Smile Politely

A Leading Lady: An Interview with Jennifer Bechtel

Jennifer Bechtel’s latest film, Scary Normal, has played at locations throughout the country, from California to Connecticut. The film has gained a following in the GLBT community (it recently played locally at the Reel It Up Film Festival), thanks to its thematic elements and Bechtel’s decision to license it for free to GLBT groups to help them raise money.

You’ll find universal truths and inspiration in both her film and in this recent interview.

Bonfire: How did you get involved with film?

Jennifer Bechtel: Like the main character in Scary Normal, I grew up in a house with a step-dad who made crazy independent movies. And, unlike her, I really loved it. The step-dad in my movie makes wacky independent horror movies and my step-dad’s movies were kind of weirder than that because they sort of defied genre. They’re like nothing anywhere else, nothing that anyone has ever seen. So, I was surrounded by people who were making movies and I was heavily involved with theatre as a kid. I did my first show when I was seven years old and pretty much was in from then on. So I’ve always been lucky enough to be surrounded by really creative people.

Bonfire: Did you grow up in this area? Did you do any acting at the Station Theatre?

Bechtel: I actually grew up at the Station. My mom and my step-dad were the first two people to get married at the Station. I didn’t do a lot of shows over there—I was in a couple—but I was always around it. My step-dad was always doing shows there, so I was aware what was there growing up. There are a lot of people over there who still think I’m nine because that’s how old I was when they met me, and people stay the same age as when you meet them, somehow. 

This community has always been really supportive of the arts and there has always been something going on. But there’s been an explosion of it in the last few years…to just endless opportunities for artists of all kinds… Everyone has some sort of opportunity in this community to create the art they want to make and it’s really exciting to be a part of.

Bonfire: Do you consider yourself to be a director more than writer or actor? Do you classify yourself as one thing, or just think of yourself as an artist?

Bechtel: I don’t usually classify myself, which is a really lame answer; that’s the answer that everyone gives.

Bonfire: Well, you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself.

Bechtel: Right, but it’s not even so much that. It’s like, what kind of mood am I in today? Do I want to lock myself in a room and be alone? Because sometimes I do, and then I write. Do I want to be around people and working on something that’s bigger than all of us? Then I might direct or choreograph or act or do whatever. It kind of depends on how I want to be interacting with people and how I’m feeling inspired at that moment… I’m an only child so I would lock myself in my room with my imaginary friends or my dolls and do stuff on my own, and so it’s only fairly recently that I’ve started really wanting to work with groups of people.

Bonfire: So reality and fiction have always blended in your life, I guess, where they’ve interceded with your step-dad and your little imaginary friends.

Bechtel: Yeah, and I love that. I’ve always felt most comfortable working with kids and young people in general (college age and younger)…because kids are magical. They’re so inspiring because they still believe that anything is possible, and that is true in terms of being able to think creatively, but also in terms of…if you say, “I believe that you can do this thing,” they genuinely believe that they can do it. “You’re going to fly off this platform in a pile of Jell-O,” and they say, “Yes, OK, I’m going to fly off this platform and land in a pile of Jell-O.” Because why not? And that’s really exciting because you start to believe that things are possible that shouldn’t be possible too, and that’s when they happen.

Bonfire: You talked about the fact that there aren’t really any family-friendly films out there like Scary Normal that can help kids who are coming of age deal with issues that they can’t quite comprehend. Do the issues inspire you, or is it the art?

Bechtel: That was definitely a huge influence for this and for Leading Ladies. The need for some decent representations of young GLBT characters who aren’t in horrible turmoil and who aren’t self-loathing, who are really just going through life stuff that may or may not have anything to do with sexuality, because people forget that that’s not all someone is. You’re not just gay and suddenly stop being everything else that you are in your life. So that was inspiring because there was clearly a need and there was a need in a population of young people that I care so deeply about and have been connected so closely to in my life.

Bonfire: What type of movies do you enjoy? What inspires you?

Bechtel: I love movies that are about really endearing, doomed relationships. Where you love both people and you desperately want everything to work out for them and you know that it probably won’t, but you have to feel at the end like maybe there’s hope. Almost Famous is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time. And I love movies with young characters who are smart and floundering like young people do, like every young person does, but who are also really smart and insightful in ways that adults don’t often give them credit for being, and I think that Almost Famous is a really great example of that.

I love Amélie. It’s a doomed relationship that maybe might not be, but there’s no chance that she’s ever going to connect with another human, but maybe she might. And she’s just so endearing. I love people who are flawed without being pathetic. I love movies that allow people to have flaws, and yet still be utterly lovable. Their flaws are part of what makes them normal. Laura jokes in Scary Normal that she never finishes a sentence because she just can’t… really, it’s all just really confusing to her.

Bonfire: What are you most proud of, from the things you’ve created so far?

Bechtel: I get really excited when young people see my movie and they come up to me and say, “That’s me. Thank you.” Or, “I had that conversation with my mom.” Where they really see some part of themselves there because that’s the whole point for me. People seeing something that they can emotionally connect to, that feels real to them. Those are the moments that are really gratifying to me, when I feel like someone has really connected with the characters.

And the coolest part of it is that people connect with it in a lot of different ways, so one person can see it as a parent and say, “Oh, I connect with that as a parent,” and someone might see it and connect with another character because “I was going through the coming out process and being rejected by my family.” Or someone might see it and say, “God, I was so incredibly socially awkward in high school and I recognize myself in this character that’s struggling just to figure out who she is and how to communicate with other people.” It’s not just about one issue or one experience; people pick different parts of it that they feel connected to. 

Bonfire: How long did you work on Scary Normal? What was that process like from writing to making it a film?

Bechtel: About seven years because I started writing it, and then about the same time I started writing Leading Ladies with Erica [Erica Randall Beam]. Working with someone is a real motivator to keep going, so we would meet once a week. It’s harder to stay motivated when you’re working on your own and you have no one holding you accountable except yourself. So I put it aside for a while, came back to it, put it aside, came back to it. Then I shopped it around for awhile, but started growing more and more uncomfortable with the idea of passing it along to someone who might put it on a shelf somewhere and ignore it forever, or might turn it into something that it wasn’t intended to be, or whatever. It slowly became clear to me that I had to do it and I was really resistant at first. And so two Junes ago, we made a faux preview promo to help raise money.

Bonfire: You did Indiegogo?

Bechtel: We did. We had an unsuccessful campaign, although it appears we did not because there were some people who wanted to give outside the campaign, but found out about it that way… We had a lot of support… I go to festivals and screenings at colleges and I tell them that Champaign-Urbana is a magical place to make movies because people say yes here… You talk to anyone here who makes independent movies and he or she will tell you that the largest part of yourbudget goes to craft services because you have to feed people if you expect them to do something for free. Almost all of our meals were provided by people in the community who just wanted to help out And we had wonderful home cooked meals on set. It’s stuff like that… It’s just a cool place to be; it’s a cool place to be making things. I don’t know that we could have done what we did, for as little money as we spent, anywhere else.

Bonfire: Do you have anything that you are working on now?

Bechtel: I am working on getting this out there in the world, but there are definitely ideas churning around. I’m hoping at some point to do an adaptation of something. That will be new territory for me. I’m really excited by the challenge of taking some- thing that already exists and translating it to a new medium. So, I’m in some conversa- tions about that right now.

Bonfire: A novel?

Bechtel: Possibly. We’ll see. I’m not fully committed to anything yet. I definitely want to do Pens to Lens next year. 

Bonfire: Do you have any recommendations for aspiring filmmakers or artists?

Bechtel: Just do it. It’s really easy for artists to make excuses about why they can’t do whatever it is they want to do: I don’t have enough money; I don’t have enough resources; I don’t have enough this, that, or the other. You can make a movie on your iPhone. And it can be good. So just do it, and get it out there and let people see it and get feedback.

The only other advice I have is to surround yourself with young, talented, hungry people who want experience because they’re really inspiring. Most of the people in our cast and crew had limited experience and very few of them had ever made a feature film before. But what they shared was this passion for making this thing happen. And passion, I think, is vastly more important than talent. They’re all extraordinarily talent- ed, but I guess passion is more important than experience. They were all very talented and inexperienced, and they did things they had no business being able to do, and had confidence beyond their years. They were in it to get the job done. It was a really great experience working with that group of people.

Jennifer Bechtel is also a mother and the Program Specialist for the Innovation Living Learning Community at the University of Illinois, where she works with students focusing on entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity.


Photo by Celine Broussard.

This story was originally published in Bonfire, the print companion to Smile Politely. The Autumn/Winter 2013 edition was published and distributed around Champaign-Urbana at the end of August 2013. Over the next several months, we will publish the stories featured in Bonfire on Smile Politely.

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