Clarissa Jacobson created the comedy horror Lunch Ladies and it has already amassed an impressive following. Lunch Ladies stars Donna Pieroni (CSI:NY), Mary Manofsky (Criminal Minds), newcomer Daisy Kershaw and is directed by J.M. Logan.
Two burnt out high school Lunch Ladies do whatever it bloody takes on their quest to become Johnny Depp’s personal chefs.
Writer/Producer Clarissa Johnson started out as an actress performing off-Broadway and in numerous film and voice over roles before realizing her true passion was writing. A long-standing member of Twin Bridges Writing Salon, she has several scripts under her belt including the full-length version of Lunch Ladies and the recently optioned Stella By Starlight.
Hi Clarissa, how are you doing?
I’m great, thank you for asking! I’m having the time of my life with Lunch Ladies and it’s been a dream come true – so I’m in an incredibly joyful place right now.
First of all, congratulations on Lunch Ladies. Where did the idea of the story come from?
Thank you! Several years ago, I was out to dinner with Donna Pieroni who plays the lead in the film. Donna and I had been in a play many years ago before I realized I was a writer and not an actress. Donna was telling me that she would go on auditions and was always up against the same woman. There was only one role, so obviously only one or the other would get cast – so it was competitive.
She said she wished someone would write a movie about Lunch Ladies because they both could get cast. That sparked the idea! Then, Donna had been in the play Sweeney Todd which inspired me further. It’s my favorite musical and I thought (spoiler alert) it would be funny to do a spoof on it. I came up with the Johnny Depp angle because so many films spoof Sweeney Todd and I thought it would be even funnier to admit I was stealing the idea and wink at it – a movie about two fan obsessed Lunch Ladies who get the idea to do what they do because Johnny Depp had played Sweeney Todd.
How long does it normally take from having the very first idea to the end script?
A long time, and a lot of work – for me anyhow.
I’m in a screenwriting class run by Joe Bratcher and Judy Farrell called Twin Bridges Writing Salon for 14 years now. We work the scripts really hard, it’s brutal and wonderful, you pull them apart so many times to get it right and develop them till they squeak. I wrote the feature first for Lunch Ladies. That took me 18 months to finish working 14-18 hours a week on it. Then I wrote the short from the feature which took another five. It’s like birthing a baby!
The director of the movie is J.M. Logan who we know from films such as The Garage Sale and Family. How did the collaboration between you and him start for this movie?
When I decided I was going to make the film, I didn’t want to direct it. So, I had to find a director. The first director I had yanked my chain for nearly a year – telling me he wanted to do it – but in fact, he told me all kinds of reasons why it wouldn’t work. The main one being “no one wants to see two female middle-aged leads.” Finally, he dropped out and I was stuck with no one.
I remember sobbing in my car, that I had the money saved to make the film, I had the script, the vision, and no director. That’s when I called Joe Bratcher my mentor and my dear friend Shayna Weber who was a producer on the film and they both told me to pull on my big girl pants and find someone. So I did! I emailed schools, friends, anyone I knew that could recommend directors. I had interviews, and finally, I found Josh on LinkedIn. Two people I knew recommended him – and neither of them knew one another but both recommended Josh!
So right away I felt like the universe was sending me Josh. I interviewed Josh and we were on the same page creatively and I knew he was the one.
It could have been any actor but why did you choose for Johnny Depp as the celebrity crush from Seretta and LouAnne? Or was it just random?
It had to be Johnny Depp because he starred in Sweeney Todd. It’s a commentary on the insanity of fan worship – how some fans have a hard time separating the celebrity from the role they play in the movies. The Lunch Ladies are in a bad situation so they ask: “W.W.J.D.? What would Johnny Do?” They don’t distinguish between what the real Johnny would do and what his character would do. For them Johnny Depp IS Sweeney Todd and they love and worship “The Depper” so much that if “he” did it, it makes it okay.
In the movie, it’s all about the friendship between the two female lead characters. Donna Pieroni and Mary Manofsky are portraying them so perfectly. How did you come across both actresses?
As mentioned, Donna was a friend of mine and I wrote the character for her. Josh knew Mary. He told me that she was terrific at physical comedy and thought she would fit perfectly next to Donna – I was very specific in the script on how the Lunch Ladies look together, what types they are. Donna and Mary came to my little apartment and read the lines together and that was it. We never auditioned anyone else.
Making a film is very hard and difficult labour. What was the hardest part of writing and making this movie? Were there any unforeseen obstacles you have to overcome?
This was the hardest and most joyful thing I’ve ever done! Writing is always hard because unless you are a genius it takes many, many drafts to make it right and tons of feedback from people you trust – so just finishing a script is difficult and the most time consuming of the process.
Producing it was incredibly hard as well – I had never made a film, so I had to learn a lot. I had a ton of help too and was open to all the help I could get which served me well. The hardest things to overcome were – finding the location – getting a school to let me film that I could afford was not easy. I called over 100 schools and many wouldn’t let us film. Josh had a friend who worked at a Catholic School and she suggested two and finally, we had our school!
The other major obstacle I had was the first set designer quit one week before and took the assistant I hired with him. The knee jerk reaction was to freak out. But, I didn’t, I had learned from other things that had happened throughout the production, to embrace what seemed bad because it really meant it was good – that is, him quitting meant someone better was coming. It was stressful, but it was the best thing that happened because when he quit, I called a ton of other recommendations and found Alicia and Ray Ho. Those two did the most incredible job and brought so many fantastic things to the short, the other set designer could not have even come close to what they did.
You are a writer, producer but also an actress. When did you know that you wanted to be part of the amazing film industry?
Since I was a little kid and played Papa Elf (yes I played a dude) in the Christmas show in the 1st grade.
Do you have any advice for people who want to get a foot into the door of the industry?
My advice is not to think of getting a foot in the door. This will kill you because you have no control over how the industry regards your work or if they will let you in. The only control you have is the work. So, my advice is make the best work you can. Find the joy in creating the art. I truly believe the rest will follow. Don’t think about what the industry wants, think about giving the most authentic part of you that you can and telling your story – no one sees the world the way you do, so be truthful and authentic and hold on to your voice and trust it. Find people who support you, who will hold you up but will also tell you when your work can be better. Don’t rush, art takes time. If the door never opens you’ve made something beautiful and fed a part of your soul and that’s the most important, to remember why you do it.
One more last question: Do you already have other upcoming projects? Whether it’s as a writer, producer or actress.
Yes! I have a coming of age road trip script called Stella By Starlight that was optioned by Bev Nero Productions and Norman Stephens with an eye to shooting it in Tulsa. Bev Nero also just optioned the feature version of Lunch Ladies.
I further have a script about Elizabeth Bathory that Venezuelan Director Gisberg Bermudez, who did the film El Silbón: Orígenes has optioned. Lastly, I’m working on a funny chick script with Shayna Weber. Always, always, writing.
Liselotte Vanophem, Just Celebrity Magazine Film and Celebrity Reporter