For a filmmaker whose debut feature “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home” signaled a preoccupation with imagining being anywhere else, it has become a bit funny that Kris Rey has found herself returning to the same themes.
“When I’m writing a movie or I’m thinking about a movie, I never think, “Oh, how does this compare with my other work? I just come up with an idea and run with it. And in retrospect, I go damn, these are all really similar, aren’t they?” laughs Rey. “So I almost am always writing movies where someone is going on a trip somewhere — and it’s also a classic hero’s journey, although I never have that in mind when I’m writing either. It happens a lot when we leave our environment and we go somewhere else, we learn something about ourselves. I think that’s just a very human endeavor.”
This is hardly to say Rey has repeated herself as a sense of wanderlust may have been the starting point for each of her films, but they all push further and further to find entirely new territory, working through feelings of being a new mother in “Empire Builder,” watching a teacher (Cobie Smulders) in her thirties contemplate the decisions she made when a student (Gail Bean) is pregnant at the same time as she is in “Unexpected,” and now in “I Used to Go Here,” following a frustrated writer named Kate (Gillian Jacobs) return to her alma mater where she is the envy of students with a published novel, but having all the time in the world to soak up the praise when her book tour was cancelled as the result of devastating reviews. Kate may soon suffer from imposter syndrome, but Rey once again proves she’s the real deal, striking an unusually perceptive balance between celebrating a fearless pursuit of idealism that time tends to wipe out and ruefully recognizing the small sacrifices that are made to accommodate reality.
Although her characters can’t have it both ways, Rey manages to make a big, broad comedy that may seem one step removed from the real world as Kate settles in with college kids who go by nicknames like Animal and Tall Brandon while never feeling anything less than emotionally authentic, and true to how life often has different plans for those she puts on screen, the writer/director has gracefully navigated a path forward for the crowd pleasing film that she couldn’t have predicted when its planned premiere at SXSW was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus. With “I Used to Go Here” now arriving on iTunes and even in some outdoor screenings in her hometown of Chicago via the Music Box Theatre, Rey spoke about the inspiration behind her latest film, her collaboration with Jacobs and silver linings.
How did this come about?
It was inspired by a trip back when my last feature was being released and I got invited to my old university to show my movie and speak to students. At the time, I went on a little tour of a few different universities and was really struck by how nice it felt to view myself through the lens of the 20-year-olds that were welcoming me.
I understand this is patched together from a few places, but was it interesting to go back to Southern Illinois and film in some of the old haunts?
We didn’t actually shoot the movie in Carbondale. We shot in Chicago and faked it, but I did go with my production designer Megan Mulvaney and cinematographer Nate Hurtsellers to Carbondale to scout and we walked around and took a lot of pictures. I showed them my old house and we used that as a map artistically for what we were trying to achieve in the film, to make sure we were on the same vibe and we talked a lot about colors and light.
And it is really always so strange to go back, isn’t it? It’s satisfying and it’s also bittersweet that the town that I went to college in, where the film takes place, has changed a lot over the last 15 years. It was a little sad to go back and see that it was different.
Yet this veers into a heightened reality similar to a wild ‘80s comedy, which is an exciting new direction it seems. Did that come organically?
It was funny. This was really an example of a film where I didn’t know where it was going until I got there in my writing process. I didn’t set out thinking, “…Then they’re going to go on an adventure and sneak into the professor’s house.” As I was writing the outline, it felt like this should happen now and it was definitely fun. It was the most fun to shoot, it was the most fun to plan for, it was the most fun to write and I think that it opened my eyes to how much I enjoyed that broader, heightened reality, as you put it. I think I probably want to play with that a little more in some of my future work.
You’ve got such a great lead with Gillian – what sold you on her?
She’s just so good and I’ve always been a fan of her work, especially in “Love,” her show on Netflix, [where] I felt like she got herself into funny situations a lot and that whole show is a little bit about trying not to regress and trying to move forward. What really sealed the deal for me was just meeting her in real life and talking with her about the script. She is such a human person to talk to — she’s very open, she’s very vulnerable and we just hit it off. I just knew that she would be a great partner and she really was in terms of collaborating on what the movie became.
Has it been interesting to integrate higher-profile actors into films you’re making at an indie scale, where you’re keeping a certain vibe on set? I can remember Ry Russo-Young telling me about “Nobody Walks” how she was impressed with how it upped everyone’s game.
“Unexpected” was that first moment for me where I was working with more established cast and what I have found through both of these experiences is that the indie film set is a really welcome change for a lot of actors who are used to bigger productions. It depends. Not everybody is this way, but I have been very lucky and very careful to cast actors that are excited about the prospect and welcome to a smaller set. I think for someone like Gillian, she’s able to play a role that she normally wouldn’t get the opportunity to play in a bigger film and she has talked about this in the interviews we’ve been doing recently, that our experience on this movie really was so intimate, not just with the cast, but with the crew. We all went to essentially a summer camp for a few days to shoot the scenes at the lake early in the shoot and we had such a great vibe on set. Everyone really gave their best effort and was really committed to the movie and it was such a loving environmentm and they say it comes from the top down and Gillian really was a big part of creating that intimate vibe. Any film set is very special that way or can be.
Did anything happen that you weren’t expecting that’s in the film that you now really like about it?
Yeah, I hate to give this moment away, but there’s this very special moment where Tall Brandon goes in for a kiss that we hadn’t planned on . That’s something Brandon Daley came up with on the day of shooting and it’s such a magical moment.
And Tall Brandon is a real guy?
Tall Brandon is a real guy. Yeah, Brandon’s 6’7” and he looks like he’s about 14 years old, so he’s a very unique guy in real life, and really funny, and he’s a filmmaker in his own right and someone who is in my social circle, sort of on the periphery, so I wrote the character based on him and he killed it with his performance.
As I think everybody does. I know this is going into the world in a strange way, but it had to be pretty cool to see the film at a drive-in, right?
It was awesome. It definitely was a silver lining in all of this when there was no way in the world I would’ve predicted the movie would’ve premiered at a drive-in theater. But we sold out both of those screenings that night and it felt, as much as we can right now, like a collective experience. I could hear people laughing in their cars down the way and my two kids were in the backseat with blankets and pillows, so it was just very, very special. Definitely, drive-ins coming back is something I hope sticks around.