By Senior Contributor Lesley Coffin
More than a decade ago, Sophie Goodhart wrote and directed a hit comedy short titled My Blind Brother, about two brothers (one blind) competing in a charity swimming competition. The film debuted in the short categories at South by Southwest and Cannes in 2003, making a name for Sophie Goodhart as a comic director on the rise…but struggled to get scripts beyond development hell. After working with the Barnes brothers on several shorts and their feature The Locksmith (which she co-wrote with them) she stepped back into directing with her first feature…also titled My Blind Brother, which won her the Game Changer Award at South by Southwest (and best US Fiction Film at the Traverse City Film Festival).
While the premise remains focused on sibling rivalry between two brothers, seeing Bill (Nick Kroll) and blind Robbie (Adam Scott), the feature film version is a gentler, kinder approach, with a romantic comedy twist. Jenny Slate plays Rose, the guilt ridden ex of a recently deceased whose desire to be a better person pushes her in the direction of Robbie…despite growing feelings for Bill. I spoke with Goodhart about her new comedy, which costars Zoe Kazan and Charlie Hewson.
Q: What made you want to adapt your own short into a feature film?
A: I never planned to turn it into a feature. I made the short and it did well when I screened it at festivals. And I planned to just move on and write other films. And then I started working on a script about Rose, Jenny Slate’s character. And that was about a girl who dumps her boyfriend, but he dies right after and she feels tremendous guilt. But I thought that story was a little too thin to be a feature film until I realized there was an opportunity to combine two stories. Because at their core, they were both about these two people who are just riddled with guilt, shame and self-loathing. And I thought to myself, what if I put these two in a romantic situation, and then I started to feel that those characters needed to be together, they needed to find each other.
Q: Did the character of Bill, Tony Hale’s character in the short and Nick Kroll’s character in the feature, go through big changes?
A: It’s funny, because Bill’s very different, but both versions were extremely sympathetic, just in different ways. Tony’s the type of guy that you just look at and you want to say to them, “it’s going to be okay.” And Nick has a sympathetic quality about him to, but it’s a very different quality. Nick reminds me quite a bit of a young Tom Hanks. So Bill kind of took on those very different qualities each of them brought to the character. Tony played the character a bit more pathetic or hopeless, which was funny in the short. But it wouldn’t have worked in the feature, he has to be a bit more proactive and have a go-getter quality, especially as a romantic lead.
Q: I understand Nick, Adam and Jenny came on board almost as a package deal through their management. Did it help the project to have three actors that knew each other beforehand?
A: Oh yes, it makes my job much easier. We had no time for rehearsals and were on a very tight shooting schedule, so the fact that they came on board comfortable with each other was a big help. Particularly Nick and Jenny who are such good friends and have this amazing chemistry. They are so comfortable with each other. Even when they had to take their clothes off, they were relaxed with each other. And Nick and Adam were very in sync in their scenes together. They weren’t improvising, because we didn’t have the time. But they had an understanding how nimble the other was, and felt comfortable pushing the other in scenes. I think they actually made some of the comedy more uncomfortable and aggressive, because they were pushing the other to go further. All three of them are just gifted actors who are comfortable being funny in serious or awkward situations.
Q: Speaking of tight shooting schedule, I know you were pregnant during the production. Was the filming schedule already set up before you knew, or did you move it up in order to make the film happen before you had your daughter?
A: I was so old when I made this. Pretty much throughout my 30s I did nothing. I couldn’t get films made, I didn’t meet anyone. I just watched television and worried. And somehow got to 40 and had a two year old, and thought, I can’t keep waiting for someone else to let me direct again, I need to make this happen. So I started working on this film, then I got pregnant again, and two months later the film came together. And I knew, from having already had a baby that making a movie would be much harder if I waited until it was already out. Those first months, the first year, are so exhausting. So I knew if didn’t to get this done now it might not happen, but I also knew no one would give money to a pregnant woman to direct a movie, because of the insurance and needing to find back-up directors in case something happened. By my producers turned out to be very progressive and brave, and let me direct it anyway. I finished filming five weeks before I had Daphne and my amazing editor assembled a rough cut by July 25th, had Daphne July 26th, and was back in the edit-bay August 3rd, sitting on a rubber ring because I was so sore. But the great thing about being pregnant while making a movie is, everyone feels obligated to be nice to you. Just stroke you tummy and look sore, and everyone will be sweet.
Q: You’re the third or fourth woman I’ve spoken to who was pregnant while making their movie, actually filming. And it sometimes seems to help them because there’s a clock keeping you on schedule and moving forward.
A: I doubt it changed my filming schedule, because it would have been tight regardless. But it kind of forced me not to worry or obsess about things as much as I would have. I had something else important going on at the same time, and so I didn’t have time to be stressed about things. It kind of just keeps you level throughout the process.
Q: Are Bill and Rose versions of yourself when you were struggling to get things going in your 30s?
A: Definitely, that’s why I’m comfortable with them sometimes being deeply dislikable people. At this point in my life, I can admit to having been dark or narcissistic or needy. And the shame I felt about being the well sister, but not accomplishing anything and feeling bad for yourself. So these were feelings I understood very well.
Q: You sister has MS, and I understand that sibling relationship was the seed of the idea for the original short. Why did you make it about two brothers rather than sisters?
A: Well, I should mention that my sister is not a dick like Adam’s character can be. She’s a very lovely woman. It just made Robbie more interesting if he suffered from personality problems as well, so I allowed him to be egotistical and arrogant. But I’ve definitely experienced cases of shame and resentment. But even though I knew I was writing about my feelings and experiences, I found it easier to have a bit of separation between myself and the characters, which came from making them brothers. My sister’s in a wheelchair, she isn’t blind. So making those changes helped it stand up as its own thing. The characters had to be more than my own private therapy.
Q: When you’ve heard from people after seeing the movie, have people come up to you to discuss their own family experiences?
A: I’ve met so many people who identify with the sibling relationships, even if there isn’t an impairment or disability involved. Just the sibling rivalry people feel. That’s the nice consequence of making a movie, hearing from people that identify with it.
Q: It’s interesting because all the characters have scenes where they act purely out of self-interest, but Rose and Nick are completely guilt ridden when they do make those choices, but Robbie and Francie have no problem saying what and when they want something. And they seem to be leading more productive lives.
A: I’m really interested in how perception plays into those decisions we make about when to do something for others or something for ourselves. And becoming a mother made me think of that even more, because I’m shocked when I find myself putting myself first almost as an act of rebellion. I remember waking up one morning and going to kitchen to find one piece of toast. And I had a two year old, and I thought, he’d really like that piece of toast. And I quickly toasted it and ate it myself. I knew I could go to the shop later that day and get more, but I also remember thinking “I just consciously ate my baby’s toast. Why did I do that?” and feeling guilty for doing that. But I’m also interested in when people try to be good, but it isn’t their natural impulse to do that, are they still good. If you are doing charity work, because you want to be perceived as good by others, does that negate the act? And in America, there’s a long history of focusing on victims, as if a terribly tragedy has to befall someone in order for them to be considered a more relevant person than someone else. How do we decide a person more worthy of our attention? Those are the things I’m into examining.
Q: The movie’s also a really sweet, funny romantic comedy. And time has not been kind to that genre of film. What are your feelings about romantic comedies as a movie genre in general and seeing your own film as an entry in the genre?
A: I think it’s so weird what’s happened to romantic comedies in Hollywood. I think there are some really beautiful romantic comedies, and then this dam burst and we had so many bad ones, we forget about the good. But the tragedy is, romantic comedy got this bad name and the term can turn people off who automatically think of the bad ones. I personally wouldn’t call it romantic comedy, because the sibling element’s so important. But I’m more than comfortable calling it a romantic comedy as well. Filmmakers like James L. Brooks and Nora Ephron were amazing artists. Films like When Harry Met Sally or Broadcast News are unbelievably important, beautiful movies which should be considered classics. If my film falls under the same genre as movies like those two, I’d be so honored. I know romantic comedy still feels like a dirty word, but I hope that changes and people allow themselves to enjoy and admit to watching them again.
Q: I thought Zoe Kazan and Charlie Hewson were standouts in the movie, they were both as funny as Jenny and Nick’s best friends. What do you feel those classic best friend characters add to movies?
A: Getting Zoe Kazan to agree to do it was a gasp moment, I was so excited. Francie and GT are the only people who voice the good, moral decisions the characters should be making. They are completely honest and usually right. And I like that they both can appear brisk and abrupt, but they are probably kinder than our heroes, because everything they say and do, comes from the heart. Zoe’s a genius, and wrote one of the best film’s I’ve seen in years, Ruby Sparks. And every single time you see her on screen, she’s completely captivating and completely believable. And Charlie hasn’t done as much, but is mesmerizing and relaxed as GT. I wrote GT based on a blind drug dealer I knew in New York, and it would have been easy to make that character absurd, but Charlie made him so real and funny.
© Lesley Coffin FF2 Media (9/28/16)
Top Photo, Adam Scott and Jenny Slate
Bottom Photo, Nick Kroll, Jenny Slate, and director Sophie Goodhart
Photo Credits: My Blind Brother, Courtesy of Starz Digital