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Urban Motherhood

Writer/director Katherine Dieckmann talks about her new film, Motherhood, her luminous star Uma Thurman, dodging paparazzi while shooting on city streets, and what it's really like to raise kids in NYC.

Writer/director Katherine Dieckmann (Diggers) is playing out her real life on the big screen this week, albeit with a little more glamour than in her everyday existence. As the mother of two children, ages seven and twelve, living in the West Village is not always easy. There are parking rules, walk-ups to small apartments, and childcare to deal with, not to mention the struggle to find your own voice as an autonomous woman.

Dieckmann put all her frustrations to paper, and eventually to screen, in her new film Motherhood. With the help of Uma Thurman—also a real-life NYC mother—Anthony Edwards (as Uma's at-times clueless husband), and Minnie Driver, who was extremely pregnant during the shoot, Dieckmann pulls back the curtain on what it's like to raise kids in New York City. In her view, it's not always easy, but it can be rewarding, enlightening, and, at times, magical.

Tribeca Film: Motherhood is set in the West Village. What do you like about filming on the streets of New York?

Katherine Dieckmann: It’s funny, I have lived in New York a very long time—25 years? And I sort of was burned out with living here when I wrote the script. But when we shot, it made me fall back in love with New York again. When you stand out in the street all day, you see the most amazing array of characters. We shot in the spring, and so people were coming out of the woodwork. Like most New Yorkers, I think that New York has gotten very bland and corporatized, but [this shoot] made me realize otherwise. It restored my faith in my city, knowing that it can still harbor eccentrics.

Tribeca: In the movie, Uma Thurman’s family has to deal with a movie filming on their block, and you show both the hassle and the magical wonder of it. (This will be interesting to people who don’t live in the city, as it’s not a typical occurrence in a small town.) Did you do anything special to appease the residents where you were filming? It’s kind of meta.

KD: Well, you know, it was very hair-raising. Even two weeks before, we were being told we couldn’t shoot here. So much had been shot here recently—Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, that Clive Owen movie Duplicity—they were both shot on our block.

Motherhood Director Katherine DieckmannTribeca: Wait, you live on the block where you shot?

KD: Yes, and the residents were so up in arms and fed up. But the head of my block association, Kathy Donaldson, really fought for me. She told everyone, “She’s lived on Bedford Street since 1989, and she’s one of us.” I’d also given to the association for years, and I’d been to the holiday party, so my faith had already been proven. But she did help to intervene.

Also, a neighbor on my street, Alice Elliott, is a documentary filmmaker. (She made The Collector of Bedford Street.) So as a female filmmaker, she was sympathetic too. We used their stoop.

Tribeca: Did you film in your actual apartment?

KD: The building is my building, but the apartment is a set. (Ours isn’t quite so dire.) So much of the neighborhood has been fixed up, though, including our building, that we struggled to find a staircase for Uma’s character to run up and down that wasn’t cleaned up. We found one in the neighborhood that was about to be fixed up—it still had that old-time, rundown kind of look.

Tribeca: How did you appease the neighbors once you started shooting?

KD: We were very vigilant about communicating. New Yorkers know that most film crews are not. We told them when we’d be there, we helped out with parking, we took care to not be on their stoops. It helped to know who the neighbors were. It wasn’t flawless, and people were annoyed, but there’s not much you can do about that. I did, though, have great sympathy, and I felt bad. I tried to make my staff as sensitive as possible.

Tribeca: What are some of the other challenges of shooting in New York?

KD: Paparazzi were a big challenge, especially for Uma and Minnie. That was really stressful.

Tribeca: Can you tell us a little about Jodie Foster’s cameo? [In the film, Foster is ambushed by paparazzi—and mom-arazzi—when she brings her kid to the park.] Was that inspired by real life?

KD: In the script it was actually Sarah Jessica Parker, because our sons are around the same age and when I was constantly going to the park, I would see her there with her son. She just couldn’t even swing her son on the swing without being hassled. She was always very nice, just trying to have a normal life. When someone’s out with their child, we should let them have a real life.

Really, that park is full of celebrities, so I thought it would be funny to spoof on that. Jodie Foster is a good friend of our costume designer, Susan Lyall. She said she thought Jodie might do it, so we sent her the script, and she was really fantastic and generous.

Tribeca: That reminds me. Who designed the fabulous dress Uma was wearing during most of the film?

KD: Dosa. She’s one of my favorite designers, and she has a store in Soho. She makes very beautiful, high-end clothes that look hippie-ish but are not priced accordingly. Uma and I picked that dress together. Sarah brought in six looks for [Uma's character] Eliza on mannequins, and Uma and I both gravitated to that dress immediately.

Tribeca: She wears it in most of the film. How many did you have?

KD: We only had two. It was a low-budget movie. But she got pretty tired of wearing that dress. What I liked about it is that it was not so shapeless that it was a schmatta. On the other hand, it’s hard to make Uma Thurman not look glamorous. The Birkenstocks helped, which she wore in homage to her mother, who wore them when Uma was a kid (and which Uma found horrifying back then).

Minnie Driver and Uma Thurman in Motherhood

What’s the craziest thing that happened on the shoot?

KD: The day Minnie got in the fight with the paparazzi. It was her first day on set, she was quite pregnant, and it was hot, and yet the paparazzi would not leave her alone. She freaked out. I was saying to them, “Do you have a shred of humanity? Did you ever have a mother? Can’t you just leave her alone?” Most of them left, except for one guy.

It was hard to be in the middle of that. I couldn’t look at the weekly fan magazines for a long time after that. It’s pretty shocking. It makes things difficult when you are a parent. Uma has tried to raise her kid outside the consciousness of celebrity, which makes it hard when someone is following them with cameras flashing.

Tribeca: What are the challenges of being a regular parent in New York? Or is the movie your answer to that question?

KD: I think I explain it pretty well in the movie. Almost everything that happens in the movie has happened to me. We had an arthritic Corgi who had to be carried up the stairs when I had a kid strapped to me too. We didn’t have a lot of money, because my husband was in graduate school. All those stresses are real.

Tribeca: What advantages do city kids have that kids in the suburbs don't?

KD: We have a house upstate, and my kids are there all summer. I see the kids who are there year-round longing to be in the city—they get bored. NYC kids do not get bored. There are so many stimulating things happening all the time. When kids get older and can take the subway themselves, they have great freedom and access to things that keep kids out of trouble. There are no cars with drunken boys going to the bowling alley. There’s a richness of life here. I personally love not having to drive. The life of a soccer mom seems tantamount to the death of us all. I am very grateful.

Uma said something great last week: if you are a woman who wants to have a career, New York really allows you to do that. You can also sneak off to Film Forum, and maintain some sort of connection to your creative self. It’s more of a struggle to do that someplace else.

Uma Thurman in Motherhood

Tribeca: In the movie Uma Thurman plays a blogger. Did you ever blog?

KD: I never blogged. I never even read a parenting blog until about two weeks ago. I sort of made it up for the script.

When I gave birth the first time, the whole mommy blogosphere didn’t exist. And once the second one comes along, you are not looking for advice all the time. So I missed the wave of it. I think it’s great, though—finding a way not to be silenced by motherhood. Those things matter. There wasn’t really a forum for mothers to feel heard until the online universe opened up. Motherhood can be very isolating, so anything that breaks that up is positive.

Tribeca: What is your favorite moment in the film? Is there one that you find especially true to life?

KD: I love Uma’s dance with the [delivery] messenger, the energy of it. But my favorite scene is with Uma and Tony [Anthony Edwards] in the car [at the end of the film]. I think reason the whole movie exists is to get to that scene. And I cried the whole time I filmed it. Uma and Tony loved the scene when we rehearsed it, and both of them felt so passionately about it. Very rewarding.

Tribeca: As a writer/director, what are the challenges in directing what you wrote? How open are you to changes in the script? (Your last film had another writer; how was this time different?)

KD: I am super open. It’s my journalistic training. I used to write on deadline for the Village Voice in my 20s, so I am accustomed to not being precious to my language. Each sentence should be in service to the whole. My editor used to call me "the ninja" because I’d say, “Cut it.” You have to be willing to sacrifice your words to make the film work.

I always listen to actors, because when you cast them, it’s an act of trust. However, we didn’t change much from the script in this film. Minnie ad-libbed a bit, which was really funny, so we kept it in.

Tribeca: It's the day of your premiere. How are you holding up?

KD: I have a 12-year-old home sick on the day of my premiere. The saga continues.

Read Katherine Dieckmann's blog piece on Huffington Post.

Motherhood opens on Friday, October 23. Get tickets today.

Watch the trailer:



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