Throughout her career as a filmmaker, Zoe Cassavetes has excelled at highlighting the female experience with bracing openness. In 2007's Broken English, she explored the complexities of a successful career woman played by Parker Posey who's painfully unlucky in love. In 2015's Day Out of Days, Cassavetes—the daughter of filmmaker John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands—turned her lens on a 40-something actress struggling to reconcile her failing career with the things she's sacrificed for it.
This month, Cassavetes premieres Junior, a ten-part coming-of-age story for digital media company Blackpills. (You can watch the entire series on VICE.) The show centers on Logan, a 16-year-old New Yorker turned Los Angeleno trying to find her voice as a filmmaker as well as her place in a new high school. At home, Logan is confronted with her newly single mom and her mom's problematically charming producer boyfriend. At school, she enters into a complicated friendship with classmate and muse Jess. In between it all, Logan tries—and epically fails—to embody the empowered female she wants to be, learning a hell of a lot about how relationships work in the process.
We spoke to Cassavetes on the phone about why she doesn't consider herself a feminist, her long-standing relationship with LA, and what she learned from revisiting teenager-dom.
VICE: Day Out of Days focuses on a character aging out of Hollywood. Was Junior's story of a young girl trying to break into film a response to that?
Zoe Cassavetes: Yeah, and the project was also a gift that was offered to me. I got a call from Philippe Gompel, a producer at Manny Films, who said there was this new company with money, and they wanted me to write and direct. He said I wouldn't have to compete with anyone, and I was like, "Sure. What's the subject?" He said "Teenagers," and I wasn't very interested. But my New Year's resolution last year was to do everything that scared me—to a degree—so I thought, Alright, I'm going to make a show about teenagers, and it's going to be my show.
I got confident until I realized I had no idea what's happening with teenagers. I don't have any kids, but I have nieces and godchildren and friends' kids, so I talked to them a lot. I was determined to make it good, but what I really wanted it to be was true. I didn't want to mince the truth, and I was neurotic about it because it was really hard to figure out what I was going to write. I went to conferences, and I read books. I'd never done so much research just about human behavior. It was really interesting. It was different [from my past projects] in that it didn't start with me thinking, I have to write this or I'm going to die, but it was a process that I enjoyed very much, possibly because it wasn't about me. It was really challenging, but it was fun.
Given the prevalence of social media in teenagers' lives today, how daunting was it to try and get into their heads?
It was, and it wasn't. Teenagers are still having the problems we had. Also, kids are really open. If you get them away from their parents, they'll tell you anything—sex, parties, whatever. [While I was writing], I was thinking that there was something missing [from the characters], and I realized it was mystery. Everything is available to them. When we watched porn, you had to get your hands on the VHS tape and find a good time and run to the room and lock the door—it was about the process, not about the porn. Now, you just pull it up on the phone. It's sad, because the mystery of porn is done. The flip side of this is that kids can be super dynamic by virtue of social media. By 19, they've done a million things.
As a filmmaker, how much did you rely on your own experiences when you started
developing Logan's character?
I had a weird upbringing—I grew up in a house where everyone was making movies all the time. I definitely knew it was special, and that not everybody was doing these things. That's why I wanted Logan to come from New York. I felt like it would explain a lot of things about her—she's had sex, she's artistic, she's smart. It sounds stupid, but it's also kind of true.
I also had to think of ways to leave her innocent. That's one of the hardest things about writing young people. Everything is really dramatic when they're experiencing something for the first time. It was a challenge for me to regain that innocence in order to write.
What was your high school experience like?
Oh my God. I went to the same school from kindergarten until I graduated high school—a private school in the Valley. I was very sheltered. I played volleyball, and I was a terrible student, but I liked to read. I was really happy that I got into playing sports, because nothing else was going to keep me there. Through sports, I was well-educated. But I don't like people telling me what to do. That was always a problem.
In both Junior and Day Out of Days, there's a nebulous mother-daughter relationship in the background, where sometimes the kid is more adult than the adult and vice versa.
I was thinking about that the other day. I don't know what it is that makes me always want to write a mom telling her daughter what to do. That wasn't my relationship with my mom at all. Do I wish that was my relationship? I don't know. It's interesting. It makes me feel like I need to go sit on the couch for a little while.
Los Angeles plays a big role in those films, too. What's your current relationship with the city like?
I was born and raised here, and I can see that it's a really pretty place with lots of space and other advantages—I just think I have way more energy than LA has. I love Los Angeles, but New York is my hometown. I love it there, and if I had my druthers, I'd probably live there, even though I know it's not the same place as when I last lived there. I don't hate LA—I left for 20 years and then I came back, and it still has the same things that I don't like about it that I didn't like 20 years ago [laughs]. There's just no spontaneity here, and I miss that a lot.
So much of Logan's story is wrapped up in this idea of being this strong, feminist
creature. How do you define feminism?
Well, I'm not a 'feminist.' [Makes siren noise] I don't like that word. I think I'm more of a humanist—I like to be more all-inclusive. People are so into labeling right now. It's great to make people aware of stuff, but I feel like it categorically defines us and doesn't make us inclusive to other people when everyone—except for rich white dudes—is struggling. I know what I feel, and I'm in a pretty good position in life and in the world. I have my struggles and my seriousness about stuff, but I believe that if we stop putting labels on things we can go back to a more humanist, all-inclusive approach.
Follow Aly Comingore on Twitter.