DEBRA KIRSCHNER wrote, directed and independently produced The Tollbooth. She formed Shakti Productions, Inc. to make films that tell women’s stories openly and honestly. The company is made up of friends and family who came on as private equity investors and collaborators who signed on out of passion for the project.
Despite a grass-roots background and tiny budget, The Tollbooth attracted outstanding collaborators – Marla Sokoloff, Tovah Feldshuh, and 2004 Tony Award Winner Idina Menzel, who lead a stellar cast, and Academy Award Winner David Shire, who composed a captivating and emotional score.
It took a village to raise The Tollbooth. The sum total of this incredible talent has created an honest, compassionate, heartfelt and unique story.
In 1999, Ms. Kirschner’s short film, Changing Clothes, was screened internationally. Recently, she collaborated with Emmy-nominated, DGA-winning director Tasha Oldham to write the short film Pickled for Oldham to direct. She earned her degree in playwriting and women’s studies at Rutgers University where she wrote and directed several plays and is a graduate of New York University’s Film Intensive Program. She teaches creative writing at Hoboken Shelter – a facility for homeless adults and teaches a producing workshop at Film/Video Arts. She has a screenplay in development called Pippi Was Here.
Stay tuned for updates about future projects.
A CONVERSATION WITH DEBRA KIRSCHNER
Q. Tell me about how “The Tollbooth” came about. What attracted you to the subject matter?
A. My initial inspiration was Fiddler on the Roof. I have always loved the humor and the complexity of that story. In Fiddler, three sisters attempt to redefine the parameters of their culture, shaking a foundation that is already unsteady due to constant threats of pogroms and exile. Even though those circumstances are specific and extreme, somehow, that story always feels so timeless and so relevant to me. So… one day I had this thought… what might three modern Jewish sisters want that might shake the foundations of their contemporary yet traditional parents?
Eventually the script became more autobiographical as I crafted the story through the perspective of Sarabeth, the youngest daughter, a painter who thinks she knows everything there is to know about life at twenty-two. As Sarabeth grows up during her first year out of art school, so does her family. In my mind, these characters become representatives of progress in their culture and traditions, even though the film is small and personal. And while the story has evolved very much from my original inspiration, I think many of the themes from Fiddler have remained – especially the price of progress – a concept reflected metaphorically in the title The Tollbooth.
Q. Describe what the film is about.
A. This is a film about identity. Sarabeth wants to reject her culture and her parents’ values and yet she is named after two great aunts who died in the holocaust – Sara and Beth. In her mind, even her name carries a certain amount of guilt, which as she matures, eventually turns into responsibility. And throughout the course of the film, each character makes choices about his or her life. Sarabeth’s mother, Ruthie Cohen, offers the advice “When you’re trying to make a decision, follow your stomach, not your heart. Whichever decision makes you less sick to your stomach is the right one.” This gut instinct is at the core of each character’s journey.
Q. You were writer and director. Talk a little about this process and how assuming all of these roles has influenced this story.
A. Throughout The Tollbooth, Sarabeth learns more and more about herself, and as a result she understands more about her family and the world around her, which causes her artwork to become less simplistic and more mature. I really feel like the same thing happened to me as a writer/director. In so many ways this entire project has been my coming-of-age story. I originally wrote this in a self-mocking voice – a voice I believed was making fun of my younger naïve self – but as I worked on it I realized – I’m still naïve – I’m still Sarabeth! At every point, writing, re-writing, raising money, directing the actors, collaborating with the editor and composer, and even showing the film at festivals, I felt myself still learning. And because of that, I never stopped relating to these characters.
Q. Talk about the casting process and your choice in casting Marla Sokoloff? What was it like working with the cast?
A. I was so fortunate to work with such incredible actors. My casting director Adrienne Stern was one of the first members of the team to be attached to the project. She connected with the script and believed the project would attract top actors and she brought some incredible actors my way – not just wonderful in their talent but in their complete commitment and support of the project.
Adrienne got the script to Marla Sokoloff – who committed to the project almost a year before the other actors – which really added momentum to the film and helped in so many ways to make the project a reality. And Marla is a perfect Sarabeth – she’s naturally sassy, funny, and determined like the character, yet at the same time she was sensitive enough to tap into the parts of Sarabeth that are vulnerable and naïve. She was subtle enough to grow up on camera. From the start, she connected personally to the project – as a young Jewish actress and musician. Before coming to my set, she rehearsed with an acting coach and took it upon herself to take painting lessons. She really committed to the project in every way and it showed.
And once Tovah Feldshuh committed to the movie – she was an amazing force. She called me to go through every line in the script and arranged a meeting with my parents to understand all the ways the characters were based on my own life and all the ways that were different. Her commitment and her humor were incredible and she really inspired the other actors.
Ronald Guttman came on as the father at the last minute and jumped in and was amazing. I met him on set and had only given him notes in advance over the phone – yet he came in ready, excited and so positive. All of the actors did.
At first, I was a little intimidated by this cast. Everyone I was working with had so much experience and I was so new to the game – but the actors’ commitment to the story and the characters and their generosity and excitement gave me confidence. They just kept delivering such great performances – the family members very quickly felt like a real family. And Rob McElhenney, who plays Simon, and Marla really delved into their relationship throughout the rehearsal process and they were able to play a slowly deteriorating relationship subtly and well.
Q. You were able to get the very prominent music composer David Shire to do the score. How did that come about? Talk a little about the music in the film.
A. We actually had a different composer attached who at the last second had a scheduling conflict. My editor Alex Kopit asked his father, renowned playwright Arthur Kopit, if he knew of any young, up-and-coming composers that might be looking for work on a tiny budget indie film. He sent the film to his friend, Academy Award Winning, Tony Nominated, unbelievably accomplished composer David Shire thinking David might know somebody… and we were shocked when David watched the movie and said, “I love this film, I’ll do it.” And what an amazing experience it was for me from start to finish to collaborate and learn from this incredible musician. David understood the internal voice and humor of the characters on such a deep level – and really added so many dimensions to the project and the maturing of the character of Sarabeth. He and his music engineer, Marty Erskine, were so generous and excited about the work. Despite their incredible combined talent and experience they remained so unpretentious and committed to my vision. And because so many musicians on Broadway respect David and Marty, they were able to get the violinist and clarinet player from Fiddler on the Roof to come add their sound to many of the compositions – which added so much emotional significance for me. David was perfect for this project.
Q. Who did the artwork and how was that collaboration?
A. The painter’s name is Sandra Ann Seminski. She came on as an intern. I searched a few colleges for the perfect collaborator, and Sandra came from my school, Rutgers University. She had just graduated, which made her the same age as Sarabeth. I liked her instantly. She called to express interest in the project and was very excited. I sent her the script and then went to her family’s home in New Jersey to meet her – and her family turned one of the rooms into an art gallery, just for my visit. They brought every painting and every light in the house into the room, took all the furniture out, played classical music and served sandwiches. I loved Sandy’s painting style and fell in love with her and her supportive family right away. She totally got that I wanted Sarabeth’s paintings to grow and develop as the character does. When I explained the concept to her she said “Oh, so it’s like I’m acting… with paint.” It was a perfect reaction and she was exactly what I was looking for. We had a blast working together. I had ideas for the paintings in the script, Sandra sketched them and we went back and forth with the sketches until we felt they were right and then she started to paint them. She also made partially done versions of many of them to use as props and she let us use many of her other paintings in the background. She even came on set for a few days to work with Marla Sokoloff on her painting style and believability.
Q. The film was shot on Hi Def video. Describe the process of using this medium as opposed to working with film.
A. I chose the medium for practical reasons more than artistic – and was so pleasantly surprised by how great things can look in HD – which I have to attribute to my outstanding cinematographer Stefan Forbes. For this theatrical release, we’ve blown the film up to 35mm and it really looks like it originated there, yet its video properties allowed for some easy manipulations in post-production.
Q. You worked with a limited budget. Describe the advantages and disadvantages of that.
A. To be honest, there are not many advantages to working with a limited budget, except for, maybe, that it forces you to make priorities. On Tollbooth, at a certain point, it became clear that we didn’t have enough money to shoot everything I wrote. We could only afford an eighteen-day shooting schedule – which is incredibly tight for a feature. This forced me to pare a lot of scenes down to their essence and perhaps gave me some lessons about economy in writing that in many cases I think helped the project.
In fact, on one very tough day in the middle of production, when it was clear that our funds didn’t match our shooting schedule, I sat with Stefan, my cinematographer, Alex, my editor, and Peter Bobrow, my first A.D. and we had a meeting where these guys all suggested that I rate every scene in the film “low, medium or high.” My first reaction was to be upset and I said, “how can I do this, these scenes were all important to me when I wrote them…” But as we worked together, I was inspired by this great group of collaborators that wanted to help me do everything I could to make this movie work – even make these tough decisions.
After this meeting I knew I had all of these guys in my corner – and that they were going to do everything they could to help me get everything I wanted on screen. I remember having a revelation that, yeah, being independent is great because you can fight to protect your vision, but you still can’t get everything you want because a limited budget will never stretch as far as you think it will. And then to fight to keep everything I possibly could in, I stayed up until 2 or 3am every night during production, after working a ten, eleven, twelve hour shooting day to re-write some of the scenes shorter or in different locations based on the changing needs of the shoot. In the end, some of the shorter scenes that changed at the last moment are some of my favorites because they reflect the collaboration and because I was really writing for my actors.
Q. For this production you wore many hats--writer, director, and producer. Which did you like the most? Which did you find to be the most difficult? How do you feel doing all of it affected the final product?
A. From start to finish – the hat that was toughest for me to wear was the producer hat. I’ve never known this kind of stress in my life! The producer is usually on the business side, but for me it was so personal. As with many independent films – this project has taken years to come to fruition. Six years ago, after taking my first short Changing Clothes to festivals, I began raising money for this project. And the bulk of the funding has come from family, friends, family of friends – and even my landlord became an investor. Close friends threw money together, donated airline miles to bring actors in and lent their cars to the production. Alex Kopit, the editor, coined the phrase “It takes a village to raise The Tollbooth.” And to me some of that heart shows on screen, but it also made my choices more difficult and more personal. The trust people have had in me has infused me with a great deal of responsibility.
I, thankfully, had a lot of help and mentoring from my production counsel, who eventually became a producer, LynnAnn Klotz.
Q. Describe how this project evolved from idea to script to production to editing. How much did you initially set out to create that translated into the final product? How much of it was changed in the process?
A. At some point my journey and Sarabeth’s journey became interconnected. As I mentioned earlier, I was not able to shoot every scene that I wrote. And when I first sat in the editing room, I really missed some scenes. But, like Sarabeth, I found the answers by looking inward. Once I did that, I felt that when it came right down to it, we were loyal to the original script, which in its essence did not really change. Also, since this is my first feature, I have been amazed by how much all of the collaborators really leave their personal stamp –and yet how somehow these stamps still makes a singular vision stronger.
Q. What can viewers expect from the movie? What do you hope viewers come away with after watching “The Tollbooth?”
A. I think that viewers will find Sarabeth’s journey very honest and familiar. I hope that audiences can relate to the characters and see themselves and their families. And, of course, I hope they enjoy the ride.
Q. Can you add anything else that you feel would be humorous about the process of making "The Tollbooth?"
A. There were so many ups and downs. It seems that whenever you try to make any film the entire world is against you… and Tollbooth was certainly no exception. Things would go wildly wrong on set every day, and at the end of each day I remember so vividly the cinematographer, Stefan Forbes, dropping me off at my apartment and saying, “Another day where everything went wrong, and still, we put great stuff on the screen.” Against all odds, that is how it felt. And when I say everything went wrong, I am not exaggerating. One day we’re about to close production because a check falls through, the next day a different investor comes in that saves the day and we’re back on. One day I get in a car accident with Stefan and Peter (rendering all of us, director, cinematographer and assistant director useless for a couple of days), the following week everyone comes back to the set with renewed enthusiasm and commitment and the crew is tighter than ever.
A perfect metaphor to me for Tollbooth’s production comes in an anecdote of my trip to the Sarasota Film Festival:
When I flew into Tampa, landing at 10pm on a Saturday night, the car rental company wouldn’t take a debit card (which was all I had) and neither would any other rental company. It was late at night, I was 90 minutes away from the festival and I thought I was stuck there… Suddenly I heard an older couple asking directions to Sarasota, and I barreled up to them and I told them I was a filmmaker, I was stranded and what a coincidence, I was trying to get to Sarasota too. Somehow they were excited about the movie and the festival – and they were convinced enough I wasn’t a psycho – so they drove me all the way to Sarasota and dropped me at the festival’s late night, semi-formal party on the way to their hotel. It felt very “Motorcycle Diaries” and it was a great way to make an entrance at the festival’s event – with all my bags and a great story. That entire week I felt taken care of by that town and that festival, warm loving audiences and warm loving people. And that couple came to one of the screenings and brought friends!
I think the theme of indie film is that even when you seem stranded – there is always a way to get where you need to be.
Q. What's next?
A. My next script, Pippi Was Here, follows five women as they triumph over trauma with the help of their regressive obsessions with Pippi Longstocking. Fantasies of Pippi inspire each woman in hilarious and provocative ways as they overcome assault, cancer, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases and more. This is a magical realism piece, with the tone reminiscent of the whimsical, non-conforming, irreverent nature of the original Pippi Longstocking books. I am also currently researching a Jewish-themed bio-pic.