A scene from "The Toe Tactic", with "The Strumpet" in animated form, and Lily Rabe, who stars as Mona.  The animated/live-action film is the brainchild of its writer/director and animator Emily Hubley.  (Photos courtesy of Emily Hubley)

Animated, Humorous and Cheeky, Animator-Director-Writer Emily Hubley Ponders Her Next Tactical Move

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

May 2, 2008

Emily Hubley has a sly, cheeky sense of humor, which she displays frequently.  Animation, it can be said, is one of her first loves -- and when you are the daughter of legendary animators Faith Hubley and John Hubley, animation had better be in your bloodstream.  The younger Ms. Hubley has been animating and writing as well as making short films for a number of years, and showcases an ingenious collaboration of live action and animation in her new film "The Toe Tactic", which has its final showing tonight at the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival.  Just before she was due to venture to Baltimore, where her film will be shown at a festival there, Emily Hubley tactically unscrambled the "Tactic", which was a journey The Beatles would have agreed proved to be a long and winding road.

"For me it did start with the writing and as you might guess, took a very long time.  The business of the live-action story in the film is not that complicated, it's sort of a simple story . . . a lot of my short films investigate a lot of the same feelings -- investigate memory and how questioning memory and questioning perceptions then questioning experience, and how do you do that using the film forum to recreate the sort of experience of daydreaming and wandering -- how all of those levels of consciousness sort of combine to help us get through the day," said Ms. Hubley, who says that last quoted word after an ever-so brief pause, and with a quick laugh, during this phone interaction.

The filmmaker, who is based in New Jersey, thought the world of San Francisco, and was impressed with the City by the Bay while bringing "The Toe Tactic" here as part of the Festival.  She had arrived at the Festival last weekend on the back of two hours sleep from the east coast of the U.S., flying and dealing with jet lag and the other incidentals that air travel can bring.  She is in mid-sentence when talking about her film.  "And get through our lives and experience and enjoy and learn through the process of living.  And so in very basic terms you know the way the film did develop was that I wrote the script for a really long time," said the director who did not specify just how long it took to write and complete the film, although Ms. Hubley would probably agree that it took more than four years to complete. 
"The Toe Tactic" is about Mona, a young woman (played by Lily Rabe, daughter of playwright David Rabe) who struggles to find her internal compass.  She has been smarting emotionally from the loss of her father and is somewhat lost at sea when it comes to companionship and people she can trust.  "Tactic", which features music from Yo La Tengo, has bursts of color and animation, all of it done by Ms. Hubley and her co-animator Jeremiah Dickey, animation that is occasionally manifested in the conscience of Mona.  Ms. Hubley also wrote, directed and produced "Tactic".  The film may be best described as a lucid dream, a kaleidoscopic existential menu of color, poetry, comedy, mystery and feeling.  Ms. Hubley's film makes you think, feel and laugh, and it is more than good enough to make you at least curious to see it all over again. 
Last week while here in person at the San Francisco International Film Festival's Opening Night party, Ms. Hubley had likened the experience of finally completing "The Toe Tactic" and releasing it to the world as a "postpartum exercise" -- a strange, sad detachment from a labor of love that was so much a part of one's fiber and backbone for so long.  Now that the film has been to several film festivals in the U.S., and will move on to others, including to Providence, Rhode Island and elsewhere.  "Tactic" also features an impressive array of performers from the stage, the small screen and the movies, including Eli Wallach, Novella Nelson, Mary Kay Place, Sakina Jaffrey, Xander Berkeley, David Cross, legendary New Jersey filmmaking auteur John Sayles, Jane Lynch, Daniel London, Andrea Martin, Kevin Corrigan and numerous others. 
In a way assembling a cast of this caliber was an exercise in serendipity.  "It took such a long time to find the money in the production and to get everything together that we did have time to cross paths with the right people for the casting," said Ms. Hubley.  Laura Rosenthal, the "Tactic" casting director, had been an invaluable help for the director, who also said that "we had a lot of people also just came into my life through various ways."  The filmmaker who also praised  "Toe Tactic" producer Jen Small as "amazingly supportive", added that Mary Kay Place was the first person to be cast in the film.  Ms. Hubley and Ms. Place had met while at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab a few years ago.  Eli Wallach happened to have done voiceover for John Canemaker, an animator friend of Ms. Hubley's, and once the script for "Toe Tactic" was submitted directly to him in polite disobedience of the usual Hollywood channels.  John Sayles was a last minute replacement for someone who had already been cast who had to drop out.  Maggie Renzi, the film producer and wife of Mr. Sayles, loved Ms. Hubley's screenplay and was very supportive of the film.  Interestingly, Mr. Sayles was always on the director's mind, especially after seeing him reading stories in New York City, and the filmmaker thought of him as a voice for the animation portion.  Ms. Hubley found Ms. Rabe through a story in The New York Times.  "At the end of the article that was sort of teasing her mom (actress Jill Clayburgh) in a sort of caustic but affectionate way."  Ms. Rabe then appeared onstage in a small role in the Off-Broadway play "Colder Than Here" that Ms. Hubley saw, and it was then that the director was sold on her for the lead role in "Tactic".

From an animation standpoint, when The Reggae Boys sang the early 2000's song "Who Let The Dogs Out?", a tune that became a music anthem in the U.S., they might have had Emily Hubley in mind.  "The animated layer of the dogs was sort of the last thing to come in," she said.  The filmmaker populated "Tactic" with the dogs, who form a humorous Greek chorus of sorts.  They muse and interpret a lot of different things, some of them about what is going on in the film, others about trips to Florida, retirement and other matters that their human mothers and fathers might also ponder at some time in their lives.  Mona may be suffering within, but she is majestic in the sense that she takes life each day as it comes.  Mona is by no means a closed-off soul, nor is her creator, who exhibits a zest for film, fun and life.  Ms. Hubley articulates Mona as a profile of "a girl dealing with feeling sad and feeling a little uncertain about where she fit into the world, and sort of questioning what other people may have heard or sort of made of what was going on in relation to what she thought was going on," said the filmmaker.

But the $64,000 question is, just what was it about the hilarious dogs?

"In writing (the film) as soon as I did, you know the thing with the dogs just started out as a joke."

Hearing this from a filmmaker with a bright and engaging sense of humor is not the least bit surprising, because when spending any amount of time dialoguing with Ms. Hubley one gets the sense that the world is far from the murky doomsday that a few everyday human facial expressions evoke, but only close to just beginning.  At times "The Toe Tactic" is 180 degrees away from the filmmakers' cheery, upbeat way.  Then at other times, the film takes a different turn altogether. 

Once again: how about those dogs??  (And we're not talking about the cry of those Georgia Bulldogs -- the famous cry of that college football team's fans.) 
Ms. Hubley reveals that she wasn't planning to make animation in the film, but after a number of people told her that as an animator she needed return to her roots, she decided to utilize the animation, particularly with the dogs, in a very specific way to further the story, which audiences will need to see to appreciate.  The complete "Tactic"-al exercise is a striking balance of comedy and drama, accompanied by significant depth from time to time.  The animated dogs provide a wise perspective on life, with a fun, energy and fearlessness that the director amplifies with the following comments: "that's what . . . I really wanted the dogs to provide, was that perspective you know, when we all wallow in our misery.  It's kind of fun to wallow in your misery.  There's also the viewpoint of, 'come on, just get on with it, don't take it so seriously', and the pleasure and the funniness.  You know, it's like, you do notice sometimes when you're at your lowest point, that just the stupidest funny things happen," said Ms. Hubley, who mentioned that she made a conscious choice not to make her film an exercise in self-involvement, opting instead for a certain type of distance that made the film much lighter.

Emily Hubley looks to do numerous other projects; she jokingly pondered a spin-off film or series with just the animated dogs holding court.  But on the more serious side she did make it clear that her next project would take her in an entirely different direction.  And speaking of direction, the dimension of time and space is also a theme resonating in "The Toe Tactic".  As the filmmaker -- who by her own admission is a loquacious sort -- said concisely about her wishes for "The Toe Tactic" as she travels with it from film festival to film festival: "It is something that I hope . . . will resonate with audiences."
"The Toe Tactic" has its final screening tonight at 9:15pm at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas as part of the 51st San Francisco International Film Festival.

The Toe Tactic website
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