I saw the short film The Dresser about 2 years ago, and wrote about it as part of the Made by Women series. Having watched it again as I scheduled it into the Femme Filmmakers Festival 2017, I decided to track down writer-director-actress Mary Neely to talk to her about her growth as a filmmaker, as well as complimenting her on the smartly written, genuinely funny The Dresser.
From an early age, the quirky filmmaker would hang out on the set with her dad, an actor. “I started in theater when I was really young,” Neely tells me, “I really, really wanted to do it professionally, but my parents would not let me. They never agreed on anything, but that was one thing they did.”. Her parents had seen what happened to child actors from the entertainment industry point of view, from a production side and an acting side. “One time at the mall, when I was a kid I was really animated, and loved to do impressions, this woman approached us: ‘Oh my God, I love your daughter. I am a talent agent, and she could really go far’. I mean, I was in third grade. My big break, I’m finally going to make it. My mom took the card and through it in the trash can: ‘No way. If she was legit she would have an office, not be approaching us in a mall’, she said. I was like ‘Noooooooo!’. So I had those experiences.”
During high school Neely was absolutely serious about acting, enrolling in summer programs at UCLA. “Theater was my identity growing up.” Neely claims enthusiastically, “I loved it so much, I was always trying to do another play. I was very intense about making it my career at an early age.”. Soon Neely’s passion began to focus on a perspective of being a filmmaker. And she seemed to have plenty of encouragement along the way.
“I was a complex child, I was very outgoing and animated with people I knew, but if I didn’t know someone I was very reserved and quiet.”. Neely would get so nervous at auditions that she felt she had blown it, “I would get a smaller part, and would try to be so good in that part. Teachers would pull me aside after the show and say: ‘I had no idea you are this talented. You hit it for me. Next time I want to give you a bigger part.'”. One of Neely’s most memorable moments of validation came in college, “I was not thinking of myself as a writer, and sent my dad a play I wrote, and he said it was really good and that I should keep writing. I mean, he was so critical, so that was a straight up compliment. That was a sign.”.
In The Dresser, Neely plays the main character, and I can’t be the only one to get an autobiographical whiff here. “The Dresser was partly like something that happened to me. People thought it was so relatable when I told them the story. My mom actually said: ‘That would make a really good short film’, and I thought, yeah she might be right.”. So The Dresser was conceived.
“I fully produced it myself. I was acting in commercials for about a year at that time. I was making a good amount of money. I was very lucky, I didn’t have any loans, had an income, didn’t have to rely on my parents any more.”. The young filmmaker considers herself “stubborn crazy” once she sets her mind and heart on something. “I am a very organized person, I have a load of spreadsheets, and shit like that. So I wrote the script, started finding a cast and a crew, locations, and spent a lot of my own money to rent camera equipment. I did it for so cheap. I made a web-series actually based on The Dresser, and I just called every single person I knew to try and get a discount or for free, with anything. It came together over the course of a few months.”.
So I wondered if there were filmmakers out there that inspire Neely. “I really love Richard Linklater, and Julie Delpy. And I also love really bad comedies. One of my favorites is the Austin Powers series. The director, Jay Roach, also did Meet the Parents, one of the best comedies ever. I think he is great for comedy, and he inspires me without me even realizing it at the time. I love Liar, Liar too.”. I had little choice to but agree here, I have laughed aloud at that movie countless times. One of Neely’s biggest influences is “Lukas Moodysson, a Swedish film director. He made Fucking Åmål, also Together might be his most famous one. We Are the Best! too. I love the way he depicts childhood, he has such a good grasp on that. I really like Scandinavian filmmakers.”. Again, I have to agree, and with a flourish of their cinema in the last 20 years, I suggested a Scandinavian Film Festival once the Femme Filmmakers Festival is over. Although we were both half-joking, I suspect I have an accomplice in Mary Neely should I go ahead.