Tatiana von Furstenberg met Francesca Gregorini, her co-director on the new film Tanner Hall, at Brown, but she knew about her long before that. “I was still in boarding school,” said the alumna of England’s Cranborne Chase School and daughter of designer Diane von Furstenberg, “and Interview magazine did a piece on interesting people who went to Brown University. At that moment, it was incredibly hard to get into … [Francesca] was on the cover of the piece and she looked so hot, and she looked so glamorous, and my friend brought it into my room, where I was—you know—braces, Afro, and she was like, ‘Good luck, loser. You’re going to have the hardest time at Brown.’”
What drew the pair to one another, once she arrived there? Ms. Gregorini couldn’t say. “The wavy hair?”
“She was unapproachable at Brown,” said Ms. von Furstenberg. “She had a vintage Porsche and a motorcycle and she was super cool.”
The Observer met the pair at an Upper East Side luncheonette to discuss Tanner Hall, which they shot together in Providence (“I was discovering Rhode Island for the first time!” said Ms. von Furstenberg).
“We’ve been the best of friends, the best, best,” said Ms. Gregorini. Each of the pair, if not finishing one another’s sentences, tends to jump into conversation the very moment the other has finished speaking.
“I felt kind of maternal to her,” Ms. Furstenberg returned. “I knew she did wheelies in the snow. When I saw her motorcycle at a class, I was relieved she’d made it to class on time.”
“I don’t know if it’s a past-life thing, but we were really drawn to each other,” Ms. Gregorini said. “It was only after Brown that our friendship sort of—”
Ms. von Furstenberg: “We’ve had similar lives. We had Italian dads, we have Italian as a language that we share. Similar childhoods, similar experiences.”
Ms. Gregorini: “Glamorous mothers.”
Ms. von Furstenberg: “Once we did approach one another, it was soul-mate material. It’s a done deal. Family.”
The pair wear their lineages lightly: Ms. von Furstenberg (full name Tatiana Desiree Prinzessin von Furstenberg) is the heiress of her legendary mother’s former husband, the European noble Egon von Furstenberg. Ms. Gregorini (full name Countess Francesca McKnight Donatella Romana Gregorini di Savignano di Romagna) is the daughter of Barbara Bach (Bond girl in The Spy Who Loved Me) and Augusto Gregorini and stepdaughter of Ringo Starr. Both have made headlines of a decidedly minor fashion in the past (Ms. von Furstenberg once spoke to this newspaper about outfitting her then-8-year-old daughter in a custom-made D.V.F. wrap dress; Ms. Gregorini, a sometime pop singer, was, at least per tabloids, Portia de Rossi’s fiancée before the TV star met Ellen DeGeneres), as well as art on a similar scale (they’ve collaborated on short films) but Tanner Hall represents an artistic coming-out party.
What made the pair decide that directing a feature-length film would be a manageable project? “Francesca and I are not first-time homeowners,” said Ms. von Furstenberg. “We bought in Silverlake a long time ago, so even, like, when you’re overseeing an enormous project or a construction project—it was super useful.” Ms. Gregorini said her favorite female filmmakers are Jane Campion and Lynne Ramsay. “It’s hard to get a break and get your foot in the door.”
Both will mention their glamorous mothers, in a shrugging-off fashion surely learned at boarding school and Brown, but Ms. von Furstenberg’s more interested in talking about her own daughter. “Trust me, I have an 11 year old, and it gets desperate at this point,” she told The Observer, of constructing summer-vacation activities. Ms. von Furstenberg dug into a mayonnaisey shrimp salad, while Ms. Gregorini tore her tuna melt into geometric shapes.
The two now reside in Los Angeles, where they conceived of Tanner Hall in marathon screenwriting sessions. Said Ms. Gregorini: “Our friends called us the writers on bed rest. Tatiana has a ridiculously huge bed, and I’d come over in the mornings and get into bed with her and the computer.”
Ms. von Furstenberg cut in: “And dogs everywhere.”
Ms. Gregorini: “—And friends would come over, and we’d do what we do anyway, just talk to each other endlessly, and tell tall tales—”
Ms. von Furstenberg: “Walk the dogs, bang out the beats! Come back to bed, write them out. On loop. Walk the dogs, bang out the beats!”
Ms. Gregorini: “The only difference is that we were writing it out.”
How long did it take, The Observer wondered? A year? No, just a few months, said Ms. Gregorini: “I don’t think we would have survived as writers on bed rest.”
Her co-writer cut in again. “We would have atrophied.”
Befitting the pair’s past jet-setting as well as certain earthy peculiarities of boarding-school life, the tall tales that make up Tanner Hall take place in a school untrammeled by space and time. The aesthetic—all tweeds, embroidered curtains, and white-enameled-brick bathrooms—follows suit. Said Ms. von Furstenberg: “You don’t know where it is. It’s in America, but we tried to make it anywhere.”
“It could be England,” said Ms. Gregorini. “It could be—anywhere in Europe.”
“And it could be at any time!” continued Ms. von Furstenberg. “We intentionally put furniture and wardrobe from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s—because that’s what boarding schools look like! They have a frugality, a resourcefulness.”
The film follows a character, played by Rooney Mara of The Social Network and the forthcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, whose senior year at the boarding school Tanner Hall is derailed by the arrival of a seductive interloper, her childhood friend. There’s as much jealousy here as in Black Swan or All About Eve, and it’s compounded by the pressures of living together and the periodic interferences of a pair of house parents played by Chris Kattan and Amy Sedaris. The two directors both worked with the actors, who were, at the time of filming (excepting Mr. Kattan and Ms. Sedaris), young and untested women. The film was first shown in 2009, then shelved until this year’s studio release on the back of Ms. Mara’s burgeoning fame.
“I think it was a real benefit to be female filmmakers,” said Ms. Gregorini. “There was a level of trust there that the actresses were willing to go there with us. We’ve been where they are. It’s not like some guy saying, ‘Why don’t you lift that skirt a little higher?’”
Aside from the shared writing and talent nurturing, they divided their responsibilities.
“I’m a closet, wanna-be cinematographer,” said Ms. Gregorini, “so I spent a lot of time in the cinematography department.”
“And I don’t know a damn thing about shots,” said Ms. von Furstenberg. “She was envisioning the shots, and I was—”
“Decorating the rooms!,” said Ms. Gregorini.
“—decorating the rooms, and tackling the truths of the characters based on what they would be wearing. You know what I mean?”
“It’s a huge undertaking, directing a film,” said Ms. Gregorini. “To have a friend by your side before falling into that rabbit hole is huge.”
Even working as a duo, the two were unable to accomplish everything that needed doing. Ms. von Furstenberg’s mother helped out with costuming. Said the fashion scion: “We had three weeks of preproduction. Literally. And we have production values that look like we spent a lot of money. She didn’t do the costumes, but she delivered the uniforms, and they look amazing. The blazers are so well-cut. But it’s not like we had every resource available to us. She did it as a favor. We were pulling goodwill from everyone.”
It wasn’t just the costumes that were sourced unconventionally. “Our clothes, my curtains, my bedspread,” said Ms. Von Furstenberg, “literally is on-screen.”
Their resourcefulness, said Ms. Gregorini, made the pair more creative. They had, as Ms. Von Furstenberg put it, “a unified point of view” and created something on-screen that “was just externalizing a world that’s already inside of us.”
But what does that world look like? “Italy. Old World,” said Ms. Gregorini. “Tatiana and I share an emotional truth. Our understanding of the human condition is very shared, and we bring that to Tanner Hall, the challenges of being human, and the flawedness. And we’re quite open-minded. It’s not like a morality piece.”
“It’s really a family drama,” said Ms. von Furstenberg. “The parents are the teachers, and the girls are basically sisters. That’s their home. And I just had a midlife crisis recently. I’m out of it.”
“I’m not,” said Ms. Gregorini.
By shoot’s end, the pair were exhausted. Ms. Gregorini bought a motorcycle in Rhode Island to use for exploring; she ended up never using it. Ms. von Furstenberg brought her daughter. “I thought it was important—a lot of directors leave their kids at home for the 10 weeks they’re on location. I really respect her life and the engagements of her life, and she respects the engagements of my life.”
“She discovered Montessori schools there,” Ms. Gregorini observed.
“Well,” Ms. von Furstenberg admitted, “she’d already been.”
All told, it was an unusually stressful experience, said Ms. von Furstenberg, both in its time demands—“By the end, my hands were purple! I was thinking ahead to when I’m taking the knots out of my hair!”—and its interpersonal responsibilities. “You’re communicating to four girls who are looking to you for a grounded sense of—you know what I mean?”
Work is a pleasure for both, though. Ms. von Furstenberg was fulfilled by her exhaustion, knotty hair and all: “My mother—and everybody that I’ve ever been around, they create their own opportunity. They wake up knowing that they have to create things. The pleasure of life is being able to make clear decisions. I always was a hard worker at school. Work is fulfilling. The harder it is, the more fulfilling it is.”
The reviews, at least upon 2009 festival screenings, were less than kind: Variety called the film “derivative” and said it veered “from sitcom slapstick to wanna-be black comedy to soap opera.” Ms. von Furstenberg was troubled at the thought of viewers reacting negatively, but said she stood by her work: “I rose to my highest self and made decisions in the best way I was able to. The movie was not informed by other people … We did the best job, and there were challenges, many, and I do hope that the poetry resonates, and the humanity resonates.”
Ms. Gregorini is less worried about possible reactions; she’s already planning a second film. Ms. von Furstenberg will be there in a fairy-godmother role. “I’m not going to be directing with her, but I’m going to have her back.” The next film is to be what Ms. Gregorini calls “psychological suspense,” and her third script is to be sci-fi.
Ms. von Furstenberg spoke before her friend could describe her diffuse creative process. “I’m always surprised. Francesca remains a mystery to me—and that’s why I’m so intrigued.”
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