Susanna Fogel on "Disappointment and Hardship" That Led to 'Spy Who Dumped Me'

In a candid conversation, the co-writer and director of the new mid-budget female buddy comedy/spy movie details the meandering career path and many professional setbacks that came before it.
Hopper Stone/SMPSP
Susanna Fogel on the set of 'The Spy Who Dumped Me'

These days, it's fairly routine for a young male director to be tapped for a mid-budget project after releasing an acclaimed indie — take Jurassic World's Colin Trevorrow, Kong: Skull Island's Jordan Vogt-Roberts or Godzilla's Gareth Edwards. Such a career trajectory, however, still remains rare for female directors, as evidenced by Patty Jenkins, who didn't direct a movie for 14 years following Oscar winner Monster, or Niki Caro, whose 2015 Disney film, McFarland, USA, came 10 years after North Country.

The career of Susanna Fogel, who co-wrote and directed the mid-budget action comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me, released Friday, has more in common with that latter narrative than the former. After screening her first film at Toronto and Berlin film festivals at 14 years old, landing on the Black List in 2006 and releasing the well-received indie Life Partners in 2014, it took a series of what Fogel calls "professional disappointments" and "luck" to lead her to The Spy Who Dumped Me, released by Lionsgate. She got Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment on board with the project because she clicked with a writer scout of his who was a "theater nerd"; Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon, who co-stars with Mila Kunis, had attended her alma mater and participated in the same sketch comedy musical.

Over lunch before the release of the film, Fogel says that she likes to discuss her "meandering and unstable path" because it's rarely mentioned in stories about Hollywood creators. Moreover, the best projects come "rarely through what people say is the sensible way to do things." Fogel also spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about being emboldened by professional failure, writing a novel when she was out of a job and penning The Spy Who Dumped Me with writing partner Dave Iserson in an "outburst of bitterness and determination."

You were something of a wunderkind writer-director, having written and directed your first short — which was later shown at film festivals — at 14. When did you know that this was something you wanted to pursue later on in life?

That first short film really came from the fact that I had been writing for years and years. My way of dealing with not really fitting in at my very crappy New England high school and junior high was to write sketch comedy and satirical takedowns of the social hierarchies. At the same time, I was developing a love for movies at the height of the '90s New York indie movie explosion: everything from Rushmore to Nicole Holofcener movies. I saw myself as wanting to eventually do that, and I was looking for a platform to tell stories that actually reach any kind of audience.

So, yeah, I impulsively called the Rhode Island Film Commission and my mom drove me to a meeting there with the head of the Film Commission and I asked him if there was like a [Rhode Island School of Design] TA that could help me shoot my first thing. With, at the time, a very low-fi camera, we produced a very simple short that was really just observational humor about a friendship between three girls, and the way that groups of three are a hard number for girl friendships and the triangulation that happens with those friendships. When the mumblecore Tiny Furniture thing happened, it reminded me of the thing we were trying to do in my little 1995 way.

How did you want your career to go at that point in time and how did it actually end up going?

Beyond the moving-to-L.A. part, everything happened in a different way. Which I really like talking about because having flexibility and accepting the very meandering and unstable path that is living here, it's a skill you have to have or you will not survive. Every interesting step forward that's happened since then has come from some position of disappointment and hardship from another [project].

I spent five years as an executive assistant and temping and data entry: I preferred to temp at a nonindustry place so I wouldn't get burned out reading the scripts of writers who I would feel competitive with, and also so I would have time to write, because I think that's the catch-22: You come out here to get as close to the industry as you can, but those are the jobs that leave you no time to do what you're actually here for. In the meantime, I met someone [Joni Lefkowitz] at a sketch writing class at Second City and she and I started writing together. We started getting work as writers but a whole bunch of outside factors came into play: The writers strike, the economic collapse and the internet are three things that totally changed the landscape. So by the time we were in a position to get movies made, they weren't really making the kinds of movies that we wrote.

We ended up in this place where the first script we wrote, which was a Black List script in 2006, came together and fell apart with two different male directors. After spending six years trying to make this movie we loved, we put it together for a third time with me directing it, and then it collapsed for a third time. It really felt like I walked under a ladder or crossed a black cat's path, like, "What have I done?" I work so hard and nothing ever works.

So at that time, I produced my first play. My close friend who produced my first film, Jordana Mollick, had a few female writer friends who were feeling this way and she got us all to write one-act plays, and then she got a theater. That lit a fire under all of us to try and create opportunities for ourselves rather than always be reactive. A script [of mine] for that play became the feature Life Partners. And simultaneously we got a call about adapting this Mexican telenovela for TV, which we took, and that became a show [Chasing Life] that ran on ABC Family for a couple of years. I'm glad I had the opportunity to work in theater, even in that limited way. I would not have done that if I were not creatively barren at the time and needed to find motivation to do anything.

This movie, it came out of letting go from another job that I really wanted. The bitterness and frustration that I and my friend Dave [Iserson] had, because he had a similar experience, led us to sit around and make the script in an outburst of bitterness and determination.

So you write this script with your friend David. How does it get to be a mid-budget action movie that you get to direct?

The thing that's hard to talk about is that, just as the bad circumstances led other things to not happen, a bunch of things lined up that allowed this to happen as it did. And I'll never know if it was strategy or luck, but I guess it doesn't really matter.

We wrote the script when we just wanted to get something made. We both felt really boxed in by the work we had done in the dramedy space. It felt like everyone was saying, "Well, you can write the kind of characters you want on TV but it's not really suited to tentpole movies." So we decided to just then write something that felt undeniably cinematic but still true to the stories that we like to tell, and hopefully fill a void for female-driven stories that are not about, like, a wedding. When we finished the script we realized that whether it lived or died, it hadn't been done before. So we thought, “This is a thing that has value, we're going to retain ownership as long as we can because we can't just part with it that easily." That's always the decision: taking the check, or having your integrity and maybe not ever getting a check.

David and I, just as an exercise, asked, who are the [directors] who have made movies like this who would be good for this? And we really couldn’t think of anyone. We thought of people who do great action movies, but we had no idea if they would nail the intimate, nuanced friendship girl story, and that seemed like way more of a crapshoot than me figuring out how to film action with the help of a stunt coordinator.

I went to New York to finish a book I was writing and happened to get introduced to one of the few remaining producers in New York who is a 28-year-old super-confident theater nerd. She happened to help Imagine [Entertainment] and she said, "This is not an Imagine movie, but I'll bring it to a staff meeting, what do I care?" So that's how this movie got made. [Imagine] wouldn't have necessarily been on the list of places that do things like this, but they were the best place to do it just because I made that connection with that woman over a walk in New York.

Before we had a studio we approached Kate [McKinnon], who we thought would be the perfect person [for the role of Morgan]. She had a small role in my first movie, and we'd worked on the same college sketch comedy musical at Columbia, years apart. She attached herself, and her schedule was so specific to her [Saturday Night Live] hiatus that we had to make the movie very fast and within this very small window. The likelihood of finding another actress that would pair with her that would justify an action budget, that's a very short list of women. And then of those women, who is funny and smart and who Kate's going to get along with and who other women want to be and is relatable — Mila was the perfect person and that window happened to work for her. A lot of things just lined up the right way, which I almost feel guilty about if not for the fact that they so didn't the other times.

So often women in spy films are really sexy assassins or civilians who end up being a sidekick to the main dude spy. Were you consciously attempting to rework the way that women are portrayed in these kinds of films with The Spy Who Dumped Me?

I write from inside my own experience, which is as a woman: I would have to make an effort to play within those tropes. It's not necessarily a calculated thing, but everything does feel really loaded because there are so few movies with female leads in a predominantly male genre that the couple examples we have hold a lot of power and a lot of weight to represent things. In a way that can be [limiting], because I love these women, and some of the things they do in the movie are incompetent — I need to be able to show sometimes that we are incompetent. The characters can't be [all powerful] all the time. It only became conscious as we were doing it because we would say, "I really haven't seen women in an action movie where they're not either sidekicks or so bionically perfect that the action feels gender-flipped in a reactionary way, which is totally fine, but that cannot be the only version." So, yeah, the scarcity of examples make this one become [anti-]trope-y.

We just wrote from the heart and asked ourselves what we would do in this situation. It's me and David, who's a man, and we're both neurotic, Larry David-ish writers by trade who love seeing action movies. I think the specificity is what makes it not feel like trope-y. Not being lazy about these things makes a story feel fresh

The writing of the friendship strikes me as really specific to this moment in feminism, where women encourage each other to be nice to themselves and celebrate powerful women, sometimes to the point of being absurd. Where did you look for inspiration on the portrayal of that friendship — your own friendships, memes online? Where were you drawing from?

Not even. Memes really make me feel old, so I'm kind of aware of them but definitely not cool enough to know all of them. We had so much conflict in the movie, with so much man — or in this case woman — against the elements of the world that to pile on internal conflict wouldn't have been necessary. But in terms of writing, it's not super fun to write people bickering and arguing; for me it's fun to write people who are bantering and you want to be in that conversation with them. Avoiding conflict means we get to do more friendship things, more emotionally layering and all that. So that was really fun.

We're used to seeing movies about women settling down: They're in their 40s and they have preteen kids, or even seemingly in their 20s like Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up. It's a viable goal, but the majority of people I know have a host of other goals. So to see movies where that's the one goal, it leaves out a huge population of people pursuing other things that we're encouraged to pursue as women, like great careers, our dreams or spiritual peace.

I think for a lot of women, their friendships are the central relationships in their life until they get into some sort of a partnership, if that's what they choose to do. It just feels like the depth of those friendships is never really explored in those movies, or not enough, so we wanted to do that. I also like the idea of showing women who are like, "We're not where we want to be at 30 and we're kind of sad about it, but that's not because we're not married." Also, their love for each other is a healthy, integrated, empathetic, mature type of friendship. They're not behind in every way.

Directing two stars who are supposed to be best friends — especially female best friends, which are shown in film less often and therefore have the burden of representation — strikes me as being pretty tricky. How did you navigate creating a close dynamic between Kate and Mila?

It's really hard. If it were a romance, you would get to do a chemistry read, but in a friendship, you just have to wing it. Honestly, my parents are both shrinks, so I just analyzed Kate: What's her personality, what are her pet peeves, what are her friendships like in her life, what's the kind of person that I think she could connect with? Which is really just me playing matchmaker with someone who, at the time, I didn't know very well, and another person who I'd never met that is wildly famous. It's such a weird world.

When I met Mila, as different as [her and Kate's] lives are, they have core overlap on the Venn diagram of who they are as people. They're both incredibly grounded, smart, politically active, readers, culturally engaged. Women who have great perspective on their lives. Because Hollywood is necessarily a place that necessarily always fosters that, and there are so many elements that are so extreme here in the other direction, to have both of them have that nucleus and just really stick to it does weirdly connect them in this way.

You’ve now done two films on female friendship. Do you ever worry, especially in this moment in time, about being pegged to write and direct only women’s stories?

All the time. I think it is a fine line because obviously these stories are important, but humanity is more important. To say that only a woman can write about a woman and only a man can write a movie about a man is to say that all these movies that we've seen about women aren't any good because most of them have been directed by men. Like, is Bridesmaids not a good movie just because Paul Feig directed it? Is Election not a good movie because Alexander Payne directed it? It's that typical thing of wanting each subcategory to have their day in court, but also how can you ever make movies with different perspectives if there's a backlash every time you step out of your specific milieu of who you are?

The first female friendship movie I made wasn't really seen by anyone. It was a small movie that went to Netflix. And I really wanted to make one that people would see, and I think that this is a better shot, but I don't really want to do the same thing over and over again.

What do you want to make?

I'm interested in promoting more female stories, I think that's progressive, but they have to be the right ones. And I'm also interested in the metaprogressiveness of doing a male-driven story and doing a good job. I'd be less inclined to do something that's just like what I just did. And never say never, but I'm kind of inclined never to do anything with weddings, babies or fashion, it's just not my world. There's nothing wrong with it, and I will see all those movies, whether on Netflix or in theaters and probably on opening weekend with all my friends, but I just don't care.

I'm directing a pilot this fall that I didn't write that is drama — it's lyrical and beautiful and it's really different from this and I'm so excited about it, I just love the writing. And David and I are writing an original non-IP superhero-ish movie with a female lead that exists in our version of a Chris Nolan-y Gotham world. At the same time, we're doing a fun action-adventure movie that has a woman and a man two-hander so that we can cast a real classic movie star '50s-something man and also a woman and write a really great movie-star role for a guy, and also have a woman role.

At the same time that it’s fashionable to be hiring women to direct, there’s a history of giving women a big budget for one film and that serving as an ultimatum on her future in mainstream Hollywood. How much is riding on this film for you?

I've done a lot of different things in my career and many of them have been really rewarding in a way that has nothing to do with financial success. At my most broke and writer's block time, I wrote a book and that was one of the best experiences I've ever had; I never would have done it was I not unemployed. Those options are always available, I've learned, over the many times I've had to find something else to do. So I guess I could always do something else if I had to go somewhere and write something else. I am glad I'm going off to New Zealand to direct this pilot two days after the movie comes out: It will make me less likely to obsess over box office.

I would hope that people would be too paranoid and ashamed to [discard] women in the way that they used to, because now they would get shit on Twitter for that. But as Mila said in an interview a few days ago, the industry's just money driven. If a woman makes a thing and it makes money, people will let her make another thing. It's above all else driven by that, it's an economic thing.

In that way, I guess [a lot is riding on this]. I just feel that my definition of success is not to be the best reward-driven risk, that's not something I care about. The work itself is the real goal: to be working on things you love with people you love and have the power to build the teams you want. The other stuff is good, too, but it's not worth it. Your creative freedom is the only thing that really matters, and if you devote that to the right place, then the other stuff will come when it does or not. I know that sounds really pretentious, but that is what I [feel]. I love the process of making things.

It's the worst career, businesswise: It's so unstable, the people are morally bankrupt so often, and narcissists and sexists and people that love excess. On every level, everything is not the values that I care about, but it's still worth it because of the other stuff. I just want the power to say no based on what will make me happy, and I know that is the level of security you have to have to say no, but it's not that much.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.