Having met as roommates at Brown University, Tatiana von Furstenberg and Francesca Gregorini drew on their own school experiences and close relationship for their new film, Tanner Hall, which is, conveniently, a coming-of-age movie. “It’s about friendship and the human connection, flaws and all,” said Gregorini.
The movie opened at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009. At the time, the names von Furstenberg and Gregorini (who are co-writer-directors) were generating more buzz than anything. Tatiana’s mother is none other than famed designer Diane von Furstenberg, while Francesca is the daughter of Bond girl Barbara Bach and stepdaughter of Ringo Starr. Their shared background ultimately led them to work together on a creative level.
“When we visited our families in Europe, we would go to these old, beautiful homes and would cast whoever happened to be there in short films that we shot on Super 8,” said von Furstenberg, adding that their approach to writing and directing Tanner Hall was similar. They scouted hidden gems in Providence for a setting before they’d fully formed the script, but the story flowed organically once they established their foundation and visual aesthetic. “It was kind of a coming-home for us to film our first feature there,” said Gregorini.
The setting of Tanner Hall is an all-girls boarding school in New England where four high school seniors struggle with the inherent conflicts of transitioning from childhood to adulthood: self-discovery, temptation, morality, and sexuality. The girls are confined to run loose in the long corridors of their dormitory, playing pranks on their horny headmaster and plotting an escape. Trouble is around every classroom corner, and more temptation lurks outside school grounds. There’s no sign of modern technology and no generational lingo, and everything from Tanner Hall itself to the carnival off campus seems antiquated.
Fernanda (Rooney Mara), the most grounded of her friends, loses her sensibility when she leaves campus with Gio (Tom Everett Scott), a married older man and family friend whom she falls for and actively pursues. The coquettish Kate (Brie Larsen), who gets off on toying with her English teacher, has no sense of consequence, and Lucasta (Amy Ferguson) is disinterested in men altogether. Then there’s Victoria (Georgia King), the self-loathing, attention-starved British import who tries to turn everyone against each other.
While the girls suffer late adolescent growing pains, Tanner Hall’s requisite headmaster and housemother are in the throes of midlife crisis. Mr. Middleton (Chris Kattan) can’t get it up for his neurotic wife (Amy Sedaris), whose determination to arouse her husband is absurdly comical, albeit slightly uncomfortable to watch. Relentless, she straddles her hubby and force-feeds him Viagra, neither of which does the trick. Mr. Middleton’s only remedy is to close his eyes and pretend he’s making love to young Kate. But the fantasy deflates when he comes onto her after class one day and she immediately retreats.
Mara, who is starring in David Fincher’s upcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo pulls off the role of the impulsive seductress with fervor and conviction, but is equally compelling as a young woman realizing her moral shortcomings. Tanner Hall was premiered before Mara appeared in The Social Network.
Every character in Tanner Hall is flawed, but they’re only human. That’s the one lesson Gregorini and Furstenberg intended to impart.
“They all have integrity and, yes, they all stray because that’s life,” said von Furstenberg. Gregorini finishes her sentence: “There’s always going to be a balancing act.”
Coincidentally, Gregorini and von Furstenberg both attended boarding school (before they met in college) as well, which leaves one wondering just how much of Tanner Hall is autobiographical.
“Francesca and I have been through every possible challenge together,” Tatiana said. “I think that set the stage.”