There’s an inherently silly idea at the core of “Take Me” — more than one, actually, but primarily the notion that there would be a role that Pat Healy couldn’t completely disappear into.
As Ray, a low-end entrepreneur with a unique business proposition – offering customers the ability to be kidnapped as a form of “alternative therapy…with techniques taken from Pavlov” – Healy is meant to play the fool, wildly outmatched in a cheap suit and ill-fitting wig by Anna St. Clair (Taylor Schilling), a corporate executive who offers $5000 for his services for an entire weekend. While Anna is all-in on the charade after she’s stuffed (willingly) into the trunk of her Mercedes S550S, Ray is far more tentative, unsure of where the ruse begins and ends as real cops get involved and his best laid plans spin out of control.
Only an actor as good as Healy could play someone who feels so ridiculously miscast in a situation of his own making, and over the years, he has established himself over the years as a beloved character actor, usually without ever being lovable onscreen, whether it was as the chilling voice on the other end of the line in Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” who pushed a fast-food crew to their limits with an increasingly amoral prank phone call or the put-upon Craig Daniels in E.L. Katz’s “Cheap Thrills” as a man barely making ends meet who finds himself at the mercy of sadists dangling dollars in front of him for a series of dangerous dares. But “Take Me” strongly benefits from skills Healy is less well-known for, taking the director’s chair for his first feature after his wickedly sharp sense for story have made him a frequent presence on the prestigious The Black List of unproduced scripts.
This might not come as a surprise to anyone who listened to his insightful commentary for “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” with his brother Jim, the director of programming for the Wisconsin Film Festival, but Healy has plenty of them up his sleeve in adapting Mike Makowsky’s twisty two-hander where Ray and Anna continually swap roles as captor and captive as “Take Me” alternates between a broad comic romp and tense battle of wits. Shortly before premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival en route to theatrical runs in New York and Los Angeles, Healy spoke about getting a strong handle on the naughty faux-crime caper, occasionally losing himself in the part of the hopelessly lost Ray, and the desire to see the characters he’s played trick or treating come October 31st.
How did this become your first feature as a director?
I can answer that so many ways. I’m a crazy cinephile and I just always thought I’d be doing this as well as acting. I made some shorts about 16 years ago and then I was trying to write a script based on the short that I made, “Mullitt,” which premiered at Sundance in 2001. I started writing and made a good living writing for about 10 years, but none of the movies got produced – they were all bigger and they weren’t things people were going to give a first-time director money to direct, so other people were going to direct them or they didn’t happen. It hadn’t really occurred to me to direct something I hadn’t written, so I wasn’t actively seeking scripts in that way, and I don’t think anybody thought of me as anything but a writer or an actor.
Then I did a short film called “Breaker Breaker,” with a bunch of Brown graduates and one of them was this guy Mike Makowsky, who I think was 23 at the time. He was the producer on the project and we became friends. He knew my work very well and he wrote this script [for “Take Me”], which he just asked me to read, so I thought I’d just be giving notes or something, but as it turned out, he had written this script for me to be in [as an actor]. I loved the script and I was talking about it very animatedly with my friend [“Cheap Thrills” director] Evan Katz, who I’ve worked with a few times, and he said, “It sounds like you should direct it.” Immediately, I said that’s the idea, and I told that to Mike and he didn’t think that was a very good idea. [laughs]
So I tried to figure out how to legitimize myself as the actor and director. There are two independent producers that I knew well enough to ask. Adele Romanski, who was busy scouting locations in Miami for a movie that turned out to be “Moonlight,” so she was not available. And Jay Duplass, who was driving home from working on “Transparent.” I sent the script to him, he sent the script to [producer] Mel Eslyn. She read it right away and I met with her the next day.[She asked] “Who do you want to be in it?” Taylor [Schilling]. Got it. They wanted to do it. A couple months after that, they financed it completely. I even tried to back out. I said, “I can just act or just direct, if you want.” They said, “No, no, no, we think it’s a good idea.”
Why was Taylor such an immediate choice as a co-star?
Being a film geek, and sharing [the script] with my brother, who’s an even bigger cinephile, we immediately identified it as a screwball comedy and a film noir. It has elements of both. And there’s those movies from the ‘80s where [Martin] Scorsese did “After Hours,” John Landis did “Into the Night,” and Jonathan Demme did “Something Wild.” They all belong to that subgenre [where they] have a femme fatale/screwball comedy heroine, usually a blonde woman, who is alluring but crazy and leads some schlub down a rabbit hole.
I knew [Taylor] from “Orange is the New Black” and “The Overnight,” another film that Mark and Jay [Duplass] worked on, and I was reminded of Carole Lombard, who was a great actress and wonderful comedienne and just did things in a way that nobody else ever did. I love the idea of a strong woman and I don’t know with all the progress that we have with gender equality why women had bigger and better things to do in the movies [in the ‘30s and ‘40s] than they do now — Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn and on and on. [Taylor] has the quality of one of those great classical beautiful movie stars, but she’s also hilarious, she’s a brilliantly trained actress, and she’s also a little nuts. So [she has] all those things that that part requires because the movie only works if you just do not know what this person is going to do next.
A lot of the great scenes in this come from the idea that the two of you aren’t on the same page, which I’m guessing you can relate to as an actor. Were there experiences you could draw on where you were working with someone who was going completely off-script and you weren’t sure whether you were in the same scene with them or not?
Oh sure. I had worked with people before where I’m like what the hell are they doing? And not in a good way. I’m not going to name anyone, but I’ve been in a place where [I think] I don’t know what this person is doing and maybe they’re not doing anything at all. It’s like acting with a piece of wood. I also had it with this because I was directing, but I would also get so sucked into what [Taylor] was doing I would forget to [react]. I wasn’t yelling “cut!” — Mel [Eslyn] was at the monitor and she would yell action and cut for me because I was trying to be in the scene, but I might forget my line or something.
When I was really young, I did “Magnolia” with Julianne Moore and she was like cursing me out in that pharmacy scene and that was an out-of-body experience. I can see the movie now and I think that’s what it was like doing it, like I was watching the movie of it happen. She certainly lost herself in that moment and I think one of the interesting dynamics [in “Take Me”] is that he’s quite bad at it and she’s really good at it, so I keep making the Scott Baio-Meryl Streep comparison, where it’s like [they’re in the same story] and they think they’re in the same play or the same movie, but they’re actually in different movies and they don’t know it. That’s where the conflict and the humor comes from. They don’t know that they’re not using the same script. [laughs] I hadn’t seen that before really and thought that was really interesting.
One of my favorite touches in the film is Ray throwing a bunch of chicken fingers at the wall as a threat to Anna of what he can do, which is a truly silly moment to start, but then you cut to a close-up of the chicken fingers hitting the wall to stress just how important this is. How does that decision come about?
Ironically, that’s the only time I seriously injured myself in the movie. [laughs] We were working with a stunt coordinator, but of course, we didn’t have stunt doubles and I’m yelling at [Taylor’s character Anna] and I turn very abruptly and I throw it into the wall. I got caught up in the scene and my stance changed, so the wall was actually right behind me and when I went throw it, my forefinger jammed right into the wall. I think that’s the take we used. It felt like a bolt of lightning went through my entire body and I thought I had broken it, but I had just badly sprained it. And here we are almost exactly a year later, a little more than a year later and it’s about at 95%. But it’s funny. It’s this act of aggression that’s silly – it might be like a bottle of wine in a dramatic movie, but it’s a styrofoam container of chicken fingers with ketchup, and that right there says a lot about [Ray’s] world, which is this low-rent idea of all the movies that he’s seen and all the things that he tries to imitate, but he isn’t.
Ray’s wig seems like a crucial element to finding this character. How many wigs did you go through before getting to the one you ended up with?
I talked a lot with Stacy Schneiderman, the wig-maker, and she went to Julliard just to study wig-making and she’s worked a lot on Broadway. My original idea was just for [Ray] to have funny, dopey hair and I was just going to make people think it was my character’s real hair, but when I had the discussion with Mark [Duplass] and Taylor, because [the story] was about actors ostensibly, [Mark] suggested why don’t you make that part of it and he thought the idea of him having a wig was a good one. So we tried on a few different things and then we found one that we liked. [Stacy] did a lot of work on it and I didn’t really try it on until that day we started shooting. It goes through different stages – there’s actually two different [wigs] in the movie that play and it just felt right. I like it because it’s silly and it softens some of the things that might be a little harsh in the movie about him. He remains fairly harmless in that way because of it, because it’s so silly.
We had a problem when we first started showing rough cuts to our friends to get notes because they knew it was a low-budget production, and they assumed we had a bad hair budget because you don’t know if the movie’s a comedy to begin with if you’re walking in cold. So we put in a few more references to [the wig] early on. I did go back and forth a lot thinking is this the worst decision I’ve ever made or the best one, but I think people see it and [now] they immediately go, “I know what this is.” It’s funny because this [film] is about people wearing costumes and disguises, but I also always have this thing where I want the character to have some kind of iconic look, no matter what the movie is, so that it could be a halloween costume next year. [laughs] I remember doing it with “Cheap Thrills” too – the way that [the character Craig Daniels] looks at the end of the movie, or what that shirt was going to be and where the rips were going to be. Even if it doesn’t become an iconic image or a Halloween costume, I want it to have that [resonance] because those are things that as a movie lover, I really respond to in a character, where you can recognize the character from a silhouette.
Heather McIntosh’s score is also really terrific, with a bit of a retro vibe of films from the late ‘60s, but updated with more modern sounds. How did you figure it out?
Testing it, we had a really difficult time with the tone too. It is this strange blend between the noir and the screwball, so originally we had music from all different sources, like ‘70s noirs like “Klute,” and then more upbeat, funny music and it was confusing people about the tone and the movie didn’t really fully work until Heather had done her score, which was the last piece that we did. What Heather and I finally landed on and was a Henry Mancini/John Barry-ish caper-type music, [with] harpsichord and playful touches, but it gets dark when it needs to. It’s like the Dude’s rug — it really ties the room together, and [the score] finally made it work in a way where people were like, “I understand what this is now.” That music comes on at the beginning, I’m sitting there with that wig, and then Teddy Blanks, who did those titles that are fun ‘60s/‘70s [style] titles, it tells people right away what it is.
You seemed to hire only my favorite people to work on this, present company included.
I’m glad you feel that way. That’s how you make a good movie. Just hire the best people you can get your hands on and it’ll be good.
“Take Me” is now open in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center and in New York at the Village East.