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'The Foxy Merkins' director Madeleine Olnek talks Sundance, weirdos, and the freedom of filmmaking on the cheap

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Director Madeleine Olnek is no stranger to the annual Sundance film festival, having attended several times before as the director of the celebrated films Countertransference and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.  Now she's back in park City yet again, with new comedy feature The Foxy Merkins, which follows two friends as they attempt to navigate the world of lesbian prostitution.

Olnek wrote the film with Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan, (who also co-star as the film's leads) and took a moment during the week's Sundance madness to answer a few questions.

1) The Foxy Merkins marks your second feature length comedy, following your 2011 film Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.  What have been your influences as a director? What makes you laugh?

My influences are Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen and Christopher Guest, and I also draw many influences from theater. I love the work of David Lynch, I think the humor goes under-credited but I personally find the very edgy comedy in his films hilarious -- he uses dark images from the unconscious in a way that is very unsettling, but also so revealing of buried desires we often don’t want to look at. 

2) This film also marks your second time working with actors Lisa Haas and Jackie Monahan, though this time around they are also credited as the co-writers of The Foxy Merkins.  How did the film come about, and do you consider this a more collaborative project for the three of you? 

Well, it is my second time working with Jackie, but actually I have worked with Lisa for years and years in theater. This is definitely a more collaborative project, since it had a different evolution than Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. Codependent had been a play of mine that had been produced many times, but actually never with Lisa in it (which is funny to me because she is so good in the lead role in Codependent that people assume she created it). So I had a pre-existing play to make into a movie that I knew very well, and both Lisa and Jackie jumped in to act in it. And Jackie brought a lot of her experience in professional comedy to her alien role. The Foxy Merkins was based on an idea I had for years to make a female parody of - and riff on - iconic male hustler films, but we built the movie together from the beginning through a process called automatic writing. We wrote and re-wrote it for two years.  Actually many of the actors from Codependent return in The Foxy Merkins -- Alex Karpovsky, Susan Ziegler, Rae C Wright, Dennis Davis -- so it should be fun for audiences to see these same actors in very different kinds of roles.

3) One common thread running through your work, including your acclaimed short Countertransference (which can be viewed here on Sundance's Youtube channel), are unconventional takes on depictions of lesbians or queer women.  As a filmmaker, what draws you back to these types of characters?

I myself am a weirdo.

4) Nearly all independent films now rely on social media for support these days, be it for publicity, stimulating attendance and viewing, or crowd-sourcing financing.  Lesbian Space Aliens successfully utilized this, and The Foxy Merkins is currently raising post-production funding via Kickstarter (donations can be made here).  How do you think this has changed independent filmmaking since you first began, and how would you categorize your own experience with internet fundraising and distribution?

Well, it is a roller-coaster. As I write this we are only at 43 percent with 14 days left to go! It may have been slightly insane to try to run a Kickstarter campaign while at Sundance, but I am hoping that once our screenings start people will be enticed to contribute more for one of our fabulous rewards -- including the fact that you can get a producing credit on a Sundance feature on the cheap -- or a Merkin Coaster, sure to be a conversation starter at any cocktail party.

Regarding crowdfunding… since I began filmmaking (not too long ago) -- or actually why I started transitioning from theater to film, I found film becoming the more democratic medium. First with technology becoming more accessible, cheaper projects could be made, which made taking risks easier, which made movies more compelling and also made audiences grow to see more of these stories they had not seen before. It would only follow that the actual funding process would become more democratic along with the technology, since as the form developed people were driven to make it continue.

To me, it’s great that internet distribution gets your movie seen on the same platform as movies by major studios. Codependent.. was released by Sundance Artist Services in the US, and you can watch it on iTunes, Amazon, and many other platforms.

5) As a filmmaker, what would be your dream project?

The great thing about indie film is there is no need to dream it, just start working to gather like-minded people who can get your project together. I am so fortunate in that I live in New York City and have access to truly wonderful actors and performers who practice their craft all the time in downtown theaters and are at the top of their game. In terms of thinking what would be my “dream project” it should be noted that I only make the movies I want to-- and currently I have other new projects -- two of them -- and they are both my dream. I intend to make one after the other.  My dream for the future is to find more funders who might want to take the ride with us on our next outrageous picture! Plenty of opportunity to get in at the ground floor!

You can watch The Foxy Merkins' Kickstarter video below, and donate here.

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