Exclusive Interview with “Stagiaire” Writer/Director Marina Michelson

By Morgan Roberts

Writer/director Marina Michelson is back with her latest short film, “Stagiaire”(2021). “Stagiaire” follows an eager young cook, Leila, as she starts her first day in elite kitchen. As the day unfolds, Leila experiences relentless forms of hazing from the predominantly male kitchen staff, while finding some allies in the face of adversity. That all comes to a head after she is cornered by a male chef in the walk-in.

Michelson is a director, writer, actor, and producer originally from Tel Aviv. Born to Soviet émigrés from the Republic of Georgia and Moldova, her work explores identity and power-dynamics in the day-to-day experiences of women, as well as her upbringing as a third culture child. Michelson attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts earning a BFA. She has also received extensive training at the Atlantic Theater Company, the Steppenwolf Theater, and the Lee Strasberg Studio. Working in both independent film and theatre, Michelson starred as the lead role in “Should’ve Kissed,” which premiered as the opening selection of the Jeonju International Film Festival. She also was the lead in Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution” at the Chance Theater. Her performances were praised by the L.A. Times as being full of “grace and grit.” Michelson’s “Biophilla” premiered at the 2018 Brooklyn Film Festival where it garnered the Outstanding Achievement Award for Best Screenplay. Her most recent short film, “Stagiaire” premiered at the 2021 Maryland Film Festival. She was selected as a 2019 artist-in-residence at the Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico and a 2022 Sundance Lab Finalist for her script “Anoushka,” a coming-of-age fantasy feature film set in 1970s Soviet Union.

“In Their Own League” writer Morgan Roberts sat down with Michelson to discuss “Stagiaire,” the #MeToo movement, the power of the female lens, and the essential workers who keep society going.

Marina Michelson

Morgan Roberts: What was the catalyst for this film? 

Marina Michelson: This film came to me really quickly, faster than any other film that I’ve written. I was not intending to write it. I was working on getting another film. It was early October 2019, and it was right around the anniversary of the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings, and those were around the same time that the [Harvey] Weinstein story broke. So it was in the media cycle, and the Kavanaugh hearings were just back in the news, and I was in this yoga class, and the scenes just came to me really quickly. I guess, it was like a hodgepodge of things, because I had also been talking to a friend of mine, who is also a chef, and she had just been somewhere in August at a wedding or something where she ran into someone who had abused her in the past. She couldn’t get away from him, and he was still in the friend circle. So, it was a confluence of things clearly happening in my subconscious. Something about being in yoga somehow connected it, because it really all flashed, and I came home and I wrote it. I wrote it in a week, and it’s just really faster than I’ve written anything. Nothing has really come to me like that, usually things really gestate for a long time. So it came very quickly and powerfully, and because I was trying to make another film at the time, I just really redirected all of my energy towards this one. It’s really the fastest thing I’ve ever made. I mean, we shot it within three or four months after that. 

Morgan: So yeah, this was shot pre-pandemic.

Marina: It was shot in February of 2020.

Morgan: Which is so weird that we have to talk about time pre and post. But so, you know, it is this #MeToo film in the culinary world. And so have you ever been a chef outside of having a friend too?

Marina: Yes, I have a lot of experience in restaurants. I started out as a caterer when I was right out of college. I went to school for theater, and among the things they teach you is how to get a restaurant job, and to plan your life that way. So I’ve been working in restaurants since I was like 17 or 18, and I have worked in every position. I started as a hostess and then I got a job as a cater waiter, and then I was a server. Then I was a private chef, working doing personal cheffing, and then I opened a cafe. I co-opened a restaurant with my family in Los Angeles in about 2010 or 2011, so I kind of became an owner/operator with them and I ran the place with them for a while. So yes, I have been in and out of kitchens and in restaurants for a long time. And, you know, my earliest memories of restaurants are all the nicknames that the men on staff call you, everyone, in every language and being asked out. It’s hard to say no, right? Like you’re saying no, but like you’re trying to be chummy about it. Because these are the people that are going to make your work days hell or be able to make you get through the day and keep your job. This was also around the time of the recession. It was really hard to get a job. And people sometimes were like, “Well just get another job.” Sometimes it’s really not that easy, you know, and you finally land yourself in a good place. So, yes, the answer is yes.

Morgan: Well, I find that really interesting, too, that your culinary experience kind of went into an avenue that you were creating work for yourself on your own terms. And I find that so interesting, because in this film, you wrote it, you directed it, you starred in it. So what is it like kind of having to wear all of those hats on a film set?

Marina: It’s not necessarily something I was called to do. Like it’s not something I want to do every time. I definitely do not want to be in my first feature. I miss the element of having a director to collaborate with because that’s a real special relationship and having that eye. Part of my challenge in getting this film off the ground was really building a team that I made sure had my eyes on the other side of the camera, or at the monitor, since I really didn’t want to take too much time stopping rolling and watching playback. I have done that before on one of my first short films, and it adds a whole other layer of pressure when it comes to time and other people’s performance. So it was a very big challenge, assembling a team and figuring out what I needed in order to be able to also play the role of Leila. That meant that I had a lot of support between producers and assistant directors. I had a really great team, and I decided to work with a DP [Lowell A. Meyer] who I had worked with in the past. We already had a bond and a relationship so that it would kind of click. I was looking for different ways to make the process as easy for me as possible. But I was also really excited to direct and act because it was a way for me to get to direct the other actors from the scene. I was in the dynamic with them, so I got to direct them from within as an actor, which really reminds you of theater school, right? Because in theater school, when you’re working on scenes, most of the time you’re directing yourselves. You don’t have an outside eye until you get to class. So I was prepared for it in that way. So challenging. Fun. It doesn’t always lead to success; it can be really exhausting. There’s a lot of pleasure in directing and like being able to not have to also act.

Spenser Granese, Briana Venkus, and Marina Michelson in “Stagiaire”

Morgan: So what was it like assembling that team, because you have such a quick turnaround from inception to shooting it.

Marina: The thing about this project is I think that I’ve been trying to make another short for a while for at least a year if not longer, and at a certain point, you’re just like, “what is it going to take to get something to go?” And so when this idea came, and it bubbled up so quickly, with so much energy, and it really felt like raw and powerful, and meaningful and doable, because it was all really set in this one location, I just took all the energy that I could from that project and harnessed it into how we were going to make this happen. So I started to meet with people and considered who I knew, who I wanted to work with. And some of it was just timing, right? I mean, the first person actually brought on was a casting director. I worked with this casting director, who has since become a friend, her name is Marin Hope, she’s fabulous. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to move forward with making the film if I didn’t have the right people in place. So that was actually the first step, and that was really exciting. I only had one other person cast which is Chloe Wepper who plays Maribel. We went to college together. I had ideas of what I wanted, but who Marin ended up bringing to me was totally out of left field and really wonderful. I met with each one of them and then I found my producer David Brundige, who is an old friend, but we had never worked together before. He’s also a man who wears many hats as a director and an editor and he was actually just at Sundance, when I brought him on. He had edited this feature called “Beast Beast” that premiered there. He’s really great in the way that he really wanted to help me and really also wanted to support female filmmakers, and so he kind of made room for it in his schedule and came on. We started putting things together really quickly. And then Lo, who’s my DP on my last project, it just so happened that I found this little two day window in his schedule that he would be in town and available. You know, there’s something about when the stars align. You’re going with the energy and the pieces start to come together, and obviously, there’s always something that slips through the cracks. There’s some kind of emergency. We had that with the production designer, because I really wanted to find a production designer who had experience in the food world. I was looking for this very specific experience that was both narrative, but food world. So I didn’t want someone who had just been on food television, or reality TV. But someone who also had a narrative and I got really lucky with finding Emily [Scott Simpson], who is just like, such a fabulous home cook, because there was a lot of engineering that we kind of had to figure out and solve. So yeah, it was kind of the stars aligning, and having been, you know, nurturing relationships and doing that work for a long time, in terms of trying to get films made prior.

Morgan: Yeah, yeah, because this isn’t your first short film. You have an impressive filmography of shorts, and I find that shorts are always a different challenge than feature films, because your time is even more finite, and you have to tell a story in that time. I appreciated that the film hit the ground running and felt so lived in that I didn’t need a before and after to fill in those gaps. So what is it like making sure that you have that tension built? Does that come first in the script? Does it really evolve in editing?

Marina: That’s a good question. I mean, there’s the saying that you make a film three times, right? You make it when you write it, and then once more when you’re in production, and then again, when you’re in the edit. It’s really about reinventing, rediscovering and reinventing. It’s about rediscovering the story in each piece. So the first element was finding it in the writing and in the writing, it came very quickly. I mean, the pieces of the story, of how I wanted to tell it, came together quite quickly. And then I workshopped it. I have a writer’s group, I workshopped it with some people. I knew that I really wanted to make it and good thing I did, because had I been delayed by two weeks, we wouldn’t have gotten it in the can and I don’t know that I would have ever gotten it made. But then again, in production, you’re working 12 hour days, and there’s no chance for pickups and there’s no chance for overtime. There is this inherent tension on set in terms of trying to make all of this magic happen and get everything done. So some of it is both facilitating the already existing tension of a film set and kind of trying to translate that energy into what happens in front of the camera, and then that work is also with the actors, right? I was really lucky to have this as a tremendously talented ensemble that were just such pros. They met. They connected. They developed their relationships quickly. I barely had to facilitate. They developed this rapport and a history together as cooks. So while I was off there, trying to figure out camera and production design, I would turn back and we’re ready to go. They’re already moving and grooving and feeling the kitchen. They were a few steps ahead of me. There’s always the work of figuring out how to keep it hot between the actors. But,  again, I was lucky with pros. Then again, we had to rediscover it all again in the edit, which is, in many ways, the most challenging part, right? Because especially on projects of this size, you’re not doing pickups, you’ve got what you got. And now you have to figure out how to use it. How to see it new. How to make it fresh. And so a lot of that was actually finding the tension in the edit. We have this jump cut sequence in the end where we start messing around with our timeline and my goal was trying to mimic or invoke that kind of experiential feeling of like memory of post-trauma in a way. I hesitate to use those words, because I know that we’re living in a very therapized era where we throw around terms like “trauma” and “generational trauma” and whatnot. But that’s what we’re talking about, right? Like, what I was trying to mimic is what that internal experience is like, after you’ve been violated in a way where you feel you were violated and threatened in a way that kind of breaks something in you, both in the moment, but, also, potentially, within you and your past. And to do that, we felt like we had to break the timeline. So in a way, we discovered this completely new language in the edit of something that we didn’t film. Something that I hadn’t even conceived of prior. But in working with the material, we knew we had to create more time and space here. And God, I really loved finding that in the edit. And that was a whole new way of trying to create tension with the visual language. 

And so I’m very excited for younger women for whom there is a path, an idea of being an author and being the subjective point of view. For them to be able to see their lives and their point of view and outlook on the world.

– Marina Michelson

Morgan: And I think that that also kind of adds to the idea. And, again, we don’t want to throw around trauma as this thing, but it is kind of a universal experience that we all have in some shade. But it really just kind of showed  the way, trauma can be so pervasive, and especially when we are in this time, because I don’t think that we’re past a time of #MeToo and #TimesUp. So I’m wondering about your thoughts on those movements? Have they been mostly positive in the reflections that they’ve provided us? Have they been a little bit mixed? Because I don’t think that they’ve been negative in any way.

Marina: Yeah, I think it’s an interesting question. You know, a lot of the reason why I think I wrote this, why I think it came up so quickly, I very much remember that it was the anniversary of the Kavanaugh hearings. It’s the anniversary of the Weinstein allegations. And that’s the start of #MeToo, right? That’s like the so-called start of #MeToo. It was after Weinstein, it was #MeToo. And I wrote it as a response to feeling the way that it’s being covered was, like to me, in the past. #MeToo was this time that was over. The Kavanaugh hearings were this time that happened. It’s a story in the past, as opposed to a story that continues. A story that very little has actually changed in the day to day lives of people other than it’s something that might be spoken about a little bit more openly in the media. Okay, and maybe it’s something that we’re starting to talk about with our friends, with our colleagues, with our partners, with our families, maybe. Maybe we’re not as scared to broach these conversations, but it doesn’t all happen at once. The whole thing about #MeToo is that it made everyone start to reflect about their own personal experiences, both what they had experienced personally and what they had witnessed. It made others consider how they had participated. And that memory keeps unfolding. The grooves of memory are not like a filing cabinet where you know where everything is. Things get uncovered over time. Maybe like a year after making the film, I read this book of short essays called “Girlhood,” by the writer Melissa Febos. I devoured the book. And she writes about going to a Cuddle Party. Have you ever heard of those? If not, she writes about going to a Cuddle Party which is basically like a consensual touch party for people that want to experience non-romantic hugging and touching and whatnot. And she talks about having this really interesting experience where what she actually learned, what she actually experienced was how to say “no.” That the experience for her was less about the experience of touch and cuddle, but it was more about the experience of how to say “no” to unwanted touch because so much of these parties is that they have these safe words and guidelines as to how you are to consent to touch. And so she started talking about how, as women, particularly, we are raised with non-consensual touch. Where we’re groomed to be okay with the hand that someone puts on the small of your back, or the way someone touches you when they’re pushing you in a subway or when a boss puts their hand on their shoulder. We’re taught that that’s normal. And, again, I don’t, we don’t need to, like police things to the degree of saying what touch is and isn’t normal. But the point is, we all have boundaries that get crossed, and I think as women we are taught to accommodate more. And so basically for me, after reading that essay, a year after I had made the film, I started to unpack more questions about all of the times that I had relented to certain experiences of touch that I hadn’t wanted or didn’t even know. I didn’t even get to consider whether I had wanted them or not and not all were sexual, just touches about power. In this film there’s this very friendly shoulder touch, and it’s not about sex, supposedly. It might hint at sex, but it’s also really about power. And so, you know, I don’t think that that time has passed. I think that we’re still in it. I think that people get into cycles about what they’re interested in, hearing about or thinking about and, and people get very fatigued.  And my biggest fear about releasing this movie is feeling people’s fatigue, about another story, you know, another story about men and women in power. That’s my fear, because I know that people get fatigued, but these stories still exist and not only for women. Definitely not only for women. It’s up on YouTube now and a lot of the comments are men being like, “this sounds exactly like the kitchen I worked in.”

Morgan: So I was gonna ask, what is it like putting this out in the world? Because I think, as you said, people get really fatigued, especially when they don’t have to think about it in their daily life. And so how has it been? Have you heard from other people, especially women in the service industry?

Marina: I’ve heard from a lot of women. When I was passing around the script, every woman told me her story. That was the conversation. Every woman when I passed around the script, everyone just told me their story. And then on set, too, everyone told me their story, and not just women. People were immediately telling me stories about first jobs or when they were apprentices, or when they were basically in positions where they did not have power and how they were treated. Along the way, I’ve heard a lot of stories. Which is really powerful, right? Because art is the most interesting when it’s a lens or a portal that people basically through the story, they see themselves. And I think there’s no really higher compliment than to be able to give people that kind of mirror through the portal of a story. And then releasing it online recently, it’s challenging, because I know that we’re living in exhausted times. And during the pandemic, I had to do a lot of thinking about what kind of work I wanted to keep making, what I wanted to put out into the world but also where I wanted to be in my own head. You know, you sit with what you write and what you make for so long that I really had to consider what headspace I wanted to be in. The world of this film is not necessarily the headspace I would want to be in all the time now. That said, it’s a 10 minute short [film], and it’s not  sitting in an hour and a half, you know, horror, so I don’t think it wears on you in that way. But I am quite sensitive to this not being something for everyone and even for people who are survivors of abuse or assault or have experienced these things. I understand that sometimes it can just be too triggering. And so, I put it out there, and I’m here and open to hear how people receive it, but I expect nothing. Because I understand that it’s challenging content in challenging times. And so people don’t need to be pushed to deal with those things, especially if they’re already dealing with them in their day to days. 

Morgan: And, you know, you kind of touched on it a little bit earlier, too, but I personally love women who make films because the amount of hurdles that women have to jump over just to get any film made, it’s amazing that we get to experience their art. And so as a woman in film, what are some things that you are looking forward to in the future for yourself and at, you know, supporting other women? Because I think that that’s another thing that #MeToo has kind of given women in the industry a little bit more of female filmmakers supporting each other and making things happen as a community. So just wondering your thoughts on that? 

Marina: I’m excited for more stories from our lens. I wonder if the amount of films released by female filmmakers and writers were out then as they are out now, and by that, I mean, like my childhood, I think I would have come to directing faster. I started as an actor, because I didn’t know directing was possible. I thought it was impossible. I  just literally did not know it was possible. It did not occur to me until quite late, frankly. And so I’m very excited for younger women for whom there is a path, an idea of being an author and being the subjective point of view, for them to be able to see their lives and their point of view and outlook on the world. From a young age, knowing filmmaking is a possibility for them, that’s really exciting. I think it’ll only make for greater work. And I’m excited for more opportunities as people start to, not only consume, not only make work, but also the appetite for work by female filmmakers increases. And the criticism and the writing and the coverage of it increases, so that it not only just becomes normalized, and you know, we hit some kind of idea of parody, but so that there’s just a flood of stories and perspectives that we haven’t yet heard of, or seen. What that could do to the culture, I think is really powerful. There’s a lot of potential there. I have no idea what it can do, but I imagine that it could only be for the best. And I’m just excited for more opportunities to get our stories out there and stories just from a more feminine perspective, not only female stories, but storytelling that hones in on feminine values.

Morgan: Absolutely. So I have a couple of fun questions that I like to end interviews with. Who is a woman in the industry that you would like to work with and why?

Marina: Oh, gosh, I have very many, but a few that just come to mind right off the top. I really love Sophia Coppola. She was just one of the first female filmmakers that her films – I’m getting chills as I think about it – that I was like, “this is for me.” When I remember watching her movies and I remember watching “The Virgin Suicides” and everything about it from the music to  the soft tone to the images, I just ate it up. It was a world I wanted to live in. And it felt like it was speaking to me and communicating something inside me, worlds that I wanted to experience within, they were on screen in a way that I truly never had experienced before. And I really admire her. I find her to be really wise, and simple and subtle. I feel like she’s more known for her aesthetics for the worlds she creates and how they are so visually appetizing, I find the content of her stories really wonderfully restrained, while also being powerful. And that’s a goal of mine. So she just comes up right away. And I also have to say Andrea Arnold, because I just think she’s so cool, and her movies. She’s so different, which is why I want to say her, because she’s, in many ways, kind of the opposite of Sofia Coppola, but she’s so fully herself and moving. I feel like she really is saying a lot with her films, and they’re so emotional, and evocative. They have this kind of life’s energy to them. And she really puts it out there. She lets it all hang out in her films, and in her directing. I would just be lucky to be a fly on the wall, in a room where she’s directing a scene.

Marina Michelson on the set of “Stagiaire”

Morgan: Oh, those are two great picks. What is the film that makes you cry every time you watch it?

Marina: Probably “Before Sunset.” That series.  I cry at movies all the time, so there’s a lot of films I can say. And did “CODA” just win Best Picture?

Morgan: Yes it did.

Marina: Gosh, I really sobbed at that movie.  I did not anticipate it, but boy, I remember I got a really good cry out at that movie.

Morgan: What’s a film that you think should be included in the Criterion Collection? And why?

Marina: Well, if “Clueless” isn’t, I don’t know what they’re doing.

Morgan: I don’t think “Clueless” is.

Marina: Well, they should really start thinking about it. Because that’s another one, kind of like watching a Sofia Coppola movie where I was just, from the credits rolling on screen and the neon credits and the song. I remember it all. I’m flashing back to being at the theater and I was 12 or something. So “Clueless.”

Morgan: And then who is someone from an underrepresented community that you think people should know more about? Whether it’s in your industry, from history just in your personal life? 

Marina: Well, if we’re going to stay on the subject of this film, I think that so many of the people who make our food and who grow our food who are essential workers. This is the irony of how we’ve dubbed them essential workers, and yet they’re the least protected part of our communities. They are essential to our communities. So, I would say the people who cook and grow our food, it’s a really long chain of agriculture. From dairy farmers to grain farmers, to the people who are picking fruit, to the people all along the way that are washing and packing and transporting and then preparing. Those people. They’re really the fabric of our society and really they are the reason that we are here today in maybe not one piece, maybe we are broken in all sorts of different ways. But they’re the reason that we’re still here today because we remain fed. They toil in very unpredictable and oftentimes dangerous circumstances. They’re behind the scenes and I feel like they don’t get enough love, and they deserve our respect and support. They deserve higher wages and they deserve health care  and paid time off.

Morgan: I couldn’t agree more.

You can find Marina Michelson’s work over at https://www.marinamichelson.com/Home-Stack. “Stagiaire” is currently available online.

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