“I’m rethinking my whole life, so I wanted to get a freshie,” Su (Sunita Mani) tells her boyfriend Jack (John Reynolds) in “Save Yourselves,” shortly before breaking out a new notebook. The list making commences after seeing her friends get married and hearing from another (Ben Sinclair) at the reception how he’s prototyping surfboards that can be made out of algae to help save the environment, and while he’s busying himself in Nicaragua, the offer to use his grandfather’s cabin in upstate New York is on the table for Su and Jack, who decide the best way to make the world a better place is to disconnect for it from a week.
As it happens, co-directors and real-life partners Alex H. Fischer and Eleanor Wilson were attending some nuptials themselves when “Save Yourselves” took shape, thinking the feature idea that they had been kicking around for a bit might not have legs until fellow guests Mani and Reynolds made it seem like it was possible. Together, the quartet make it feel like good things are possible even with impending doom on the horizon, finding itself remarkably prescient nine months after its premiere at Sundance as a rare bit of sunlight in the dark days of 2020 as it imagines an alien invasion that upends major cities but only slowly makes its way to Woodstock where Su and Jack’s turned-off phones have left them unaware of what’s going on and free of concern for their friends and family.
When the two start to realize they may be in trouble, danger looks awfully cute when it takes the form of a fluffy pink pouffe, a perfect physical manifestation of the apathy coated in sarcasm that has led to their current predicament of feeling helpless when true disaster strikes, and Wilson and Fischer twist the premise of taking two Brooklynites out of their bubble and the arrival of extraterrestrials into a sharp and wickedly funny comedy in which the real world reveals itself to both when the couple reluctantly starts to take personal responsibility for themselves and engage with circumstances that would seem impossibly overwhelming at first until they start taking the first small steps towards chipping away at it. In that sense, “Save Yourselves” and its co-writers/directors feel as if they’re onto something big and shortly before the film rolls out in select theaters this weekend before hitting digital and Blu-ray on October 6th, Fischer and Wilson spoke about the earthly concerns that led to the interplanetary satire, building the film around their longtime pal Mani, and what the film means now in a time when fear has set in for us all.
How did this come about?
Alex H. Fischer: Eleanor had the idea when she was trying to write a script upstate and there was bad reception.
Eleanor Wilson: Yeah, it was basically a fear of when your phone’s off, what if the worst thing happens? I’m from Australia, so all my family is on the other side of the world and even just being asleep and something bad happening is a fear and it just expanded from there.
I had read you workshopped the script with friends and family – and it seems like the plot oddly parallel that creative process where you’re letting other voices in. Did it actually inform the script?
Eleanor Wilson: Yeah, we were very isolated when we wrote the first draft, and we asked for some opinions of people as we moved through different drafts. It did change, but I think for the better through that process. It’s a funny thing sharing anything that you wrote with anyone, so it’s always a bit scary to put yourselves out there.
One of the things I love about the film is that you really develop them as a couple and you keep all their little rituals in – was that hard to protect? The “Little Soap Big Soap” song Sunita sings in the shower may be one of my favorite things.
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, we talked about that all the time.
Eleanor Wilson: We definitely wanted them to feel like a real couple and that was the goal with all of those little specific things that happen in the first 15 minutes of the movie. The “Big Soap Little Soap” song we thought for sure [we’d need to cut]. The first time we did a test screening, we had a list of “Okay, these are probably scenes that people think that we should cut when we need to cut 10 minutes off the movie” and then we did the first test screening and we had questions, like “What was your favorite scene in the movie?” And so many people’s favorite scene was the scene singing the “Big Soap Little Soap” song, so it was like, “I guess we can get rid of it now,” which is nice.
Alex H. Fischer: Those little details are what make them real. The movies that we looked to for the first half of the movie were old James Brooks’ movies where the characters feel so three-dimensional, and we thought that if we grounded this big sci-fi movie with these cute little aliens in a real couple then everything would be funnier and also a little scarier.
Eleanor Wilson: Yeah, you can actually picture them failing more when you know them a little better.
You go way back with Sunita to “Snowy Bing Bongs” – did having her as a foundation inform how you could build around her?
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, working with Sunita is always a joy and whether it’s with Eleanore [Pienta] and Tallie Medel] from “Snowy Bing Bongs,” it’s just the most fun thing you can do to spend a couple weeks with them. We knew we wanted [Sunita] to be in it early on, which is why the character’s named Su — we were too lazy to change it — and we were thinking, “Who would look and feel right to go with Sunita?” We didn’t want to have the classic mistake of having this beautiful actress with like this less than…
Eleanor Wilson: Super dorky guy, which is a trope in romcoms….
Alex H. Fischer: So we’re like, “We’ve got to find someone who’s really handsome and very funny.” And we found him in John Reynolds.
Eleanor Wilson: Together, they obviously have a great chemistry, but they both also have a high standard of comedy in terms of what they like, so having them working together, they always were able to find the right balance. It really helped us that they respected each other and liked working together.
Alex H. Fischer: They’re so funny and they’re from the same world [of Brooklyn comedy], so they have this real shorthand with each other. It was such an easy process and we really lucked out that they both wanted to do it.
Eleanor Wilson: The movie was very heavily scripted and very wordy, so there wasn’t a ton of room to improvise in there, but we always said to them, “Please adjust to make it feel natural to you” and some of the times where they adjusted things are actually the funniest parts of the movie. There’s just this tiny little moment where John says, “We’re toast,” which wasn’t written into the movie and probably doesn’t mean much to anyone else, but it makes us laugh every time. When you give the actors room to make the script their own is when the good stuff happens.
This taps into one of my favorite subgenres where you’re able to have this much larger disaster film playing in your head as you’re stranded with these two people. Could you lean into what the audience could imagine for themselves?
Eleanor Wilson: Yeah, that definitely influenced the aesthetic and what we were trying to do the most with “Save Yourselves” was subvert that as much as possible. Every time you think that they might be figuring something out, they don’t figure it out, so it was fun to play with those ideas from other movies and just make them fail at every turn.
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, usually in a movie like this, the characters would maybe start to learn slowly and maybe there’d be some foreshadowing of how to conquer the alien or whatever the bad thing is, and we just didn’t think that was very realistic.
Eleanor Wilson: Yeah, but it was fun doing cabin movie, and it’s a fortuitous way to shoot a film because you’re in one location most of the time and about a year before we shot “A Quiet Place,” shot upstate in a similar area. We were talking to the film commissioner and he was very excited about the similarities. [laughs]
Was it a real house you found for a location? It’s got an amazing glass facade on one side.
Alex H. Fischer: It’s funny because we put together a look book and this house looked like something straight out of it, but it was a real place owned by a really sweet couple.
Eleanor Wilson: Yeah, it’s a really beautiful cabin. We had a little list of what we wanted out of a location — a very beautiful cabin was obviously the first thing, and we knew we needed a pond, a barn and some woods and we didn’t really think we were going to get all of that out of one location. We thought for sure we’ll have to cheat this and move around, but this was the first one that we saw and it was perfect with big windows. We were so lucky to get something that was very cinematic.
Alex H. Fischer: Yeah, we had two days of location scouts and this was the first place we went to and we were [thinking], “Uhhh, should we even keep looking around?”
When this is your first time co-directing, did you have to learn how to direct as a team or were you working from one brain from the start?
Eleanor Wilson: One brain is actually how we refer to ourselves. [laughs] We hadn’t co-directed before, but we had worked together in various other capacities on set, and helping each other out with other projects. It was my first time co-directing. Alex had obviously done it before, but it was really wonderful. It’s nice to have another person there that cares about the thing [as much as you do] and you can keep moving it forward with the same ideas.
Alex H. Fischer: I’m a big advocate of co-directing. It’s a deeply collaborative art form and if you can get more people, the better. [laughs]
Eleanor Wilson: Within reason. [laughs]
Alex H. Fischer: Five or six directors is perfect. [laughs]
Eleanor Wilson: It is fun and like you said, we had one brain a little bit because we wrote it and we live together and we had plenty of time to hash everything out before we got to set, so we really had talked about it a lot. But a huge benefit of having a co-director is that you have to verbalize all your ideas whereas if you’re just by yourself and coming to set, people expect the answers to everything [already] being there, but sometimes you haven’t thought about everything because you haven’t had a conversation about it yet. When there’s another person that you have to talk about every detail with, you really have the opportunity to hash it out.
It’s not only a really fun film, but in this time when it seems like the end of the world may actually be upon us, a surprisingly moving one as well. Has the meaning changed or deepened for you since the pandemic started?
Alex H. Fischer: It sure has. It’s about the end of the world and being oblivious to that, and we always thought of it long-term — like climate change being decades from now, and now we have the fires and the pandemic and all of these things that are bringing it to a head much sooner than we thought.
Eleanor Wilson: We always wanted those messages to be there, but we didn’t really know quite how relevant they would be right now.
Alex H. Fischer: And if we were to write it right now, we would probably be a little less cynical about people not being able to have agency in the world because it seems like now lately people are getting involved in the things that they care about whereas our characters are struggling with, “Oh, there’s impending doom and food wastage” and all these things they complain about, but they don’t really know what to do with that information.
Eleanor Wilson: Yeah, people are being active and when we wrote it, we felt more ill-equipped to deal with the issues.
Alex H. Fischer: It’s a really tricky time and it’s really scary. We just hope that people watch the movie and laugh.