When Stacy Sherman first started writing what would eventually become her directorial debut “The Breakup Girl,” real estate prices were a whole lot cheaper in Los Angeles.
“When I first started writing, you could still get a place in Venice with a roommate for a certain amount, if you were lucky,” says Sherman, who began work on her script about three sisters 20 years ago. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. If I was writing it today, [the youngest sister] Kendra wouldn’t live in Venice. She would live in Burbank or Glendale or who knows?”
Sherman has had to think a lot about geography since it plays a major part in “The Breakup Girl,” with some of the first words in the film being the declaration, “I’m in the middle of my Upper East Side Manhattan phase,” uttered by eldest sister Sharon (Wendi McLendon-Covey). While Sharon’s feet are firmly planted on the West Coast and she’s simply admiring how chic she appears on her way to a birthday party, it speaks to the many miles away the comfortably married mother is from her siblings, the Silver Lake-dwelling Claire (Shannon Woodward), who is struggling with turning 29 and the thought of her carefree youth being behind her, and the Venice bohemian Kendra (India Munuez), who in just entering her twenties is trying to find her voice in music. The gap between them is closed considerably upon learning that their father (Ray Wise) has cancer, putting their own personal problems into perspective.
It’s telling that “The Breakup Girl” was originally titled “Claire’s Cambodia,” an allusion to Claire’s frequent analogizing of how small her own issues are when compared to the war-torn regions she might write about for NPR, but indeed, when the family is confronted with their patriarch’s health crisis, Sherman shows how all-consuming it can be for those involved. Using a cast primarily known for their comic abilities that also includes Casey Wilson, Joe Lo Truglio and Natasha Leggero, the writer/director brings out the bittersweetness of the circumstances, the specter of losing a loved one giving way to epiphanies that may have taken Claire and Heather, specifically, far longer to come by in order to find happiness.
No doubt the specificity that makes the film feel so authentic comes from the fact that it’s loosely based on Sherman’s real life and though she never set out to be a director, it’d be hard to imagine anyone else doing it justice. Still, it wasn’t easy and as she explained on the eve of the film’s release, she literally saw her domestic and professional lives converge in order to make “The Breakup Girl” become a reality.
How did this come about?
I started the script when I was in my twenties about a woman who was turning 30 just because I know that that’s a funky age sometimes for people. It was just about three sisters for a really long time and I put in the drawer and I did a bunch of other things. I never really had a third act for it. Then many years later, my dad got sick and I just thought I’m going to put that in because I wanted to do something with that in terms of dealing with it. It’s something that started a long time ago and was finished many years later.
In the interim, you made a documentary about Rwanda [“God Sleeps in Rwanda”] and it’s a constant refrain of Claire’s to consider her problems and say, “Well, it’s not [name the place].” Is there a connection between the two?
I had done that Rwanda documentary 10 years after this screenplay started. But the idea of Claire where she can’t get past her own problems even though she has some sort of understanding of, much smaller than the problems of the world, was an idea that was always in the script. That’s just a running theme in my own mind is the awareness of the world but being stuck in our own thoughts.
You also immerse the audience in the scenes where the entire family is present with a lot of closeups. How did that general scheme come about?
The actors all really liked each other and they had a lot of respect for each other’s talents, so everyone pretty much brought their best selves. They’ve all done this many times, but it was my first feature, so they seemed to look at the script and that flowed very naturally. Of course, we worked on it [to translate it to the screen]. I had a great cameraman who was just really in there, with the way he moved the camera and the way we shot it, but we edited for that effect that you’re talking about where it’s that family closeness even if there’s separation.
There’s a lot of actors in here known for the comedic strengths, but not necessarily drama. Was it appealing to you to show a different side?
It was. To me, actors who are very funny are able to act dramatically. It’s something I’ve seen and yes, people are naturally funny but it comes from a certain place, so I just instinctively felt that those people could play dramatic with a hint of funny.
Your husband, Billy Ray, is a great filmmaker in his own right and he’s a producer on the film. How much did you want to refer to him as a resource on the film versus having this being your own?
You try and strike the balance. My husband is very seasoned and as you know, he’s directed a couple of movies, so it was great to have him on the set because I have a lot of respect for him and it brought a certain amount of respect coming into the project. We certainly have our moments, don’t get me wrong. My God. We shot at our house. It was intense. It was harrowing. That’s the word I use.
Was there a particular crazy day?
Every moment was just intense. Everything fell through two weeks before. Our financing fell through. All the patience fell through. The whole thing was a mad scramble. I can’t point to a single day.
How did you get things back on track?
We had a great crew. The woman who did this with me, Cari-Esta Albert, is a very dear friend and she has a lot of respect around town, so through her, we just assembled a lot of great people. [When the financing fell through], I sat down and I just told everyone what happened. There were 25 people in my living room and no one left. The deal was they were going to less money than they were getting and they weren’t getting a lot to begin with. I just said, “Here’s the deal and here’s what we can do and here’s what we can’t do. I’ll feed you well.” People just stayed.
That was a great thing for everyone. For us, them. Everyone pulled together. And it wasn’t like my husband and I were sitting back. It was our house and catering came at five in the morning, everyone worked 20-hour days, then it took three years to finish it. Everyone killed themselves.
Was directing something different than what you thought it would be?
For me, it was a lot like the life that I wrangle. I have two kids. I have a very full life. It’s a lot of wrangling on the spot and figuring things out. The actors were so good that I never worried about that. When it was difficult, I never thought, “Oh God, I don’t like what they’re doing.” But there was a lot I didn’t anticipate.
It was very physically taxing. That had a lot to do with filming in my own home and having my children around. I was always wondering in the back of my mind where they were. Not that they were toddlers, but it was a running thing in my mind, and all of that stuff was pulling on my brain while the 400 decisions [I would need to make as a director] were going on every minute. In terms of the work of it, it was great. The constant interaction with the [director of photography] and the costume designer and hair and make up, that was all just great.
It looked like you were heavily involved in a lot of the music too. Was that foundational for you?
Part of it was out of necessity. Music is a very tricky thing in that it’s very expensive. You can get free music for festivals, but then people won’t give it you after festivals, which is understandable. It [costs] so much more than everything else. My music supervisor has a great ear and sometimes we just needed moments – songs that were 20 or 30 seconds [as opposed to full-length songs] just to communicate a feeling, so together we came up with it. Music is something I work on a little bit on the side and it’s a very personal movie, so the music was very personal. I wasn’t trying to become a composer. It just came from a very natural place.
If you’ve been carrying this story with you for some time, what’s it like to finally be releasing it into the world?
It’s far exceeded my expectations in terms of going through all those things you go through like the nerves, the worrying and will people be happy and like it and, and will I be proud of it? We just had a big cast and crew screening and it just played so well. Seeing it in the movie theater, there was a feeling of completion and pride about it. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback for it, so I’m feeling good.
If you were identifying more with Claire or Kendra when you first started writing this, has it been interesting to now have the perspective of all the generations of women you have here?
Completely. I wrote it very much through a twentysomething’s eyes and even though I was seeing the other sisters, I didn’t have children when I wrote it. I don’t even know if I was married. But when I see it now and [in a scene like] how the mother says to Claire, basically, “Do you want to feel shitty?” And I can hear myself saying things to my own daughter [like that]. So you grow up and I definitely changed through it.