Concussion hits you hard and walks away. No fucks given, no apologies. The debut feature film of writer-director Stacie Passon, and backed by acclaimed producer Rose Troche, Concussion tells the story of a New Jersey housewife named Abby (a marvelous Robin Weingert) whose frustration with her wife and kids mounts to the point where she makes an escape for herself: she buys an apartment for the sole purpose of renovating and selling it. But that's not enough to quell the sting of monotony and solitary confinement Abby feels in the empty space left by her workaholic spouse or in the company of mother friends who can't quite comfort the sense of otherness evident in her hollow eyes.
She's starving to be seen, she's starving to feel again, she's starving to identify as more than just another Montclair mommy on the PTA, which leads her to embark on her first tryst with a cracked-out prostitute. Despite the seemingly traumatizing experience, her senses have peaked. It's like giving a drop of water to someone who hasn't taken a sip in years. Thus, when her contractor (Johnathan Tchaikovsky) offers her a gig as a high-end NYC hooker—his twentysomething law school girlfriend is a Valley Girl turned Madam—she dives right in, under the pseudonym of Eleanor.
What follows isn't a hyper-stylized lesbian sex romp to get you off. Rather, the women who enter Eleanor's apartment all have quirks and stories to tell. From an overweight college girl who's yet to be touched to a high-strung woman who just wants to get the job done, Eleanor attracts them all. But this side of paradise is only temporary, as her worlds collide, via a stunning housewife from her town, Sam, (Maggie Siff) who orders Eleanor's services. It's no secret that Abby has always been taken with this woman; a subtle comment made during spin class on how "cute" Sam is elicits raised eyebrows from another mom. Once Sam walks through the door, it becomes clear: there's no going back to who Abby once was.
Complex got the chance to speak to Passon and Troche, who'd been friends for over 20 years, on how they reunited to make the film (which is in limited release today), what inspired the idea, and the exploration of LGBTQ identity in film and TV.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Is it difficult to get funding for LGBT themed projects?
Troche: What you need primarily is a good script. If it’s a good script, it’s going to attract good actors. People respond to material now more so than they did 20 years ago. Actors were a little bit more hesitant about playing gay or taking on a role like Robin did in Concussion. But it really has to start with good material.
Television is a little bit harder.The L Word and Queer as Folk proved to be popular shows, yet there’s not the next show that fills in that slot. What we see in turn is characters popping up on television shows, like Modern Family. You have gay couples or gay friends. It’s par for the course that someone’s kid is going to be gay.
And they’re more likely to be gay characters than lesbian characters, which is funny. I don't know why that is. As far as a show that’s specifically L Word-like or Queer as Folk-like, that’s a harder sell, unfortunately, even though history has proven that they have audiences.
Passon: Television in many ways has to be a lot more distinct, less subtle now. I started writing a show and it was way too subtle. There were these interesting little layers to it, but there has to be hard-defined drama from one moment to the next. If you’re just making a show about lesbians or gay men, it doesn’t have the hook that it once did.
Troche: Television is different because it’s all about advertising. Orange Is the New Black ended up being much more gay than I ever thought it would be. The choices to have people who have been gay prior to being in prison is so interesting to me. That, I know, has made a lot of lesbians happy.
And the show is on a different platform. That’s the fun thing. There are now different ways of doing television, of doing shows, of doing web series. There are a lot of great web series right now, but web series in particular are so hard to monetize. Everyone wants to consume those for free. I think that’s when producers have to step in and say, “OK, I’ll pay for that.”
Passon: There are a lot of gay web series. Our friend Ingrid’s web series F to 7th is hilarious.
Was it a conscious decision to make the film very typically suburban with a couple that just happens to be lesbian?
Passon: I wanted to show that she was just a part of life. She wasn’t being judged at the moment for being gay, but anybody with any background into Generation X knows that hasn’t always been the case. People accept her completely and wholly, but she still feels other-ish.
What inspired the idea for the film?
Passon: I like the idea of the classic theme of a hooker. I like the idea of a lesbian hooker because I think power shifts have happened in culture. I like the idea of women embracing their libidos a little bit more. I like the idea of women having more money than they used to have. That’s not always been very easy. It’s interesting to me that when that happens, there’s more of a self-possession that happens and that overtakes the traditional marriage sense of possession, and I wanted to show that in this woman. Abby is gay for a reason, but she also just happens to be gay. She could be any woman who’s putting her libido down the center and sex as an issue in her life.
The L Word and Queer as Folk proved to be popular shows, yet there’s not the next show that fills in that slot. What we see in turn is characters popping up on television shows, like Modern Family. You have gay couples or gay friends. —Rose Troche
People always talk about women’s sexual peaks and about this magic number of 35. I was pregnant when I was 35. I definitely was not having my sexual peak. Because women are having children later, it prolongs them, so there’s this interesting happening. You’re seeing your body. You only have this limited time in your body, and you’re also in this sexual hormonal peak when your kids are a little older.
That’s an interesting confluence that’s happening with women now, too. There are a lot of horny 40-year-old women out there. There are lot of movies and TV shows out there now that deal with sex from a female’s perspective as just sex.
Troche: Like, "I need to fulfill my needs."
Passon: Well, the more you use it, the more you want to use it, right?
Troche: That’s totally true. The more you let it go, the more—it’s like the sleeping bear. You gotta poke the bear. [Laughs.]
Passon: [Laughs.] It’s like any habit. The more you make sex the part of your life, the more you make sex the part of your life. The more you make exercise part of your life, the more you need to have those endorphins. Abby is so starved. She didn’t even know she was hungry. The concussion in some ways knocks that loose in her.
How did you guys start working together?
Troche: It was the magic of Facebook. You reached out to me on Facebook. We hadn’t seen each other in a number of years.
Passon: I find that kind of embarrassing.
Troche: The Facebook? That you didn’t have my real—
Troche: It was Facebook wasn’t it?
Passon: It was! OK! Yes! It was Facebook.
Well, in a way that’s more personal, if you’re so close that you’re friends on Facebook.
Passon: Well, we’d been friends for 20 years.
Troche: Yeah, 20 years. But we fell out of touch when the kids happened.
Passon: It seems like I stalked you, and I guess I did.
Troche: You didn’t stalk me! You found me on Facebook.
Passon: I did stalk you a little bit.
Troche: Anyway, I was like, “Oh my god, Stacie, of course I’m going to read the script. It’s going to be fantastic!” We did this notes meeting and it was like rediscovering a friend of yours. So, Stacie asked me to executive produce. I think she thinks I was more important in the world than I am. I don’t know if having me on board would open doors.
Passon: I wanted Rose to be able to put her stamp on it to sort of legitimize the film.
The characters aren’t completely fleshed out. You have to fill in the blanks. What were you trying to do with that?
Passon: We were trying to make a movie just like they make movies with men. [Laughs.] I don’t know why half those guys are driving around in their cars and killing people. No, in Abby's world, she’s been taught not to talk or complain. Her reasons for doing things would be excuse-driven anyway, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of time trying to convince an audience why. She just goes and does because she needs something.
I like the idea of women embracing their libidos a little bit more. —Stacie Passon
Troche: That was a new experience for me. I’m much more, “And this is what happens when this happens.” Even in the editing process we kept taking out lines. We didn’t want any explaining or any sorrys. It was about pulling all of that back because that’s not the movie Stacie was making. And there’s also an assumption that the audience is smart. Half the notes Stacie gives me on my scripts are, “Less talking. We get it.”
Passon: I don’t love it when people go—not that Rose writes like this—“Remember when you did that?” I don’t care. Just show me what you’re going to do. That’s what the great filmmakers do and that’s what I’d like to emulate. They talk about the loneliness of the character, the central conflict of the character, they keep it going, and we connect the dots.
A lot of the film became about simple shooting, casting well, and trusting your actor to give you a range of performance that you can then pick in editing. Robin's performance could’ve been wildly different, but she was able to give me the highs and lows of a scene. Every time, I’d choose the lows, choose the more subtle, but she was able to do both. She’s a genius in that way.
Was it new to you Stacie to direct intimate scenes?
Passon: I had never done it before, but it was human. It came naturally. It was about the way Abby was thinking and feeling, not the way a particular camera move worked. I remember watching Robin and getting emotional. I think of it as an easy shoot technically, but emotionally it was super hard because in many ways, she became this mirror not only for me but for so many of the cast and crew members as well. There were people breaking up and making up. People were really connecting to the shoot.
Troche: You chose your style wisely because if you did all of these camera moves, it would’ve drained the emotional life from it. It had to stay intense.
Passon: Robin and I would sometimes throw down. When she was Eleanor, I would treat her a lot better than I treated her when she was Abby. Sometimes she would say to me, as Abby, “Oh Stacie Passon, can you please give me a compliment?” And I’d go, “Why? Abby gets no compliments. Ever.” And she didn’t understand that. We kept it real in that way. We kept it immersive and that shows. She seems very lost as Abby. As Eleanor, she seems like she’s coming into her own. She nailed Eleanor, and I didn’t even have a sense of who that person was.
Troche: There was attention to all these things that help an actor shift. Eleanor wears these kinds of clothes, Eleanor wears makeup in this particular way. There’s an evolution to her that was followed closely. The stages of the apartment getting done and the stages of Abby transforming into Eleanor run parallel.
Passon: We wanted Abby to be this self-possessed superhero by the end. She can see herself in a way she’d never before. You can’t apologize for growth. Abby apologizes in many ways for her wife’s lack of growth and affliction, but she needs to move on.
Why’d it take you this long to embark on your first feature film?
Passon: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I look back on some of the scripts I wrote earlier, which Rose had read, and there was a lack of maturity. I’m glad it’s happening now. And then the kids. When I had a kid, I started making things that I hadn’t done before. I built a laundry chute that totally fell apart. [Laughs.]
Troche: You built a hole and it fell apart.
Passon: It was very empowering to be a mom, and then after awhile it wasn’t. I wanted to come full circle and do something in the outside world. There’s a reason why a lot of filmmakers don’t make films until they’re 40. You don’t want to skip steps.
You want to make sure that when you have your central question, it’s an important one that should be asked. When I put something out there, it’s not just to chug it out. I know Rose feels the exact same way I did. If you’re gonna make work, you should make work where you’re trying to say something and you’re saying it the best way you can and you’re sure of it. I don’t know if I had the political, social, economical maturity to do that at that point. Other people do. I mean, Lena Dunham does at a young age. There’s ways of saying things at different ages that are important to hear. I didn’t have those things to say yet.