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An Interview with Writer/Director/Producer Penelope Lawson
We chat with Penelope Lawson about her short film, The Dinner Party, her experience founding her own production company, and fun cinema.
November 15, 2022
Penelope Lawson is a screenwriter, director, and producer hailing from New York City. We chat about her time at NYU’s graduate film school, the culture shock of moving to Los Angeles in 2017, learning the ropes of founding her own production company, her debut feature film, 1 Night in San Diego, and her most recent short, The Dinner Party, Los Angeles’s fine dining scene, films that stoke nostalgia, and the changes she’s witnessed in the film industry over the last five years.
Jeremy Lawrence: The Miami Short Film Fest was going on the week I started. The name, The Dinner Party, just stood out to me because I think dinner parties are a great setting for awkward entertainment. I just gravitated to the name and knew nothing about it.
But before we get into the film, I wanted to ask about the beginning of your film career. I saw that you graduated from NYU’s graduate film school with an MFA in directing. I was at NYU for cinema studies undergrad. How was your time at NYU and how did it prepare you for working in film full-time in Los Angeles?
Penelope Lawson: I grew up in New York, and when I was at Fordham, as an undergrad, I was actually an English major. My roommate at the time was doing a lot of work in the visual art lab, and they were mostly promoting experimental films. We were watching a lot of really kooky stuff. But I was like, “this is really freaking cool, how they put it all together.” And at the time, the lab was letting us borrow super-16 and super-8 film. So we were able to go and actually shoot on a film camera. I switched majors and went down there and started doing visual art and making little experimental shorts with my friends. I think the first short I did was something on super-8, and it was a horror film that me and a buddy shot in Lake Placid. It was really silly. Totally didn’t make any sense. We used to go to Pac Lab downtown and they would develop all the film for us and then we could literally scratch and draw on the pieces of film. And then we could transfer them into digital.
Pac Lab even had pieces of old film, too. They had random pieces of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. I fell in love with film that way. And then I wanted to learn how to make more narrative film because I only had a background in experimental. I studied screenwriting at Fordham so I knew structurally how stuff was supposed to go, but I had never really shot anything. When I was lucky enough to get into the graduate film program at NYU, they taught us so much about how to actually construct a film that had a cohesive flow without messing with people’s creative visions. Because let’s face it, everybody has a different creative strategy. I geared more toward comedy stuff. I had other friends that were very into serious films. It was very diverse. Everybody was from a different country. I think I was the only native New Yorker in my class as well.
Jeremy Lawrence: NYC, represent.
Penelope Lawson: People found that fascinating. And I thought that was so boring.
I was as like, “Tell me about your time in Senegal or Iran.” So many interesting people. And something that I think was greatly beneficial to me was that they forced us to spend time on set. Obviously, we didn’t go on there as directors at first. We’re not directing the next episode of CSI that week. We were more likely driving a box truck and we’d be lucky if we were bringing the Second Assistant Director a cup of coffee. But being in the field instills the work ethic and it inspires you because you want to learn from all the people around you. And it was great because it really helped people find their niche of what they were interested in. For me, that was more about writing, directing, and producing films for other people.
There was this one guy, he was convinced he wanted to be a director when he went in there, and he walked out an amazing cinematographer. You meet a lot of really cool people from really diverse backgrounds with very interesting stories and it helps you become a better storyteller. So when I moved out here, I didn’t go in totally blind, you know what I mean? I had been on set already. It was just sort of a little different because it was the culture shock of moving across the country. And I had made some short films that did quite well during my time at NYU. I made this one VR movie that went to Cannes and Tribeca.
Penelope Lawson: Yeah, yeah. It was really cool. It was a “Choose your own Adventure.” If you remember the Oregon Trail game back in the day, you’d see a guy and it was one story, but if you didn’t see that guy and you looked at the lady across the room, then that would be your trajectory. And then my big thing was I really wanted to make a feature. When I came out here, I ended up being able to get financing to make a feature, thankfully, through people who had seen a bunch of my other work. And that’s how I ended up linking with Jenna [Ushkowitz], who’s an awesome human and a really, really great actress, and how we ended up collaborating on the film that you saw, The Dinner Party.
Jeremy Lawrence: That’s quite a journey. In doing some research, I came across your films Numb and Wilde Eastern and some other shorts that led up to 1 Night in San Diego, which I saw on Hulu. I haven’t seen it but it’s on my watchlist now.
Penelope Lawson: It’s just a silly, feel-good, fun movie. I was really blessed that it came out and that Hulu decided to release it during COVID. I felt like it was the perfect kind of movie to just chill out to for two hours and have a good laugh.
Jeremy Lawrence: In an interview with ShoutLA, you call 1 Night in San Diego a “fun, much-needed comedy in a world that seems to be overly serious, divisive, and dark these days.” Would you say that’s an accurate encapsulation of the types of movies you want to make?
Penelope Lawson: I want to stoke nostalgia more than anything, to be quite honest. I was talking about this with my fiancé and my roommate the other day. Most of my favorite films are from the eighties and nineties, and recently, to name a film that evoked that emotion for me was Palm Springs, with Andy Samberg.
It was totally surprising to me because it was serious, but it was also really funny and it hit all the emotional beats. It had those eighties vibes. And I think movies, or shows, too, like StrangerThings, for example—it’s not a belly laugh, but it evokes nostalgia. I think that I’m not super focused on comedy alone, but I do enjoy films that make people feel good. And predominantly that seems to be comedy. And I like stuff that anyone of any age can watch and enjoy and it’s not political and it’s not divisive. It’s meant to be taken as it is. And for two hours you could sit with somebody and laugh with them even if you disagree with them about everything else. You can agree that this was a fun movie that made you both smile for two hours. I could watch it with my curmudgeon friend or somebody that’s miserable all the time, or I could watch it with my friend’s daughter. I want to make films like that.
Jeremy Lawrence: I think that’s a great thing to strive for in cinema. The movie-watching experience has traditionally been a bonding experience with a big audience or even just a few friends at home. Everyone is absorbed in the same visual experience. A big room full of so many people, practically all strangers, reacting to something goofy on screen, or at the other end of the spectrum, being emotionally invested and then crying in a movie is a profound thing. And I think cinema is one of the few art forms that can reach that many people in that way because it’s at once made for the masses and also made to be so personal.
Penelope Lawson: Absolutely. I will watch everything just hoping that I get to see something that’s fun and makes you feel good. And I just feel like there’s a gap in the market for that right now. So even the little thing that Jenna and I put together [The Dinner Party], for 15 minutes, I feel like it’s just a fun slice of life that makes you forget about everything else.
Jeremy Lawrence: As the first short I reviewed for Incluvie, I didn’t know what I was getting into. And then popping it on I realized there were notes of some legacy movies, as well as being a fun ride. For example, there was the mother character who reminded me of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, this creepy, egotistical, diva woman coming down the stairs during her grand entrance.
Penelope Lawson: I love it: Sunset Boulevard meets Annie Lennox. We wanted to make a Christopher Guest-style movie. Something fun, Schitt’s Creek-esque. We were also blessed that Michael Hitchcock was in the short, who was in a lot of the Christopher Guest films. He played the uncle, and he was in Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. He is hilarious.
Jeremy Lawrence: That’s great. You’re adding your own entry to the genre that you’ve loved so much over these years. I wanted to talk a little bit more about The Dinner Party and how that came to be. In the ShoutLA interview, you mentioned that Jenna wanted you to write a movie for her to direct. Did she already have this idea or was it a collaborative project?
Penelope Lawson: Jenna really wanted to do more directing and she was like, “Oh, I want to do something kind of fun and I would love for you to write it.” And we had just worked together and we had such a great relationship working together. So I was like, “Okay, do you have any ideas about what you want it to be about?” And she was like, “I don’t know, maybe something awkward…a dinner.” So I went home and kind of thought about it overnight and started reflecting on a weird Thanksgiving I had been to with a friend. You know those friends that always put you there as a foil? So if shit really goes south, then the family is hopefully so distracted by the guest that they don’t really bother the person that invited them?
Jeremy Lawrence: Yeah, definitely.
Penelope Lawson: I was letting that all sink in from that awkward dinner and I think that birthed The Dinner Party. And then I thought, “how can we make it even crazier?” And funnily enough, I had seen a video many years ago of Kim Cattrall singing while her husband plays the double bass. I’m sorry if she ever hears this, but it was very funny. She is amazing in it and it’s so clever. That inspired the large instrument that appears in the movie. We tried to make it as kooky and fun as possible because it’s not realistic at all. Yet at the same time, living in L.A., it’s terribly realistic. In a weird way, I could picture someone running to their Tesla and being like, “Let me carry in my instrument that’s bigger than the car!”
Jeremy Lawrence: It’s like a comedy-of-manners that pokes fun at a culture that can’t see its own dysfunction. The people in the film were so oblivious to their weirdness, with the mom practically making out with her son and so on. Another thing I noticed about the short was that it kept ratcheting up the strangeness.
Penelope Lawson: You gotta escalate it, man, you gotta keep it going, gotta ramp it up. You only have 14 minutes so you gotta make sure that there’s a climax.
Jeremy Lawrence: Did you and Jenna knock out a script that stayed the same over the shoot, or was it an evolving kind of project?
Penelope Lawson: I wrote the script in a day and then we discussed it and then I made a few tweaks here and there and then we were pretty much good to go. Jenna knew Eric Nelson, who played the son that was making out with his mom. He was also in 1 Night in San Diego and Jenna knew immediately that she wanted him to play Steve. The hardest part was the planning because it all takes place in one space except for a couple of cutaways, and shooting that many people around a table is extraordinarily difficult, especially shooting something in two days like that. The stuff that I believe took the most planning was making the best use of time and executing everything across that table.
I mean even timing that urn to fall, right? We had one opportunity to really get that right. Timing it and practicing it and having the prop master figuring out how everything was going to go. You don’t even think that you need to think about this stuff until you’re there. And when it’s a small short film, it’s not like an MGM spectacular. So we’re all the ones thinking about it, you know what I mean?
Jeremy Lawrence: In a small cast and crew, it’s up to everyone, really. I think that most people’s brains are working overtime on those sets.
Penelope Lawson: Are you based out of New York still or are you in L.A.?
Jeremy Lawrence: I’m in New York. I was from Orange County originally and moved to New York for school and decided I loved it, and I do. I was back in California right after graduation and then I got stuck there a little longer with the pandemic, but the idea was always to come back to New York. I knew I loved the lifestyle and the culture and the movies.
Penelope Lawson: New York is great. I mean I’m from there and grew up there. I moved to L.A. five years ago. What part of town are you in?
Jeremy Lawrence: I’m in the East Village.
Penelope Lawson: I was on Bleecker and Broadway.
Jeremy Lawrence: Right on. That’s cool!
Penelope Lawson: I was your neighbor, right above the Swatch store, if you know where that is.
Jeremy Lawrence: Oh yeah, right on the corner. I know you’re a foodie so you might be interested to know I was at Waverly Inn this weekend. Very good stuff.
Penelope Lawson: Oh my god, I wish I had met you literally a week ago. My roommate’s best friend is the manager, he’s like the maître d. He would’ve given you guys all the stuff.
Jeremy Lawrence: That’s hilarious. They take good care of everyone there. We were just happy to be there and the place is beautiful. Expensive but so nice.
Penelope Lawson: If it’s not the gym then I feel like I spend money on eating out because I don’t go out that much. So it’s all about the restaurants.
Jeremy Lawrence: L.A. has its own pretty popping food scene. I saw in the ShoutLA article that you love a good smoothie from Erewhon.
Penelope Lawson: Which I am made fun of relentlessly. I came back with a Bieber smoothie the other day and I didn’t tell anyone the name of it. I was like, “I think it’s the strawberry one.” But Pizza Wagon of Brooklyn is really where it’s at.
Jeremy Lawrence: Okay. Haven’t been there. I’ll have to check it out.
Penelope Lawson: It’s really quite good. And this week I just discovered Irv’s Burgers and that is really something. A gentleman from my gym, he’s one of the owners of it. Irv’s Burgers is very good if you come back out here.
Jeremy Lawrence: I’m going to be passing through for Thanksgiving, so I might spend a little time in L.A. and I’m still trying to get to Horses.
Penelope Lawson: I haven’t been to Horses yet either, so you’ll be ahead of me if you make it there. Go to Mother Wolf, too.
Jeremy Lawrence: Mother Wolf and Horses are high on my list right now.
Penelope Lawson: Mother Wolf is really good. They have some kind of zucchini squash blossom and it’s amazing. I don’t even know what they put in it, but it’s fantastic if you go.
Jeremy Lawrence: Is Mother Wolf where your power lunches are taking place? Are you meeting producers at Mother Wolf or where do you take them?
Penelope Lawson: I’ve been going to Merois a lot lately because there’s a nice view up there over on Sunset and it’s super quiet. For a work meeting this week, we went to a place that was new to me called Birds. It was in Franklin Village and they had amazing chicken. Wow. I felt kind of bad because I enjoyed it so much that half of the work meeting I was just stuffing food in my face. But it was very good.
Jeremy Lawrence: We’ll take another order of chicken over here, please.
Penelope Lawson: Yeah, exactly. I didn’t want to be too gluttonous, but I also thought, “Ooh, I should have ordered the chicken tenders as well.”
Jeremy Lawrence: And a side of tendies. That’s funny. I want to ask about your production company, Pink Revolver Pictures. Did you found the company when you moved to L.A. or was it in the works before?
Penelope Lawson: I started it when I made Numb [in 2016]. One of the blessings of NYU’s film school is that they don’t own your content. You, as the filmmaker, do. Other schools, believe it or not, even when you make the films and you pay your own money to produce them, my understanding is that they own your content. NYU never did that to us. So, in turn, we were paying for a lot of our own shorts. And I didn’t love the way that they dealt with the insurance for a lot of projects. I felt like they had too much coverage on silly things and not enough coverage on stuff that was important to us. I started my own production company and I went and priced out the costs of insuring films. That was a really good learning experience for me because it taught me all the things that I realized I needed to know in order to produce films.
And I’m still figuring it out because shit is changing all the time. But definitely, that launched me into starting it. Numb was basically the first project and then it kind of morphed into me being able to help friends because I started to learn how to budget and schedule projects and do all these things. So friends of mine were coming to me like, “Hey I have a tiny little project, can you help me?” Then we started falling more into the commercial space, then more short films, now my feature, and we have a couple more features that we have lined up that we’re doing through the company this year.
Jeremy Lawrence: I read that you’re working on a feature with Laura Samuels, a buddy comedy with a dark edge, as well as another feature comedy that you’re planning on directing later this year. Is that all still in the works?
Penelope Lawson: Some stuff shifted. Laura and I—she’s one of my closest friends, we’re still planning on working together on that—but the financing on that film fell through, as it often does in the industry. We still really hope to make the film so we’ll see. But my film is still very much happening and I’m also now a part of an exciting writing venture that I have coming up and also this other feature that I can’t really talk about yet. So it should be, hopefully, a very strong, promising year to come.
Jeremy Lawrence: 2023 is the year of Pink Revolver Pictures.
Penelope Lawson: Let’s hope.
Jeremy Lawrence: Sounds like you’re staying busy. Especially over the last five years, there have been pushes for more diversity and inclusion in film and it sounds like your angle on cinema tends to lean into female empowerment. Do you think the industry has changed around this recent push?
Penelope Lawson: Definitely. I think we can all see it from the content that’s coming out. I definitely think that there’s probably a long way to go in terms of being inclusive to everyone, but you definitely see in the content that is being released. A lot more female directors, producers, and crew, like female gaffers. I worked with a female gaffer recently and I was like, “that’s really neat.” I had never actually worked with a female lighting technician before then. And I realized that’s kind of sad because I’m sure there’s plenty of them out there.
I would also say that the most noticeable shift for me in film has definitely been the shift to digital and streaming and the fact that more people are watching from home and there’s a greater demand for more content. I think it’s allowing a lot of people that may not have been able to shoot films before to have a chance. I think this will contribute to us being able to see more diversity and more inclusivity because more people are going to be able to participate in this medium now that it’s being streamed more and it’s more accessible to everyone. As opposed to your point earlier, we used to only be able to see a film in theaters. Or when we were kids, it was all, you know, go get it on DVD and you had the whole Blockbuster thing. It took forever. Your movie was usually fucking gone by the time you got there. It was a bummer. You yelled at dad and hoped that they had it next week.
Now I think people are shooting things on their phones and they’re not looking crappy. They’re very well thought out, well put together things and people are releasing them on various platforms. So I think that’s really the biggest shift, which, to tap back into my very long-winded answer to your question, will encourage more diversity and inclusivity because it’s allowing more people access to this medium.
Anyone can be a part of it now. It’s not just a club for some elitist assholes. It’s something that everyone can be a part of and I think that’s what makes it cool.
Jeremy Lawrence: And to bring it back to your experience as an undergrad, filming experimental stuff on film and playing with it, I think even shooting on an iPhone gives you an interesting new perspective and I’m interested to see what kind of experimental forms film takes in the next few years. Do you have any interest in returning to your experimental film days? Or are you pushing more toward narratives and features?
Penelope Lawson: I love narratives and features and obviously that’s from a practical standpoint. That’s where the money is as well. And I know more people who would be interested in going out to see a narrative film than an experimental film. That being said, I do think experimental film is art and it’s really cool and I’ve seen it used in a lot of cool ways in, for example, film installations, interactive installations where people can go and physically walk through. I would love to be able to shoot on physical film again. It’s so expensive now. The Pac Lab place I used is now closed and I think with Kodak it’s a whole process to send it out and it’s expensive. But I would love to be able to do it. It would be very cool if it was possible.
Jeremy Lawrence: I think there must be some kind of correlation between this rise in nostalgia that you mentioned noticing in contemporary film and TV and shooting on film. I think shooting on film is having a bit of a comeback and maybe that will continue.
Penelope Lawson: I sure hope so. It would be really cool. Honestly, I should go online when we’re done talking and see if I can get myself a Bolex camera or something, a 16-millimeter.
Jeremy Lawrence: I considered doing that once, too, and I thought, “how hard can it be to get affordable film?” And I looked a year or two ago and realized it’s not a cheap hobby.
Penelope Lawson: It’s really nuts. I mean there’s a camera store over here in West Hollywood. I bet that would be a good place to ask. Cause I did find some old film shots that I took and I dropped the film off there and they developed it. So maybe they have some good price points. You never know. I’ll find out.
Jeremy Lawrence: There’s a real charm to having stuff on film. The texture and the light, it’s really fun. I’m not too technically adept, but just seeing it, I realize it makes me feel something different than digital.
Penelope Lawson: One hundred percent. You can appreciate it, right? It’s like the texture behind it.
Jeremy Lawrence: It feels like a much more tangible, real thing. Before we wrap, I want to ask about what you’re watching and what’s influencing your work currently.
Penelope Lawson: Honestly, I have been rewatching a lot of old stuff. I was rewatching Breaking Bad. Not that that’s influencing any of my work. But it’s just such a great show. I just wanted to rewatch it. If I need something light, I always return to a Schitt’s Creek. I got my fiancé watching The IT Crowd.
I love Chris O’Dowd so I will pretty much watch anything he does. I actually recently rewatched GetShorty, the TV show he did with Ray Romano. It’s outstanding. Not to be confused with the movie. It’s about the drug cartel and film producers. It’s very funny. You should give it a watch. Also, I’ve been watching The Great British Bake Offbecause why not? It doesn’t inspire my work. It just puts me in a good mood so I can do my work.
Jeremy Lawrence: That’s inspiring in its own way. Everything has its merit. Right time and place. Sounds like you’re mostly watching TV. Do you have any aspirations to be a showrunner?
Penelope Lawson: Never say never. I love TV. I’ve had my feet in and out of TV a little bit, but I’ve never really worked in television. I would love to if I had the opportunity. One of my favorite shows from years back was Broad City. I loved it.
Jeremy Lawrence: That’s a great New York show. Feels like one of the more accurate depictions of New York City life for a certain type of crowd.
Penelope Lawson: I also love that TV just doesn’t end. I mean it goes on and on and on. Sometimes you wish it would end before it gets too bad. But I love the fact that the story isn’t over at the end of a season. We just have to wait a few months and then we’ll get to the next bit.
Jeremy Lawrence: Yeah, that’s fun about it. Well, Penelope, I think that’s good for me. we have a lot of good stuff.
Penelope Lawson: Thank you so much. It was so nice talking to you.
Jeremy Lawrence: Likewise. And I’ll be in touch about the article if anything comes up, but when it’s published, you’ll have a copy in your inbox. We’ll talk soon.