By Deborah Lubanga
In late November 2013, while the rest of New York City was preparing for the holiday season, Fredgy Noël sat crying in her therapist’s office.
Just five months earlier, her mother-in-law, Eve Michael, had lost a hard-fought battle with cancer. The family knew it was going to happen, but that never makes it any easier.
“She was such a fighter that I just kept on believing she was going to be okay. And it just affected me,” Noël recalled of her struggle to cope with the grief. “[Eve was] the closest person to me that’s ever passed away.”
During this particularly emotive session, a teary-eyed Noël asked her therapist, “Don’t you wish you could just date guys for their moms?”
Realizing how odd this sounded out loud, Noël did something she had not done in weeks: she laughed. And despite the tears, it was genuine. But more than that, it was inspiring.
Two days later, Noël was sitting by the window in Epistrophy Café. Tucked away in Little Italy, the café is one of her favorite places to get some creative work done. As a writer and producer for VH1 on-air promotions, Noël is constantly developing new content. But on this particular day she was working on something much more personal.
Over the next two days, Noël wrote the screenplay for her first short film, Milking It, in memory of her late mother-in-law. Shooting for the independent film is scheduled to begin in May, with Noël not only directing but also playing the lead role.
Set in New York City the film stars Josephine, a 30-year-old woman, who dates men so she can spend time with their mothers. While Josephine genuinely cares for her boyfriends, her relationship with their mothers is what she focuses on.
The film’s title stems from the fact that Noël “was thinking of something that only mothers could provide.” In her synopsis of the plot she wrote, “To Josephine, these mothers fulfill something in her that their sons are incapable of fulfilling.”
First there is Ms. Collins, Nate’s mother. She and Josephine tap into their sophisticated sides as they explore museums and attend wine tastings. But when Nate gets a fellowship in Nicaragua, Josephine breaks up with him because she can no longer justify the amount of time she spends with his mother.
Josephine’s second relationship with Jake gives her access to his mother, Michelle, and her amazing butter cake. But when Michelle moves to Los Angeles, Josephine cannot imagine any kind of future with her son – especially not one involving marriage.
And finally there is Bianca, Felipé’s mother, who Josephine is constantly having heart-to-heart conversations with. After catching his girlfriend talking to his mother one too many times, a fed-up Felipé has, according to Josephine, “the audacity to tell her to get her own mother.”
Unfortunately, the closest Josephine gets to her mother is an outgoing voicemail message. However, a message on her own answering machine reveals that she is not completely alone in the world.
Noël describes her rather manipulative protagonist as complicated “because you never really know what her motivations are.” But at the same time there is no denying Josephine’s charm because “there is a reason why these guys and their moms fall in love with her.”
The exploration of motherly relationships in Milking It is what attracted its producer, Myriam Schroeter, to the project.
“[The film] definitely forces you to question your own relationships and think of this notion of ‘oh yes you can find motherly love’ or ‘you can have another mother in your life,’” said Schroeter. “And that’s OK or great or awful. But it forces you to think about it.”
Although Noël and Schroeter acknowledge that Josephine is a bit of an extreme example, the idea of being close to the family of your significant other is not that outlandish.
New York University psychology professor Dr. Susan Andersen said it is “perfectly ordinary” to be relatively close to and spend quality time with the family of your significant other when you are in a long-term relationship. In principle, if your boyfriend has a good relationship with his family, he will see your interest in them as an extension of your interest in him.
In fact, Schroeter could relate to Josephine on a personal level because she has remained good friends with an ex-boyfriend’s mother.
“I think it’s happened to everyone,” the producer said. “You’ve dated someone and you love their mom or dad, but if they leave your life you lose a whole other relationship and sometimes you don’t even think about it or realize.”
Because the idea for the film came from such a personal place, Noël has even described Josephine as being a more extreme version of herself. In fact after reading the screenplay, Schroeter was able to pick up on the hints of Noël in Josephine.
“You’re immediately attracted to Fredgy when you talk to her and she’s so personable and so, I don’t know, I just want to hug her. So I think there is some of that in Josephine,” said Schroeter.
With the plot relying so heavily on Josephine and Noël’s emotional attachment to the story, she decided to play the character in the film.
“It’s just such a weird story. It’s so quirky. And I felt that I understood [Josephine] and I don’t think anyone else can understand her like I do,” Noël said.
While the line between the creator and her creation is fluid, there is one clear distinction: Noël does not have a history of being exceedingly close to her boyfriends’ mothers. Eve proved to be the exception.
“Because I wasn’t her daughter she could be my friend. But because I was married to her son she could be my mom,” said Noël.
Since Noël’s husband, Chris Michael, was busy working on his J.D. and PhD in politics, his mother and wife had ample time to develop a close relationship. In fact, by their second meeting, Noël and Eve were bonding over the first episode of “True Blood.”
“We were like twins. We would hang out so much,” she said.
Fortunately, Michael’s reaction to the bond between Noël and his mother was much better than that of the fictional Felipé.
“It made his mom happy, so it made him happy,” Noël said.
As for Noël’s relationship with her own mother, it is rather estranged.
“I think it was always hard for [my mother] to connect with me because my grandma raised me in Haiti. I know she tried a lot and she did a lot obviously. She came to this country and set up a life for all of us,” Noël said.
Although Noël was born in Miami in 1981, she spent the first seven years of her life in the countryside and suburbs of Port Au Prince in Haiti. There she would spend her mornings relaxing by the river and nights sneaking into the candy shop on her grandmother’s property.
“I didn’t feel any fear. Not because I was a kid but because it was my family’s town. We were trusted. No one would hurt me,” Noël said of her childhood in Haiti.
However, throughout the 1980s Haiti went through a violent period of civil unrest. So for her safety, Noël moved in with her mother in Gaithersburg, Md.
“[W]e were just kind of forced to be together in a time where [my mother] was still trying to figure her own stuff out in this new country, in Maryland with her one other Haitian girlfriend. So it was a little stressful,” Noël said. “I was a kid and I still love my grandma, I still love my aunts. I have love for everyone. I think [my mother] just wanted a bit more of it and had different kinds of ways of trying to get it that didn’t work with me.”
In light of the tension with her mother, a 16-year-old Noël moved in with her uncle in Miami to finish high school.
“I did some really cool things [in Miami],” she said. “And it really calmed me and settled me and prepared me for New York. Because when I came here I took off. I still can’t believe the growth that I had in the limited amount of time that I’ve been here.”
A week after graduating from Florida International University in 2004 with a B.A. in English and dance, Noël moved to New York City armed with a book bag, a suitcase, and $50.
At the time Noël was an aspiring musician. In fact, while working at Manhattan Sports Medicine, she ran into Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father and then-manager. Not missing a beat, Noël gave him her demo CD.
Although not much became of the demo or her singing career, Noël had bigger and brighter things in her future.
In February 2006, she landed an internship with MTV on-air promotions. This opportunity was particularly significant because when Noël first came to the United States, speaking only Haitian Creole and French, she learned a lot of English by watching MTV.
The internship opened the door for a job as a production assistant at TV Land a few months later. But after eight months Noël was itching for something different.
“I realized after having almost worked there for a year that I needed to be around music,” she said. “Music is the driving force in my creativity, so when a [production assistant] position opened up at VH1 I took it.”
Noël started working at VH1 in February 2007 and has been there ever since. Over the course of her career, she has won several awards, including a Promax award for promotional work on the 2008 VH1 Hip Hop Honors campaign.
Moreover, she has mastered the technical vocabulary and skills necessary for the film and television industry. She has even gained some acting experience by starring in a few promos.
All of these skills will come in handy as she begins production on Milking It in May.
“I’m not worried when I’m in front of the camera,” she said. “I’m excited to see how this will work out with me directing and starring.”
The only major concern for Noël and her team is funding the independent film.
In February, they launched a successful, month-long Kickstarter campaign. With 143 backers, they received $11,050 worth of pledges, which exceed their $10,000 goal.
“I could hardly believe my eyes when the final number rolled in,” Schroeter wrote on the Milking It movie blog. “It turns out that people still do, in fact, want to support art for art’s sake. People are proud of your artistic endeavors. That’s a beautiful thing. A mind boggling, smile-inducing kind of thing. Life is good.”
This money will go towards things such as technical equipment, production design, wardrobe, and insurance. In order to have a comfortable budget for the extra post-production costs and any surprises that may arise during filming, Noël and team are also applying for grants.
While no one on the Milking It team is getting paid, they are all dedicated to producing this film.
“My big goal for the film would just be to get it out into the world. To show people how strong my crew is, that we’re women in film. I would like to get it into some festivals,” said Schroeter. “I just want it to live somewhere and I want it to empower people and women. And empower people in general to explore human relationships and to really feel something.”
While the title of the film suggests a young woman taking advantage of her dating situation, the film is ultimately about relationships.
“It’s about realizing that you can have that kind of relationship with an older woman that’s not your mother, your aunt, or your mentor at work,” Noël said.
Milking It is unique in the sense that it explores relationships through a young woman’s search for something only a mother can provide.
“I obviously have a very weird relationship with my mom, but you’re not taking away love from your mom by feeling close to your mother-in-law,” Noël said. “It’s like having kids, I don’t have any but I would think that you have a bunch of them and the love just multiples. Love doesn’t get taken away from another.”