Laura Terruso always knew she wanted to be a director. She didn't know if she could be one, though. "Growing up, I didn't even consider directing as a possible career path, because I didn't see female directors," she says. "When I pictured in my head what a director looked like, it was like a white guy with a baseball cap and a megaphone."
Terruso pursued directing regardless. She came up in the DIY-era of independent filmmaking — "that moment in time where people were embracing the digital cinema and making movies by themselves with micro budgets" — and honed her craft in the graduate film program at NYU. In addition to learning to write and direct, she learned about the camera and lenses, sound, and how to produce.
"It's made me a better director, because now when I'm on set, I really understand what each of the departments is going through," Terruso explains. "I really feel like I understand every aspect of this craft, which is this is the most collaborative, artistic medium there is."
Terruso began her career as the screenwriter of Hello, My Name Is Doris, based on a short film she directed. (Michael Showalter ultimately directed Sally Field in the feature.) She made her feature directorial debut with 2017's Fits and Starts, a comedy about a struggling writer facing his creative shortcomings. Her latest is About My Father, a comedy about a first-gen Sicilian-American man (Sebastian Maniscalco) and his immigrant father (Robert De Niro) spending the weekend with the man's fiancée and her eccentric family.
The film is a classic American tale, and Terruso was inspired by other classics in this vein. "I really wanted it to look and feel like those classic American comedies by Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder." Except this time, it's hailing from a queer, female filmmaker. "I think it's really important that young women, especially, see images of women, and people of color, and people with disabilities directing," she says. "I think you have to see it to be it."
Below, Terruso shares with A.frame five movies that made her want to become a director and continue to inspire her today. "I wanted to go for deep cuts with this," she says. "I feel like the films that I return to are often unorthodox."
Directed by: Herbert Ross | Written by: Don Roos
I think Boys on the Side is a perfect film, in that it really moved me. It stars Whoopi Goldberg and Mary-Louise Parker, and Whoopi Goldberg plays a lesbian, but it's not about that. It's about female friendship. It's such a complex film. It starts out as a road trip comedy, and then it morphs and becomes a little more melodramatic. I really think that Whoopi and Mary-Louise Parker should have won Oscars for their performances in that film.
It's Herb Ross' last film, and it's just so heartfelt. I watched it as a teenager and it was one of the films that really inspired me to do this, because it just moved me. I saw myself in it. That was 1995, and it's like, 'Since then, have I seen a lesbian protagonist in a movie where it's not about that?' Not many. I feel like a lot of times, it's about who's telling the story. The studios, I think, are a little nervous to delve into stories about queer characters. They really have to trust queer filmmakers, and queer actors, and queer writers to make sure that they're telling the stories authentically.
Directed by: Penny Marshall | Written by: Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel
A League of Their Own is another film from my youth that really inspired me to do this. I grew up watching it. I was 12 years old when it came out. And I had a VHS tape of it, and I would watch it again, and again, and again. I had it memorized.
Penny Marshall is such an amazing director, and it's one of the funniest scripts that I've ever read. A League of Their Own is such an example of great writing because it hits all the dramatic beats, but the comedy is so disarming in it. There'll be this really dramatic scene between the two sisters and these hilarious side characters, like Rosie O'Donnell's character and Madonna's character, that just add so much humor to the world.
With a film like Work It [Terruso's 2020 dance competition movie], that was an influence. It was more of an ensemble piece, and it's ultimately a sports film in a way, so really making sure we were hitting those comedic beats and bringing authenticity into the world.
Directed by: Frank Capra | Written by: Robert Riskin
It's sort of the original rom-com, right? It's a perfect film. Every shot is beautiful, and it was Pre-Code, so you watch it and it feels timeless. It was made during the Depression and it feels like you could make it tomorrow. In answering this, I was like, 'What are the films that I watch again, and again, and again, that I feel like I need to put on every year to inspire me and to reignite my passion for this?' That's another film that I often go back to.
Directed by: Hal Ashby | Written by: Waldo Salt and Robert C. Jones
I'm a huge Hal Ashby fan. I love his films. I was at the Sarasota Film Festival and they were having a Hal Ashby retrospective. I watched a bunch of his films, and I just fell in love with him. I was like, 'Oh my God, what a body of work!' You could really feel his heart in all of his films, and I think that's the mark of a really great filmmaker. Sometimes you feel a filmmaker in a film and you're like, 'I just want to meet this person and give them a hug.'
Harold and Maude is another perfect film, but I'm a real sucker for an anti-war film, and the performances in Coming Home are so good. And Jane Fonda's arc in that film, it's reflected in every department: She starts out one way and her hair looks a certain way and her wardrobe is a certain way, and then her character has this awakening and now she's going to start wearing her hair like this, and now she starts dressing a little more counterculture, you see it reflected in every department. She has this enlightening experience volunteering at a veteran's hospital, and they actually filmed it at an actual veteran's hospital. So, all of the other characters are real vets — Jon Voight and the other actors interacting with real [vets] — and it lends such authenticity to the film. It's a perfect film, in my opinion, and one that I return to a lot.
Directed by: Miloš Forman | Written by: Michael Weller
It's really hard to make a musical feel grounded, and this one does. It's another anti-war film. And the filmmaking is wild and inventive, and the performances are also real and authentic. It just withstands the test of time. The Director's Cut of Hair is a film I return to every year. There's actually a scene in it that inspired a scene in About My Father, with the cigars, so check it out.
By Doriean Stevenson