Odessa was supposed to have a glorious rooftop garden in “All These Small Moments,” but the weather wasn’t going to cooperate. The garden was going to be reflective of the arc of Jemima Kirke’s character in Melissa B. Miller Costanzo’s feature debut as well as something that would be devastating to take away from her as she experiences a divorce, yet with plans to film in March with the hope that the start of spring might be upon the production in New York, instead the cast and crew got Nor’Easter.
“I had to add lines about the snow and we had to put some fake snow here and there just so the seasons wouldn’t be all over the place, but you work around it. I had no idea I was making a winter movie, but I thought it ended up looking really beautiful,” recalls Miller Costanzo. “And then we had a bunch of test screenings and we’d always be like, ‘How do you feel about the change in weather? Did it bother you?’ And 85 to 90% of the time, people were like, ‘What are you talking about?’ The good news is if you tell a story that people are interested in, they won’t notice it’s sunny, then it’s a downpour and then it snows the next day because they’re absorbed in the story.”
In fact, “All These Small Moments” is easy to get lost inside and fittingly for a story about one’s formative years, it was an education for the filmmaker, though she’s learned the ropes of the business long ago, having come up in the industry as an art director. No doubt this made the abrupt change in plans required of an unforgiving schedule and unexpected weather nowhere near as much of an obstacle as it would be for some, but she is also able to naturally segue in and out of the lives of a family living in a Brooklyn brownstone, showing how a seemingly disparate series of events can add up to have a giant influence on a young man named Howie (Brendan Meyer) and his younger brother Simon (Sam McCarthy). Their parents (Molly Ringwald and Brian d’Arcy James) are on the verge of divorce, though out of an abundance of caution not trying to let onto their kids, yet they know nonetheless, making Howie’s interactions with women both his own age (Harley Quinn Smith) and a little older (Kirke) fraught with both the excitement of becoming infatuated with the opposite sex and knowing how it all could end horribly.
Miller Costanzo doesn’t only allude to the cumulative impact of everything Howie experiences with “All These Small Moments,” but also all the fine detail she builds into each scene, showing how all the characters can paralyze themselves with assumptions they make about one another often looking past what’s in front of them. While Howie can look silly with talk of Marina Abramovic to make him look sophisticated, so too does his father Tom when he hopes to take his boys’ minds off the dissolution of their family by taking them to a trendy Chinese restaurant. As they come to surprise each other when they’re left with no other option than to open up, Miller Costanzo draws on the strong cast she’s assembled to deliver a film of epiphanies left and right, including the discovery of a talented new writer/director. With the film arriving in theaters and on VOD following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last spring, Miller Costanzo spoke about how she forged a new career path, learning to trust her actors’ instincts and the personal touches she worked into the film.
How did this come about?
I worked in the art department on some really great movies like “The Fighter” and “Precious” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and this particular project happened because I was working on the first season of the Showtime show “The Affair” and I was working very closely next to the writers’ room, so I always found an excuse to be in there and talk to them. I’ve always been writing on the side as I was living life and doing other things, so when I was on “The Affair,” I got the idea that maybe I could approach the showrunner Sarah Treem and maybe interview to be the writer’s assistant for the second season because I was just trying to figure out a way to transition out of the art department. She asked if I had any writing samples and I gave her this screenplay and it got me the meeting. Evidently, she thought it was too good for me to be getting her sandwiches [as] the writer’s assistant, so she ended up helping me get an agent and from there is when everything fell into place and started moving fairly rapidly.
There’s a scene in the film that I wouldn’t want to spoil the context of, but involves a postcard featuring Paul Newman before becoming Paul Newman – when he was studying at the Actor’s Studio. Was that actually an inspiration for you?
When my husband and I first met and we were dating, there was a bookstore — I think it was the Strand [where] they would just have books that you could shop around and they’d have some postcards, and he gave me that postcard and he said, just [like the film], “Paul Newman was a face in the crowd. He wasn’t famous yet.” And he thought it was inspiring — and I should probably give [my husband] more credit, I directly stole that from him. [laughs] Then of course, we had to go and get the rights to the postcard, but I’ve always loved that sentiment.
What sold you on Brendan Meyer for Howie?
We had seen a lot of people when we started casting and he had put himself on tape. It’s tough when you’re casting minors because you lose all that time on set with them, and I knew for the little brother, it was going to be harder, but we were hoping at least for the older brother we could find someone over 18. Brendan was, but a lot of the people that were coming in felt too old to me. Then there’s something interesting about this character in that he’s pretty insecure in a lot of ways, but he also has to carry a confidence because there are all these women in this movie that are taken with him, so there has to be this duality of the character – he has to be charming and handsome enough for someone like Jemima Kirke to even notice him, but he also has to feel insecure and vulnerable as well. That’s a really hard thing to find and Brendan really just captured that for me.
The camera style of the film really reflects their emotions well with how distance is used. Was that tricky to figure out?
I remember going into this movie studying a lot of filmmakers and I can remember specifically exploring the Coen Brothers’ way of filmmaking, I think they put the camera in between two people talking rather than doing over the shoulders, so like even something as simple as putting the camera in between people to do your singles instead of doing like a dirty over-the-shoulder or like a two-shot, the intimacy of the camera really does change the emotionality of the scene.
Was there anything the actors brought that you weren’t anticipating that you really like about it?
Yeah, the scene where Molly shoves her hands in the cake, I wish I could take credit for that, but the way I wrote is that it’s this sad situation where she’s upset and she’s alone and she’s with a cake and she’s taking her finger and going through the frosting. And while we were shooting it, she’s like, “Alright, let me know when you have what you want,” and I’m like, “Molly, I think we got it,” so she’s like, “I just want to try something.” We did the scene and she just fucking went for it! And of course, there’s uproarious laughter and clapping and it was incredible, not something I would’ve ever dreamed of. So when we were in the edit room, my husband was actually the editor and he immediately took that shot because he loved it. But I was like, “I don’t know if Molly wants us to use that.” And he’s like, ‘Of course she wants you to use it. She did it!” That was a big thing for me. She wasn’t just doing it to be funny. She did it because she felt that that character would go that big with it. And it’s one of my favorite moments in the movie.
Another scene is when Brian D’Arcy James tries to bring his kids to this speakeasy type restaurant and it doesn’t go very well. The way I wrote it, they’re supposed to go back to the house and Brian is standing outside the window in this backyard area and [his younger son, played by Sam McCarthy] shoves this plate of food out the window and he’s sitting there alone looking at his family [on the inside]. But we simply couldn’t find that location where we could stage it that way, so we did find a location where there was this metal area [outside], and while we were shooting it, it was still supposed to be Brian by himself, but I think I said cut and I was giving the actors notes and Sam came to sit right down next to Brian and when he did that, Brian and I looked at each other and we were like, “Oh, this is the scene.” So [the two of them] toasted and it was just Sam’s way of apologizing for being such an asshole when they were in the back alley. It was just a beautiful moment and I think, in general, whether it’s the actors or the crew, they basically just make what you did better. That’s across the board and that’s why it’s such a collaborative art.
It’s a lovely score as well. What was it like to work with composer Dan Lipton?
That ended up being one of the rewarding parts of this movie. Dan’s on Broadway [as an associate conductor] on “The Band’s Visit,” and writing the book and lyrics to his own Broadway show right now. He’s a real staple in the Broadway community and he also happened to grow up with my husband, and all he ever wanted was to be a film composer, but instead, he became a very successful Broadway musician and composer, so he really wanted the opportunity. When you work on these small movies, you have to find those people who are talented but they stand to gain as much from working with you [as you do from them], so Dan came on and what I found is that [composing film scores is] really, really hard.
We didn’t have a lot of time, so I started sending him a lot of examples of score that I really liked and Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” is actually one of my favorite movies, so I [told Dan how] I love how Michael Douglas almost has his own theme song. Whenever he steps in the car, it’s this familiar score, so [in “All These Small Moments”] there’s a Howie score and it matures with him and then there’s a score when Jemima’s around and each character has their own score. We got to a place where we’re like, “We don’t know if this is working,” and we had to start again and it was some of the hardest work I had to do, but we worked tirelessly and split hairs on notes and ultimately, it was really beautiful.
“All These Small Moments” opens on January 18th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall. It is also available on VOD.