Director Michelle Ehlen Chats Comedy and Why Editing Her Own Work Pays on Forward Filmmaker
Welcome back to the Forward Filmmaker podcast, where we share stories and advice from a new generation of filmmakers bucking industry norms. On this episode, host Max Sanders interviews director Michelle Ehlen. Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Max Sanders: Joining us today is actor, writer, producer, and director Michelle Ehlen. She has held all of those titles on four award-winning features, including the first lesbian comedy trilogy: Butch Jamie, Heterosexual Jill, and S&M Sally. She has worked on everything from music videos to documentaries to features. Her work strikes a comedic tone while dealing with issues of gender, sexuality, stereotypes, and identity. Through her LA-based production company, Ballet Diesel Films, she’s currently working on a feature and a docuseries. Today we’ll be discussing how she shapes queer and DIY filmmaking movements through comedy. Michelle, welcome to the show.
Michelle Ehlen: Thanks for having me.
Max Sanders: Oh, I’m so excited, because you’ve made some powerful and just really funny films, including the first lesbian comedy trilogy. How would you describe your work to people who don’t know it?
Michelle Ehlen: I would describe my work as deadpan satire. They’re definitely comedies. They’re meant to be entertaining but hopefully make you think a little bit as well. Just to give a quick overview, the trilogy, the Butch Jamie trilogy, the first one’s called Butch Jamie, and I call that a satire on gender. It’s like a lesbian twist on Tootsie. Heterosexual Jill is the second one. I call that a satire on sexuality, and it’s a little bit similar to But I’m a Cheerleader. But it’s kind of its own thing too. It takes the ex-gay movement and makes a comedy around that. Then the third one is called S&M Sally. I call that a satire on sexuality. That movie I created because I didn’t see really any other movies that portrayed the BDSM community in an accurate, realistic way. I do that – and hopefully in a funny and relatable way – for people.
Max Sanders: I love the titles. They’re going to stick in my head forever. S&M Sally just rolls off the tongue.
Michelle Ehlen: Cool. Thank you.
Max Sanders: In the trilogy, you’re really talking about Jill and Jamie’s struggle with sexuality and how they feel about each other. It feels very real to life. Are these characters based on experiences you’ve had?
Michelle Ehlen: The Jamie character that I play, because I’m an actor as well, is based loosely, at times, on some of my personal experience. The other characters are fabricated to tell the needs of the story. But in Butch Jamie, my character’s cast as a man in the film. Now, of course, that never happened to me. But as somebody who is gender nonconforming – and 20 years ago things were a lot different than they are now too; people would see me with a little baseball cap around town and think I was a boy — so that wove its way into the story. And also just sort of general angsty career filmmaking, film industry stuff in my 20s, wove its way into the story, even though it was in a fictional way. Heterosexual Jill is probably the least personal story. But there’s aspects in it – like Jamie, who’s very much attached to her lesbian identity, I poke fun at this idea. In addition to Jill going to ex-lesbian meetings, Jamie’s starting to dream about her best friend’s penis, and she’s having her own little identity crisis, just to kind of poke fun at the way, regardless of where you are on the spectrum of sexuality, sometimes people can be sort of overly attached to who they think they are and who they think they should be. Then for S&M Sally, I became curious in just going to BDSM clubs around Los Angeles. I thought it was a really interesting world. It’s nothing like you see in the movies. I think the movies portray it as either scary, dark, or weird, on a more serious level, or on the comedies they portray it as sort of like silly and ridiculous. I was like, I think I can do a really good character-driven comedy, like a fish-out-of-water story, exploring this world in a way that hopefully people who have never heard of BDSM, or know anything about it, can relate to. And hopefully people who have been in the scene for a number of years can also relate to it. Jill has ideas of her own, but also Jamie does too, and it takes a while for her to really realize that that’s kind of, suits her better.
Max Sanders: Yeah. Jamie yelling as a dom was the hardest I laughed, I think, this month.
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. It was a lot of fun to shoot, for sure.
Max Sanders: Let’s back up a bit. What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. Well, I think I got into filmmaking sort of piece by piece. Because I’m an actor, writer, director, editor. When I was very young, about eight years old, I got into theater acting. I was a shy kid and it was a way for me to express myself. I did theater for a number of years. In junior high, I started just shooting an editing videos at home. We had a VHS camcorder and a VCR that I could edit just VCR to VCR. I started taking some classes in high school and college. Then honestly, when I graduated from college, I really liked writing and directing. And also I, as an actor, especially because this was 20 years ago, I didn’t feel like I was commercial enough to really be an actor. It’s funny to me looking back because 20 years ago I was like, “Well, I’m not going to act anymore.” Which, I’ve acted in like all my projects since. But writing and directing is – especially when you’re young and you don’t know a lot about the industry – it’s like, “Well, how do I become a writer and director?” At the time I thought it was very sensible to be an editor, and it was, and it was a really great skill to hone professionally. So I moved out to Los Angeles after college and got an internship and started working with other filmmakers. It was really working with other filmmakers that inspired me more to do my own content, and it showed me how it might be accessible through film festivals and shooting inexpensively on MiniDV at the time and stuff. Then I ended up going a couple of years later to the LA Film School to be formally trained in writing and directing.
Max Sanders: What made you carve out this niche about satirizing gender, sexuality, stereotypes, and identity?
Michelle Ehlen: When I was in film school, I did this serious film. It had some comedic elements. I think that anything serious I do will have comedic elements in it. But I wanted to do a comedy for my first feature, and I thought I could do a comedy – low budget, fun, entertaining, hopefully find an audience with it, etc. So I set out to do a comedy, and I was racking my brain for concepts and ideas and characters. I ended up creating the Jamie character. Then it just sort of evolved from there because the movie at the time, the whole idea of it is like, “Well, what’s a low-budget comedy I can do? I don’t have a lot of money and what can I do that I think will be fun for people, but then sort of my own?” I majored in sociology in college too. I studied a lot about gender and sexuality and queer studies, and it kind of wove its way in there, even though that wasn’t necessarily my intent. Then the feedback that I got on the first film, even though it was such a small production, was really great. It really resonated with people, and it encouraged me to expand upon those ideas in the other two films.
Max Sanders: Awesome. So writer, director, producer, editor, do you plan on having all these hats on in the future films?
Michelle Ehlen: I enjoy it for sure. I still edit my own work. Maybe in the future I would work with another editor. Of course, the more you do it, it helps your budget, and so there’s that too. But I just also really like the process of it, especially if it’s a project I act in. I don’t anticipate always acting in my work. But I have, and so especially when you act in something that you’re directing, it’s kind of nice for me personally, as an editor to sit with the footage later. It’s a nice workflow for myself. But yeah, in terms of acting, I always say like, “Oh, just this one film.” And then it ends up being another, “Oh, this is my last film.”
Max Sanders: Do you think you’ll be able to let someone else edit your projects? Or you’ll just push them out of the way and just start doing it yourself?
Michelle Ehlen: I think that I will for sure. But I do think it would be really hard finding the right person. Because, yeah, it can be frustrating, because even just in general, when I work with people with things I don’t have any — like I don’t know how to compose music and that process can be challenging sometimes. It’s like, “Oh, I wish I could just dive in there and just create it.” Because communicating that sometimes in other ways is difficult when you don’t know either the skill or the technology or whatever. But yeah, I think it would definitely take time to find the right person.
Max Sanders: So let’s talk comedy now. Your movies have this air of lightness in dealing with sometimes really heavy, emotional topics like sexuality and identity. How do you think about incorporating comedy into these really dense roles?
Michelle Ehlen: I never really knew how to answer this. Then it finally clicked that it’s not necessarily that I have an idea and I’m like, “Could this be a drama, or could this be a comedy?” and then I go with a comedy. It’s more like I wanted to specifically do a comedy – I came up with the idea, and I think that it’s more like the dramatic elements found its way into the comedy rather than I started from a dramatic premise and I made it funny. I have plenty of other premises that I think would work well as a dramatic movie. But then I think the comedy ends up finding its way into that movie. Even if something’s like largely comedy or largely drama, I think blending some of the other elements in there makes it interesting for me. And I think the more dramatic elements in the comedies give it some weight and some meaning that I just think is more interesting. Personally I think when I watch something, I want something a little more that I can think about too.
Max Sanders: Yeah. The honey with the medicine. It really feels like learning about the S&M community, I’d never seen a movie where, “Hey, here’s an education in it,” but it’s also hilarious.
Michelle Ehlen: Right. Yeah.
Max Sanders: So when it comes to introducing people to new communities, have you seen your work influence the way people understand and connect to the LGBTQ+ community?
Michelle Ehlen: Well, all different kinds of people find their way to the film. I definitely created the movies for LGBTQ audience, but people from all over the spectrum find their way to the film. And I think that it all hits them in different ways. You know what I mean? Definitely people outside of the community, sometimes I think they’re surprised how much the movies resonate with them, because I like to think I focus on universal themes of relationships and truth and authenticity. So even though, for example, Jamie’s struggling maybe with her gender presentation and the way people perceive that, it’s still wrapped in the universal theme of being true to yourself, being authentic to yourself, etc. So I think that people connect to and can relate to that part of it. I think that the movie S&M Sally has been interesting because as I mentioned before, I set out to create it for both people who didn’t know anything about BDSM and might even be a little afraid of it or scared of it and people who were well-seasoned or well-versed in that lifestyle. It kind of bridged that gap through my character, Jamie, exploring this world for the first time. Then of course beyond that level, it’s really about insecurity in relationships, pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, and those kind of universal themes that the S&M and the polyamory and all the other stuff is just kind of like the backdrop of the story to make it fun and interesting. But then there’s something underneath it all.
Max Sanders: Being a filmmaker, what do you hope for the future of the LGBTQ filmmaking community and on-screen representations?
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. I mean, things are starting to change in terms of on-screen representation, but I love seeing gender nonconforming characters onscreen, and it’s taken us a while to get there. I’m seeing it more honestly in television right now. HBO, Showtime, they’re starting to expand.
Max Sanders: Yeah. Billions is really good with that.
Michelle Ehlen: Right. Yeah. That’s on my list. I gotta check that out. It’s starting to change and that’s something that personally resonates with me and that I’d love to see more of. I think it’s exciting. I think with film it’s difficult because film is generally done at a bigger budget than television. Just generally speaking, in terms of the industry, the more they’re like, “Well, it has to appeal to ‘everybody’ and therefore we’re gonna show these watered-down versions of people that ‘everyone’ can relate to.” And I don’t think these generic sort of people or portrayal of queer life is that interesting for me personally. So I love to see the diversity of representation, for sure.
Max Sanders: Yeah. I’m glad. I’m glad it’s going in the right direction. Let’s talk about the back end. You’ve sold your work to Netflix and Hulu and also distributed on Filmhub. What’s your advice on how to approach distribution?
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. Well, a couple of things. One is that I think people need to ask themselves some questions. First is like: What’s ultimately more important to you: Money or eyeballs? Now, sometimes money and eyeballs go together, right, but they don’t always. Mark Stolaroff, who hosts something called No Budget Film Club, he has this interesting breakdown where he shows somebody distributing their movie through IFC, a huge distributor, and somebody self-distributing, and how basically even though you might gross a lot more money through IFC, by the time everyone takes their cuts and the expenses and the yada, yada, yada, and your SAG residuals, you end up with a lot less money than if you would’ve self-distributed. But you’re going to get more eyeballs through IFC. So the first thing is you have to ask yourself what your goals are. Then the second thing is how much time you’re willing to put into something. Me, I’ll tell you what works really well for me, but it wouldn’t necessarily work for somebody else if they’re not willing to put the time or the effort and energy into something. Because a lot of times filmmakers don’t want to. They’re like, “Here, take my movie. I don’t want to deal with it,” which isn’t all that successful now. I think most people will tell you, for your movie really to get seen or make money you need to be more hands-on, even more so now than it was 10 or so years ago. I like to do, generally, if I’m able, hybrid distribution deals with companies. That may change if I found a big distributor that wanted exclusivity that made sense financially or whatever, or for exposure or whatever. But so I do hybrid distribution deals, which basically means non-exclusive agreements. I do work with, I guess you could say a traditional distributor, that specializes in LGBTQ content. But I was lucky enough to get a nonexclusive arrangement with them. They kind of said, “We need these certain platforms” type thing. And then we kind of go from there. Nonexclusive with them. Nonexclusive with Filmhub. Then I also personally shop the movie to other platforms, because there’s always new platforms coming up. There’s a lot of niche platforms. There’s also a platform that Filmhub now works with and my distributor now works with, but I connected with them early on called Kanopy that goes to colleges and universities. I’ve made more money through Kanopy than I made through Netflix.
Max Sanders: Oh, wow.
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. Sometimes things can be surprising if you get on the right platform for your audience. I was able to do a direct deal with Kanopy years ago, and they don’t do that anymore now with filmmakers because they’ve expanded and grown. I heard about them through a filmmaker group I’m a part of. If you’re willing to put in the time to shop your film around, and I’ve shopped it to women’s platforms, LGBTQ platforms, etc, do direct deals, I find it also more satisfying. So I work with platforms that my other companies don’t work with, so it gets out there more and hopefully I make more money. And I also find it more satisfying than to sit around and be like, “Well, nothing’s happening.” You get to make it happen yourself. You know?
Max Sanders: Well, you need to add another title to your list of writer, director … Distribution expert. Thank you so much for sharing. So let’s take distribution out of it. What is your dream project? Pretend you have all the time and money in the world.
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. Well, my first script actually that I wrote is the only script I haven’t produced. It’s a lesbian 1920s flapper story in New York City.
Max Sanders: Awesome.
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. I wrote it to be done at a bigger budget, and at the time I — this was years ago, so they were younger, because they’re supposed to be in college — but at the time I wanted Scarlett Johansson and Maggie Gyllenhaal to play different characters in the movie. Yeah. It would be fun to see. I think like the 1920s is a very interesting decade for queer history because there was kind of its own sort of sexual liberation before things clamped back down in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. There was a lot of flappers experimenting with sexuality, and I think it’s just an interesting underground with prohibition and everything like that. I don’t know if it’s my ultimate dream project, but it’s definitely something that would be fun to do at some point.
Max Sanders: You need to get that done. That sounds incredible. So this is more a me question: You have some really fun and eclectic soundtracks in your films, like in Butch Jamie, there’s that Ska positive punk soundtrack. How do you use music to set the mood?
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. I mean, music can be challenging for sure. I think music with these movies, because all of them are supposed to be fun and energy and uplifting and whatever, I try to find music that I think complements the tone as well as the story. Also specifically in Butch Jamie there are some songs that we specifically wrote to enhance some of the comedy. So for all the music in Butch Jamie, my composer, we kind of collaborated in writing the songs together, and his sister did the vocals. Most of those songs, except one, were specifically for that movie. Then for Heterosexual Jill and S&M Sally, those songs were licensed from indie bands. In addition to that, the score is really important, and especially in comedies, I think the score can be used as a way to enhance the beats and the moments in the comedies. But there’s a fine line because I think sometimes when you see comedies, they overuse the music of like, “It’s funny, bah bah.” And it’s like this huge hit on the joke. It’s this delicate balance of “I want to find a way to support the humor without broadcasting it,” right?
Max Sanders: Yeah.
Michelle Ehlen: Generally like in these movies, the style of music we came up with on the score side was this idea that there would be music playing and then sometimes, not all the time, but instead of accentuating the comedy with a big hit, the music would stop and you’d find these pauses and beats and these moments, which coincides a little bit with the deadpan humor because a lot of the jokes are kind of looks and moments anyway.
Max Sanders: So with that music tie to comedy, what kind of comedic influences have inspired your films?
Michelle Ehlen: Comedic influences? Well, Christopher Guest is definitely a big comedic influence for me. When I was a theater actor, I shied away from doing comedy because I felt like there was a lot of pressure, especially on stage, to be funny. And so I did more dramatic stuff. Then when I watched Best in Show, I thought it was hilarious.
Max Sanders: Oh my God. Yeah.
Michelle Ehlen: It showed me a way to do comedy that felt more grounded and real. He excels at doing deadpan comedy. And it was like, it just sort of clicked for me, like, “Oh, I think this is my kind of comedy.” Even though, I mean, I think the Butch Jamie trilogy, the comedy isn’t really Christopher Guest. That was my starting point of getting into it. And that led to my first short film and exploring that through, at that time, a mockumentary style of shooting a bunch of stuff. This is where my editing also really helped, because I could shoot a bunch of stuff, and I felt like as an editor I had the confidence that we could edit it together and we could make it funny later, even if when we were shooting it, it wasn’t quite working. So it took out the pressure for me that I felt like as an improv actor on stage that was like, “Ah, I’m not so sure I can do this,” to like, “Great. I can just do it and then if it doesn’t work, no one needs to see it.” Then through that process of editing it and putting it together and screening it for audiences, that’s very helpful in terms of showing you what works, what doesn’t, and doing it again and again, and hopefully getting better each time.
Max Sanders: Yeah. It’s a different kind of comedy than standing on stage and being like, “Oh, no, that didn’t work.”
Michelle Ehlen: Right.
Max Sanders: What a role model too. Christopher Guest might be the coolest guy on the planet earth. Princess Bride, married to Jamie Lee Curtis — that’s probably the funniest family in America.
Michelle Ehlen: Right. Yeah. Yeah.
Max Sanders: Fun question: If you had to get a movie-inspired tattoo, what would you get?
Michelle Ehlen: Well, I think, I don’t know if this is a lame answer because there’s not a movie that I’ve seen that I would want to put on my body forever, so I thought it would be cool maybe to have a film strip. And then, with each movie that I personally do, have a still in the film strip represent that movie, and then you add to it as you create more stuff.
Max Sanders: Eventually your whole body’s covered. You’re 90 and you have 250 projects all over.
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. It’d be awesome.
Max Sanders: Speaking of projects, what are you working on right now?
Michelle Ehlen: Yeah. So right now I’m in post-production on a dramedy called Maybe Someday. It’s about, my character’s in the process of separating from her wife and she’s trying to move forward with her life. And it’s very, very different than the other movies. I wanted to tackle a new challenge with it. We’re in the final stages of post-production, and we’re going to be screening at festivals next year, I think spring or summer. We’ll see how that all shakes down. Then I’m also in pre-production — we’re getting close, we’re in the research phase, moving into pre-production — on a docuseries that my partner and I are doing about non-binary identities and experiences.
Max Sanders: Awesome. So do you think you’re going to take on more genres?
Michelle Ehlen: No. I think I would be surprised if I do because I think comedy and drama are really the two that speak to me the most. Other than documentary. I’m interested in documentary. But yeah, the others, I’m not so sure.
Max Sanders: Yeah. Drama and comedy both tie together really easily. Some of the funniest movies are also some of the saddest.
Michelle Ehlen: Right. Yeah.
Max Sanders: So where can people find your work?
Michelle Ehlen: All of my films are available in both Amazon and Tubi in certain countries. And then worldwide, Vimeo is really the best place to watch. If people want to follow me on Twitter, they can find me @BalletDiesel or look me up on Facebook. I’m also on Instagram at @maybesomedayfilm.
Max Sanders: Wonderful. Well, Michelle, thank you so much. I just hope you have a hundred more projects. I need to see what happens to Jill and Jamie down the road.
Michelle Ehlen: Thanks for having me.