‘Otherhood’ director Cindy Chupack makes the leap from TV to film

Cindy Chupack already has two Emmy awards in her pocket (and eight nominations) as proof of her accomplishments as a writer. But after working for the last 25 years on shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Sex and the City, Modern Family, I’m Dying Up Here, Divorce and Better Things, she’s finally making the jump to features as both a writer and director with her debut, Otherhood. Directing wasn’t originally part of the assignment when she took on the job of rewriting a script based on William Sutcliff’s novel, but when the project fell into development hell, she took the risk to get it made by stepping into the directorial role. The film was finally greenlit when it went to Netflix and found lead actresses like Patricia Arquette, Felicity Hoffman, and Angela Bassett, along with Jake Lacy, Jake Hoffman, Sinqua Walls, and SNL’s Heidi Gardner for a movie celebrating mothers (particularly mothers of sons). Chupack discussed her debut film but also dove into finding the courage to step behind the camera, the difference between TV and movie writing, and lament the lost art of mid-budget studio comedies.

Lesley Coffin: Was this the first feature film you ever scripted?

Cindy Chupack: I’d written a couple of scripts or worked on a couple of scripts, but none of them had been produced before. And so this is the first feature film script which got made. And right before I directed this film I directed my first episode of TV. 

Lesley Coffin: Had you been looking for opportunities to move into directing?

Cindy Chupack: I’ve been one of the lucky people who had a really great experience collaborating with directors on shows. I really like that one plus one equals three approaches on shows like Sex and the City and Divorce. I hadn’t had that feeling of being disillusioned by the writer’s process. But having worked in TV for so long, I had seen the process work in TV but not work in film. Things just seem to go into the land of the undead. And I loved the script and book it was based on for so long, and just kept waiting for some filmmaker to come along. And I just couldn’t let go of the idea and decided I needed to make it myself if I wanted it to get made.

Lesley Coffin: Had you read the book and been motivated to turn it into a film? Because oddly you could see this project being re-worked into a series. What made you think it would work best in this format?

Cindy Chupack: Well, this was a project that existed before I came on board. The book was discovered by a literary scout and brought to Cathy Schulman, who sold it to Fox Searchlight and Mark Andrus was the original writer on it. He wrote As Good As It Gets, so he’s a fabulous writer and he wrote the first draft. Then I was brought in to do a polished rewrite, which is very common. And I read that script and then read the book. But I completely know what you mean because I’ve heard a lot of people say it could work as a series. But having worked in TV so much, I liked the idea of doing a film and having a contained story. I also think that now that we are a culture that binge-watches everything, having some shorter content is really good. I love to binge-watch stuff like Fleabag and Sex Education and there is that satisfaction in finishing something, but a lot of times we feel overwhelmed and just don’t want to even start watching something because there are too many episodes. 

Lesley Coffin: TV writing has writers’ rooms so there is a sense of collaboration baked into the process, but films are more of a solo endeavor. Did coming from TV to film impact how you felt about the level of collaboration you had from other writers and even producers?

Cindy Chupack: I have the benefit of coming from TV rooms where collaboration is really encouraged and you have the benefit of everyone contributing their jokes and stories. And then you go off and write your script, but you have all this material inspiring you and you feel like you have the blessing of a room full of other smart people. Writing screenplays, I think I feel more like I’m on my own and like I have something to prove. There is no one to give you that blessing and they might bring someone else in to polish it. But, I’ve also written first-person essays which are just my stories and no one has input really. I really like that kind of cross-training of being collaborative, not collaborative, and this is right in the middle.

Lesley Coffin: When you couldn’t let the script go and kind of decided to take the project on yourself, did you find it difficult to convince people to give you the chance to direct? You’ve certainly been in the business long enough to have earned that opportunity.

Cindy Chupack: But, when I started there weren’t nearly as many female directors, so there were very few female role models for me to look to. Nora Ephron is, of course, the gold standard because she was a great writer who moved into directing. And someone like Greta Gerwig made the leap. And someone like Nicole Holofcener because she directed Sex and the City so I got to see her work up close. But envisioning myself as a director wasn’t something which came easily to me. But I was lucky to have Cathy as a producer who was also the president of Women in Film, which has made it their mission to help increase the number of women behind the cameras and fight for equality. And because she knew me as the writer, she suggested I direct it. She believed in me before I believed in me. And even then, I wasn’t sure how financiers would feel about me directing. And you have to get the trust of your crew and cast. There is a stumbling block women run into where women feel like, if there are ten qualifications for a job women won’t apply if they’re missing two but men will apply if they’re missing five. So I realized that even if I don’t know the name for every lens, I have experiences that I’m bringing to this project which are valuable. 

Lesley Coffin: In terms of working with the cast, how valuable is it to have a cast that wants to advocate for having first-time directors and female directors?

Cindy Chupack: I think the actresses and heads of departments are vital and they were very supportive of me as a first time director and as a first-time female director. It’s important to remember that it isn’t that women can exclusively tell female stories, but through the lens of the female experience when we tell these stories about the female experience we focus on different things than a male director might. And there is still a tendency for that perspective to be ghettoized with terms like chick-flicks because these stories are just as valid as the testosterone-driven movies or the comedies aimed at men. I wanted to tell stories about the extraordinary ordinary with amazing actresses of a certain age. And the women who came on board and put their names behind it helped legitimize it.

Lesley Coffin: I know the film is based on a book so this was probably pre-determined, but why was it important for the story to be about mothers of sons and their relationships with each other?

Cindy Chupack: It was definitely baked into the original book, the author was interested in exploring his relationship with his mother. So often an adult male who’s close to his mother is ridiculed. But I think women and their daughters, as complicated as those relationships are, most of them at least have the vocabulary to express their emotions. But most mothers and sons have a completely different kind of relationship. And I liked that the women in this relationship have their own relationship because of their sons’ childhood friendships. I have an eight-year-old girl and she plays with other little girls so those moms are my tribe. I played around with the idea of Daniel having a sister, we even filmed those scenes with a great actress, because it seemed too coincidental that they would all have sons the same age and have one child. And those scenes contrasted the different relationships moms have with their sons and daughters. But there was so much story to tell, those scenes just got lost.

Lesley Coffin: I really liked the story about Patricia Arquette’s relationship with her son’s girlfriend played by Heidi, the fact that Patricia was so judgmental of her and end up really falling for her the way her son did. That’s a really unique aspect, that parents have their own unique relationships with their kids’ partners. 

Cindy Chupack: I love that storyline too. I think in most other movies, Heidi wouldn’t have been in the rest of the movie because we are introduced to and we think she’s cheating on her boyfriend. But the more Patricia’s character learns about their relationship and her son, Patricia starts to fall for her at the same time the audience starts to really like her. That’s a complicated idea, and probably part of the reason it was hard to get made, but it feels more like real life.

Lesley Coffin: It feels like just in the past five years we’ve expanded the opportunities for women of a certain age. When you first started working on getting the film made was there more apprehension to having women in those motherly roles?

Cindy Chupack: Yes, there were a lot of agents who didn’t even want to put their clients up for those roles because they thought it would hurt their opportunities to play other parts. Playing a mom in general, but a mom to older kids or adult made it nearly impossible for them to play love interests. Originally it was at Fox Searchlights and you see how little room there is for these types of movies. There are the tentpole action movies from Marvel and DC and the awards movies and then there is this narrow area for quirky, funny movies with a smaller budget. Then we tried getting foreign financing and we saw a lot of prejudice because those indie financiers were mostly men who think there is no market. And they say comedies don’t travel. And then Netflix came along and have made space for this kind of content. And we had MeToo kick start things and saw proof that women will go out and see movies about women of a certain age. And that men will see them too.

Lesley Coffin: You mention Nora Ephron and Nicole  Holofcener, who were key names in the mid-low budget, comedy scene that studios used to find a place for. And you can imagine Nora Ephron’s movies today might be at Netflix, Nicole Holofcener’s last movie was with Netflix. Why is there that gap at the studio level?

Cindy Chupack: I don’t know, but it was odd that my favorite types of movies all went to TV and Netflix about fifteen years ago. They seemed to just disappear and now they’ve come back through these other platforms and with these companies finding places for them again, maybe that will bounce back once the studios see there is a financial benefit to having movies of all types and sizes. Because we know there is an audience that wants to go back to the movies.

Photos Courtesy of Linda Kallerus – © 2019 Netflix

(C) Lesley Coffin (8/5/19) FF2 Media

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