Holly Hunter had an unusual request. She had just signed on to star in Andrew Wagner’s adaptation of Brian Morton’s novel “Breakable You” (co-written with Fred Parnes) and the two had spoken at length about Eleanor, the therapist character she would play. Naturally, both would start to mix in their personal history as the conversation went on and after Wagner mentioned growing up on the Upper West Side where the film was set, Hunter asked if perhaps he could set some of her rehearsal time in the apartment he grew up, and where his mother still lived, to get the feeling for the environment.
“As a director, you really want to say ‘yes’ to everything, especially [when] it comes from your actor because it means something exciting is happening inside them,” says Wagner. “[Saying] yes to this excitement within your actor is also saying yes to letting that feeling grow in them in a way that will feed the development of their characters, so I made the call to my mother and said, ‘Look, how do you feel about going to see a few movies a couple days this week?’”
She agreed, though the move backfired slightly, as Wagner recalled on stage shortly after the premiere of “Breakable You” at the Palm Springs International Film Festival recently, when during an emotionally fraught moment of rehearsals, his mom returned early from one of her cinematic sojourns to use the bathroom, interrupting a scene. (This awkward scenario can easily be envisioned by watching the writer/director’s unforgettable feature debut “The Talent Given Us,” in which Wagner cast his irascible family as versions of themselves on a wild road trip.) Still, you get the sense that Wagner would do it again in a heartbeat if it would enable an audience to come to know any of the characters he presents onscreen as well as they know their own family.
Such intimacy is a hallmark of “Breakable You,” Wagner’s second foray into Morton’s world of tony New York intellectuals, having previously broken through with the 2007 drama “Starting Out in the Evening,” in which a literary lion (Frank Langella) fought against the taming of age and a lack of inspiration. From the opening scene in which a camera can be seen curling around Hunter’s Eleanor as she gazes out her window in the morning, moving about as if to attempt an embrace without quite knowing if it’ll be returned, the film invites the viewer in to see its characters in the way they see themselves as they interact with others and the way they actually are in private, dropping us into the lives of a couple about to sign off on the end of a 35-year marriage. There isn’t much backstory necessary for Eleanor and her playwright ex Adam (a fearsome Tony Shalhoub), who match wits with great enthusiasm but seem to lack passion elsewhere, and their daughter Maud (Cristin Milioti) has become independent enough to no longer keep the two together. Still, the family remains bonded by their shared history and their continually dramatic present, as Adam suffers a crisis of conscience, pilfering the unproduced final play of his childhood friend and claiming it as his own when a new idea eludes him, and Maud becomes despondent in advance of the birth of her first child, reversing the roles with the baby’s father Samir (Omar Metwally), a former actor acquaintance of Adam’s whose first child died years earlier.
While such a brief written description may suggest a soap opera, Wagner turns “Breakable You” into great cinema, so carefully attuned to the rhythms of everyday life and displaying his sensitivity in guiding the nuanced performances of a gifted cast that after the elation comes regret that it’s been a full decade since the filmmaker’s work last graced the big screen. A day after the film’s premiere, Wagner spoke about that time in between (and starting a family of his own), as well as the detail that goes into crafting strong characters, putting distance between his adaptations of Morton’s work, and the importance of capturing life in both its great highs and lows.
You mentioned other projects during the post-screening Q & A. How did you circle back to this one?
Great question. I wish it weren’t such a great question. [laughs] I’ve been spending every waking hour trying to get my next film made since “Starting Out in the Evening.” I’ve had two children in between, and I’ve been doing a lot of teaching at the American Film Institute where I teach the thesis directing class, but right after “Starting Out in the Evening,” the passion project that I pursued with tireless dedication was called “The Park,” a film about a teacher set in South L.A., the combat zone of the L.A. Unified School District, and the need to educate all kids, even ones who were harder to reach. I’d actually spent five years teaching in the inner city in the early 2000s – that’s even a scene from “The Talent Given Us” – and I wrote the script with my dear friend Larry Strauss, who’s been one of those hero teachers for twenty-some years. We were trying to find a story to tell that was dramatic, comedic, tragic and wrapped up in a thriller – an original way in to talking about systemic failure – and we think we found it. The script was met with great appreciation, but it was a tough movie to get made. I had an Academy Award-winning actor and an Emmy Award-winning actor attached, but all the starring roles were minority roles and you know, the word you keep hearing with a film like that, or at least this was back in 2008, 2010 is foreign sales – it’s hard to sell a movie where the primary starring roles are minority roles. It was intensely demoralizing.
Fred and I had read “Breakable You” right after “Starting Out in the Evening” and my first response was “I love this, I can’t do this” [because] I just directed a Brian Morton novel. Brian’s work is brilliant and I’m so deeply honored to have directed “Starting Out in the Evening,” but you are mindful of the idea of being put in a niche. “The Park” was a film of great contrasting sensibility, but it was tough to get made. I spent in earnest two or three years exclusively trying to get that one made and I also had five other movies that were ready before “Breakable You,” one which was financed at a very meaningful budget, but we couldn’t find an actress that would trigger the release of that money. My wife, Chelsea Gilmore, wrote this wonderfully funny and bold and original script that was also quite provocative sexually and it was hard to get the actress who was willing to consider that level of provocation, so that movie didn’t get made, but hopefully, we’ll return to it. But you just keep going. You just keep creating. You just keep doing the work. You have to treat every project as if this is the one. But you’re also facing this staggering amount of resistance. You need a lot of money and world class actors and sometimes you get the money but not the actors. Sometimes you get the actors, but not the money, but you have to have everything and all these pieces have to come together, so really we’re just talking about a lot of hard work and a few near misses, chewing up some of that time. I opened up my creative process in a number of directions, and [part of that was thinking] okay, enough time has passed since “Starting Out in the Evening.”
This may be cheap psychology on my part…
[laughs] Welcome to the writing process! That’s why [this] took three years. All you do is sit around going, “That’s cheap! Cheap! Cheap! Cheap! That’s good, that’s subtle. [laughs] Cheap!” Writers only show you the one percent of our ideas that are reasonably substantial. A lot of the others remain unheard.
That reminds me of my favorite line in the movie where Adam says, “Genius is…”
“…We’re all frauds until you have a good idea.” Go ahead. I’m sorry.
No, since you mentioned starting a family, like Samir and Maud, and you’re working in vain on projects, like Adam, did having that time in between allow you to see things going on in your own life that could make this story more personal?
What personally brought me back to this material was some of the struggle – the feeling as a filmmaker in my mid-forties [that I’m] governed by this urgent need to make movies and to share the human story with a larger audience – that same sense urgency leads to a lot of intense midnight of the soul moments where you’re struggling to get the movie made. This really connected me deeply to the themes in this book, which is about the great imperfection of life and the enormous tension and struggle that we all have to face and metabolize and somehow turn into a nutrient for our growth. But it’s not easy. We can feel like life puts a hurt on us. We can feel like life breaks us – “Breakable You” – the “you” there is for me, you and everyone we know. The older you get, you get a much deeper, more intimate understanding of life in all its struggles and some of the suffering that comes with that, but on the other side of that, there’s great joy and sweetness – this is the soup of life, trying to stay connected to the sweetness and the miraculousness even as we wake up in the morning not having everything we want.
Three of my dearest friends died of cancer in their early forties. My father died in my arms – coincident with this was the birth of my first daughter and after that, the birth of my second, so it really is a compilation of really profound experience, just being swept up in the drama of life in all its wonder and a lot of its pain that brought me to this book because all of these characters are staring up at a very steep climb. Brian Morton crafted a novel about the Sisyphean challenge we all face of pushing the rock uphill and really with only our trust that there’s beauty in the push, and it’s a beauty I’m invested in, but I was really feeling the pain of the weight of the rock. And all this created that feeling of necessity that a filmmaker has to have to dedicate the years it’s going to take to sit quietly in the silence with the novel, adapting it, personalizing it, and making it meaningful enough [personally] so that without any promise of it getting made, you’re writing it for three years and you’re going to go out and knock on the doors and do the hustle you have to do to bring together the actors and the money. To say nothing of what it takes to open yourself up as deeply as possible to make the film and then spend eight months, 12 hours a day, six days a week in the editing room finding its rhythms and its center and its ultimate truth.
What was the adaptation process like?
That was a very rigorous writing process. One of the things we were mindful of was looking for points of similarity to “Starting Out in the Evening” that were organic to modify because like “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Breakable You” is set in a similar narrative universe – Upper West Side New York City, among writers, therapists and academics. So the first thing we did was look at Adam Weller as a writer and we changed him from a novelist to a playwright. That was one easy, obvious change [because] Leonard Schiller in “Starting Out in the Evening” is a novelist, but even more meaningfully, we just felt it would be more compelling to dramatize Adam’s story through its physicalization – we can get this play that he steals up on the stage and we could feel the theft through the actual seeing of the play.
There were other changes of some significance that we wanted to consider. For instance, spoiler alert for those who haven’t read the book, but Samir dies halfway through. There’s a funny story with that – Brian, who’s amazing with us, just says, “Go do what you need to do to make it a movie.” Of course, we had every intention of preserving the thematic spirit and many of the details, but when you go from book to screen, things evolve and with Samir character, one thing that evolved was this very simple premise that life is more dramatic than death. In the book when he drives off the road halfway through and dies, [you shrug.] This is a guy who has been committed to his grief, setting up shop in the shadows of life where he’s doing his best to reach out to his dead daughter. It’s a very dark place to be and through Maud’s consistent inspiration, optimism and shameless openness and intimacy, he’s resuscitated. The lights start to come back on and it’s an incredible journey that Samir goes on.
We just thought we have to see these lights come on and stay on longer. We were also looking for greater points of dramatic collision between our family, so we turned him into an actor who actually had a career on the rise before the death of his daughter, and not known to the wider public, but known to those with good taste to those inside the business. Adam was one of those people who saw this promising talent step away from it because he was overcome by grief and we thought this could really cohere for us in an exciting way, so we kept Samir alive [because] his grief was singularly about the loss of a child and we thought, let’s see who he’s going to be now with a daughter.
Was it was difficult in the writing or editing to accommodate an ensemble of characters like this?
Again, what those three years [of the writing process] were about were, in many ways, about how to service intimacy from a multiplicity of characters. We were very mindful of the challenge of asking an audience to identify in that innermost way with more than one protagonist. [There are] five substantive characters with five more behind them that play a meaningful role in the story, and there are two things you have to do to serve that process – the first thing is to just think deeply about the emotional need driving the character towards what they want and then you have to consider how the dramatic form gives breath to the pursuit of the goals that come out of that need.
That’s the individual work on each character and then you look at points of collision between them because the way human need and longing turns into human drama [is when] those needs and wants turn into obstructive forces. That’s how the ensemble helps, so if you can turn the other characters in the circle of the story into the obstructive forces for what each of these characters wants in life, then you’ve found a way to bring them together more. So we were looking for every triangle and dyad in the movie and saying, “What’s the tension between husband and wife?” – to be more specific, what’s the tension between Adam and Eleanor? What’s the dynamic between mother and daughter? Father and daughter? And what about Eleanor and Paul, her brother-in-law? You start to look for points of intersection where it can become very exciting.
You then spend a lot of time trying to come up with a sense of balance as it pertains to the movement between these characters, so you can survive the feeling of “Character interruptus,” which is [when you’re feeling] I’m just starting to identify with this character, and now [you spend time with another]. That’s just something you have to embrace and in the editing room, a lot of what you’re doing in the after you’ve shot the film is trying to assess a certain democracy of experience with each character, so we go deeply enough into each story, but we return back to it soon enough to feel like we can abide the situation when we leave the character.
“Breakable You” does not yet have U.S. distribution.