Ripple Effect: Liz Garcia ’99 on Her Film Debut and Wesleyan’s Impact

That’s writer/director Liz Garcia ’99 on the left in the red,
 Lifeguard star(clockwise) Martin Starr, Josh Harto, and Kristen Bell.


Unfortunately, at both Wesleyan and the world of Hollywood in general, we don’t hear as much about non-male directors, leading the way in making movies for the big screen. There’s a bit of a gender gap, at least in what the media focuses on. But they’re hard at work, writing their own films and pushing them through competitions and studios. Case in point: Liz Garcia ’99, who wrote for Dawson’s Creek, wrote and co-produced Cold Caseand created and produced Memphis Beat.

Today marks the big-screen release of her debut film, The Lifeguard, which Garcia wrote and directed, starring Kristen Bell and Martin Starr. It appeared in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and now you can see it in theaters across the country. I talked to Garcia about The Lifeguard, her career in TV and now film, and the impact Wesleyan had on her life. She also had some advice for the Class of 2017, all of which you can read after the jump.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me! The Lifeguard is your big-screen debut, as both director and writer. Can you tell me a little about the movie?

The movie is about a woman [Kristen Bell as Leigh] who is about to turn 30 and working as a reporter in New York, and she sort of hates her life and is kind of depressed and lost and decides to run back home. She moves back into her parents’ house, into her childhood bedroom, and she gets the job she had in high school as a lifeguard in a pool. And she tries to recapture what that time in her life felt like and tries to drag her adult friends into that time as well. She gets into a dangerous relationship with an underage kid [David Lambert as Jason] that has a ripple effect on everyone in her life.

The movie, then, focuses a lot on Leigh’s return, regression even, to childhood or teenager-hood. As the writer, did you base this on real life events?

LG: No, I didn’t base it on real life events, but I was a lifeguard at a pool in high school and during college. And I had a lot of nostalgia for that time and I understand the impulse to run away from some of the aspects of adult life. I relate to the fantasy that being young is easier than being an adult.

Before this, you’ve written, produced, and created a few television shows— namely, Memphis Beat and Cold Case. What made you interested in making a film, and why now?

When I graduated from Wesleyan as a film major, I decided I would move to LA and pursue both television and feature film writing. I knew, for instance, that Joss Whedon ’87 and Mike White ’92 had done that, so I decided I would pursue both simultaneously. I’ve been both writing features and working in TV, but I hadn’t gotten a movie made. I had one movie I wrote that I’d been really trying hard to be my directorial debut but it kept falling apart, and I thought maybe this wasn’t meant to be the movie I was meant to debut, so I wrote The Lifeguard and pursued that. Directing film is a dream I’ve had for a long time, and something I’ve been pursuing since I moved to Las Angeles.

You can download it now on iTunes and it’s on video on demand already, but as of Friday you’re able to see it in theaters in places like New York and Boston.

What made you submit your film to Sundance, and what was that process like? 

Sundance 2013, The Lifeguard was in the US Dramatic competition. We finished shooting last summer, and then we edited in the fall and submitted to Sundance, and we premiered at Sundance in the winter of 2013.

Getting into Sundance was a dream come true. It was one of the best moments of my life. When I got the call and found out we were in, it was amazing. It was so validating and so exciting and just surreal and really awesome.

How did your time at Wesleyan influence your career?

At Wesleyan, I was a film and American Studies double major. They’re both incredible and have just continued to inform my life. It was really perfect because American Studies is the study of how the culture we create, the art, the media, the material objects, what those things say about the world that we’re living in. I love film, and I love to just be entertained by film and treat it as art and experience it in an organic way, but because I studied American Studies, I’m so aware of the powerful message we’re sending about the time we’re living in through film. When I create something, I’m wearing both majors, I’m in the creative mode but trying to be really responsible about what message I’m putting out there because I know that message will be carrying on. I know how that has a ripple effect and how powerful it could be.

The Class of 2017 just came to Wesleyan on Wednesday. What advice would you give to them about their time in college? And what particularly would you tell to those interested in film?

I would say, first of all, generally that your time at Wesleyan is the most rich and exciting time intellectually that you can imagine. You will resent the amount of work you are given, but enjoy the fact that never again in your life will you be able to concentrate solely on ideas and expanding your mind, so revel in it.

For people who want to study film at Wesleyan, I would say you are so privileged because your education at Wesleyan is going to teach you to just love film. And what you’re learning about what people before you have done will inform your career and your art more than you realize. Try to soak everything in and watch every movie that you are assigned and take copious notes and do the work, because this is the time that you are learning what type of artist you are going to be.

Care to share any stories about your own Orientation?

I remember arriving at Wesleyan and being so intimidated and thinking everyone was more sophisticated than I was. And I think that was true to some extent. But I wish that I could go back and be less self-conscious and take in every opportunity that was afforded to me and not worry what anyone else thought of me. By the time you realize you’re fucking awesome at college, college might be done.

There was originally a scene in the script of The Lifeguard, which got cut, where Leigh is updating her certificate and she meets a girl who just graduated from Wesleyan. Leigh was originally supposed to be from Wesleyan. But the joke was that this girl, who was ten years younger than she was, had more direction and focus than she did. I love Wesleyan, and wherever I am I’m going to make the Wesleyan shout out.

You have a lot of catching up to do to the creators of How I Met Your Mother. You should have put a Wesleyan sweatshirt in every episode of Cold Case.

That’s true, they were very good at that.

Thanks for talking to me, good luck with the debuts, and hopefully we’ll see The Lifeguard sometime soon in the Wesleyan Film Series!

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