After years of performing standup comedy and making funny videos, Heather Fink struck out on her own as a writer/director. Paying the bills by day as a boom operator and sound utility, Fink got to work dreaming up her first feature film. The end product – Inside You – is a hilarious romantic comedy about Ryan (Marshall Stratton) and Stephanie (Fink), a long-term couple that switches bodies after the use of a magical (and frightening) sex toy. The pair set out in their new bodies to discover the wonders of the opposite sex and gain insight about their relationship in the process. Fink takes the Freaky Friday trope and turns it on its head, creating clever protagonists who avoid easy gender stereotypes and play against audience expectation. I talked to Fink about making movies, feminist agendas, and growing up funny.
Why was this the movie you wanted to make?
So I’m 36 right now and when I made it I was 32 or 33, I don’t remember exactly how old. But I knew that I was ready to make my first feature film. I had just finished NYU’s grad film program and I said “Okay, I’m ready to make a feature, I have to make a feature.” And I wrote two feature scripts. The first one was about heartbreak, but I thought that was a topic that had been covered a lot by female voices. Then I wrote this sci-fi comedy about an internet apocalypse and I tried to raise money for it and it was kind of too expensive a script – even though I had Hannibal Buress attached to it – this was before he made the Cosby joke so he wasn’t as famous. But I just couldn’t get the money for this movie. So I sort of hit a low point with my birth control pills. I tried a different pack and got super depressed for a month. I just thought, “I have to write a cheaper script and I have to just make it.” I thought “What’s a cheaper script that’s going to have my voice, it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to have my feminist agenda in it with a strong female protagonist?” And then I had the idea for a body switching movie. I thought, “This I can do.” No special effects, just two people dealing with this crazy situation. I felt like this was also a movie that was easy to explain to people. It was so easy to get people interested and curious about what that might be like.
The movie definitely plays against expectation in terms of gender roles.
It was important to me that the female character was not a stereotype of a woman and the male character was not a stereotype of a man. I think in real women, there are several contradictions when it comes to what being a woman is all about. So what is it really then when we switch bodies? There was a limit to what I could depict. In film you need to show things that can be seen and heard and there are a lot of internal things that can’t be seen and heard about being your gender, but also aren’t necessarily as fun and funny to communicate. But I tried to keep them there on some level.
How did you and Marshall prepare to play the opposite sex?
Well, we had some rehearsals where we practiced mimicking each other. How do you hold a glass? How do you walk? What are your different intonations? I actually didn’t ever intend to act in the project. Originally, I had cast two different bigger name actors in the project. I flew them out and put them up and then the day before we were supposed to shoot the main actress had a personal emergency and flew out to her family, so we lost the shoot. I lost thousands of dollars, but I retooled and when it came to shoot again those actors were not available. I had a very hard time finding an actor to do this shoot for very low money, willing to give up three weeks, willing to act for a first-time director – and it was hard because the script had very explicit sexuality in it. Agents weren’t jazzed about it. So I thought, “How do I make this happen?” I was reading this interview with Mark Duplass about doing whatever it takes to make your movie cheap and if you have to act in it yourself, act in it yourself. So I took it to heart and thought maybe it would help get across my voice as a filmmaker better if they can see my face with it. If I act in this thing, I’m willing to do all the embarrassing stuff in the script – I just had the mindset that I would do whatever it took to make this movie happen.
Where did you find the crazy magical sex toy prop?
The art director Yoko Morishita and I looked at all these Indiana Jones references. So we went to this one antique store in Williamsburg – it was such a jackpot. We wanted it to look like something that you weren’t sure where you stick it in your body. Part of it is a Civil War-era musket pump thing and then there is an antique glass wine stopper that looks like a butt plug thing. I kept thinking about MacGyver – the movie was very eighties inspired because I grew up watching all these magical worlds of eighties adventure movies. I wanted to create this idea of a magical relic – except you stick it in your butt.
Did anything goofy happen behind the scenes?
The movie was $100,000 to make. Which sounds like a lot – and it certainly was for my bank account. I made the thing with student loans, credit cards, Kickstarter and working. I paid for a third of the movie just with my paychecks. I’m a union worker so I make a decent living as a boom operator, but it all went into the movie. We had so much bad luck. I couldn’t get a single investor. I had male investors – because that’s who writes a lot of the checks in our society – tell me they were going to invest all this money, take me out to dinner, the whole nine yards, and then be like, “Actually I’m not going to invest.” So it was like, “Thanks for wasting my time, during a very busy time in my life!”
There were a lot of people working for free, friends who really supported the film and showed up – I feel like the little guy really came out in droves to support this film. We didn’t have any big brass, we didn’t have any A-list stars or a fancy name executive producer or some Sundance Lab, which is usually how movies of this budget level get made. So it was a struggle. We had two cars during the shoot. One day they overslept with keys locked somewhere else so we lost a name actor who was going to do a cameo because this person overslept.
Another time the truck was parked by where I live so I took a ride with it to set in the morning. But on the way we passed a taxi stand in Grand Central and somehow the truck hit the taxi stand and knocked off the mirror and gave them a flat tire. I was like “I’m in the truck with the gear, I’m the star and the director – we have to get to set.” I said, “Sir, I need to be somewhere – how much cash can I give you right now?” So I ran to an ATM, gave him $600 in cash, and we were on our way. There were all these insurmountable problems, and we just surmounted them and now the movie is finished.
What do you like about making movies? You obviously have the determination.
Ever since I was a little girl, the comedy instinct was there. In third grade I asked the teacher if I could put on a standup show every day at recess. I remember one day of the week I was a California Raisin. I would always put on these little skits. When I was in middle school, my friend and I would make little movies with her parents’ VHS camera recorder. We’d make all these mock variety shows, mock soap operas. Since my earliest sense of self and memory, I loved making people laugh, I loved telling stories, I loved being creative. I always found comedy to be a tool to relate to others.
But it always disconcerted me when I was younger that it wasn’t normal for a girl to be funny. I was made fun of severely for it, but the boys who did the same class clown stuff were popular. I later got a “popular girl” makeover when I was thirteen and became popular – like the popular girls got the idea from the movies and imitated it and then I was popular. But when I was young, I was ridiculed for being weird. Other kids would laugh – but also make fun of me for it. It was all personality forming, but because I saw that there were all these things that I did and got punished for, I was always punished. I thought that it’s very important for me to show that there are other women out there like me, so many other female voices, and they’re not represented in film. I think it’s extremely important to be thoughtful about how we depict women. And obviously today we have Wonder Woman – it was moving to see a woman depicted as a hero in a new way.
I used to be a standup comedian and I liked the work that I did then, but I often felt like my male colleagues didn’t really pay attention. Like, I would get a set on a really good show and I’d notice, oh, all of my male colleagues are going off to the bar and drinking with each other during my set. So all these people I admire aren’t going to see any of my material. Like, maybe the audience would be really into it, but my colleagues just weren’t paying attention.
But last year I was around the standup scene again and I was thrilled to see how many more women are doing it now, seven years later, and how much more normal it is for women to be doing standup on shows and how much more engaged women are than just seven years ago. So that makes me really happy.
Do you have an idea for what you want to make next?
Yes. There is a TV pilot that I’ve written with the woman who plays Tina (Ying Ying Li) in my movie. We kept searching and searching for what we wanted to write together and finally decided to tell her story as an Asian actress. The things that she’s gone through are so insane and hilarious. Like her being mistaken for Lucy Liu even though she looks nothing like her, to playing an opium den prostitute in a TV show, or the fact that she has karate skills on her resume – like she’s expected to have those as an Asian actress. So we wrote this pilot that we think of as an Asian Insecure or a female Master of None in tone. I love the script so much, so we’re going to start pitching that. And then the sci-fi feature about an internet apocalypse that’s bigger budget, I want to finally attach real names to that and get that made as well. So I’m moving to LA in September!
Photo by Seth Olenick.
Inside You will be screened at the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema on August 6th and will officially premiere later this year.