Veteran executive producer and consultant Christina Sibul, has a number of credits including Sideways, Station Agent, Lords of Dogtown, 40 Days and 40 Nights, and her personal favorite, Thirteen, directed by Catherine Hardwicke.
Christina has received both wins and nominations at the Oscars, BAFTA, and Golden Globes. Recently, Christina has been at the helm of Butter, a 2022 feature starring Mira Sorvino and Ravi Patel. Christina also served as executive producer on the film Monica, directed by Andreas Pallaoro. The story centers around a woman who returns to her hometown to take care of her ailing mother.
PH: How did you get involved in the film Monica? Tell us a bit about your relationship with the lead filmmakers!
Christina Sibul: I’m lucky that I am approached with strong scripts and projects often, but MONICA truly stood out when I read it, and then sat and spent time with the director and co-writer of the script, Andrea Pallaoro. It is a beautiful and sensitive story of a woman beginning to return to a sense of wholeness, beginning to put back together the many fractured elements of a challenged life. It also showcases a perspective of lived transgender experience that we haven’t seen often in the media – and one that’s deeply important to illuminate. The story has nothing to do with the decision to transition but is about the normal complexities of life that we all experience. It was a beautifully specific story, yet also deeply relatable – Monica returns to a hometown that she felt alienated from, where she was not accepted. And to be honest, many of us have experienced that emotion, even without the specificities of Monica’s situation and traumas.
The project itself was brought to me by one of my producing partners, Karen Tenkhoff, who already knew Andrea, and she knew I would respond to many of the elements not only in the story, but in the package that was already in place for the project. The producers on the project, Andrea Pallaoro (also the co-writer and director), Gina Resnick, Christina Dow and Eleonara Granata had in place already the truly transcendent Trace Lysette, the powerful Patricia Clarkson, and Adriana Barrazza, so all that was needed was to bring the project home – to solidify financing through additional cast and locked in money, as well as some final work and deepening on the script (co-written by Andrea and Orlando Tirado).
PH: Which scene was your favorite in Monica?
Christina Sibul: It’s hard to identify a favorite scene, as I truly think in terms of story and character swaths and progressions. Monica is a story that exists in the subtlety of the filmmaking, in the visual world of gesture and look that goes beyond the words on the page. But some of my favorite moments that truly knit this story together are when Monica falls asleep in her mother’s bed, and in the morning, she slips out to her own room, ostensibly undiscovered by Eugenia, thinking that her need for connection with her mother hasn’t been disclosed.
But then we see Eugenia’s eyes open after Monica has left, and we’re left to wonder if Eugenia has begun to recognize her own child. As a mom, that slays me in a beautiful way. I also love Monica’s moments with Brody towards the end of the film. She passes on a particular memento and some last-minute advice to her nephew as he’s about to step out on stage, re-framing the experience he is about to have in her language, in her terms. Words that may have been helpful to her, support she may have wished she would have had when she was young. It’s a beautiful moment of demonstrating how trauma or challenge can be overcome with empathy, sensitivity, and strength, as Monica provides love, support and understanding to a child who also may need support to stand strong in his differences, and unique personality.
Then where that moment leads, with Monica sitting in the audience watching Brody with pride, alongside her brother and sister-in-law, is emotional and impactful.
PH: Describe this scene and the significance it has to the rest of the film?
Christina Sibul: The significance for both is thematic. In the first, when Monica falls asleep in her mother’s bed, Eugenia doesn’t react, although we see her eyes open awake. It begs the question that even if she has not been told that Monica is her Eddie, does she somehow understand it? Does even the smell of your own child’s skin awaken a maternal response, a maternal reckoning? And even against personal beliefs or perhaps politics, would you soften your heart and let that person in?
The other scene is so desperately important. It’s the passing of the torch of those who don’t fit in, for whatever reason. Paul (Josh Close) says early on about his son to Monica “He reminds me more of you,” to her, and this is the scene where we see Monica take ownership of that statement. How will we walk the next generation through in a less painful way? How can Monica support this child who is different than his peers, and hold him ideologically while he makes his own way in the world?
PH: In the development process, what were the keys to making the film a success both on set and in the final product?
Christina Sibul: When I came on to the project with my producing partner on the movie, Karen Tenkhoff, the script was already in a tremendous place. The project had been initially optioned by Producer Christina Dow and had been nurtured and brought along by producers Gina Resnick and Eleonara Granata. It also had been vetted by author Torrey Peters.
Karen and I both come from backgrounds of developing prestige indie projects, and this script had remarkable bones and depth, truly ready to be the blueprint for filming once cast and financing came together. We did become known as the “mean re-write ladies,” as we tried to truly help Andrea (the writer-director) and the remarkable and deeply talented Orlando Tirado (co-author) simultaneously deepen and specify the work in the script. Development of a script and project (especially these smaller, personal indies) is a group endeavor much of the time, and it is by nature collaborative and not competitive. It’s not that the “best idea wins,” but that many voices and suggestions get heard, and hopefully a truer version of the project begins to emerge, as the suggestions and voices get filtered through the lens of the writers and director. Orlando and Andrea knew the story they wanted to tell, but also gracefully received suggestions of deepening, clarification and tailoring, all the while holding on to their sense of truth of this character and her journey.
Years ago, I had developed another project that Patricia Clarkson had starred in, The Station Agent, and while the writer/director Tom McCarthy and I spoke about and worked through the script many times (as he did with multiple other people), one of the main modes he employed of developing the work was to read it out loud multiple times. I would read the “stage directions” in the script, and if the actors were in the same city with us, we would gather at someone’s home, read the script and discuss it. There were multiple readings and discussions.
But in that process, so many years ago, what we were fundamentally doing was listening to the script -- its story and characters, and we were listening to where it (and they) wanted to go and in many ways the development of that script became about carving the path out through the world – creating space for its characters and story. In many ways, that is the process of development on these smaller, personal movies. There’s a story and a character (or multiple characters) who need to be heard, and how can we carve out the space so that their stories are both clear and profound when an audience receives them. On MONICA, we let ourselves be educated by reactions, reads, and life. Then we listened and filtered those reactions into actionable script notes and thoughts. So, the keys were a great script which was ever evolving, and remarkable casting with dedicated, impassioned actors. By the way, Patricia was a longtime champion of this project and stuck with it on the bumpy and long road to getting it made. My god, that woman is one of the true patron saints of the indie world.
PH: What technical challenges did you or the film encounter as it came together? How did you overcome it?
Christina Sibul: One of the main technical challenges on MONICA was that it was shot mid-pandemic! This was a small and deeply personal movie, so it felt achievable to do during the pandemic, as the cast was small, as was the crew. But one of the aspects we struggled with in getting the film together, looking at initial budgets prior to locking financing on the movie (again a miracle of balance and international mastery by Andrea, Gina Resnick and Eleonara Granata), was to truly figure out what the additional costs were going to be to deal with the notion of physical safety from the virus. We could talk to friends and colleagues about guidance and costs for bigger studio movies and television shows,
but a lot of indie production ground to a halt during the pandemic, because all of the sudden there was more needed – more money, more time, testing, physical distancing and PPE. And the challenge was that the costs of keeping people safe were always shifting, and the guidelines for what was needed or recommended on production were ever evolving as our understanding of the virus shifted. So there was a major production cost on the ground that was very challenging to accurately predict. The most I could do to help was to keep gathering intel, and ultimately to help with a last minute modest financial investment in the movie to help close some of the gaps.
Gina Resnick, the lead producer on the film, truly pulled off a miracle on the ground in Ohio.
PH: Are there any other fun anecdotes from the development of Monica?
Christina Sibul: The process of development, the process of building a package around the movie – the actor attachments, shaking trees for financing, and yes, the script work, is all fun to me. It’s what I love and enjoy, even though it gets to be impassioned and even argumentative at times. And it always takes so much longer than what the filmmaker truly wants. Getting a ‘yes’ from Anna Paquin, who was an early attachment to the film, was exciting and grounded much of our search for cast and financing. She fell away from the project ultimately for life reasons, being a mom to a young family and having just moved to the UK, but sometimes an actor of that stature helps move a project forward even if they don’t wind up doing it – especially in the indie world! Gina and our casting director Emily Schweber, promptly got Emily Browning to step in (opposite the truly remarkable Josh Close), and sometimes films ultimately come together in the way they should – Emily and Josh bring a lovely, authentically struggling, groundedness to the film. In a sense the Universe provides, but in the indie world you sometimes have to fight and juggle for it. Anna’s attachment did so much to move the movie forward, but ultimately the role found its way to who was meant to play it. Anna should have a special thanks on the film!
PH: What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
Christina Sibul: I think this is such an important story about a woman beginning to put the pieces of her fractured self, back together. It’s about the courage to return to your hometown and your family that perhaps hurt you deeply by not seeing, understanding, or accepting the truth of who you are, and I find that story deeply moving and relatable. Many times, people describe themselves as ‘escaping’ their hometown or even their families to release them into growing and developing into their truest sense of self – they need to escape the prescribed notion of who our parents want us to be, limited acceptance of difference within our communities, etc. But then we also need our families, many times we need to return to our roots to feel whole. So there is a deeply specific story being told in this film – Monica’s story and journey, but there’s also one that has the potential to be broadly resonant. It is also a look at the experience of a transgender woman’s life that is necessary and important. It’s not a story about the decision or process to transition, but the deeply human life post transition. And it’s time that we see these stories of transgender individuals simply as humans on a journey. By the way, Trace is transcendent in the role. Truly.
PH: What is next for you?
Christina Sibul: I am lucky – I have so much good work directly in my path with collaborators I love, and stories in film and television that I find potentially deeply resonant. I’m not exactly sure what will be next to shoot – to be honest it feels like a miracle sometimes when an indie film or a long gestating television project up and goes – but I hope to be actively producing on set in the spring, and have lots of consulting gigs up and going in the months ahead. I recently also took on a teaching gig at CSU Northridge’s Mike Curb College of Cinema and Television, the only HSI that’s also a top twenty film school. I have the honor of teaching entertainment business, producing and development classes, and the students, their stories and their drive inspires me every single day. What’s next is to remain inspired. By the work, by my students, and by life.