Melissa Benoist and Michael Angarano in "Sun Dogs"

Interview: Jennifer Morrison on the Light Touch Behind Directing “Sun Dogs”

Jennifer Morrison had just 18 days to shoot “Sun Dogs,” and being an in demand actress ever since she donned scrubs on “House M.D.,” she had picked up countless skills on set that would come to serve her well later behind the camera, some less obvious than others like how her intimate knowledge of how production cycles work gave her an edge when it came to getting exactly the cast she wanted for her feature directorial debut.

“In those 18 days, every day they each worked were the only days they could work. There was no wiggle room. Like zero,” Morrison laughs now, having snagged Oscar winner Allison Janney, Ed O’Neill, Melissa Benoist and Michael Angarano off the TV series they star in for the indie dramedy. “It was an unbelievable puzzle and we did some shifting of things around, like we moved where our weekends were and how long our weeks were to accommodate our actors’ schedules so we could make it work.”

Morrison herself was on a flight up to Vancouver as soon as the clapboard snapped for the final time on “Sun Dogs” to finish up filming for her final season on “Once Upon a Time,” flying back and forth every single day she didn’t have a scene to act in to edit her film, though “Sun Dogs” is such a singular creation you’d never suspect she ever took her mind off of it. Balancing a tender family drama against the comedy of pursuing an impossible dream, the film follows a young man named Ned (Angarano) who aspires to enlist in the Marines, particularly only three months removed from 9/11 when “Sun Dogs” is set, yet is considered unfit to serve because of a mental disability he’s had since birth. Knowing that Ned would be crushed if he was definitively told he couldn’t join, his mother Rose (Janney) and stepfather Bob (O’Neill) do their best not to discourage him while the Master Sergeant (Xhibit) at nearest Marine Corps office in San Diego, worn down by his repeated attempts to sign up, creates a fake special forces unit on the spot called the “Sun Dogs” to make Ned feel like he’s a part of something, looking out for sleeper cells in the community that he knows don’t exist.

Naturally, this idea doesn’t pan out in the way Master Sgt. Jenkins hopes, but Ned’s dogged embrace of the responsibilities set out for him gets everyone in his life thinking about their own deferred dreams, including Tally (Melissa Benoist), who Ned meets along the way while working the late shift at Hollywood Park, where she hustles strangers for money before finding a sense of purpose for her considerable wits in learning of his sleeper cell mission. Nearly everyone in “Sun Dogs” has had a hard life, but Morrison’s compassion for them is radiant and her general lightness of touch lets the complexities of her characters doing their best in the face of a tough predicament emerge naturally, eliciting fine performances from a strong cast and drawing on the evocative compositions of cinematographer Michael Alden Lloyd and a mischievous score from Mark Isham to get the mood just right.

After premiering last summer at the L.A. Film Festival, “Sun Dogs” is arriving in homes everywhere today with its debut on Netflix and to mark the occasion, Morrison spoke about how she found the right tone for such potentially thorny subject matter, why making a period piece – even a recent one – helped her create such a distinct world, and making the film a family affair.

Michael Angarano in "Sun Dogs"How did this come about?

It’s so crazy to try to think back and figure out all the puzzle pieces, but ultimately, it was just that I found the script and really felt there were such special characters and such a great message. I could just see it when I read it and because I had just directed my short film [“Warning Labels”], the writer of the script really enjoyed that and felt that I could potentially be the right person for [“Sun Dogs”], so he allowed me to option it. I put together the look book [with] my visual ideas for what I wanted to do with it and went to UTA, which was my agency at the time, and said, “Well, can we start reaching out to actors and see what their interest would be?”

So as I was already meeting with financiers, I was also starting to pull some puzzle pieces together with the actors. Michael Angarano was the first person to fall into place and then I was pursuing Ed O’Neill and Allison Janney, and I was also meeting with financiers and in that process, I ended up meeting with Bert Hamelinck, who is one of the CEOs here at Caviar. He saw my lookbook and my vision and was really, really excited by it and [said], “I think we can help you do this and help find the rest of the money.” So his company put in a little bit of the money, they found another financier and I pitched to them as well, and it was all happening at once. We finished the casting in January, shot the movie in June and then went back to “Once Upon a Time” in July. [laughs] It was insane.

Since you mention a lookbook, the film is very stylish, using elements froom the story such as Ned’s use of a typewriter, which becomes an aural motif, or index cards, which becomes a visual one. Were those as strong in the script as they are in the film or did you really bring those qualities out?

It was a strong idea in the script in the sense that it was scripted that [Ned] had the typewriter and he carried the cards with him everywhere [because] a big part of his life is how he kept lists and organized ideas that he had trouble remembering. But in terms of the way that we pulled that through as an emotional throughline for Ned, that was definitely something we found in the edit, using the typewriter sounds and images to flash to when Ned was processing things. The chapter cards were on the page, but it was a little bit of both.

Aesthetically, as well as tonally, this could be a much darker story, but you really temper than by opening up the frame and having colors like gold as a touchstone. How did you figure this out visually?

That was one of the most rewarding things about getting to the end of the process was looking back at the lookbook and seeing how detail for detail we made what the lookbook’s vision was. It was a very detailed, extensive lookbook, and I had never made one before, so I kind of went overboard. It was my type-A, student self going too far with something, I guess. [laughs] But you can look at the lookbook and then you see the film and you’re like, “Wow, that’s exactly what you said you were going to make.”

The idea with the color palette was that Ned’s world inside of his home felt very safe, and even beyond Ned with his mom and with Bob, all three of them were in this comfort in their home and when they leave their home, they leave that safety. Their perspective is very specific in that home and it’s a little bit closed off in a certain way, so I wanted it to feel warm and cozy and almost vintage in a way because they’re stuck in time and in the places that they are in their lives. Then the outside world would have a blue-y hue to it, which seems a little more threatening and more unknown, so you’ll see in some of the scenes where you have exterior light streaming in – the best example of it is the Thanksgiving scene [after] Tally’s come in and their comfort zone is disrupted – where you feel that inside light in this warm space, but all of that light coming in is very blue and hard, so this juxtaposition of the outside world is threatening them. I wanted all of the color and lighting choices to reflect what was going on in the storytelling at any given moment and a lot of the way we did that was leaning into those golds inside and the blues outside.

Melissa Benoist and Michael Angarano in "Sun Dogs"After the film’s premiere at the L.A. Film Fest, Michael Angarano said he went “completely over the deep end with this character,” which you wouldn’t say from watching the final film, but obviously was instrumental in getting the performance that you did. Was this tricky getting the tone right either on set, perhaps from knowing how this performance might look after cutting it together?

Yeah, it’s tricky. The whole movie required extreme detail to attention to tone. The story is this clear, sweet story, but a lot of the issues surrounding it are very sensitive, so they needed to be given a lot of care. The great thing about Michael is he’s so talented and he comes so prepared with so many ideas and he’s so trusting – he had just directed his own first feature as well, so he was definitely aware of the pressures of directing a film – and we had such a great shorthand with each other, I would always let him go as far as he wanted to go until he tipped over to some place that was a little too far. Then we would dial it back to what felt as natural and as real and as honest as possible. That way, I had every option and every variation of size, tone…all of that. And the only reason I was given the gift of that is because Michael has the chops to be able to go the distance and cover all that ground.

An unexpected but wonderful performance comes from Xhibit, as the Marine Corps officer who has to put up with Ned’s applications. How did he come to mind for that part?

I really have to thank my casting director Tamara Notcutt for that. She is amazing and I swear by her – I can’t imagine making a film without her because she has such an intuition about the way people work together. She’s not someone who’s like, “Well, just make an offer to that person,” or “I know so and so.” She’s so focused on seeing the whole picture and imagining what all those energies together look like. She’s also very aware of what actors are in it for the love of the game, who are really down to go do a teeny, tiny movie for scale and not because they’re going to get a big payday or because it’s going to be on 3000 screens, so she’s really my secret weapon when it comes to that stuff.

Xhibit was someone she put forth and I didn’t know his [acting] work, but I started watching some of the projects he had done and I was so impressed with him. His performance [in “Gridiron Gang”] was so subtle and so heartfelt and there was so much going on and I was like, “I’d love to meet him. I think he’s great.” So we sat down and it turned out that his dad had been a Marine and he was talking about his family and the ups and the downs in his life. I just sat there thinking, “This man is so full of heart and also so full of life experience and he completely relates to Ned because he himself had a father who was a Marine.” He [actually said], “I knew what it was like to grow up revering the Marines” so he just seemed like the perfect fit. And he even elevated that even more once he got on set.

Jennifer Morrison in "Sun Dogs"It’s interesting as well to have the film take place in 2004, which is long enough ago to feel slightly foreign but close enough to the present day so the differences are ever so slight. Of course, the proximity to 9/11 gives Ned a stronger reason to join the Marines, but how did you settle on that specific time?

I really felt strongly about setting it in a particular year, and there were discussions early on of “Well, do we just set it now?” But I felt it lost something by not being set on a certain date, at least for me, being a detail-oriented person [because] I could at least aim for those details. I also thought a lot about 2004 was far enough and close enough to what happened on 9/11 to be a very specific time in America in terms of the energy. We were really in a fear-driven moment in this country, and not to say that that fear has gone away, but we’ve been dealing with it for so long now that it’s different now. In 2004, that feeling was tangible of “What’s next? What’s the next terrorist attack? What’s the next terrible thing that’s going to happen? Are we safe? Are we not safe? Should I be afraid of this person?” It was such a very specific time in America that, to have that backdrop gave a certain energy to some of the decisions – and mistakes – the characters were making. It really informed their perspectives, whether their perspectives were right or wrong and it is one of those things where we forget that things were really different in 2004. Cars were different, technology was different, and it seems like it was not that long ago, but it required a lot of forethought to make sure that we really treated it like a period piece.

It was really lovely to see “Sun Dogs” carry on a tradition that started with your short “Warning Labels,” in featuring a song, “Not Alone,” by your sister Julia Morrison Summers over the end credits. Should this be something to look forward to on all the films you direct?

Yes! I would like it to be a thing! It was actually a really sweet moment with Mark Isham because my sister wrote this song just from having read the script. She sent it to me and it immediately made me feel like crying. It was just so beautiful and so perfect. But once we were lucky enough to have Mark Isham scoring the film, I thought, “Oh gosh, I don’t want to be insulting [to him] or step out of line in any way.” So as we were going through the process [of putting music on the film], we had worked through the score and we were starting to do spotting sessions and I said [politely], “My sister wrote this song. I don’t want to be pushy about it, but she did have a song at the end of ‘Warning Labels’ [too] and I feel it’s really right [for the film], but it’s up to you. Just listen to it and see.” So when I came back for my next spotting session, I didn’t know it, but [Mark] had already slid it into the ending. We went through all our notes and [Julia’s song] came up at the end, without him tellling me, and I’m like, [gasps] “Oh my God!” He goes, “Isn’t it perfect?!?” [And I’m like] “It is! It really is!” [laughs] It was so joyful that Mark loved it as much as I did. And then my sister had this amazing experience where she got to record it with his people. He got to change some of the arrangements in certain spots, but she’s so talented, and such a special soul, and she feels like such a part of me that to have her music be a part of my filmmaking feels like something I would love to continue doing, as long as she’s willing.

“Sun Dogs” is now streaming on Netflix.

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