Ella Gets a Promotion?
Written by: Mike Pusateri
Directed by: Richard Diaz & Mike Pusateri
Principal Cast: Erin Breen, Jennifer Cudahy
Synopsis: Ella, a talented and loyal employee, finally gets the promotion she deserves. Or does she? A humorous look at duplicitous behavior in today's corporate America.
In a film of this type, some filmmakers might have cast the boss as a man. But here the boss is an older woman. What was the thinking here?
I wanted these two characters to be good friends and to explore how their relationship changes once the power between them is altered. They go from a colleague and friend relationship to a boss and subordinate relationship. When that dynamic changes it naturally changes the power balance between the two of them. That sort of thing is fascinating to me. The only way that dynamic works in the way I wanted to explore it is if this relationship is between two women. If one of the characters was a man, or both characters were men, it wouldn't give me the dynamic I was seeking, and I feel like we'd end up exploring less original themes.
Whenever there is a shift in power between people it reveals things about each of the characters and their character. When ELLA and JILL first come together in the conference room we can see that they are friends and they genuinely like each other. Yet, before ELLA goes in to meet with JILL, something is already off. ELLA is frustrated. She's already seen some changes in her relationship with JILL now that the power has shifted, and she's uneasy about it. But she's professional enough to know she has to put that aside to get what she wants, but it still percolates inside of her. JILL isn't burdened in the same way. Since she's now the boss, she can do as she pleases. She got the big promotion and the fancy new office. JILL is on top of the world. So now that things are going great for her, will she treat her good friend ELLA with grace or duplicity? That's the journey I wanted to take these characters on.
It was also important to me that we showcase two strong female actresses in this film and let them run with it. And as the audience will see, they killed it!
Everyone's sense of humor is slightly different. What's the secret to making a comedy with appeals to a wide audience?
I think if you can bring a cultural situation to light that everyone can relate to on a subconscious level, and skewer it, that's what really makes people laugh. The Seinfeld riff on airline food is a classic example. When he riffs on it, we all think it's hilarious, but until he does it we don't even realize it's there. I think that's how the best comedy works.
And I think the humor in ELLA works much the same way. Anybody who works in corporate America has either had something like this happen to them or seen something like this happen to somebody else. If not this exact scenario, something equally as absurd. It's just what goes on in Cubicle World. So as we bring this situation to light, the absurdity of the situation feels familiar to the audience, and it brings a smile to their face.
It's interesting, everyone I've shown the film to relates to this story even if they haven't worked in corporate America. I've shown it to friends in their early 20s who have never really had a job and even they get the humor. Which frankly surprised me. But I guess duplicity is sort of a ubiquitous behavior that comes up in many relationships and situations. And I think that's why people empathize with ELLA and can laugh at what's going on. They themselves have seen this or experienced something similar in one form or another.
Is there a personal experience that's brought to bear?
Ha! Well yes, sort of. It's loosely based on something that happened to my wife years ago. But I've spent many years in the corporate world and it's also very much an amalgam of many things I've seen over the years. That's all part of what makes the story so relatable. Plus, we had to poke a little fun at Human Resources too, because so much absurdity tends to emanate from that department.
Generally speaking, corporate America isn't something that gets a lot of attention in the entertainment world. Guys like Ricky Gervais and Mike Judge are two of the absolute greats and they do it brilliantly. But it's not an area that's explored often enough. I suppose corporate America isn't just not that sexy of a topic, and I feel like the stories of those who live in Cubicle World are underrepresented. Which I think is a shame. There are tens of millions of Americans working in corporate America and they experience very real drama every single day. As filmmakers, we owe it to those folks to explore their stories more than we have.
Tell us about the casting process and how you found these two wonderful actresses.
You're right about that, they're both wonderful!
In terms of casting, it was the easiest process ever. I wrote the story with Erin Breen in mind to play ELLA. Erin and I met on the set of an indie film called "Normal" about six years ago, and we've remained close friends even when she moved out to LA. So I knew she'd be perfect for ELLA. As soon as I finished the script I called her, told her about the project, and emailed her the script. Literally 10 minutes later she called me and said "I'm in!"
I had a harder time casting JILL because her character has so much going on underneath. At heart, she really lacks a lot of confidence and that's why she's threatened by ELLA. But she's not evil, not at all. She's a good person and she and ELLA have this prior relationship of being really close friends. And JILL is smart, she's good at what she does. But also, by the time the audience meets her, JILL is all about JILL.
And there's this underlying arrogance about JILL, which requires a lot of texture to bring that out as an actor. As she tells ELLA about her "promotion," she is legitimately happy and excited for her. Because on some level she assumes ELLA will be happy and just go right along with it, or at least won't cause her any static. That's the arrogant part. But on another level, JILL is certainly aware that she's actually screwing her friend over. She's very uncomfortable, and she starts making excuses why she has to leave their meeting right after she gives Ella her "promotion." So I knew whoever I cast as JILL would have to bring out all of these subtleties. Not an easy task and for the longest time, I couldn't find my JILL.
Jennifer and I have also known each for years and we were having coffee with a mutual friend of ours one day and it just hit me. She's my JILL! I told her about the film, sent her the script and she climbed aboard immediately.
Erin and Jennifer happen to have extensive experience working in the corporate world so I knew they'd know how to bring authenticity to this situation. And they're both the sweetest and nicest people. So it was particularly delicious to watch Jennifer transform into this sort of smiling assassin who is JILL.
There are only the two actresses in this film. As a director, how do you enhance the dynamic between them?
Trust. It's always about trust first and foremost. If the actors trust in the script, the story, and you as the director trust them, you can achieve something that's great.
The other thing we wanted to do was increase the urgency between the two characters so we shot ELLA all in one very long night. I think that gives the actors, and all of us really, that sense of being on a tightrope. We didn't have the luxury of coming back the next day and reshooting something. It's kind of like when Cortes destroyed his ships when he arrived in the New World; you either succeed or die trying. Having that sort of pressure brought out this wonderful energy in everyone and helped give us that great dynamic you see in the film.
But you have to pair that pressure with an environment built on trust in order for the performances to really sing. I think we succeeded in striking that balance.
What does this film say about the state of work and the corporate environment?
Well, it's interesting because, and not to get political, but we've seen presidential candidates in both parties talk about the system being unfair. I think maybe we've tapped into that sensibility a little bit with ELLA. Here we see a boss trying to put one over on her subordinate and believing she has every reason that she'll get away with it.
And frankly, why wouldn't she? Having spent many years in corporate America myself, I know the feeling. Someone in ELLA's position can feel like she has no other options. You feel like you are powerless at times, and the system can work against you. You see people less talented getting promoted, while others, who seem more deserving, get left behind.
I think there's a strain of that going through corporate America specifically and the American public in general. There's no doubt that many people in today's corporate America really do feel powerless and with good reason. If they are getting screwed over in some way, really what options do they have?
Quit? Can't do that. That's not responsible. How do you pay your bills? How do you feed your family? How do you get another job? How do you tell a potential new employer you left your old job because you were being treated like crap? New employers don't want to hear that.
So there's this nauseating feeling of being trapped, being stuck, and being powerless. And it's a very real feeling. That's the situation ELLA finds herself in.