Lea Thompson has spent over 30 years starring in some of pop culture’s most beloved films. Think Back to the Future, The Little Rascals, and Dennis the Menace. She’s also graced the small screen on shows like Caroline in the City, Switched at Birth, and Dancing with the Stars. And now with her feature film directorial debut The Year of Spectacular Men, Thompson is venturing into all-new territory.
The Year of Spectacular Men, which is part of this year’s L.A. Film Festival Official Selection lineup, follows recent college grad Izzy Klein as she navigates the ups and downs of her early twenties. As Izzy struggles to find her footing in the real world, she moves in with her movie star sister Sabrina and decides to channel all her energy into dating five unique yet spectacular men. Through this journey, she makes countless discoveries about love, life, and most importantly herself.
For Thompson, who also acts in the film, making The Year of Spectacular Men has been something of a family affair. Her daughters Madelyn and Zoey Deutch both star in the film, and Madelyn served as the mastermind behind the film’s script and score.
I spoke with Thompson about her experience helming this project and working with her children to make what looks to be an incredibly entertaining film:
TARA MARTINEZ: What can you tell me about how you approached this film and your vision for it as a director?
LEA THOMPSON: Well, this is the first thing that I’ve kind of, in all my years of being an artist—like 45 years or whatever—that I’ve actually helped create from the ground up. It’s taken almost four years. I inspired Maddie [Deutch] to write it and she wrote it and I thought it was amazing and so we developed it. And you know, it takes a while to kind of whittle away at what it is. But it was a great script from the very beginning and I’m so proud of it. It’s just such an original point of view and I really wanted to honor her writing and she also starred in it and wrote the music for it, or a lot of the music for it, so it was super exciting to be a part of that. And it’s such a great honor as an artist to really be part of that experience, and find producers that were willing to take a chance on that was so impressive to me. Parkside Pictures, who did the movie for us—it was just such a joyous collaboration. I learned so much. I have so much more respect for everybody’s job because when you direct TV, which I’ve done a lot of or enough of, it’s not as difficult because we had to kind of make a team from scratch and you don’t have the resources that you do on TV, or at least I didn’t. So, I had to really learn a lot about everybody else’s job. So, it was super enlightening for me and I love being at this stage of my life and still be able to learn new things after being in the movie business for 30 years. I got to learn a whole bunch of new stuff which makes me really excited and happy.
TM: It sounds like this was true labor of love and a really immersive family collaboration. What was that like both personally and professionally?
LT: I was lucky enough both my daughters have been really wonderful artists since they were 15 or 16, so I’ve already got to experience them. We acted together in a movie that I produced; I worked with them a lot, I’ve coached them and they’ve coached me and we’ve done videos together. So, we kind of had worked out some of the kinks of that kind of working together, but of course the stakes are much higher. It was a much more passionate experience with the movie, so it was really lovely. And you know, I feel so grateful that I get to work with young people a lot, like on my show that I did Switched at Birth or I’m about to do an adaptation of Little Women and I really feel grateful that I have that ability to be able to work with different generations of people and get their perspectives.
This story is super unique because hardly anybody makes stories by, and for, and with Millenial women. They just don’t make stories for 22 and 23-year old women, they just don’t. And you know, they can definitely be the girlfriend or whatever, but it seems like for women they’re 17 or 30 or 28. You know what I mean? Like, there’s no in-between. What happens in their twenties? So, that’s one of the reasons Maddie was really passionate about writing this because she said, ‘I can’t find a movie I want to go to! I want to make one.’ So, that’s what we did!
TM: What do you hope young women will take away from a film like The Year of Spectacular Men?
LT: There’s a lot in it, but I think a lot of it has to do with the really simple notion that you have to make peace with yourself before you can really be someone else’s partner. You have to be your own best friend, you know? And I think that that’s part of it. I think also, we as a family have experienced a lot of loss, a lot of people that have gone too soon and it made us, I think, acutely aware of how much we need each other, how important family is and how important it is to be really present. So, I think there’s some of that in the movie, too. The importance of family and the importance of not relying on a man to define you, really. I mean, that’s really boiled down fast but that’s kind of what the story’s about.
TM: Now, you’re also acting in this film. What can you tell me about your character Deb?
LT: She’s kind of flighty. Her husband has killed himself, actually, committed suicide and that’s put her in a terrible—she’s trying to survive in a way. She’s kind of a semi-famous yoga teacher. I wish I had the body of a semi-famous yoga teacher. I mean, we covered that up, but she now has a very much younger girlfriend, so she’s trying a whole different way to come out of the closet. I’m not entirely sure why Maddie wrote me this character. Maddie was thinking about what parts Zoey [Deutch] and I don’t usually get. That’s what she wrote for us, parts that people don’t usually give us. I thought this character was an interesting character to play. I had a great time. Melissa Bolona plays my girlfriend and she’s hilarious and wonderful!
TM: You’ve been acting for quite some time. How did you find the transition between the role of actor to the role of director? Did your experience in acting inform your decisions as a director?
LT: Yeah, and I have the unique experience of doing so many different things in the entertainment business. I was a ballet dancer; I was on Dancing with the Stars; I’ve been on Broadway singing; I’ve been on sitcoms and dramas and big features. So, I have a lot of experience and worked with probably 150 directors, so that gives me a really unique perspective on what works and what doesn’t as a director and it also gives me a really practical set of skills in terms of how to get through the day. Also just being a mother and multi-tasker, you know, it’s a unique set of skills. So, yes, I definitely used my acting skills and I also starred in so many things, and when you’re there every day, all day you really get to know how things work or don’t work on a set. If you kind of come in and you just do a scene and go back to your trailer, you don’t really see the day-to-day minutiae of how a set works, but when you’re sitting there all day, every day for 13 hours, you get a real perspective on everyone’s job and how important everyone’s job is, and so I had that experience here. It’s really nice to be able to use all that knowledge that I’ve gained.
TM: Do you draw any inspiration from particular directors?
LT: Yeah, I do. I’m always thinking about—the most famous director I’ve ever worked with was Robert Zemeckis. We did Back to the Future and I’m always thinking about him because he has such discipline as a storyteller and is so intent on filling the frame with information and not wasting a shot. And I really tried to do that with my movie. I shot it really beautifully, classically and I don’t know how my DP Bryan Koss did it with the money, but we shot it, really, like a great old Woody Allen movie. The framing’s really beautiful; it’s very traditionally untraditional. I kind of thought that that was daring because most Indie movies are made kind of more shaky, and kind of like handheld and with realistic feeling—which is awesome and I can’t wait to shoot a movie like that—but I wanted a movie that was classic-looking and I achieved that. We achieved that somehow, and I’m proud of it. So, I guess I draw my inspiration, at least for this movie, from some of the great movies from the late 70’s and early 80’s. The way they were shot, the colors, the framing.
TM: When and where can audiences see The Year of Spectacular Men?
LT: We are in the Official Selection of the Los Angeles Film Festival and we’ll have our big premiere with all our incredible actors on June 16th.
For more information about The Year of Spectacular Men or to purchase tickets to the premiere, please visit lafilmfestival.com. To learn about more Lea and her current projects, be sure to follow her on Twitter at @LeaKThompson.
Tara Martinez is a New York-based writer with a passion for pop culture and a penchant for analysis. She frequently covers film, television, and representations of women in the media.