Laura Steinel received a heroes’ welcome as she strode to the stage of the State Theater last spring for the premiere of her directorial debut “Family” at SXSW in Austin, Texas. There was your typical reserved section for cast and crew, who were eager to see the film, but likely not as much as the throng of Juggalos that had carved out a section for themselves right in front, all made up to look like their heroes the Insane Clown Posse with black-and-white facepaint, but without an actual concert to attend. Instead they elevated an already raucous comedy to the level of a rock show and notably, everyone in audience felt like they were a part of it.
This had always been Steinel’s hope with the story of Kate (Taylor Schilling), a VP of a hedge fund management group who has long seen the benefits of going it alone before being saddled with the responsibility of taking care of her 11-year-old niece Maddie (Bryn Vale) while her brother (Eric Edelstein) and his wife (Alison Tolman) tend to a family emergency, and as a fan of magic and LARPing, Maddie is equally singular, though not by choice – an ill fit at school where her passions aren’t shared and at home when her mom sends her to ballet practice and she scurries off next door after she leaves to take karate with a sensei named Pete (Brian Tyree Henry). In letting the two cross paths, the writer/director doesn’t suggest their exact interests align, but it could be that over the weekend they spend together, culminating in the Gathering of the Juggalos happening just up the road from them in Jersey, they could show each other a little compassion that they haven’t felt themselves in a number of years.
While Kate and Maddie begin to let down the self-protective bubbles they’ve created to let one another in, “Family” proves just as disarming for an audience when Steinel’s wicked sense of humor is delivered by a killer cast that also includes Kate McKinnon, Matt Walsh and Jessie Ennis. One of the most pleasant surprises to be found on the festival circuit last year, the major crowdpleaser is now embarking on its theatrical run and despite how confident a comedy the final product ends up being, Steinel spoke about the nerveracking experience of making her feature directorial debut with such a tight schedule and an in-demand cast, finding real support from the Juggalos and the influence of Alexander Payne.
I was writing another movie called “Women in Business,” a bigger movie about women in the corporate landscape and I felt there were some other storylines that I wanted to talk about more, but I couldn’t in that movie as much — this idea of these very corporate, success-driven women and how although that’s important, like who’s the woman who only cares about work and what was her upbringing to feel like that’s all that she wants. I wanted to talk about that overachieving person because to be honest, a lot of that was also myself. And I went into therapy to deal with my family issues, so I wanted to talk about that and then [I had] the idea of putting [this woman] with a kid, so there was self-reflection in terms of her own childhood and how she grew up and who she was at that age, [which seemed] like a great way to talk about this stunted growth person.
Usually with a storyline such as this, the workaholic is made to feel guilty for their ambition and isn’t conscious of it, but Kate’s refreshingly self-aware. Was that always there?
Yeah, the self-awareness comes from intense self-judgment. Before [Kate] was placed with Maddie in the story, [she] had zero opportunity to reflect on learning to like herself and through seeing herself through the eyes of a kid that just needs love and acceptance and nurturing, she learns to have that for herself too, and I thought the Juggalos, [who are] such outlandish creatures who just completely accept and love one another, worked really well with one another as storylines. I started writing the story not knowing that the Juggalos were going to be a part of it at all. When I was halfway through the story, I saw this 20-minute documentary on Vimeo called “American Juggalo” by Sean Dunne and it’s awesome. I thought that’s such an interesting counterculture, but the way they accept each other is so powerful that it seemed like a good tie-in for Maddie’s story.
Had you been wanting to direct for a while or was it something about this particular script?
I don’t really think things through. [laughs] And I just said I want to direct it. But I had been writing for a little while and I had a few things made. I did a TV pilot, wrote a few features and I’ve been doing some jobs for a few different studios and this one was so special to me I just didn’t want to give it away to anyone else. Also, at the time, this was [around] 2015, there weren’t as many female directors getting opportunities, so it wasn’t like I was going to be able to hand it freely over to another female director and have its vision hold, so it was just something where I had to stick my hand up and say I want to do it.
Within this condensed period of time the film takes place in, you’re able to look at a bunch of different types of relationships parents have with their children or relatives have with each other – was it difficult the crack the structure in that way?
No, that was easy. The unfortunate part of the process when you make an indie film is you’re going to have to make sacrifices for financial reasons. We actually were only able to shoot 84 pages of a 104-page movie. Some of that was because we couldn’t afford locations and some of that was because we had injuries on set, so a lot of story got cut. There’s a lot of story at [Kate’s] apartment where you’d see how she lives and there was more texture for her that I really wish could’ve been in there, but we just didn’t have the money or the time. You learn how to kill your darlings on indie films really fast.
Remarkably, you landed what seems like every in-demand actor of the moment, whether it’s Kate McKinnon, Brian Tyree Henry or Alison Tolman – that must make scheduling difficult.
That was also a game of chess because you had to not only structure the schedule with locations, but you also had to structure the schedule for when people were available. Kate McKinnon is an incredible force. She didn’t even have time for a full day of fittings. She came down on a hiatus on “SNL” and we had two days with her to shoot and we got all of our scenes with Kate and she flew back up. She was such a good sport, but it was a lot of that. Matt Walsh was the same. He could only come for one weekend and it was just fitting people in and you do it because they’re amazing.
The film’s young actors are incredible too. How did you find Bryn Vale for Maddie and Fabrizio Zacharee Guido, who’s a major scene-stealer as a smooth operator beyond his years named Baby Joker that ultimately leads Maddie towards the Gathering?
We really got lucky with [Bryn]. My casting director is Amey René and Amey just knocked it out of the park. She just came in and read for us and it was like no looking back. And [Fabrizio] is such a talent and once he and I locked eyes on this character, when we’re in the vein of who it is, I would just say, “Go,” and he would improvise nonstop. He was so in tune with who Baby Joker was. Really, it was a matter of saying, “Who is this guy?” And [Fabrizio] had the joie de vivre and the energy of Baby Joker, but we would just be like, “What would Baby Joker’s passions be?” [And he said] “Probably just like candy and snacks.” And so I’m just like, “Can you just talk about what kind of snacks this kid likes?” So he made up that whole storyline in the mini-mart — which I wish I could’ve used more of it, but it would’ve been absurd in the film – he went on so long about how he wrote to the company to get more of those gummies. That was all Fabrizio – and Bryn too. Bryn had a lot of great lines in there, but we just needed her character to be a little more reserved there so she wouldn’t be that confident right up front in the movie. The two of them are incredible improvisers and I really lucked out with them.
You’re also really able to emphasize the comedy visually with whip-pans and zooms. Was it interesting to make aesthetic decisions you might not necessarily have before as a screenwriter?
I am a giant Alexander Payne fan, [especially] “Citizen Ruth” with Laura Dern playing a drug addict who gets knocked up and all of a sudden people care about her. She’s just kind of terrible, but it’s still so funny, and “Election” [as well] – they’re two of my favorite films, they’re both female-driven comedies, and there’s no kid gloves with comedy, you just have to go hard and do what you think is right for the movie, so I think with a movie where a woman is unraveling emotionally, I needed the camera to tell the audience it’s okay to laugh. We didn’t have time to make too many artistic choices because we were just in triage racing to shoot what we could shoot [laughs], but the artistic choices I could make when there was time was like how do I tell people, “It’s okay to laugh? This is funny. We’re all laughing together.” Not like “I should be worried about this woman.”
It’s interesting you mention Alexander Payne because not too many comedy directors will use the entirety of the frame, but one of the best scenes in “Family” is when you show both sides of an argument between Kate and Maddie’s parents, screaming at each other, after they lose track of her in front of the karate studio and ballet studio.
That’s one of my favorite scenes too, and what’s funny is it wasn’t written like that. When we were shooting it, it was a back-and-forth, so the scene was written where one person talks and then the other person talks and then we finally get to the realization we need to go to another location. But when we were shooting it, it was just so boring, I [said], “Guys, this sounds so dull. What can we do?” And because my actors are such good improvisers, I go, “Just talk over each other,” and Alison [Tolman] listened and cut them off at the right time [to end the scene]. They did a fantastic job and that went from probably being one of the most boring scenes to one of the best in the movie.
It was tough because we didn’t have a lot of extras, so when we shot the Gathering in Atlanta, a lot of Juggalos drove up to the set to be a part of it as extras. Thank God they did because we really didn’t have money to pay for people to be there, so they were so supportive and helpful. But there just weren’t enough people, so I knew in my head that I was going to have to shoot everything really tight because you couldn’t have any background — it was just open fields with nobody in it, so it just didn’t look very much like the [real] Gathering. Also, Taylor’s a movie star and I’m not going to bring her to the actual Gathering because her life is valuable. [laughs] So we shot Taylor’s part in Atlanta and then shot the reverse where you see the people on stage or you see the people in the field separately at the actual Gathering in Oklahoma six months later. And I put a wig on and we brought [Taylor’s] wardrobe and we shot me from behind running through the crowd. And you can’t tell the difference. It just synched up pretty well, luckily, but it was some really guerrilla warfare-style shooting.
Since I was at the SXSW premiere with all the Juggalos at the premiere, I know they love it – what’s it been like getting out into the world?
I know! I feel like I’m a part of their caravan. It’s been really fun. My big takeaway is that nobody felt picked on and everybody felt embraced and that was a very important message I had for the film – kindness overall. I think we all could use a little bit more of that as adults or people in this world, and I just hope the takeaway even for non-Juggalos is be kinder to yourself and it’ll get easier.
“Family” opens on April 19th in Los Angeles at the AMC Century City 15 and New York at the AMC 19th Street East 6 and AMC Lincoln Square 13.