. She also happens to be my neighbor, which made the post process a lot easier. [laughs] And she has a keen eye for my taste at this point as well as just pacing and her dominant interests are drama and horror, and so this had a little bit of comedy timing in it as well but I think she really nailed that and these moments, because I think trauma is horror. It's that very encompassing feeling that I wanted us to be in Nora's perspective and she really got that and she also is collaborative. I like to hand off my hard drive to my editor and watch them do their assembly and then come back and and start to tweak notes. I don't like to give too many circle takes or things ahead of time.
Sadie: There are a few shots and moments especially in the pacing that you feel kind of paralyzed along with her and having those moments of stillness, which I thought was really well done. I wish this were a feature. What's next for you?
Emily: Yeah, so the original plan was to flesh this into the future, but COVID happened and it's a heavy subject matter and I thought this is not the world I want to live in right now. So, I actually veered off and wrote another feature called Other Half and we shot a proof of concept for that over COVID with my same DP and I finished that script, and then I finished a secondary feature film script called For Helen. One of them is a coming of age piece and another one is a piece that deals with the loss of family and just kind of the humor that comes along with that and the drama of secrets. And now coming back to this spot with Punch Drunk, because it feels like it just needs to be told, so we're gonna sit down over the next year and write it. There's a happening right now.