After two decades of directing for the stage, Marlo Hunter has made the long-awaited leap into feature filmmaking with her directorial debut American Reject. Telling the story of a reality TV contestant whose rise to fame was just as quick as her fall, the narrative sheds a light on the fickle nature of cancel culture. Scriptwriter Kathleen Monteleone also stars in the leading role of Kay alongside Tony Award winner Annaleigh Ashford, Laura Cayouette and a host of actors who has experienced the cycle of reality TV first-hand. It’s a humorous take on the importance of finding the power in rejection and a commentary on the power public opinion can hold over an individual.
In the conversation below, Hunter walks us through the films and TV shows that influenced her creative process, the universality of the film’s core message and why making the shift from stage to screen was a perfect choice.
Ella Joyce: As this is your first feature film, what was the process like adjusting to a directorial role?
Marlo Hunter: To be honest, I felt right at home. I’ve always thought about stories cinematically, and directing – whether it’s for the stage or the screen, is at its core about the marriage of tone, world-building, and the actors’ performances to evoke a particular emotional response from the viewer. Like theatre, the director establishes the culture for a process on set for the cast and crew. So I brought all this experience with me into a parallel medium. For me, the biggest difference – and one I really enjoyed – was post-production. When you’re directing actors for live theatre, adjustments generally involve a dialogue with your actors and can affect multiple production departments. In film you can say, “Remove 36 frames,” and suddenly you’ve tightened the timing, the scene plays differently. Don’t get me wrong, working with actors is one of my greatest joys but I found editing to be where the film really becomes a director’s medium in a way that is incomparable to the theatre.
EJ: How does film differ from your experience with Broadway and other theatre productions?
MH: My focus in theatre has predominantly been the development and direction of new musicals. On average, it can take ten years from a show’s inception until its first bow in front of a paying audience. I’ve now directed a feature film, which I was attached to in the fall of 2017, shot in 2018, and today it’s on millions of living room screens a mere three and a half years from the beginning of my journey with it. That’s a fraction of the time, with a significantly larger reach on the back end. I’d say it’s proven pretty artistically rewarding. In terms of process, the greatest difference, and one that’s been the most challenging for me to get used to is not having a nightly live audience who you can ‘audition’ the material and make changes accordingly. In theatre, the preview process is precious time, you can really feel an audience’s response to the story. In film you get some test audiences, but the idea of, “Well, this is it and exactly what it will be forever,” is deeply satisfying if you’re happy with it and terrifying if you’re even the least bit unsure.
Still, ‘American Reject’ by Marlo Hunter, 2022
EJ: Were there any films in particular that inspired you when making American Reject?
MH: Kathleen [Monteleone] and I talked a lot about the delicate balance of the comedic tone of this film in development and pre-production, and we often referenced Kristen Wiig’s performance in Bridesmaids as a barometer for Kay. We wanted her to be able to have some more outlandish comedic moments in some outlandish set-piece situations, but it was equally critical that she be real, with a layered interior life. Bridesmaids gets a bit broader than we do, but it was absolutely a reference for comedic tone. Beyond this, Juno actually served as a visual reference for the world of Sandy (Kay’s hometown), I’m a huge fan of Jason Reitman’s collaborations with Eric Steelberg; I love their brand of comedy. I responded to their rich, warm colour palettes and deeply respect that they don’t muddy their comedy or their poignancy with unnecessary camera movement. Their work was inspirational for myself and my DP Ian Coad on American Reject. Ian and I built our Pop Star Now! cinematography vocabulary not from film references, but from those TV shows themselves. We studied American Idol and America’s Got Talent in particular.
EJ: Dealing with reality TV fame is an interesting concept and one not many people get to experience, what drew you to explore this idea?
MH: American Reject is based on Kathleen’s real-life experience as a reality TV competition ‘reject’. Just out of school, Kathleen was launched onto TV screens across America on Grease! You’re the One That I Want – the search for Broadway’s Sandy and Danny. When Kathleen was voted off the show as the third runner-up, she was discarded from public favour as quickly and dramatically as she had been embraced by it. She decided to start writing about her pain surrounding this sort of one-in-a-million circumstance; a grandiose container for a situation that couldn’t be more universal. Ultimately, she harnessed her phenomenal sense of humour, quieted those voices in her head who liked to remind her she wasn’t really a writer and created a cinematic story about resilience and taking control of your perspective – finding your voice. When Kathleen shared the script with me, I was instantly inspired by the message of the film, which is my driving mantra: find a way to laugh at your most disgusting, humiliating, soul-stinging rejections, manhandle your perspective if you have to, and use them to fuel yourself forward.
“American Reject addresses the danger of giving our power away to people you don’t even know. My hope is that this film is an unexpectedly powerful reminder that your failures can be your greatest source of strength – if you let them be.”
EJ: What sort of research and preparation went into developing Kathleen Monteleone’s script?
MH: Kathleen and I focused a great deal on earning the climactic moment of the film, on the Pop Star Now! Stage. We worked on the nuances of that entire sequence quite a bit. Kay really has to give something up – a moment of deep generosity to earn her redemption while still ensuring, from a dramatic standpoint, that we have a big, satisfying musical moment on the “world stage” and one that feels genuinely surprising. I love where we landed with it. We did a lot of deep-diving into the history of Kay’s relationships with her mother, Bonnie, and Nano in particular. I also wanted the secondary and tertiary characters to have specific idiosyncrasies, and ‘triggers’, to deepen the comedy and humanise them. One pivotal creative decision was determining that instead of licensing music we could create original songs that are pastiches of well-known styles and establish the ‘rule’ that within the world of the film these songs are pop canon. I hoped it would punch up the satire to do so. Composer Derek Gregor and lyricist Selda Sahin created a playground of tunes for us that range from 50s pastiche to r&b, to pop songs you can’t get out of your head. Kathleen and I worked with them closely to build a sonic landscape for the film that would not only support it but drive the emotional arc forward and underscore the comedy.
“American Reject addresses the danger of giving our power away to people you don’t even know.”
EJ: America’s Got Talent star Angelica Hale plays Anna, what was it like having someone on set who had been through the talent show experience in real life?
MH: We had three ‘proud rejects’ on set, as it turns out! Kathleen of course, Angelica, and Mike Lynche, who plays Ty, were on American Idol. While Rebecca Black wasn’t a reality TV contestant, she certainly had a reality TV-like rejection moment around her hit song, Friday. So the spirit on set was all about wearing your ‘proud reject’ status with dignity. It was a tradition to share our stories of rejection, and more importantly, the subsequent resilience that landed us on a film set together telling a like-minded story with our collective sense of humour firmly intact.
Still, ‘American Reject’ by Marlo Hunter, 2022
“We live in a world where young people in particular derive a sense of validation from the number of likes and followers they have accrued and conversely, if they have a misstep, they risk being completely cancelled.”
Still, ‘American Reject’ by Marlo Hunter, 2022
EJ: The film has a very heartwarming ending, what do you hope audiences take away from the journey your protagonist goes on?
MH: Our tagline really says it all: “sometimes losing is the only way to win.” Sometimes the only way out is through. Give your grief, your pain and your embarrassment it’s due – dive into it. Find out the ugliest truths about yourself and then take responsibility for how you choose to view your experience. That’s what makes a person truly interesting. Not that they never failed, but how they turn that failure into something that brings joy and inspiration to perfect strangers. We made this film before cancel culture was as ferocious as it is now. We live in a world where young people in particular derive a sense of validation from the number of likes and followers they have accrued and conversely, if they have a misstep, they risk being completely cancelled. American Reject addresses the danger of giving our power away to people you don’t even know. My hope is that this film is an unexpectedly powerful reminder that your failures can be your greatest source of strength if you let them be. Only you can verify yourself.
American Reject is available to stream now on Amazon Prime.