Winter in New York is a classic image, especially in cinema, as everything seems to slow down just for a little while. That idea’s been embraced in the storytelling of Melissa B. Miller Costanza’s low-key coming-of-age dramedy All These Small Moments, the story of a teenager taking notice of the world around him, including the girl at school, his parent’s pending divorce, and the woman he’s infatuated with on the bus. But while the film has a deliberately understated touch, director Costanza had to keep moving to get a movie made in New York on a short schedule and small budget on location, with a cast that includes Brendan Meyers, Sam McCarthy, Brian D’arcy James, Harley Quinn Smith, Jemima Kirke and Molly Ringwald.
Lesley Coffin: When you were developing the characters, many who never meet, were you thinking of the thematic elements they had?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: Every character’s related through Howie, and a big part of the film is about how he is relating to all these women in his life. There is the woman he knows as his mother, the girl he knows at school that he ignores, and the woman on the bus he’s infatuated with who’s going through a divorce, which relates back to what his mother’s going through.
Lesley Coffin: Did you have in the back of your mind how these events in his life will affect how he relates to women as a man?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: What I liked about their parent’s relationship, when there is a cheating relationship, the marriage ending is cut and dry. But Molly’s character just checks out and it’s up in the air if they can work it out. Yes, he physically cheated, but she was mentally out the door. I conceived Huey as a character who will fall hard often, and he probably even knows that his parents are the best examples of romantic relationship. He’s more likely to try to steer clear of them.
Lesley Coffin: I think it’s interesting that with a coming-of-age film, you’ve chosen a male lead character, being a female writer-director. Why did you choose to focus Huey?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I think I’ve always been intrigued by young men coming up with their sexuality and how hard that must be. Boys are different from girls. They’ll beat each other up because they have this pent-up aggression and need this physical release. And I think women’s reactions tend to be milder. I’ve always been curious about how a man would handle the conflicts I’ve had to face. Even in my own relationships, I’ve been curious to understand what he’s thinking. So, I decided to write from his perspective. I think I have an easier time writing from a male perspective, I often struggle to write my female characters.
Lesley Coffin: The decision to have his flirtation with an older woman is a risky thing to include in a film. Were you at all concerned about including that element, especially at this period?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: It’s been interesting, a lot of people have said “is he a stalker or something” when I talk about him following her. And I say that it is meant to be much sweeter than that, she’s going through her own stuff and that’s the only reason she’s in any way open to his flirtation. But they both know this would be completely wrong.
Lesley Coffin: I was intrigued by the opening credits you select, it’s very creative and beautiful but it also gets audiences to feel immediately what this film is going to be about, that the story will be fractured but set around one place and one character.
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: And I think it allows an audience a chance to get familiar with the world. And creating that sense of nostalgia can help bring people into the movie once it really starts.
Lesley Coffin: Why use drawings rather than photos?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: Well, they are photographs which have been painted over, and I think the art work is just beautiful. But it creates that sense of nostalgia.
Lesley Coffin: Did you grow up in New York?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I grew up in Boston.
Lesley Coffin: So, you grew up in a city, but did you think about what it would mean for a kid to specifically grow up in New York City?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I immediately thought about how important transportation is and how unique it is for kids in New York because they are dependent on public transportation. I work on the East Side and would take the bus to work every day and saw kids every day taking the same bus to school. They are taking the New York Transit to school every day, they aren’t isolated in the yellow school bus.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about casting the family, especially the boys.
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: Once we knew who would be playing Howie we could cast people he could play off. Sam had the perfect younger brother energy. But it just so happened that he was Andrew McCarthy’s son and Andrew and Molly have this connection to each other. They didn’t even know each other. That wasn’t intentional. But I think that Brendan and Sam developed a brotherly relationship, Sam would happily push his buttons even though Brendan had taken on the role of mentor to Sam.
Lesley Coffin: Did Molly’s history appearing in coming-of-age films play into her casting for this film?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I’ve always admired her, I think she’s such an interesting actress and has a great voice. And she’s not the 12 women of a certain age playing all the moms in Hollywood. I think that I liked that in this movie that plays with nostalgia, audiences come in expecting something from Molly Ringwald which won’t necessarily be what they get in this film. But Molly is just a delight. She knows her place in the world, she doesn’t shy away from it. But she’s also a little sarcastic and will talk to her kids in a way most moms wouldn’t. And I thought she and Brian would work well together.
Lesley Coffin: How was Brian brought on board? Did you know his theater background?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I did. And when they mentioned his name I just thought, “Listen to Brian D’Arcy James do monologues all day.” Lucky me. It isn’t a big role, but he has a lot of monologues, and he’s great at those nuanced scenes and brings a lot of presence to the screen even in smaller roles.
Lesley Coffin: Did the four of them have a chance to spend time together to create some sense of a family unit?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: Molly, Brian and I went out to dinner one night. You try not to talk script too much, just get to know each other. There was an instant mutual respect between them. We had a couple of rehearsals with all four of them. Brendan’s obsessed with theater, so he already looked up to Brian. And Sam of course knew about Molly, and they had a good time.
Lesley Coffin: Filming in New York can be great because of the value you get with authentic locations, but you also must deal with the challenges of film permits and traffic, everything that comes with filming in a city. Did you find it a challenge to film everything on location?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I really didn’t, because I had such an amazing location manager, if something couldn’t happen or a location fell through, he’d always bring me something else to choose from. The hardest thing to navigate was during the snowstorm. The mayor’s office was easy to work with. But after a snow storm, they pulled our permit to film on the bus because it would have been dangerous to film on the streets. But our manager said, the Loews parking lot will let us drive around in circles. And it worked out, you can’t tell at all. When we’re shooting on the rooftop, it was the coldest day, so Brendan looks like he’s about to cry but he’s just freezing.
Lesley Coffin: What other jobs have you had on films?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I was an art director coordinator and I just worked on Barry Jenkins If Beale Street Could Talk and James Schamus’s Indignation. I worked on the first season of The Affair.
Lesley Coffin: When working on those other projects but planning to start directing yourself, did you seek out advice?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: Most of my work’s done in the office so I don’t work a lot with directors. But with Shamus I certainly did, he’s been great and supportive. He read my script and gave me notes. I love going to production meetings because you get to listen to department heads. And I’ve used all their expertise.
Lesley Coffin: Were there aspects of directing that you hadn’t thought about before and truly appreciated the challenge until you were on set working on the film?
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: I love costumes, but what you never realize is how difficult it is to do costumes for a contemporary film. There are just too many options. And you don’t want characters to become a fashion plate. Jemima’s character started to look like a cover of Coachella. The boys started to feel like “the rich kid, the jock, the nerd.” We didn’t want to do that. I always knew Howie would have a certain vintage style, but he just needed that jacket to create that aspect of his character. We had a really hard time to really realize how easy it is to feel cliché.
Lesley Coffin: I think clothes can feel too trendy in contemporary movies.
Melissa B. Miller Costanza: That was huge problem. Even in my own life, you’re never at the top of a trend, you mix the old with the new. When talking to Molly about the character’s clothing she said, I don’t want to be a frumpy mom in a sweater that’s too big. This is a character who should have her own fashion sense. Jemima is a whimsical character, but she also has this earthy quality as a woman who works in the dirt. Score was also a challenge. I love the score from the movie Wonder Boys, but when you dive in, the score’s very comical. So, you say scores that you like to get a sense of the scene, but you realize something that works in one film just won’t work here. It’s all about listening and having opinions about what works and what doesn’t.
© Lesley Coffin (1/24/19) FF2 Media
Photos: All These Small Moments
Photo credits: Jemstone Productions, Vineyard Point Productions, Big Vision Creative