Miranda Bailey wanted to make a big splash with her narrative feature debut “You Can Choose Your Family,” but getting there wasn’t always easy, in some cases more literally than others.
“The big challenge was when Philip falls into the water, we thought we’re not going to be able to do this more than three times because [once] he falls in, you’d have to dry him off and you have to set it up and he’d fall in again, so I was like, ‘Let’s do it in one take, right?’” recalls Bailey, whose star Logan Miller readily agreed, not wanting to be stuck in a spin cycle all day. “And we’re all on the edge of our seats because if he didn’t fall right into the water, [we didn’t know] how many more times we’d have. But he did it right and I’m like, ‘We got it! We’re good. That was fun.’”
Situations that surely would drench other first-time directors in sweat, if not actual water, did not faze Bailey, the savvy producer behind such films as “Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Don’t Think Twice,” nor did walking a fine line in making “You Can Choose Your Family,” which smoothly traverses between broad comedy and tender family drama in a quiet neck of upstate New York that’s bound to get a little loud on the edge of the ‘90s grunge rock era. She certainly handles the balancing act better than Frank (Jim Gaffigan), a senior manager at a ketchup factory who is none too pleased to hear his son Philip (Miller) is plotting to pursue a music career with plans to escape the suburbs for NYU at the end of the summer, though to do so he’ll need his pop’s help with tuition. Always away on business trips to Japan, Philip barely has any real interactions with Frank, but in the rare cases he does, he’ll usually end up taking up matters with his mom (Anna Gunn) anyway, an arrangement that works just fine until Philip ventures about an hour out of town with his friend for a day and discovers that Frank never left for Tokyo, but in fact has an entire alternate life in another city, complete with the football star son (Gage Polchlopek) he always suspected his father wanted, a free-spirited sister (Danielle Campbell) bound for NYU and an arty wife (Samantha Mathis) who’s encouraging of her kids’ pursuits.
Needless to say, this brings up all kinds of thoughts for Philip, ranging from potential blackmail to pay for a future in New York City to wondering why his father needed to invent a completely different life for himself elsewhere. Every avenue is explored to its fullest by Bailey and screenwriter Glen Lakin, who wring as much cringe comedy as they can from Frank awkwardly trying to protect his secret, as well as poignancy from what pushes him to go to such great lengths to maintain the charade and Philip’s disillusionment at it all. Recently during the L.A. Film Festival where “You Can Choose Your Family” made its West Coast debut following its premiere at SXSW earlier this year, Bailey spoke about getting the tone of the film just right, and continuing to tinker with it as the film moves through the festival circuit, in addition to the crafty ways she secured the film’s impressive cast and how she’s keeping busy with not only her own films, but creating the platform Cherry Picks to amplify female voices in criticism.
What was the initial draw of this story?
I have daddy issues. [laughs] I just thought it would be really fun to take a pretty serious situation and find the humor within it and I was able to identify with Philip, the 17-year-old boy and set it at a time when I was his exact age in high school when I was going through a very similar experience with my own father. My father didn’t have two families, but [the character and I shared] some of the same emotional experiences, so it was a fun way for me to put all that out there.
Was this always set in the ‘90s?
It wasn’t. When I read the script, it was modern day and very, very different. When I came on as the director, I redeveloped it to give the women [who were Frank’s wives] a bit more life. In the very first script, the one [Frank] didn’t love was the working woman and the one he did was the stay-at-home mom who could cook really well and I was like, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.” [laughs] And it’s a lot harder having two families in today’s era of having a phone with a camera at all times and social media – just cameras at stoplights even. I think it still happens, but in the ‘90s, it was much easier because you could literally go to another town and not know people. Nowadays you’re always connected by Kevin Bacon somehow, you know?
How did you find your Frank and Philip?
Finding the Frank was obviously the most challenging part. Once we had the script ready, we had to find the actor that was right for the role, someone in their mid- to late-forties who’s likeable, but doing unlikeable things, and is willing to work with a first-time director [since I’ve done] shorts and even a few documentaries, but this was my first bigger feature film. I wasn’t even aware of Jim really, but my friend who worked with me on the Mike Birbiglia movie [“Don’t Think Twice”] was working on “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” so I watched it to support her and when I saw Jim, I was like, “Who is this Jim Gaffigan guy? He’s perfect. Like he’s exactly the Frank that I want.” So I called her and [asked], “Hey, can I send you the script and see if you think he’ll like it?” She liked it, she gave it to Jim’s wife Jeannie, who liked it, and then Jeannie gave it to Jim and then Jim was on. Once we were there, we had a movie because he’s very well-known for his comedy and particularly his dad humor.
So now I have Jim Gaffigan, which is in December, and then in January, I had to go to Sundance and while I was there, I had another friend producing a movie called “Before I Fall.” He saved me two seats and I was running behind schedule as one does at Sundance, so when I got into the theater, it was all dark and my friend grabbed me and brought me down to my seats which are down in the front in the little reserved section. My friend and I were sitting there watching the movie and Logan came onscreen and I elbowed my friend and said, “Oh my God, he’s so perfect. Wouldn’t he be great as Jim’s son in my movie?” And she said, “Oh my God, he would be perfect.” And the lights came up and I was sitting right next to Logan Miller. [laughs] That was very helpful because when he went up on stage, I asked the man sitting next to him if he was his father or his manager – he was his manager – and I gave him my card and gave him a script within a day. Within three days he was attached, so it was crazy.
Because you were financing the film through your company Cold Iron Pictures as well as directing, did you feel like you had carte blanche on those decisions? And did your experience as a producer inform your directing?
No. Imagine Entertainment was on the movie, as well as Reliance Entertainment, so they all had producerial say, so we weren’t able to do anything in a vacuum, but I think it helped the movie and the past 20 years of acting and producing really teed me up to direct because one of the key jobs of a director is to collaborate with the actors and the producers. So I had a little bit of an advantage because I was able to come from the perspective of both of those positions prior to starting, so that was really helpful.
How did you find this neck of New York to shoot in? You found some really interesting locations.
Yeah, I really thought we were going to do it in Big Bear, but when Jim came on, he’s got five kids, so he needed to be close to his family, and I thought okay, how do we stay in the [30-mile] union zone and find these locations? But we were able to make it work and you can really probably shoot anything in New York really. It’s really a remarkable state. We cheated a lot of these locations, like the Hudson River [was used for the scenes at a] lake and we had different interiors for different exteriors, but it’s fun to put together locations [like that] – we built the inside of Uncle Ross’ apartment on a stage.
You must’ve had a lot of fun putting the production design together for Uncle Ross [the stoner relative of Philip’s friend].
Oh my God, that was the best. Our production designer Javiera [Varas] was amazing to work with and I love what they built for Ross’ apartment. I was very specific about how big the bong needed to be and we needed a mug that had boobies jiggling on it, so that part was really fun. Then obviously the cabin [for the second family] and doing anything with Bonnie, the kind of freaky second wife [Frank’s] in love with, that was also really quite fun to find what was right for her house and her wardrobe.
One of the things I loved about this so much was that you really get the madcap energy of it through the camera. I’m thinking specifically of the initial scene at the pool when the camera is low to the ground and criss-crossing. Were those scenes tough to pull off?
Yeah, of course. All of our extras we just kept moving around and it’s not easy with those scenes, but it’s a lot of fun when you can make it work. At the end of the movie, at the big festival, I didn’t know if I could pull it off or not, but we did and Yaron Scharf, who’s the cinematographer, deserves credit for the way the film looks and how good he did.
Was it difficult to get the tone right when you have some pretty big dramatic moments in this comedy?
Yeah, and that’s also within the script. That’s just what I gravitate towards. Some of my favorite movies are the earlier David O. Russell movies like “Flirting with Disaster,” which take a serious subject and then twist it on its head and show the kind of hilarity that ensues when it’s a serious situation that allows for levity, whether it’s Ben Stiller trying to find his birth mother, which is pretty serious, or Philip finding out that his dad has another family. That’s the kind of humor that I like.
In addition to directing and producing, you also co-wrote the lovely closing song for the film. How did that come about?
I’ve worked with Craig Richey, who’s the composer on this, on all the films I’ve done – and they’re all very different compositions tonally. For this one, I sent him a lot of Led Zeppelin and other things that I was inspired by that I wanted us to use in the score and then I’m like, “By the way, the ending song is really important and it’s not one I’m going to buy because we probably can’t afford it.” [laughs] So I wrote the lyrics and I sent it to him and we rewrote it and then we sang on it together and I did the background vocals, so it was quite a lot of fun.
What’s it been like sending it out into the world?
It’s been a really interesting process. When we got into South By Southwest, I wasn’t quite finished with the film, but we had to wrap it up, so this one that’s playing at L.A. Film Fest and Napa is a festival version of the movie, but we’re going to release a little bit more fine-tuned version of the film in June, likely with another title. And I was able to use the festival route as a guide to what was working and what wasn’t. I know this isn’t the process of most directors, but I printed out all of the reviews, good and bad, and I highlighted them and found people liked this, so I’m going to add a little bit more of this, and people didn’t like this, so how am I going to work that out? Hopefully, with some fine-tuning, that’ll work out and we’ll know when it hits theaters over Father’s Day weekend, but for now, it’s doing its festival run and it’s nice to be able to talk to the audience.
You’ve been spending a lot of time with reviews lately since you also founded Cherry Picks, highlighting female critics. Has it been interesting to take a hard look at criticism from the perspective of a filmmaker? And has it been a challenge to balance with everything else you have going on?
Yeah, it’s interesting because entertainment writing and film journalism is such an artform and with scores and whatnot, I think it’s gotten lost in the mainstream. I wanted to have Cherry Picks shine a light on the art of film and television and video games, but then also provide a platform for women whose voices aren’t heard quite enough, so it’s like an online entertainment magazine where you can go and see what do women think about “Star Wars” – what’s the female collective score? And how can I go and read these different female writers. We’ll have a bunch of our own original content as well – we’re doing lots of really fun stories, whether it’s an origin story about a movie or a character or a director or a type of media to interviews with artists. And then I’m still producing – I love producing and I’m still acting because I love acting and I definitely am going to direct more, so…yeah, sitting still is not good for me. [laughs]
“You Can Choose Your Family” will next play at the Napa Valley Film Festival on November 8th at the Cameo Cinema at 8:30 pm, November 9th at the Charles Krug Winery at 12:30 pm and November 10h at 5:15 pm at the JaM Cellars Ballroom at the Margrit Mondavi Ballroom.