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SXSW 2014: stars align for director Jen McGowan's new dramedy 'Kelly & Cal'

Filmmaker Jen McGowan poses during 2014 SXSW Film Awards
Photo by Michael Buckner

"It was everything I didn't know I wanted to do," director Jen McGowan says of her decision to step behind the camera and become a director.

McGowan recently spoke about her filmmaking career and her first feature "Kelly & Cal" which premiered at SXSW where she received the festival's special Gamechanger Award for Emerging Director.

I started at NYU as an actor. I studied at the Atlantic Theater Company. When I graduated I thought I wanted to be an actor," McGowan recalls. "I liked the purity of studying and performing but I didn't like the business side of it. That's when I decide to make a short film. I had no intention of being a filmmaker, but I got behind the camera and I loved it. So then I was like 'Oh, s***! I better figure out how to do this because I don't really know what I am doing.' I applied to USC and moved to L.A. and its just been incredible ever since."

For McGowan, it was the right choice, as her passion for filmmaking led to a thesis short film "Confessions of a Late Bloomer" that earned her a scholarship from the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Women in Film, which recognizes young female filmmakers.

The short film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and screened in the Cannes Short Film Corner where it was selected for a special screening in the Palais by film critic Michel Coulombe. It went on to screen at over 60 festivals worldwide, earning awards and positive reviews from critics. It was later purchased for distribution by Shorts International.

Following the success of "Confessions of a Late Bloomer," McGowan co-wrote and directed the award-winning commercial "Couch Therapy" for client Viesso.

She then directed the award-winning short film "Touch," starring Lily Knight ("Secretary," "Boston Legal" and "Big Love"). The short won at the Oscar-qualifying Florida Film Festival and picked up 23 awards at the 75 festivals it played in during its festival run. It was purchased by PBS, NBC Universal, NITV and Canal Plus.

I've been really lucky," McGowan says. "It has not been easy by any means. Although it sounds really convenient when pressed down into two sentences of a biography, it really has been a good 10-15 years. Its a constant slowly moving force forward and its really been exciting."

Among her many filmmaking influences, McGowan lists acclaimed directors Todd Solondz, Michael Winterbottom and Ang Lee.

I love their independent and unique perspectives," she says. "Their willingness to show characters that are complex and interesting. I love how Todd and Michael use comedy to deal with difficult real life situations."

As for McGowan's "Kelly & Cal," it was scripted by a fellow USC alum Amy Lowe Starbin.

The dramedy focuses on a former Riot grrl turned suburban mom suffering from a mild case of postpartum depression, played by Juliette Lewis, who learns her wheelchair-bound teenage neighbor, played by Jonny Weston, has been spying on her and the unlikely friendship that develops, sparking them both back to life.

We had a great casting director Rich Delia from Barden/Schnee Casting. We'd worked on developing the script for about a year and had Juliette in mind. But she had taken time off from acting to work on her music," McGowan says of casting the film. "We weren’t sure if she wanted to act in our project but when it came time to cast, we asked her and she said 'yes.' It was perfect timing for both of us. She needed material like this and we needed her. We did more traditional casting for the Cal role and found Jonny Weston, who is amazing. He's the sweetest, nicest guy and a true professional. He's really exciting young actor.... We were also able to get Cybill Shepherd because she just happened to be in New York shooting a Peter Bogdanovich film and we were able to schedule her in between on her off days from that film.... The wonderful Margaret Colin was local and Josh Hopkins was just great."

With the successful debut of "Kelly & Cal" at SXSW, McGowan hopes it will be easier to get her next two feature projects made, but for now she's doing the meeting shuffle.

Filmmaking has been a great opportunity," McGowan says. "I graduated NYU in '97 (with a BFA from Tisch School of the Arts) and even though I didn't stay in acting, they always said, 'Look, if you're not willing to stick with this for 10-15 years then save your money now and give up.' Maybe that's why the stars finally aligned. It was my turn. You put in the years and finally your number gets called."

To survive during the interim years since NYU, McGowan has worked as a producer for television series and commercials to support herself.

Sometimes you read interviews with filmmakers and it's like there must be some magic money falling from the trees. 'How does this person pay the rent?'" McGowan says. "Producing commercials that's my day job, but filmmaking is what keeps my soul alive. It's my passion. Hopefully, I will be able to fully transition sooner rather than later. But if not, this is great! I clearly can pay my rent and make a film."

Special Thanks to Jen McGowan for this interview at SXSW.

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