The original movie “Five” premiering Monday, October 10 on Lifetime, is an anthology of five interconnected short films about breast cancer. It’s not the typical maudlin treatment of the subject. Executive Produced by “Friends” creator Marta Kauffman and Jenifer Aniston, and featuring A-list talent both in front of and behind the camera, “Five” is smart, funny and surprising. One of the most unusual stories is “Cheyenne” directed by Penelope Speerhis (“Wayne’s World,” “The Decline of Western Civilization”), and starring “Nikita’s” Lyndsy Fonseca and “Vampire Diaries” hunk Taylor Kinney. It’s the tale of a young stripper whose life is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with an aggressive form of the cancer. Speerhis shared why this story has a surprising connection to “Charlie’s Angels” star Minka Kelly.
What attracted you to this project?
Mostly the cause. I was also involved with Stand Up to Cancer with Laura Ziskin. I found out that when you do things for a good reason, somehow you just feel better than if you’re doing it for just self-serving purposes. So that’s it. That and the great people involved with it.
Did you get to pick which story you directed?
It was kind of funny actually because my agent, David Gersh, called and said, “Could you go and meet with the producers of this show and they don’t want you to read the script before you go.” And I said, “My gosh that’s an interesting meeting,” because you always feel like you have to be prepared, but I wasn’t allowed to read it. Then when I left they gave me all five episodes and I read them and thought, “Gosh. I really hope the one about the stripper isn’t taken because I feel I could do that the best,” and I was so surprised to find out it was the only one that was available.
Preview Speerhis’s “Five” Piece:
What is it about the story that resonated with you?
Mostly it’s emotion and the fact that you just don’t think of the disease striking a 26 year-old girl who is doing that kind of work. It was just an extremely unexpected storyline and I don’t think any of the other directors took it, because they all had their choice before me, it was tricky. First of all, you’re dealing with a stripper who just theoretically on the concept of her work isn’t all that likable, so how do you make her likable? But I was also attracted to it because, having done my documentaries etc., I came across a lot of girls who have that lifestyle. Even one of my friends, back in the day, which was Minka Kelly’s mother, I babysat Minka when she was 8, 9, 10 years old. She would come over because I had a daughter about her age and her mother had that crazy lifestyle and ultimately died from breast cancer. So I thought I knew the territory.
What about the casting? How did that come together?
It’s a really interesting thing because I came on board really late in the game. We were shooting for the stars and I was sending the script to all the big name actors that I know. Most of them were busy. Most of them I think were a little nervous about doing it and then I was told, “We have to cast it tomorrow because Patty Jenkins is shooting her segment and the lead guy has to be in her segment.” So Taylor Kinney was cast and Lyndsy [Fonseca] was cast and they were perfect for it but they were cast sort of in a scramble… I’m not a big TV watcher so I wasn’t familiar with their work. But we were very pleased.
Music is such an important part of your films. How did you select the music for Cheyenne?
That’s another reason why I was attracted to the piece because I was able to use some music I liked. I have to admit I’m not normally attracted to women lead singers. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but people have tastes, but I thought that using women lead singers in the band would be the right thing to do in this show and I think it worked out really well. We used Girl School. They’re from back in the punk rock days, an all girl band, but they’re great.
You’re known for your comedies. How was it different to tackle such a serious subject?
I would not have done comedy for my entire life had it not been for “Wayne’s World” because the things I did before “Wayne’s World” were quite serious. It’s just that in this town you get kind of pigeonholed and I was really only able to do the comedies after that. So it was for me a great [opportunity] to revisit what I really wanted to do in life to be able to do this show. Having Marta Kauffman as the main writer, she’s really the one who was the glue between all of them. She’s such an amazing writer and has such a big overview of things. She really helped keep it together. Because of the subject matter she didn’t want it to be so maudlin and down. She wanted to inject some comedy. I think that’s also one reason why they wanted to have me there. But it was ironic because I saw the show in New York on Monday night with an audience and some of the other segments are actually, in my opinion, funnier than mine. I think you need the levity when you’re dealing with such a heavy subject just to tie it all in. I think it puts it in perspective for people. They have to be able to watch it because it’s heavy.
What differentiates “Five” from all the other films about breast cancer?
I think the most obvious reason is because it has the high profile women involved. If you’re talking about content, what’s different about it is, as a director of feature films I was actually astounded that Marta could tell such complicated stories in such a quick time. You really get a lot of character and plot and story in fifteen or eighteen minutes. It was almost like five feature films, especially Demi’s. They have beginnings, middles and ends. I think that’s what’s unique about it. It’s not like you’re sitting there watching an entire program with two leads and finding out what that story was. You’re jumping around. I think the great thing about the show is it kind of keeps pace with the fast moving world.
What do you hope viewers will learn about breast cancer?
The thing is, once you have it, it’s always with you. Whether you’re sick or not, you always have to be vigilant against it. Another thing I noticed doing this show is that once you tell people you’re doing a show on the subject matter, you hear so many stories that you were just totally unaware of. People that you know that you’re close to that have had friends and family with the disease. One in eight women in America are going to be affected by it. That’s a pretty high statistic. That doesn’t mean that one in eight are going to die, but one in eight are going to experience some affect of it personally.
If you were going to make another chapter of the music documentary series Decline of Western Civilization, what would you focus on?
The last one I did, which is the Decline Part 3, I started out thinking it was going to be about new punk music and it ended up being about homeless punk kids around the age of 10, 12 years old. So if I were to do another decline, I would say it would probably not focus on music because it doesn’t interest me that much anymore. But it would focus on probably homeless kids again and how we just need to help each other because if we don’t the decline will happen much faster.