Michelle Ehlen is a filmmaker and actress who began her career on the stage, cast as a man in her third grade play; she was the only one dedicated to memorizing all of the lines. After gaining a B.A. in Sociology and a minor in Film from Smith College she moved to L.A. In L.A. she studied at the L.A. Film School and graduated with a concentration on writing and directing. In 2003 her thesis short film Half-Laughing aired on HUGO and Here TV. In 2007 she wrote and acted in her first feature film Butch Jamie a comedy about a butch lesbian who gets cast as a man in a film. She has since developed a sequel entitled Heterosexual Jill where self-proclaimed ‘ex-lesbian’ Jill is determined to hunt down her ex-girlfriend Jamie to prove to herself that she is no longer attracted to her.
Reelout Rita: Was it always your plan to do a sequel to Butch Jamie or did the inspiration come later? In either case, what was your inspiration for Heterosexual Jill?
Michelle: I didn’t come up with the idea to do a sequel until we were shooting “Butch Jamie”. On set I realized I really liked the dynamic between Jamie and Jill, and thought it would be fun to further explore their relationship in another film. Since that film focused mostly on gender, I liked the idea of doing another installment that focused on sexuality. And I’m actually writing a third film in the series right right now called “S&M Sally,” that will focus on relationships and one’s changing identity within a relationship.
Reelout Rita: What Queer films/videos or filmmakers have left a lasting impact on you?
Michelle: The film that had the most direct impact on me, while not really a queer film, was the comedy “Best in Show.” I had done a lot of acting growing up but hadn’t really been drawn to doing comedy until I saw that film and it just really clicked with me – the idea of doing comedy in a very straight-forward and grounded way, which made it hilarious to me as an audience member, and it felt do-able for me as a filmmaker and actor. As for queer films, my two personal favorites are “Tipping the Velvet” and “Kissing Jessica Stein”, mainly because they’re both a lot of fun and don’t take themselves too seriously.
Reelout Rita: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Michelle: I started acting when I was a kid, mainly because I was shy and it was an outlet for me. That eventually lead to directing theater and doing short video projects. When I graduated from college, I moved out to L.A. to pursue a career as a film editor, both because I enjoyed it and because it seemed somewhat practical as a job track. Editing other filmmakers’ projects reignited my passion for telling stories, so I then decided to go to the L.A. Film School to study writing and directing.
Reelout Rita: It must be both very difficult and very rewarding to be writer, director, producer and act in the film. Do you have any comments on this?
Michelle: It has its challenges, although I’m used to working that way and compartmentalizing my different roles, so mostly I find it very rewarding. I like keeping the productions small to minimize off-screen stress, and everyone seems to have fun working on the film, which helps in translating that fun energy to the screen. I believe strongly in letting the actors come from a more spontaneous and intuitive place, so in some ways I think getting out of their way and just being present in the moment helps. Every actor works differently, but I know for myself, as an actor I prefer not to have a director since I do my best work when I’m not overly concerned about how I come across. Not having to please anyone is incredibly freeing. Then when I put my editor hat on, I can watch the footage with a more critical eye.
Reelout Rita: What is the biggest thing you hope viewers will take from this film?
Michelle: I’ve found that regardless of where people identify on the sexuality spectrum, they find something that either resonates with them, makes them think, or just makes them laugh. I think everyone takes something different away from it, and I like that idea. I know for me, the main themes I wanted to explore were double standards in sexual identity, and people being overly attached to who they think they are or how they should behave.
Michelle Ehlen’s Film HETEROSEXUAL JILL at 7pm Saturday, February 8th at The Screening Room (120 Princess Street).