Interview: Laura Terruso (HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS)

LAURA TERRUSOLaura Terruso is the co-writer, along with Michael Showalter, of the new comedy HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, which is based on her short film DORIS AND THE INTERN.  

In HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS, Sally Field stars as a sexagenarian who has her eyes set on a young and hip coworker.  Now playing in theaters, the film marks Laura’s first feature film writing credit and makes a winning case for creating more  films with older women as lead protagonists.  

She is currently working on her next project, FITS AND STARTS, for which she is writer-director.

We spoke with Laura about meeting her co-writer, working with Sally Fields and her favorite characters from film and television.

How did you get your break into the film industry?

I studied at the grad film program at NYU. While I was in film school, I met Michael Showalter. He was an adjunct professor teaching screenwriting. I never took a class with him, but he was in the edit labs one day looking at his students’ cuts. This was my first year of film school and I had done this short film that was basically a character sketch.

What was the film you showed Michael?

It was DORIS AND THE INTERN, the short film that HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS is based on.

I saw Michael in the editing lab and I said, “You’re funny. Will you come look at this?” He was very kind and came over and watched it. He really liked it and from them on, we sort of became friends. One day we were in the lounge chatting about films and filmmakers that we loved (we’re both Hal Ashby fans) and he said, “I’d love to write something with you.” That was a huge moment for me.

Was the idea always to turn DORIS AND THE INTERN into a feature co-written by you and Michael Showalter?

Once we decided that we were going to write something together, we threw around a bunch of ideas. We actually wrote this whole other script, called NOW OR NEVER, which was about a character named Doris – a similar character, but the story was much more of a rom-com for a woman of a certain age. We wrote that script and then we scrapped it. That – in and of itself – was great to do. Screenwriting is like trying to find your way through a hedge maze. You sometimes think you’ve made it out, only to find yourself still inside. But the process informs the work, so none of it is time wasted.

Anyway, we decided that we really wanted to go back to the character and the premise of the short. I think of the short film as a doodle on a napkin and the feature is like a Caravaggio painting. With the feature, you see all the depth, all the shadow. We were able to take the comedic premise of the short, which was that an older woman develops a fixation on a younger man in her office, and expand it and peel away the layers to find out who this character is and how she got into this situation.

Tell me a bit about the making of DORIS AND THE INTERN.

Comedy is how I express myself. DORIS AND THE INTERN was an assignment for film school that had to be about 5-7 minutes long. I wanted to create a character that I hadn’t seen before that I thought had comedic potential.

I had worked in an office before going to film school. I was very familiar with the office culture and that kind of cubical pool boredom that Doris experiences. An office crush is a very relatable thing. I find crushes endlessly fascinating, and often comedic, because it’s rarely the most “appropriate” person that we have a crush on. I think that’s something that a lot of people can relate to. So I came up with the premise of this older woman pining away for the office intern, which I knew I could formulate a lot of situational humor around. Coming up with ways for Doris to fantasize and force interactions with this unwitting object of her affection was so much fun.

We shot the short film over a weekend. The budget was maybe $500. It’s raw and unpolished, but I had such a good time making it.

When you went from working on the short to collaborating with Michael on the feature script, how did you two work together?

We would go to coffee shops and talk a lot about the character and the plot. We’d walk around the city together and figure out the outline and story beats. Then, for the actual writing part, we wrote separately. Michael was working on the set of THEY CAME TOGETHER, so we did a lot of sending drafts back and forth by email and then talking on the phone or on Skype.

This was my first feature screenplay so I was writing from a very instinctive place. Writing with Michael on my first feature was a gift. He is a master of structure, and now I’ve become a structure junkie thanks to him.

What was a particular scene you felt translated well from the page to the screen?

The whole movie feels true to what was on the page because Michael and I were so involved in every aspect of decision making on this film. I was on set for all of production, which I know isn’t always the case with writers. I came to Los Angeles a month before production and was working on the script every day, we were even rewriting and improving scenes on set.

Also, another reason the script to screen translation was so seamless was because of Sally Field. Sally was our “dream Doris” and when she read the script she got it completely. She brought so much depth and humor to the role. Working with her was a dream and watching her on set was like a masterclass.

You’re also in post-production on FITS AND STARTS, which you wrote and directed.

Yes, after we shot DORIS, I came back to New York and was hungry to direct. I wrote FITS AND STARTS and teamed up with Neda Armian, who produced RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, and a colleague of mine from film school, Margherita Arco.

It’s a comedy about a writer who can’t seem to escape his wife’s literary success. Wyatt Cenac plays the writer and Greta Lee plays his wife. It came together really naturally.

What’s next on your project slate?

I’ll definitely continue to write and direct feature films and am working on a few new feature projects. I also really want to write and direct for television. I wrote a pilot recently, and am working on another. TV is really exciting right now. There are so many great shows out there.

If you could write for any character on television, who would it be?

There’s so many great characters! I love Rebecca Bunch from CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND. That’s a great character and hilarious comedic premise. Very Doris-like. I really admire Jenji Kohan. She creates these memorable, funny and vivid female characters that we’ve never seen before. I love “fish out of water” comedies. I think there’s a lot of groundbreaking work being done on television right now. We’re finally starting to break out of the mold.

Don’t you feel that way about Doris? Doris is reinventing the role of a middle-aged woman in film.

It’s funny because when we first sent the script out, we got a lot of people who politely asked, “What if the character were younger?” Well, that’s not what the movie is about. We’re looking at what it is to be an older woman in this country at this time and that’s a valid thing to look at.

I think Sally put it really beautifully in interviews where she said it’s a coming-of-age story about a woman of a certain age. We’re all constantly transitioning in different phases of life and the idea that a coming-of-age film can only be made about someone in their teen years is silly. We’re constantly changing and evolving at every age.

Can you give me a line from HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS that you feel really encapsulates the film or the character?

“Everything means something.” Doris says that to her brother. I think what Michael and I were trying to say with the film is that “everyone means something.” There is an issue in our culture where women of a certain age sort of become invisible. We wanted to really look at Doris, and to have our audience relate to her and fall in love with her. Doris won’t be invisible; she refuses to fade into the background. This is her time to finally pursue the things she wants in life and it’s not too late for her.


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