In the Director’s Chair

Susanna Fogel ’02 makes a summer blockbuster her way.

Photo of Susanna Fogel

Susanna Fogel ’02 flanked by Kate McKinnon ’06 (left) and Mila Kunis on set.

Hopper Stone / SMPSP

It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday at the Café Tropical in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles. Susanna Fogel ’02 sits in the same off-beat bohemian Cuban coffee shop that’s seen her through hundreds of script-writing sessions, along with the creative highs (scripts sold) and lows (but never produced) that characterized much of her early career.

This time is different, though. Fogel hasn’t brought her laptop. She’s wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a watermelon on it, and she’s just here to get her favorite café con leche before going roller skating. Why not enjoy the day when you’ve just directed one of the summer’s most anticipated movies?

Photo of Susanna Fogel and Justin Theroux

Fogel with Justin Theroux, who also stars in the film, on set.

Attila Szvacsek

That movie is The Spy Who Dumped Me, starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon ’06, and set for release August 3. Fogel, who also co-wrote the film, describes the plot as “Broad City meets Bourne” — an action comedy that follows two friends as they stumble unwittingly into an international conspiracy. Producers are hoping it’ll be this year’s Trainwreck or Girls Trip, which — if you missed them — were R-rated, female-driven summer comedy hits.

In many ways, The Spy Who Dumped Me is a quintessential Fogel production. Relationships figure prominently in much of her work, dating back to her first short film, For Real, which was about three teenage girls who purport to be best friends, but talk trash and conspire against each other whenever one of them leaves the room; the film landed a spot in the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival when Fogel was just 14. More recently, her big-screen directorial debut, 2014’s Life Partners, was loosely based on her real-life relationship with close friend and writing partner Joni Lefkowitz.

“There are so many relationships that matter in our lives that aren’t just romantic. And it’s become important for me to show those,” Fogel says. “That is, to me, more universal these days than finding people who are happily married. One thing that every woman I know has is a best friend, and I’m more interested in those relationships than the fairytale about meeting the perfect guy.”

Fogel’s road to the big screen started in Providence, R.I., where her parents were both on the faculty at Brown. Her father, Dr. Barry Fogel, is a neuropsychiatrist and professor and her mother, Margaret Selkin Fogel Ph. D. BC’68, is a psychologist. Fogel spent the summer before her senior year at the College as a researcher for screenwriter James Schamus while he produced and wrote the Ang Lee-directed Hulk. (She recalls reading Core books in Butler to help connect western philosophy with Lee’s eastern philosophical roots.) She also helmed the Varsity Show in 2001, a “life-defining” experience that she says helped her to enjoy the collaborative production process.

Photo from the movie "The Spy Who Dumped Me"

McKinnon as “Morgan” and Kunis as “Audrey.”

Hopper Stone / SMPSP

Fogel moved to Los Angeles the day of her graduation. She held a series of “demeaning temp jobs” and wrote scripts virtually every night, often with Lefkowitz, whom she befriended at a writing class shortly after the move. By 2006, the pair had a manager who helped get several of their scripts purchased. It was the beginning of a string of nearly a dozen almost-produced projects, including a few with big names attached (Evan Rachel Wood, Sigourney Weaver, Sarah Jessica Parker).

For a while, supporting herself as a writer created an illusion of success, Fogel says. “But if you’re a filmmaker who really wants to see things come together, it starts to gnaw at your soul that you write these things and then a studio owns them. The whims of their business dictate whether your movie gets made.”

Then came Life Partners; before it was a movie, it was a one-act play that she and Lefkowitz wrote “just because we were sick of not getting to do anything.” “We were like, ‘We just have to get a theater, and then we’re gonna do it ourselves.’ I have noticed that every time I’ve done that, it has led to great things. Every time you get to rock bottom and have nothing to lose, you make an investment of time that feels like it makes no sense, but you pour your heart into it. That always gets me further than the more prescribed things that are supposed to advance your career.”

The Spy Who Dumped Me came on the heels of a similar rock-bottom moment, when another script was sold only to languish in a company’s vault. “I felt really powerless and frustrated, and the whole system felt really broken to me. My friend David [Iserson] was also feeling that way about his writing and producing career,” Fogel says. “We decided to write an action movie with women. It started as somewhat of a cynical exercise of, ‘Well, we’re not going to make our little heartfelt movies; we’re going to write a big movie with car chases.’”

“There are so many relationships that matter in our lives that aren’t just romantic. And it’s become important for me to show those.”

Along the way, they became attached. “Because we had just written it in this burst of inspiration, we felt empowered and energized by that, and decided that only we were going to make it happen. We weren’t going to sell it. We were only going to partner with somebody who basically committed to making it, which is approaching deal making from a position of power that we maybe didn’t have any right to have, and had never exercised before.”

Fogel ultimately connected with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer from Imagine Entertainment, and earned distribution by Lionsgate. She signed up editor Jonathan Schwartz ’03 and landed Saturday Night Live star McKinnon, who’d had a small role in Life Partners.

“Susanna is so many things that make a great director,” McKinnon says. “She is blisteringly smart and funny. She has such a clear vision about tone, and she is guided by a strong personal mission about what she wants to express. … I think she’s going to emerge as a really important voice in film.”

Fogel is mindful that her voice is one of a small cohort. Despite the success of films like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman or Greta Gerwig BC’06’s Lady Bird, only two of the nearly 50 films scheduled for wide release this summer are directed by women. Fogel offers a nuanced take on how gender might have influenced her career and ability to get pictures produced.

“In some ways, it’s not as simple as just not being given the opportunity. I also think that it’s a chicken-and-egg thing where the skepticism I was met with 10 years ago trying to do this job led to me having insecurities, that led to me not presenting myself as competent, which led to me not getting jobs,” Fogel says. “So it’s much about how the gendered stuff that we deal with our whole lives affects our confidence level, and then, how that confidence level affects our hireability.

“Walking into Lionsgate in a really confident way, and then directing the movie with confidence, I did not feel aware of gender bias on the set of the movie at all. I never felt like these action guys treated me differently. And I wonder if five years before, I just wouldn’t have projected that. So I might’ve gotten more pushback about directing the movie then.”

For Fogel, that confidence has put her in a position to make more films that differ from traditional rom-coms.

“When I was little, I was so far from having those issues in my own life that I didn’t notice how narrowly they defined happiness for a woman. And now that I’m well into my 30s, and my life and my friends’ lives look so different from those traditional romantic comedies, I think what I want is just more representation of different kinds of stories for women in general,” Fogel says. “I don’t think it’s anti-feminist to make a movie about a woman who wants to get married and have babies. There should just be enough other movies about other types of women so they’re not saying that’s the one model that we have. We just need to have enough voices and stories, really.”