Killing Eleanor is not a movie for everyone, but it will affect anyone who watches it. The independent film is the brainchild of actress Annika Marks, who not only starred in the project but also wrote and produced it, assembling an all-star cast to bring it to life.
As the title indicates, the movie centers on Eleanor (Jenny O’Hara), who comes to Natalie (played by Marks) with a request to help end her life. Though Natalie says no at first, circumstances prompt her to change her mind, and the two are soon going on an emotional journey together.
I spoke with Annika and Betsy Brandt, who plays Natalie’s sister Anya, about where the film came from and the process of making it. Here’s what they had to say about the experience and the subject matter.
Brittany Frederick: Annika, how did you come up with the original concept for Killing Eleanor?
Annika Marks: The ides started actually when I was 21 years old and I was living in New York, subletting an apartment from an older woman who went to Florida for the winters. She was kind of kooky and she had a handwritten lease for the six months that I was to be living there on a yellow legal pad. Right before I signed it, she said unless you want to agree to help kill me when I’m ready to go, you would basically have the place for free.
I did not take her up on that offer. I signed the lease and I paid her, but that exchange definitely planted something in my head. I feel like ever since then, I’ve had this thought that there was something worth worrying about. Somebody at the end of their life looking for a way to go that kept them with agency over the end of their life. Within two years of that, my grandfather was dying of a degenerative disease that killed him very slowly, so that theme was just on my mind. Then I met Jenny O’Hara, who is a tremendous actor; if I could figure out how to write this role, I could finally see it.
The other element of it is it’s really about addiction. As I was learning about it, I found this theme coming back to me about how you can be alive, but not really living. I thought oh, this is the same thought I was having about that old lady all those years ago. Maybe there’s two characters in this that go on this journey about death and rebirth. That’s really how the idea formulated over many, many, many years.
Then I met my husband Rich Newey, who directed the film. That was kind of the final piece, because he loved the idea. And just gauging the encouragement and validation around that, I needed to sit down and finally write it. Then we managed to make it together.
BF: Betsy, how did you come aboard the film? Was there a particular hook for you?
Betsy Brandt: I had seen Annika in a play and was kind of mesmerized with her work. That was exciting, because we love to work with people that inspire us. Then I felt the script was fantastic; I haven’t read anything like that. It just felt like the right thing to do. In that group, I knew a few people that were already involved and these were definitely people that I wanted to work with and tell this story. I thought absolutely, I’ll join up with you guys.
BF: It’s different for actors to work in projects that they’ve written, and also sometimes for other actors to be opposite someone who’s both a co-star and the writer. How did that work out on Killing Eleanor?
AM: I’ll say from my perspective, I feel really lucky in that I really trusted the group of people that came together to make the film. Every single one of them. Everybody behind the camera and in front of the camera brought so much of themselves to it.
I was really worried about what might be able to turn that part of my brain off and just do the work we need to do as actors, where we can just let ourselves live moment to moment and try to stay in it and not outside of it. I had been concerned about that leading up to actually getting on set. By the time we got there, I found that I had so much trust in the people around me that it just felt like such a luxury to let go and finally get to just live inside of these [things] that had been in my head forever. I was surrounded by talent that was just so inspiring. It was really a total joy.
The other piece of it that I have sort of carried with me ever since is that I knew the circumstances inside and out in a way that I think you’d always hoped for as an actor. We work really hard to give ourselves that knowledge base so that we can think like the person we’re playing…I’ve been living with these characters and this character Natalie, in particular, for so many years that I found it was really effortless to think like her, and that felt like a luxury as well. I got to live this project from all these different perspectives, and every one of them was as enjoyable as every other one of them.
BB: I love having a writer on the set. It almost unnerves me when they’re not there. That felt like a luxury to me. I have to tell you, and I’m sure this is not the case with every actor who’s also written a project or is involved in any other way, when we were doing the scene, all I saw was Annika playing Natalie. I wouldn’t forget while we we were doing the work that she had written it and had all these other [jobs]…I had one job. I was a one-trick pony on this show, but I kind of imagined what it would be like, and I thought it was going to be really great, and it was even better than I thought it would be.
BF: Killing Eleanor deals with some serious topics, but heavy drama often doesn’t mean a heavy set. What was the filming experience like?
AM: We’re talking about end of life as a victim, but none of us approached it like it was heavy. I didn’t approach it that way writing it. Rich didn’t approach it that way directing it. I don’t think he was focused that way on set. My take is that you survive with levity. I tend not to think about the material as comedy or drama, because I think the good stuff is always a hybrid. It’s always both because that is what life is like. Life is heavy. Life is complicated, and we survive it by finding the humor in it.
I think this is a great example of a group of people that were ready to really honor the material. We’re not afraid of going there. Nobody was resisting the weight of the material at all. Yet we had a group of people coming together with so much joy, so much love that it didn’t feel torturous at all on set. My hope is that it doesn’t feel that way watching it either. That it allows you to look at a subject that maybe you shy away from, and that it actually feels in some ways uplifting because like it or not, these are things that affect everybody.
BB: I didn’t have to worry about all the things that Annika did, so I had an absolute blast. Thomas Sadoski and I were both shooting Life in Pieces back in L.A. [and] we had to get out of our schedules to be able to be there. Like get there physically, because we shot in Chicago. All I had to do was make sure I was there, do the work, have a great time, and then get back home to my day job.
AM: My primary concern was casting actors who would bring the love that’s underneath all of it. Every single one of them. But I look at Betsy’s work, and I look at Jane [Kaczmarek’s] work, and I think that’s what’s so [great] about it is that they went all the way there. We feel that love is motivating all of it and that we didn’t have to address that in the dialogue. We didn’t have to compensate for what it was for. It was just there. That’s when you know you have the right actors.
I do feel like it might never happen again, where every single actor that I had imagined in every one of these roles ended up being the actor playing that role. That is honestly what happened in this case. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
BB: How do you get from an idea to a movie?
AM: Lots of people have really great ideas. I’ve read so many countless scripts that I think are absolutely brilliant, that never get made and are waiting for some champion to come along and discover them, and bring them to fruition. I think the point that I got to is the point where I understood that I had to be that person for myself. I guess what I hope that anybody who’s in that situation would take from this, is just that it is possible.
Some of it is tedious and monotonous, and some of it is absolutely exhausting. You make huge mistakes when you’re teaching yourself how to do things that you didn’t go to school for, but it’s not impossible. It just takes the commitment to do it. I woke up one day and said to my husband, who became my partner in making this film, I’m going to do one thing every single day. No matter what, I’m going to do one thing every single day. Put one foot in front of the other to kind of make this film happen. If it never happens, at least I’ll know that I tried. I’m just doing one thing a day.
One thing a day adds up. Within two months of having made that commitment to myself and to the project, we had our financing. It was a real lesson in your ability to manifest things, not by just by thinking positively, but by putting that intention into action.
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.