While many writer-directors fill their movies with autobiographical elements, Susanna Fogel says the main premise of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is pure fiction. “I would love to tell you that I had an amazing spy adventure full of car chases and intrigue, but that’s not what happened,” she says with a laugh.
Fogel co-wrote the action-comedy with David Iserson and it hits theaters Thursday with Mila Kunis playing Audrey, the titular dumpee, and Kate McKinnon as her best friend, Morgan. After Audrey learns her ex was a CIA agent, she and Morgan are pulled into a series of international escapades that involve another government agent (“Outlander” star Sam Heughan), high-octane adventure, and frantic calls from her parents (Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser) who are more concerned about how to work the TV remote.
What is personal to Fogel is the deep friendship between two women seen on screen, something she says she doesn’t see much in movies with women. “I have these wonderful friends and they’re supportive and loving and you can really be yourself around them in a way some people even can’t with their partners,” she notes. “David and I wanted to show that, so that’s autobiographical. That, and the Jewish parents focusing on a minute issue when there’s world-saving stakes.”
Mila and Kate are so perfect for their roles. How did they come to be cast?
Kate had a small part in my first feature, “Life Partners”; it was also her first movie. This was before she was an icon in comedy. So she was the first person we approached. She’s so perfect because Morgan is the kind of person looking for an opportunity to turn the dial up to 11 and give the jazz hands. Yet she’s also a thoughtful, present, introverted person who can give humanity to a character like that. And Mila is just the perfect counterpart because she seems like a girl who has girlfriends and is accessible but smart and confident. It’s easy to identify with her. And she can believably show insecurity and that a smart, beautiful woman can also feel vulnerable.
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Mila and Kate’s chemistry is so wonderful. Had they met before?
They met at the table read and obviously, if they hadn’t had chemistry, it wouldn’t have worked. But it was almost instantaneous. There’s so much shorthand women have with each other, it felt like they’d known each other forever. The first day of wardrobe tests Kate liked this linen jumpsuit Mila was just kind of casually wearing and Mila took it off and gave it to Kate to wear. They quickly formed a real friendship.
I spoke to Mila recently about working with a female director and she noted one difference was “no one is yelling at each other.”
(Laughs) I heard about that. We had a great experience. I can’t imagine efficiently getting the day done if you’re taking a break to have a meltdown on someone. I can’t imagine the inefficiency of yelling. How do you stay on schedule?
A real breakout in this movie is Sam Heughan, who stars in “Outlander,” but I wasn’t too familiar with him before this. He turns out to be great with comedy.
I wasn’t familiar with him either, unlike seemingly every other woman on the planet. After I cast him, so many people’s moms and aunts and friends from home were like, “I love that guy!” Totally by coincidence, a few days before he was brought in, a friend tried to explain the plot of “Outlander” to me and I got completely lost. But he was so endearing. The role wasn’t written as hunky a guy as he naturally is, but he was so sweet and natural he made it accessible. We were like, “We shouldn’t give him demerits for being so attractive!”
This movie is on an epic scale with huge action sequences; did you always know you were going to direct it?
When we started writing it, we just wanted to see a movie get made. I’d directed some, but to leap from an indie movie to one with lots of moving parts was a harder sell. I think if someone had said, “I want to make this but not with you directing,” we would have had the conversation and not stopped it from being made. I mean, I didn’t have any proof yet that I could direct action and I have to figure that out. But as we made a list of other directors who we would even approach, it became clear that an experienced action director – who’s likely a middle-aged man – might not understand the friendship. If a Michael Bay-type doesn’t get that female friendship, the movie’s not going to work. Whereas I could challenge myself to work with a stunt director and it seemed like a more realistic learning curve.
Did it end up being intimidating?
In the abstract, yes. It seemed like a very daunting prospect but I kept asking myself, would a guy in this situation be expressing doubts or just faking it until he made it? So I advertised myself as completely confident, even though I knew I was going to have to quickly figure things out. As a consumer I love action movies and have a lot of opinions about how action comedies don’t really do justice to what I find exciting about an action movie, which is the genuine thrill of watching something that feels really high stakes. A lot of times it’s played for laughs and action, which waters down the sense of danger.
How does it feel to be a female director in a time when the industry is talking about it and we’re hopefully going to be seeing more and more of them?
It’s an honor to get to be a person who gets to talk about this, I’m thrilled to be in a position to encourage other women to do it. It’s a little depressing to hear the statistics and I wish there were so many women we didn’t even have to ask the question. But as long as we do, I take the responsibility seriously. I didn’t have a lot of men to ask questions of when I was starting out. There were two female directors people suggested I talk to when I was starting out and they were Nancy Meyers and Kathryn Bigelow. Men starting out have so many options of filmmakers to connect with artistically and be shepherded by and collaborate with. I just didn’t have an older, more experienced me to help me. So I hope all the women making movies now are aware we have the opportunity to be that to new filmmakers.