Judy Greer has been one of the most prolific actresses for more than a decade. With upwards of 100 credits to her name, Greer’s familiar face is a constant of TV and films, indies and blockbusters. But now she’s stepping behind the camera for her first directing gig; the comedy A Happening of Monumental Proportions. Packing the cast with a larger ensemble cast (Katie Holmes, John Cho, Jennifer Garner and Bradley Whitford, to name a few), Greer’s film focuses on the terrible days of two men: a widowed single father who loses his job on Career Day (played by Common) and a suicidal music teacher (played by Anders Holm) … all happening on the same day that the principal (Oscar-winner Allison Janney) finds a dead body at her school.
Lesley Coffin: I spoke with Paul Weitz when Grandma was released and he mentioned how excited he was that you wanted to direct. When did you make the decision to take on directing? Has this film been in production for a few years?
Judy Greer: I was looking for something to direct and my manager kept sending me scripts to see if there were any I responded to. Picking a film to direct meant taking time off my day job as an actress, so I had to be choosy. But then I read the script and fell totally in love with it, and that’s when I brought it to Paul Weitz and his company. Until I got this specific script, my manager had been the one urging me to direct. I’d only directed a short documentary about transcendental meditation, but that was it. But this film felt like a movie I’d like to watch. And having Paul as a mentor on this project was really invaluable, having him around as both a friend and as a director.
Lesley Coffin: Was there a point in your career when you started to think about moving into directing?
Judy Greer: It had been in the back of my mind for a long time, thinking I’d love to direct or write something. But I don’t think there was a moment when I started expressing a desire to do it. The idea of directing has always frightened me, and I think it’s always a good idea to do things that scare you. Just to challenge yourself as an artist. I always have fun working and I figured if nothing else, I’ll learn so much and have a new perspective about making movies. But once I got started, I found I really loved the entire process. I was surprised how much I loved being on set as a director. I thought initially, the editing will be the best part of this. But I realized how much I love being around actors as a director. As an actor I can’t give other actors advice or critique their performances, it’s considered rude. But in this case I could ask them to say something different.
Lesley Coffin: Was it different giving direction to actors who’d worked with you as an actress?
Judy Greer: The biggest concern I had taking this on was asking myself, how am I going to tell actors what to do? But, for the most part I didn’t have to do much of that. All the suggestions I made were about subtle tweaks or making technical adjustments. The actors I picked are all incredible. But once I got on set I realized that it wasn’t scary. Everyone was super respectful and made themselves open to my direction. And because I knew most of my actors, I knew they were right for the roles I’d given them.
Lesley Coffin: Did you encourage improvisation on set?
Judy Greer: Very much. But as an actress myself, sometimes I just don’t feel like being improvisational or feel additional pressure. I didn’t expect if from any of my actors, it wasn’t a mandate that people go off script. But also, I was really happy with where the script was when we started film, so it didn’t feel necessary. I felt the script really needed to be working before we started filming, we’d have something that worked and everything else we did would just be a bonus to see if we got something in the moment.
Lesley Coffin: How did you think of Common and Anders Holm for the leading roles?
Judy Greer: Well, I’ve been a huge fan of Common’s for a while, even more now that I’ve worked with him. And I knew that if I didn’t get to work with him on this, I’d try to make it happen on another project. He was the only person I thought of for this role, and the first person I asked. I wanted a really wonderful actor and I knew he was funny, and I just felt like he could bring a lot of emotion to the role. I wanted to find an actor who could be funny, not a funny person who could act. And with Anders, I’ve known him for a really long time and approached casting that role the opposite way. I wanted someone I knew was funny, because the role is really dark and heavy. And I’ve never seen Anders play a role like this, and to me he fits the bill of who that guy is. And I knew it would be easy to work with him.
Lesley Coffin: Did you reflect on some of the experiences you’ve had with directors in the past, both positive and negative?
Judy Greer: I did. I didn’t want to compare myself to directors I’ve worked with but I definitely thought about the kind of director I wanted to be. I thought about what directors had done that made me like or dislike working with them. Leading up to the shoot, I asked some directors I knew for advice and help. Right before we started to shoot, I’d see a director and just started to ask for any tips. I sat next to Adam McKay at a dinner for Lily Tomlin and I introduced myself and said, “We’ve never met, but I’m about to direct my first movie. Any advice?” And he gave me some great advice, but one of the funniest things he said was get a really comfortable pair of tennis shoes. Which I thought was hilarious, but I wanted to be the cute director. So on the first day I wore my cute outfit and dressed like Nancy Meyers, but by the end of the day my whole body hurt. And on my way home I went to DSW and found a comfortable pair of shoes. I was surprised by how physical directing was. I’m not the kind of director that just sits behind the monitor, I ran back and forth all the time. I liked watching the monitor to make sure I knew the shot, but if I’m talking to my actors, I like being in close proximity to them.
Lesley Coffin: Were there aspects of directing that really surprised you or caught you off guard?
Judy Greer: Strangely, not really. I think I’ve been on so many sets I’ve sort of seen it all. But, I think I’ve been taking for granted the work production designers do, especially on films with a smaller budget. I’ve been on huge, big movies where you build an entire set and can play for days. You just don’t have the money to dress an entire set on a movie like this, so you need to really think about where you’re putting your resources. So my relationship with Michael Fitzgerald was crucial because if we were considering moving a scene up or moving a scene’s location, he needed to be on his toes to make sure things looked amazing. And all the things his team’s paying attention to, where a picture is hung or the paint they use, are things I hadn’t considered as much as I should have. But I just felt so lucky to have this amazing artist my side.
© Lesley Coffin (9/22/18) FF2 Media
Photos: A Happening of Monumental Proportions
Photo credit: IMDb