As much strong stuff as there is in David Posamentier and Geoff Moore’s directorial debut “Better Living Through Chemistry,” it’s a comedy required to be as delicate as the porcelain pig figurines that line the shelves of its main character Douglas Varney’s small-town pharmacy. An off-kilter satire about a selfless pharmacist (Sam Rockwell) going through an identity crisis when he realizes he wants a little more out of life, the film follows Varney as he begins to explore his darker impulses in the brightly-lit burgh where he makes his home.
It doesn’t help that the drug store isn’t entirely his, thanks to a domineering father-in-law (Ken Howard) who refuses to take his name off the place after passing it on. Then again, Doug has no control over anything, from his ultra-assertive wife (Michelle Monaghan) and unruly son who have no respect for him to his delivery guy (Ben Schwartz), which is why he finds himself so attracted to a carefree new customer (Olivia Wilde), whom he’s willing to overlook a clear prescription pill problem and a husband, let alone one who is far too old for her.
Naturally, this isn’t bound to end well for Doug, who raises the suspicions of a DEA agent (Norbert Leo Butz), but while he loses his cool, Posamentier and Moore keep theirs in the face of all the chaos they create for poor pharmacist, surrounding themselves with both a game cast and strong comedy vets in technical areas such as “Little Miss Sunshine” cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt and composers Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau (“Anchorman 2”). Shortly before the film’s release, the two talked about corralling all that talent into their first feature, their transition from production company desk jobs to working behind the camera and the sweet sound of getting their narrator Jane Fonda to say “douchebag.”
David Posamentier: We worked at two different production companies many, many years ago that were both working on the same film and we both collectively wanted to be doing other things creatively. While we learned a ton at the production companies, one day we met up for breakfast and essentially had the same taste and same kind of sensibility when it came to the movies we liked and we figured, hey, let’s just buckle down and see if we could write a screenplay. We did and we actually wrote it under a fake name because we wanted people to read it for the material, not to do us any favors. We slipped it out to a small collection of people on a Friday and the guys that called back on Monday morning are still our representatives. We were lucky enough to get some really good responses.
Geoff Moore: And that was 10 years ago. The script that we wrote was this little movie called “Veterans Day.” We never made a dollar directly off of it, but it got us a representative and as a sample it got us our first studio job and we were off and running.
DP: There is an element of a blessing and a curse to having the background that we do. It leans a little bit more on the blessing side because as a function of our jobs as development executives, we just read constantly. All you’re doing is reading scripts and working with writers and bouncing ideas off. In addition to whatever writing practice that you do, the reading is so helpful in putting this structural tract into your head. It’s also been a blessing to have known the business a little bit better from that side. We’ve been writing for 10 years and now getting into directing, our representatives can be a little more straightforward with us because we understand what’s happening — we have slightly thicker skin. The curse of it is also a little bit of knowing the business too well.
GM: Sometimes I just wish we didn’t know so much because you know what’s not happening and what should be happening whereas a lot of these writers are just pure writers who come right out of college, they have no previous experience in the business, they just accept things for face value and sometimes that just seems a lot more pleasant. We unfortunately know how the sausage is made and it makes things a little bit more complicated.
How did the idea for “Better Living Through Chemistry” come about?
DP: It was a character and an idea that we had for awhile. It was actually right at the tail-end of the strike where we just said, “Hey, let’s just start writing this thing.” It just cruised because it was always a very compelling character, a guy who’s not really a doctor, not really a scientist, he’s somewhere in between yet he’s the help. He’s looked at as a service and no one really knows his name. The first two-thirds of the script just sailed, but then we wrote ourselves in the corner of how we were going to end this thing.
DP: It was actually not necessarily that we had to tell the story, but there very much was the feeling of we wanted to be directing stuff that we’re writing. We’ve done the bulk of our work as writers in the studio system. You get into that hamster wheel of rewrites. You come in and you do great work that you’re proud of and everybody likes it, but then you know that you’re replaceable.
It’s a great opportunity, but at the same time it’s very limiting in terms of how much influence and control you can have, at least for us and where we’re right now in our careers. When we finished this script, again going back to our experience in development we knew what the budget would likely be and we felt like we had some really strong castable lead characters. We made the executive decision that this was going to be the one to direct.
We also knew that every agency in town has plenty of screenwriters that say they want to direct and you have to show people that you can direct. The first thing we did was hire a line producer out of our pockets to do a budget and a schedule and a breakdown of the script so that then when we actually went to our agents and said here’s “Better Living Through Chemistry” and we want to direct it, it was also “here’s a budget, here’s a schedule, here’s what it will cost, here’s what we need, here’s our vision for it.” It was a great jumping off point. We had our hearts broken so many times before on originals that Geoff mentioned, in some shape or form are going to stall out for reasons that beyond your control. We were in our office one day watching trailer after trailer online of these interesting small movies and we thought, “Someone wants to make this movie.” Independent film has morphed so drastically in the last five to ten years where it’s just a very viable alternative to the studio system where it’s not so much like an independent film will have to be an “Andy Fisherman: Hooks for Hands”
GM: That’s our next project.
Of course, you describe action in a screenplay, but is it a different thing to approach humor visually? A lot of the comic moments and the heightened, darkly comic tone are cinematic, which must be at least a slightly different task than when they’re just on the page.
DP: One of the more difficult parts of the process, was that something that you thought was absolutely hysterical on the page, you shoot, and you get to the cutting room and it’s funny but sometimes it stands alone. A perfect example is Ben Schwartz .We have all of this stuff with Ben Schwartz that’s absolutely hilarious and we were rolling on the floor when we were watching it being shot. Then you cut it together and while these gags are so funny, unfortunately they don’t jive with the overall tone of the film. We had to kill these babies along the way where you would have these moments that were a detour outside of the story.
Finding that tone that you talked about was very difficult. The script that we wrote was much darker and a little bit more mean-spirited than the movie that we came up with, but that doesn’t mean we’re not pleased with the humor that we landed on, that middle sweet spot.
GM: Also, the process that David’s talking specifically with Ben benefited the movie and his performance. He just has 10 one-liners for everything. He’s one of the more comically talented people we know, but in shaping his performance and getting down to what’s important to the story, he comes off as this absurdist as opposed to slapstick. I think that’s what we hit on with that role. – that guy who, at a base level, everybody knows who is still working at a low-end job he’s probably too old for.
DP: Finding the comedic tone also came from the pleasant hodge podge of talent that we had where you have everyone from Sam, who is one of the more brilliant actors of this generation who is primarily known for his film work, and then you have guys like Norbert, two-time Tony winner who’s primarily stage. Then you’ve got guys like Ben Schwartz, who come out through the improv world and how they all mesh together, we believe, brought out the best in one another. It was really fun to watch these guys raise each other’s game on the day. There were days when it was very hard because Ben is so funny that Sam was just breaking every five seconds. You saw the give and take where Sam pushed Ben towards the end of the film when Sam’s character is cracking up a bit, [the film goes to] more of a dramatic place and he really pushed Ben to go there, too.
GM: To say nothing of the comedy from Olivia [Wilde] and Michelle [Monaghan], especially for Michelle, who always plays the cute girl next door and the object of everyone’s affectionsn to really sink her teeth into this mean, “I’m going to say the first thing off the top of my head” character. She really had a lot of fun with the role. Then there’s Olivia, who we think shows a side of herself that people haven’t really seen. She’s really funny. Again, the whole movie shakes towards a little bit more of a subtle and deadpan tone and she just fits right in with that. There are moments when you don’t even realize she’s being funny until almost the scene is over. We really just couldn’t be prouder of the work of the entire cast. We got really lucky, particularly for first-time filmmakers. The script obviously got us a lot of attention and was able to bring people in.
How did Jane Fonda come aboard? I wouldn’t want to spoil the nature of her role though it’s safe to say she narrates the film, but it’s an unusual part, to say the least.
DP: What’s interesting about it is that it was originally scripted for Judi Dench and she was attached to the movie for a while but unfortunately due to her schedule and some other circumstances, we understood it was tough for her to get down to Baltimore to do relatively just a couple of days of work for essentially no money. That whole narrator idea was something that was so interesting and bizarre to us. We never normally lean towards a voiceover, but speaking to the tone, from the moment we started writing, it was like, “Hey, let’s just have a voiceover to make it feel like a bizarre fable. And since we’re telling this weird cautionary tale, let’s have it be like an old British Mother Goose-type woman?” And we thought, “Why not Judi Dench?” Which was so bizarre because we ended up getting her, which is one of the more crazy things that ever happened.
DP: She had a different kind of sardonic wit to her tone of voice. Pardon my French, but for a woman of Judi’s stature to say things like “cocksucker” and “douchebag” was very funny to us, but then to have Jane do it in her tone of voice worked for completely different reasons.
GM: And we’re aware that it’s a polarizing idea, but it just makes us laugh and we think it really pushes the movie into a slightly different zone that you’re not necessarily expecting.
Something else unexpected was to learn “The Verdict” was in some ways an inspiration for this film, though after thinking about it, your film actually delves into ethical issues at a similar remove. Was that why it was a touchstone?
DP: I think we mentioned “The Verdict” initially because the lead character in that movie is a highly flawed, damaged individual who over the course of the story redeems himself. But beyond the fact that you have this extraordinarily strong male lead that’s anchoring the whole film, we looked at that film as a master class of filmmaking in general. Despite the fact that it’s a serious courtroom drama about a struggling alcoholic coming to grips, it’s a benchmark of quality filmmaking, not necessarily something that we connect with in terms of a message but something that we get inspired from, the same way we get inspired from movies like “The Big Lebowski” or “Sexy Beast.”
GM: “Nothing to Lose.”
DP: Exactly. The entire Martin Lawrence catalog. [laughs] But it was not anything specific other than something we looked to as an example of great storytelling where if the sound went off in that movie, you’d know exactly what was going on based on the direction of the performance. That’s something we always have in the back of our minds when we’re blocking this scene out for storyboarding is we don’t necessarily come up with a shot that looks cool for the sake of looking cool because that’s not going to get you anywhere.
GM: One of our common routines is to play the “what if” game. It’s what if this guy was in this situation and what if his family life was this and what if this woman came into his life and what if she had a husband. For us, it’s always the telling the story. And the last correlation of “The Verdict” that we adhered to is take your protagonist and write him into a corner that he can’t get out of and it’s a problem. As we said, we wrote two-thirds of the script and we’re like, “How the hell do we get out of this?” That happens with Paul Newman’s character in that movie where it’s like how the hell is this actually going to resolve itself? We had the same approach with this movie and the projects we work on, which is just take your lead and create the scenario that is so daunting and then figure a way out. Again, that movie did it brilliantly and we can only hope to carry that movie’s baggage.
“Better Living Through Chemistry” opens in limited release on March 14th.