Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Hello: Melanie Meets Marx

Hello I Must Be Going is Playing in Theaters

Hello: Melanie Meets Marx

(from 9/5/12)

You probably recognize the title of Todd Louiso's Hello I Must Be Going as the title of the hilarious Groucho Marx song in Animal Crackers. Louiso's sweet serio-comic third film, with a debut script by his wife Sara Koskoff, actually bears no resemblance to any of the anarchic Marx Brothers comedy classics, but surely by watching them the unhappy conformist protagonist Amy Minsky, played by Melanie Lynskey, is inspired to rebel. Lynskey seems to grasp Amy's need to break away from conventions and expectations because that's pretty much what she has done herself in playing Amy. I've been among those waiting for her to get another memorable staring role since 1994. That's when the 16-year-old New Zealand native and young Kate Winslet received accolades playing real-life murderesses in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. Lynskey temporarily went back to school--while Winslet went on to superstardom. She returned to acting and has for the most part quietly played supporting parts, including a recurring role on Two and a Half Men, but it's way past time for this talented actress to move into the spotlight. Now she gets her long-awaited chance and will capture hearts as a broken 35-year-old who is vegetating at the Westport home of her well-off parents Ruth and Stan (strong performances by Blythe Danner and John Rubenstein, with a phone in the photo). She is doing a lousy job of recovering from her split from her husband David (Dan Futterman), for whom she had dropped out of grad school and pursuing a career in photography to marry. She comes back to life when she falls for Jeremy (Christopher Abbott of HBO's Girls), a 19-year-old actor whose mother assumes is gay. But this relationship threatens her businessman's father's chance to close a deal (with Jeremy's step-dad) that will finally allow him to retire and travel the world with his long-patient wife. The film opens this Friday in New York and I hope you see it for Lynskey-and the excellent cast--and also because you'll be discussing it afterward. In anticipation of its September 7 premiere in NY and LA, I had the opportunity to discuss it with the personable Louiso and Koskoff, who met when they acted together on television.
Sarah Koskoff and Todd Louiso  Photo by DP
Danny Peary: You live in Los Angeles, so did you come to New York just to publicize the film?
Sarah Koskoff: My parents live in Connecticut so are here to visit them and to do this.
Todd Louiso: It's a summer trip.
DP: Todd, you did your first film, Love, Liza, with the Sundance Directors Lab. This film you did with the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
TL: I did a film in-between, The Marc Pease Experience, that ended up being kind of a train wreck.
SK: The script for this was at the Screenwriters Lab at Sundance, which is separate from the Festival. We went together to the Lab. Usually they have just writers-directors at the Sundance Institute but there are also writer-director teams, as we were.
TL: I was already attached to direct it. I sort of tagged along to read the notes Sarah was getting, just so when she came back to Los Angeles she wouldnt have to explain everything that had happened there.
DP: Sarah, this your first script. Did Todd tell you to go off and write it or was he always there?
SK: I wrote it separately and then showed it to Todd. He had a few notes and I did a rewrite. Then we went to the Lab and I got just a crazy amount of notes from all the advisors there, who are all screenwriters. That's when a slow down happened because it took a while to sort through them all. I've heard that's common for people who bring their scripts there. It takes awhile to figure out what's yours and what's coming from another screenwriter.
DP: I'd think that the hardest thing for anyone reading the script would be to figure out the tone. Was part of the discussion there about what was supposed to be funny, what was supposed to be funny-painful, and what was supposed to be serious?
SK: Yeah, it was clear to me where the script was off tonally when I'd get notes from the advisors that were so wrong in regard to the story. I'd wonder why I'd get a note that had nothing to do with what I'd written. I decided it was because there was something unclear in the script. So the rewrite was definitely a process of finding the tone. We could tell more when it was off, but it was hard to articulate to the others.
TL: Both Sarah and I always knew the tone we wanted for this piece. We were on the same page with that.
DP: At what point did Melanie Lynskey come onto the project to play Amy?
TL: About a year after we took the script to the Institute,
 Sundance asked us to do a staged reading of the screenplay in Los Angeles, which it will do a couple times a year. So we had to go out and cast the reading and we asked Melanie. She was actually in Toronto and flew back for it. I thought she would be an interesting choice for the read, and I wasn't even thinking of casting the movie yet. But it was through the reading that she stole the part. It was hers afterward.
DP: What did she get about Amy that made such an impression on you?
SK: It was the grounded, real person feeling she brought to her. She took it out of sitcom terrain. Even though she's very skilled comically, it's hard to find someone who--again tonally--can do serious as well. Her reading was so sad and funny and moving in a different way, and I just believed her as this girl.
DP: What's interesting is that Melanie Lynskey talks of herself as a supporting character actress and here she's playing the part of a woman who is a supporting character in her own life, particularly when she was in her marriage. Ironically, like Amy, Melanie's breaking out and playing a lead role. Did you think about that?
SK: It was one of the things we thought of about after she did the reading. We said, "Let's do it with her!"
TL: She was kind of perfect.
SK: Yes, there is a credibility in the film that you get right off the bat with her in the role. The film goes to a deeper level instantly with her and that was so appealing to us. You say of Amy, "I know that girl, but where do I know her from?" That's what we wanted because Amy is not a center-stage character.
DP: I read an article on this film that was written when it opened at Sundance and the writer stated that it was told through the female perspective. I don't necessarily agree with that. Do you?
TL: I don't see it as either male or female because I can really connect with Amy's character. I showed it to male friends of mine before going to Sundance and they connected to it just as much as female friends of mine.
DP: Sarah, in writing this I think you're writing from Todd's perspective as well as your own. In all three of Todd's films, the lead character is trapped by the past and can't move forward. It's a prevailing theme. There is also a man-child element where characters cant grow up. Amy fits in with the male characters in those films because she can't break away from what happened to her.
SK: Everyone in the movie has this thing they hold on to, and it's not gender specific. There are a lot of people propping up other people's fantasies. For instance, Jeremy's mom has this fantasy about her son becoming a famous actor and he doesn't want to ruin it for her.
TL: In not facing the truth of their situations, they're doing what they need to do to survive mentally. Blythe Danner's character Ruth, Amys mother, builds up her husband, saying he's going to retire and that they're going to go on a trip and finally spend time together. But somewhere inside her, she knows the truth and that he's not that type of person. Those facades are what Amy is really trying to break through.
hellIMustMelBlythe.jpgDanner and Lynskey
DP: The characters in your films--played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jason Schwartzman, and now Melanie Lynskey--have been hurt by something. And... Sarah, you just starting rubbing Todd's back comfortingly because...?
SK: Because Todd connects to that hurt. I'm being soothing. [*Below, see part of Sarah's writer's statement, written about a week after this interview for the Landmark Theater site.]
DK: Todd, I assume there are things in your past that you have a hard time breaking away from or you wouldn't be making these movies.
TL: Yeah.
DP: Jeremy says to Amy, "Sometimes it's easier to be what other people want you to be than fight it." That applies to both of them. Is that a major theme in your life?
TL: Yeah. [To Sarah] You wrote it.
SK [To Todd]: You kept it in.
TL: Sometimes it is just easier to go along with things.
DP: Obviously these films are very personal to you, so does it help that someone else writes this for you?
TL: Yes, but it's not that it's not my idea. It helps me grow as a person and as an artist.
DP: You want these characters to break through and move forward.
TL: Yeah. I think this film is joyful in that way, in terms of where Amy gets to. I've certainly struggled with that. Her struggle is something I felt from the beginning after reading the script.
SK: We were both trying to keep the story close to us, so that we were always checking in because we've both had experiences where the work goes really far off course from what was intended and the connection between us and the work is lost. The work really suffers when that happens and it's painful to see it. The critics are harsh no matter what but if you at least know you did what you are connected to and set out to do, it's really okay. People can have their opinions, that's fine, but when you put work out that's not what you intended, it's really painful.
TL: It's not connected because you've listened to so many different people during the production.
DP: And you end up saying, "That's not the movie we wanted to make, that's the movie you wanted us to make."
TL: That's right. I have a tendency to listen to what people have to say and I end up losing my instinct about a scene or a full film. That's why Sarah and I really tried to stay in touch with each other and do checks and balances.
DP: So, Sarah, could you remind Todd, "That's not what you wanted to do."?
SK: Definitely. And other people spoke up. It was a labor of love for everyone who signed on to the film; they were invested in it and if something didn't seem right they spoke up. They would say, "This doesn't feel right for this movie." It would be too broad or too harsh or too subtle and they'd want another take. We collaborated and it was great.
TL: When I look at the final film, I feel so happy because Sarah and I kept that connection and I did my best to stay connected. Everyone in the film wasn't doing it for the pay check, they were doing it because they loved the material. Everyone was on the same page with Sarah and me and there was a shorthand between us that saved time, which was so important with our short schedule.
DP: You've acknowledged a Judd Apatow influence on this film--including with the inability-to-grow-up theme--but my guess is that you were also influenced by The Graduate, particularly the beginning when Benjamin is stuck at home without any idea about his future. In your film, Amy can't even leave her parent's house. And there's a party here too, though smaller. There is an age-difference theme as well, although in this case the older woman isn't the seducer. Did that film influence you at all?
SK: It's kind of inverted, isn't it?
DP: Instead of it being Jeremy's story, it's Amy's story.
TL: We talked about The Graduate early on. The Graduate had always been in my brain, but we hadn't thought our film had any similarities to it until Sundance.
SK: Somebody mentioned it to me at the Sundance Institute. And I thought, "Oh! Great!" I was thrilled hearing that because I felt, "Oh, I can write such a small story." We went back and watched it again and a couple of other films and we saw how small the stories really are.
DP: Is it important that Jeremy is young or is just easier to have him be 19 so the 35-year-old Amy can't commit to him and can go off by herself as she should?
SK: I don't know. The age difference was always there in the script, right from the beginning. So I never considered it without that.
TL: It isn't essential that he's young but it does a lot for the film. It adds to the film, but I dont really think that their age difference is what the film is about. It's about two people who are observers and stay in the background. Their connection is that they both are not living the lives they truly want to lead. They give a gift to each other by the end of the film: they give each other permission to express themselves and do what they want to do. It's ignited by their sexual connection. Through Jeremy, Amy goes back to being a kid again.
SK: In that way his age is important. She gets the chance to act out what she probably should have done in high school but then she was such a good girl. It takes this young guy to make that happen. To do what are inappropriate things for her is really big thing. It breaks all her patterns.
DP: Is it good for her to now experience those young things she missed--skinny dipping with a guy in a pool, throwing rocks at his window to get his attention, having sex in a car? She even wears pigtails in one scene.
TL: You caught that.
SK: I think all this connects her to herself and the artist inside her. They connect when she defends Robert Mapplethorpe at the dinner table.
DP: Why Mapplethorpe?
SK: It's part of that same thing. She's trying to fit into a world that she doesnt fit into. She cant go along with the conversation at the table about how Mapplethorpe was insensitive and inappropriate. She has to say that he is a master.
DP: She speaks about how his shocking images are side by side with his beautiful images and that lets us see beauty in the shocking images. Does that pertain to anything about Amy?
SK: Yeah, I think it has to do with breaking rules. That's where the Groucho Marx clips come in, too, from the comic side. It's anarchy and what's underneath the socially conventional, very stratified-status world Amy lives in.
TL: Mapplethorpe is brought up in what was meant to be a light conversation. But Amy comes to his defense.
DP: Jeremy is impressed.
SK: Thats what sparks their interest in each other.
TL: He was in a Mapplethorpe play and discovered things about the artist that he fell in love with. And here it's allbeing talked about very flippantly until Amy speaks seriously about it because she's connected to art also. I don't think either of them can listen to what's being said.
DP: So they get up. I really like the first kissing scene, when they leave the table and start kissing the moment they're alone. He chances kissing her, and she kisses him back. They felt vibes for each other at the table. As a writer, Sarah, were you thinking if you could get away with it?
SK: Yeah, can we do it?
TL: You have to see what the two of them were at the table. They were props being used by the others. Amy's mother says,, "Amy will eat anything you put in front of her." Jeremy barely has any lines at the table because his mother Gwen is doing all the talking for him.
DP: When they are the car, he is touching her and saying "I want to see you cum." The other film that has a scene like that is Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist, where Michael Cera brings Kat Dennings to a climax with his hand. Todd, you cut the scene before Amy's has an orgasm.
TL: You don't want to cum too soon. [Laughing] We're only in the first act!
DP: Sarah, when you wrote that scene did you just keep writing or stop afterward because you realized it was a strong moment?
SK: It was a moment of discovery. I was thinking, "Can I really write this?" It was at the point of writing when I saying, "You know, I'm just doing what I want here." I had gone past the Lab and--this is how it works-everybody's interest had waned after the initial big flurry. I was working steadily by myself for days on end with no influence when I stuck this in. I was trying to track intimacy. There is something pure about witnessing somebody in that vulnerable a stage. It's thrilling. I love that question because it's a moment people aren't really asking about. There's something about that intimacy. Can we be that vulnerable on screen? Can the actors be that vulnerable? Can the audience handle it? The editor even cut it and we said...
TL:.."Put it back in!" I love it.
helloincar.jpg Abbott and Lynskey
DP: It validates Jeremy as a good, unselfish guy.
SK: In a simple way, I think.
TL: He pays attention to her, which is different from her experiences in relationships.
DP: You have said elsewhere that Jeremy is the first person who is genuinely interested in Amy. For the first time she's the star in her life.
TL: Right. There's a scene when they're driving around town and he's asking her questions, and she becomes very uncomfortable because he's not used to someone wanting to know anything about her. It's almost as if she wants to distract him so he'll stop asking the questions. She says, "Why am I telling you all this, it's very uninteresting." But he says he is asking questions because he is interested.
DP: So are they the perfect couple? Or, in terms of writing this movie, is their relationship a rite of passage that each needs to go through to move forward?
SK: I think they are kind of a perfect couple. That's what I find sad. They're not going to be together because of circumstances--sometimes things don't work out. [To Todd] What do you think?
TL: I think so in terms of how great it is that they can let each other go, because they see it's important to the other person--that's how much they love them.
DP: Why does Amy take photographs of rivers and water? Is it sexual and is it through Jeremy she has a sexual awakening and is ready to take photos again?
SK: It's quite a bit. The images are dense and every time I try to unpack one it sort of feels less interesting than just the full image.
DP: Rivers flow off into the distance and that's similar to what Amy might eventually do.
SK: "You can't step into the same river twice." I can throw that one out there.
TL: We talked about her images, visually, at the beginning of the film. The photographs were very clear but the further she went into her head the cloudier they became, until she lost her focus. She speaks about this in the car ride with Jeremy, when she explains why she didn't finish her visual thesis. At that time, when she was in grad school, she was being taken over by her relationship with David. That was obliterating her eye as an artist and making everything out of focus. You can see that in the slide show she shares with Jeremy. Things start out very clear but when she gets closer to some rocks underwater everything is really out of focus.
SPOILER ALERTDP: And when she travels to Europe at the end, will they be back in focus?
SK: Her mother will be in them and there will be a kind of integration in her photographs. She will be integrating something personal into her cerebral aesthetic. That's her first step to moving forward as an artist.
END SPOILER ALERTDP: Talk about Amy's carelessness, how she's repeatedly caught doing stuff in public.
TL: That's Groucho Marx really.
SK: Yeah, I think so, too. She's trying to shake things up, unconsciously. She's caught between these two worlds. She is careless. That's part of her being. Spilling a milkshake all over herself. She's always just fucking everything up.
TL: That's how she was in her marriage. She was trying to act like a different person.
SK: Like her mother.
DP: Do you think Amy has always wrongly seen the marriage of his parents as the model for good marriages?
SK: I do.
TL: Yes, thats what she is striving for but can't make it work. Then she realizes that it's not what she wants.
DP: She never realized that her mother has actually been as unhappy in her marriage to Stan as she was in her marriage to David.
SK: Yeah, she would have done the same things as her mother probably. But now she can then step outside of the pattern of wanting what she thought her mother had.
DP: The pattern she speaks to David about is how she was content being unhappy in their marriage.
SK: She was comfortable in being unhappy.
TL: It's what she knew.
SK: Sometimes its more comfortable to be miserable than to change, because its familiar.
DP: Why didn't she and David have kids? Did she have an instinct not to have kids with him?
TL: Toward the beginning it's mentioned that she had a miscarriage but its kind of off-camera. So they were trying to have kids. I don't think it was a major issue for her, which is why it isn't talked about in the film. It's just a layer, a formality for the actors to work with that I think helped them. If the audience catches it, it's another thing...which is great.
DP: David seems so much worse than Amy's father. Stan is so low-keyed and less dramatic than anyone else, but he's among the most important characters in the film.
SK: He's pivotal.
helloIrubenstein.jpgJohn Rubenstein
DP: He's supposedly the nicest, most considerate person but he turns out to be probably the worst. He does invite Amy to stay in the house to prevent intimacy between him and his wife. Is that accurate?
SK: I think that's one of several ways to look at it. He's stuck in past-pattern with his daughter. She is kind of a buffer.
TL: He doesn't know he's acting out in a certain way. He doesn't know the effect he has, it's unconscious.
DP: I think he does.
TL: Really?
DP: He walks out the door at the end, when Amy really needs him. He can finally act as he really is because his intentions are no longer secret.
TL: I think he's incapable by that point. He has been revealed.
END SPOILER ALERTDP: Did you know the ending before you wrote the script?
SK: No, it ended differently in the first pass, but similarly tonally.
TL: Amy's finally able see clearly what her parents marriage is and see her connection to her mother in her own marriage to David. It's not just that she dodges a major bullet, she's also able to step the other way and change.
SK: It's funny because I kept moving scenes around. That scene in which she thanks David for ending their marriage is a step along the way to seeing her parents clearly. Finding the compassion that she feels for her mother is a breakthrough for her, and helps her move on.
DP: Could you have ended this movie unhappily?
TL: No, no, it had to be this way...for me.
*Sarah Karkoff statement: "When I told Todd Louiso, my husband and the director of Hello I Must Be Going, that I was going to write a script for him to direct about a woman who gets divorced and has an affair with someone much younger than herself, he wasn't happy. I went ahead and wrote it anyway. Thus began our first collaboration as writer and director, respectively, with my radical act of rebellion. I had to ignore him. He was suffering a loss of heart, just like Amy Minsky, the lead character...And like Amy, he wasn't thinking clearly. Somewhere along the way, he'd disconnected from himself and his love for his work. But I hadn't. We had a family to support, by God! We would go back to the beginning, I decided, to what we both loved: to simple and truthful story-telling, the power of connected and committed actors, beautiful and rich photograph, grounded and expressive language, and the more-than-occasional pratfall. Making the film became a regenerative process as much as a story about personal regeneration."


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