It’s the fifth day of SXSW, and if Noël Wells is exhausted, she’s hiding it behind an upbeat attitude, overalls, and a sweater whose pattern is a collage of photos of Ryan Gosling. The festival’s been good to her, despite some technical difficulties during the world premiere of Mr. Roosevelt–the feature she wrote, directed, and starred in–and in a few hours, she’ll learn that she’s won the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award for films about or made in Texas, or by Texas filmmakers.
Mr. Roosevelt, which was shot in Austin in 2016, is all three, although Wells’s biography isn’t typical of most Austin filmmakers. A native of San Antonio, she came to Austin to the University of Texas as an undergrad film student, then got her big break at 26 when she was selected for the 39th season of Saturday Night Live. That break was short-lived, though–Wells wasn’t hired on for a second season–and during the tough period after that ended, she set to writing Mr. Roosevelt.
“I started writing scenes from it before SNL, but then I got SNL, and the whole time, people there are so productive. I would tell people, ‘Oh, I should be working on my script,’ but I was too crippled to actually write the script,” she recalls. “After I got let go from SNL, as painful as it was to write, I put an ad on Craigslist and got a girl to be my intern, and I paid her a stipend of breakfast tacos and made her watch me as I wrote it. I was just like, ‘I need you to babysit me while I write this, because it’s so hard for me to write.'”
Wells left New York for Los Angeles then, and the stories she tells about her time in L.A. are familiar to anyone who caught the plot of Mr. Roosevelt–which is about a struggling comedian unsure if she’s on the right path in her career, and who ends up returning to her hometown of Austin after the boyfriend she left behind tells her that their cat is dying.
“I finished the script and turned it in, and the people who gave me feedback were like, ‘This is funny, but it’s too much stuff.’ It had been years incubating. I think six months later, I was crying on my floor, feeling so bad about myself, and my cat just sat there staring at me like, ‘What the fuck is your problem?'” she says. “I looked into his soul, and he looked into mine, and then the answer came to me of what would be the central event.”
Just as Wells had the breakthrough she was looking for in her screenplay, she got another breakthrough in her career–namely, she got cast as the romantic interest of Aziz Ansari’s character on his Netflix show Master of None. That derailed the writing process, but greased the wheels of getting her in a position to actually make her film.
“The momentum of Master of None, and how I felt about myself, allowed me to finally take the leap into finishing the movie and getting it all off the ground,” Wells says, while noting that she had been taking meetings on it even before she became the breakout star of 2015’s breakout hit (“It didn’t hurt, once the show was doing really well, for them to feel better about greenlighting it,” she says). “I think I was riding the creative wave of years of struggle that I had finally crested, and I kind of coasted down, and all of the energy finally allowed me to do it.”
Wells makes interesting choices throughout Mr. Roosevelt. The movie was shot in 16mm film, rare for a 2017 indie, and, outside of a few scenes, the production took place in Austin, with a Texas crew that Wells had never met. There’s a lot of physical comedy in her performance–Wells plays up her Steve Martin side throughout–and the result is something that recalls the sort of lost-twentysomething indie comedies of the ’90s that feels very specific to Wells’s own vision.
It’s an approach that shows a lot of confidence, which is surprising if you hear Wells talk about how long it took her to get the project started–and why she felt like she’d never be able to. (Spoiler: the reason involves Lena Dunham.)
“I went to film school at UT Austin. I went in thinking that I was going to be a director, but when I got there, everyone knew way more about movies than I did. So I thought, ‘Well, I guess I don’t have what it takes to be a director. I guess I’ll be an editor.’ Consciously, I was like, ‘Well, I must suck,’ but subconsciously, ‘Well, what it would be like if I took a directing class?'” Wells recalls. “I had all of these characters and things that were in my head, and the idea of this character was in my head for a screenwriting class, where I wrote a couple of scenes with her.”
Then, at SXSW 2010, when Wells was working as a 23-year-old AV technician at the University of Texas computer lab, she learned that someone a lot like her had won the narrative feature competition at the festival–and decided that Lena Dunham’s success with Tiny Furniture meant that nothing like that could happen twice.
“The log line looked like the movie I wanted to make. I was like, ‘A woman did it? No more women can do it, I guess! I’m 23, she’s 23, I guess that’s it, she did it,'” Wells recalls. “So I moved to L.A. and I was doing comedy, but I put the screenwriting stuff aside. I finally got myself to watch Tiny Furniture four years later, and I was like, ‘Wait! This wasn’t my movie at all!’ When I saw that, I started doing it again. I just didn’t anticipate that I would already be thirty when it came out.”
The way Wells talks about her work, there’s a lot of insecurity that lays bare. It’s something that her character in Mr. Roosevelt, Emily, might relate to: throughout the film, other characters are constantly telling her not to put herself down, or to treat herself like she deserves to be taken less than seriously. She stopped dreaming of being a director because when she got to film school, everything was changing to digital. “I thought I suck, I must suck, I must not have the talent,” she says. When it came time to be in charge on set, she worried about it a lot. “I had a lot of nerves about telling other people what to do, and being really assertive with strangers.” All of which makes it surprising to observe that there’s a confidence in the filmmaking of Mr. Roosevelt that’s hard to ignore. You can see it in the way the film was shot, in the choices that Wells makes with her own character, and in the decision to follow up a breakout year by making a small indie film half a country away from either Los Angeles or New York. Wells’s character in the movie hears from a lot of people about her lack of confidence (at one point, she sleeps with a dude because he says “You’re funny”), and at some point in talking with her about it, all of that self-deprecation starts to sound like a character, too. She knows what she’s good at–she just had to decide to focus on those things, even if they’re unconventional.
That’s clear when she talks about decisions like shooting on film. “In film school, everything I shot digitally, I thought looked really bad,” she says. “But one summer, I interned in New York for IFC, and I brought a point-and-shoot film camera, and I took 36 rolls of film–but I couldn’t afford to develop any of them. When I got back to Austin and was finishing up my last year of school, I started getting the film developed, a couple rolls a week, whatever I could afford, and I was shocked at how good I had gotten, because I wasn’t micromanaging myself like with digital. With digital, you take a picture and look at it like, ‘Argh! I suck!’ and it’s really easy to give up. So with my first film, I wanted to shoot on 16mm. When I went to producers, they were like, ‘How is this cute actress thinking she’s going to get away with shooting on film?’ They were worried that I wouldn’t be able to watch the takes back, and I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s what I love about film. Whatever happens, happens. It captures what I was trying to create tonally.”
Because Mr. Roosevelt is so much a product of Wells’s vision, it’s hard to know exactly where to slot it in the indie film landscape. It didn’t enter SXSW with a distribution deal, but the award win won’t hurt any there. Wells is a familiar face to people who follow the comedy world closely, as is co-star Nick Thune, but debut films that tell small, personal, idiosyncratic stories and which fall somewhere between “goofy comedy” and “dramedy about being young and lost in the world” without recognizable stars don’t always land big. But her goals for the film are very specifically not to drop it as a calling-card feature on her way toward whatever’s next.
“I’ve had enough failure in my life to think that anything is going to be my fucking calling card,” she says. “You can’t set yourself up like that. I want it to be in theaters. My goal was to make an entertaining movie that people come out to see. Yes, I wrote and directed it. I have people who say, ‘It’s going to be so good for you,’ but that’s the least of my worries. I want people to enjoy the movie. I want people to see it with a huge group of people.”