“It Really Does Take a Village”: Ted Schaefer on Giving Birth to a Butterfly

May 31, 2023

Annie Parisse in Giving Birth to a Butterfly.

Our projected identities—and the constant performance inherent in presenting ourselves—fuel the surrealist philosophy of Ted Schaefer’s Giving Birth to a Butterfly. The filmmaker’s directorial debut, from a script he co-wrote with author Patrick Lawler, delves into a psychedelic psychology of what truly constitutes “the self” (very fitting for a collaborative duo who met through a mutual therapist).
Giving Birth to a Butterfly largely consists of a roadtrip odyssey shared by Diana (Annie Parisse), a pharmacist stuck in an unfulfilling marriage to aspiring chef Daryl (Paul Sparks), and Marlene (Gus Birney), a heavily pregnant young woman who’s dating Diana’s son Drew (Owen Campbell) despite him not being her child’s biological father. Originally turned off by the idea of Drew and Marlene dating—and even less enthused by the prospect of them moving back into the family home—Diana only chooses Marlene to travel with due to a devastating secret she must keep from her family: she’s become the victim of identity theft, and all of the family’s life savings (which were to go toward Daryl’s pipe dream of opening his own restaurant) have been completely drained. Scared to face her family and tell the truth, Diana begs Marlene to drive her to the company’s headquarters so that she can resolve the issue without alarming anyone.
On their journey, the two women discuss the sticky intricacies of their personal lives—Diana’s marital woes, Marlene’s relationship with her delusional would-be actress mother Monica (Constance Shulman)—and discover interesting parallels about their life paths. When they arrive to the identify thief’s “headquarters,” however, the only people there to greet them are two identical elderly women jointly named Nina (Judith Roberts), who themselves have much insight to shed on the roles Diana and Marlene are truly meant to occupy in their lives. If all of these uncanny moving parts weren’t enough, the entire film is framed by a community theater production of Ibsen’s Ghosts that Diana’s daughter Danielle (Rachel Resheef) works lighting for and which Monica believes to be starring in. What role do we get to play in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life? (Or, in this case, community theater reproduction.)
I spoke to Schaefer shortly after Giving Birth to a Butterfly had its streaming premiere on Fandor. We discussed how Schaefer and Lawler entrenched the film in a feminist perspective, the multi-faceted artistic references they mined from and Schaefer’s mounting work as a producer at Dweck Productions, which he co-founded with Hannah Dweck back in 2018 (which has produced films such as Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and Dustin Guy Defa‘s forthcoming The Adults).
Filmmaker: Several of the central actors are related in real life: the actors who play unhappy couple Diana and Daryl are actually married, and Marlene and Monica are played by a real mother-daughter duo. I know you’ve said in the past that you never outright intended to cast people who actually occupied these relationships in their everyday lives, but I’m curious what those dynamics brought to the shoot and subsequent performances that maybe wouldn’t have arisen otherwise. 
Schaefer: It could be a dicey situation with a different kind of movie, but because it’s a movie where— especially for the characters of Monica and Daryl—they’re so separate from the people playing them, it felt easier. Annie [Parisse], who plays Diana, and I talked a lot about it, and she was like, “We’ve actually never done anything where we really have scenes together, but this feels really comfortable because there’s a layer of separation.” Obviously they weren’t rehearsing alone, but they just had a language together. We did a week of rehearsals, and those are two really important dynamics, those two sets of characters. They had a language between each other, because they know each other so intimately that it made it really easy to get the right tone. Finding that right tone is a challenge, and it made my job so much easier [laughs]. 
Filmmaker: Yes, Daryl and Diana have this dynamic that’s probably not rooted in real life—sour and just done with it. How did you work with the actors to solidify that relationship on screen in terms of the relationship with their children as well? I feel like there’s a lot to unpack there. 
Schaefer: Thankfully, it’s the opposite of their relationship in real life, which is great. I always have to reassure people [about Paul Sparks] at Q&As: “He’s great! He’s a really wonderful guy.” They all are really great. In general, the casting process was just getting to know each other on a human level—instead of doing any auditions, we would get coffee, hang out and be like, “Yeah, this makes sense. We understand each other.” So, the conversations around those dynamics were a lot easier, because we all knew the end goal. We’re all working towards the same idea, and when you’re doing something that is tonally specific, it’s hard to express that. Making sure I had people that already picked up on that through the script was really important. It really became a game of inches, where we would rehearse and be like, “Oh, this interaction isn’t quite working,” because it has to play between caricature but then becomes grounded. All of the characters are sad in their own ways, because they’re all reaching for something. That’s the common thread that hopefully makes it more human.
Filmmaker: I was interested in the thematic recurring instances of pairs, mirror images and grouping mechanisms that bring the characters together. There are several instances of identical duos—Judy and Trudy from Diana’s work, the Ninas at the end. All characters directly related have alliterative, rhyming or the exact same names, and for a good chunk of the film we follow Diana and Marlene, who are inverse representations of the other. What conversations or inspirations did you and your collaborator Patrick Lawler have surrounding this motif? 
Schaefer: We’d been working together for probably five or six years when we wrote this; I always joke that I don’t know who wrote anything anymore, because it’s one brain. But I know that I had a vague, basic seed of an idea that I brought to Patrick. He was working on a presentation on the poet Mina Loy, who we referenced [in the film]. Then I remember reading House of the Spirits by Isabella Allende at the same time. There were some similar motifs in that, but there was this idea of the dual self and what that could represent in different ways.
Hopefully the film doesn’t feel like it’s a really simple idea that’s trying to be conveyed. I think you can read it really surface-ly and be like, “Oh, it’s just somebody finding their identity and they become two people for some reason” [laughs]. Or the Jungian two—which it is partly, for sure. That was definitely something we talked about. But  there’s a lot of that mirroring because it has to do especially with parenthood and how you insert your own identity onto other people, and how you interpret it when that’s being inserted on you.
Filmmaker: I mean, Diana literally compares her son to the father and her daughter to herself, both in negative ways. 
Schaefer: Yeah, and the Marlene thing was big, where it’s these two inverses of each other. 
Filmmaker: For me, I definitely clocked Frida Kahlo, David Lynch, Mina Loy, as you were saying, and Ibsen as tangible creative sources, some of which are visually evoked, excerpted or mentioned by name. Are there some more subtle artists or works that motivated you while working on this project, aside from that of your collaborator? 
Schaefer: There’s the obvious Homer, too. I mean, there’s so much stuff. Part of our process is we have so many influences that it doesn’t matter that we’re blending so much stuff. We’re not trying to copy them, we’re making allusions and thinking about things. 
For the shot with the grapefruit, I thought a lot about the shot in Close-Up by Kiarostami, the spray paint can rolling. There were other shots like that, but that was the one that stuck with me. The way we lit [the film], first we were talking about Edward Yang, then we were trying to find ways to shift the background lighting to create these fractal patterns on the wall. I don’t know if there’s a specific place that comes from, but there was a little bit of that more noir-y stuff we played with. There was stuff that didn’t make it into the film that was really crazy where we were like, “This is maybe pushing it too far.” 
Filmmaker: Anything specific that you can recall? 
Schaefer: There was a scene that got cut where Marlene goes back to see Judy and Trudy at the end. The gaffer had created this really incredible panel of strips of mirrors, similar to a Venetian blind background but the opposite, where you were shooting a light into these strips of mirrors. It creates this really crazy pattern, and I kind of wish that scene made it. 
Filmmaker: I was also a little disappointed when Judy and Trudy never came back!
Schaefer: I know, they were so fun. 
Filmmaker: From a feminist perspective, there’s something very bold and political about Diana feeling trapped in the roles of wife and mother and what she eventually resolves to do about this personal oppression. There’s a quote I love from her where she says something to the effect of, “Some women will do anything to get married, and others will do anything to get out of it.” Frankly, how did you navigate this age-old feminine dilemma as a man? Is this a sentiment you’ve encountered among women in your life? 
Schaefer: Yeah, it is a challenging thing. Patrick and I—him more than me, probably—are well-versed enough in feminist literature that there was a basis there. But I think it comes from both of us being raised primarily by our mothers. His relationship with his father is really, really tough. His father has very strong shades of Daryl in him. 
My parents got divorced when I was one, so I spent most of my life with my mother. My mother’s name also happens to be Diana, though that was not the initial intention. I hope she takes it as a compliment. 
Filmmaker: Has she seen it? 
Schaefer: I think she has seen it, but it’s playing again at Nitehawk in July and she’s going to fly in and see it, because she lives in Texas now. I do see a lot of her in that role. In college, especially, I suffered a lot. She’s a therapist, and I started to have a lot of issues. We really connected and she became such a huge pillar in my life of support, which she always had been, but you go through adolescence and drift away and then come back. There was a lot of me that was drawing from that time in my life and that relationship.
I didn’t really know a lot of the details of my parents’ divorce until later in life. So understanding my mom’s perspective as much as I could and having really frank talks with her—which I think is a little more common now, but especially at that time my male friends were just like, “Yeah, I don’t really know what my mom thinks about” [laughs]. Probably because she’s a therapist and because of what she’d been through, we were able to have really great, open conversations, which we still have. 
But I think about that time of my life a lot. I think it expanded my brain, especially when you’re 20 and learning so much. I had a lot of really great professors who were really hardcore feminists. You start making films at 18 and you’re surrounded by a bunch of guys that are like, “I wanna be Steven Spielberg or Tarantino.” And our school was such a hard school that I think we started with 50 students and ended with 12. People were just like, “This is too much for me.”
Filmmaker: Where’d you go to school? 
Schaefer: Syracuse. Patrick also grew up in a totally different decade, but his father was basically not there because he was an alcoholic, so his mother was the person that he bonded with. He had three sisters, too, so that probably helped. 
Filmmaker: Yeah, my own mother has stated to me that if she were given the chance to do it all again, she’s not sure if she would get married or have kids in her 20s, or maybe even at all. Some people would probably be insulted by that statement from a parent, but I find it very compelling and sympathetic. There’s this dreadful sense that Diana’s “abandoned” her family, but the final shot of the film posits that this is a radical act of healing and self-preservation. You can’t really be upset at her, but at the same time you almost naively hope for Marlene and Drew’s own marital and parental bliss. What do these two parallels speak to? Was Diana’s final decision in the film hard to navigate and present as it is? 
Schaefer: Yeah. Especially in a script format, we got a lot of people being like, “Well you can’t do that.” So we played with the idea of not doing that and shot some stuff where we could have a softer ending. But that just undermines the whole thing. You have to be that radical, is the sad truth. It’s also sort of hopeful, in a weird way. I think it almost repositions Marlene as the main character in the end by ending with Diana, because Marlene is the one that’s at a fork—not the exact same one that Diana was at, but a very similar one. It allows for this opportunity to see her potential future and how she might adjust that.
Filmmaker: The film was shot on 16mm film stock and adopts this interesting, rounded-edge visual presentation. How did these two aesthetic choices inform each other, and how did you settle on the film’s final presentation? 
Schaefer: The 16[mm] was always part of it, but the rounded edges didn’t come until post. The initial thrust was just an intuition where I was like, “There’s something about it that feels too harsh, and we want to soften it.” Then I thought more about it, and the other thing is there’s a presentational aspect of the film, especially at the beginning, where the hope is you disarm the audience by showing them so much: “Hey, it’s a movie. It’s a film. Look, it’s a weird world.” You can let go of some preconceived ideas, then that opens them up to maybe more subconscious dealings. But it also genuinely felt like it softened the frame in a way. And I think it’s really great, because it’s a film that deals with doubles so much. 4:3 is the perfect aspect ratio for a two shot. I don’t think we fully realized this until after, but in the original cut there are 12 shots that start as a two and become a single shot, which was certainly intentional, but I didn’t realize how often we had done it. Most of the time the camera moves, it’s adjusting from a two to a one. It all works towards something, and the rounded edge plays with that idea of a memory or a dream. Everything should feel like we’re operating on a somewhat subconscious level. I think then people are more open to following it and seeing what happens.
Filmmaker: It’s also interesting, because the textures of film are so overt while watching, yet the performances, costume/set design and narrative flow all feel so rooted in live theater, plus the community play touches each character’s life in real and imaginary ways. Your actors are all well-versed in theater; were any other crew members from the theater world? 
Schaefer: I think it mostly was film people, although Cassandra [Holden], our production designer, had definitely done some theater productions. I think our art director did, too. When they did that build, they were like, “This reminds me of [working] for the stage play,” which was really fun. I mean, I had done theater a little bit in high school and college, but I didn’t have a deep theater background. I think part of that is pushed by Patrick. Of course, I’ve read so much more theater through him, because he came from a poetry and literature background, so he was reading Ibsen and Chekhov for years. At a certain point, we were talking about A Doll’s House as being the play, but it became a little too one-to-one [laughs]. Ghosts really works as a subtler comparison piece. 
Filmmaker: You produced your own film, but you also executive produced We’re All Going to the World’s Fair and the forthcoming The Adults. I know Jane approached you personally for World’s Fair. How’d you get involved in The Adults? 
Schaefer: Dustin has been a good friend and a mentor at times. He helped on a short I made years ago. He executive produced that for me and helped cast it. So, we’ve been friends for a long time, for over 10 years. The summer of 2021, I saw him at Van Leeuwen’s eating ice cream. We were catching up and he was like, “I’m doing this movie.” I was like, “You should send it to us, we should do this.” I loved it and said we would love to try and help get it made. I was good friends with his producers, Jon Read and Allison Carter. Jon and I had known each other for years, so Jon was like, “Hey, I think I’m gonna do this movie, too.” What a perfect thing. I’m very lucky, very lucky. My producing partner, Hannah Dweck, and I started the company [in] 2018, and most of it has been filmmakers I know that are super talented and either haven’t had an opportunity or are looking for help on a third feature, in Dustin’s case, that for whatever reason is getting ignored. Now we’re trying to do our best to build up enough of a cachet of filmmakers and be like, “Look, you should give us a bunch of money, because we’re gonna make a really great movie.” 
Filmmaker: Do you plan to keep your producing process confined to these filmmakers who you already have previous working relationships with, or is it all about the right ideas?
Schaefer: Oh yeah. The company is operating at a different level than it was when I was making Butterfly. Now we have seven films on the slate, including my next one. But a lot of them are filmmakers that I maybe knew about, but didn’t know and haven’t met. What I’ve found being on this side of things is that a lot of companies just don’t have an “in” to filmmakers, which makes it harder for them to find really great materials. So they’re all going to the same pool, to the Sundance labs, which is why things can feel the same. It’s the same four people that pick those movies, then everyone fights for them. Our ability to meet those filmmakers—and some of them are the ones I’ve worked with, and some I’ve met for the first time last year because we were at a festival together—means that our reputation is starting to grow and people are like, “If you want to make your movie with people that care about your movie and will let you do what you want…” It’s allowed us to meet some incredible filmmakers that I’m hopeful we can help.
Filmmaker: It’s a potent formula for sure. 
Schaefer: I mean, I understand why other people don’t do it. Part of it is that I worked for 10 years as an AD and a gaffer, and that allowed me to really understand how to make things at a small level. So, I can know if somebody is going to be able to pull it off. Most production companies don’t want to put in 10 years of their life doing that, understandably. I also think we’re just at a weird time that’s really special. When I started working in film, I didn’t see the movement of filmmakers I see now. There’s clearly more and more interesting stuff getting made, especially at the lower levels, that will hopefully start to grow. Maybe we’ll get a middle-tier movie industry again. We’ll see.
Filmmaker: We can only hope and pray. You mentioned producing your next film. I’m curious what future projects are currently on your radar, both on the producing side and your own future work as a filmmaker?
Schaefer: I don’t know what I’m allowed to say about what’s coming out, because there is one that is about to be announced that’s really exciting from a very talented filmmaker who has had some success in the past. I think this film’s going to be really special. 
There are a couple of filmmakers that I’ve worked with before that we’re working with, and a handful that we’re in the middle of production on. We’ve been really lucky to meet and work with a lot of great filmmakers. We’re hoping to work with Jane on another one of their films, we’re starting to talk about that. Dustin is like, “I’ve got some other ideas.” 
We’d love to be able to get more financing so we can really grow with these filmmakers, which is slowly starting to happen. I think that’s the dream, that we can grow with them and create, even if it is a smaller tier, where people can get to make the movies they want to make and aren’t forced into certain boxes, which I think is what often happens.
The movie is only possible partly because I worked for so long in crew, and I just got really good people that were willing to do good favors because they became friends. It looks the way it does because of everyone who worked on it—Matt [Clegg, the film’s cinematographer] I’ve known for 12 years and our costume designer, Stefanie [Del Papa], is a really good friend that I’ve known for six years. It really does take a village, and I think that’s the best way to make a movie.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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