INTERVIEW: Provo’s Writer, Director, and Star Emma Thatcher

Provo centers around Liz: a destructive ex-Mormon who goes on a road trip to confront her dying father. Along the way, she must reckon with her past and examine her relationships with her family, her friends-with-benefits Geoffrey, and herself.

You can read our full review of his hilarious and heartfelt movie here. We also got the chance to speak with Emma Thatcher, who plays Liz and also wrote, directed, produced, and edited the film, while at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

Talk to me a little bit about your directing process — I know you like to improv and integrate people’s personalities into the characters. Tell me why that’s important to you. 

It was a process with making a lot of my early short films. When I first started making those, whenever I had a very strict script, it was very stiff. Especially for me as an actor because I went to theater school, and I don’t have as many years behind me with film experience. Using a bit of improv loosened me up and had me speaking in my own voice. I think theater school can do a lot of cool things with improv classes and stuff, but at times, I felt like I had almost a pole up my back — this posture and enunciation. In film, I don’t really enjoy that — it’s not really the stuff that I like. 

And then I got pretty obsessive when I first started making films when I first saw Tangerine. It was very exciting that he democratized filmmaking by shooting on an iPhone. It was so exciting for me. I watched a lot of interviews with them and Lynn Shelton, and it was cool to hear their process for writing an outline. I wanted to do that, but I realized once I got to Provo after making a lot of bad shorts that I wanted to make a full script. But I think of my scripts more as the foundation for the story, and I wrote Provo in a class. I learned about the sequence structure and three-act structure. I like to say that to people because you can take a writing group class where you have workshopping and accountability. I have ADD, so it can be really hard to turn it in sometimes, but there you have classmates who can encourage you to do the work.

I think the scenes I write are more about how they could play out. I thought a lot about Liz because I knew I was going to play her since I didn’t really have a budget to hire someone else and I’m an actor. I really thought through that character, and I thought that showed up on the page. But for the supporting characters, I hadn’t really thought through them enough and wanted to cast actors who really filled them out. It’s so exciting when an actor has an eccentric personality — I’ll literally go home and be so inspired by their personality and experiences and change the script for them. I have that be a jumping-off point, and then they can improvise in the scene. 

That’s how a lot of my comedic scenes came to be. Like the drug dealer scene — I wrote that the night before. We were going to have a final scene with the roommates, but the scheduling didn’t work out, so I wrote the drug dealer in because he was so funny in the party scene. His improv — I wanted to have, like, 10 minutes of the scene. It was hilarious. I was so inspired by him. I like working with funny, cool people. 

I know you mentioned you cast a lot of people through Instagram and internet friends. Social media can be such a good tool for that thing. 

It can be shitty. [Laughs] But it can also keep me in touch with people and what they’re up to and on my mind. I know it can feel kind of toxic, but I see that I’m following someone and am reminded I want to work with that person. I’ll also send them memes and stay up-to-date a little bit. I didn’t want to go with a traditional casting director — I can’t imagine the kind of movie I would have. Not to shit on them — they’re just working with big budgets, and that’s not Provo’s vibe. I wanted real people of all sizes and genders and colors. I wanted to cast kind of weirdos because it’s kind of a weirdo movie. And then I just had some friends who are in different networks post my breakdowns. I worked really hard on the breakdowns to be as specific as I could for what I needed. My friends would be like, “I found this retired stand-up comedian.” She plays my roommate, and she was perfect for it. It kind of sucks that not everybody wants to be on Instagram, but it reminds me everyone exists. Hopefully, I can do something like The Florida Project where they do casting like that. That would be nice because it was a lot of work. My producers were always going through. 

Some people would cold email me because I had people posting it everywhere being like, “I think I’d be okay for this role.” And I would go through whatever footage they had. I’m not particular about reels or anything — it really doesn’t matter to me. I’m green, so I’m good with everyone else being green, too. For the first round of people, I just had them go through the scene once, if even, and then had them talk about something they’re into lately. I had one person start talking about SpongeBob. [Laughs] I was like, “This person is so funny and strange.” Just seeing them get animated — I can see their potential and the glimmer in their eye about something and hear their own voice. With some actors, the second you get a script, you turn on a mode. That’s really good for period pieces or something heightened, but I needed everyone to relax a little bit.

Going back to your directing style a bit — it does make everything feel very natural. Has that always been your approach, or has it changed and evolved as you’ve been making short films? 

It’s always how I wrote. I think I lack discipline. [Laughs] I like heightened text with stage acting; I like reading and performing it because it’s juicy and the stakes are really high, but when it comes to storytelling, I kind of just like to get it all out, and I’m not always great about fine-tuning every word as if it’s poetry. 

I tried to make some short films that were a little more heightened — like “genre movies” — I feel like that’s what a lot of directors say about their early films. That they’re “derivative.” [Laughs] I don’t know — I don’t think I watched enough movies back then, honestly. And they were kind of stiff. 

But then I just started to play around more with my iPhone and worked with actors who could improvise a lot because I didn’t have the discipline always to write a very strict script. So I just wanted to work with them and follow them around, which turned into having a structure of a story. I did fine-tune that process when I was living in LA and realized that I like to write roles for actors. I’m very inspired by people’s personal lives. I feel like this is shady looking back — and I would never do this now — but I used to sit actors down and be like, “Tell me stories about your relationships.”

It works so well. It feels so organic. I like that you mentioned you want to work with funny people, too. Something I really loved about the movie is it obviously deals with heavy stuff, but there’s a lot of comedy. Can you talk about why it’s important to you to add humor in with the darkness?

It is so important to me. When I watch things now, and they take themselves so seriously, and it’s melodrama but not in a cool way — I like melodrama when it’s like, Cabaret or something, but even that’s comedy, too. She’s hilarious. Even with albums or something, when there’s a funny song next to a devastating song, it’s like valleys. It punches you with dramatic irony and takes the rug out from under your feet. I would always like to make a dramedy. Like GLOW, shows like that. I guess it all started with Freaks and Geeks. Sometimes it’s so devastating how alone someone feels, but then it’s so funny. I like to watch my friends do it, but I’m not a huge fan of sketch comedy — I need something a little more grounded. I like to have a little bit of weight with drama but keep it rye and find the comedy in the darker elements. 

I like how you blend genres. In the movie, there’s comedy, drama, romance, and even a couple moments of psychological thriller with the girl that kept popping up that Geoffrey saw. Can you talk about that twist? I found it so cool and surprising. 

I want to leave it open to interpretation for audience members — I don’t want to dictate exactly what it is — but I’ve been so excited by people’s reactions to her. I did a lot of test screenings, which I think is why the edit is good — I was relentless getting feedback. People either wanted less or more of it. They were like, “Okay, what’s going on?” In the comment space to say what you were confused by, everyone said, “The ghost.”

I wanted a moment of subjectivity. I wrote Provo so straightforward — I followed the three-act structure where she goes across the country, and it’s very linear, you know exactly how the time works. Honestly, a lot of it is from Hunter, the actor who plays Geoffrey, his personality. He’s just this chill stoner guy, and I got really into Cosmic Country and Dougie Poole — these artists who are kind of weird and spacey. Also, sleep deprivation is real. That’s something I didn’t write into the script. That’s something we came up with while we were driving. I was going to have some kind of gas station scene, and we were like, “Oh my god — what if Geoffrey sees…” 

The figure is my soundie/executive producer, and we got all the gear from her masters school. I had these missionary clothes from my mom because we grew up Mormon, and we were like, “What if we put Ruby in a missionary outfit?” Actually, a cop came by, and my policy is, if any police come by — talk to me. I’m a blonde person you can talk to. He saw this person barefoot in the middle of the gas station and was like, “Are you okay…?” [Laughs] That’s actually the only time we got stopped, so it’s fine. I was so excited by people’s reaction to it that my next script has a full-blown ghost character. A chill ghost, though. An ex-boyfriend ghost. A grounded ghost.

I also noticed a pattern of her looking at pictures. 

Yes! Another cosmic thing.

That’s what I was curious about — the choice to do that. It almost seems like the rule of three: she sees a devil in her bathroom; of course, the Joseph Smith; and then the cowboy. I would love any insight into that.

I think in the script I wrote that she has a moment with it — that’s all I wrote. My DP and I had this really symbiotic relationship. We like so many of the same things, and we were like, “What if she has these weird moments with these faces?” We called it a Monster Moment. My DP actually saw that weird monster portrait when she’s on the toilet in my bedroom, and my sister drew it. He was like, “What if she looks at it and looks back?” And I was like, “That’s amazing.” And then my composer, who’s one of my best friends, was like, “What if we put an ominous swirl here?” And I was like, “Yes!” I think that happened even in The Sopranos, which is very straightforward, where he has this moment with a painting. And I really like, in a grounded, kitchen-sink project, to have a moment where you go into their psyches. And it’s a cool thing to do with low-budget stuff, too. 

It works really well to track her journey. Another thing I loved was the bisexual representation and how subtle it was. It pretty much just comes out in that conversation in the car. Can you talk about your approach to that?

It’s lowkey. I assume we’re sort of similar ages, and I have Zoomer sisters, and it’s just not a big deal for us. I don’t need a big coming-out scene. For some people, it’s fucking awful, but I just think there are ways to approach it with more nuance because I have such an artistic group of weirdo people around me, it would feel really contrived if it was a big deal. Also, Hunter…I don’t know what he is, but some of that may have been from him and his fluid attitude. And also I’ve been bisexual forever. [Laughs] 

I guess this is a spoiler, but they come out as bisexual to each other, and I didn’t have a line afterward — we did it in one take. And after, it could have been a whole, “I’m going to judge you about this,” but instead, they were like, “I’m hungry — let’s get something to eat” because it felt realistic. And I think Provo is my first good balance of having a lot of realism and keeping things lowkey but having a little bit of structure and hero’s journey and that drama to keep the levity. And to ground the audience and care. If it was just chill that whole time, and they were like, “Let’s go get lunch,” I think that’d be really boring. But I always really enjoy seeing characters getting slice-of-life moments.

I almost feel like that’s more revolutionary now than making it a thing. 

Thank you! It’s such a cool thing when I meet people who also like small moments. It always makes me cry. [Laughs] It’s a taste thing — everything comes down to that. I also like some Scorsese, but I really like seeing life reflected. And that’s what’s been really cool about film. 

Your portrayal of religion is also very nuanced. It’s not black or white because it’s not black or white in life either. The scene with the cousins — I thought that was such a nice thing to add in there because it shows…

That it’s a spectrum. 

Yeah! 

This festival particularly — hearing people appreciate that nuance has been special for me because I think I worked hard on that. I have some cousins who have somewhat similar traits, and I’d rather see flawed people — it’s not just black and white. I think that’s a theme throughout all my work. You’re not just a good person or a bad person. I also think there are a lot of stories about LDS people — this is really sad — with true crime. And I do think that’s fun, the cult stuff. 

But it’s nice to get a little something different.

And to see how some people start to transition into either being ostracized or transitioning from a really strict religion. There’s just a different spectrum, and Liz swings the pendulum pretty far. It was important to show part of her healing by realizing there’s not just evil how she sees her dad and there’s not just goodness or something. There are things that vary. 

I love the line where she’s like, “They’re really boring, but maybe that’s okay.”

I feel like I’m always like, “Oh, yeah — I wrote myself into Geoffrey.” Because I’m the puppy dog one. But other times I wanted a guy to say, “I’m glad you’re not boring” to me at that moment. I feel like that’s such an unfulfilled wish — a Freudian thing for me. Like, “You’re kind of crazy, but…” [Laughs] 

I was curious about where the idea started. I know you said it was influenced by your own life, but do you remember the first thing — was it Liz? Was it a line? Was it a scene?

These are such good questions. You did your homework — thank you. I used to have a list of brainstorm ideas for shorts that I could churn out all the time, which made me not always make the best stuff, but it was like a gymnasium for me, a sandbox to start seeing what I wanted to make. And I had the idea of a Joseph Smith portrait — that was the seed of that. 

I made a short about a Mormon who finds herself alone on Christmas and smokes weed for the first time, so there are themes of that in there. But I had something with an estranged father and a family heirloom. I remember I got some notes on the outlines I was making for those shorts, and a friend I really respect — we have a lot of the same tastes — was like, “This feels like the beginning of a story — not a short.” That’s a problem I have a lot of times. I didn’t know how to make a bite-sized, visually cool thing, and they always have to have a perfect button, and I knew I wanted more. And then my friend had this class that he started — I was one of the first ones to take his class — and he was like, “Write an outline for your first feature.” And I said, “My friend said this seemed like the beginning of a story, so I guess I’ll start with this.” 

I love that it began with the portrait. 

It’s so tactile, and I spent so long on that prop. I felt insane. I had to, like, teabag it to make it look old. Teabagging a Joseph Smith portrait. It couldn’t look bad — it was the genesis of it. 

You wore so many hats on this. Is there one role that comes most naturally and one that’s most challenging, or do they all work in tandem?

They were all hard. [Laughs] Sometimes on set making choices with coverage was hard for me because I was thinking about acting stuff. But I had my DP, and I had my producer, and I had my co-producer, and honestly my soundie, too, who’s studying experimental film. We all have different perspectives, and there was a lot of input all the time. 

I’ve heard people say this, so I think it’s confirmed, but it was sort of horizontal leadership. I want to figure out how I can do this on bigger sets, too, without it being too chaotic. I would just ask people what they thought, and I had to because I didn’t have time to look at playback all the time. Everyone knew the story so well and really studied my lookbook. I wasn’t pitching, so it was an internal reference, and everyone was very much on-board with the story and where it was going. We all became very, very close so nobody was afraid to voice their opinion, which does open up, sometimes, too much debate. I think I need to learn how to navigate and corral that, but it’s because everybody cared about the story, so I was okay with that. But it is not how other sets are. 

I was at a Mind the Gap event last night, and Frances McDormand was talking about how, on a matriarchal set, people just ask more and see how people are feeling more. I don’t want to say women are caretakers, but I think there might be an empathy thing. Having a collaborative energy on set was really helpful for me. I had a lot of titles, but everything was helped. 

This is your debut feature. I was wondering what the biggest lesson you took from it was — especially going from shorts to longer form. 

Oh, man. It’s a whole other thing. There’s so much more to keep track of. God, so many of my things are like, “Well, I wish I had a trust fund. I wish I had a cushion. I wish I had money.” [Laughs]

Listen, that’s a valid thing to learn. Rephrasing a bit: do you have any advice for other first-time filmmakers?

If you can, shoot chronologically — that’s what we did. And for the first act, we had some weekends in between, which could have maybe fucked with momentum, but I was able to edit in between and knew exactly what the movie looked like. There was no mystery. Sometimes you have a magical view of what the movie was going to be, but we were really learning through that Chicago stuff with coverage and what we wanted it to look like. I don’t want to tell people to wear every hat — I want people to delegate, and I’m getting better at that because it was stressful — but if you can learn [Adobe] Premiere and start to see what your movie is going to look like, I think it will help a lot because it helped us. Once we got to the middle, when we were on the road, we didn’t have time to do any of that, but we knew since I had time to put some things together. 

How long did it take you to film all of it?

We did a couple reshoots and half-days, so I think 20 shoot days. On the road, it was nine days.

Those locations were amazing. I loved those motels — they add so much charm and cool energy. How did you go about finding them?

I had done that road trip the year before, more because I felt crazy during COVID and just drove off. I’ve always wanted to make a Mormon pioneer movie, so I was technically scouting for that, but really I just drove across the country. It was so inspiring to see because I went along the Oregon Trail, and I love taking photos, so I was taking photos of all the stops on the side of the road. I think it’s so beautiful — Nebraska’s such a sleeper state. There are so many cool parts of it. And I hadn’t scoped out the first motel or anything, but my producer who makes documentary films has that kind of attitude of, “Okay, this is a good place to do it. We’re doing it.” 

We were just really nice to people for the locations we used — like the woman in the lobby, we were actually going to try to steal it from the outside and just have my lav mic going, but we were so friendly once we were inside. We started actually small-talking, I was asking where to go, and sound was still rolling, and I was like, “We’re actually making a movie — do you want to be in it?” That’s just Joan in the lobby. I was like, “We’re going to go through what we just did. I’m going to ask you about Laramie.” And she was just naturally excited about all this Oregon Trail stuff. She’s just a person. It was a lot of seeing beautiful things and being like, “Holy shit. That’s it.” And then also having an idea of where we needed to end up and having adventurous crew members who were ready to make something pretty. And it was such a small crew that we could get away with it.

Did you actually stay in the motels you filmed at?

Yes! Yeah. We always bought something. At the gas station, we would keep going in and buying water. I think that makes a difference if you’re a patron. We actually stayed at all those places. We had three rooms every night: actors, co-producer, and then everyone else shared, basically. And we’d always have to use one as the picture room.

When you drove the road trip, did you already have the idea in mind?

No. I just got impatient, and I didn’t want to wait around for $10 million when I had never even made a feature. I know some people do that, and it works, and they pitch the idea, but I don’t have those skills yet. I think I’m getting better with marketing and stuff. 

And you have this now that you can take around. 

Yes — something we made for $25,000. Like, “Think of what I could do with more.” Hopefully, this can be my calling card so I can work with a bigger budget.

Last question that goes off of that. You teased it a little with the Q&A, and the friendly ghost has me really excited. What can you tell us about what you’re working on next?

I can at least give you a little bit of a logline. It’s about a mentally unstable musician in Chicago who goes off her meds to induce psychosis because she misses playing music. And she starts making music with and sleeping with the ghost of her ex-boyfriend. Right now, I have the boyfriend as being very Elliot Smith — it’s very indie-musiciany. But I’m very into weird country stuff, so I kind of want to make it more country. I’m realizing that I just want to keep making stuff about things that I love because that makes me excited about them — not just making what’s “cool” or whatever. 

It’s set in Chicago, but I’m thinking about maybe shooting it in Nashville. I won’t make a road trip movie again — I won’t make two in a row. [Laughs] But it’s a lot about mental health and the creative process. Artists sometimes feel they have to get to a crazy state to make art, and it’s not sustainable. I really have to be immersed in something. I’m hopefully going to start having a pitch deck so I can pay everybody and pay myself. Yeah, that’s the next one. That’s the ghost!

— Taylor Gates

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