by Nathan Lerner
Now in its 24th edition, this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival will include over 130 works from 28 different countries. It will also feature “Funny Bunny,” which was written and directed by Mt. Airy resident, Alison Bagnall.
“Funny Bunny” is a contemporary story involving three quirky characters. In it, Gene is a socially maladroit protagonist. Although he is estranged from his wife, they continue to live together. Gene goes door to door in his affluent neighborhood, trying to raise consciousness about the issue of childhood obesity.
In the course of his canvassing, Gene meets Titty, an emotionally-stunted neighbor. The latter has successfully sued his father to win back a large inheritance. The two men decide to track down a woman, Ginger, with whom Titty has cultivated an internet relationship.
(The 24th annual Philadelphia Film Festival will run from Thursday, Oct. 22, through Sunday, Nov. 1. “Funny Bunny” screens on Sunday Nov. 1, 1 p.m., at the Prince Theater.)
The 50-year old Bagnall lives in Mt. Airy with her husband, Rufus Standefer, a retired cinematographer, and their two adolescent daughters, Marion and Cushla. Both daughters attend Germantown Friends School. According to Bagnall, “At ages 17 and 14, they have already learned more from their Quaker school education than I had learned until I was in college.”
Bagnall was born and raised in Coventry, Connecticut, which she characterized as, “a fairly rural area.” She recalled, “My mother always told me she hoped that I could find a job in which I could tell people what to do, since I did so much of that with my family members.”
She clarified, “Outside of my family I was shy, but at home I was insufferably bossy, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I tried to make them take part in my films, even though they had zero interest in acting. I also made films starring our sheep and did their voices for them. I could get the sheep to be pretty funny that way.
“I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be involved in film. Growing up, I watched ‘The Wizard of Oz’ religiously, which came on every year. I was also a big fan of the 1964 claymation Christmas special, ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.’ My actors/co-writers get mad at me when I say that ‘Funny Bunny’ is a hybrid of those two things, but it kind of is.”
Bagnall went to Yale and studied Humanities. There, she discovered European cinema, “When I was watching European films from the 1960s and ’70s, I really felt the fire. I caught the fever. I thought, ‘Now that’s cinema; it’s something I want to try to do!’”
Upon graduating from Yale, Bagnall went to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles for their graduate directing program. There, she found a mentor, “I learned the most of all – particularly how to work with actors – from my directing teacher at AFI, Dan Petrie Sr. He had directed a television film that was seminal for me, ‘Sybil,’ with Sally Field playing a young woman with multiple personalities. Dan taught me how to work with actors to get a great performance.”
Bagnall lived in Italy for six years. “I got to hang around (famed director) Bernardo Bertolucci a lot. I learned a lot from talking to him over the years. I also learned a lot from French director Arnaud Desplechin, whom I’ve known since I was 15, through a high school exchange program.”
Bagnall returned to the U.S. and lived in New York City. There, she co-wrote “Buffalo 66,” which Vincent Gallo directed and starred in. Subsequently, she co-wrote and directed “The Dish & the Spoon,” which starred Greta Gerwig.
“When I lived in New York and was writing screenplays I temped in investment banks, working in gray-carpeted cubicles for 40 hours a week. I was shocked when I realized how many people are in environments like that for so much of their lives. Then they go home and have to watch TV to decompress from that day. We’ve all become like indoor cats. So strange and a little sad. Sometimes I fantasize about some sort of 19th century agrarian lifestyle. That’s tough, too. Very tough, but at least you’re outside.”
Ten years ago, Bagnall moved from New York to Philadelphia. According to her, “The move to Philly seemed a somewhat random choice at the time. However, when my father did our family genealogy, he discovered that all of our ancestors were from Philadelphia and environs, going back to the 1600s. It turns out I was coming home but didn’t know it.”
— Continued next week