Sundance Kids–Cochran, Stacy (My New Gun)

Before turning to features, Stacey Cochran used her savings to make two shorts about suburban lifetsyle: Cocktails at Six (1987), about a suburban party from the point of view of a six-year-old, and Another Damaging Day (1990), a comedy about a teen struck by lightning while washing his car in the driveway.

A year after receiving a film degree from Columbia, Cochran made My New Gun, written for a screenwriting class. The black comedy relates a deceptively simple tale: What happens when a gun is brought into the lives of a suburban couple. Budgeted at $2.1 million, with financing from IRS and Columbia-TriStar HomeVideo, My New Gun was shot in less than a month in Teaneck, New Jersey, at a townhouse whose interiors were used for multiple purposes, as the homes of both the doctor’s family and their neighbors.

Debbie Bender (Diane Lane) and her husband Gerald (Stephen Collins) are spending an evening with their friend Irving. To mark their engagement, Irwin gives his teenage fiancee a diamond ring and a revolver engraved with her name. Debbie is at first horrified, but, a few days later, when Gerald presents Debbie with her gun, she calmly puts it in her drawer. The pompously boring Gerald buys the gun to protect them from what he describes as a “sick world out there.” It’s a purchase that reflects the banality and tediousness of their marriage. Terrified, Debbie wakes up one night screaming from a nightmare. She’s comforted by her eccentric neighbor Skippy (James LeGros), who hears her from across the street. Skippy lives with his mother (Tess Harper), a washed out country-Western singer who’s trying to escape her sinister ex-husband (Bill Raymond). The narrative then depicts the peculiar circumstances under which Debbie learns how to shoot and use her gun.

Set in a place ridden with the mild-mannered angst of suburbia, the film is quasi-autobiographical–Cochran grew up in Passaic, New Jersey. There’s a childlike quality to the story,” said Cochran, who wrote for kids’ magazines before attending Columbia. “The whole movie is built on ellipses, hopefulness combined with dread.” The pastel-toned sets contrast with the potential violence, and Debbie’s outfits match the wallpaper of her tract house. While suburbanism is depicted as fostering boredom and paranoia, the movie is not a moralistic attack. For all its dreariness, suburbia is also a place where unexpected things happen, where people have neighborly relationships and try to take care of one another.

The opening cocktail scene establishes right away the quirky mood. “It’s a funny shot,” Cochran said of the unbroken, high-crane shot looking in on Gerald and Debbie as they try to enjoy their back patio. “But is it a neighborhood distance, a voyeur’s distance, or a threatening distance I was trying to create some sort of paranoia about the perpetual chaos out there but at the same time constantly undermine the need for paranoia.”

Using as protagonist a housewife, a prevalent type in feminist films, Cochran’s portrayal differ from that of Seidelman’s. She doesn’t rely on artificial devices–amnesia, mistaken identity–to transform Debbie’s awareness. There’s more to Debbie than just being a housewife–she’s a curious, ambitious woman determined to make a career out of her life. Cochran explained: “Whether it’s guns or vacuums, there are assumptions you make when you see the products of a woman’s life, and I wanted to undermine those assumptions.” Cochran achieved her goal not through speeches, but accumulation of visual detail.

If you want to know more, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, hardcover, paperback).