Set against the underground music and avant-garde art scene in New York, Margarita Happy Hour focuses on the lives of five disreputable women who meet in the afternoon to drink and compare notes on love, sex, and motherhood. For the lead character Zelda, life has become an endless circle of loud parties, dirty diapers, and dead-end jobs, forcing her to choose between the fading dreams of her youth and the uncertainty that comes with forging a new path.
Margarita Happy Hour is the debut feature film of Brooklyn filmmaker Ilya Chaiken. A partially reformed party girl and single mom, Chaiken recently sat down with the Brooklyn Rail over a few pints at Iona in Williamsburg.
Joe Maggio (Rail): So, we’ve got our beers and smokes. I suppose we should begin at the beginning. How’d you come up with the film’s title?
Ilya Chaiken: The title refers to the meeting I used to have with a few other young single moms I knew, who were the original inspiration for the script. I mean it was like all of a sudden we had this new, totally overwhelming responsibility to our babies, but we were unwilling to give up a chance to hang out and toss back a few drinks. We really needed an outlet, and the closest we could get was $2 margaritas at Eloras in the middle of the day. I thought it was a funny scenario, a bunch of tattooed mothers racing against the happy hour clock to get in their party fix.
Rail: One of my favorite scenes is where Zelda and her mom-friends literally see a vision of themselves from three years earlier. It’s a deeply affecting moment, full of regrets and bitterness, but also humor.
Chaiken: The idea for me is that they barely recognize themselves. There’s a vague glimmer of recognition, like doing a double-take at someone you think you may have met before. But we’re butting across these walls of time and space, and Zelda is inhabiting such a different world on either side of the wall. I mean, she’s in the same location and her face is the same, but mentally and spiritually she doesn’t realize she’s looking at herself.
Rail: You’re careful to avoid being judgmental of your characters, even seemingly unredeemable ones like Zelda’s deadbeat husband Max.
Chaiken: I think it’s important to have the audience be an active participant in the narrative, because those are the kinds of films I like. Sure, Max could’ve easily been drawn as a typical deadbeat loser dad. But a lot of people relate and even sympathize with his character, because even though he fucks up a lot, he’s also struggling to make sense of a new set of circumstances that he never imagined he would be in. And between him and Zelda, I wanted to touch upon the very politically charged issue of “choice” and yet deal with it in a less overt, heavy-handed way. Because the reality is, it is not a black and white issue; it’s very personal and complicated. There are multiple layers of questions, having to do with control, or lack thereof. A woman faced with the issue of choice is not only facing her own destiny, but is suddenly given control over a few other lives as well. It’s sort of a mindfuck. And it can feed off itself in an unhealthy way.
Rail: There’s not a single moment in the film where I feel I’m looking at make-believe characters inhabiting an artificial world. How were you able to maintain such a high degree of authenticity on such a low budget?
Chaiken: Well we went into production knowing that authenticity was going to be our primary asset. We recruited real New York characters, musicians, artists, lots of downtown performers, with the help of our casting director David Leslie. We also used mostly pre-existing locations, all in Brooklyn. We were able to recruit support and talent out of sheer enthusiasm for the script and the guerilla spirit of the shoot. For example, we did a party scene at the Rubulad in Williamsburg, which incorporated a bit of design and artwork of the local artists working in that space. Also, the music—we were able to use a lot of great New York bands: Fly Ashtray, Autobody, Lunachicks, Fur.
Rail: How did you handle the casting?
Chaiken: Larry Fessenden was our first on board, because our producer Micheal Ellenbogen had worked with him distributing his film Habit. He thought he’d be perfect to play Max. Finding the perfect female lead was the biggest triumph, though, because I was looking for someone who was sexy and earthy and strong and sort of understated all at once. She would have to be compelling enough to hold the screen because a lot of Zelda’s character is described by the way she observes and perceives things, rather than by her actions. We got Eleanor Hutchins’s headshot in the mail, and I just fell in love with it. Very tough but pretty, with that sexy gap in her teeth. And when we called her in, she actually really looked like her headshot, which is normally not the case. And finding Holly Ramos to play Natali, the recovering drug addict, was a big coup, or rather, it was some kind of act of God. I had been writing that character for years and years; she kept resurfacing in carious scripts. She was based on several different people I had known, but when I originally wrote her, I would visualize this girl I had seen performing years ago in this band called Fur. I didn’t know it at the time, but that girl was Holly. And here it is, like seven years later, and Holly walks in to read for the part. I felt like Zero Mostel in The Producers when they audition Lorenzo St. DuBois: “That’s our Hitler!”
Rail: Getting an independent film financed and completed is a major accomplishment. You’re also a single mother.
Chaiken: Just one gigantic wall after another, right, being a struggling artist, trying to support my kid, and then trying to get anyone interested in a so-called “chick flick.” It was a big struggle, and still is. But the people that I was lucky enough to work with, my producers Susan Leber and Michael, and the amazing cast and crew—collectively everyone helped pull it together. The film business is full of sharks and assholes, but if you look hard enough you’ll also discover real, solid, down-to-earth people. I was extremely lucky in that I was able to surround myself with good people. We’ve been stuck together on this project for like three years now. It’s become a big Margarita Happy Hour dysfunctional family.
Rail: What about distribution?
Chaiken: It was frustrating to accomplish these seemingly insurmountable things, not just making the movie on a tiny budget, but getting into major festivals like Sundance and Toronto, and getting these glowing reviews, only to be told time and time again by distributors that they wouldn’t know what to do with this movie. It’s the typical thing: “We love the film, we just don’t know how to market it.” Basically what they mean is, we can’t squeeze this movie into some pre-ordained category. We’re not sure who the “target audience” is. One thing I’m always happily surprised about is how really unpredictable it is who responds to the film. All kinds of folks are able to relate to it, men and women of various ages, even though it takes place in a very specific environment with characters who may be living a fringe lifestyle. The themes that are addressed are universal. Our very first screening at Sundance was at a multiplex in Salt Lake City where we sold out and spilled over into a second theater and had to do a double projection. These were not industry people, these were like real Utah Mormons. And I thought, Oh my God, we’re screwed. We’re like these disgusting sordid New York weirdoes on raw display but they were totally riveted. And a lot of folks came up to us afterwards, young couples with babies, old folks—they were telling us how real it was. They really appreciated it. Anyway, the point is, there’s no easy way to market this movie, besides getting people drunk on tequila. Which we’ve been doing.