From SXSW to music videos to film, Mary Neely shows the breadth of her talents in everything she does.
“I had this realization where I was like, ‘no one is going to hire me unless they’ve seen my work,’” Mary Neely says.
Frustrated by the difficulty of breaking into the film industry, Neely, a 27-year-old filmmaker, writer, and actor in Los Angeles, decided to create a space for herself to show what she could do. Recently, she directed the short film Pink Trailer, one of 23 short films selected for inclusion in South by Southwest from thousands of submissions.
But directing and writing, interestingly, came to her by accident. She had been acting in commercials since she was in college at UCLA, but found that roles in television and film were harder for to come by. Sometimes the roles just weren’t interesting, and sometimes the ones that were went to actresses with more established careers. How could she get her foot in the door while also making something she found worthwhile as a performer?
The answer became The Dresser, Neely’s first short film, a comedy about Sofia, a young actress hoping to hook up with a co-star who’s moving cross-country the next day by purchasing his dresser. She wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which ended up making its way into the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF). There, it received a nomination for The Golden Egg, the festival’s award for best short film from the festival’s Talent Lab.
After attending RIFF and the other film festivals, Mary Neely was inspired to keep creating work for herself. That, plus the ennui of returning to LA and feeling stuck led to her next project. “I didn’t feel like anyone really understood who I was. I feel like I’m not in a specific role of a character, so I just was like, ‘I need to let people see who I am,’” she says. “Through frustration and inspiration and passion I decided to make my web series and just go for it and make it for like no money.”
Her web series, Wacko Smacko, is a dark comedy based on The Dresser that also follows Sofia as she fumbles (albeit endearingly) through ordeals with dating, friendships, and family while trying to develop an acting career in Los Angeles. Neely wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the series. Eight episodes long, it was well-received on Snarled, the video network for women of Gen Z, with over 500K views. Sitting down to watch one episode to write this piece, I ended up devouring all eight in one sitting—Neely’s storytelling is raw and real, and her character Sofia is, thankfully, imperfect and nuanced, a person with aspirations who also occasionally shoots herself in the foot, and is by no means a one-dimensional female stereotype.
What Neely also does well in Wacko Smacko is navigate the experience of female friendship with honesty, shedding light on its layers and complexity. “I just realized in the same time period that I made The Dresser and I made Wacko Smacko [that] my friendships were really important to me and I realized I didn’t really see a lot of female relationships portrayed that I felt connected to,” she says. “In my viewing of media, I’m either watching girls who hate each other and are being pinned against each other or I’m watching girls who are like, ‘nothing’s wrong, we just love each other and we’re like sisters’ and I’m like, no, to me there’s so much more complexity to female friendship.” In Wacko Smacko, Sofia and her best friend Deb, played by Cala Murry, are “not pinned against each other but they’re not frolicking in a field,” Neely says.
Their relationship feels true because we see their ups and downs in a way that actually mirrors real life. Neely also hopes to expand the ideas behind Wacko Smacko into a television series, and has been working on a pilot based around female loneliness, especially as it pertains to young women. “These harder issues of being sad, being lonely, being angry, all of those can be explored more with women,” she says. “I’m really interested in exploring what it looks like for young women to be feeling lonely or feeling really sad or feeling like they have to create [coping] mechanisms in order to survive.”
Mary Neely has taken her study of female friendships into more of her work, her direction of Pink Trailer in particular. The film, written by Macey Isaacs and Jenny Leiferman, follows two young women, Julie and Lucy, as they housesit for Lucy’s grandmother and are pestered to hang out by a much-too-eager neighbor. Neely has an eye for sharp detail and snappy storytelling that’s made its way from the text of “Wacko Smacko” to the screen of Pink Trailer. She knows how to get us to look at characters the way they look at each other, a facet of her work that’s greatly influenced by her experiences as an actor.
Professors at UCLA taught Neely to think of how to raise the stakes, to make situations meaningful. “I think those ideas have helped so much in directing,” she says. “People have to constantly try to relate to each other and try to get through to each other and communicate and listen to each other, [and] that’s so valuable in helping actors.”
She’s also recently taken this directing point of view, one focusing on the intricacies of being female in heightened detail, to the band Pinky Pinky, directing their latest music video “Margaret,” which looks like an early 2000s Delia’s/Limited Too catalog gone awry, but in the best way possible. From a young age, Mary Neely was constantly meeting new people as her parents divorced and began dating. This affected her ability to notice and then reproduce details about people she interacted with. “[Detail] is a thing that rounds out a world and creates that realness that people can relate to,” she says. “I don’t like making things that are super polished and super CGI or whatever because I don’t really relate to stuff like that.” For Neely, then, the reality is in the specificity, from the bandannas and butterfly clips worn by the tweens in the “Margaret” video to the slightly off-kilter bun Julie wears in Pink Trailer. You can evoke a truer experience if smaller features are brought to light.
And though Neely has now seen a great deal of recognition for her work as a writer and director, it’s never something she expected. In college, she sought to learn as much about the film industry and filmmaking as possible, but she always thought of herself as an actor first—she still does, and will appear in MGM’s forthcoming remake of the 1980s classic Valley Girl—but is excited to expand her career in ways she hadn’t thought possible.
“Acting is such a passion of mine that I don’t think I could ever stop doing, but I do feel like a big interest from people for my writing and directing, which is really nice,” she says. “It’s so unexpected because again, I never intended to do this so it’s just cool that people have responded to it.”