The Mad Men creator brings his debut feature You Are Here to Toronto’s Special Presentations section.
Zach Galifianakis and Owen Wilson star as longtime friends who have to return to one of their hometowns to settle an inheritance dispute. It premieres today with Lionsgate handling international sales and CAA/ICM handling US.
How long has this film been gestating in your head?
I began working on the idea when I was on Andy Richter Controls The Universe in about 1999-2000. It was the first thing I did right after I finished the script for Mad Men (years before I made it).
I finished the script between the first two seasons of The Sopranos, about 2003. I was unavailable due to my really good day job but I really was trying to get it made the whole time. So as soon as I saw there was an opportunity, I knew it was my chance to do it — even though it meant prepping for one season [of Mad Men], shooting during the off time and then putting it on hold while I finished the next season.
Why is this the story that’s been sitting with you since 1999?
I had other discussions to direct other projects, things were brought to me, it probably would have been easier to make that happen. This is a very personal, meaningful story for me, it felt like something I could sink my teeth into, and I felt it was something that people needed to hear, not that it’s preachy in any way.
I really wanted to write about the point in my life where I realized that even though I had a very happy marriage that I had lost all of my friends. What was the purpose of those friendships and what happened and where did they go? There were some small things that happened – an acquaintance I knew had a medical emergency and went to the doctor to get scoped, and I called him afterwards and he said, ‘You’re the only person who called me to find out how it went.’ And I said, ‘Well, we’re friends.’ And he said, ‘If we were friends you would have gone with me.’ He was right. And that’s what I started realizing, what had happened in our lives, were they improved, what was the purpose?
You see friendship on TV and in the movies — nobody eats alone, people take each other to the doctor — but most people are alone. And friendship is more rare than love because there’s nothing in it for anybody.
It sounds bleak but the movie is not cynical, it’s funny, and the characters are real and people will recognize them. People have both these characters in their life. As life marches on at a certain point, you’re saying do I want to move on, can I take this person with me or have we outgrown each other?
Will it make people uncomfortable to confront these issues?
No, not at all, I think the movie is very reaffirming. The reason it’s called You Are Here, is the basis for all of this, that we’re very lucky to have existence. And sometimes we go through our lives avoiding feelings. We get into a state where we avoid dealing with things. It’s hard to feel those feelings and you should appreciate them and enjoy the experiences of being alive. That is the baseline.
Will audiences cry?
What I hope to achieve and what seems to be working is that they laugh for 99% of the movie and then they have the emotional experience because there is some truth in it. I think it’s poignant.
Was it hard writing characters that only exist for a movie’s length rather than for a longer series of episodic television?
The biggest challenge is making sure it’s resolved. Not, ‘oh here’s the big ending’ but that the story even when the credits come up and you are disappointed when the story is over, that that’s the completion of the story. And that’s the thing that is the biggest difference from series television. With that, it’s dependent on enough hanging in the air that you’ll come back next week.
I do this also with TV, but it’s making sure that every scene has entertainment in it and advances the story. And tells you more about the people.
There’s also a challenge of writing a story where people don’t know what’s going to happen. I enjoy entertainment where I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Has the script changed a lot in that decade since you first wrote it?
The biggest change that was made was cutting it down. The things that were added last were sometimes due to a budget situation…can you make these two scenes a different scene? I also have a problem which I think a lot of writers do, which is sometimes I’m unwilling for personal reasons to get to the most emotional part of the story. And over these 10 years of working of the script I confronted all of that and put it in the movie, realizing that that was the most important part of the movie. But it happens sometimes that you have skipped the scene that will be the most painful to write.
Writing a script to sell and shooting a script are two very different things. With the exception of the pilot, when I write a Mad Men script it is simply a blueprint. There’s no cheating in it, there’s nothing to tell the reader where the story is going, it’s just I know we’re going to shoot it. This there had to be a little bit of salesmanship in the description. That was something else I learned to do as part of the process. The people reading the script are different to the people who will be watching the movie.
A lot of my sense of humour isn’t funny on the page. I’ve had this my entire career. You have to see them and hear them because they are very specific to the situation….there was a great deal of exposition that was removed to fit the schedule. As with all movies and all stories, nothing suffers from being made shorter. It really doesn’t. That was the other challenge, there’s no time limit on it, so you get to a point and you think, there’s a really great three-hour version of this movie, and then there’s the hour and 45 minute version of this movie that it should be.
I cheated on all of this, I brought my entire crew over from Mad Men. So I had the production designer, cinematographer, my producer Scott Hornbacher, my hair and make up, propmaster, camera operator, and my post team, most notably Chris Gay the editor. You’re dealing with someone who is like another writer taking a pass at the draft.
Was it shorthand dealing with your usual team?
Shorthand is the physical result of it, but the emotional result of it because it’s someone that you trust, you don’t have to deal with all the conversations of someone proving to you they are on the same page. I encourage people to disagree with me, I thrive on that kind of creative conflict. When you don’t know someone that can be really hard….And I also defer to them, I trust them.
Did that team also help reassure financiers?
This was a big part of ensuring the financing of the movie, both in the foreign world and in the US. I was going to be working with those kind of people, and we would be delivering a very visually appealing project.
How did the film get financed?
It took a long time to find the right person, Gary Gilbert is the major financier, there are some other partners in there, and then we had some foreign sales, and we got the tax benefit in North Carolina.
Was that purely for cost to shoot in NC?
States that have a tax break attract people. The movie takes place in Pennsylvania. North Carolina offered everything that Pennsylvania offered, including looking like Pennsylvania, and Zach Galifianakis lived there. That was a very attractive package altogether.
How did you cast Zach and Owen?
I wrote it for Owen a long time ago. It took me eight years to get it through his agency and to him. Even when I was based there! Luckily for me, Mad Men had attracted Owen to my work, and then when we met I told him about the movie, and he was on board. With Zach, Jon Hamm had read the script and told me about Zach maybe five or six years ago, before The Hangover. Jon is really into comedians and he said this guy is a great actor. I met with him and saw that he could act, he was perfect for it. The two of them being best friends in my mind somehow this was Chevy Chase and John Belushi playing these parts. For me it was like a dream.
Did they go on tangents from the script?
No, there’s not a lot of tangents, the were pretty disciplined about the script. Working on it that long and being the kind of writer I am, we didn’t start with improv. But certainly there are things they added, and what you really get is a three-dimensional representational of a person that is far more interesting than what’s on the page. And they both brought that to it.
You’re dealing with some really funny people. Amy [Poehler] and Laura [Ramsey] are also really funny. Laura was in a pivotal role in Mad Men [she played Don Draper’s lover in Los Angeles in season two]. I also used the casting directors from the show. I wanted someone less familiar to play this part [of Angela], because I believe you bring your baggage from your other parts. Angela, who is the love interest, is mysterious and her motives are unknown and a lot is projected on her by the men in the movie, so it was important to have someone that you don’t have associations with. Also Laura is very strong, and that’s important for Angela. You’re dealing with someone has a lot of confidence.
One of the challenges for the editing of the movie is that I’m laughing off camera a lot. They made me laugh, and I don’t hold back on that.
Did you enjoy making a feature more than working in TV or is it just a different experience?
It’s a totally different experience. What it did have in common with TV in particular was the newness of it reminded me of a pilot. There was a sort of constant low-level electricity for me…You never get over seeing some of the things that you imagined in your head in three dimensions. It’s one of the greatest joys of this job.
Will you continue to do both TV and film?
That would be ideal. They are — to me — not diametrically opposed, just because the businesses are in constant competition. But 90% of the films I ever saw were on TV, for me it’s like a novel and a short story. Or a short story and a play. They are all different forms. I was encouraged when I was trying to get Mad Men going to make it as a film, and I knew it wasn’t a film. I just knew it. And with this I knew it was a film, I wanted them to start in one place and end in another.
Are there any other scripts you have ready?
I have other film scripts but nothing is ready at this point. I wrote a play which is ready. And I have one of the biggest challenges of my creative life ahead of me with finishing the show [Mad Men’s seventh and final season is in the works]. At this point I’m good at doing one thing at a time.
Especially after creating something so beloved as Mad Men, are you nervous to unveil the film?
It’s a sad fact for me I don’t know the difference between being nervous and being excited. Honestly I’m very excited for people to see the movie because I think it’s its own reality and they will go into that reality and that excites me.
I heard it’s a very smart and welcoming audience [in Toronto]. I want people to enjoy it, that’s the most important thing for me.
And because you shot this film in my old hometown, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I have to end on a frivolous question — what was the best Southern food you discovered?
Tomato pie. Oh my god. That is basically a butter-laden crust with wads of cheese and the best canned tomatoes. It’s a fat delivery system. It’s not fried. And of course fried pickles. And I like myself some Cheerwine. And anything Moravian related in the Winston-Salem area [the town is home to Moravian settlement Old Salem]. Anything Moravians put in an oven I will eat.