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TV Movie Goodness Interview: Nicole Gomez Fisher Talks Sleeping with the Fishes [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit: Breaking Glass Pictures
Photo Credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

Families are a complex animal to begin with. When you add multiculturalism to that equation, everything that’s a normal issue gets magnified. Nicole Gomez Fisher knows this first hand, and her own upbringing led her to write, produce, and direct Sleeping with the Fishes, which is running now on HBO.

Inspired by Fisher’s experiences but not wholly biographical, the film follows a young Latina Jewish woman, Lexie (played by Jane the Virgin‘s Gina Rodriguez) as she heads home for a family funeral and runs headlong into the mama drama she fled years earlier, which still has a hold on her. The cast is rounded out by Ugly Betty‘s Ana Ortiz, Steven Strait (Magic City), Broadway icon Priscilla Lopez, and Tibor Feldman (The Good Wife).

“It’s semi-autobiographical. They always say write what you know. When I started down this road, it was really important to write something from a very different point of view. The characters are all loosely based on my family. Some of the subject matter [was not],” she explains. “Some of the embellishment was for the writing process to give some structure to the characters. The driving force was the mother-daughter relationship and what that meant to me growing up from a very mixed, diverse, culturally different background.”

It was a careful balancing act as the script, which Fisher had not shown to her mom, started getting attention. “When I started getting traction on it, I was so excited yet so nervous. I’m a former standup comedian, so that’s hard enough. But when you’re really exposing parts of your life that could potentially be viewed in a negative light, it’s a fine line,” she says. “I tried to include ironic humor [because] I didn’t want to insult my mother. It’s not an exact portrayal. It’s my perspective of my upbringing and on how it was very hard to balance how she would go about trying to help.”

“When we had a reading and I invited her, I asked her to view it as any film, and take herself out of it. I didn’t want her to think that I think poorly of her. I have always thought very highly of my mother, but it’s one of those things where you know what you know based on your background and how you were raised, so her way was not necessarily the best way in my eyes, but I understood it from a very empathetic point of view. She is and was who she was because of what she knew. Once the film was moving forward, I think it came down to her being proud more than anything else.”

Casting her film family came together in a few ways. “It was not as hard as I thought it was going to be. I already knew out of the gate that Priscilla Lopez was the dream to play my mom. When I saw her in The Heights [on Broadway], I told my husband she had to play my mother if I get this made. She really liked the script and came on board right away,” she recalls.

Rodriguez was coming off a Sundance success with Filly Brown, but Fisher initially had concerns that she wasn’t old enough for where Lexie was in the story, so they worked on that. “My biggest concern was that she was too young. When I wrote the role, it was from the perspective of the realization and understanding that your parents are the way they are much later in life,” she says. “There’s a part of you that wants to find your twin, and part of you that wants to find the opposite so you can disassociate. I met with Gina and we had lunch, and she understood and listened to everything about the role. She understood that were was a maturity factor that I wanted. There was no one else I could think of.”

Lopez was the hook for Ana Ortiz. “When Ana heard that Priscilla came on board, she told me later that not only did she like the script but working with Priscilla was on her bucket list.”

Casting the father was a bit trickier because she wanted somebody who hit the right notes with Rodeiguez, and they found that with Feldman. “Gina came from LA to read with all the fathers,” she says. “She and Tibor had a connection that made us cry in the audition.”

Fisher had admired Strait from his performance opposite Andy Garcia in City island. “I thought he had that New York look and it’s believable that some random girl could catch his eye as long as there is some sort of relatable quality,” she says. “He was amazing. He wanted to discuss his character, to make sure I knew what I was talking about.”

Photo Credit: Breaking Glass Pictures
Photo Credit: Breaking Glass Pictures

Once funding came together, Fisher stepped into the director’s chair and found it a great fit, and she was helped immensely by her production team. “I didn’t really have the money to bring on an experienced director, and I didn’t want to bring on somebody just out of school who didn’t have the experience. If anyone is going to do this, and knows the story, it might as well be me,” she says. “I talked to my casting director and he reassured me that there was no one better. Having been an actress earlier in my career, I know what works. I’m very hands on with my actors. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.

“My DOP Raoul [Germain]. who flew in from California to shoot this with me–he really held my hand–as did my first AD, Inna [Braude]. They guided me like the clueless kid who just landed on the spaceship. They explained to me that timing is crucial, that you have to be clear and concise. At the end of the day, this is your vision, you need to see on the monitor, in frame, what you want,” she says. “[You have to] get the most out of your actors…because you can’t go back later. If they felt something was out of sorts, they would tell me in my ear. I was wearing so many hats, that sometimes I’d get distracted by the basics like paying my crew. It was nice to have people there with more experience guiding you. I knew I could count on them.”

Having the film land on HBO has been a great distribution mechanism for people all over the world to see it at the same time, and in Spanish. Fisher has enjoyed hearing from people through Facebook. “When you’ve worked on something for so many years there’s part of you that’s desperate to move on to the next project and part of you that wants to enjoy the moment while it’s here. The HBO thing was shocking and exciting beyond words. Knowing that we went through the process of adding subtitles for the Latino audience was great because I knew that would stretch out the market for us.”

“When it aired the first time, and the HBO static kicked in, I cried. When you have seen it in festivals and on your laptop, and you watch it like this and you see it’s not your copy anymore…it’s been edited down and mastered, it’s exciting. What’s so exciting is the respond on Facebook from people all over the word. That’s the most rewarding.” She adds that she’s had responses from people as far-flung as Isarel, Montana, and Hawaii who’ve shared their own experiences. “Its moments like that that make it [more than a business]. You finally reap the rewards that you did it and the satisfaction that HBO thought enough of it. It’s on Amazon now, and I just signed my international deal.”

Looking ahead, Fisher is shopping sitcom scripts and a spec script that’s a surrogacy caper, also loosely based on her own experiences with IVF and surrogacy. She he says it’s Thelma and Louise meets Baby Mama. And she’s directing again. She just wrapped a music video for Jennifer Vazquez‘s “Getting Out of My Own Way,” and is at work now on a short film. “I took on these projects because I believed in them and I wanted to hone my skills. It’s been a sharp learning curve and when you come up for air, it’s so worth it, especially when you get the recognition.”

Sleeping with the Fishes is airing now on HBO. Here is a sneak peek:

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