Julian Branciforte is very much looking forward to the premiere of his feature debut “Don’t Worry Baby” at the Sarasota Film Festival for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie.
“I just read an article that said it has the highest well-being of any city in America right now,” said the New York-based filmmaker on the eve of his trip to Florida. “So I’m going to go down there and be well.”
At least someone will be when he brings his comedy about a dysfunctional family to the Sunshine State. Starring Christopher McDonald and John Magaro, who first became friendly on the set of David Chase’s “Not Fade Away,” “Don’t Worry Baby” features the two as father and son Harry and Robert, respectively, who come to find out that they slept with the same woman (Dreama Walker) around the same time four years earlier and discover she’s since had a child that belongs to one of them. While there are plenty of laughs to be wrung from such an outrageous scenario and Branciforte is sure to find his share of them, the first-time writer/director also sneaks in an investigation into adulthood as he watches the younger Robert, a struggling photographer come around to the idea he might me a dad and accept the responsibilities that come with it, while his old man Harry, a successful headmaster at a preschool demonstrates less and less maturity as he actively fights his son that the four-year-old Mason is his.
Branciforte assembled a sterling and game cast for the film, including not only Magaro, McDonald and Walker, but Tom Lipinski as Robert’s ribald roommate Lenny and Talia Balsam as Harry’s surprisingly understanding mother and Robert’s disapproving ex-wife. He also draws on the energy from the city that it’s set in – New York – to add color to a story that so easily could only have been about his characters seeing red or worked blue. Shortly before the film’s unveiling at Sarasota, the filmmaker spoke about how he got interested in filmmaking, the transition from shorts to his first feature and the inspiration for “Don’t Worry Baby.”
How did “Don’t Worry Baby” come about?
I’ve been making movies with my producer Nick [Shore], since I was 12. He started sending me scripts when he went out to L.A. to start working in the industry. None of them really felt right, so I started writing [myself], and it just took me awhile, but I figured out how to write and to get the story told. I’d rather direct something I wrote, and this is the first thing I wrote that I was proud of and I saw actually being a movie.
I was reading a lot of classic lit at the time, so that’s where the whole father-son thing came from. All my favorite movies are family-oriented, and father and son-ish, so I just wanted to put a spin on something that could be classic and many people could relate to it. I didn’t want to make a New York story. I didn’t want to make a Hollywood story. I wanted to start with something simple, but the end has a nice twist, so I wanted to experiment with that first.
You started making movies with your production partner at 12? What got you interested in it?
When I was that young, we had access to film cameras, like 16mm. Those were actually the first cameras that we used, and that’s what sparked the interest away from the skateboarding type of stuff that we were filming into a narrative feature. Through the process of learning to shoot on that medium, you’re just making these wonderful pictures and it all stems from there. My two best friends produced this film, and we made short films and we produced each other’s college films.
Given the situation you create between the father and son in “Don’t Worry Baby,” this would seem to lend itself to melodrama, but impressively, the film is pretty nonjudgmental towards its characters. Was that something that came naturally?
That was kind of natural. The whole idea is that the only judgmental one out of the bunch is Harry [the father], and he is trying to work through that, in my opinion. The [idea was to show a] situation where they are competing over the paternity of a child, like that would actually do anything, and then emotionally with each other and themselves. But everyone is really understanding in a really authentic way. For instance, when the mom character [Miriam] finds out that her husband and her son slept with the same woman, her first instinct is to hope it’s her son, so she can be a grandmother. All of these people are trying to figure things out for themselves, but in the end, hopefully, they have to understand each other. If they hated each other, it’d be such a dark film, and that story could be told, but it definitely wasn’t right for this.
How did you settle on this cast?
I saw John Magaro in “Not Fade Away,” and he’s just really perfect for it. He was the first person that I went to with our casting director. We had a cup of coffee, and we just really got along. He loved the story, and loved this whole approach. Then he actually helped us find Christopher McDonald to play the dad, which was a really hard role to cast because we wanted to have a big contrast. Emotionally, I think they work really well together. They have to play to these characters in just the right way because I try to bring it just to the point where you almost feel bad for John, being a 26-year-old in the back of his dad’s car.
John plays a photographer in the film. Is there any chance that’s some of your work on the walls?
No, I’m not a photographer, although I love photography. My roommate’s a photographer and I just knew that world pretty well and I didn’t want to write about something I didn’t know about. I also feel like photography is also a good vehicle to show the past without too much explanation.
There are also all the photos on the wall of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, where Robert and Harry regularly meet up, which is quite striking. How did that location come about?
We actually went to a different Chinese food shop to get all the pictures, and work it into the cloth [of the film] that way, but when we were looking for a restaurant, we didn’t have many options to begin with, even though this was Chinatown [in New York]. It’s pretty hard to get the right place. None of them really had photos the way that we needed them, [in the form of a] collage, so then we had everybody in our cast submit a childhood photo and we put them up the next day.
It was interesting to hear you say you didn’t really want this to be obviously a New York film because while it doesn’t necessarily have those markers, you seem to capture a vibrancy about the place I suspect you gathered from living there.
Yes, [Magaro’s character Robert] does live in my [actual] apartment, so I know the space really well. When he walks outside, I see [the same] people every single day. By communicating that with [John], it was a good way to just get something right. I think that it’s expected at this point to make these somewhat personal films in that way. To film a movie in your bedroom is okay because it’s probably going to turn out better that way. That’s basically what it came down to – how can I make this the best it can possibly be? It’s usually a place that I know so well.
Were there any particularly challenging days of shooting?
It was a low-budget indie, so we really needed the support of the community. We filmed at least 50 percent of this movie within four blocks of my apartment because you really need the support of everybody you know to pull it off, so that is what was difficult. Surprisingly, what wasn’t so difficult, which was the thing I was worried about, was that I’ve got these great actors. I didn’t know what their expectations were in terms of what they wanted from me. I didn’t know if they were down to do the whole indie 14-hour-a-day [schedule], but I was pleasantly surprised that they were all down to play ball as much as they did.
Was it different making a feature than a short or just more of the same?
It was so different. Pre-production is a completely different process. My first day on set was really heavy. We had maybe 50 people, and I never filmed a scene with more than three people in it at the same time, but I got used to it. No one’s getting into this without the support of people that also want to make this film, so I don’t think you’re ever going to be in a position where you can’t handle it. It was daunting, but I wasn’t alone.