“Drive-Away Dolls” – Interview with Tricia Cooke

by - February 23rd, 2024 - Features Interviews


Fool Around, Be Queer, Have Fun
Talking Drive-Away Dolls with Tricia Cooke

Drive-Away Dolls — a freewheeling, deadpan dark comedy set in 1999 — features Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan as a pair of Lesbians who embark on an impromptu road trip to Tallahassee. They do not know that their drive-away rental was supposed to go to a pair of nitwit hit men (Joey Slotnick and C.J. Wilson), who have two cases hidden in the trunk intended to aid a morally corrupt Florida senator (Matt Damon) win re-election. Bill Camp, Colman Domingo, Pedro Pascal, and a scene-stealing Beanie Feldstein fill out the remainder of the ensemble.

Drive-Away Dolls (2024) | PHOTO: Focus Features

It’s the first film director Ethan Coen has made without his brother Joel. Although they’ve collaborated on several productions, including Barton Fink, Fargo, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Drive-Away Dolls also marks the first official co-writing credit he’s shared with wife Tricia Cooke (the pair were married in 1993). It is an endearingly anarchic explosion of chaos and silliness that still has a captivating pitch-black edge, and if someone told me this story was set in a universe similar to that of Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski, I’d happily believe it.

For Cooke, who identifies as Queer, Drive-Away Dolls was a longtime labor of love she’s been wanting to make for over three decades. I sat down with the filmmaker to discuss her work on this production and what it means to her to have such a joy-filled Lesbian comedy — complete with a wall dildo — out there in the world for audiences to enjoy. Here are the edited transcripts of our brief conversation:

Sara Michelle Fetters: Where did the idea for this rambunctious, Lesbian road-trip comedy come from? I know you came up with the original title, Drive-Away Dykes, which is honestly sublime.

Tricia Cooke: It came from the title, literally. “Drive Away.” I don’t know if you know what a drive-away is, but I had taken a drive-away car when I was in college across the country. So, I knew about [them]. I came up with the alliteration of the title Drive-Away Dykes with a friend of mine in a bar. It just sounded like a bouncy film that would be fun to make.

Later, when I was talking with Ethan about it, we were like, “That sounds like fun, but what would it be?” I wanted it to be a fun Lesbian movie. We just tried our best to come up with silly ideas or things that felt outrageous in a very innocent way to fill the movie.

SMF: To me, it felt like it was a spiritual cousin to something that Russ Meyer would’ve made during his heyday, or Jonathan Demme would’ve made with Roger Corman back in the 1970s. And yet the film still has a modern feminist spin that you didn’t see during that period, at least not with this level of directness, even though they were trying to hint at somewhat similar sentiments. Was that the idea?

TC: Yes. The idea was to harken back to those Russ Meyer, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! days, or Doris Wishman’s films, like Bad Girls Go to Hell. I wanted there to be references to Bella Abzug and Alice B. Toklas, but those were cut out of the movie. But there’s a reference to Stonewall at one point, so those things are there, and that was very important.

Yet we wanted it to be sexy too, but not exploitative. And [in] those movies certainly, and Russ Meyer’s particularly, it was all about the boobs and the sex and the violence. We wanted this to feel sexy, but not feel like we were taking advantage of the female body.

SMF: I think that’s part of the genius of casting Margaret and Geraldine. Sure, there’s some nudity. Yes, you have sex scenes. But they make it sexy by their energy, by their vibe, and by how they relate to one another. I kind of hate to put it this way, but they almost make love with the dialogue. What was that like for you, watching them embrace this absurdity in such a fiery, confidently sexy way?

TC: It was so much fun. I originally wrote this in my thirties, but I’m not in my thirties anymore, and to see two women, Margaret and Geraldine — I think both were 28 or something when we made the movie — have that youthful energy and just enthusiasm? They were both so excited, and both can be very sexual.

Sometimes you hear dialogue and you’re like, “No, that’s not how I heard it in my head.” But everything they did with the dialogue really worked, even if it was something that I hadn’t imagined. It was tons of fun to see them, to hear Geraldine say, “I want to make love with the senator’s penis.” That’s a really absurd, silly line, especially out of context, and she just, with relish, dove right in. She’s very funny, Geraldine. She is a true comedian.

SMF: You have spent so much time, obviously, working closely with Ethan and building this incredible body of work, so you’re no stranger to the complexities of the various worlds that he and his brother Joel have created over the decades. And you’ve been a big part of that. But this is a different creative collaboration for the two of you, I think it’s safe to say. What was that like: moving more into the writing role and assisting with the directing of the picture? Was there a difference to your partnership on this film?

TC: We had written together before. … We had written another of this kind of Lesbian B-movie, and we’d written a short together. So, we had done that before. We’d also gotten together on many of [Joel and Ethan’s] movies. I’m not sure if there was a difference on that front.

When we are writing, there are certain characters that Ethan will always gravitate toward, like the two goons in the car, Arliss and Flint, and those were really fun guys. But it was important for me to say, “Okay, well, if we have them, then we have to juxtapose them with two very strong, empowered women.” Playing around with characters and situations like that was really fun, and we had never done that before. That was new.

Drive-Away Dolls (2024) | PHOTO: Focus Features

And then directing. It was a little daunting. I’d never done it on such a large scale. But Ethan made it very easy. He was very respectful. We respect each other’s opinions and tastes, and we have a very easy way of communicating. Making those directorial choices, he was always very open and collaborative, especially around the Queer world, which he doesn’t know.

I did have to fight to get the go-go dancer in — that was something that just was not at his comfort level. [laughs] I was like, “No, we need this here.” I was pretty firm. But for the most part, we pretty much agreed on almost everything. And it’s just fun, working with Ethan. It’s fun to have a partner to collaborate with on such a large scale.

SMF: In my head, I imagined Curly was an Ethan character and Sukie was your character. In some ways, I feel like they are kind of the hidden backbones of the entire film.

TC: They are. We often called Curly the “center of the universe” of the movie. [laughs]

I would say that all of the characters we came up with together. I would say that, for me, the Arliss and Flint characters are more of a representation of Ethan’s sensibility, and Marian and Jamie are mine. Curly kind of came from both of us, but Marian and Jamie more for me.

Sukie, I just wanted someone who could just beat the crap out of people but also someone who would play around with the sex toys. That was really fun. I wanted someone who could be an equal partner to Jamie, because she’s such a force of nature. But also someone who would have a wall dildo.

SMF: I think it’s important to have that voice in there that’s willing to call out everybody on their bullcrap. She does that, even when she ends up being wrong about what’s going on. But she still sees the truth in things. You needed someone who had that energy and could keep Marian and Jamie in check.

TC: Definitely. To call everyone out on their bullshit is the perfect way to put it. And Beanie embraced that. She just knew exactly why she was there, why she was screaming at the thug in the jail, or why she was beating the crap out of C.J. Wilson. She knew her place in the story.

SMF: Not to get too serious on us, but I do think films like this, like last year’s Bottoms, like Theater Camp, are important. Not every LGBTQ+ film has to be about trauma. They can be fun. They can be weird. They can have wall dildos. I look at these last couple of years and see these hugely enjoyable Queer films, and it makes me smile. Are they important? More importantly, why do you think they are happening now?

TC: I agree. I think they’re really important. When we wrote this movie, that was the impetus. It was like, let’s make a movie that isn’t tragic, especially about the Lesbian community. We rarely get something that is lighthearted.

For me, it’s important, because it’s hard to be Queer. It’s hard to be in a marginalized community. They’re taking all of our rights away. So, it’s important to have coming-out movies and the serious movies too, but it’s really nice to say it’s fun to be a Lesbian or to be Queer. We have joy too, and we can celebrate. There are so many reasons that we have a community, and we need to celebrate each other in that community.

It’s often hard to relate to straight movies. So, to have movies where there’s Queer people having fun, or [in which] their queerness isn’t the entire story? Seeing them have these relationships? We don’t get enough of that. It’s hard out there right now, so it’s nice to have a break. We wanted a Queer story that could give people that.

Drive-Away Dolls (2024) | PHOTO: Focus Features

SMF: For audiences, whether they’re Queer, straight, whatever, what do you want them to take away from Drive-Away Dolls? What do you want them to be talking about as they exit the theater?

TC: How high the wall dildo should be when they buy it from the Pleasure Chest. [laughs]

I hope that they’re talking about just some kind of fun, lighthearted pleasure, sexual pleasure, consensual, but something where you can think, “I’m going to go home and fool around and have fun.” I hope that there’s a playfulness that people find in the movie, and that that at least can take them through the end of the night.

– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle

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