Dustin Guy Defa on the Growth Spurt of “The Adults”

Even before a studio logo can come up on “The Adults,” you can hear the sound of Eric (Michael Cera) and Maggie (Sophia Lillis) singing to one another, a foundation on which everything that follows in Dustin Guy Defa’s enchanting rumination on stunted development seems to rest. The made-up music was how they related to each other as children and it remains the language that only they can speak to one another after they’ve grown up, all the more crucial now in the five years since their mother has passed and Eric rarely speaks at all to either Maggie or their older sister Rachel (Hannah Gross), who continue to reside in their childhood home in upstate New York while Eric has departed for Portland. He is brought back to town by the promise of a good poker game by someone from the neighborhood, and while he informs Maggie as soon as he arrives he only has about five hours for family time during his stay, he keeps pushing back his departure, in part because of a low-key gambling addiction and also because even unconsciously he knows he can’t swoop in and out, leaving things unresolved as they’ve been.

Defa, as keen an observer as there is of interpersonal dynamics particularly in regards to those sharing a bloodline, veers into the gently surreal as Eric, Maggie and Rachel all occasionally dip into funny voices or song to start conversations they might not want to have if they were using their normal voice, appearing at first to take the edge off serious subjects by rendering them in a silly register, but increasingly becoming a protective measure for themselves individually in resorting to a time that was safe and feeling more at home with one another, even if to the outside world they stand out as odd. After his previous feature “Person to Person,” a sprawling ensemble comedy which created a sense of community amongst New Yorkers who might feel all alone in the big city, the writer/director doesn’t need to zig zag across a metropolis to convey the distance between people, digging deeper with the film’s central trio — both on screen and off when both Gross and Cera were involved in the creation of their characters from the script stage — to take stock of the walls people can put up and the delicacy required to let them down.

“The Adults” is arguably Defa’s most accomplished work to date, both effortlessly charming and moving in equal measure, though one can actually turn to the Criterion Channel this month for comparison where a full retrospective of his work, including his shorts and his debut feature “Bad Fever,” can be enjoyed on the streaming service while his latest is in theaters. What emerges from all of it is a deeply compassionate filmmaker with a knack for showing characters trying to put their best foot forward often before they know what those steps actually are and a kindness emanating from the screen, even when they can’t necessarily show it to one another. In the midst of this whirlwind August for Defa, he generously took the time to talk about how “The Adults” came together, the canny use of music throughout the film and a trip to the zoo.

How’d this come about?

It all started with wanting to work with Michael Cera, I’d made a movie with him [“Person to Person”], and I became friends with him since making that other movie, and I had written a whole bunch of other scripts since my last movie, but I kept wanting to write something for Michael. And what happens is these characters just [start taking shape], and I don’t know what they’re doing, and then I start to develop it. [Michael and I] developed it more and more [together] and then I pivoted and actually did [the same] with Hannah and after having like long conversation with them, we really just figured it all out and that’s how the script or the idea [for the story] came together. Then there’s another part where there was an unconscious working through [why I wanted to make this], like sometimes you don’t know why you’re making a movie — and sometimes you don’t even know until after you’ve made the movie. But in this instance, I discovered why I was making it during rehearsal, which was like, I just really realized the personal part of it and my relationship with my sister. That little core of it started really developing for me during that time period.

It seems like music is so central to this in a number of different ways. Was that a way to discover this family history that’s in the film?

Yeah, it was actually a little bit less than the other draft that I had and became a little bit stronger in the real draft. My sister and I would have characters when we were young and we did a lot of singing and making [up] commercials and game shows and things like that, which a lot of kids do. And I grew up with “Sesame Street,” so that’s probably an influence on all of it. But I had written the music for [the one song] “Rainbows on My Mind,” and Michael wrote the lyrics and it ended up being a great process of making all three of them a family unit. That’s the first thing that they worked on together, and we actually started talking very seriously about the scenes and working through them and they all worked on the music together. Sometimes it was individual, like Hannah and Michael would [develop] “Rainbows on my Mind” and then Sophia and Michael did “Go Around Me Buddy,” so it was great to [get at] the here and now of the scenes and an awesome way to start rehearsal.

Sophia is kind of the wild card in this cast when as you mention she wasn’t involved in developing the character as early as Michael and Hannah were and you hadn’t worked with her before. What was it like getting her into the mix?

I’ve been very lucky because I haven’t hired somebody who I don’t think is right for the part, and I like [to cast] people who I think are nice people and think I can get along with, so I like to watch interviews, even more than I think about clips [from movies they’ve] done. I’m just talking about personality. And Sophia, I watched her interviews and I’m like, “Okay, awesome,” and of when we met and we just got along on Zoom, and it felt right. [Then once] when we started rehearsing, the second rehearsal is really where I started [thinking], “Oh yeah, this is all going work. They actually do feel like a family.” There’s always a chance that somebody’s not going to fit in, but sometimes, part of it’s luck, part of it’s just a feeling like, this has got to be the right person and she just seemed like she was Maggie. It just felt so right and she would be able to be that kind of presence in the movie.

You find some casually beautiful locations in the Hudson Valley as well. Did you know these places already or were they discoveries?

They’re mostly discoveries because I didn’t know [where we’d be filming] when I wrote the script, Our locations manager/producer Julia Thompson did an incredible job of finding places — the house was really hard to find, and then we found the house in Newburgh, and it almost felt immediately like, “Oh, this is the right house.” And I didn’t know if I should shoot in a zoo, but this zoo was like the most humane zoo I’ve ever been to. It’s like the only zoo in North America that’s attached to a high school and the high school students take care of the animals. It’s just a very beautiful place [with] animals who can’t [be in the] wilderness and then [I learned] Whit Stillman went to that high school, so it was it was just fun. I actually almost [set those scenes] somewhere else, but then we found out [we could film there]. And then we found this amazing bowling alley, another amazing location that really just fit the film.

There’s a beautiful landing out in a field of dry crops that seems like such a perfect setting for the family to have a moment of peace.

That’s attached to the zoo and for all the high school students [an area to sneak off] to go make out and things like that. It’s very beautiful there. It was one of those places you walk into and you’re like, “Okay. Well, I’d be dumb not to have like a giant wide shot of this.” We didn’t know where to shoot that scene, but it was just perfect.

There are a bunch of small character touches that connect them as a family when you might not think they have a strong bond otherwise, like how they all wear these jackets they can dig their fists into…

Oh wow. I never thought that. I know putting this stuff on, something starts happening. If you’re really attuned, clothes become something. Rachel’s wardrobe was a lot of fun, and then Michael comes into town only with only two shirts. He wears the jacket half the [movie], so his wardrobe was really simple, but [you think] this jacket can live throughout the entire movie. But I never thought about the pockets. Each of those characters had their own style and I really loved working with the wardrobe designer, Lizzie Donelan. We had just a great time figuring out what everybody would look like, and then the actors come and they say yes to things. You can see it when they start, when they’re comfortable and that’s really important.

When the actors start engaging with each other as a family, are there ways this took on a life of it’s own you might not have been expecting or could get excited about?

Yeah, part of being in acting, to me, is being extremely open because, good acting is reacting off of the other actor. You have a plan, but for a scene really alive, it has to be reactionary and as a director, you’re trying to give them the direction that will make that spark happen. Rehearsal’s not about getting that. It’s just working and figuring things out, and then shooting it [we’re] trying to find something that feels alive and that they’re actually acting off of each other, not just stuck somewhere or trying to do the same thing over and over. It’s about finding those moments and making that work. During rehearsal, I did have an elated feeling that I’m already starting to see how Michael and Hannah are going to be acting off of each other. I can start to see it happening, so it was really quite exciting and that’s an amazing feeling to feel start to feel.

The film really comes to life as well with a very skillful deployment of a very robust score from Alex Weston. Did you know the kind of role that would have from the start?

No, I didn’t even know if I wanted a composer for this movie or if the movie needed it. Then early in editing, I knew it would and was so lucky to get Alex. He’s willing to try almost anything and he’s also willing to discard things that don’t work, which is huge and the music really works for the movie. We had to like work together to figure it out, and it took a long time, but he’s very good at getting up on things that aren’t working. And that [process] would help me figure out the tone of the movie and figuring out the rhythms too.

It really landed so beautifully, and I’ve been heartened not only to see the film get such a warm reception at festivals, but that you have this wonderful retrospective of your work streaming on the Criterion Channel. What’s it like to have your body of work together all in one place like that?

It’s amazing. I love Criterion and the Blu-rays and everything are the best, and it’s interesting to see your body of work together. I’m always inside each film at a time, they’re always singular to me, and I also thought there was possibly a danger of thinking of a body of work [collectively] because I just don’t ever want to be trapped in anything. But when I see them [together] on a page on Criterion, I’m like, “Oh yeah, these movies are me. They all feel like me, and they feel like they’re connected,” so it’s awesome. And doing the “Meet the Filmmaker” Criterion video, it was the first time I was talking about everything all together, so it was a great, great feeling. I really loved it and I’m so happy to be on there and so happy to have all those people watching all my movies.

“The Adults” opens on August 18th in New York at the Quad Cinema and the Alamo Manhattan, Los Angeles at the Alamo DTLA and the Laemmle Monica, Austin at the Alamo Mueller, Chicago at the Siskel Film Center, Denver at the Sie Film Center and Philadelphia at the Bourse.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.