In this landmark performance, Mark Ruffalo plays a manic-depressive dad who’s forced by circumstances into caring for his two wild daughters on his own. Basing the film on her own childhood, writer/director Maya Forbes turns lemons into lemonade: sweet, tart, and refreshing. •Availability: Opens nationwide June 16. Check local theaters for listings. •Thanks to Gary Springer, Gary Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.•
DT: In many ways, the film is a lighthearted look at mental illness, but it’s also a personal movie about your own childhood. How do you transform what must have been a painful experience into a sweet one?
MF: I’d been trying to write the script for a long time, working to make it palatable, like a Hollywood movie. I’ve written a lot of Hollywood films, but it just wasn’t working. I thought, Maybe the parents should get divorced, because that’ll be believable—everyone knows what divorce is—but how am I going to explain the mother going off and leaving the kids with this bipolar dad? Then I realized, I’m just going to tell it like it happened. I don’t have to get into justifications; I’m just going to reflect what happened. And that was very liberating. From that point, I also thought, I’m not going to make the dad likable, I’m just going to make him like he was, which wasn’t always likable but was in some ways lovable. My father was so human in his vulnerabilities, in his highs, his lows, and he was also very funny. But the core of it was that he loved his children, so I just stuck to the truth of that.
My father would have said that taking care of us was his greatest achievement. It wasn’t until many years later, until I was almost making the movie and I had seen more people with bipolar illness, that I realized, from an adult perspective, that it was a huge achievement for him. He held himself together as best he could to take care of us, and he just doted on us. So the way in to the movie was: The dad dotes on the kids and the kids are mean to the dad. It came when I realized I had empathy for him having to take care of us, I had empathy of course for the girls being stuck in this situation they didn’t want to be in, and I had empathy for the mother, who really wanted to figure out a way to get her daughters more opportunities to break out of what she saw as a downward cycle. So I think the way in to autobiography is empathy.
DT: I’d like you both to talk about working with Mark Ruffalo. His performance was incredible, and also he’s known for loving to work with kids.
MF: Mark was attached early on, right after The Kids Are All Right. He wasn’t scared of my being a first-time director. The script spoke to him, and he felt that I had a handle and a very strong point of view on the material. I felt this was a wonderful way to approach trying to make a movie: it’s my first movie, this guy’s a brilliant actor, he’s going to be doing things he hasn’t done before, playing a character from this kind of world. I couldn’t imagine a greater person for making this movie, which was so important to me. He obviously understood the painful elements from a very real place, and I knew he’d play them authentically. He was funny, which he doesn’t always get to do. I could also tell he’s a good dad, and I knew he could relate to that aspect of the script. He loves his children, and that came through.
I got financing and I lost financing multiple times. Mark was attached the whole time, so over the three years it took before we actually started shooting, I sent him videos of my father. We talked a lot about how the character held himself, how he moved, the way he expressed himself, so there was all this stuff percolating with Mark, which I think was really helpful. Then, when we got to shooting, I told him, I want you to let go of all of that. Mark was born into this role; it feels very natural. It doesn’t feel like he’s putting on airs. And that’s who my father was, so I said to Mark, Get rid of any kind of affect and just be yourself with these little touches. Unless you’re doing a very broad comedy, that’s the way to go, because you want the actor to feel very natural.
But as much as I was the leader of this thing, he was a teacher to me too, and that was a very comfortable place for him. He’s very respectful of the director, but I was very open to his input because he knows so much about the craft.
IW: If you spend any time with Mark, you already know he’s a great father, and a really great person. He’s so willing to pass on his talent and help you when you’re struggling. He was never, ever condescending. He was always warm, and working with Mark and Zoe was like taking an acting class. I didn’t have any experience acting, so going into this with them made it so much easier. For instance, I was having a lot of trouble in the scene where he’s really angry and he’s trying to leave the house after we’re being brats and singing and dancing and not listening to him. He said, “Get in my way. Just stand right in front of me and don’t let me leave.” It’s so simple, and it just clicked, and I understood how to do it.
MF: I want to add that working with Mark was amazing for me because he was very open to the fact that I was a first-time director. There was something very fun about the fact that I didn’t know the rules. Part of me said, I’m going to make up my own rules. I feel like some of the best filmmakers say, What rules? There are no rules. Just do it your way.
DT: That’s what makes them the best.
MF: Not knowing anything was exhilarating. I was very open about asking anybody about anything I didn’t understand. I didn’t pretend to understand things I didn’t. I felt very confident in that I had a vision. I knew how I wanted it to look, and I knew how I wanted it to feel. Maybe I didn’t know how I would technically make it look the way I wanted it to look—
DT: In terms of camera angles, lenses…
MF: My DP, Bobby Bukowski, who’s done a million films, is also a good teacher. I think he likes working with first-time directors for the same reason as Mark—there’s this freedom to it. You don’t know how things are supposed to be. When Bobby and I were shot-listing, I would always started with How is this scene supposed to feel? And then we got into what the camera was going to do. It was always from a very emotional place, and that’s how I thought of the movie, because I wanted the movie to have an emotional, visceral feeling, like a vivid memory. I wondered, Can we achieve that? But I was undaunted by the fact that I didn’t know the terminology because Bobby was going to teach me. I knew I could tell him what I wanted it to feel like like and what I wanted to see and the kind of movement that I wanted, and he’d figure out how to do it.
DT: You talked about working with Mark, but how long did you rehearse together as a cast, and what kind of preparation did you do?
MF: I did a lot of preparation with Zoe. She met my mother, and we went through all sorts of old clothes and pictures. She wanted as much as she could get. She read letters that my parents had written to each other. Both Mark and Zoe wanted access to as much actual real-life photos and images and interactions as they could get. Mark saw videos of my dad, Zoe spent some time with my mother. In the film she does a whole thing with her voice as well; she changes the way she speaks in the movie to sound more like my mother. Both Mark and Zoe were attached to the film for a few years, so we got to do a lot of this work in little bits and pieces along the way. That was nice, because I think it went into the recesses of their mind and grew, and developed.
IW: I feel like we’ve been preparing for me to play this role since I was young, because my mother would always tell me and my sisters stories at night about my grandfather and about her childhood. Then a lot of the preparation we did was mainly on set. We’d go through a scene once, I’d talk about what was happening, and the context, and at night I’d rehearse my lines at home with my father.
MF: My husband was very helpful in terms of getting her prepared, then we had two days rehearsal in preproduction, with everyone there. We delved into a couple of difficult scenes, then we said, Let’s stop; we don’t want to beat this scene up.
It was great in terms of establishing a family dynamic with the four of them. Mark and Zoe were wonderful with the kids. It was fun and playful and it felt like a family, so that was when I felt, This is going to work, because they really have a very natural feeling together.
DT: On this film you were director, writer, daughter. Were there times when the director in you said, “OK, I have to do such and such,” but the writer in you said, “Hey I didn’t write that!” or the daughter in you said, “But it wasn’t like that”?
MF: We wanted to have an improvisational feel, but it was very written, and everyone pretty much stuck to the script, except for some funny lines here and there. Occasionally I would bear down pretty hard on a line or two that someone wasn’t getting, and say “It has to be delivered like this.”
DT: What surprised you about directing?
MF: What surprised me was that I liked it so much. When I was little, it was what I wanted to do—be a writer and a director, and then I got scared as I got older. My mother always said, By the time little girls are thirteen or fourteen, the world has beaten their dreams. When girls are eight, nine, they’re so free, and they think they can do anything, then bit by bit they go along and they’re told, You can’t, you can’t, you can’t. She was upset by that, so she was saying, Look out for that with your girls.
That’s what happened to me. I’m a pretty confident person, but I went off to schools where boys were the leaders and I got scared to take risks. I was scared to direct. I’ve been a writer all these years, which is kind of antisocial, so what surprised me is how much I enjoyed the collaborative experience. I loved being in charge, because I thought I was good at it. I tried to get people inspired and bring out their best. It was a great project because everyone was there for the love of the project, and that’s a terrific place to start—Mark, Zoe, and all the way down.
I loved the decision making. I loved deciding what pictures were going to be on the wall and getting into the world of costuming and what you can say about the characters through the costumes. I loved it all. I loved working with the actors. So that was the biggest surprise for me, after all those years of protecting myself as a writer in my little writer bubble and thinking it would be a horrible headache to have to deal with so many people. And it is a headache, and there’s tons of frustration, but it was completely exhilarating because I worked with so many talented people.
DT: Is this going to change the way you write?
MF: It already has. Now I think, Would I want to shoot this? Is this a dead scene? Even if I’m writing a script for a studio, I just want lots of juice out of each scene. I want to get to the meat of what it’s about. I don’t want all the extra stuff. I want energy. You don’t want the stuff that’s not getting you anywhere; you just want the stuff that’s keeping you moving forward. That’s the big thing. As a writer you dwell on building stuff up, but as a director you want to get to the story.
DT: What are the differences between writing for TV and writing for film?
MF: Writing for TV you can let things play out for much longer now, especially with these limited series. In some ways writing a film is harder in that you’re trying to condense and tell a story. I like shorter movies, so I’m always looking to try to tell it more concisely. It’s really hard to get down to the essentials in movies, and I feel like in TV you can linger more and just exist in a world of character dynamics that aren’t necessarily leading you forward with your story.
DT: Why is it hard to get to the essentials in film?
MF: To launch a story, and let you know who the character is, and do all the things you need to do to keep the story going without having it get bloated and long—it’s hard to get things to be concise and elegant.
DT: One of the things I found very interesting was the fact that your mother was black and couldn’t get a job in Boston. Could you talk about that historical reality?
MF: When my mother went to New York to get an MBA, her plan was to come back and get a job in Boston, but what she found when she came back was that Boston was really much more provincial than New York. Much more closed. This was 1980. They were looking for Harvard MBAs right out of business school, and she was a thirty-eight-year-old black woman. In that world, there weren’t even a lot of women in the financial world, and she had her kids on top of everything else, so she couldn’t get a job. She felt New York was more cosmopolitan, more open, more free, and she ended up getting a job at EF Hutton.
She told me a funny story. She was working at another financial firm, and one of the partners quit the firm, leaving behind all his accounts. When the supervisor handed them out, he did it in the men’s room! It was like the golf course all over again…it’s just the casual way these things perpetuate.
DT: Typical. What was the hardest part about making this film?
MF: What made this film complicated was the tone, which is really something you have to find and create in the editing. We didn’t want to go too funny, or too heavy, so that was a very interesting, important part of the process. I don’t want to make light of mental illness, because I think it’s a serious thing, but I also loved my father, and he had lots to offer me, so I wanted to make a movie that was happy and sad and struck the right balance…sort of a celebration of misery.
DT: How much did you participate in the editing process?
MF: Completely. I didn’t physically participate, but I was in the editing room the whole time.
DT: So you were essentially directing the editing.
MF: My husband was there too. It was a really delicate thing to achieve the right tone.
DT: How different did the final film end up from the script?
MF: The manic episode at the beginning of the movie was longer, and it was very dramatic, and it was too much. That was the biggest piece that came out, because it just felt like we needed to know he was having a breakdown and ended up in the hospital, but we didn’t need this breakdown to go on and on. It’s very hard to start off with your main character in an unlikable place. You don’t have to instantly love somebody, but you don’t have to feel like something horrible is going to happen, either.
DT: What’s your next project?
MF: My husband and I just finished a script for Jack Black. It’s a comedy, but tonally it’s sort of Coen brothers. It’s a real-life story, about a guy who came from Poland. He became a polka singer sensation in Pennsylvania and ended up running a Ponzi scheme and defrauding all his elderly fans. Sort of by accident; he didn’t want to. He dug himself into a hole. It’s like a Bernie Madoff story if Bernie Madoff was a lovable, warm guy, which Bernie Madoff obviously was not.
DT: How did you find the story?
MF: There was a documentary about it called The Man Who Would Be Polka King, and someone sent it to us. This character was just a guy who wants the American dream so badly. He comes from Poland to live the dream, and he just goes down a really bad path. But there’s also a great element of fun singing and dancing, and there’s this very funny subculture of the polka world in Pennsylvania.
DT: “I don’t want her, you can have her, she’s too fat for me.”
MF: I love that song! It just seems like that’s the role Jack Black was born to play.
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