The Everlasting Appeal of ‘Party Girl’

Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer recalls the making of her 1995 cult classic about the club-kid scene, which is now being rereleased in theaters.

The Everlasting Appeal of ‘Party Girl’

To writer-director Daisy von Scherler Mayer, her 1995 movie Party Girl is “the gift that keeps on giving.” This, despite its meager initial returns. In a Zoom call with Jezebel this week, von Scherler Mayer explained that she sold the movie to First Look Pictures in a distribution deal for $30,000 (which she split with co-writer Harry Birckmayer). It went on to be a hit at Sundance, though given post-production costs, it essentially broke even at the box office when it ultimately grossed $500,000.

And yet, Party Girl lives on. It will forever be remembered as the star turn from Parker Posey, occurring early in her ‘90s indie reign. Because First Look went out of business, it was out of print or otherwise unavailable for years until Fun City Editions snapped it up, performed a 4K remaster on the 16mm film, and released a special edition Blu-ray of it. Starting this week, it’s back in theaters for a limited run. (It’s also streaming on the Criterion Channel in its remastered version.)

The idea for the movie—which finds Posey’s club-kid character Mary attempting to pivot to a daytime career as a library clerk while maintaining her nightlife presence and wooing a sexy Lebanese guy named Mustafa (Omar Townsend), who runs a falafel stand—was to create something “about all the side characters in other films and have fun with it.” (In supporting roles, there’s Guillermo Diaz as Mary’s DJ roommate; Anthony DeSando as Mary’s gay friend Derrick; Liev Schreiber as Mary’s sometime love interest, the bouncer Nigel; and von Scherler Mayer’s mother Sasha von Scherler as Mary’s librarian godmother Judy.) Von Scherler Mayer grew up in New York and reflected a lot of her ‘80s clubgoing in her script. She was particularly tight with nightlife staple Jenny Lumet, and she based club-owner Rene (Donna Mitchell) partially on Nell Campbell.

Party Girl came out in 1995, the year before Michael Alig and his roommate, Robert D. “Freeze” Riggs, killed Andre “Angel” Melendez and effectively snuffed out the club-kid scene. The movie summarized and ultimately eulogized an era. To promote the theatrical rerelease, von Scherler Mayer talked to Jezebel about Party Girl’s enduring legacy, its no-brainer diversity, and what led her away from moviemaking and into directing for television on shows like Halt and Catch Fire and Yellowjackets. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

JEZEBEL: Your $150,000 movie made about $500,000 at the box office—when did you get the sense that it was a cult favorite?

DAISY VON SCHERLER MAYER: I’m very proud of the script. I’m very proud of the film. But there is a sparkle dust around Parker Posey in this film that is just undeniable. And we felt it when she came in to audition and we felt it on set. Even if sometimes she and I would butt heads, because I wanted things word-perfect and she wanted to add a like, “T-O apostrophe Up: Toe up!” and I’m like, “What are you even saying?” But I think that even that tension creatively between the two of us was awesome. And obviously we love each other now. But I would say that when we were at Sundance, we didn’t get [nominated] for the fancy awards. It wasn’t the best new film or whatever, but I feel like we should have won the Audience Award, and I know that everybody came up to us and was like, “We’re voting for you for the Audience Award.” I did feel that there was something very special there and if anything was kind of surprised that it wasn’t a bigger box office hit.

Given the box office return, it seems odd that it was picked up to be a TV series.

That was pretty heartbreaking and disastrous for me and for Harry, because [Fox] was like, “We love it, and now we’re going to change everything about it.” We said the TV series should just be about Mary and Derrick, which would be myself and Harry, but a cooler version of [us], and it should be about the relationship between a woman and the intense friendship with her best male gay friend. And they were like, “Absolutely not. We can cast a gay actor. They can feel gay, like Bewitched, but we could never have them come out.” Cut to [two years] later, Will and Grace comes out and I’m like, “Why I oughta!” We knew it. We knew that was a great relationship and an emotionally and comedic one for TV. And anyway, woulda coulda shoulda.

You talked about the Parker Posey sparkle dust of the movie. It stands to reason than anybody stepping into that role would have a hard time.

Yes and no. I mean, did they choose a Rosie Perez? But if you go to Christine Taylor [as Mary], who’s a brilliant comedian, a lovely actor…she’s Marcia Brady. They cast my mom, then they fired my mom, which was just so hard because she had retired from acting. She was working at the Gay Men’s Health Center with the AIDS community as a social worker. She had a whole life going on and they flew her out to Hollywood, had her do like a day, fired her, and then brought in Swoosie Kurtz. Again, brilliant actor, but my mom and Swoosie is about a 220-pound difference. Maybe not 200, but definitely 150-pound difference. And mom would not mind my saying that, may she rest in peace. Maybe she would.


Where did Rene’s anti-Teddy Rogers thing come from? I feel like I heard decades ago that Susanne Bartsch had some beef with a producer whose music she banned from her parties…

Oh, that’s really interesting and could be true. And I honestly can’t answer that. One of the things I love about Party Girl and that I try to tell young writers is that the way we wrote it was like a friggin’ documentary. We did so many interviews. We would interview DJs and we interviewed a librarian, and so much of the dialogue came from them. I know Harry did an interview with a DJ and that vendetta thing absolutely could have come from real life, because a lot of the stuff did come from real life.

There was so much fun in creating the movie, and the ideas didn’t come from a course or a, “I want to have a turning point at page 10.” It was much more like: “This fun thing happened at a club last night,” or “I heard this thing.” Or: “My sister’s friend’s becoming a librarian and she says they hate Melvil Dewey.” Everything just was from a more joyful place. I’ve spent my whole career trying to get back to that level of joy.

What happened to Omar Townsend? Party Girl was his first and only movie.

While I love Omar in the film, he was not really a professional actor. We had a really hard time finding a person of Arabic descent who spoke Arabic, who was in the acting community that we were aware of. And I cannot tell you how many people said, “Can’t he be Italian?” “Can’t he be Hispanic?” We doubled down on no, it has to be the real ethnicity. Because Harry was teaching English as a second language, he was really aware of different immigrant communities and the experience they have. So then we had to do a search and then it was like, we have to have the hottest guy. Like, the movie does not work as a story unless he’s the male version of the Budweiser girl. He’s the prize. I say to my daughters all the time, “Look for the woman just being the prize at the end of the movie.” Like Tom Cruise gets to become a fighter [pilot] and oh yeah, he gets a prize, and the prize is the girl. And we were like, “Let’s make a movie where the girl gets a job just like the boys do, and she can get a prize, too.”


But that’s a long-winded way of saying Omar was a wealthy and very interesting guy. Years after the movie was over, I’d get an email saying, “Daisy, I’m going to be out on a yacht in Ibiza. Would you like to join us for a party?” And I’d be like, “Omar, I’m working. I have a job.” And then we lost touch. But he committed and he did a good job. And we were lucky to have him.

We were like, ‘Let’s make a movie where the girl gets a job just like the boys do, and she can get a prize, too.’

What was the source of his wealth?

No idea. I knew that he was from Lebanon. There’s a couple of things he did off the cuff that I found out later were kind of rude. Like he goes, “Yalla,” and that’s sort of how you’d speak to a dog. A wonderful film critic named Jack Shaheen wrote a lot about the portrayal of Arabs in American movies. And he had a book [Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People]. He [wrote] on how Party Girl was a nice rom com with an appealing Lebanese character that wasn’t a terrorist or a murderer or a religious zealot or whatever. And I’m very proud of that. But I see on Letterboxd a lot of new kids find it to be culturally insensitive. I struggle with that. I would say that the character of Mary is culturally insensitive and especially when she has her low point and she’s telling him to make falafels at 4 in the morning. She is just being a terrible person, and part of the way we say that is by having her [say] a homophobic slur and screaming about the belly dancer. And that to me is like how we say she’s bad.

To the movie’s credit, it has a lot of diversity in the cast—a real casual sense of diversity that is still hard to come by in movies.

Party Girl is not ahead of its time. The business sucks and is behind its time. I think Party Girl is proof positive that people have been trying to get a more interesting cast of characters on screen. It’s just like, come on, guys. You have been actively resisting us and saying, “We can only make stories about Tom Hanks,” for so many years, and now you’re going to turn around and say, “Wow, white guys can’t get jobs.” It’s like, no. It just frustrates me so much because I think there’s an appetite for it. This tiny movie would not still exist if there wasn’t. We were just reflecting the world that was around us. I grew up in New York City, and if you choose people from diverse worlds to make films, then you won’t have your suburban filmmaking problem.

“Party Girl is not ahead of its time. The business sucks and is behind its time.”

After 2002’s The Guru, you pivoted to TV in a big way. Why?

So there’s good and bad. Like, I had a family. That’s awesome. The bad would be that The Guru was terribly received. My agent called me and he said, “You’re in movie jail, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to work in TV.” I didn’t know anything about TV, much less how to work in TV. It’s a much different way of working, but I needed to earn a living. I fell on my face a bit in the beginning, and then I figured it out, thank God. There was no cushion. The position of director is different [in TV]. And nobody whispered a thing in my ear. They were like, you know, let’s just watch her fail. But I scraped myself off and I went back, figured it out, got some good advice, and started crushing it. And luckily that happened because I was never going to work in network TV. They never wanted me. The people that would hire me in TV were the more cool people who said, “Let’s get an independent film director.”

After Halt and Catch Fire [2014-2017], I felt very secure and very happy in the in the world of directing TV. But I was always doing the more niche, more interesting stuff. And then movies died and everything became about TV. I was already there. I don’t think I could compete now with David Fincher directing pilots and all the movie people coming into my business. I think I’m there because I’ve been there.


…Anyway, I’ll shut up. My 16-year-old daughter was like, “In all these Party Girl things, Mommy, just don’t be bitter. Bitter is not a good look.” And I have to say, she’s right.

She is.

Because I actually am really happy. I can dine out on Party Girl for the rest of my life. So many people love it and it’s never stopped bringing me joy. I’m always happy that I made it. If I become a teacher or do something else, I’ll always have that.

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