All you hardcore Rooney Mara fans should already be familiar with Tanner Hall, the 2009 coming-of-age film that marked the directorial debut of Tatiana Von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini. The pseudo-autobiographical tale of an all-girls boarding school experience in New England features rising stars—Brie Larson and Mara—and some unexpected turns by familiar faces (as teachers, Chris Kattan and Amy Sedaris play it straight). There’s no doubt that casting Mara in her first leading role—a whole two years before she became a household name-in-the-making as the lead in this winter’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—was an unexpected coup for the directors. But Hall was released on its own merits after a strong reception at 2009’s Toronto Film Festival, something the filmmakers and best friends like to emphasize.
How does one go about casting for their very first film? Tatiana Von Furstenberg: To be honest, the best thing that ended up coming from this movie was the ensemble cast. We were very lucky with the result, given we didn’t have a studio behind us, so we got to pick who was behind each character as we saw them.
It was strikingly surprising at parts. For instance, Chris Kattan and Amy Sedaris’ roles. What was it like to work with such typically funny people playing it serious? Francesca Gregorini: We saw a vulnerability in Chris and Amy. Chris especially is so broken and vulnerable in this role, and Amy Sedaris, I find her to be so much more vulnerable than you’d think. We tried to cast people who were fruitful, but also truthful, and I think Amy had a very truthful and authentic personality that resonated even if she was a comedian.
Given you’ve been friends for so long, when and what sparked the idea behind Tanner Hall? FG: Tatiana and I have been friends for a very long time, and we both have the boarding school experience. It was actually on a walk with our dogs, and Tatiana was telling me for the fifth or so time about one of her boarding school antics that made me laugh. Then we kind of just decided to go away for the weekend, sit down, and write it out. We then become known as writers on bed rest for the next 6 months.
How much of both your boarding school experiences shone through in the final product of the film? FG: I mean, it’s definitely fictitious. There’s not one character that is Francesca and not one that’s Tatiana, but it’s all composites of people we knew, and many of the characters relate to us, even the absurd adults.
How do you feel your casting choice for Rooney Mara has affected the trajectory of the film? TVF: Rooney had never done any film work before we were casting, so when she came into the audition, she was perfect for the role; she was reserved but serious yet had this natural reservation. She wasn’t performance-based, she was just very sincere, you could see her mind working. She also seemed very courageous as she was emotionally open to take this first role as her main role. She totally had this natural restraint where you could tell she wasn’t going to be withholding anything. When we first shot this movie we were told we had a very commercial movie, not so much an art house movie, because we had Mara as our leading role.
After everything that’s happened to her career-wise, with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network, you can’t help but watch her in a whole different perspective. TVF: Of course. The volume of her as an actress and her capacity to act in all the roles you’ve just mentioned are so different and varied, and all I can say is that it’s interesting that these are all coming out so close to each other. That will really document her capacity as an actress well. I’m excited that Rooney got the part not only in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but in our film. She was definitely the perfect person to play this. Her performance resonates, and she carries the movie so well and the fact that she’s in it has allowed the movie to have an audience.
Let’s talk about the styles of the girls in the film. I heard that Rooney actually wore your shoes on set? TVF: Not only Rooney, but Brie Larson also. They both ended up sporting my full wardrobe. We had a three week pre-production schedule for an independent movie. I’m sure we could have been more creative with our styling. My daughter’s artwork is all over the set, my quilt and my curtains, too. Brie’s dorm room is basically my daughter’s dorm room, and the quilt I embroidered is behind the bed. The curtains are mine from my house. But, it’s not like we had a choice.
Since your first go at movie-making went so swimmingly, what are your plans for the near future? TVF: Francesca and I will collaborate, though we won’t direct together necessarily. It will be more of a she had my back and I have her back type thing. I think that we both feel that it is important to have the opportunity at least once to have a singular point of view on a project.
Is there anything you as individuals are working on at the moment? TVF: Yes, Francesca’s working on Emanuel and the Truth about Fishes, also starring Rooney Mara. Hopefully we’ll see it next year at TIFF, and it will launch just like Tanner Hall did. TIFF was the first thing that really validated us, that made us feel like we had something that might be likable.