‘I’m Not Here’ director Michelle Schumacher defines own success

Broadway actress Michelle Schumacher’s been busy building her multi-hyphenated resume. Starting her career on the stage as an actress-dancer-singer, she began perusing filmmaking after marrying and starting a family with fellow actor J.K. Simmons. She studied writing, editing, producing, and directing at UCLA, and now has a second feature film in release, I’m Not Here. Unlike her first meta-comedy Three Geezers, her new film is clearly a drama, but one with a metaphysical, experimental element. Simmons plays a middle-aged man suffering from alcoholism and suicidal thoughts. But that same character exists as a child (Iain Armitage) in the ’60s and young married man (Sebastian Stan). Schumacher and her writing partner, Tony Cummings, twist the three worlds into a haunting story of generational addictions, past mistakes and forgiveness.

Lesley Coffin: Where did the concept for the film originate?

Michelle Schumacher: We started out with a couple of goals in mind. We wanted to tell a story of a man reflecting on his life and figure out how he got where he is. We all have times in our life when we think “how did I get here, what decisions did I make that got me to this point.” And over time you start seeing patterns. But we also wanted to layer in this concept of quantum time and infinite possibilities. If every choice that can be made has been made, does that mean if you are fully present, we can change the path you’re on.

Lesley Coffin: Being married to J.K. Simmons in real life, did you write the film for him or did you finish the script before bringing him onboard?

Michelle Schumacher: My writing partner and I came up with the idea together because we both have family members who have addiction problems. So, we already had the concept and knew how we wanted to tell it. But thinking about the age of the characters it seemed like a no-brainer that we were essentially writing this with him in mind. There are advantages to being married to one of the best actors of our generation. So, I told him about the script Tony and I were working on, but he won’t read things before they’re finished. And if he didn’t like it, he would tell me. He can be painfully honest. So, we didn’t collaborate on the script with him and he wasn’t attached until the script was finished. But then he came onboard and I think he was intrigued to play someone who doesn’t speak and spends almost entirely alone. And as a father and husband, the story touched him personally. He lost a cousin from cirrhosis of the liver.

Lesley Coffin: Did you and Tony ever discuss why you felt it was important to tell this story through the eyes of a male character?

Michelle Schumacher: Like I said, after making the decisions about how to tell the story and the concept, knowing J.K. would be right for the part probably swayed us a little bit to tell the story of a man touched generationally by addiction. But we could have told a similar story with a female protagonist. We only had 19 days to film and because I know how J.K. works, what he would need from me, and completely believe he can carry a film like this, it felt like the right decision. We weren’t really thinking gender, because the story ultimately is universal. We were thinking actor, because when I write, I like to have an actor in mind.

Lesley Coffin: Did casting J.K. first play a role in how the other two versions of the character were cast?

Michelle Schumacher: Absolutely. When Iain came in, besides being this phenomenal actor and having a great family to support him, one of the things I noticed was that he looks like a picture I have of my husband when he was that age. I just flashed on that picture when he walked in. As for Sebastian, some people thought he didn’t look as much like my husband, but they have similar eyes. It’s just that Sebastian is a little squarer jawed. Sebastian is this incredibly handsome guy and I think sometimes people overlook how talented he is because of how attractive he is. That happens with male and female actors. But because J.K.’s face is a little more oval, we gave him a beard to hide that jawline. And I think it works, they look like they could be part of one family and pass as the same character. Sebastian studied J.K.’s work before filming his scenes. J.K. does this thing with his mouth and Sebastian incorporated that. And we had the chance to essentially film chronologically. Iain shot first, then Sebastian, and finally we filmed all J.K.’s scenes. So, Sebastian and J.K. watched Iain’s footage, and J.K. watched Sebastian’s. I think they really enjoyed putting in that kind of work.

Lesley Coffin: Because you must convey the time periods but also the mood of the film I wanted to ask you about both the artistic design and color palette you choose to use?

Michelle Schumacher: Greg Lavoi did our costumes and he is just a genius. We talked a lot about each of the character’s color palettes. But one thing we wanted to do, and this includes our DP Pete Villani, was create the flavor of the time but not hit people over the head with the time. Because I never wanted the film to look like three different films, I wanted it to look cohesive even as we were moving between times. And Greg did such a great job creating costumes which were of the era but didn’t feel immediately dated. One choice we did make to differentiate the eras, where the character is at different points in his life, was to use different lens for each period.

Lesley Coffin: The content of the film is so heavy, and you are employing children. Did you have to have conversations with them about the storyline or did you try to keep those aspects of the film away from them entirely?

Michelle Schumacher: We kept those adult themes away from Iain and Jeremy. There is a scene when Jeremy, who will be a director someday, accidentally drinks alcohol and I told him to just react like it’s the worst thing you’ve ever tasted. And his reaction was perfect, he just spit it out and made a face. I felt kind of strange writing a script with two kids in prominent parts because I believe you should be so careful when asking kids to do jobs. These are careers adults have and children are gifts you’re taking care of. So, I met with both their parents to make sure they were comfortable and felt they could talk to them about what they would and wouldn’t be surrounded by on set. Kids don’t need the motivation adults do, because they have these great imaginations. They’re so honest with their reactions, they aren’t wearing the masks adults always have on.

Lesley Coffin: Coming from a performing background, was writing and directing something you were interested in early on or is that something that came later in your career?

Michelle Schumacher: I think if you ask my family and friends they’d say, she’s always been a director. I was always a performer. I met my husband as part of the ensemble of Kathy Rigby’s Peter Pan. The film I did before, Three Geezers, was kind of my Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney project with Tony. We had three stories, wrote a narrative through line, and put that project together with that “let’s put on a show” mentality. But I knew I wanted a creative outlet after I left performing to raise my kids. I started taking writing classes at UCLA and then started taking producing classes. But directing seems to have come naturally to me. I’m very strong in my opinions, I’m a visual thinker, and I like working as part of team.

Lesley Coffin: It’s so funny because I feel like a lot of the women I’ve spoken who made that career transition found that aspect of their personalities after having their kids. Motherhood seems to open some people up to that multi-tasking, opinionated skill set that is really beneficial to directors.

Michelle Schumacher: It does! Moms need to be okay with taking control and I love having control. I wrote, directed, co-produced it, and edit this. I probably need to learn to give up some control. But succeed or fail according to everyone else’s definition of what that means, if this movie resonates with someone, the film’s a success to me. And I owe my co-financers and co-producers butts in the seats, but at the end of the day the movie needs to be a success in my eyes. So, I need to have that level of control. I had offers to work with a bigger company, but they would have taken a larger percentage, controlled the distribution, but most importantly, they also would have had ultimate control of the final cut. And I couldn’t do that, it was too important to me that I get the film out there as I intended. I couldn’t give that control up to someone else, so we made the film on a smaller scale. And I’m glad we made that decision. The reaction I’ve had from audiences, the reaction I’ve read in emails from people who saw it, proves to me that the film is a success.

© Lesley Coffin (3/15/19) FF2 Media

Photo credits: Rubber Tree Productions

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