Shortly after independant writer-director Coley Sohn learned that her first short film, Boutonniere, had been accepted for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, a filmmaking friend of hers warned her: People will want to know what's next.
With that in mind, Sohn began work on a feature-length idea about a mascot, based on her brief stint dressing as Disney characters at Disneyland. But as she worked on the project, she found that the characters of her initial short film -- the frustrated teen, Bethany Pruitt, and her overprotective mother, June -- wouldn't go away.
"I never thought there was a feature there," Sohn says by phone from Los Angeles. And yet, by the time Sundance arrived, she had already completed a first draft of what would become Sassy Pants, her debut feature, which screens this Thursday at the Studio Movie Grill at Spring Valley.
Like Boutonniere, Sassy Pants features Bethany and June, though this time they are played by Ashley Rickards (MTV's Awkward) and Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) instead of the original duo of Sara Swain (13 Going on 30) and Wendi McLendon Covey (Bridesmaids). She also added two other central characters: Bethany's gay dad, Dale, played Diedrich Bader, and his much younger boyfriend, Chip, played by Haley Joel Osment.
Sassy Pants started as a project of Big Beach, the production company behind indie titles like Little Miss Sunshine, Away We Go and Safety Not Guaranteed, but funding fell through five drafts into the script. That left Sohn and her producer, Adam Wilkins, to look for help from friends, family and wherever else they could find it. Some of that help came from Cinelicious, a post-production company in Santa Monica.
The film already received a short release in New York last year. Stephen Holden, writing favorably in The New York Times, compared the movie to something by John Waters, director of Hairspray (1988) and Pink Flamingos (1972). That's a comparison Sohn is comfortable with.
"I aspire to be part John Waters and part John Hughes," Sohn says, citing Todd Solondz, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell and Wes Anderson as other influences on her work.
Describing Sassy Pants and how it differs from its source material, Sohn says: "Both are a heightened sense of reality that I'm asking the audience to buy into," adding that Boutonniere is even more heightened than the full-length film, almost like a fable. Which, Sohn is quick to add, doesn't mean that Sassy Pants is formulaic or watered-down. It's just balanced between being off-beat and following a traditional narrative structure.
Sohn says the idea of casting Haley Joel Osment, the child star of The Sixth Sense and A.I., came to her instantly when asked who she wanted for the part of Chip. She needed someone who could embody the character's physical compactness, and his bubbly and effusive nature. It only took one line reading to convince her that her instinct was right. Plus, she liked the idea of audiences seeing him in her movie and saying, "Where's he been? What's he been up to?"
"What a great reintroduction," she says.
The differences between Osment then and now are striking. People who remember him as a wide-eyed young boy peeking over his blankets in The Sixth Sense will be shocked to see the barrel-chested young man with his blond hair swept forward and to the side, Adam Lambert-style.
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Anna Gunn, whom most will know from her role as Skyler White on AMC's Breaking Bad, was looking for a comedy role. She and Sohn clicked immediately, so much so that they're currently developing an idea for a TV series together.
But that's not all Sohn has on her plate right now. There's also a completed pilot looking for a home and a new feature-length script, called Dodie and Cheryl Get Hitched, that she hopes will start shooting later this year. Like Sassy Pants, Dodie and Cheryl features gay characters, but Sohn, who is gay herself, is concerned first and foremost with telling a good story that captures the audience's attention and entertains.
"I don't think of it as a gay film," she says, speaking specifically of Sassy Pants, though she notes that it has been widely accepted by gay audiences, despite initial fears of how the gay characters in it might be perceived. "You can't please everyone."
Thursday night's screening is presented by Women in Film Dallas. Sohn will be on hand for a special Q&A afterward.