Fine Cut

'Hold for Laughs,' Directed by Amy French

"Hold for Laughs" aired as part of the 2013 edition of "Fine Cut." A summary: Margaret's life sucks. A shy 13 year old freshman at an all-girls Catholic high school, she's got braces and a baby face. The other girls make fun of her and the boy she longs for doesn't know she exists, not to mention her parents are getting divorced and her dog is dying. But by night, Margaret is precocious, confident, and full of witty and irreverent observations, as she transforms into Margaret Rose, stand-up comic.

Here, we speak with Amy French, the director of "Hold for Laughs," about the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, her professional acting career, and directing theater.

This film was made as part of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. What can you tell us about your experience with the program?

Amy FrenchThe AFI Directing Workshop for Women is the best! It has been around since 1974, which is longer than I've been around, so already I'm impressed. And every year they choose just eight women from hundreds of applicants to participate -- their goal being to nurture the talent of the next generation of female directors. Which is a noble pursuit, in light of the grim statistics out there in regards to the percentages of women directing film and television compared to dudes. It's an uphill battle for those of us ladies who are working at careers as directors, and AFI is one of just a few important institutions who have taken up the cause of helping us get there.

On a personal level, my experience in the program was, well, also the best. The seven other women from my year helped me to grow my confidence as a director, not just by laughing politely at my sometimes disruptive jokes, but more so because, as I got to know each of them and their unique talents, it helped me to appreciate my own. We each had a distinct voice and vision, and a story to tell from our singular experience, and I think that filled us all with a feeling of power, even destiny. The other thing about the DWW was, having discovered film directing in my late twenties, it was my first film school experience. After my year at AFI, with all of those amazing instructors, I get what the big deal is, and why that education is important.

Our readers may recognize you from the many commercials and television shows in which you've appeared. How has this work prepared you for the other side of the camera?

I have always paid close attention to how a film set operates. After all, there is a lot of down time for an actress on set, and how many trips can you make to the craft service table for another handful of m&m's? (Answer: too many.) So during my decade-plus as a professional actress, I learned the basics by keeping my eyes and ears open -- stuff like "the script supervisor is the gal with all the pencils", "grips often have interesting scars," and "if asked, hair and make-up will always need 10 more minutes."

My point being, through somewhat removed observation, I figured out that a movie (commercial, episode of television) is the sum of its parts. Everyone has their job to do, and the good directors let everyone do their job and feel ownership of their craft, so that there is as much care and creativity being funneled into the story as possible, with the director being the narrowest point at the end of the funnel. Or at least, that's how I run my sets.

Hold for Laughs

You have an extensive background in sketch comedy and improv. How much of the film is informed by your own experiences performing comedy?

Well, sketch and improv are different from stand-up comedy. There is no hiding inside of stand-up the way you can disappear inside of an improv scene or sketch. And I have no experience with doing stand-up other than one time -- for two hundred people at my high school talent show when I was fifteen years old. A VHS of that performance surfaced at my parent's house, and watching it gave me the idea for this film. What on earth possessed me, at the height of my teenaged self-consciousness, to stand up there in ill-fitting jeans and expose my feelings in that way? That combination of being stuck at a terrible age (which a girl can do nothing about other than wait), and grabbing a microphone to talk about it (such an empowering move) was fascinating to me. My experiences as a comedic actress did, however, help in choosing to cast Sarah Gilman, who played Margaret in the film. She is a natural, and I think I was able to spot that because my life in comedy has meant I am constantly surrounded by naturally funny people. Sarah knew instinctively to play things for real, not for laughs, which takes some actors years to figure out.

How does directing films -- both shorts and feature-length -- compare to your work directing stage productions?

The theater is really where I learned how to direct actors. With theater you have the advantage of a long rehearsal period, and you end up discovering the different things that help, and don't help, your actors to do their best work. On a good day, I am able to take all of that practice and focus it on the film set, giving the actors laser beams of direction that get them to exactly where they need to be by the time we call "action." On a bad day, I talk in circles and beg for "just one more take." But the theater keeps me honest, and I will always return to those windowless rooms where all I have are actors on a stage and words in a script. For me, that has always been the one block of Santa Monica Boulevard that hosts a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl, the occasional robbery, and the award-winning Elephant Theatre Company.

Who do you consider some of your greatest artistic inspirations?

Always: John Hughes, Lucille Ball, Woody Allen, Norman Lear, Stevie Wonder Currently: Tina Fey, Louis CK, Lena Dunham, Mike Leigh, Frank Ocean. To name five-to-ten.

What's next for you?

Twitter? Nah. I developed "Hold for Laughs" into a half-hour pilot script, and am currently giving that a re-write. A follow up to "El Súperstar," which was my first feature film, is brewing in the back of my mind, and with any luck it will end up out of my mind and into reality sometime soon. But lately, a lot of my energy has been spent charging head-first and helmet-free into the world of internet content. What is that, you ask? Good freaking question. Sometimes it's branded, like my recent web series for Umami Burger, and sometimes it isn't, like on the ever-growing roster of online channels producing original programming. And sometimes it's neither of those, or both. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what internet content is yet, but it's uncharted and exciting, and I'd like to be at the front of the wave.