For the better part of the 18-day shoot of Liz Tuccillo’s feature debut “Take Care,” it probably felt like air traffic controllers were sending planes over the Harlem brownstone she was shooting in just to ruin her film.
“Really it almost cut out 40% of our day with waiting around for the planes,” says Tuccillo, who somehow turned around the film for a SXSW premiere after filming in August. “You’re not just seeing a great performance by these actors because they’re shooting a scene and it’s great. You’re seeing great performances from actors who literally, every two minutes, had to stop in the middle of the scene to wait for a plane to go overhead.”
Although one could not detect any of that kind of turbulence from the final film, it is evident from the start of the longtime TV writer and “He’s Just Not That Into You” co-author’s smart, sophisticated first feature comedy that she thrives on chaos, opening up on the streets of New York as the friend (Marin Ireland) and sister (“Ned and Stacey”‘s Nadia Dajani) of Frannie (Leslie Bibb), the recent victim of a car accident left temporarily unable to walk, attempt to escort her into her apartment on the second floor, snipping at each other the entire way. Soon, however, Frannie misses the yelling once each leave to tend to their own concerns and finds herself stuck largely incapacitated within her own home, eventually deciding it best to call in a chit with an ex-boyfriend Devon (“The Newsroom”‘s Thomas Sadoski), who is uneager to see her again, to come over to help.
Yet for all the shouting in “Take Care,” what actually speaks volumes is the small talk between characters who feel as if they lived before the start of the film and will carry on after it’s ended. Whereas none of its characters are initially generous to each other, Tuccillo is generous to them, examining responsibility and relationships for people who need to overcome their inherent selfishness with sharp humor and a kind heart. It also helps that she’s assembled a killer ensemble cast up to the challenge of playing the film’s broad physical comedy and all its emotional nuances. A day after “Take Care” premiered in Austin, I spoke to Tuccillo and her two leading actors Leslie Bibb and Thomas Sadoski about why the film feels so lively, doing something ambitious on a small scale and taking control of your own destiny. (Note: Although these interviews were conducted separately, they have been edited together for your reading pleasure.)
Liz, you’ve been involved in all kinds of mediums. Why this for your first feature?
Liz Tuccillo: It was a very long road to get to, “I want to direct my own film.” In some ways, I’m very insecure about my abilities as a filmmaker. When I started thinking that I wanted to direct, I knew I wanted to direct something that was very small and self-contained. I knew it would be something where I didn’t want to spend years trying to raise the money for it, so I wanted it to be something that was also very low budget. I still didn’t have the idea.
One day my friend had to have rotator cuff surgery. I had to take care of her a bit, coming over and changing her ice and getting her food. It was then that the idea started percolating of what would happen if you forced somebody to take care of you.
You said last night it was actually Nadia Dajani, who appears in the film as Frannie’s sister. I imagine the two of you are funny enough that you could’ve just filmed that and it would’ve been a good movie, though probably not as resonant.
LT: Yeah, but separate from that, what I was really interested in was the idea of when you have been in a relationship with somebody and then you break up. After years go by, that person is sort of a stranger, but they’re also not a stranger because you’ve shared this very specific period of intimate time together. What are they to you? Especially if you don’t see them anymore. What do they owe you if maybe you did something great for them in the past? What does it mean to be somebody’s ex and what do they owe you?
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is at what point these characters want to do something for someone else rather than serve themselves, a rather serious concept for something that’s supposed to light on its feet. Difficult to find that balance?
LT: It actually was a concern in script form. People would say, “Well, make sure Frannie, the lead, is likable because she can seem very self-pitying.” I knew that it was important who I cast, and then obviously how we directed it. You have to cast somebody who’s really at their essence a deeply appealing and likable person, which is why Leslie was such a great person.
Leslie Bibb: What I loved about it is it’s more human. We aren’t like characters in movies that you see a lot of time.
Thomas Sadoski: There’s depth to everybody. No one fits in the mold of an iconic, boring, standard issue rom-com good guy or bad guy.
LB: I’ve seen the movie 12 times already, but last night it felt like the first time because it was a live audience and it really struck me last night, not just how good Tom was, but [looking over at TS] how hard your job was and how effortlessly you did it – how you really negotiated waters that were hard because you weren’t like a dick and somehow people wanted us to be together. It was really brave of Liz to have characters in sometimes unlikable situations and somehow find their way through it and you’re rooting for them still.
One of the things that was so great about this film was that in any other film, I could see the role of Devon’s current girlfriend being thankless as either a nag or a ditz, and yet here as played by Betty Gilpin, she’s a scene stealer. Was it important to give equal weight to that kind of role as much as the others? It seems to create equilibrium.
LT: Yeah, I really wanted that character to give Frannie a run for her money. I didn’t want it to be so obvious that she was never going to win. Of course, you know where [the relationship is] going to go soon enough, but you want to just enjoy the process, the journey getting there, as much as you could. You needed to cast an actress that brought a whole world with her like Betty does.
Leslie Bibb: When Liz and I were talking about casting, because I produced on it as well, we had Tommy and I asked my agent, “Guidance-wise, what do you think?” And my agent is a huge fan of Tom’s and he’s like, “You’ve got to go with really cool New York City theater actors. That’s a fresh, inventive idea for a movie.”
TS: You can get such extraordinary quality for your dollar.
LB: But in Los Angeles, I have been in casting conversations with people on movies and you will hear people in LA say things like “Theater doesn’t matter.” And you’re just like…[shows frustration]
TS: And the people who say that don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, and frankly you should avoid their movies.
LB: Those are finance people.
TS: These are Wharton School of Business grads, they have not an artistic bone in their body.
LB: It’s like this weird double-edged sword because you need them to make your movie because you have to fund it.
TS: Did we have any? We made a damned good movie without needing any of those people.
LB: It’s super cool that it was so important to Liz because she loves theater and started as a playwright to have so many great theater actors. Probably everybody except for me had been in something with the word Tony attached to it. I was really proud of that, and I thought it showed on the screen. Liz was super keen on rehearsal, which is paramount for shooting on a budget like ours.
TS: With the time frame like we had, you have to have a short hand with each other when you come in. You have to know what you’re doing.
LT: It’s one of the most thrilling things to just be so excited with how you cast it, to be so pleased with who agreed to do your film, then to see that your instincts were so correct, and better than you can even imagine. On the day just getting to watch them find things and come up with things that were so funny or poignant or something you hadn’t even expected was one of the most satisfying parts about filmmaking.
Did you actually get the luxury of shooting in sequence because it was a single location?
LT: More so than not. There were some scheduling things with actors who weren’t in town, so we had to mix things up. In general, we got to do the big Frannie and Devon scenes in sequence, which were the most important for me to shoot in sequence.
Leslie said at the premiere that there were activities that you built into the screenplay to keep it alive between what was going on, which must’ve been necessary when you’re shooting long hours in one place.
LT: You really watched them show their mettle, because they had to just stay alive while they were on pause. You basically hit the pause button. They had to keep alive, so that they would talk in character, or they would just start moving around or doing specific activities that they had just to keep them buoyant. It was very disheartening.
LB: I remember when [Liz] said, “We have a little time, you have to do something.” We’re on that stupid couch and I ran over, and I was staying in what was literally a closet – that was my dressing room. And I went into the closet of this apartment, and I saw some scissors, and I was like, “I’ll cut my hair.” That was fun, being inventive with her on the day.
TS: Yeah, all the time. The sock grabby game? [In which Devon and Frannie play a variation on skeet shooting with socks and a mechanical claw] That was something we came up with on the spot.
You get out into the city during the end credits, though it doesn’t further the story.Was that just the joy of getting out of the apartment?
LT: Absolutely. It was obviously a question of should we open the film up during the course of the film of showing some exteriors or getting some more shots of something to be them out. I thought why dilute it? This is an interior, slightly almost even claustrophobic film, let’s just let it be that. Then I thought that at the end, for God’s sake, can we at least have her out in the world and show everyone that she can move in the end credits? She can wear a pretty dress.
Liz, why did this feel like the right time to do a feature for you? You were doing so many other things.
LT: It really did feel the right time because there’s this critical mass point where you have to do something that’s yours. Some writers don’t feel this way. I was at a particular point in my career where I’d done a lot of development in TV that didn’t go, and films that didn’t go. I’d hit this point where I had to make something that I wrote, directed, and produced to just have it in the world as something that I could call my own. It had reached a point where I was almost like a crazy person about it. That’s the only way that the film could have gotten done. I was like a lunatic about it.
LB: You have to [take ownership]. I feel like we all have to. In this day and age, everyone’s giving all of us more [opportunity] with social media and these Kickstarters and IndieGoGo [campaigns] and everyone’s saying you have the power. We’re not beholden to other people to make your dreams come true. I’ve started writing, and I think that I don’t want to sit back on the couch one day and look back at a life and go “I didn’t act.” I want to live on the balls of my feet and not the heels.
TS: The thing that’s extraordinary about the industry right now is the industry is being ripped apart and reborn as an artist’s medium again. It wasn’t for so long. For so long, it was a corporate medium, but the ability of artists now to take charge and tell their own stories, fund their movies; you’re not beholden to corporate [interests]. Sometimes you are, sometimes you are not. But [with] the advent of shooting on digital, I’m really curious to see where online production and online producers and that content starts dragging the industry.
LB: I did this thing called “Burning Love,” which started as an online webisode thing and [creator] Ken Marino’s so smart, that show is now airing on television on E! And then my friend Rob Corddry [started] “Children’s Hospital,” which started [as a webseries] and then it won the Emmy. I was so excited for him, he sent me a picture of him with that Emmy and I [thought], that’s really empowering. I think also being around comedy guys like that kept saying to me, “Write your own stuff, get in there.”
TS: Those guys are the DIY punks of the entertainment industry.
There’s a great line in the film where Frannie has the realization, “I’m no one’s priority.” Was that part of the appeal of the story, that no one else is going to do it for you?
LT: It’s so funny, my editor is a good friend of mine and he showed the film to his parents while I was there. After we all saw it together, his parents turned to me and the first thing they said was, “Don’t worry, Liz. John will take care of you if you ever get hurt.” I was like, “What?” I didn’t even think of that possibility that my biggest impulse for the film was my fear of having no one to take care of me. It wasn’t really one of the major things, but obviously maybe very deep subconsciously it was. A huge part of the film is the idea of “I have no one to take care of me.”
LB: Who doesn’t love [this] woman? I will go to Iceland… no I’ll go to Greenland, because that’s a really cold one.
TS: That’s really remote.
LB: I’ll go to Russia, and lay in bed with Putin — yuck! — if Liz is directing that movie. Leslie Putin, from now on, I’d like to be called. I’m not kidding. She is not a common bird that you find in this business. She is crazy and neurotic, and cuckoo, and brilliant and smart and kind and funny. She is a breath of fresh air.
“Take Care” will open on December 5th in select theaters and on demand.