Two years ago, Laura Terruso was waiting in line to pick her badge for the SXSW Film Festival when she struck up a conversation with producer Neda Armian. The two both had films at the festival – Armian talked up “She’s the Best Thing In It,” Ron Nyswaner’s rollicking profile of actress Mary Louise Wilson that she produced, while Terruso was days away from blowing the roof off the Paramount Theater with the Sally Field comedy “Hello, My Name is Doris,” that she had written with Michael Showalter as an adaptation of her 2011 short. Both would make the time to see each other’s movies.
“Neda handed me her business card at the film and was like, “If you’re in New York, call me when you’re in town,” recalls Terruso, whose feature screenwriting debut went on to be picked up by Roadside Attractions and became one of last year’s biggest indie hits. “And I met her [afterwards] and said, ‘I wrote this script. I have X, Y and Z and I want to make it this summer.’ She read it that night and then the next day we started working together. That’s an unheard of story, but [SXSW] is a place where those connections can actually get made.”
“Fits and Starts,” which marked Terruso’s triumphant return to Austin, may have the festival to thank for getting off the ground, but one could argue it’s the connections between all of Terruso’s professional experiences that make it fly. Having served in nearly every role one could on a film set – notably as a producer as Madeleine Olnek’s comedies “The Foxy Merkins” and “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same,” Terruso puts it all together for what one great comic avalanche that sees David and Jennifer (Wyatt Cenac and Greta Lee), a married pair of authors, lose their cool en route to an artist retreat in Connecticut. With hopes that the party’s host, a publisher, may take interest in David’s novel, the couple realizes that they’ve accidentally left the bottle of wine they planned to gift back at their apartment, and as they discover state liquor laws being different north of Williamsburg, a scramble to replace it leads to an evening of chaos when David, already reticent about self-promotion, winds up at the retreat of eccentric artistes by himself.
Line for line, “Fits and Starts” is exceedingly sharp and funny, pointing out the phonic issues that plague the employees of a ride-sharing service “Wheel Share” and contemplating if T.S. Eliot was a “schmoozer.” (“He schmoozed the Nazis,” Jennifer sweetly reassures the skeptical David.) However, Terruso brilliantly engineers something even greater than the sum of the film’s parts as the couple’s issues are exposed and exacerbated by their run-ins with police and an even more judgmental crowd waiting for them in Westport. Once considered a promising literary talent, David has now taken a backseat to his wife, who has taken to being referred to publicly as the more distinguished J.M., and while it’s clear the two are still very much in love, it’s the little fissures created by the varying levels of their success that have both authors at a loss for words. This, however, is not the case for Terruso, who manages both a raucous sendup of the highfalutin literary scene they’re a part of and a quietly stirring study of the couple’s relationship dynamics that may have one dabbing their eyes either way.
Following the premiere of “Fits and Starts” at SXSW, the writer/director spoke about how the experience of “Hello, My Name is Doris” led to her desire to take on her first feature in the director’s chair, finding an ideal couple of leads in Cenac and Lee, and where she finds such rich characters.
How did this come about as the script you wanted to direct for your first feature?
After spending two years writing “Hello, My Name is Doris,” I went to L.A. and was extremely involved in [its] production, kind of as Michael [Showalter]’s wingman on set. It was such an amazing experience to be able to watch Sally Field work, so after “Doris” wrapped, I came back to New York really hungry to direct something. I knew I could spend another 10 years writing and trying to get the next “Doris” made or I could write something much smaller and make it fast. That’s what I chose to do here, and the screenplay is very personal — I really set out to look at the joys and discontents about being part of a creative couple and really looking at the very specific relationship dynamics that emerge when people share the same profession as their spouse. Having worked as a producer for many years, I knew how to write something that was small so it was something that I could produce.
How did Wyatt and Greta come onboard to play this couple?
All my films are comedies absolutely because that’s how I see the world, but they walk that line, so I really need to work with performers who can carry off both the drama and the comedy. I’ve always been a fan of Wyatt Cenac’s comedy. He’s brilliantly funny, but the first time I saw him in a film was 10 years ago in Barry Jenkins’ “Medicine for Melancholy,” which premiered here at SXSW, and I was so blown away by his performance in that film because he’s so truthful. He exudes this intelligence and soulfulness that I knew the character of David needed. It’s funny because I talked about it in relation to casting Sally Field [in “Hello, My Name is Doris”], it’s like everybody knows Sally can do drama, but I think people forget that she’s a brilliantly funny character actress. When we were casting “Doris,” I was like, “Michael, watch ’Soapdish.’” She can do physical comedy and that’s the film that told me Sally could play Doris. Similarly with this, we knew Wyatt as a comedian, but “Medicine for Melancholy” told me he could handle the dramatic moments in “Fits and Starts.”
When I was in New York, I shot a few episodes of the web series “High Maintenance” as a [director of photography] before it became a HBO series, so that’s how I met Greta. I shot the original “Homeless Heidi” episode of “High Maintenance” that Greta was in, and she’s just such an extraordinary talent. She’s that rare combination of beautiful and funny and it’s so rare to find people that are as gorgeous as she is who are as brilliantly funny.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the film, but Wyatt’s facial hair becomes a plot point – was the production schedule actually built around it?
It was. [laughs] We shot [the film] out of order so all the stuff [where he had] the facial hair was first and then we shot the scenes where he’s half-shaven. There was actually one night where Wyatt had to go home to Brooklyn with half a beard and he had to keep it that way. He said it was the most uncomfortable night of his life, that he was just scratching it all night. Then he shaved fully and did the flashbacks, which worked out beautifully because at that point, Wyatt and Greta had such wonderful chemistry from the 13 days before we shot [before] the flashbacks, to get to the place they needed to be to shoot the flashbacks.
In writing this, how do you decide on the group of oddballs that shows up at that artist retreat?
When you sit down to write, you just never know what’s going to come out and the oddballs in the writing process just appeared. I love writing because I see it as a way of getting in touch with your subconscious and I liken being a screenwriter to having multiple personality disorder in a way. It’s like you have all these people in you and it’s like, oh, that guy is in there?!?! I had no idea, but they emerge on the page. So I never sit down with any specific intentions when I write a screenplay. I write very stream of consciousness, longhand on legal pads and then the characters emerge.
I also love satire, and what I love doing is finding a character that we can relate to — in “Doris,” it was Doris and in “Fits and Starts,” it was David — that we can feel like we’re going through this journey with them. Then I can build a satire around these characters that we are firmly embedded with. With “Doris,” we satirized the hipster world a bit and with “Fits and Starts,” it’s satirizing the art world. That satire just comes naturally to me. [since] obviously these are worlds that are familiar to me because of who I am and where I’m from.
There are some really great moments in the film of pure cinema – I’m thinking specifically of the use of diegetic sound, which starts from the artist performances inside the house to highlight the craziness outside the room involving David, whether it’s finger snaps or a crazy violin solo. How did those moments come in?
I studied filmmaking at the grad program at NYU and I had a wonderful mentor John Tintori, a fantastic editor who cut all of John Sayles’ early films. He’s just brilliant and one of the films that he showed us [in his editing class] was “All That Jazz.” I love Bob Fosse’s cutting and he does a lot of intercutting in his films, so as we were cutting the film, I was sitting working with my editor Rob Wilson, I was like “let’s try this,” and I’m really happy with how it turned out.
You also perfectly show the slow agony that hits David as he watches a far less talented author receive a business card from a publisher through a particularly clever camera move. How did that shot come about?
When I direct, and when I write, everything is first person. That’s how I see my films is that the audience becomes this character or they feel they are this character so they [can] empathize with this character’s journey. Everything is through their point of view. So that business card moment is one of my proudest moments in the film. We shot the film so quickly – it was a 14-day shoot, which is insane — and those little moments that you’re picking up on, I’m so proud of because we had so little time. Those little things were important to me and I hope to plant you in that character’s experience to give you a sense of what it’s like to be on the outside looking in and [in “Fits and Starts”] feeling like the world is passing you by. [laughs]