EXCLUSIVE: Annika Marks on new film Killing Eleanor

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The offical plot synopsis of Killing Eleanor is as follows: “A terminally ill old lady who wants to die on her own terms convinces a self-destructive addict to help kill her, in exchange for clean urine.” Annika Marks is the genius behind the film and we got to chat with her all about it.

What can you tell us about your character in Killing Eleanor?
Natalie’s incredibly quick-witted and she’s capable of being extremely charming when it serves her, but she’s in a relationship with her painkiller addiction that’s all consuming. In turn, she’s without intimate relationships and she’s a compulsive liar. None of that makes her sounds very appealing, but I absolutely love her. She came out of my brain (I also wrote the film) and she’s an amalgam of several people I love who lost a period of their lives to substance abuse. I conceptualized Natalie as an open wound; one desperate to hide her pain from others and desperate to numb her pain internally. At the start of the film, Natalie’s living back at home with her parents, having recently completed another stint in rehab, hiding her everlasting addiction— which isn’t that hard to do under the nose of her enabling mom, Martina, played by the brilliant Jane Kaczmarek. During the course of the film, Natalie embarks on a life-altering journey to help a terminally ill 80-year-old woman end her life. That woman is Eleanor, played by one of my all-time favorite actors and collaborators, Jenny O’Hara, who I wrote the role for. Like so many people in an abusive relationship with their own self-destructive behavior, Natalie doesn’t want to live the way she’s living. But she feels trapped and doesn’t see another way. Her journey isn’t about getting sober, but it is about approaching the precipice of surrender.

How did you prepare for the role?
Since I wrote the script, I had a much longer preparation period for this role than I’ve had for any other. I knew everything about her, and not just in a studied way— she was viscerally alive to me, and I realized on set that I could think as her. You’re always working to get there— to the point where you don’t have to step outside and question your circumstances or remind yourself of your motivations, but this was different. I didn’t have to work. I just had to live inside her skin, and from there, there was so much freedom and so much room to play. The thing that was really challenging was that I was also producing the film, along with my husband, Rich Newey, who directed, and our partners Angie Gaffney and Richard Kahan. I had been hands on from day one and I was involved in every element— from the budget to the locations to the casting to the catering schedule.

About a week before we began principle photography I realized (with the help of my producing partners as well as our DP Jessica Young and our 1st AD Jennifer Wilkinson) that I needed to step back or my work in front of the camera was going to suffer, and in turn the whole movie— all that we’d all worked so hard for, would suffer. They all very gently and lovingly reassured me and then pushed me away. If I hadn’t trusted every one of them so much that would have been very difficult— to let go of the day-today operational stuff in the 11th hour. But I trusted them implicitly, for good reason. I printed up a fresh script, free from my thousands of production notes and spent that last week going to open AA meetings and self-isolating and just letting myself fall into her headspace.

What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
My Grandfather died of a degenerative disease that killed him very slowly. He’d been a doctor on the front lines of WWII. He was the definition of the strong, silent type, and he spent the last several years of his life as a prisoner in his own deteriorating body, unable to advocate for himself. I always wondered— if he knew it was going to get this bad, would he have ended it himself? I thought of him while writing Eleanor. I also thought of my husband’s father, a maverick type who could build or fix anything with his own 2 hands, who ended up being fed and cared for at a nursing home after a stroke. I remember visiting him in that home and thinking— this is the most depressing place on earth, and these are the “lucky ones”— the ones whose families can afford to keep them here. I wanted to write a story that celebrated having agency over the end of your life. This isn’t a movie that’s meant to glorify suicide, but I think we have some very archaic ideas about how to care for our loved ones as their final chapter is coming to a close, and I wanted to examine why we think that staying alive at any cost is paramount to truly living.

As a compliment to that, I wanted to explore how someone suffering in the clutches of addiction can be technically alive, but not living at all. Humanizing addiction is important to me. It’s a disease that has affected my family greatly and I wanted to present a version of it that was true to me, in hopes that others could relate. It’s an ugly truth, but it’s so common and so insidious, and it’s a family disease which I wish we spoke more openly about. To that end, I hope people recognize themselves and their loved ones in these characters, and find some solace and catharsis from their journey. I also hope this movie makes people laugh; that the ride, as dark as it is, is enjoyable and entertaining. These are characters who are trying, despite their copious mistakes and missteps. And I hope, by rooting for them and empathizing with them, we’re able to start conversations that we often shy away from.

50% of Producers and 60% of department heads on the film are female and 100% of the vocalists on all 16 songs used in the film are from female artists. Incredible! Was there a noticeably different vibe on set?
It was the most loving set I’ve ever been on and the strong female presence was a huge piece of that. As I said earlier, my husband directed it, and I don’t think I would have ever finished the script had it not been for his relentless faith in me as a writer. There were so many wonderful men involved and I don’t want to negate their contributions, but the female energy was invaluable to the nurturing environment we were able to cultivate. Being that this is a female story about flawed but relatable women, it was absolutely logical that a whole bunch of amazing, complicated, fabulous women would gravitate to it. I’ve been on a very long journey towards my own empowerment as a woman in this business, expanding the roles I see myself playing behind the scenes, and along that journey I’ve witnessed so many women walking beside me, just waiting for their opening— and then getting tired of waiting and creating it themselves.

But none of us do it alone. This is a team sport, and I think, in extremely general terms, women are very good at remembering that. It’s an absolutely joy to collaborate with each other as we carve out our seats at the table. But, I have to add that we really didn’t go looking for female candidates; we didn’t have mandates and we weren’t checking boxes. We were looking for the best people, and over half of them happened to be women. Super qualified women are out there, ready to do these jobs. I think there are often blind spots that get in the way of those doing the hiring, so they don’t always recognize the talent in front of them. We didn’t compromise on a single position in order to hire a woman. We just recognized their brilliance and I think that’s partly because there were so many women doing the hiring.

It will be premiering in the 2020 SCAD Savannah Film Festival on October 29. Are you planning on getting dressed up or having a small premiere party to celebrate?
Ha! Now that you mention it, maybe I should get dressed up! Rich and I will be with my parents in Seattle. They drove out to Illinois to work as our craft service (they called themselves Crafty Services) and brought so much joy to our set. I mean, you try being in a pissy mood when someone’s mom is making you grilled cheese and tomato soup. So, it feels very meaningful to get to watch the premiere with them. The virtual festival experience is of course very different from the in-person experience that we all love so much, so there’s inevitably a disappoint there. But, there’s also a huge opportunity because so many more people can see the movie this way!

Savannah is such an incredible festival and we’re so honored to be premiering there. We’ll be doing a Q&A after the screening with some of the cast. Jenny O’Hara, Jane Kaczmarek, Betsy Brandt and hopefully also Camryn Manheim and Thomas Sadoski are joining us for that. As much as I wish we could all be in a dark theatre together, I love that as spread out as we all are, in the middle of this totally insane year, we can come together for this moment to celebrate. So, I guess the answer is yes! It will be a small premiere party, in the key of 2020.

What do you think the future of film is going to look like?
That’s a very good question. Rich and I have a couple features in development right now and we’re in the process of learning what this new landscape looks like— what the implications are, both logistically and financially. Obviously, the studio system is a different conversation, but in some ways I think indie filmmakers are very well prepared for this new reality. We’ve always been writing scripts that are practical to shoot on a reduced budget with limited days that feel expansive in creative and manageable ways. That’s the trick of these scripts. How to create something that doesn’t feel like the cheap version of itself, but rather, is exactly the size it needs to be. We also shoot with smaller crews and are used to conceptualizing our limitations as creative opportunities. So, as far as COVID realities, I think indie filmmakers have an advantage. My hope is that the film business thrives; that movie theaters stay open; that festivals and markets come roaring back. But in the meantime, I’m so excited to see what all of my unstoppable, solution-oriented, do-it-yourself colleagues cook up!

You’ve also appeared on ABC Family’s The Fosters. Do you have a favorite memory?
I loved being part of that show. I’ll never forget the first time I got a piece of mail from a fan, talking about what the show’s LGBTQ+ representation meant to them. Entertainment and our expectations around representation has progressed since then (though we still have a long way to go), but at the time, the creators and writers were on the front lines, changing the landscape, and I never for one moment lost track of how meaningful it was to be part of that. Watching how they created characters with various gender and sexual identities, but how they refused to define those characters solely by that label helped me conceptualize representation more fully, more personally and more deeply. I’ll forever be grateful to have been part of television that meant so much to so many, and for how much I learned as a human and an artist along the way.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been writing a lot the last few years, and with KILLING ELEANOR becoming available, I feel like it’s almost a coming out party for me as a writer. I like to say that I’ve made an expansion, not a transition, because I love acting so much and have dedicated so much of my life to it, but these days I’m primarily writing. A single-camera half-hour pilot of mine has been optioned by a studio and we’re actively in development on it. I also wrote a big feature for a production company that’s being shopped around town, and I have 2 indie features in development with Rich, who I want to work with forever. Making movies together is a dream. I have endless admiration for his talent and his work ethic, and his skill set is the inverse of mine, so working together makes us both better. We have so much respect for each other, but we’re not afraid to challenge each other, and at the end of the day, we both love what we do so much that being able to share in each other’s process has allowed us to grow even closer as a couple.