Sarah Adina Smith on Taking Great Care with “The Drop”

"The Drop"
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Sarah Adina Smith had plans for paradise with “The Drop.” It was actually at an idyllic spot on the top of a hill following a hike where she pitched Joshua Leonard, who would become her co-writer on the project, on the idea of a couple of soon-to-be-parents who are shaken when one accidentally drops a friend’s newborn, the ripples of the mishandling making their way through their entire friend group at a remote luxe resort. Although there would be plenty of characters in front of the camera, Smith slyly devised it to accommodate a pandemic, having been among the first to return to production when her previous film “Birds of Paradise” employed the new health protocols after being interrupted by the spread of COVID-19, and the shoot contained to a single locale off the coastline of Mexico would be a breath of fresh air for all involved.

“When Joshua and I set out on this, our whole goal was to make a movie where we could get back to our indie roots and make it family-style,” says Smith. “In our minds, this was going to be like, ‘We’re mid-pandemic, let’s get a wonderful group of people together, we’ll go to Mexico, it’ll be like we’re on vacation together and we just happen to be making this movie.’ But of course, nothing’s that simple.”

Smith laughs, “It ended up being a three-week shoot that was really intense. I think it was 100 percent humidity and we were on the shooting on the side of this cliff – it was quite physical, hiking up and down and we did take major precautions, so nobody got COVID. But we did all end up with Montezuma’s Revenge [and we] were getting vitamin B shots, so while it didn’t turn out to be quite the perfect magical vacation of everybody’s dreams, it still turned out to be hilarious and we have a lot of great memories because of it.”

The same could be said for “The Drop” in which Lex (Anna Konkle) and Mani (Jermaine Fowler) have trouble finding their footing after Lex bobbles the baby of Peggy (Jennifer Lafleur) and Mia (Aparna Nancherla) almost upon arrival at the couple’s wedding, threatening to make the weekend getaway to remember one they’d all rather forget. However, the cringe comedy that’s built around a moment of truth much like Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” has no shortage of memorable scenes as the ominous titular event puts all of the guests at the nuptials on edge, including Shauna (Robin Thede) and Robbie (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who have an overly hormonal teenage son (Elisha Henig) to tend to, and Joshua and Lindsay (Jillian Bell), the owners of the resort who hope to hit up their friends for a new round of investment before the resort falls into bankruptcy. Even if Lex and Mani didn’t have to worry about the gun-toting Mia’s overly protective maternal instincts kicking in, the creeping sense of self-doubt is shown to be the biggest threat of all when everyone is contemplating big steps in their life and uncertain if they have the stones to get it right.

The fact that Smith does herself in what’s her first proper foray into comedy after such wicked brainteasers as “The Midnight Swim” and “Buster’s Mal Heart,” emerging from a more arduous shoot than expected with a delightful diversion that’s so light on its feet, ultimately reinforces what “The Drop” concludes as its characters find the strength within themselves to having the faith to carry on with the rewards more than worth the struggle to get there. After the film’s triumphant premiere last summer at the Tribeca Film Festival, “The Drop” is now bringing sunlight into homes everywhere this winter on Hulu and on the eve of its release, Smith spoke about working with such a large and gifted comic ensemble, the film’s self-imposed deadlines and how staying true to the drama of it all made the comedy even funnier.

They’re quite different in their approach, but I couldn’t help but wonder when two of your collaborators on this – Joshua Leonard and your cinematographer/partner Shaheen Seth went off and made “Fully Realized Humans” together, which concerned some of the same anxieties about becoming a parent, was there actually any connective tissue from that film to this one?

The only connection is we’re all friends and run in the same circles, but when I was thinking about “The Drop,” I brought it to Joshua because I had the idea and then I was almost like, “This is a movie Joshua Leonard would write.” I was trying to write it by myself and not quite getting to where I wanted it to be, and he has a lot of interests, but when I brought it to him, he doubled over laughing. His movie “The Lie” is about telling his baby died to get out of work, so I thought this is the guy who I need to collaborate with for a movie about dropping a baby. Any sort of baby harm humor apparently is Joshua’s sweet spot.

At Tribeca, you called the script a “robust outline” more than a traditional screenplay, which you’ve done before. How much do the actors bring to it versus looking for specific actors for parts?

Yeah, this is my third movie that was based on a robust outline or a scriptment, where it isn’t a fully finished script, but the beats are very much spelled out. There’s a lot of room to play with the actors and to be totally honest, Joshua [and I] wrote this during the pandemic over Zoom and had a lot of fun making each other laugh and as much as it’s a movie about the aftershocks of this taboo of dropping a baby, which happens so much more often than we think, it’s also just a fun ensemble movie about a bunch of semi-horrible people getting together on an island and showing their true selves.

We had a lot of fun, making each other laugh and writing these relationships and characters and casting-wise, we always knew that Joshua was going to play Josh and we wrote the character of Peggy for our friend Jennifer LaFleur, but beyond that, casting actually came together fast and furious at the end and once the cast came onboard, they were so meant to be these characters and I really just wanted to make sure they were bringing their own creativity to it, so each cast member had a real strong hand in shaping their character and their storyline and arc and relationship. Like Aparna Nancherla has cracked me up for many, many years, but I was curious about how she was going to approach this character Mia and everyone was so surprising, but in a way maybe hers was the most surprising and fun, just the mix of her dry sense of humor with this very right wing and intensely vengeful character. It just ended up being about each of these actors being so specifically their own style and tone of funny and it was a hyper-hyper-collaborative atmosphere.

Were you keeping tabs on who was having babies when you were thinking about casting? I know Jennifer LaFleur’s newborn plays the baby at the center of this and Anna Konkle had only recently had hers.

This was a baby-filled cast actually. Jermaine had a young baby, Utkarsh had a young baby, Anna just had a baby, and then Joshua and I knew that our friend Jen and Ross [Partridge] also had a baby and we wrote the character of Peggy with her in mind with the idea that we would cast her and ask them to bring their baby to be in the film too. It was so funny because it acted as a ticking clock for getting this movie made because we were like, “We can’t let Baby Alma from growing up too much. She still needs to be a baby and we need to get our shooting done.” [laughs] Not only that, but I became pregnant as we were writing and prepping the movie, so I was also like a ticking clock. I think I got on the plane the last day I was able to fly, eight months pregnant, so we were down to the wire.

Did Puerto Vallarta come to mind immediately as the location?

Originally, we were going to shoot in Baja California because I was so pregnant, I was thinking we should go somewhere we could drive back [back home] to L.A. if I’m in labor or there’s medical complications. So we scouted just over the border, looking for places within driving distance and we just couldn’t find the location of our dreams. We wanted the setting to be really idyllic and beautiful so it would act as a contrast to the relationships unraveling and also the people’s terrible behavior. Joshua, who not only wrote [and acted in this], but produced this movie and worked his butt off. He researched every hotel in Mexico basically until he ended up finding Haramara, this gorgeous yoga retreat in Sayulita.

You don’t sacrifice the gorgeous compositions that you’re known for, but when it’s improvised like this, do you have to adjust your shooting style to the type of film that it was?

Shaheen and I try to be deliberate and our rule for this one was that we wanted every scene to have at least one shot visually that we really loved, but beyond that, we really wanted to keep it loose enough that it would be really performance-driven. We didn’t want to shy away from living in wides. Comedy-wise, we wanted it to have more of an awkward breath to it, so it’s a little on the slightly weirder side. I’m not shy about saying I was completely inspired by “Force Majeure,” that was really the origin of this movie for me, but this is still very much American in tone and in humor, so we wanted some of that Scandinavian sensibility in terms of distance and patience.

When there’s a bunch of different performance styles in the mix, was that interesting to balance out?

That was actually one of the most fun things for me as a director was working with this group of actors. They’re all so talented in their own right, but some come more from standup, some from sketch, and some from pure theatrical acting, so finding a tone that was going to work for everybody was one of the really fun challenges. In a very uncomfortable hippy-dippy way, I made everyone sit together in a circle the day before we were going to start shooting because we didn’t have time for rehearsals, but we had one day to at least meet and I really wanted to tell everybody was this should not be a laugh contest where you feel like you’re competing for the funniest joke on screen. Instead, this should really be about character and relationships and listening, so more than anything take your time and let the silences be silences rather than feeling like you have to fill everything with dialogue. I think that was a really good first step in making the same movie together and being more supportive of each other.

Once you get back to the editing room with an ensemble like this, was it tricky to give everyone their due?

Definitely. My co-editor Daniel Garber and I had the best time and one of the things that’s really tricky was the first rough cut, I said, “Let’s just make this a love story and get the [Lex and Mani] relationship as tight as we can. We’ll go back and make it as funny as we can, but I wanted to make sure we weren’t making editorial choices just based on what was making us laugh in the edit room at the expense of first getting the bones right.” So he and I tried to be really disciplined about that, but once we got that done, it actually was very hard to pick which takes to use. There were scenes we had to end up leaving out that were so hilarious and it was an embarrassment of riches for what we ended up using in the end. There’s at least 10 different funny movies in here that could’ve been made.

The version that came out is pretty, pretty funny. I was at Tribeca when that title card dropped and brought the house down. As someone used to making people squirm in other ways, was screening a comedy a different experience?

Oh yeah, I always thought “Buster’s Mal Heart” was a dark comedy, but it was certainly always more of a psychological thriller too, so this was much more of a comedy I guess with a capital C and it was intimidating for me, but also so much fun. It turns out when you’re making a comedy, it was just a wonderful process from start to finish getting to spend my days laughing and smiling. Seeing it with an audience was so powerful and I wish this movie could’ve had more time with theatrical audiences because there’s something so magic about the way it played with people sitting together in a theater. Obviously, the theatrical landscape has changed so much for films and not that it can’t work by yourself on a couch, but I think there’s something really magical that happens when you watch it with people, so I hope at least when people watch this on Hulu, people will get together with friends because I do think it’s the kind of movie that works well with a group of people watching it.

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